Friday, September 24, 2004



Her brows crowded together
An unbroken line.

The army advancing
A mile wide

And then her chest cavity collapsed.
They were carrying flags.

Wind occupied the house.
Red flags.

And they became it
And carried them lightly.

Part of a group of seven poems that appeared in Conjunctions: 21 (1983, Bard College, New York), subtitled "the credos issue," is Cole Swensen’s "Ghazal of the Empty Thing." I presume that these poems all subsequently appear in one of her trade collections, but so far, I haven’t seen it. An American poet from Denver, Colorado, Swensen has published over half a dozen trade collections of poetry over the years, although I’ve only managed to get my hands on four: numen (1995), Oh (2000) and Such Rich Hour (2001) and Goest (2004).

There was something about this poem that stuck with me for weeks, after finding a copy of the magazine twenty years after it was first published, in a dollar bin at Octopus Books in Ottawa, in the summer of 2003. Something that brought me back to it, again and again. I like that there isn’t any obvious thread but the "empty" thread, which is the thread itself. An absolutely lovely series of small moments set up against each other.

The ghazal, as played by North American english-speaking types, works with its disconnections, five couplets that don’t necessarily hold together; they hold simply through that refusal instead of despite it. I love the disconnectedness, evoking more of an umbrella feeling and vague image than any one thing. It is never one specific thing that makes a poem work, but the unknowing, the unknowable. Sometimes it is precisely that thing that you can’t explain that makes it.

There are so many moments between the lines that any narrative thread I could suggest would then erase all others. I refuse. I want to hold to all the potentials that this short poem will allow. I want to live in the wide open spaces of this poem forever. I do not want to understand.

Friday, September 17, 2004

an opening, a letter: some notes on Fred Wah & Open Letter’s Alley Alley Home Free

"once carried is also held"

– Fred Wah

Frank Davey’s Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory just did two issues on Calgary poet/teacher Fred Wah and critic/teacher Pauline Butling, Alley Alley Home Free (Twelfth Series, Number 2, Spring 2004 and Number 3, Summer 2004). Edited by Frank Davey, Nicole Markotic and Susan Rudy, it publishes selected contributions from the Poetry Conference and Festival for Pauline Butling and Fred Wah at the University of Calgary, May 15-18, 2003. Originally organized to celebrate the two as Wah retired from the Creative Writing department of the University of Calgary, and Butling retired from the Alberta College of Art and Design, before they headed off to Vancouver, the two-issue celebration includes essays, an interview, poems, informal talks and other pieces by Maria Hindmarch, Erin Moure, Robert Kroetsch, Rita Wong, Susan Holbrook, Fred Wah, Colin Browne, Susan Knutson, Charlene Deahl-Jones, Peter Quartermain, Aritha Van Herk, Miriam Nichols, Gail Scott, Debra Dudek, Pauline Butling, Charles Bernstein, Louis Cabri, Suzette Mayr, Daphne Marlatt, Frank Davey and Diana Brydon, as well as an introduction by Nicole Markotic.

There are a number of really exciting pieces in the two issues, such as Colin Browne’s piece, "Roland Barthes in the Kootenays," Charlene Deahl-Jones’ "Letters to the Language: Biotext as Correspondence" and Kroetsch’s "Listening into Words: ‘Again only is it in the thing itself.’" It will be interesting to see how the Calgary lit scene, so heavily influenced by Wah and Butling since they arrived in 1989, will evolve, especially with the recent arrival of Christian Bök at the University of Calgary. Since 1989, for example, Calgarians have seen the arrival of the journals filling Station, the new dANDelion, (orange), and a multitude of writers – Suzette Mayr, ryan fitzpatrick, derek beaulieu, Julia Williams, Dean Irvine, paulo de costo, Louis Cabri, Jonathon Wilcke, Ian Samuels, Jill Hartman, nathalie simpson and so many others it’s hard to keep track – almost all of which can claim an influence by either Wah or Butling.

As a reader and a student (for how else can one study writing than by reading), Fred Wah’s writing is probably one of the best Canadian examples of Charles Olson’s line, "One perception must follow immediately on a further perception," placing one word there after another and moving forward. Working race and place and mountain and trees and visual art and the very flow of breath, of the language itself, and all sorts of other concerns. Part of what makes his work so exciting is how he uses such a multitude of forms in his writing. Exploring forms such as the utaniki, a Japanese form used previously by bpNichol, much the way he was exploring his own Chinese quarter. Through the writing.

