September 17th, 2014
Poet, non-fiction writer and former carpenter Kate Braid will be touring the Gulf Islands and Metro Vancouver with fellow carpenter/poet/non-fiction writer John Terpstra around the theme of “Wood.” See poster below for dates and places.
At age thirty, Kate Braid was in a party, unemployed. Jobs were few on a Gulf Island in 1977 so she was preparing to go off-island. She was desperate to stay. Someone piped up, “I just quit my job as a carpenter on the new school. Apply for that.”
Kate Braid had never hung a door. Never mixed concrete. But everyone convinced her she should apply. There is liquid courage and there is also liquid logic. Just lie, they told her.
So she found the crew boss, asked for work. She had no construction skills, no training, but he hired her. Years later Kate Braid found out why. The crew had been slacking off, so the foreman thought having a pretty woman on the site might increase their motivation to look good at their work.
Kate Braid wrote about her fifteen years in construction in her 2009 book of poetry, Turning Left to the Ladies (Palimpsest Press, $18). It recalls her progression from her first job as a neophyte construction labourer on a Gulf Island to building houses and bridges on the Lower Mainland as an apprentice carpenter, then as a journeyman carpenter, surrounded by men.
Eventually Braid became the first female member of the Vancouver union local of the Carpenters and the first woman to teach building trades full-time at the BC Institute of Technology. Braid ran her own renovation company, Sisters Construction, before turning away from hammers in favour of the literary life. In 2006 she was Woodward Chair at SFU where she coordinated a research project on the numbers of women om B.C. in trades.
“That number is the same now as it was in 1980—less than three per cent,” she says. “It made me realize the importance—still—of telling tradeswomen’s stories.”
Braid met John Terpstra through his poetry. “I read a few of his poems about trees in an anthology by Susan McCaslin, then went out and bought one of his books, Naked Trees,” she says. “It blew me over. I’d never read such powerful, compassionate work on wood. This man ‘got’ trees in the same way I did. So I wrote to him (joys of the Internet) to thank him for his work and ask if – incidentally – did he work with wood? I was thinking that only a woodworker could know wood in this way, and sure enough, he’s a cabinetmaker.”
When she toured in Eastern Canada a few years later, Braid suggested that the two read together. The bookstore where they appeared called the reading “Wood and Words” and the two picked up on that.
“We also had huge fun. We interwove our work (mostly poems that time) and quickly realized we’d done a gender switch. John was reading the ‘beautiful, spiritual, softly waving boughs’ kind of stuff, with the attention that cabinetmakers are famous for, and I was reading the ‘grunt and sweat with the guys while we pour that concrete’ kind of work that construction workers do.”
Braid notes that there are two kinds of carpenters: construction carpenters who build houses, high rises, bridges, etc. and cabinetmakers who make furniture, doing the fine stuff. “I have no patience with [the fine stuff]. And John actually can do both. Not me. I made one cabinet just to prove to myself I could do it, but that’s enough. So slow!”
Construction Worker’s Prayer
Our foreman, which art in the First Aid shack with the cute new attendant
or maybe in the foreman’s shack getting warm
while the rest of us freeze our butts off here in the hole down below,
you’re the Man. And we know it’s your way or the highway so please
give us another chance to earn our daily break and this time we promise,
we’ll work the way you like it. We also promise to be ready for concrete by 4
but we hope you’re in a better mood because yesterday
it was hell to please you.
Our foreman, we promise we’ll work even harder
if you’ll just accept that once in a while mistakes happen.
So forgive us that we slacked off yesterday
and we’ll forget the time you started us framing the third floor
when we were only on the second.
Also we’d really appreciate an advance on Friday’s pay
only this time please don’t tempt us by suggesting we buy you a beer
or two after work because we know you’re the boss but so’s the wife
and lay-offs can happen at a minute’s notice, as we also know.
So thanks for understanding. You’re cool
and you’ve got all the power and whatever glory comes with this job,
at least for now. We all know that too
though there’s a meeting coming up and talk of organizing.
Proposed publication in Steelworkers’ education manual 2015 (?)
I knew I should have fixed the second-storey
sunroom window sills
before the painters came,
and now that they’re done and gone and the house
looks brand-spanking, it’s depressing to think
the problem hasn’t gone with them,
and that I’ll be defacing the loveliness they brushed on
as soon as, one, I decide
how crazy-thorough a repair job to do,
and two, get around to doing it.
Note that this is precisely the type of upkeep issue
I’d strongly advise you not put off addressing
on your own home, should you call for consultation
or a quote.
But there’s maintenance, and there’s maintenance.
Chez moi, I have things to do
that do not include
gathering tools or climbing a ladder,
unless that ladder be this sentence,
the short black legs of its 12-point typeface
trooping up the rungs like a line of ants—
carpenter ants, let’s say,
who have evolved, reformed
to be on our side now, and who,
for the fine work they are doing fixing those rotting sills,
ask as their only recompense
the poem I am composing down here in this lawn chair.
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