Sunday, May 22, 2005

ongoing notes, May 2005

Calgary AB: Another little package of publications from ryan fitzpatrick’s MODL Press (c/o 7419-25 St. S. E., Calgary AB Canada T2C 1A3 or arrived in the mail this past week (ryan is an editor for filling Station magazine, as well as a poet in his own right), including two little items by jason christie & derek beaulieu, a chapbook for Asian Heritage Month, & Pirate Lore by Brea Burton, Jill Hartman & Cara Hedley. I’ll start with the last on that list – leave it to three writers without an ocean anywhere near to compose a small chapbook of pirate tales. Uncredited, the short pieces drift in & out of each other nicely. Hartman has produced a number of things over the years, from chapbooks to her impressive Calgary opera/poem The Painted Elephant (Coach House Books), & Burton has produced as well, but I have no idea who Hedley is. It reads as a fun project, & makes me wonder if they will be taking it any further, or if this is where it remains, as twenty pages of anonymous text?

legs like tree trunks, jolly boats, ship masts, her left buttock at top sail,
gluteus maximus, true story, any man who touches her calf is going to
get splinters, any man who touches her thigh is going to get cut, still,
some sailors like to climb the rigging.

the dream goes like a skate blade, crisscross, the myth goes like ice,
smooth on the surface, like skin, she glides, slides, commits
romanticide, hard hearted, puck fisted, her skin flakes, breaks, she peels
in pinwheels, true story, when she cries her tears form a frozen lake
around Freud’s ankles, hurricane jane, flash flood, freezer burn.

derek beaulieu’s visual poetry, in this particular piece, has moved away from representation of particular letters to shapes, which is somewhat interesting, but jarring at the same time. On the back of the single-page piece, he writes:

the concrete poetry which I endorse – & which stylistically is of most influence on my own work – is a poetics without a direct one-to-one signification. It is rhizomatic in composition, pointing both to & away from multiple shifting clouds of meanings & construction, where "writing has nothing to do with signifying [...] it has to do with surveying, mapping [...] realms that are yet to come" (Deleuze & Guattari 7). A rhizome, according to Deleuze & Guattari, is a non-centered, supportive system (think of mushroom or peanut growth patterns) & is an "antigeneology" (7); resistant to the type of the modernist situating within a historical framework to which concrete poetry is so often subjected. Instead of a single, arborescent (branches forming around a monolothic centre) historical & critical framework, rhizomatic writing is "a map not a tracing"; where:

A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back to the ‘same’. The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involved an alleged ‘competence’. (Deleuze & Guattari 12). My writing foregrounds these "multiple entryways" which focus on excess – the leftovers, the refuse, the waste. The writing with overflows the container of the hegemony.

derek beaulieu

I’m intrigued by this, & I think I would like to hear more of this, although I think derek would have gained much had he been fortunate enough to hear jwcurry read at Gallery 101 a year or two back from an essay he had written on non-linear writing. To a packed house, curry talked about writing non-linearity, and how that was even possible when two words side by side introduce a narrative. If only john would let me publish the thing, then more folk could see it, instead of only those who were at the event (it is supposedly the introduction for an anthology curry has been building for about fifteen years, & will appear only when the book does. If.).

Ottawa ON: Only slightly against her will, my fourteen year old daughter & I wandered through the Ottawa Art Gallery’s first ever (& possibly only) zine fair on Saturday, May 14th, produced to coincide with a particular show & group of events. Other parts of their Off-Grid schedule (of local, national & international performance, visual & media art) include an artist talk with Montreal artist Victoria Stanton on May 24, a screening of Adjust your Eyes / Stare Back (curated by Available Light Screening Collective, Club SAW) on May 19, and Stanton’s (Being) One Thing at a Time, a three-part interdisciplinary project by Stanton from May 20 to 24. A fun little fair, there were not even a dozen tables, but I did recognize about a third of the exhibitors from around the city, or their participation in my ongoing ottawa small press book fair, & a number of them claimed that the attendance from the 2pm-5pm fair had been impressive.

They did produce a small zine (in a limited & numbered run of only 1,000 copies) as a catalog for the entire Off-Grid program, including a schedule of events, & pieces by various of the performers & participants (but it still seems odd to see a zine produced with an isbn & sponsor logos) such as Jimmie Durham, Annie Dunning, Véronique Couillard, Dario Azzellini, Marlene Creates, Dean Baldwin & the Available Light Screening Collective, as well as piles of others. I’m still not sure what to think. It seems about as funny to me as Hal Nietzvieki writing a cool, hip indie book about zine culture that was published by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins (alright, maybe not that much).