I only heard Fred Wah read once at the Vancouver Writers Festival and I think the seats in the theatre were distracting me. I want to remember better. I do recall, though, him saying that the poems he was reading were from his future Talonbook (he had spoken to Karl just before he walked on stage). Still looking into the future. Now that he’s retired, does that mean the publication he spoke of, bumped a few times, will finally appear in 2005? And the only bad thing about the tribute, now that I’ve seen the bibliography at the end of the first issue I know what I’m missing. How the hell am I going to find these? Another challenge certainly set. As John Newlove once wrote, "help me not to know." I now have to find them, all.

I’m always amazed at the bad photo reproductions in an issue of Open Letter, including the bad reproductions in the visual poetry issue, Contextualities: Contemporary Visual Poetry in Canada (Tenth Series, Number 6, Summer 1999). Exactly the last place where badly reproduced visuals should appear. For years Open Letter has been setting the standard for writing on writing, talk on what so much is never covered anywhere else, and making the avant the focus, but something happened to the production a few years ago that has yet to be corrected. Such as: the photographs included in these issues look terrible. Little blocks of digitization on Charles Bernstein’s face.

Still, journals of celebration are always fun to read, and manage to bring out such interesting pieces from both expected and unexpected corners, illuminating both the work of celebrated and celebrant, and Canadian Literature has certainly had its share (although never enough), including The Capilano Review on George Bowering (back in the day), The Fiddlehead on John Metcalf, West Coast Line on Phyllis Webb, Essays on Canadian Writing on Eli Mandel, Descant on Dennis Lee, and various Open Letter issues on numerous writers, including bpNichol, Warren Tallman, Sheila Watson, Barbara Caruso (one of my favorites) and so many others. But still so much that hasn’t been covered (someday some brave soul should attempt the same on Ottawa resident jwcurry). Even the current issue of the Chicago Review has an issue on late American poet Ed Dorn, filled with some extremely interesting pieces by and on the late author of Gunslinger, with the issue following focusing on the work and life of the late Louis Zukofsky.

Calgary poet and artist derek beaulieu wrote a piece for Fred Wah, published in July by above/ground press as [Dear Fred], an open letter for his friend, mentor and former University of Calgary professor, a piece that wasn’t included in the Open Letter tribute (although I’m sure you could fill another two volumes with other writers who would have wanted to be included).

I have my own piece on Wah, which was distributed by beaulieu at the conference (I couldn’t afford to fly to Calgary for the Conference, even though I so desperately wanted to). It’s part of a series I’ve been working on for three years now called apertures. Instead of writing poems about other poets, as in George Bowering’s Curious (Coach House Press), I’m writing poems about other poets’ stuff. Is there a difference?

Fred Wah’s breath

a raw exhalation,
w/ pictures

pictographs from the minds

walks along two paths
of colour

& concern

stations a response
from Kootenay jazz, a

mountain gust

a coffee cup that knows
no bounds

his name, that
which is not said

but heard, escaping
slow, a twig

from kissing mouth
a poetics of small things

As what Robert Creeley wrote, small moments of domestic under an umbrella of Pieces. Under the title For Love. Made out of small parts enough to become.

During this flight to Vancouver, what I can see outside the window, a field made of flakes of snow then bound; frozen drops of moisture caught in air. All poems are made out of parts. All poems made out of similar fragments.

In text, with words beside each in a particular order, the forced regiment of linear motion. Words still placed in a particular order.

every (all at (toge (forever) ther) once) thing


All literature, they tell us, is about either sex or death. Never turn down an opportunity, my ex-wife used to tell me, to have sex or be on television. Is this part of the same thing.

Not a poetry of grand ideas but in individual things. "No ideas but in things." Or, what did Auden claim? Poetry makes nothing happen. Instead, I wonder, poetry makes nothing happen.

Of movement and a practice of words through which grand ideas cannot help but be caught.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Ongoing notes etc, September 2004

Prince George, British Columbia: I got four lovely chapbooks in the mail from Prince George, B.C. poet Ken Belford last week: sequences (series 1), crosscuts (series 2), fragments (series 3) and transverse (series 4). All published in 2003 through the name Off-set house, they follow Belford’s collection Four Realities (with other northern B.C. poets George Stanely, Barbara Munk and Barry McKinnon; Caitlin Press, 2000) as well as his solo collection, Pathways into the mountains (Caitlin Press, 2000). Prior to this, Belford had been quiet up there in the mountains for some time, after the publications of Fireweed (Talon Books, 1967), The Post Electric Caveman (Very Stone House, 1972), Sign Language (Gorse Press, 1976) and Holding Land (Gorse Press, 1981). Given the kinds of books Talon was doing at the time, as well as Very Stone House (run by Patrick Lane, Seymour Mayne and bill bissett) and McKinnon’s Gorse, that pretty much puts Pathways into the mountains as Belford’s first full-sized trade book.

