Friday, November 26, 2004

It feels so good when they pay attention

Recently, Ottawa writer Melanie Little wrote a neat little piece about the website that Stephen Brockwell and I edit (, for a local newspaper, The Centretown Buzz ( Absolutely lovely, Melanie published her first collection of stories last year with Thomas Allan, the highly-praised Confidence ( that everyone in the world should read, or at least own (it helps increase her royalties).

As she writes in the online version, "Some pieces focus on the work of other poets, like Jon Paul Fiorentino’s provocative essay on the work of George Elliott Clarke in Issue No. 2 (June 2003), or are more general, like Peter van Toorn’s brilliant meditation on the sonnet, "A Goose in the Caboose," in No. 3 (Fall 2003). There’s also a healthy handful of interviews, more like full-fledged conversations than the clippy, predictable Q&As favoured by most publications. There is an obvious desire here to encourage actual exchange between and among writers in lieu of plain old pontification. Writers can get on their soapboxes if they want to, but they have to share the park.

You’d think, given the quality of the result, poets and writers would be banging on’s virtual doors to join its ranks, but, according to Steven Brockwell, not so. "It’s like pulling teeth," he says. Though the journal has already attracted a multitude of readers from around the world, contributors are harder to come by. He and mclennan speculate that part of the problem might be a dearth of contemporary models. Writers just don’t seem to know how to talk about their work anymore, at least not intelligently or usefully."

Unfortunately, we in Ottawa lose Melanie and her husband, the writer Peter Norman, for at least a year to Calgary, where she is the writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary starting fall 2005. They also recently edited the third issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club, our own little writers group magazine. To order a copy ($5 CDN, or outside, $5 US), send me an email ( To read her article in full, go to

Another nice moment was by Nathaniel G. Moore, gadabout, now living in Toronto (he was previously in Montreal and New York), who wrote this in the most recent issue of Broken Pencil ( about the anthology Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (Broken Jaw Press) (

"If you only buy one Canadian poetry anthology culled from broadsides andchapbooks, created by the most dangerous (in a good way) and hardest workingpoet in Canada, let it be Groundswell. An eclectic buffet of Canadian poetry with too many stars to list, Groundswell also includes a lengthy bibliography that fascinates, plus a superlative introduction by Stephen Cain."

Nathaniel G. Moore, Broken Pencil, issue 26 (Nov 2004)

Superlative? Hmmmm. Anyway, everyone is waiting for Moore to have a first book published, whether poetry or fiction, both of which he is trying to find homes for, including his novel on the poet Catallus (strange). But enough about me, what are you doing?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

McLennan, Alberta

I’ve been working over ten years on a genealogy of McLennan, MacLennan and MacLellan lines throughout Stormont and Glengarry counties, eastern Ontario (Canada). I’ve been working toward point of arrival from Scotland (even if that might take me to, say, New York State or northern Ontario or Quebec first). I’ve found a number of really interesting directions, which force me to do further research in Montreal (the McLennan library at McGill is named for a feller from Glengarry county), Boston (where his family eventually moved), California, Vancouver and plenty of other places.

A few months ago, I found these references to the origins of McLennan, Alberta, a little spot on the map invented for the sake of the rail line. The book The Story Behind Alberta Names, How Cities, Towns, Villages and Hamlets Got their Names by Harry M. Sanders (2003, Red Deer Press) writes:

Town on Highway 2, approximately 135 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie

... The town was named for Dr. John K. McLennan, an executive (and future vice-president) of this railway.

