Sunday, April 25, 2004

"April 25, 2004"
(from a day book, a work-in-progress)

Talking to each other they found an idle thing.
That could be an ideal thing.
-- Kenneth Koch

in an applied poetic, as derek says,
driving badlands in turn in turn

in idle talk

south as south, discontinued braces
didnt think to breathe

as a disaster warns, launching
back into himself

a typographical relay

a hallway, reading outward
into two few walls

mustang vs. pinto

(but not the real me)

he asks, how is your daughter, how
is your daughter, how

are your three years, here

a pink jill elephantine, a possibility
of herself

five four radiates
a presence

says, never spend your nights

says, maybe theres still room for a small
planned garden

closer to county a mouth

, a listless truck

rob mclennan
touring, in Edmonton AB

Saturday, April 03, 2004

HEADLIGHT anthology 6

2004, english department, Concordia University, Montreal, 96 pages
isbn 0-9683264-5-5, $4.95

I’ve always been partial to the Headlight anthology, a product of the creative writing program at Concordia University. Something I try to pick up every time I’m through The Word bookstore in Montreal, it always has interesting work by a range of writers at various stages of development. The exciting part of such a publication is the notion of discovery, and where I first started reading various Montreal authors, including Jon Paul Fiorentino from Headlight 3, that included his brilliant “prairie long poem.” For some reason, there seems no reason to invite comparison with Headlight’s far-lesser cousin, Montage, published through McGill. Headlight, called a magazine/anthology for former and currently Concordia University students, is the best advertisement for the creative writing program at the University, called one of the best in the country by those who claim to know, along with programs at UBC, UVic and York. The program itself has been affiliated with various kinds of publishing over the years, whether through former creative writing professor Gary Geddes acquiring materials for publication when he still ran Cormorant Books (Nino Ricci’s Lives of the Saints was an MA thesis), or the anthology 32 Degrees: An Anthology of Prose, Poetry and Drama (DC Books, 1993), edited by Raymond Beauchemin, publishing the work of various former students, including Mark Cochrane, Ray Smith, Elisabeth Harvor, Su Croll, Robert Mazjels, Nino Ricci and David McGimpsey.

This edition of the Headlight series includes Jon Paul Fiorentino’s brilliant short story “I Wanna Be Your Alpha Male” (also included in the recent DC Books / Moosehead Anthology IX: Career Suicide), that writes: “My parents tried to convince me that I would never marry. They told me I was too fat and asthmatic for marriage. They told me that the most I could hope for was to be a general labourer who pays for sex on a monthly basis and has a disturbingly large collection of fetish pornography.” (p 50), and Sierra Dante’s “Letters to Tahoe” – “I am more aware / of my blue veins, / my lucid skin. / Freckles can only hide / so much.” (p 74). There is also the wonderful collapsing effect of the Pasha Malla piece, or Ian Ortis’ lovely prose fragment from “And then the Disco Came to Ecuador.” Concordia writers are from everywhere, with writers included that originated in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver (for those who even admit to origins), but somehow find themselves in Montreal at Concordia, and rightly so, if Headlight is any indication. Why can’t other universities sustain such publications? The only equivalents I can think of would be the previous incarnation of QWERTY at the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton), or filling station, dANDelion and (orange) magazines out of the University of Calgary, or, hell, even Matrix. There is a vibrancy that lives between these sheets that will somehow never find their way into, say, The Malahat Review or The Fiddlehead. And that’s a shame.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

January 5, 04 – response to MillAr/Cain's 'Positions, poetics and manifestos?' (Word, January 2004)

After getting my copy of Word in the mail today, I just had to comment.

You're not alone in having been depressed to hear about Carmine Starnino's forthcoming essay-collection: for me, that sense of dread had been building since I'd heard about the thing, two years ago, until I realized he's only rendering himself completely irrelevant. David Solway's recent collection, Director's Cut, also from The Porcupine's Quill, Inc., is equally distressing. (It's only really worth it for the piece on Peter Van Toorn, written for the new edition of his Mountain Tea.) Both push an aesthetic of "us vs. them." And I know how small their "them" is. It becomes less offensive than tedious, after a while, to be that absolute.