Belford is one of those poets I’ve heard speak of more and more lately, from Barry McKinnon and Rob Budde, neighbours of his up there in the British Columbia north. Maybe it’s the fact that up there, they have only each other to lean on as poets, but it’s always a good thing to listen to your writer-friends when they tell you someone is worth paying attention to. As well, one of the things I love about watching someone begin to self-publish, is not only the excitement about getting the work out in the world, but the excitement of making that much more. Hopefully this will be something somewhat on-going. (Budde himself, actually, has started publishing chapbooks as well, under the "wink books" imprint, but so far I’ve only seen one item, his own my american movie.)

Born and raised in northern Alberta, spending his early teen years in Vancouver, but living north since the late 1960s, Belford is very much a poet of the northern British Columbia landscape. I like the well-considered roughness of his poems, almost a zen Prince George (which is hard to imagine if you’ve ever been to Prince George).

I’d rather forget the bush
I lived in, the old farm too.
The places I lived in aren’t
gone yet but I’ve joined
something else now.

p 8, City Limits, fragments

I’d been hearing his name for years, but after getting these lovely chapbooks and seeing his bio, it makes sense that I haven’t seen his books around (since there really haven’t been that many that would make it into an Ottawa bookstore). Still, there are rumours of a new Ken Belford collection out next spring with Harbour Publishing, which will probably include some of the work included in these four chapbooks. If you can’t wait that long, write Off-set house c/o pobox 21016, Spruceland Post Office, Prince George, British Columbia, V2M 7A5.

Toronto, Ontario / New York, New York: Apparently George Murray’s Bathurst Street Press has started making publications again. In 1997, soon after he was a student at York University, he founded Smoke: A Journal of Literary Prose that had, I think, only two issues before he eventually moved down to New York City and eventually came back to co-found (with Peter Darbyshire) the website BookNinja. Recently at a reading in Toronto, Adam Seelig handed me his chapbook HANDS FACE, produced as A Bathurst Street Press Chapbook / Upper North Side Series #1 in a numbered run of 100 copies for a reading Seelig did at the IV Lounge Reading Series in Toronto on October 24, 2003, soon after he too had returned from a few years spent in New York City.

As long as I live, I think, I’ll never get tired of the form of the chapbook, especially those handed to me randomly at readings by writers I’ve never heard of. It’s an exciting form, and always good to find out about new writers, and new writing. Seelig’s poems weave in a multitude of forms, seemingly unafraid, in a natural and fearless exploration of both content and form, as each poem moves in completely different directions. With the limitations of what I know how to reprint, I’ll reprint only the first piece in the collection:


Imperfect bud

thorn loving skin

let blood stream
silence through wounds
core revealed.

Pressed acropetal
pain worms up
to air a rose
surface drawing

red – written –

from this point.

What I find interesting, too, is the fact that he includes at the end a series of "NOTES & OVERTONES," writing that "Some of what I hear in the poems, though you no doubt will hear notes of your own. All pieces written 1999-2003 in New York, with a few geographic exceptions." For the above poem, he writes:

POEM (‘Imperfect bud...’)
Point to page, poem as palm to be read and red, its pain a sign of life, yet one that serves no purpose, bearing no stigmata.
And poem as psalm, not unlike Celan’s: ‘With/ ...our corona red/ from the purpleword we sang/ over, O over/ the thorn.’ (‘Psalm,’ The No-One’s-Rose, trans. Felstiner)
‘Pain is a flower like that one,/ like this one,/ like that one,/ like this one.’ (Creeley, ‘The Flower’)
In contrast to ‘The Sick Rose’ of Blake, worm not only destroys a ‘bed of crimson joy,’ but creates one of pain; so, to echo Dylan Thomas, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my red blood, and is my destroyer.

Seelig is obviously widely read, but sometimes the tone of the "NOTES & OVERTONES" does get a bit much. Still, I think it will be interesting to see if he turns, perhaps, to writing critical prose, to see where he goes with it. Certainly a poet worth watching, to see what he does next.