In 1915, as its rails approached the Peace River country, the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway (EC&BC) reached the shore of Round Lake (now Lake Kimiwan). Bypassing the existing settlements of Grouard and Round Lake, the ED&BC established the new divisional point of McLennan. Round Lake residents quickly packed up and resettled in McLennan. Despite its Scottish name, many of McLennan’s residents were French Canadian. The townsite was named for Dr. John K. McLennan, the railway company’s secretary-treasurer, purchasing agent and future vice-president. After earning a medical degree in Winnipeg, McLennan moved to California where he practiced until J.D. McArthur recruited him for the administration of the EC&BC. When the Canadian Pacific Railway took over the line in 1920, McLennan and his family returned to California. McLennan was incorporated as a village in 1944 and as a town in 1948.
(p 211-212)

Another reference I found in the book Back Roads of Northern Alberta by Joan Donaldson-Yarmey (1992, Lone Pine Publishing), that writes:

Continue west on Highway #679 to Highway #49 then turn north to McLennan, home of Hollandia Bakery, the largest, privately owned bakery in northern Alberta. Besides supplying baked goods in Alberta, they also cover the North West Territories and the Yukon. Tours can be arranged by phoning 342-3582.

Kimiwan Lake is the intersection of three major bird flyways: the Mississippi, Pacific, and Central. 27,000 shorebirds rest here on their yearly migrations. Many beautiful waterfowl nest on its shores and the lake is a protected wildlife breeding area. Visit the interpretive centre or wander along the boardwalk and see how many species you can recognize of the more than 200 that frequent the area. Especially watch for snowy owls, bald eagles, and whistling swans. Kimiwan is shallow, but has good fishing for perch, walleye, and pike.

The Cost of Ingenuity

McLennan owes its existence to the "ingenuity" of an Edmonton, Dunvegan, and British Columbia (ED&BC) Railway employee, Hughie Hunter. the railroad was searching for a source of pure water for their steam locomotives and Hunter was sent from Grouard to Winagami Lake and Round Lake (Lake Kimiwan) to collect water for testing in Edmonton. When he arrived back at Lesser Slave Lake, the water container was empty and rather than retrace his steps for another sample, he dipped the vessel into these waters. The water received high marks from the chemist in Edmonton. Thanks to his resourcefulness, the railway spent years hauling water from Lesser Slave Lake to McLennan, because the actual water from Winagami and Round Lakes ultimately proved unsuitable.
(p 67)

What I’m interested in is, who is this doctor fella, Dr. John K. McLennan, and where did he not only come from, but where did he go? So far, I’ve not been able to find anything.

Monday, November 15, 2004

-- blatant advertisements --

above/ground press chapbook subscriptions -

starting January 1st, $30 percalendar year for STANZAS, chapbooks, asides + broadsheets. (in Canada,$30 Can, outside, $30 US)

Current & forthcoming publications by Julia Williams (Calgary), rob mclennan (Ottawa), donato mancini (Vancouver), Andy Weaver (Edmonton), Barry McKinnon (Prince George), Michael Holmes (Toronto), Jan Allen (Kingston),Rachel Zolf (Toronto), Matthew Holmes (Sackville), Jason Dewinetz (Victoria),William Hawkins (Ottawa), Lori Emerson (Buffalo), Gregory Betts (Hamilton), Karen Clavelle (Winnipeg), Alessandro Porco (Montreal), Stan Rogal (Toronto), derek beaulieu (Calgary), Max Middle (Ottawa), Peter Norman (Ottawa), Anita Dolman (Ottawa), Patrick Lane (Victoria), George Bowering (Vancouver) + others.

send all your money
payable to rob mclennan,c/o 858 Somerset Street West, main floor, Ottawa Ontario Canada K1R 6R7

for more information on above/ground press & STANZAS magazine (for longpoems/sequences) (since 1993)
check out

for information on my own most recent titles, check out my own website or (for what's left), or (for stone, book one)

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

the duke of somerset
an elegy

edward seymour, the duke of somerset,
for a secret marriage

over edward vi

the corner of bank,
where the banks were

the duke of somerset pub,
sixty-eight years

in the same family

not a tavern licence new in this city
for decades

now one less more
where less

is exactly that

where will our old men go,
to smoke treason

of cigarettes

or warden
the scottish marches

one more disappointment

at tower hill

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Eckhart Cars, Peter Jaegar
2004, Salt Publishing, 132 pages
isbn 1-844710-37-8, $15.95 US

can place their eyes
against the pieces

p 1, Eckhart Cars

The most recent collection by Canadian poet Peter Jaegar, now living and teaching in London, England, is Eckhart Cars, after the collections Sub-Twang Mustard (poetry, chapbook, housepress, Calgary, 2000), ABC of Reading TRG [on the Toronto Research Group] (criticism, Talonbooks, Vancouver, 1999) and Power Lawn (poetry, Coach House Books, 1999).