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Return of William Hawkins, Ottawa’s most dangerous poet

Sheila Frances Louise

I keep my divorce papers
with my underwear, top drawer, in fact,
so that each morning while dressing,
I resolve again,
to stop following my prick around.

No offence now...

Dancing Alone, Selected Poems

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005 saw the launch of the first book by Ottawa poet and musician William Hawkins since 1974, his Dancing Alone: Selected Poems (Broken Jaw Press / cauldron books, 2005). Easily the most impressive event at the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival (and supposedly the largest poetry launch in the history of the National Archives), the evening included friends and former bandmates Sandy Crawley, Sneezy Waters and Neville Wells performing a selection of Hawkins classics, former bandmate Bruce Cockburn reading from his preface to the collection, and finally, the rough and charming Railroad Bill reading a generous selection of his three decades of poems. The evening was hosted by Roy MacSkimming, who has known Bill since he was a teenager, and publisher of Bill’s previous selected (when he was with New Press), as well as author of the introduction to the new collection (recently posted as part of the 5th issue of With an estimated two hundred and fifty people filling the auditorium of the National Archives, the evening was all about the love.

In the 1960s in Ottawa, and with his work influenced by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Irving Layton and Allan Ginsberg, William Hawkins was the poet around town. With friend Roy MacSkimming, he drove west to participate in the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, and the two young poets returned to publish their Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies (1964). The two were later included in the seminal New Wave Canada (1966), edited by Raymond Souster. Bill went on to publish five more collections, including Ottawa Poems (1966), published by Nelson Ball’s Weed / Flower, and his last collection, The Madman’s War (1974), that came out with the brand-new S.A.W. Gallery (around the same time, another gallery in Montreal, founded the same time as Ottawa’s Sussex Annex Works, started talk about making books in the back room, the group of them that would eventually be known as Vehicule). In those ten years or more, Bill performed his poetry and his music, instigated readings, wrote and published furiously, insulted various people, ran Le Hibou coffeehouse with his wife, hosted Leonard Cohen, Joni Michell, Gordon Lightfoot and dozens of others, and got into as much trouble as he could get his hands on (there’s a story Noel recently told me involving William Hawkins, a truck load of pot, a shotgun blast, the Mexican border cops and Pierre Elliott Trudeau).

I want to toughen
my attitudes
on mediocrity

& make a few statements
on values
to the crowded busloads.

Ottawa Poems

My personal favorite has to be the Ottawa Poems, the Weed / Flower sequence of lyric fact, argument and burning homage to the City of Ottawa in the 1960s.

The personality of William Hawkins is as important as his poems, and to spend any time with him is to be caught up in his charms. Just ask any of the female judges that call him on his Blue Line Cab cell phone for a ride, or the woman organizing Bill’s upcoming birthday party at the end of May, just short of his 65th birthday (which makes him bare weeks older than my mother).

The story, as I understand it, tells that it was Ottawa gadfly and mystic, Noel Evans, after some slight prodding from Bill, who originally prepared the manuscript around 1996. Once completed, neither of them could find a home for the collection. It was Bill, in 2002, who brought the disk to me, saying something along the lines of, I don’t know what to do with the damn thing. You take it.

I spent the next two years searching out other poems of Bill’s that might fit into the manuscript, from lost pieces in issues of Nelson Ball’s Weed/Flower or Canadian Forum, as the discovery of each new poem excited him until he saw them again, causing him to gruff that under no circumstances should I put "that poem" into the final manuscript. In the end, the book remains what Evans had put together, and no more.

King Kong Goes to Rotterdam

Why now King Kong me
Me silent seeker of the Rotterdam of pussycats
Me troubled watcher of St. Orlovsky’s bear
I’m in the ice-bags of tomorrow’s girl
My endless aspirations of Holland won’t save me
I’ve seen the blond girls of Rotterdam copulating
Oblivious of world sorrow
But ecstatic for corduroy trousers

I wear corduroy trousers
Yet I am a billion miles from pigtails

Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies

I’ve always wondered if it was through Bill’s poems that Michael Ondaatje got the impetus for his own King Kong poem, published nearly a decade later in Rat Jelly (Coach House, 1973). The two young poets would have certainly been aware of each other, as each did appear in New Wave Canada (along with MacSkimming; the book is now considered rare and very valuable for being Michael Ondaatje’s first book publication).

King Kong

In the yellow dust
of the light of the National Guard
he perishes magnanimous
tearing the world apart.
He pitches his balls accidentally
through a 14th storey window
gets a blow job
from the vacuum left by jets.

Up there our lady in his fingers
like a ring, so delicate
he must swallow what he loves
caressing with wounds
the ones who reach for him.

Then through the suburbs.
Impregnated the kitchen staff
of the Trade Winds Motel,
devoured half a Loblaws supermarket,
threw a Vic Tanny gymnasium around.
Last seen in Chicago with helicopters
cutting into his head like thorns.

