Karen Mac Cormack entwines York students with poetry

On Jan. 13, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Karen Mac Cormack. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the course, sent the following report to YFile.

Many “I”s have traveled, to be moved left, right, off…any map…

The wind as confluence of surfaces tangled if unseen by any “poetress…”

In the darkness fall the stars realigned for spinning differently within two “I”s sharing the verb to see.

from Implexures
by Karen Mac Cormack

Karen Mac Cormack applauded the students who braved this cold rainy night to hear her read from her latest collection of poetry, Implexures (2002), and answer questions. And, by the end of the evening presentation, students found her to be “sophisticated, literate, and articulate.”

The title of her work, Implexures, draws its origins from Latin for “entwinings” as well as 17th-century French for “complicated plot.” Written over a nine-year period, Mac Cormack draws together threads and fragments of her and her family’s life to create a “transhistoric poly-biography.” As she explained to her listeners, family runs in multiple directions and nothing is singular: “To write about just myself seems mean because so many other selves went into bringing me here.”

The self is almost anonymous in her work, challenging our notions of how identities are constructed. In one poem she quotes Virginia Woolf: “I” is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being. Her search for i-dentity resists the ego-centric perspective. 

Right: Karen Mac Cormack

Rather, she looks at the intersections of personal and family histories through the tangle of time and language. One of her most striking images is that of a fan which folds and unfolds its meaning: “this is not a conversation nor a theme, it is a letter, another fold in the fan where the writer in this decade sees the angled history of a past decade’s correspondent snapped shut.”

Through this kind of imagery, Mac Cormack disrupts our sense of linear time. “When we experience an event it is only important to the individual, whereas if, and with what results, the experience occurred in is of concern to a collective,” said Mac Cormack.

Throughout the fragments of letters to and from parents and grandparents, Mac Cormack weaves in journal entries from her travels. The experience of travelling is important to the poet, who was born in Zambia, grew up in England and Canada, and worked in Italy and Greece. Her writing and concept of herself are informed by different places and cultures, yet she notes that “there’s a tremendous difference between tourists and travellers.”

She likewise encourages her readers to be courageous travellers as they explore her work on a quest for meaning. The reading experience can be a little disorienting at first because the lines of Implexures are deliberately disjunctive. The result is a poetic collage of shifting times and tones, varying perspectives and places. Not interested in conventional narrative or “the pathos of fiction,” she forces the reader to think and delve deeper. She encourages multiple readings, each presenting new insights and connections. Far from wanting to alienate readers, she writes in “poetically informed prose” so that readers unfamiliar with poetic verse can experience and understand the creativity within the language.

It is the language itself and its shifting meanings through time that is one of Mac Cormack’s greatest interests. In a review of the book, journalist Jean-Jacques Lecercle calls her work “a collective assemblage of enunciation.” What fascinates Mac Cormack about the English language is its flexibility and growth, the way it is informed by other languages. Language, as well as her sense of identity, is a collaborative construction. It is also an intimate and primary environment, “language, so even the motions of a dancer’s feet make contact with the words floor, air, cleaving.”

If one catches the rhythm of the language, Mac Cormack leads us through a dance across time and experience to see how the self is formed and evolves through other selves. As a life and a work in progress, she ends her volume of poetry “to be continued.” Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another nine years for the second incarnation of Implexures.

More about Karen Mac Cormack

Karen Mac Cormack, born in Luanshya, Zambia, is a long-time resident of Toronto and holds dual British and Canadian citizenship. Mac Cormack has published seven books of poetry including Straw Cupid (1987), Quirks & Quillets (1991), Marine Show (1995), The Tongue Moves Talk (1997) and A Robin Hood Book (1996). Her most recent publication is Fit to Print (2003), a collaboration with poet Alan Halsey. This collaboration pursues meaning using the newspaper as a format, fusing an interest in mass culture and an innovative writing practice.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Feb. 10, author Wade Compton will read from his book of poetry, Performance Bond.