A diverse collection of pieces under the banner of Eckhart Cars, the collection is filled with jagged lyric: "all ear / but never long without the heart / all her twinkling stars." (p 87, A Black Tooth In Front). The strongest section has to be the first, the multi-part title poem, as he writes:

Faced with a careful selection
of chemical stews, commonly found
plastered to walls or pouring
over heaths, dunes, and stony places,
we should buck up, for perfection
equals normalcy, and we assume
a human power to exceed
the less heroic traits most valued
in our culture...

p 2, Eckhart Cars

Each section, each piece follows its own constructional path and stretch, from the fugue of couplets that make up "Sitting" (p 67-71), the back and forth of lyric and choice in "Bibliodoppler" (p 72-77), to the ongoing length of the final piece, "A Black Tooth In Front" (p 87-129). The second piece, "Pollen," reads like a series of slogans or maxims, writing "As long as we stay with specifics we can only accumulate" (p 3) or "All theory constantly aspires toward the condition of example." (p 14). The piece "Buoyant" wipes all across the page, reading as a scatter: "ballast spreads // in tunes / waves // in the diner takes // a bath birth // twists // the water breaks –" (p 61).

Or, as in the jagged breaks of the poem "Midwest" (p 22-8), the text reads as a string of electrical starts, and breaks that read as both ends and expectations, taking the next instead to a different place, the poem existing there within the collisions:

strings of animal families
are at last. Slaking a penny
on my banking, as the
clanly faces seed
asleep–I grow
a back-up blameless: I
bark, the place a
bleached-out driver

p 23, Midwest

It’s as though the words are building up the text and at the same time destroying it.

the author of a dream, awake
to basic pretence–

p 33, A Book I Am Dreaming

The collection reads as though Jaegar worked through as many "baffles" as he could find (as Bowering has called individual constraints) and collected them into a book. Even on the back cover, the book describs itself as "not unlike a collage which samples and modifies other pieces of writing." And with Jaegar’s background, working on the Toronto Research Group (made up of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery), as well as both references in the book and on the back cover, he certainly knows his way around various kinds of non-linear writings (anyone who reads the collection can find plenty of references and games in the material), managing to take that ball and go so much further. I mean, should we be reading John Newlove into "So They Say" or bpNichol into the prose piece "Martyrologies," that begins:

He admitted that this was so, and after a short imprisonment he
was beheaded. He was broken limb by limb. She was burned to
death on an islet in the river. Whereupon they were buried alive.
But eventually she died from her sufferings. For the insubordina-
tion they were twice decimated. She was executed by being stabbed
in the throat (a common Roman form of execution). He was
himself arrested and put to death amongst supernatural happen-
ings. In a drunken fury they set on him, pelting him with bones,
and although one of them tried to save him, he was killed by a
blow on the head with an axe.

– p 52, Martyrologies

With the small size of his previous trade collection, Power Lawn, I’ve heard suggestions that Eckhart Cars is Jaegar’s first full-length poetry collection. Either way, Coach House Books should certainly put Power Lawn back in print; or someone should. Eckhart Cars is an impressive collection of pieces by a writer who knows the difference between reference and repetition, and knows how to write it close to the bone. It’s only unfortunate that, as a Canadian writer, Salt Publishing doesn’t have Canadian distribution (they distribute, I believe, in the US, UK and Australia). It would be good for more Canadians to be able to read one of their own.

What I like best is the smell. I don’t know what kinds of ink you folk use over there in England, but I could spend my whole day smelling this. Do you remember that part of Fast Times at Ridgemont High where the whole class smelled the gestetner copies?

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

ongoing notes, November 2004

Buffalo NY: During a reading I did recently in Buffalo, I was given a small chapbook by SUNY Buffalo student Jessica Smith, a collection of six short pieces published in early summer, 2004, titled blueberries. As she writes at the back of the collection, blueberries was published as "an invitation to my work. These poems are an experiment to record the vast and shifting visual architecture of memory in the space of very small pages. The spatiality of memory is further explored on larger sites in my recently completed manuscript, Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002-2004."

