etched in steel(e) Dr. Suzanne M. Steele — editor analyst writer researcher


ArtsWells: or how to do a festival right

HQ, ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art

It’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Last thing I heard, the anniversary edition was canned, revived, moved, canned, and possibly revived yet again. Lazarus never rose so many times. But I’ve never been much for festivals and can count on one hand the number of them I’ve been to. Even then, I was on stage performing for most of them. Too many people, too much garbage or mud, just too much of too much. An introvert’s nightmare. But in early August I had a chance to see the beautifully run festival, ArtsWells, in the sweet little town, Wells, B.C., in the centre of the province.

You learn a lot about a village by counting the number of churches it has. Or bars. Or churches AND bars. But what about a village bursting with performance venues? I’ve travelled this world a whole lot over my lifetime and I’ve never seen such a charming little village with so many perfect, human-size venues, as the tiny village of Wells, population 245 (or 300, depending upon who has guests over). Invited to appear there as a poet and speaker, I was one of the significantly larger, temporary population of festival-goers, one I can only guess swells to maybe 10 times the usual population number.

The Sunset Theatre, Wells, BC

In its 16th year, this celebration of ‘all things art’ is run by Julie Fowler, Paul Crawford, and an amazing ArtsWells team (thanks Sam for the 1001 responses to my emails). This was one festival I’d wanted to see for years, most of all because I’m a longtime fan of Jeff Andrew, one of the most original voices of his generation – think Woody Guthrie of the digital age. To catch Jeff is a rarity and ArtsWells is one of his haunts, so for me to be invited as an artist in order to get me up there at long last, well, that was a very fine thing. Thanks Julie and Paul.

Paul Crawford announcing the rules of the 1 Minute Play competition

On the August long weekend we packed up early and headed north from Vancouver. Off we went through the Fraser Canyon, [Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)] up to the Cariboo, places I’d adored as a child, entirely enamoured of the geography – I mean who doesn’t love a river and a canyon and valleys? And it was the Cariboo that kickstarted my love of history – Indigenous and post-contact. I admit, as a kid I had gold fever. Our 9 1/2 hour drive morphed into a 13 hour drive due to bad weather, and a truly terrible accident that closed the highway.

Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)
aka The Mighty Fraser River

We arrived in the early evening and the festivities were well on their way with a parade of giant puppets, slightly drenched, and the fab Queen, Ms. Fondle, as Parade Marshall. What a welcome sight after our arduous journey on back roads (and sobering too, as a woman had lost her life on the highway and two seriously injured). Forgoing the evening’s multiple events we headed to our cabin at Barkerville and rested til morning.

Up early to a still-sleeping village, we ate and then went to shake the road from our bones at Dance Church with Grampa Groove. Seriously fun way to start the day. Then for the next three days a truly fun and intelligent program made such a great festival. It got me thinking of what made it different from other festivals I’ve observed (mostly from afar). I think it is ArtsWells modesty and its programming brilliance. We’re not talking brand names such as at the big festivals, we’re talking talent, pure talent that works its a$$ off while on stage, and better yet, clearly loves their art form. Every single act I caught, every workshop I attended, was compelling, original, and thoughtful – and yes, the music on every single stage was fabulous. The people in attendance – a huge proportion of them are artists – all so colourful and interesting. Outbreaks of music and theatrics were frequent and seriously delightful.

For my Sunday session I gave a reading, showed video footage (with actors’ voiceovers of my war poetry) and dispelled as many Myths of the Poet as I could. Apparently I did. Even the sound crew were wide-eyed; one of them came up to me afterward and said “I didn’t think I liked poetry until now”. We wandered and watched, ate, and enjoyed the acts, and especially Jeff Andrew, whose rock-out session in the pub left me even more amazed at his talent than ever before, his use of guitar effects tasteful and intricate. (Generally I’m no fan of guitar effects because most people overuse them.)