So we renew him
capable in the zoo of night.

Michael Ondaatje, Rat Jelly

Part of the exciting thing of the new collection, is that after we told Bill that we accepted the manuscript for publication, he started becoming more excited about the work, and even started writing again. Every so often, he would pull his Blue Line cab up to our part of the block on Somerset Street West, and deliver himself with news of a new piece to myself and/or jwcurry. This is one he gave curry, published in March as a 1cent.

Thinking of Cobwebs

For Nelson Ball

When they came they were huge,
Spinning crazily downward - large
Like a giant’s hand -
Grabbing folks
And calling them spiders.

Snowflakes, snowflakes,
Evil mutants
That are inclined to melt.

1cent #362, "110 copies as the webbing liquidifies / uncommonly early this 15 march 2005."

He claims the impetus was far too simple. MacSkimming said he wouldn’t be eligible for a Canada Council grant until he put together a group of new poems, but I think it’s more than that.

Lately Bill is even talking of performing again. If someone would give him a god-damned guitar.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Guernica Writers Series, 2005

I may not like everything they select, but I do quite like the Writers Series through Antonio D’Alfonso’s Toronto-based Guernica Editions. Yesterday a package arrived with four of their titles, Alistair MacLeod: Essays on His Works (edited by Irene Guilford), Nicole Brossard: Essays on Her Works (edited by Louise H. Forsyth), David Solway: Essays on His Works (edited by Carmine Starnino) and Kristjana Gunnars: Essays on Her Works (edited by Monique Tschofen), as well as a catalog, announcing twenty-five years of publishing. An interesting selection of titles (and, I might add, not necessarily the ones I suggested he send me), other books in the series include collections on Aritha Van Herk, David Adams Richards, bill bissett, Al Purdy, Linda Rogers, F.G. Paci, Joe Rosenblatt, Gail Scott and Louis Dudek. A range of authors almost bizarre, I still very much appreciate that he is out there producing these books.

Built as small volumes with an interview or two, critical and more informal pieces (the Kristjana Gunnars volume includes a poem by Toronto author K.I. Press), they make graceful little collections on various authors who all need far more talk, in a country that seems almost hell-bent on keeping quiet. I only wish there were more in the series, perhaps, on authors I would certainly like to hear more on, and more from. Barry McKinnon? Erin Mouré? Phil Hall? Dennis Cooley?

With a quarter century of books behind him, Antonio D’Alfonso’s Guernica Editions is far more predominant for publishing fiction and collections of poetry by a slew of authors with more of a European bent than most, publishing authors such as Nicole Brossard, John Calabro, Louise Dupré, Len Gasparini, Antonio Gramsci, Pierre L’Abbé, France Théoret, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco and dozens of others.

After a slow drop in library sales over the past twenty years (among other concerns), numerous literary publishers who more regularly produced books of criticism have slowed down or stopped altogether, whether House of Anansi, Talonbooks, The Mercury Press or NeWest. ECW Press used to more regularly produce folios in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but less regularly than they used to. My particular favorite has to be the series produced by Edmonton’s NeWest Press, the Writer as Critic Series (I’m currently working on something to send them in a few years, to perhaps break the cycle of titles by authors no younger than my parents generation).
The Writer as Critic series is made up of single-author volumes, including titles by George Bowering, Phyllis Webb, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt, Douglas Barbour and Stan Dragland, each collection built in whatever combination of essays (or essay), interviews and other meanderings.

I’m currently working on editing three volumes for Guernica’s series: John Newlove: Essays on His Works, Andrew Suknaski: Essays on His Works (to exist as a loose companion to the forthcoming 30th anniversary edition of Wood Mountain Poems appearing in spring 2006 with Paul Wilson’s Hagios Press, and a new selected poems I’m working on to appear with Black Moss Press the following season) and George Bowering: Essays on His Works. If there is anyone out there who either knows of a pre-existing piece I should be considering (over, say, the past twenty years), or would be interested in writing a new piece, please let me know.

Monday, May 09, 2005

a note on Stephen Brockwell’s Glengarry poems

Stephen Brockwell, raised in Montreal by parents that included a Glengarry mother (a MacRae) (Brockwell is an Ottawa resident but self-proclaimed "Montreal poet"), writes poems that are highly crafted and intelligent, and explore issues that often include the county, but are larger than the county. No pining for the far-flung Glens in any of this, or vague presumptions of the "Scottish heart," but real poems based on living and observation. Far more conservative in form than Cornwall raised poet Don McKay, the first of Brockwell’s three collections of poems, The Wire in Fences (1987), is a whole collection built from the summers he spent in Glengarry county growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, to an area his mother not only retired to, but numerous of his family still reside. As the back cover of The Wire in Fences reads: "Stephen Brockwell was born in Montreal and grew up in St. Louis de Terrebonne and Baie D’Urfe, Quebec, spending summers and frequent visits at his parents’ farm in Eastern Ontario." In poems with such titles as "Old Hay in a Barn," "The Cats at the Back Door," "The Mower against Deerflies" and "Last Drive in an ‘81 Pontiac," Brockwell explores the place without having to name it, giving it voice in print where it had been there all along.


