Tofino artist, writer create fine chapbook

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December 4, 2014

In the fall, a lovely package arrived in the Coastal Spectator mailbox. It was a chapbook, This Dark, haiku by Tofino poet Joanna Streetly, illustrated by Tofino artist Marion Syme. Syme and writer Adrienne Mason are the owners of Postelsia Press, which published This Dark. Mason, who trained as a marine biologist, explains that the Postelsia is the Latin name for the sea palm, a tiny, tenacious seaweed that lives in West Coast habitat. Both Streetly and Mason talked to Lynne Van Luven recently about their creative (ad)ventures.

Adrienne and Joanna, when I hold This Dark, there is no doubt in my mind that this chapbook of illustrated haiku grew directly out of the West Coast environment.  Can you each talk a bit about how you came together in this project?  

Joanna:  Adrienne contacted me one day after I’d put out a haiku about gardening and the rain. It was a rainy April day, and we were all in the thick of the weather change. It was a shared experience, and the poem extended the scope of that shared experience. It linked us to each other and to our environment. A two-point connection became a three-point connection…

I can’t remember the haiku that pushed Adrienne over the edge, but one day she instantly responded to one, saying that the poems just had to be published. Several wine and dinner gatherings later, a first draft was in the makings. In publishing these poems, complete with the gorgeous linocuts, Postelsia Press has helped make them feel tangibly representative of the coast – a hold-in-your-hand collection, but also an expression of collaboration itself.

Adrienne:  I enjoyed reading Jo’s haiku on Twitter – her choice of words always seemed so perfect – and I could tell she was having fun with it… Her daily haiku were a reminder about the importance of daily practice.

Haiku also spoke to the physicality of books that I love. There is something that appeals to me about a small book with some heft that can fit in your hand. And [my partner] Marion and I wanted to design beautiful books, so Jo’s words and our vision of the physical manifestation of the book — small, thick, beautifully illustrated, with a quality wrap cover — came together.

Adrienne, you and artist Marion Syme founded Postelsia in 2009 — hardly a good time to launch a small press. You are an author yourself, published by more established presses such as Greystone and Kids Can Press.  What was your impetus?

I don’t even consider Postelsia a small press, more of a micro press. In some ways it was a backlash to “traditional” publishing. I’ve published over 30 books in that way, and, frankly, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. More importantly, we have one thing that a lot of publishers don’t have — direct access to a steady stream of visitors from around the world who come to this international destination. We also have two independent bookstores — one in Tofino and one in Ucluelet — as well as two other outlets that sell a nice selection of quality books. We were very clear from the beginning that our marketing and distribution “strategy” (such as it was) would stop where Highway 4 meets the Pacific Rim Highway. I knew how difficult it was to get books into stores outside of the region, because essentially we’re looked at like a self-publisher, so we’ve always been very clear that our market is the Tofino-Ucluelet region.  (Having said all that though, we do have one of our books distributed through Sandhill.)

It is really more a labour of love . . . than anything. Everything gets invested back into the press. I know this business has the smallest of margins, so I went into this with my eyes wide open. I want to produce local books (we use printers in Port Alberni or Victoria), with local writers and artists, on local topics.  You can find the four books we’ve published (and that are still in print) at Postelsia Press.

Joanna, your bio says you “have lived afloat in Clayoquot Sound for over 20 years.” I imagine that somehow the compressed quarters of a boat might have made you a woman of few words when it comes to your writing. Do you think there is any connection between the sparse beauty of haiku and your floating home?

I don’t consider myself a person who is naturally given to sparseness. But my lifestyle has saved me from being a compulsive packrat. I live on a floathouse that I mostly built myself. The interior is 16 feet by 24, with a nice airy loft . . . floathouses have to be able to float. And that means you can’t fill them with possessions, or they’ll list to one side – or even sink… Twice a year as my penance, I reluctantly box and bag the detritus of useless stuff that seems to creep around me like ivy. I sort it into piles – to give away, to sell, to recycle. It’s never enough.

With haiku, the process is similar. I chose to work with the syllables as a way of honing my writing skills. Skilled editing is a challenge and benefit to any writer. And so, for me, haiku became a way to distil essential moments into a single drop of imagery. I always begin with too many syllables, too many words I’m attached to. I always have to sort out my thoughts and choose which ones are worth holding onto. Rarely, a haiku will be born whole, no refining needed. More commonly, I chew them over while I walk through the forest, or they rearrange themselves in my brain as I paddle a kayak.

Artist Marion Syme’s linocuts are a response to Joanna’s haiku, and to her own walks in the forest and along the beaches. Adrienne, you say you had a great launch of the chapbook in August that drew together the Tofino community. I am wondering how you think “community” contributes to artists’ and writers’ process and products.

In Tofino, and in our region in general, “community” is huge. If you are a local writer or artist, you will almost be guaranteed a great launch of your work. The community as a whole is very creative so people understand that when artists put themselves out there – to release their writing, art, theatrical production, music, whatever — it’s part of the “deal” for the rest of us to support them. I know people who will buy every book put out by a local person and purchase new works of art, even though they have no room on their bookshelves or walls…

I think the creative events are also one of the few times in a very busy tourist town where “locals” gather. We did Jo’s launch for This Dark in mid-August, possibly the busiest time of the year in Tofino, but community members filled the venue. It was a little pause in the summer where we could come together, celebrate Joanna and Marion’s creativity, before going back out into the busy world. I am always rejuvenated after these events, and they are wonderful reminders of why Tofino is such a great place to live.

What new books can we expect from Postelsia Press?  

This Dark is our most recent title. Then there is a chapbook, The Golden Fish, which is an original fable by our local (just retired) librarian. And a small anthology (which we envision as one of a series), The Chesterman Beach Anthology — poetry, history, memoir, interviews by locals (some writers, most not) all about Chesterman Beach, our community’s place to celebrate, mourn, exercise, work out our troubles, get married, scatter ashes, learn to ride bikes, party…

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