Montreal writer and book artist Alisha Piercy arrives on the small press lit scene with tales of rafting boy scouts, seaward romance and fathoms of intrigue
By Nathaniel G. Moore
It’s been a pretty weird year for Alisha Piercy. Well, maybe not weird so much as adventurous. Most people just have book launches in darkened bars or the dusty corners of bookstores. But not Piercy. Take her combination art installation (which consisted of a month-long drawing exhibit) and chapbook launch in Montreal at the onset of the year as Exhibit “A.”
Each day, for a month, Piercy added drawings to the walls of an art space which reflected the images she explored in the text of her impressively titled chapbook You have hair like flags, flags that point in many directions at once but cannot pinpoint land when lost at sea (Your Lips to Mine Press, Montreal and Berlin, 2010). The story explores the perception of being lost at sea for 30 days. After 30 days of drawing (the exact length of the installation), Piercy erased the work she had done in the gallery by whiting the drawings out completely, as if washed away by the sea itself.
When it comes to conceptualizing, promoting and even writing, there’s a subtle duality to everything Piercy does. The origin of the long-titled chapbook, says Piercy, was the inspiration she felt after re-reading her favourite novel Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter. As Piercy explains: “On page 99, Jewel’s hair ‘blows like innumerable black flags.’ I loved that and made it the conceit: to have hair like flags means daring, spirit, the will to push off from shore against all odds, among other things.”
The storyline concerns itself with all things nautical, but what fascinates is how the entire project has a lot in common with the sea itself; unpredictable and capable of erasing things, people, memory and time. The narrative is about being adrift at sea for 30 days and experiencing “hallucinatory perception.” And just like the water can erase and take away, the drawings themselves ceased to exist. Self-aware and at the same time enigmatic, the chapbook is not your average read. The book is a manifesto of sorts, a manifesto of the literary sea. “The fictional characters Pi [Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001] and Pym [The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allen Poe, 1838] relate sea stories of horror filled with hallucinations that verge on the divine,” she says. Appropriating sea-worthy characters from other texts and re-imagining them in her own way, the work is at times romantic, didactic and emotionally sparse. A literary investigation and infestation, You have hair like flags won the 2010 bpnichol chapbook award in June of this year.
Exhibit “B”: On August 21st, 2010 at 10pm in Iceland, Alisha read from her chapbook with some boy scouts as a procession of burning rafts was set alight off the coast of Reykjavik as part of a performance installation created for Culture Night 2010.
Piercy says images from the story, such as the central image of a bonfire on a raft that keeps on burning, fuelled the images she would end up drawing for the installation, which she says included “processions of rafts, nets, ‘Northern’ things, pink flares, and lots and lots of smoke and explosions.” She met her Icelandic collaborator, a time-based artist named Oskar Ericsson, when he was having an exhibition in Montreal. “I told him about my piece and that I wanted to make a life-sized installation performance; I was thinking one or two rafts,” says Piercy. Ericsson pushed her to develop the concept for the performance and the rest is chapbook-launching history.
If all that wasn’t enough for an auspicious debut, Piercy also released her first full-length book with Conundrum Press over the summer. Icebreaker/Auricle comprises two novellas as part of the press’s reversible books series. While similarities between the two texts have been mentioned in interviews, I was struck more by how different they are.
Auricle was influenced by a real, yet unnamed, medical subject from the 1850s. In the story, a girl named Marie is born with growths on her neck, which are believed to provide her with extra-sensory perception. When doctors suggest cutting them off, the story travels to Buenos Aires where this procedure is to take place. It is here that Marie attempts to find a sense of cohesiveness both within herself and her family. “Is it because of my other tiny ears that I hear as if through a machine equipped with multiple openings?” Marie asks.
Rounding out the adventure is the doctor named Dr. Birkett, who Marie is falling in love with. When she’s not drunk, Marie’s mother is obsessed with a penpal named F. These characters pull the narration out of Marie’s self-guided thought patterns and give the reader helpful insight into how she perceives the world around her.
Meanwhile, Icebreaker is a nostalgic romp via Alice whose summer job is on an icebreaker ship which has been permanently docked and turned into a bed and breakfast. While working she plays: hosting her drunken friends in the empty rooms of the ship. Though conflict presents itself through foggy romantic trysts on the boat, Alice’s inner-turmoil is just as ferocious and daunting. “Alice is shaking and running, tripping on the door-ledge, catching her ring on the jag of the lock. She cries out into the abandoned hallway, and feels a remote sense of embarrassment, feels her lungs gone wild. Then the empty, muffled feeling of the inside of the linen closet.”
Whether freefalling from barn rafters, tucking in crisp sheet corners or getting drunk at Burger King with her friends, Alice’s voice is distinct in the detail, but never bogged down into quotidian urban ritual.
While both books explore self-examination and feminine connections to others, Icebreaker is seemingly slightly more romantic and excited storytelling, full of teenaged melodrama and excess, mystery and lust, while there is more of an existential bent to Auricle: the offbeat and transplanted domestic relationship played out between mother and love struck Marie is a remix of the classic coming of age story, with the additional intrigue of a biologically-affected youth who feels singled out, freakish and a bit self-possessed.
With three separate stories released over the span of one year, some international romps and a unique ability to present her work in both mysterious and unassuming ways that challenge the placidity of Can Lit, hopefully Piercy can look back fondly on 2010 and rest up before her next creative call of duty.