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The opalescent ribbon, and the worst gardener since Cain

Leesa Dean’s latest book — a novella in verse — grows out the work of Elizabeth Bishop
Above: Leesa Dean is head of the Creative Writing department at Selkirk College. Below: Elizabeth Bishop, 1911-1979.

Leesa Dean has taken inspiration from the work of legendary poet Elizabeth Bishop with Dean’s latest book, “The Filling Station.”

The poet and author Dean, who grew up in Cranbrook, now works as the head of the Creative Writing department at Selkirk College in Castlegar. “The Filling Station” is a novella in verse, that delves deeply into Bishop’s vocabulary of language and riffs on her poem “Manuelzinho.”

Dean tells of how she first read “Manuelzinho,” when she was living in Montreal in 2010, and was taken by it, especially the title character — “the worst gardener since Cain.”

“Have you ever read a book where the character feels so real to you, and you think about it long after you’ve finished the book?” Dean said. “It was something like that with this Manuelzinho — he was a really strange, enigmatic, juxtaposed figure, both graceful and clunky, stealing telephone wires, a terrible gardener, awful at math, but so likable.

“And I was at a stage of my life then when I was into poetic exploration, and found forms of poetry. I was taking the words in the poem, and writing things around them to see what else would emerge, that might reveal something of [Manuelzinho]. You get to the bottom of that project very quickly, when you have a small receptacle, and limited number of words.

“But it didn’t feel like I was done with him after that one exploration.”

This writing project, this poetic exploration, became a 10-year immersion into the works of Elizabeth Bishop. “It was the greatest gift,” Dean said, of how the original four-page poem became something entirely new; a novella-length work giving enhanced life to the gardener Manuelzinho, and infused with the spirit of the original poet.

For “The Filling Station” is also an homage to Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), one of the legends of 20th century poetry and a leading poet of her generation.

“She still managed to be up there among the greats,” Dean said (Bishop’s contemporaries were Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and other writers in the post-war movement). Many writers since have cited her work as a major influence.

Bishop also faced considerable life challenges, but worked to keep her art distinct from that on her own terms.

“She was a queer woman living in a time when it wasn’t always safe to be queer,” Dean said. “She was an alcoholic, in and out of treatment as well. I only know that from reading the 650 pages of letters written between her and the poet Robert Lowell. You learn a lot from that.

“I love what she did as a poet, but she was also somewhat marginalized, even though we don’t think of her that way.”

Dean dedicated “The Filling Station” to Bishop: “In memory of Elizabeth Bishop, whose words have left a lovely opalescent ribbon through this world.”

In Dean’s “The Filling Station” (the title comes from another Bishop poem of the same name), Manuelzinho marries, takes a lover, has a daughter, and grieves his dying father. It was published in November, 2022 (by Gaspereau Press, based in Nova Scotia, a province where Bishop herself once lived as a youth). But it is only now starting to make some waves out in the literary world, and Dean has been getting feedback.

Such is the way of publishing and releasing books. Her previous book, “Waiting For The Cyclone,” a collection of short stories, was published in 2016, but it wasn’t until almost two years later, that the notices started to come in.

“[‘Waiting For The Cyclone’] was also a book that was published late in the year,” Dean said. “For some reason, if your book is published later in the fall, it seems to take a bit longer to show up on any kind of radar. With ‘Waiting For The Cyclone,’ I published it, did some events, and nothing really happened for a year. And then out of the blue, two award nominations came in. It was 2018 by then. It took me by surprise.”

A novella in verse, and one riffing on the work of another author at that, may strike a wider reading public as a project that’s rather “niche, and strange,” as Dean puts it. As indeed, it is.

“It was never a project I would have expected for myself,” Dean said. “If I would have told myself at the beginning of my writing career that one day you’re going to write a novella in verse, based on someone else’s poetry, I would be like ‘I think you’ve got the wrong writer.’

“Part of me was never sure that I would even get a publisher for this. It’s not a commercial project. It’s not going to make the bestseller list. But that’s okay with me. I’m not making art for public consumption necessarily. I do have that in mind — I’m writing a novel right now, and I have hopes that it will have a wider readership and broader appeal. But I don’t need that for everything that I do.

“I will say that I have the privilege of having a stable job. That makes a lot of difference for certain writers. There are writers who don’t have that stability, and so they have to make certain choices. I’m in that privileged position of being able to do what I want with my art, and not having to worry about it paying the bills.”

Dean will be coming back to her hometown of Cranbrook, to meet the reading public at Huckleberry Books on 10th Avenue South, Saturday, June 10, and doing readings of her work at 11 am and 12 pm. “I want to have a physical location where I can come, and people can see me and ask questions.”

The last such occasion in Cranbrook was the release of her book “Waiting For The Cyclone,” at the Cranbrook Public Library in 2016, along with poet Jane Byers.

“My elementary school teachers, almost all of them, were there, and I just thought what a kind thing to do,” Dean said. “It had been 25 years since they taught me, and they all came out, it was such a beautiful generous thing. And people that I’d gone to high school with that I hadn’t talked to at all in between.

“It’s nice to be an artist in the world, but it’s also nice to be an artist in the place where you came from.”

Dean reflects on the remarkable journey the immersion in the Elizabeth Bishop poem took her on. Honouring the poet who came before also led her, as a poet, into new places.

“It pulled me out of my logical self and let me be in a bit more of mystical journey space. And I can still feel the residuals of that. And it was really good for me to get out of my usual pattern. I almost always write about troubled women, and this story centred around a man. There’s a female voice in there as well, but it’s very much not about her. As a writer it had me thinking a bit differently.

“I would encourage anyone else there who has a love of a certain writer to deeply engage with their work and see what gift they can bring.”

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998, and has been part of all those dynamic changes the newspaper industry has gone through over the past 20 years.
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