I'm a visual artist and writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Posts tagged “Creative Nonfiction”

Creative Nonfiction Fellowship with Newfoundland Quarterly

Newfoundland Quarterly has kindly selected me as their first Creative Nonfiction Fellow. Over the next ten months, as part of this project, I’ll be writing my way through the magazine’s extensive archives (founded in 1901, NQ is the second-oldest magazine in Canada). I’m super excited about this! Here’s an introductory article I wrote, and another about a codfish-gobbling robot from the 1920s.

I’ll be blogging about this project on Medium, and on the new NQ website which will launch soon.

Interview with PRISM International

PRISM International Fall 2016

My essay Comfort Zone was shortlisted for PRISM International‘s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Contest, and was printed in the Fall 2016 issue. PRISM Prose Editor Christopher Evans interviewed me about videogames, systems and stories, and books that have maps in them.

Plopped into a platform-strewn obstacle course, haunted forest, or asteroid field, I would ransack every nook and cranny as if looting a couch for lost coins. I was a relentless adventurer, and one of the thrills of the 8-bit games I grew up with was that it was possible to exhaustively plunder those worlds. Even years before the internet wound its way to my small town, I could be reasonably certain that I had picked every pocket of the little planets that fit inside those plastic cartridges. There were fictional cities I knew more intimately than my own neighbourhood.

A Good Name For A Ship

Originally published in Boat Shoes as part of Eastern Edge Gallery‘s HOLD FAST Festival.

Allison Graves (editor of Boat Shoes) reads her work from the deck of The Wandering Pavilion.

Allison Graves (editor of Boat Shoes) reads her work from the deck of The Wandering Pavilion.

The Wandering Pavilion wishes it could sail. It is designed to travel. Like a ship, it has sturdy beams, a wooden deck, and a fondness for taut lines and triangles. Its fabric walls embrace the wind like mainsails. Today, docked in the parking lot outside Eastern Edge, it is even draped with signal flags. The flags say You should keep closer to me. The Pavilion gazes out over the water and hopes for a response from the ocean. It regrets the harbour fence.

The Wandering Pavilion wants the Atlantic, but it will settle for shoes. Waves of shoes wash over it, leaving scuffs and scratches. Its deck could use a good swab. Today it is cloudy and the Pavilion hopes for a shower, because rain is the closest it gets to ocean, and because when it rains people take cover under its canopy. The Pavilion likes feeling useful, keeping busy. It has made itself a stage, a shelter, a stall, a cinema. Today, as part of Hold Fast, it is a soapbox and a soundbooth. Someone deejays and someone paints faces. People take turns speaking, and then an artist performs, knotting ropes around themselves and dangling from a hook. The Pavilion beams.

With its two halves, the Wandering Pavilion is perhaps more like a flotilla than a ship, adopting different formations depending on its mission. And it is fleeting in other ways, rarely lingering in one place. It might not sail, but it is easily dismantled and shipped across the city. It’s especially drawn to parks and parking lots, spaces that people pass through, spaces where it might find passengers. Spaces that it can shape into places, into destinations. What the Pavilion does best is make room: for conversations, for collaborations, for interactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur. It is a vessel that brings people together. What is wants most is for you to come aboard.

Bloomsday in Dublin

Originally published in WANL‘s Word newsletter, Summer 2016.

Bloomsday in Dublin

It’s June 16, Bloomsday, and Dublin feels underwater. Low blue clouds undulate like the surface of a pond seen from below. Ha’penny Bridge arches across the river like the spine of a whale, its white bones picked clean by swarms of tourists and their cameras. I move more slowly than the river. A single drop of rain dabs the back of my neck.

Yesterday evening, when the sun cracked through, the city took a joyous breath. The shadow of the Millennium Bridge slanted sharply into the Liffey, the shadows of pedestrians crossing it seeming to slip beneath the green water. I watched a man on a ladder spraywash a bus shelter, sunlight transforming the water into honey that oozed a long puddle into the street. Every cobblestone was suddenly covered in gold leaf. But overnight all the colour drained away, and the morning light is dilute and dim.