Like you, I've wondered about the lack of critical consideration from/about writers of our generation. I think the problem is far larger than simply a lack of "aesthetic statements [...] made by the previous generations of Canadian poets." I think you give previous generations not enough credit. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in Canada, at least from what I've seen since (considering I'm the same age as you two), there was much happening in the pages of Open Letter, at the very least. Look at Frank Davey's From There to Here, for example; Line magazine, and West Coast Line. Writing was being done on writing. Interviews were happening. Talk on writing by writers and with writers was far more dominant than it is now. (Is it, as my ex-wife suggests, simply because the government isn't paying for it anymore?) Then again, it almost seems overly simplistic to blame our peers.

Consider the collection of interviews that Harbour put out a few years ago, edited by Tim Bowling. I liked it a lot, but haven't we seen enough interviews with Atwood, Ondaatje, Page? Nothing against them, but where are the interviews with, say, Margaret Christakos, Ken Babstock or Mark Cochrane? Why doesn't anyone talk about Sylvia Legris? Why cover the same old ground if there's so much left untouched? Ask yourself, why is Open Letter still doing issues on Canadian poets of the 1960s? (At least there were two '80s issues once, a long long time ago.)

Also, as brilliant and essential as Avant-Garde for Thee was, I think Christian wasted an opportunity there. Yes, the book needed to be done, but why couldn't he use at least a stitch of the same energy telling media, community, etc. about all the work being done around him, by his own peers? Hey, Darren Wershler-Henry is doing some great work. Hey, what about John Barlow. Steve Venright. Margaret Christakos. Et cetera. It would have started a movement. And movements build. Do you remember when Sloan got noticed? They brought everyone with them, and now there's an East Coast Music Awards. (But I know, I'm being unfair to Christian. The problem, I suppose, with being a large target.)

(Is it because our CANON is still so young? Is CanLit still the awkward teen that wants to be different, but in the way all his friends are?)

What I was attempting with side/lines: a new canadian poetics wasn't an end-all, be-all, but a first step. Unless something happens next by someone else along the same lines of talk, then the whole project seems rather pointless. If we aren't going to bother talking about the writing that we've already done, then why bother doing any more?

It's part of what Stephen Brockwell and I were thinking when we founded last year. We're currently working on our fourth issue. To me, an interesting part of the journal (completely online) is that Brockwell and I have divergent poetics, so there is no way only one point of view can be promoted. And of course, we're not the only ones trying to keep the conversation going: hell, check out Louis Cabri's Phillytalks; check out KSW's W magazine (both are now completely online).

Speaking of other appearances, do you plan to publish the Speak-Hard series at some point? I know you're recording the talks, but will I one day get to read or hear - in a collection of Speaks through BookThug or Coach House or online - the talk that Ryan Knighton did? Or Daniel f. Bradley? I can't afford to just float into Toronto for such things... I deliberately posted my own Speak on my blog before I did, just so there could be useful talk once I got there (not that it made much difference).)

I've so often noticed the discrepancy between artist-talk and writers-talk even in the visual arts community in Ottawa. Oddly enough, it seems the writers are the ones who can't articulate what they think they're doing. Why is that? Is it because artists go through visual arts programs and are forced to explain themselves, but creative writing programs leave students to their own devices? Is it because we're simply not being asked? I won't even go into the deplorable lack of critical reviewing in Canada. With eight poetry collections and how many anthologies, I've barely had any, if any. How can we talk well if there is so little talk?

I have wondered too, for some time: where are the collections of essays by Christian, Darren, Louis Cabri, Nicole Markotic? I know they've done enough writing on writing that there should be collections in there somewhere. At least there's the (finally published) Lisa Robertson collection, from the offices of soft architecture; at least, the recent collection of interviews with Winnipeg poets by Rob Budde that Signature Editions published.

Is it that publishers don't have library sales, so worry about boxes of unsold essays? As brilliant as the Writer as Critic series through NeWest is, they're still working on our parents' generation. When do they get to Dennis Cooley? When do they get to Erin Moure? (I've only just heard about her forthcoming essays from Mercury…) What the hell is wrong with this country? (Will Essays in Canadian Writing ever be saved?)

I've been working to finish my own collection of essays for some time, with works on jwcurry, Christakos, Meredith Qartermain and John Newlove, but god only knows if it'll ever find a home. In the end, will it even matter?

