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Betsy Warland–Saving a Seat for the Reader

Saving a Seat for the Reader (an essay for Margento)




I stopped writing poetry a dozen years ago. What follows is an essay on why I shouldn’t be writing this essay but am.

I “grew up” as a poet in the United States during the ’60s and ’70s when writing, publishing and reading poetry were at the visionary core of the feminist, anti-racists and anti-war activist communities I was involved in. When I immigrated to Canada in the early ’70s, Canadian literature was igniting. During this time, a number of remarkable women poets (Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Livesay, P.K.Page, Nicole Brossard and Phyllis Webb among others) attracted wide readership. Alongside the evolution of feminist writing and thinking that continued to inform me, the vibrant Toronto poetry scene became my new training ground. At that time, the education of emerging poets was mostly the domain of the male poets. This became problematic when feminist thinking and theory opened up new subject matter which male poets frequently considered unworthy. An adjacent community was needed.

In 1973, I initiated the Toronto Women’s Writing Collective. We offered peer-led writing workshops, organized conferences, published anthologies, and with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, hosted for three years an annual event that featured U.S. and Canadian feminist writers (such as Adrienne Rich and Nicole Brossard) in dialogue with one another. These dialogues attracted full houses of 500 people.

In the early ’80s, I moved to Vancouver with the burning idea of organizing a national conference that would bring together women involved with all aspects of the literary written word. This 1983 three-day conference and festival, Women and Words/Les femme et les mots was a watershed gathering of 1,000 women. In short, through all these years I was an intensely community-based poet.

These were anything-is-possible-years. Feminist literary and publishing communities and Canadian literary and publishing communities infused and creatively provoked each other. These were years of passion, vision and hard work. Poetry throbbed in our bodies and minds, its daily flow essential as blood.

By the early ’90s things began to shift.

I was one of the four editors of conference proceedings “Telling it  – Women and Languages Across Cultures” (1991). Although this was a remarkable gathering in many respects, conflicts arose around crucial issues of racism and homophobia during the conference and while editing the proceedings. At that time, racism, classism and homophobia were coming to the foreground in the feminist endeavors everywhere in North America. This second wave of “consciousness raising” was absolutely necessary but at that point – when our funding was being cut and we were still a nascent community – we stumbled in redefining ourselves collectively.

By the mid-90s, a twelve-year relationship with my lover and co-author of two books, Daphne Marlatt, ended. This had been a pivotal relationship. Daphne and I collaborated on a number of projects including a first in Canada: a cross-Canada reading tour from our companion books of erotic love poems – touch to my tongue (Daphne’s) and open is broken (mine). My first book had included lesbian love poems but the lover’s gender was implicit and not stated. In this, my second book, it was specific and I became known as a lesbian writer. For Daphne (published since 1968), touch to my tongue was her fourteenth book: she was already a respected and well-known woman writer.

In hindsight, I realized that I emerged as feminist lesbian author and this was an aberration. Other feminist lesbian writers lives hadn’t unfold this way. In their early publishing years they had had close friendships with, a number had had romantic relationships with, and nearly all had had been students of literary men.  I had not.  Consequently, my inclusion in the poetry community was significantly limited.

On a national scale, government funding began to be cut back: funding that was crucial to enabling women’s conferences, newspapers, magazines and publishing houses. In the ’90s, poetry took a nosedive in Canada. Although many of our poets had been nationally respected and read as much as fiction and nonfiction during the rise of Canadian literature, “just being a poet” suddenly wasn’t enough. I did some research and discovered that, while the number of poetry and fiction books published annually in the ’70s and ’80s was similar, in the ’90s fiction shot ahead. Poets began writing novels. These novels enrich our literature in general but significantly lessening our poetic voice in public discourse. In capitalism’s insatiable commodification of everything I suspect that poetry just couldn’t be monetized profitably. Also, “Canada” was a relatively young country formed by colonization, and the highly regarded role poets hold in older cultures had not been established. Among the aboriginal peoples, however, poetry through song was and increasingly plays a central role. During the ’80s and ’90s, aboriginal writers began to be published, read and acclaimed, and their writing challenged and inspired me.

Except for a handful of  “recovering romantic poems” written between 2005-2006, I stopped writing poetry after 1998 when my collection of nine suites of poems, What Holds Us Here, was published. Simply said: the reception of my work and latitude for acceptance within the poetry community continued to be too sparse.

Through the ’90s feminist writing, and feminist experimental writers (of whom I was) continued to open up new territories of thought, form and content not previously seen on the page. But our internal conflicts, along with increasing government cutbacks, continued. A bi-annual Feminist International Bookfair, which I was invited to in Oslo and Montreal, folded. In Canada, universities became the only secure outposts for feminist writers. Some of us were hired, or became part of the canon for ongoing study in courses, thesis and dissertation work; some us were not.

A poet without a community is a contradiction in terms for me. One can be a poet who critiques, even rejects, a community — but this still is a poet in deep relationship to that community.

