On Death and Dying – from In the Shadow of the Mountain.
For several years, I hosted a radio show for Smithers Community Radio called In the Shadow of the Mountain, a show about writers and writing. Mostly, I interviewed writers and played music they liked – it was great fun. In November 2016, I created a show about books that in some way talk about death and dying. This is an abridged version of that show.
The works referenced in the show are listed below.
- On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
- How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin Nuland
- The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
- The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe
- The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
- Musee de Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
- The Etiquette of Illness: What to Say When You Can’t Find the Words by Susan Halpern
In the Shadow of the Mountain
After the publication of Shafted: A Mystery, Sheila talked to the good folks at the Smithers Community Radio Station (CICK at 93.9 FM) about doing a show during which she read the story and played some tunes that seemed to fit.
It was nerve-wracking to say the least because even while I was reading, I had to run the board, check sound levels, play the songs, and slide the sliders. I found myself having quite a bit of fun and managed to fit it all in over ten shows. (Novels contain an awful lot of words, in case you haven’t noticed. Plus reading out loud is a killer test for clunky sentences – but we won’t talk about that now.)
After that I went to Portugal, but that’s another story.
Come 2015, I decided to re-start In the Shadow of the Mountain, this time featuring other writers. It’s been a blast.
Writers I’ve featured include Sarah de Leeuw, Joyce Helweg, Graeme Pole, Jane Stevenson, Valerie Laub, Grace Hols, Melissa Sawatsky, Susan Juby, Eden Robinson, John Harris, Vivien Lougheed, Emily McGiffen, Fabienne Calvert Filteau, Donna Kane, Jennifer Skin Wickham, Janet Rogers, Kevin Spenst, Jennifer Manuel, Caroline Woodward, Kathy Page, Joan Haggerty, and many others. Link to the show to listen to the podcasts.
Muskwa-Kechika Fire Poems
In 2007, Sheila joined Donna Kane, Wayne Sawchuck and others at the Muskwa-Kechika Artist’s Camp – a week-long residency in a fly-in camp near the Gataga River. Out of that experience Sheila created a slide show containing images from the camp and her attempts to “create the story of a small forest community damaged by a wildfire.”
To view this, click on the image below.
Another project that emerged from the Muskwa-Kechika Artist Camp was a collaboration with Victoria composer Diane Berry – Sheila wrote the libretto for a cycle of songs Diane wrote. After workshopping the pieces, a debut performance took place Feb. 4, 2012 at the Oak Bay United Church in Victoria.
The Walking Poems
Victoria composer Diane Berry, approached Sheila a few years ago about a quartet of poems included in the weather from the west. Here’s how she got from there to a Spring 2017 performance of her composition by Vancouver ensemble, Erato:
The text of the poems follows Diane’s comments.
After doing the pine cycle, which was one of my first attempts at vocal music and certainly the most ambitious, I wanted to have another go at it. I love your poetry and the descriptiveness of your images. What you do with those images, how vibrant and true they are is what I’m finding that I want to do with the music. So this was back in 2011, and I read through The Weather from the West, looking for possible poems to try to set my hand to, and came across the Walking Poems. I do a lot of walking (most of it urban, I will confess, though often in Mt. Doug Park) and could relate to it. The idea of multiple poems also gave it the feeling of a collection. I’m not quite sure why I chose 1, 3 and 4 (I love number 2, as well, I can relate, having had teenage sons in my house).
Originally I wrote them for the four voices, unaccompanied. The very beginning came first, with the ah, ah, ah to mimic steps. One thing about writing for voice, the words will dictate (to some extent) the rhythm. I remember I also bounced a bit between the three poems as I worked. I spent a fair amount of time trying to find the harmonies I wanted (on the piano). While the rhythm of the words dictates the rhythm, the grouping became interesting. I found I read parts of it aloud, trying to find the emphasis and the phrasing (curiously I changed some things when I went to rewrite last fall).
I sent them off to a couple of concert opportunities, one was for a choral workshop and they gave some criticism regardless of whether your piece was chosen for the workshop or not. I confess some of it was a bit harsh (partly true, in that it would be really difficult as a choral piece, it needs the individual voices). It got left for awhile.
