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Stephanie Bolster : Writing Philosophy

Stephanie Bolster. Excerpted from an essay originally published in The New Quarterly (Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 1995) and republished in a slightly different form as the introduction to Portraits of Alice, a limited edition chapbook produced for the Lewis Carroll Society of Canada, July 1998.

I have always been drawn to borders, to edges where reality transforms from what we recognize as reality into something more real. Alice falls down a rabbit hole, a knick-knack shop becomes a river thick with bullrushes, water ripples outward as an oar dips in. A girl named Alice Liddell asks Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematics don, to put her into a story, not knowing that its telling will turn him into Lewis Carroll and her into an icon. In the sense that my dreams and my poetry, fix upon mirrors, frames, doorways and hallways, Alice and I exist in parallel worlds.

When I seriously began to write about Alice, in the fall of 1992, I drew my inspiration from the two Alice books. In keeping with Carroll's time-shifting, place-shattering spirit, I pulled Alice out of Wonderland and Victorian England and put her on a beach in Pacific Rim National Park, on the platform of a New York subway station. She allowed me to give value to the New World, which seemed to me to have a severe inferiority complex with respect to the Old World (or, as my Vancouver-born paternal grandmother, who had never even been to England, called it, The Old Country). By placing Alice within my own place and time, I was able to see that here and now were every bit as rich, nonsensical and distressing as both Wonderland and Victorian England.

Then I discovered Anne Clark's book, The Real Alice. I'd always known that Alice was based on an actual person but, being a writer, I had preferred to create her in my own mind. Yet once I had stepped through the doorway into her real story, I could not go back. In Alice Liddell's life I again found the confusions (what exactly was the nature of her relationship with Dodgson? what provoked Mrs. Liddell to forbid Dodgson's visiting the Deanery in 1863?), the griefs (the allegedly doomed relationship with Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria's youngest son; the death of Alice's younger sister, Edith) and the pleasures (journeys along the river; life on a prosperous estate) that had become familiar in my earlier readings. Increasingly, I wrote about "the real Alice," whose life, as I grew up through writing about her, seemed far more fascinating than the life of a child in an imaginary world.

In the spring of 1995 I visited England, the country of my ancestors, for the first time. The friend I was travelling with photographed me in front of the doorway my maternal grandmother had walked out of in 1913 to come to Canada. She never went back. I visited Oxford, in a rain that failed to make a Vancouverite like me feel at home. The beautifully wrought stone buildings were alien to me; the man in "Alice's Shop" — a souvenir store across from Christ Church, where Alice Liddell once bought barley sugar, and which became the sheep's knick-knack shop in Through the Looking-Glass—looked suspiciously at my friend and I, with our hefty backpacks; and the Deanery garden, where Alice had played, was off-limits to visitors. The more evidence of Alice I saw, the less real she became. The Alice in my poems was, I now knew, neither the Alice who'd entered Wonderland nor Alice Liddell, but "my own invention," an amalgamation of myself as child and adult, the sister I had longed for, the sad old woman I feared becoming and the striking young woman of Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph of Alice as "Pomona," whose determination I sought.

Excerpted from "Through the Looking Glass," published in Sexual Disorientations: Sexual Identity and Gender Expression in the Writing Life. Living Archives of the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets, 1998.

As a person, I've felt, since childhood, a painful self-consciousness, a sense of being watched through a critical eye. As a writer, again since a very early age, I've watched others through eyes at once generous and harsh. One of my deepest fears is of being watched from a perspective exactly like my own, by someone who "sees through me" as I sometimes feel I see through others. This happens every time I look into the mirror.

Much of my poetry is focussed (pun intended) on photography, on paintings, on various types of frames, whether they belong to mirrors or windows. What is inside the frame is a selected part of the whole. Just in the way that, when I look at myself or someone I love in a mirror, I see only the surface, so when I look at a painting by Vermeer I see a woman in a room with dim corridors leading off into who knows what other rooms. When I write about Vermeer's paintings, my dual identity as watcher and watched makes me identify with both the painted woman and (here's where gender comes in) the male painter. In his famous "Head of a Young Girl," it's myself I see there, turbaned, my pearl earring catching the light, turning my head both knowingly towards my watching self and painfully away. This particular painting fascinates me because the girl, by the turning movement of her head and the nature of her wise and grief-struck gaze, is, like me, both watcher and watched.

Stephanie Bolster's works copyright © to the author.

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