Searching for Emily Carr by Susan Crean

Surrey Muse Meeting
November 25, 2011

Guest Author Susan Crean presented from her published and unpublished work.

The following excerpt forms the introduction to her award winning title ‘Opposite Contraries, The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr And Other Writings’ (Douglas & McIntyre, Vancovuer, 2003).

Excerpt from Susan’s Introduction to her book
Opposite Contraries
A collection of the unpublished journals and other expurgated writings of Emily Carr

Anyone who has gone looking for information in the public archives knows how seductive they are. How easily the material distracts attention from the task at hand, enticing you off on detours and down dead ends, one thing leading to another while the house slip past in a stream. Like a trip to the Sally Ann, the search is often serendipitous: you go looking for one particular thing and come back with something else entirely, something you perhaps hadn’t known you needed or even wanted. If the search is into a person’s life, it is more like a treasure hunt. Lists aren’t much help; intuition and visual alertness are your best assets, as chance and circumstance have more to do with what is left behind than rational activity on anyone’s part. Of course, the highly ordered conditions in which historical documents are kept – every page catalogued and accounted for – tend to contradict this. Nonetheless, “the record” is a capricious thing, and this is especially true of people who become famous late in life, as Emily Carr did. Lawren Harris, who met her in 1927 and corresponded with her over many years, did not keep her letters. A decade later, Ira Dilworth, who shepherded Carr’s first book, Klee Wyck, into publication diligently kept her correspondence. For her part, Carr preserved the letters from both men.

Archival research, I am suggesting, depends rather more on coincidence than people like to admit. And just as happenstance seems to control what makes its way into climate-controlled safekeeping, so the job ferreting out the details what will tell the whole story years or decades later defies logic. It has as much or more to do with stamina and empathy than with intellectual application, for there is a psychological dimension to the activity; a spiritual relationship, you could almost say. Something like the bond that exists between birds and birders, which explains how it is you can sometime go out into the woods and see nothing and at other times be astonished by the number and brilliance of the winded ones you encounter.

In the archives, there are days when the slog over miles of curvilinear lettering strung across fields of yellowing paper yields mothering more than a sore neck and bleary eyes. And then there are the moments when documents reveal themselves, as the birds do. It took time, but one day I realized I had finally got the gist of Carr’s difficult handwriting and could read whole tracts of it without faltering. I had become familiar with her misspellings and contracted words, and could anticipate her meanings. I was no longer an intruder reading a script; I was present, listening to her speak.
With birds, that same sort of thing happens when proximity between creature and human being becomes an unconscious thing, and the barrier in between disappears. It did the other night when a young barred owl, whose territory I inhabit on Gabriola Island, called to me from a perch in a fir tree high above the cabin porch. “Up here!” he insisted as I tried to find him in the twilight. Once spotted, he drifted down to a bare twig on the adjacent arbutus, closer, more visible, and looked at me through great brown eyes. The ancients thought of owls as prescient and wise. Humans have always warmed to their curiosity, their boldness and their throaty calls, but we are unnerved by their stealth and by the sense that they know something we do not.

So it is with the business of wresting the past from piles of paper; the sense that truth lurks among them, if only we could see it.

Surrey Muse November 25/11 meeting was held at the City Centre branch of Surrey Public Library. Guest Author Susan Crean was followed by Featured Poet Manolis and Featured Playwright Sana Janjua. Ajmer Rode, Valerie B.-Taylor, Yuri and Mariam Zohra-Durrani presented poems on the Open Mic. The event was hosted by Valerie B.-Taylor.
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About Surrey Muse

An interdisciplinary Arts and Literature group that meets Fourth Friday of each month except December. Presents a Guest Author, a Featured Poet, and a Featured Artist/Performer. Discussions. Open Mic. Book Table. Book Signings. Free event. Donations welcome.

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