To order copies, or to see what else they’ve done or will, contact The Bathurst Street Press at

Willowdale, Ontario: It’s hard to believe that anything interesting not only comes out of Willowdale, but remains there, but that’s where Nate Dorward exists and publishes his poetry and critical journal The Gig, publishing some of the best of the avant-garde from the UK, the US and Canada, and wherever else he can find it. The 20-odd issues he’s published so far include the writing of Marjorie Welish, Lise Downe, C.S. Giscombe, Bruce Andrews, Catriona Strang, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Lisa Robertson, Steve McCaffery, Ian Davidson, Lissa Wolsak, Clark Coolidge, Allan Fisher and many others, including some highly intelligent reviews of international writing. As one of the sidebars to The Gig, he recently issued three chapbooks by Peter Larkin, published simultaneously in March 2004: Sprout Near Severing Close (isbn 0-9685294-9-6), Rings Resting the Circuit (isbn 0-9685294-7-x) and What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei (isbn 0-9685294-8-8).

A librarian at Warwick University, Peter Larkin also runs Prest Roots Press, and is the author of the major collection Terrain Seed Scarcity (Salt Publishing, 2001) and Slights Agreeing Trees (Prest Roots, 2002). This is the first of the forty-part sequence Sprout Near Severing Close:

Where woodpeckers physic the woods
short, healing wasn’t suspect
if cut is taken in slip.

Curt docks of circuit
affray low region post-envelope:
sprout with the limb fusiform,
hold on scrap lignant pasture.

Original trees blew long thirst
from blockage to props of clip,
capitulum was cut of their headiest
capillary to fountainous shelter.

Sharp stint below bend be stilled
upwards, owing they out-trussed freely
tied over so far torn.

Part of what I miss about Rob Manery and Louis Cabri, in the years after they left Ottawa (Louis in 1994 and Rob in 1996), taking their hole magazine and hole books with them, was the introduction to a kind of writing that just doesn’t get covered in the mainstream literary journals. Who else would have brought in Lisa Robertson or Catriona Strang? Who else would have brought Aaron Williamson, a deaf sound poet from England, to the Manx Pub? Sure, Willowdale ain’t Ottawa, but it’s close enough for me to appreciate. Really, it’s strange enough just for someone in Canada to be embracing writing somewhat off-kilter, let alone off in the middle of Willowdale. Just for that alone, everyone should send him money for subscriptions. For more information on The Gig or any other of his publications, write Nate Dorward at 109 Hunslow Ave., Willowdale Ontario M2N 2B1 or check out the website at

Dorward has also been a regular at the Toronto Small Press Fair, and even been to the ottawa small press fair. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll run into him and be able to pick up everything he has.

Halifax, Nova Scotia: Ever since Ottawa poet and cab driver William Hawkins told me to read this kid, I’ve seen his name everywhere, from the Bookninja site to his own regular web rants on Maisonneuve (, as well as reviews and poems everywhere. Very nearly out of print is Zachariah Wells’ chapbook Fool’s Errand, published earlier this year by Charlottetown’s own Saturday Morning Chapbooks, distributed by The Reading Well Bookstore. One of the smarter versions of the angry young Canadian poet/critic, Wells’ chapbook writes of the island (he is a PEI native), Brer Rabbit, horses, cormorants and other images of east coast wilderness. I like how he mixes formal writing considerations with informal language, such as in this piece:


Finicky fuckin thing that old silver Ford–clutch
So touchy no one could start er without stallin
Least once. And gutless! Christ, that clunkety four-
Banger couldn’t climb nothin without gearin down–

Burnt out three clutches pullin stuck neighbours
From ditches. Didn’t help none when the old man,
Comin back from the Shore, nodded and pitched off
The road, a quarter mile shy of our drive.

Must’ve tramped the gas when he passed out, hit
The ditch like a ramp: stripped bark from a birch
Nine feet off the ground, woke up, unbuckled, lurched
Down the dark empty road home, a cage full o cracked

Ribs. Bought the wroteoff wreck off the broker,
Got er fixed up with parts off other old trucks.
New silver paint was a different batch, though, not quite
A match–no, never was the same, after that.

Apparently his first trade collection of poems, edited by Paul Vermeersch, comes out almost any day now from Toronto’s Insomniac Press. With any luck, he’ll at least get to Toronto or Montreal for launches, from his home out there in Halifax.

Produced in editions of 100 signed & numbered copies, contact The Reading Well Bookstore for more information on the Saturday Morning Chapbooks series c/o 87A Water Street, Charlottetown PEI, C1A 1A5, or by email at

Saturday, September 11, 2004

this was actually written for lovely angela rawlings for her nether :: a review dialogue (, after she sent out a call to those of us who post, but it hasn't been working lately. after weeks of holding on to it, i decided to post it here. rob

how i spent my summer vacation, 2004

As far as literature goes (& a bunch of other things), Ottawa gets all quiet in the summer. Hardly anyone is around so there aren’t as many readings happening. Still, I don’t really take "vacations" as such, but I do spend extra time with my lovely daughter, Kate (now 13 ½), during the summer, & the enforced break from work I think is a good thing for my mental health. As far as timeline, I’ll go from what the kids consider summers – from June to the end of August.