The poems in blueberries work from associations and disassocations, with patches of words, phrases and parts of words scattered across each page. Part of the point of each piece is working through the difficulties of following the lines, working through "e / b / dewy patches / grow blue" (p 2, Wolf Lake), as well as working through multiple kinds of readings of each piece, depending on which thread the eye decides to follow.

As she writes, "These blueberries are for tasting, not for selling. Please share them with your friends." These blueberries never hold to the same flavour, and the brief taste certainly makes me crave another helping. I would like to have some more.

Information on how to get a copy, or for anything else about Jessica Smith, contact 547 Franklin St., #1, Buffalo NY 14202 or email her at

Mount Pleasant / Paris ON: Any new publication by Paris, Ontario resident Nelson Ball is an event, and the chapbook WITH HELD is no exception. Published in an edition of fifty copies by Kemeny Babineau’s relatively new chapbook press, Laurel Reed Books. As the acknowledgments tell us at the back of the small chapbook, "The title of this collection is in part a reference to their history as they were withheld from the following books: With Issa, Bird Tracks on Hard Snow, Concrete Air, Almost Spring, At the Edge of the Frog Pond."







As publisher/editor of Weed/Flower Press in the 1960s and early 70s, Ball published early and important books by writers on both sides of the border, including George Bowering, Clayton Eshleman, William Hawkins, David McFadden, Victor Coleman, Anselm Hollo, John Newlove, David Cull, Brad Robinson, Gerry Gilbert, David Rosenberg, bpNichol and David UU, and more recently, edited the new edition of bpNichol’s Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004). As well, Ball is, as both collector and bookseller, the holder of the largest collection of small press in Canada.

That being said, through his own writing over the years, Ball has become our most essential minimalist. In twenty-four short poems, there is nothing left but the essence. Here are a few of the smaller examples:






the words spark



Everyone should read the work of Nelson Ball. To see how his influence over the years has shaped others, go to the work of Toronto writer Stuart Ross, Ottawa resident jwcurry, or Mark Truscott’s first collection, newly out from Coach House Books, Said Like Reeds or Things.

For information, contact Laurel Reed Books at 206 Maple Ave., Mt. Pleasant, Ontario, N0E 1K0. Also, watch for his most recent trade collection of poems, At the Edge of the Frog Pond, newly out from Toronto’s Mercury Press.

Ottawa ON: Grant Wilkins has been doing some very interesting things lately with his semi-annual ‘zine, Murderous Signs, usually available for free at various of the small press fairs around these parts. As he writes, "dedicated to presenting comment, prose, poetry and perspective on subjects literary and cultural, and to the notion that the printed word, well crafted and aimed, can be used as a weapon." I just remember the piece he published, a few years ago, by jwcurry; a letter he had sent to the rare books librarian at McMaster University, explaining at length why it was so foolish for librarians to not be purchasing small literature new, waiting instead for out-of-print prices. How price tag does not equate value.

The 10th issue of Murderous Signs is in three sections that both collide and compliment: A Note On Modernism & two poems by Charles G.D. Roberts, five poems by George Elliott Clarke and the poem "Guernica" by Stephen Collis. From three sides of literature, Roberts was considered one of the Confederation poets, and the essay is reprinted from the anthology Open House, edited by W.A. Deacon and W. Reeves (Ottawa: Graphic Publishers Ldt, 1931), back in the days when poetry and poetics were argued in the daily news.

The poems included by George Elliott Clarke are probably my favorite of what I’ve read of his. Before moving to teach at the University of Toronto via teaching in the Carolinas, Clarke spent a number of years living in Ottawa. Listen to this, a section from the middle of the poem "La Verite a Ottawa," writing:

                                      Crossing the Eddy Street Bridge,
Into drab, bureaucratized Hull, its fat, grey edifices,
And Tijuana-raucous bars, you’d see, on your left,
The frothing falls of the E.B. Eddy factory, the clean
White energy of the water charging into channels
To electrify turbines and generators, with the Peace
Tower behind you, in the rear-view mirror, thrusting,
Marvelously erect despite all the eunuchs droning
In its bowels.