On Monday, I hosted a session, Becoming, a storytelling with Quinton and Darren of the Snotty Nose Rez Kids currently on their wildly successful Trapline Tour. Dialling it back, waaaay back from hype and crowds and expectations, we had a chance to be people together, people telling our stories. I began with the session by inviting everyone to relax, close their eyes and listen to the Becoming story I’ve written for the overture to my new opera. That I heard a few zzzzzzzzs coming from the crowd was a great reward to me as that’s exactly what I had in mind.

Quinton, SMS, Darren, aka The Snotty Nose Rez Kids

I invited those in attendance to take this chance to be still, to listen and settle, to begin to hear the soothing voices of these men tell their truths. Because in this noisy age of keyboard strokes and opinion, listening is really such a balm. The young men took over, each taking half of the large group, and spoke softly for over an hour and a half – so different from their hip hop delivery of their truths – and not a person stirred. I am so grateful to these men for showing up to tell the Becoming stories of two Haisla boys from the tiny coastal village of Kitamaat and how they became Hip Hop artists. They told much more. It was a profound experience for the listeners, and I wish them well. Fame, fast fame carries a lot of stress.

The final performance we caught was Bruce Horik’s Assassinating Thomson. This one-hander has won numerous awards and deserves to be, as cited, a Canadian classic and much more. Horik, legally blind, manages to juggle a triple narrative of the mysterious death of painter Tom Thomson with his own narrative of going blind at age 9 as a result of a genetic blastoma (with poignant reference to his father’s own struggle and sense of guilt with the same thing), with an onstage demonstration of his painting skills. To say it is a tour de force sounds cliché, but it is a tour de force. Horak’s acting, writing, and painting on stage is a triple threat. It was a fitting end to the first festival I’ve been to in years. We left Wells early on Tuesday morning, satisfied, grateful, and inspired. Thank you Julie and team.

SMS at ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art Aug. 2-5, 2019

image ©ArtsWells Festival of All Things Arts

It’s with great excitement that I announce I will be doing a reading and leading a story workshop this weekend at ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art. Billed as ‘the Cariboo’s largest celebration of music and art’, this is a festival I’ve tried to get to for so many years I can’t tell you. Somehow something always comes up on that first long weekend of August. This year I was invited to participate, et voilà, Barkerville and Wells here we come! At long last I’ll get to see Jeff Andrew, an artist (and now a friend) I have long admired. Jeff Andrew is an original. The first time I heard him, at a treeplanting party somewhere in the wilderness of B.C., I dropped everything and sat in awe and listened. He is a major talent, one of the strongest voices of his generation, politically and artistically.

So what am I up to at ArtsWells? My first session is titled, ‘The Myth of the Poet’. In it I’m going to dispel as many myths of the poet as I can with readings from my war work, some readings from my new opera, a little bit of Wittgenstein-riff, and maybe even a bit of skank from 51 shades of black & blue, a cabaret project with my collective Exegesis (Dr. Jaime Robles and Dr. Mike Rose)! The second session is a workshop, ‘Becoming Stories‘, with the Snotty Nose Rez Kids, two hiphop artists from the Haisla village, Kitamaat Village. SNRK are currently riding the wave. Pairing me, someone who works with the ‘legacy’ classical music world as a cross-cultural project, with this duo who work in a distinctly different cross-cultural project, a ‘legacy’ world originating in the urban black experience, well that should make for interesting times! While there will definitely be a Q & A session for us all, it’s going to be a work session too so participants should be prepared!!

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

24 hrs leave

war, this word so small so worried
over and out; you and I, self-storied,
the click of lips, our hips tented
into one, a shelter, new conquered
land; small, there it is again, 24 rented
hours just for this; wars’ dragonflies
lapus lazuli, gossy-gold, the fuse; my
heat, the sheets, the folds, and you.

©S.M. Steele 2009

For me some books are better read in summer than winter. This is the case with, In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin (2018), a biography of Colvin by war correspondent Lindsey Hilsum. I am reading it in the full light of July. I bought the book last winter when it first came out but could not bear to read it. Given my work of almost a decade ago, far different than Colvin’s, and my exposure to the trauma of war, far less, I find this compelling biography to be at once fascinating and depressing. Ultimately it details the price one woman paid for illuminating the human condition in war, a price her family and friends and colleagues must continue to pay.