At the beginning, still recovering from almost two months of touring for my what’s left collection (Talonbooks), came home to prepare for the ottawa small press book fair in mid-June. From then on, its all been quiet-like. Except, of course, for the fact that, as soon as the last droplet of snow melts in the capital, heavy construction begins almost immediately. Various streets are torn up, & buildings razed while other buildings rise. The two empty lots next door to my building, signs with threats of eventual condos. Down the hill, the Plant Bath building completely rebuilt after years of being closed. All the little streets around my neighbourhood pub, just a half block away from my little apartment.

The TREE Reading Series does continue, though, every 2nd & 4th Tuesday of every month. Readers during the summer have included Michelle Desberats, finally reading from new work, since her first collection, Last Child to Come Inside (1998) & her inclusion in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (2003); and Peter Van Toorn. Van Toorn read from the new edition of his 1983 collection Mountain Tea, reissued by Vehicule Press in February of this year. Van Toorn is absolutely brilliant, but ranted mostly on various topics, including Canadian Prime Ministers, how writing will destroy you, women, money & a bunch of other things, & in the hour he had the stage, he only read a couple of poems. An event unlike any other.

Helped jwcurry move books to his new apartment about four buildings west of where he used to live, right above me. Wondered why there weren’t any literary publishers in Ottawa interested in publishing locals. Wondered what I could do to change something like that. Wondered why no one had commented on my novel yet, the one I sent out in April. Wondered if there was ever a reason to send anything out again. Read a lot of fiction, including Cordelia Strube & Raymond Chandler. Wondered how funny it would be to drink gin & tonics from a glass tumbler with the Kool-Aid logo on it. Argued with my daughter about _______ (insert anything). Complained.

Spent more than a week at my parents farm in Glengarry County, my lovely daughter & I. Found out that she’s almost unbeatable at crazy eights. (Now if we could only turn that into some sort of income.) Made pies from the wild rhubarb patch behind my parents’ house. Got to spend time with my relatively new niece, Emma, born December 23rd. Lost my watch in the rhubarb patch (I have yet to get it back). Worked on genealogy. Drove around the county with Kate taking pictures of various buildings & other sites. Found out Kate & her mother both hate rhubarb. (So does Andy Weaver. As he wrote in an email, "I would rather lick my own armpit.")Purchased raspberry wine from a winery in Monkland. Spent a morning with Henry Beissel. Listened.

Had lots of drinks with people I hadn’t seen since (mostly) before my spring tour. Exwife, exwife, exwife. Various friends, including Clare Latremouille, Anita Dolman, James Moran, Shane Rhodes, Stephen Brockwell, Jennifer Mulligan, Sean Wilson & Kira Harris (on her birthday), etcetera. Jordan Fry & his lovely friend Theresa visited from Niagara Falls. Waited for a visit from Bev Daurio that didn’t happen (yet). An almost-visit from Ken Norris, between Montreal-Toronto stints, up from where he teaches at the University of Maine, Orono. A visit with Kate to Stephanie Bolster & Patrick Leroux in Pointe-Claire. Exploring the biodome. A late night game of Risk.

Worked on reviews, fiction, poems, essays, chapbooks. Finished up work on new & selected William Hawkins book. Thought a lot about John Newlove & Andrew Suknaski. Thoroughly enjoyed multiple Barry McKinnon poems. Read a million comic books, watched almost every new movie going with my lovely daughter. Worried about money (the lack thereof). Drank. Slept. Wondered why I don’t get as much mail as I send.

Decided I should spend more time reading Phil Hall. Decided I should write more reviews for my little blog. Wondered if I should do readings for the new book coming out in September. Wondered where. Wondered how I could afford to live. Wondered if I was doing enough. Prepared to teach another group of poetry workshops. Rediscovered whiskey. Rediscovered why I shouldn’t drink it. Spent time scheming. Read my horoscope.

Mostly my summers are spent doing versions of the same things I do during the rest of the year. (I don’t usually do readings or any travel involving literary, keeping myself open for the sake of the child, who preferred to spend her days quietly & happily alone in her house, reading or on the phone with her friends.) Sit at my little desk every morning & worry the rest of my day through growing mounds of paper. Wait for the mailman to arrive (he is never fast enough, especially now that he seems to come at seemingly random points during the day, if at all).

Wondered what she was doing, there. Wondered if I would ever hear from her again.