                    You’d absorb all this beauty, but also
A marriage fraying because of your unreconciled
And unrequited desire, that acidic love that seeped
Into all the sutures and silences of the marriage
And corrupted it.

                    In Ottawa, you were never able
To forget a one-sided, wasteful, self-hating love,
A record of cold kisses, unhealthy, and so you
Tumbled out of love with a body, the Arctic cold
Axing your lungs, while the barren, spindly trees
Before the Chateau Laurier put on stalactites or daggers,
And you fell between wedding and divorce into
A warm nest of treasons.

The seven-page "Guernica" piece by Stephen Collis includes some interesting surprises, from a poet about to publish his 2nd collection with Vancouver’s New Star, as well as working on a book on the west coast poet Phyllis Webb. Listen to this fragment of the sequence:

Crouches on the ground
Just stands there
Flaps its wings
Are lying around
Picks herself up
Falls or is hurled through the air
Swoops down
Emits rays of light

Hangs down lifeless
Is twisted upward
Is turned back abruptly
Has been severed from the body
Is torn back violently
Are outstretched
Has almost been snapped off
Is isolated from her breasts

To order copies, send $5 for 2 issues or $8 for four issues. Payable in US outside of Canada or add %50 CDN. Make cheques or money orders payable to The Grunge Papers, c/o PO BOX 20517, 390 Rideau Street, Ottawa Ontario K1N 1A3. Otherwise, just come to either the ottawa small press book fair or the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, and you should be able to get copies from him there.
my time as writer-in-residence at the 2004 ottawa international writers festival

The "writer-in-residence" position at the ottawa international writers festival was made official a couple of years ago, created specifically for Toronto writer and publisher Stuart Ross. No wads of Canada Council money, when it came to my turn, I was quite unclear as to what exactly my role in the festival was. Not that I would ever complain. Simply to be able to participate in any part of the festival is thrilling enough, with a week of readings that wouldn’t happen in Ottawa otherwise, giving me access to writers whose work I very much know and admire, and an introduction to other work that I wasn’t previously aware of. The joy of discovery. I’ve known for some time how brilliant David McGimpsey, Cordelia Strube and Jon Paul Fiorentino are, but its quite another thing to be introduced to the work of Gatineau author John Lavery, someone I only know, and know of, through the existence of the ottawa international writers festival.

Since the festival started, in October 1997, I’ve made a point of staying in Ottawa to be able to participate, even if just as audience. A couple of years ago, we realized that, apart from the organizers, Stuart Ross and I had been to more festival events than anyone else. To be called "writer in residence" seemed an extension of our ongoing associations with the festival, and the generosity of the people who make the festival happen, year after year. Since the festival started, fewer readings exist in Ottawa during the rest of the year, making the festival almost the only game in town. A week every fall where we gorge ourselves on literature, and the long hangover, where those of us left feel packed with sweets.

During a stay in London in 2002, I walked through a British bookstore to discover that most of the titles featured were by authors I had heard and met at the Ottawa festival. It’s one thing to know the reputation of a Canadian author from here, whether Michael Redhill or Jane Urquhart, but quite another to be able to know to invite Glenn Patterson, Robert McLiam Wilson or A. L. Kennedy, all of whom, when they were through town, were spectacular.

Two years ago, jwcurry held the smoking room as publisher, during one of Stuart Ross’ tenures, and produced a publication on the gestetner, allowing anyone willing to mark up a stencil to be part of the festival "instant anthology." Instant, but for the hours upon hours that curry would remain in the room after the rest of us had long crashed, and hand-feed paper into a machine older than the stock market crash.

The job felt important as one of witness, able to greet the authors as the came through, and seeing and doing those things that articles should never tell, as well as the 3 a.m. moments of turning the living room of the hospitality suite into a fort, flipping over chairs and cushions with David McGimpsey, Jon Paul Fiorentino and Max Middle (led by Clare Latremouille), or trading Middle Eastern and Australian film titles with Paul William Roberts, and what didn’t get thrown off the balcony of the 20th floor. As Robert Kroetsch has said, literature is a conversation, and able to enter into a whole new range of speaking, just by being there.