In 2012, I had the good fortune to meet David Loyn at the Frontline Club in London, a club founded by, and for, frontline journalists. I was introduced to Loyn by a retired British Brigadier-General who had contacted me for an interview for his own Master degree on war poetry. The retired general, a 40-something year old and veteran of Iraq, was then working with the media and was a member of the club, and as I’d mentored the general with his own work, he was eager to oblige with some quid pro quo.

At the time, I wanted to speak with Loyn for my PhD, a study of war narratives and the inherent challenges of finding an appropriate artistic form, and the process the artist undergoes in war. Finally, I attempted to explore the rather old-fashioned notion of truth in war. As a Canadian War Artist (2008-10 Task-Force 3-09 A’stan with 1PPCLI), I was interested in hearing the front-line journalist point of view, how they tackle story – I felt this would add a dimension to my dissertation that would contextualize my central arguments. Central to my research, I wanted to know how war tackles frontline journalists. Near the end of our interview, Loyn suggested he introduce me to his very good friend and comrade, Marie Colvin. He told me that she was due back to London within a few weeks and he’d facilitate this. I remembered this striking woman with the eyepatch and was very interested in meeting her. But within 10 days or so, she was dead, targeted in Homs, Syria. I sent Loyn a letter of condolence.

My experience of journalists, or at least how they are often perceived by soldiers in theatre or on military exercises, is one of caution. During my tenure as a war artist (a poet for heaven’s sake), soldiers avoided me like the plague as they thought I was a journalist, due to my constantly taking notes and photographs. After their officers explained who I was, why I was there, and how to behave around me (as normal as possible), they slowly relaxed. The Commanding Officer of the battalion I accompanied on the road to war advised that I ‘be ever-present, become like the furniture and the boys will soon forget you’re there’.

I spent thousands of hours with the boys (and I include women in this term), mostly recruits rather than officers. I slept on the ground alongside them, rattled in Light Armour Vehicles (LAVs) for hours on end, suffered the dreaded GI (gastro-intestinial virus) with them and got hauled off live-fire and then quarantined and forgotten, helped feed them by getting up with the cooks at 4 a.m., and visited them on the frontlines. Interestingly, I got more street-cred with them for suffering the GI and being forgotten, than I did flying outside the wire to them! (‘You’re one of us now Ma’am’ they told me). I became part of the furniture. Almost. But one thing I never tried to be, was one of them. Nor did I ever speak for them. And contrary to what the poem above suggests, I did not fraternize. (I think I was a mom-figure to them, actually.)

I liken war to a very hot frying pan of sizzling oil. As anyone who cooks will know, ingredients thrown into the hot, hot pan will either fry to a blackened, inedible crisp, or, the heat can bring out the very best of flavours, the sharpest. It’s all in the care and timing. In war, one sees the very best of human behaviours, and the very worst (on the homefront too, I should add). And war can be gaudy or addictive, as I write in my poem, a poem imagining a 24 hour leave:

wars’ dragonflies
lapus lazuli, gossy-gold, the fuse …

Over the long haul, if one throws in the MSG of PTSD, a slow slither of a flavouring comes forth, one that quickly turns war from intriguing to craving, to addiction. This is the recipe that I refer to in my dissertation as being ‘the sensual and moral conversion’ (Lande qted in Steele, 25-27), of the war artist, or, in the case of Colvin, the war correspondent. This notion of becoming someone else, through physical and moral conversion, was developed from my reading of sociologist Brian Lande’s fascinating study ‘Breathing Like a Soldier: culture incarnate’ (2007) in which Lande signed up for basic training so he could understand the process of becoming a soldier. That the conversion happens in the highly-pressurized physical environment of the war zone, or what I refer to as ‘The Forbidden Zone’ (with reference to Mary Borden’s 1928 narrative), fixes the conversion. I believe these ideas hold true for war journalists too.