Looking around at other writers in Canada our age: if Starnino is the only one talking, how long before he becomes the only one listened to? Now that's the real danger.

(originally appeared in WORD, Toronto, Volume 10, No. 3, March 2004)
piece for The Centretown Buzz, March 2004

In the late 1980's, just before I returned to this city of my mysterious birth, the Region of Ottawa-Carleton did a study of its arts funding. The result was the discovery that not enough money was given to local artists, forcing a number of them to move to other cities, whether Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The official response was to cut funding. How does that make sense?

So much National here that the Local gets lost. The National Gallery, the National Arts Centre. As lucky as that makes the residents of this city, one shouldn’t be seen over the other. For two years, Gallery 101 didn’t have a single show mentioned in The Ottawa X-Press. Almost no-one talks about books.

In Montreal, Toronto, even Winnipeg, it’s possible to have a first book reviewed by your local daily. Where were The Ottawa Citizen reviews of books by David O’Meara, Stephen Brockwell, John Barton, Marianne Bluger? Where was the piece on John Newlove, for decades called “the best lyric poet in Canada,” when he died just before Christmas, at the age of sixty-five?

One of the best things to happen to Ottawa literature over the past few years has been the Ottawa International Writers Festival, founded by Sean Wilson and his father, Neil. One of the few writers festivals I’ve seen run for the right reasons, it features a good representation of national vs. international, local vs. national, and a range of style, genre, career. Where it is possible for someone with a first novel to read alongside another writer with their 10th, for example.

From 1990 to 1996 or 1997, I saw a number of artists and writers leave. I don’t need to see a repeat of the past. How else can we build? John Metcalf, who, after more than a decade of running events, stopped altogether, because he was embarrassed at only seven people showing up to hear Leon Rooke. What the hell is that?

The banks, hardware stores and movie theatres have been disappearing for years from the downtown, and we talk about revitalization. Why did we let them leave? I don’t want to live in a city like Brantford, a donut. A dead centre.

I don’t understand how some people can live in Ottawa and not be bothered by the fact that, as both 4th largest city in the country, and Capital, we’re among the worst for giving out money to the arts. I don’t want to live in an Ottawa that doesn’t include Gallery 101, SAW Gallery, the Plant Bath, fire stations, etcetera. I want to live in a city where we look after each other. I want to live in a community. I want, when Mayor Bob makes talk about making Ottawa a world-class city, there will be enough of us that already know it’s been that for years. Instead of the usual. Talk about nothing going on. Feature that novelist from Toronto coming through.

There is so much happening here that it amazes me. Amazes me even more the lack of interest by both funding bodies and media. Dave Cooper’s work is admired throughout North America. jwcurry is called the best concrete and visual poet in Canada, and has been for over two decades. If Elizabeth Hay gets any better, and any nicer, I’m going to shoot myself. I don’t need to be making lists. There are things here that should be obvious. Shane Rhodes, Melanie Little, Max Middle. Would it be better to list the people who’ve been forced to leave?

I’m not interested in living in a city fixated on the bottom line. Clive Doucet’s brilliant piece in The Citizen a few weeks ago proved the problems with that. It takes so little to make so much back. Every time something really interesting starts happening in the city, lack of interest shuts the thing down, or forces it to move on. Is it any wonder?

We always sound impressed when hearing that another successful writer, musician, actor is from here. Ever in the past tense. Doesn’t that tell you anything?

I’m here for the long haul. Damn the torpedoes. I spend my days writing in my dark little apartment, finishing a novel and a collection of essays, and preparing for my 9th poetry collection to appear. My above/ground press is the most active poetry chapbook press in the country, started in 1993, and the ottawa small press book fair is about to hit ten years, neither of which even ask for funding, nor will they. I don’t want to be caught up in the foolish whims of penny-counters. That’s not how culture works. The small press action network - ottawa (span-o), cleaning out your literary clogs. Run on more volunteer hours than I care to count.

The buses are funded. A necessary service. I’ve seen sports teams get funding. How do the arts become unnecessary?

The funding bodes tell us over and over to treat what we do as a business. No business would ever be able to survive like this.

(originally appeared in The Centretown Buzz, Ottawa, Volume 9, No. 8, March 12, 2004)