From the 20th floor: the city noises, nosing up into the stratosphere like spotlights from the street, the pale streams of light merging once they cleared the buildings.

After the first couple of nights, I realized that the job itself was to go to as many of the events as possible, answer questions when authors asked, host the hospitality suite, and clean up all the empty bottles (etcetera) between the authors leaving and housekeeping coming in. Late nights of sundry talk and drunken ramblings by writers from various corners of the globe. Things I would be doing anyway.

I’ve read at other festivals, at the Winnipeg International Readers Festival in 1999, as well as the Windsor Festival of the Book in late October, 2004, and was able to crash a few nights of the hospitality suite at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2001, who, along with Winnipeg, both closed their hospitality suites down around midnight. And then there’s Ottawa, whose suite never closes, for the entire seven or eight days of the festival. I’ve seen too many mornings from a hotel room in Ottawa, thanks to Sean Wilson and Kira Harris, far more than I will ever see otherwise.

At the ottawa international writers festival in 2001, Toronto writer Sheila Heti and I pitched muffins off the 22nd floor balcony of the hotel, multiple hours after she read from her first short story collection, The Middle Stories. Well after midnight, trying to hit the opposite roof. Hearing them hit, but never seeing. We hadn’t met before. I had only heard her name.

At the 1999 version of the same, I provoked Cape Breton writer Lynn Coady to a wrestling match. Glengarry County vs. Cape Breton, pounding drink after drink, through taunts of "I could take you." Once it began, it was over. I was on the floor in seconds, as she danced around the room in grand triumph, four in the morning.

Stuart Ross has a photo of the event, that I have never seen. Ask him.

I will probably never ask. I want to know it exactly the way I remember.

During the Writing Life panels at the 2001 festival, I was able to hear out loud what already in my head: the solitude of writing, and having to borrow money to pay the rent. How writing is the only (seemingly) art form without apprenticeship, and the only one that seems to thrive on that distinction. The years of quiet work and reading, writing bad poems and short prose before anyone else should interfere, or muddle through.

As a working writer, author of ten published poetry collections, and four unpublished novels (in various states of completion), hearing someone years further ahead of where I am having the same problems with living is a great comfort. With the act of writing such a solitary one, it gets easier to imagine that everyone else has it so well, and that you are the only writer in creation having problems with finishing a manuscript, remembering to eat or talk to friends, or paying any bills at all.

At the 1999 festival, Sean Wilson, one of the festival directors, said that most writers are generally good people. He wondered out loud, if those people behave that way through writing, or if those kinds of people simply gravitate toward the written word.

There was an article recently in The Globe & Mail about writing festivals in Canada, on how it seems a very Canadian thing to have them at all, especially so many. And so important, I find, for me both as writer and reader, the incredible focus of attention on writing and writers giving me renewed energy and fresh ideas to work quietly in solitude for months afterward. A new stack of signed books beside my desk, waiting to be read. Wait, is this all about me?

A shorter festival than previous years, the list of authors for the 2004 ottawa festival was, nonetheless, still impressive: sixty-eight writers that included Stephen Brockwell, Peter Norman, Alberto Manguel, Catherine Bush, Steven Galloway, Colin McAdam, Leo Furey, Patrick Lane, Michael Winter, Bill Gaston, Helen Humphreys, Donna Morrissey, Jon Paul Fiorentino, David McGimpsey, Jon Lavery, Michael Helm, Elyse Friedman, Paul Quarrington, Wayne Grady, Paul William Roberts, Goran Simic, Cordelia Strube, Shane Rhodes, Steven Heighton, Alistair MacLeod, Ian Rankin, Geoffrey Brown, S.E. Hinton and Greg Hollingshead.