And I think this is why I find Colvin’s story by Hilsum so daunting to read, especially in winter – it is a cautionary tale as much as a well-researched and well-written biography. One reads of Colvin’s choices, her braveries, and sometimes her foolhardiness, and then of her private life and choices therein, many of them disastrous. Colvin is portrayed as a wonderful friend, a great companion, and a generous colleague – someone I’d have loved to meet – an attractive spirit who loved sailing (something I’ve learned too, these past years) and a good party. But Hilsum’s brilliant interspersing of Colvin’s diary entries and excerpts from Colvin’s dispatches are often just too painful to read – the ones from the Serbian war I had to skip – I know too much about vicarious trauma to know what we put in we cannot take out, I’ve met too many veterans of that war and have learned of their pain.

What is most painful in Hilsum’s biography of her colleague and friend, is that we know the outcome, the divorces, the estrangements, the deaths, and ultimately, Colvin’s death. At times while reading this, all I want to do is shout out to Colvin “No!!! Don’t do it!” – whether this be a marriage or another trip to the war zones. And this is the brilliance of the book, Hilsum carefully lays out the sensual and moral conversion of the young girl, Marie, born to a big, happy, Irish-American Catholic family, to the war-weary Colvin. And as the very best of biographers, Hilsum gets out of the way of the story. This is no mean feat given Hilsum’s own illustrious career as a journalist working on the frontlines of some of the world’s most difficult conflicts. Further, as Hilsum states in a Press Gazette article, she did not want to appear to be “buying into or helping create the myth of Marie and the glamour of the war correspondents”. But Hilsum pulls it off. She has written a great biography of one of my generation’s most committed and skilful journalists – not a Martha Gelhorn (Colvin’s hero) for our age, but a Marie Colvin, an original.

My condolences to Marie Colvin’s family, colleagues, and friends.

Damascus Steel

A few years ago I first learned of early Damascus steel production in a lecture I attended by archaeo-metallurgist, Dr. Gill Juleff, at the University of Exeter. Dr. Juleff, her team of students, and her Sri Lankan partners, have demonstrated the existence of a thriving steel industry from the first millennium AD, with archeological digs and experiments with monsoon-driven smelting furnaces in Samanalawewa, Sri Lanka. This steel was much sought after during the Iron Age and beyond, and continues to be highly prized not only for its strength, but its beauty.

Illustrated in the photograph above, is a detail of a beautiful knife I purchased for a dear one from the Santa Fe Stoneworks, a few years back. He uses it every day as a rigger in the film industry. The wallpaper to this website’s home page is actually a close-up of the knife’s texture, a five-layer Japanese Damascus steel. If you are wondering how such a beautiful material is made, here’s a fascinating video by a young metallurgist named, well, Alec Steele! Not related I must add, I find it amusing that he would be drawn to metallurgy. I’ve always liked my last name, despite nicknames such as ‘Stainless Steele’, or ‘Woman of Steele’. Since attaining my doctorate I am Dr. Steele, a name that sounds as if it is from a James Bond movie, or so I’m told! Alas.

When I decided to amalgamate my websites into one I wanted to find an image that would best describe a style of collegiality, discipline, and professionalism that I aspire to. I also wanted to have something that would be a play on my name. Somehow the idea of Damascene steel with its flexibility, strength, beauty, and purposefulness, spoke to me. Highly practical, born of experimentation and discipline, this gorgeous material forged with care, perhaps best articulates how I approach each and every project I do, whether it be editing, writing, designing, researching, analyzing, teaching, or collaborating.

Like Damascene steel, my practice is the product of many years of trial and error, including 25 years as a professional editor, researcher (with a Master of Library and Information Science), writer and analyst. In this time I have advised executives and engineers, students and colleagues. I thus see the art of crafting words and images not solely as a search for perfection, but one of process, experimentation, and, ultimately, one of lasting beauty.