When the ‘call for scores’ came for Sonic Boom last fall, and I saw the ensemble was Erato (they had played an instrumental piece of mine a few years ago, and had done pieces by friends of mine, I knew how good they were), I wondered about having another go at Walking Poems. In order to be included in Sonic Boom, the piece had to be no more than three years old, and include voice(s) and instrument(s). It would mean adding the instruments and editing. I ended up writing to the organizers to see if a reworking of this piece (adding instruments and editing) would count, particularly since it had never been performed, and they said that was fine.
The other part of the piece being chosen was that you had to attend a reading of your work, basically what we did for Pine Cycle at Logpile Lodge. They basically went through it, made some comments, asked some questions and that gave the composers a chance to rework some more things. It was interesting, because they didn’t have a lot to say about changes, they were quite confident it would be fine. The composer in residence did have some good ideas, as did a friend who was there as well and has written for Erato before. I did change some things, I love the thick, lush harmonies but I think I could still thin them a bit, I think the words are occasionally in danger of being overpowered by them. It was pointed out initially that I had very little unisons, and that was certainly true, I became a bit enamoured of the harmonies.
I decided on clarinet and cello (partly because I don’t really like writing for piano, which is always the obvious choice) because I felt the sound qualities reflected the nature of the pieces.
Will’s [Will George, the tenor] comment after the concert was that they had found it quite challenging but ended up really enjoying it. I know that sometimes happens with a difficult piece, because you have to dig in to it so much you come to love it when you weren’t sure about it at the beginning.
I think Erato is just amazing, they are really dedicated to giving good performances of new work and of encouraging composers to write for voice and instruments, I would write for them again any time.
I don’t know if I’ll do any more editing on the poems, I may go back and set the second one, who knows. I keep thinking I won’t do a lot of vocal work, but I ended up writing a song for a friend in the fall and I just finished a piece for voice, clarinet, bassoon, violin and cello. Circumstance and ideas tend to make a liar of me often.
Walking Poems by Sheila Peters
all the things that grow
upon all the things that make
up the ground
beneath our boots
umbilicaria crackling on ragged rocks
alpine heather and partridge foot
the tough golden grass lying
down to receive
I grew up on coastal sand
trapped a mile inland
stirred by clambering frogs
pounded by children’s heels
we leapt from cliffs
and landed learning
and the hardness of sand
in the damp drainage ditch
we’d pretend it was quicksand
would urge it to suck us deeper in
laughing as our nervous feet
entered secret places
all the aching cold
toes wriggling blindly
when I walk into these northern woods
my feet upon unyielding clay
it is only myself I wish to leave behind
it is only myself I wish to lose
in these scrawlings
tangled across sheets
of carefully rulered lines
my water poem is hiding
in Sunday morning lists of chores
boys sprawled large
and sleeping upstairs
boys growing whiskers through changed cheeks
dreaming dreams of leaving
dishes tumbled in the sink
they walk through their days
I button my sweater to bind the trembling
an idiotic hovering
ridiculously happy to hear a bed creak
one turn and stretch into
his own body’s pleasure
still I falter
towards a new gravity
seeking a balance their first sprouting
flung forever out of kilter
I followed laughing
water sweating up
to the place where clouds snag on rock
my height snaps a delicate truce
(if I jumped with enough joy
a child leaping to brush the ceiling
my fingers would I swear
shoot through into bright air)
my length measures the distance rain falls
the liquidness of water sets my blood itching
I scrape at the weight of boots
water finds rest in earth’s pockets
they keep each other’s secrets
a patient collusion (distillation)
a tonic freely offered
I accept dangling
afloat in a tea-brown lake
we laugh together in midday sun
I ask much of the wind
here in the canyon
where it is usually
inflate my lungs
expand my heart oh please
expand my heart and
touch me as you do
each pliant stalk of grass
each jagged rock
send juddering the clapper of my heart
strike me like a bell
to resonate in the generosity of air