You could spend the day in Dublin and not realize it was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s something you seek out, although you might spot a few people in costume, men donning black-banded boaters and women in Edwardian finery and feathers. There are various walking tours, lectures, breakfasts and pub crawls, even a Bloomsday Cruise. Many excursions set out from the Martello tower in Sandycove, site of the novel’s famous opening scene, which is now James Joyce Tower and Museum. But I haven’t booked anything, preferring to ramble around the city on my own. Twelve years ago, on this exact date in June, I visited the city for the first time. I remember passages from Ulysses in blue chalk on the pavement, dissolved a little by rain. I remember a busker serenading the Joyce statue just off O’Connell. I remember asking someone what Bloomsday was.

Today, wandering around Trinity College, I recall stumbling through the first few episodes of Ulysses, so thick with idiom and allusion, with almost abstract description, with words that aren’t in any dictionary. I remember the heaviness of the tome in my hands. It contained so much, but I didn’t know how to communicate with it. It was like holding a human brain.

I only really enjoyed Ulysses when I read it aloud. Like an overcast sky, its dense pages diminish the visual, but enliven other senses. As my tongue tapped its way through unfamiliar territory and inventive language, the book entered my head through backchannels. I started to relish the strangeness of it, the saltiness of its words, the way Joyce’s liquid sentences lapped against my ear: He climbed over the sedge and eely oarweeds and sat on a stool of rock, resting his ashplant in a grike. Even so, I didn’t finish the book. I have strolled through Ulysses, but I haven’t lived there. I have a tourist’s impression of it. I think of it as a place.

In a bookshop called Hodges Figgis, I overhear two French women ask a clerk which Joyce book to read first. He wards them off Finnegans Wake, explaining its inscrutability, reading the first sentence to demonstrate: riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. He recommends Dubliners.

“You have to read it like music,” advises David Norris, an Irish activist and senator, Joyce scholar, and one of the readers at the Bloomsday performances at Meeting House Square. He begins with the passage of Ulysses that introduces the day’s namesake: Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. An opera singer performs “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly,” a song Joyce composed for Finnegans Wake, followed by a reading by the American ambassador to Ireland. The performances continue all afternoon, and Ulysses comes alive in the interplay of voices and music, the juxtaposition of different scenes from the book, and in Joyce’s sumptuous descriptions of food and drink.

After the readings, I put my camera away and try to take in Dublin through my ears, nose, toes. Temple Bar is a labyrinth of sound and smell, with guitar and Guinness spilling out of every doorway. There are bottlecaps between the cobblestones, and bronze sculptures cold to the touch. In St. Stephen’s Green, I linger on the stone bridge for a while, listening to the ruckus as a couple tosses entire slices of bread into a frenzy of pigeons. A group of younger people walk past and I overhear one ask her friends a riddle: what is a chest full of gold but has no lid and no hinges? I walk away before she gives an answer.

Monsters

I caught a ride across the island in a car full of philosophers, all of us heading to The Future of Nature conference in Corner Brook and Gros Morne. We left St. John’s late in the afternoon. The irony of travelling seven hours in a behemoth of an SUV to attend a conference on sustainability wasn’t lost on anyone, but there were six of us sharing the vehicle at least, and it was better than flying. As we reached Gander it began to get dark. We listened to the evening news on the radio, then someone put on a podcast about Beowulf. A thousand-year-old tale of warriors, swords and monsters.

when the sheen of the sun they saw no more,
and dusk of night sank darkling nigh,
and shadowy shapes came striding on.

On the podcast, a panel of historians discussed how objects in Beowulf embody narrative. The heroes build a great hall, named Heorot after the majestic deer they hunt, but the warriors themselves soon become prey for the monster Grendel. Two opposing armies make peace after a vicious war, but then one warrior notices his father’s weapon strapped to the belt of his enemy, and it all breaks asunder again.