It becomes so hard to pick favorites, but Brown probably gave the most charming reading I’ve ever witnessed, from his novel Self-Titled (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004), and the openers, Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman, reading from their battle of the sonnets collaboration, were easily the crowd favorite. Near the end of the festival, it was Alistair MacLeod who packed the auditorium of the National Archives, as a whole crowd waiting to hear him, accidentally catching wonderful readings by Strube and Quarrington as well.

During the 2004 festival, after crashing finally at five in the morning, the most I could really do after waking up was bathe, eat, check email, and perhaps do an hour or so of notes before returning at 5:30 or 7:00 for another reading. This is probably the most I was able to scribble during the week:

if my body works at all today,
it works its way against sleep

or its abundant lack

But what a week it was.

Monday, November 01, 2004

ALL AMERICANS: recent works by Rob Budde, Fred Wah & Stephen Cain

It seems interesting, with the argued movement of the United States from Nation to Empire over the years, Canadian poets are making their own comments on ourselves and our neighbours to the south (are we us, still, because we are not them?). In Prince George writer Rob Budde’s chapbook my american movie (Prince George BC: wink books, 2003), Toronto writer Stephen Cain's "A History of Canada" from the anthology Career Suicide (Montreal: Moosehead Anthology IX / DC Books, 2003) and shared Calgary/Vancouver poet Fred Wah’s housepress chapbook, All Americans (Calgary: 2002), the work is thick with references, although very little of it to do with the situations current. The three pieces all work as sequences reacting to other works, in those places where histories overlap, and are forced to interact. The place where cultures collide.

Rob Budde, originally from Winnipeg but now living and teaching in Prince George, British Columbia, has worked the long poem / sequence in most of his previous writing, best exampled in the collection traffick (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1999). Part of a longer work-in-progress of sequences (declining america) the chapbook my american movie is written as a series of eleven film clips – unpaginated blocks of rolling prose – claiming to work in reaction to Jean Baudrillard's America, with, as he says, quotes from Baudrillard’s text scattered throughout (further editions are said to include further clips). A beautifully designed chapbook, it’s also the first in Budde’s new wink books series. Another part of the same work-in-progress has appeared since, Americausal, as an issue of STANZAS, number #37 (Ottawa: above/ground press, 2004).

It’s said that one hundred years ago, the best way to affect culture was through the poem; fifty years ago the novel, and currently the film. Budde's clips understand this, and work as a series of western cultural standards, which some claim, are as much American standards (which George Bowering would call "USAmerican."), writing: "thrumming in alternating neon colours to the rhythm of britney while subjects / gyrate to the soundtrack unaware of the price in terms of narrative agency... a lunar / american with no gravity no conscience" (scene 1), to "taste the richness of north american life as its / incandescent fullest that bratwurst kind of satisfaction of knowing the pop song / will not stray from pop culture storehouse of pop pleasure" (scene 5).

In my american movie, Budde is highly aware of popular culture, and how low it can go, with hints of violence and the appeal of the lowest common denominator. As he writes "drive-through, drive-by, drive-in // and with such standard features as this the interior rich with textures the mirrors / adjusted to read the world in retrospect" (scene 4).

Another poet immersed in the long poem / sequence for many years and books, including Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1985), and a longtime Calgary resident recently returned to Vancouver, Fred Wah writes of the execution of thirty-eight Sioux Indians at Mantendo, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, known as the Minnesota Massacre. A two-sided publication produced in 2002 in an edition of 125 by Calgary's housepress, All Americans tells various sides of a narrative in both very straight and peripheral ways, starting: "We are all americans. / We met on the prairie. We hunt. / The point is, we must send a clear and unambiguous message to the world." (n.p.). Another series focusing on differences, it begins with a powerful quote from Nicole Brossard’s "Poetic Politics": "Anyone who encounters insult and hatred because of her or his / differences from a powerful group is bound, sooner or later, to echo a we / through the use of I and to draw the line between us and them, we and / they."

As Fred Wah writes in his acknowledgment for the sequence of seven poems: "All Americans is a text that was serialized for an installation called ‘Storybook Story’ curated by Luanne Martineau for the Art Gallery of Calgary 14 September - 11 November 2001. The text is meant to resonate with the weekly installments of three other writers involved in the same project (Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, and Rosemary Nixon). All of our texts were written in response to two panorama renderings of the Minnesota Massacre of 1862 from the Glenbow Museum's permanent collection. The first installment of our texts was due on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I've used parts of their texts in my own, as well as some text from Snow Crash by Neal Stephanson."