The hybridization of grass-roots politics and the personal yet public voice was subsumed by the academy’s concerns. Excepting most women writers of colour, experimental feminist writers and poets were becoming increasingly theory-informed, driven. I too was excited by a number of theorists and thinkers, but theory-determined poetry was not a fit for me.

I became a poet without a community.

A poet is more deeply intertwined with community than the fiction writer or nonfiction writer. In our most important life and death rituals poetry is what we turn to, communally recite or sing. The necessity for quick cohesion and absorption goes hand- in- hand with these gatherings: one page of poetry can profoundly move and bond people while it takes an entire novel to call up a similar response.

“A poem enters your heart like an idea enters your mind.”

Breathing the Page


The very structure of the poem acknowledges the interactive presence of the other (reader or listener); the poem’s un-inscribed space literally saves a seat for reader/the listener, literally provides space for their own thoughts and emotions.

As a poet without community I had to reinvent myself. It began with two tandem events: when I began writing my memoir Bloodroot – Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000) in lyric nonfiction prose; when I was asked to design, then direct, a creative writing program in which I could define “learning in and building community” as the program’s organizing principle. This program is The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. An unusually diverse and community-minded program, recent first books by graduates Sarah Leavitt, Gurjinder Basran, Ayelet Tsabari and Janie Chang have attracted international attention.

The combination of lyric prose and poetic sensibilities rooted in the book-length narrative of Bloodroot was liberating. Intriguing. It allowed me to move freely and associatively between my idea-questing side and my intuitive, emotive, lyric, imagistic side. I literally felt my mind arcing back and forth between left and right hemispheres while writing it. In this form, I learned, as I had in poetry, to give as much presence and resonance to the scored space (un-inscribed space on the page) as the inscribed space. Learned how to always save a seat for the reader. Readers of Bloodroot often tell me that, of all my books, upon opening this book they were stopped in their tracks and read it straight through (even while sitting in their car).

“We scrutinize one another through the eye of language. We’re more interested in what’s been left out than what’s been put in for as language is inevitably incomplete, so is story.”



Between 1998 and 2010, I wrote Breathing the Page – Reading the Act of Writing (2010) and further investigated this associative yet conceptual style.

Then I began writing Oscar of Between while in London in 2007. Upon seeing an exhibit on the invention of camouflage during the First World War, the narrator identifies herself as a person of between, takes the alternate name Oscar and begins to reflect on how camouflage has morphed into an array of strategies of deceptions, spins and cover-ups: how strategies that once unified people in the “theatre” of war are now creating endemic fear, isolation, and increasing random violence in our contemporary “theatre” of public life.

With Oscar, my narrative position was no longer one of writing from the margin but one of writing as “a person of between,” — between genre, gender, social identities and methodologies of perception. An aside: for nearly 20 years poetry juries didn’t think my writing was poetry; nonfiction juries didn’t think it was nonfiction. It wasn’t until a new jury for exploratory writing was created that I finally was awarded a grant.

Since then I have increasingly found resonance with writers and readers of between. These writers and readers are diverse in every respect. We don’t constitute a community, yet there is a growing recognition, respect. Sometimes this extends to reading one another work, supporting one another professionally, but more often it’s a subtle connection that quietly sustains me.

Where is my poet self now? When I give a reading, audience members frequently refer to my writing as poetry. When addressed as a writer in public or print, I am most often referred to as “the poet.” This continues to surprise me, yet not entirely. I still think like a poet but not within our contemporary use of a form that, for me, can incline too easily toward precious artifact or a theory-poetic discourse among a few.

I’ve been publishing excerpt from Oscar of Between along with an excerpt from a guest writer or artist each month. Readers post their responses, riffs and critical reflections with a link to their own writing. As readers claim their seats, they provoke and elate me. It seems to me now, as I write this essay, that with my loss of community, I have become more interested in communing with the betweenesses that constitute our lives.

In Oscar’s daily life, when encountering someone, it goes like this: some address her as a male; some address her as a female; some begin with one and then switch (sometimes apologetically) to the other; some identify Oscar as lesbian and their face hardens, or, opens into a momentary glance of arousal; some know they don’t know and openly scrutinize; some decide female but stare perplexedly at her now-sans-breast-chest; some are bemused by, drawn or relate to her androgyny; for some none of this matters. On days turbulent with unpredictable reactions, Oscar longs for the simplicity of camouflage. Yet has no instinct for it. It would only put her at odds with who Oscar is, as Oscar notes in Part 12:

Then she brightens. Oscar – person of between – notices another response from others of between.



Oscar of Between





Betsy Warland has published 11 books of poetry, creative nonfiction, and mixed-genre. Her Canadian bestselling book, Breathing the Page ­– Reading the Act of Writing (Cormorant Books, 2010), is comprised of 24 essays that investigate the materials with which writers work as well as essays that investigate her observations about the forces writers encounter, during the act of writing, that reside beneath the language of craft. Recently, Betsy has created Oscar’s Salon on her website http://www.betsywarland.com/. In this lively 3-way online exchange, she publishes excerpts from her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between, alongside excerpts from Guest Writers’ and Artists’ work, and readers’ comments, riffs, creative writing and critical thought.

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