As the darkness settled in we watched the road carefully, keeping our eyes peeled for moose. “Despite their enormous size,” notes The Land Mammals of Insular Newfoundland, “moose share with all things wild an extraordinary ability to emerge from nowhere.” Put your moose eyes on, my parents would say. Drive slowly, and keep an eye on the side of the road. Everyone knows someone who has been in a moose accident, everyone has heard gruesome stories. Your vehicle sideswipes a moose’s legs, and its heavy body crashes through your windshield, crushing you, wounded and kicking. You were just trying to get to a conference. The moose was just trying to get from one bog to another.

Then from the moorland, by misty crags,
with God’s wrath laden, Grendel came.

I walked the East Coast Trail from South Brigus to La Manche with some friends a few weekends ago, a six hour hike. The trail skipped along the water’s edge, narrow paths between trees opening up into stunning grassy cliffs surrounded by bright waves. It was surprisingly warm for September, although the air was noticeably cooler in the trees. We scooped handfuls of blueberries and kept an eye on the sea, hoping to spot whales. About halfway to La Manche, we ascended a staircase and found ourselves overlooking a small cove. The view was wonderful. The smell, on the other hand, was horrendous.

We couldn’t tell what it was at first. The stench seemed to have settled along the low part of the trail, and after wading through it for a moment we discovered its source. Below us, drifting just off the beach, was a rotting sperm whale. Its tongue was a bloated ball, its skin pale and decaying where a couple of gulls were pecking away. Its mouth lolled open, revealing rows of rounded teeth. A juvenile, big, but hardly enormous.

No one said anything for a while. We were dismayed, not only disappointed that our whale sighting was such a pitiful one, but sorrowful that the creature seemed so out of place, and so alone. We wondered if we should tell someone, report it to the trail authority or the Department of Wildlife. Whales that wash up near communities are often buried on the beach, but this one seemed likely to remain unburied. I imagined its ghost haunting the forest, a pale cloud lost along the narrow trails.

on the edge of ocean up they lay,
put to sleep by the sword. And since, by them
on the fathomless sea-ways sailor-folk
are never molested.

The podcast ended. As we continued across the island in the belly of a monstrous vehicle, I kept thinking about monsters. Monsters that inhabit fables and fiction rarely come from nowhere, but are often summoned by our trespasses or carelessness. In Beowulf, Grendel attacks the warriors’ great hall because it is disturbed by the noise of their celebrations. Moose are not native to the island of Newfoundland, but were introduced as a food source.

On the first morning of The Future of Nature there was a presentation about ghost fishing. A ghost net, lost at sea, continues to drift through the ocean, killing fish. What kind of story does this object embody? Another conference presenter brought up Serres’ The Natural Contract, which compares human pollution to the way animals mark their territory with urine, an unconscious urge. We mark a place as ours by strewing it with evidence of ourselves. We wreck the planet not intentionally, not even by accident, but out of habit. Our negligence conjures ghosts.

Beowulf slays two monsters and later dies defending his kingdom from a dragon, which, like Grendel, was angered by humans blundering into its lair. Are we Beowulf, poisoned by the monsters we’ve provoked, doomed to be buried with our mountain of treasure? Or are we the monsters? If both perish, does it even matter?

he was fated to finish this fleeting life,
his days on earth, and the dragon with him.

Serres might ask us to widen the frame, “to include the consuming muck beneath the duelist’s feet and into which they are unknowingly sinking by clubbing one another to death.” At the conference we spend an afternoon arguing over the term Anthropocene. Does nature have a future? Does squabbling over language lead us anywhere? Metaphors only get you so far. If you lose track of them they can become ghost nets, tangling all understanding.

Content ©  2017 Matthew Hollett. RSS