Written with various contradictory movements, from events around the massacre itself to airplanes and airports, with not-so-subtle references to the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City: "They flew themselves and if they can do that successfully they can do whatever they want perhaps / they’re playing hide and seek had they behaved themselves and remained in possession of this / immense tract of land, they would have been worth twice as much per capita ‘How do you know / they are maintenance workers and not Rife soldiers in costume? Did you check their ID’s?’ they / chanted ‘God is Great’ and handed out candy they said it would be a huge and unprecedented attack / but they did not specify to destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains..." (n.p.).

Wah has written on cultural collisions before, from his own mixed heritage, in books such as Waiting for Saskatchewan (1986), and his collection of essays, Faking It: Poetics & Hybridity (2000), called a long poem in itself. As well, in his ongoing series of "Artknots," Wah has been writing pieces reacting to various visual art pieces, included as an extension of his "music at the heart of thinking," included in its second segment, Alley Alley Home Free (Red Deer College Press, 1992). It is interesting to see so deliberate an overlap of Wah’s own concerns, and an excuse for him to do so.

In "A History of Canada," dedicated to Bill Hutton and George Bowering, Toronto writer Stephen Cain writes a brilliant and funny sequence in his standard working of ten, prose sections referencing various Canadian history touchstones such as "Wolfe & Montcalm," "The 1837-38 Rebellion," "The Last Spike," "Louis Riel," "The King-Byng Affair," "The October Crisis," and "Tom Thomson." After two solo trade collections and the recent completion of a collaborative third, with Jay MillAr, from his forthcoming American Standard / Canada Dry collection (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2005), this is easily one of the strongest of Cain’s works, weaving in references of all kind, merging various literary and historical notes and commentary into compact spaces, regularly mixing absolutes and competing ideas. As he writes in "The King-Byng Affair": "Nobody has confidence in the system anymore. M. T. Kelly is better than Ondaatje?" (p 39).

2. THE WAR OF 1812

It’s one we won. It’s cows versus cowboys and the Flames want to merely march
across the border. Speaking of arson, we got to burn Buffalo and the fires haven’t
stopped since. Every night it’s a five alarm at SUNY and Bernstein can’t absorb
Tecumseh’s techne. Creeley, Duncan, and Spicer move onto the Western Front, but
Bromige and Blaser are already talking with Tallman. Now it’s up to TISH to tamper
with Olson and lead the charge to Kootenay. The project is blackened before it can
be mounted, but no matter what Mathews mitigates it’s a stalemate. Still, it was
important – without it, we’d have no army, no autonomy, no chocolate.

Much like Budde’s text, Cain’s "A History of Canada" works as a series of prose scenes, boiling numerous elements down into singular lines. Even in the piece "THE WAR OF 1812" (a war that arguably started the notion of being "Canadian" as being "not American"), referencing, among other things, The Western Front (a gallery in Vancouver infamous for hosting performances over the years by numerous Canadian and American writers), the early 1960's newsletter TISH (which was lambasted by some for being too influenced by American writing), SUNY-Buffalo (the State University of New York, where Steve McCaffery recently replaced outgoing professor Charles Bernstein, a strong centre in the United States for language writing, with strong ties with various Vancouver and Toronto writers, including those once known as TISH, and The Kootenay School), The Kootenay School of Writing (a loose child of the newsletter TISH), and Robin Mathews, who led the charge that TISH was too influenced by American poetry, and therefore anti-Canadian.

Matthew’s argument came out again when George Bowering won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1969. There was even a group of poets and others who founded the Peoples Poetry Prize at that time, just to award it to Milton Acorn, who many thought should have won the GG instead for his I’ve Tasted My Blood, and not a book of poetry by a "false" American poet.

Leave it to the Canadians to be indirect, and reference as much history as anything else, to make whatever current points. Simply writing as they are writing.