(1907 - 1983)

"What’s come will again. Anyhow,
although my damn hip’s almost shot,
I dust with a damp cloth
and in the domes of water beads
scattered on the coffee table,
see a white moth reflected,
wings pinching the air over my sweater.

For lunch,
beer and fish & chips on a tray.
There’s rust under the tray’s painted flowers.

A drop of brew for my throat,
as much water for the flowers.
Earth sticks to my fingertips.

I wish I could walk to the bush without a cane.
I could see snow settle on the cedars,
rabbits with high ears.

– Stephen Brockwell, The Wire in Fences

Unlike most poets who have dealt with the county Glen, Brockwell’s consideration reads far more personal; less about the history and more about simply being alive in that place, and understanding the people who live there; who have always lived there. Another good example of Brockwell’s vision of the county is the poem "The Mower on Bones," also from The Wire in Fences, but which first appeared in the anthology Poets 88, edited by Bob Hilderly and Ken Norris:


There was something caught in the blade’s steel teeth –
I hadn’t finished the first swath
before, with a snap of the blade, the shear-
pin sprang from the flywheel. A gear
clacked when I slapped the stick shift into stop.
I reversed in the hip-high crop
of hay so that the broken mower would lie flat
where the field was freshly cut.
I had expected silence when I choked
the motor off. But bullfrogs croaked
with their piston-throats in a nearby pond,
groundhogs chuckled under the ground,
and crows and grackles in the elm tops screeched
through the gaps in the drill-bit beaks,
all so loud I heard nothing when my boot,
stepping down, crushed a bone. My foot
rocked on its arches as my heel angled
under me. I became tangled
among so many scattered bones, I fell
toward the mower, where a skull
hung by its sockets on the mower blade’s
rusty teeth. Wide-eyed, I lay
staring at the jawless skull. In the seams
where the skull-sections met like streams,
small insects wandered toward a socket;
in the dim light they would pick it
clean, crawling around the wall of the eye
until the rim was white and dry.

I stood up to look at the other bones
but the ground was covered in stones
too. The only carcass parts I could find
were the skull, two joints from the spine,
the jaw, and two lower legs with hair still
clinging above the hooves. When will
I ever see that again: a jaw five years
from the skull and two legs as far
apart? I can’t explain it. Anyway,
I tried to kick the skull away
but only teeth flaked like plaster to the ground.
I went down on my knees to pound
the sockets off the mower’s teeth by hand
and the whole skull flew off to land
near the fence, and that’s where I left them all.
I thought, bones are bones and the skull
is at the fence; bones are bones, they should stick
together. So with a good kick,
or two, they were. And I also kicked a stone
to clear the field before driving home.

– Stephen Brockwell, The Wire in Fences

Even as a Montrealer living in Ottawa when The Wire in Fences first appeared, it’s too bad that the county never discovered it. Brockwell’s writing is all about precision. As part of his inclusion in the anthology Sounds New (1990), this is what Stephen Brockwell wrote as his statement on those early poems:

"I try to write poems that convey a reconciliation of idea and emotion that comes from a detailed observation of the external and internal world. For instance, a geometric object is seen as a representation of both scientific and human fecundity. Reflections of human experience are implied by the treatment of farm animals. An attempt is made to transcribe the events of a dream without interpretation while preserving the latent emotional content of the dream. The foregoing statements are, however, annoyingly precise. They are afterthoughts, the observations of words created by a process that is seldom described as it is performed. Although I often compile pages of notes for a poem before actually writing, a fortunate association between words is as likely to catalyse the poem as are those months of research and note collection. I pursue a logical process toward an illogical event: the writing of the first word. I hope that my writing also embodies a small part of that contradiction."

Brockwell’s sense of rural is a thread that continues, thirteen years later, in his second collection, Cometology (2001), if only in a couple of the poems, such as "Farm Animals," "The Sow," and the piece "Birch Messages," that begins:

To print this message on birch bark,
I walk east of Ottawa, in a forest
thick with cedars. Among fallen leaves,
half frozen in a pool, lies a racoon,
mouth open. Preserved in snow,
its tracks lead to a stand of silver
birch. A wild dog stalks
behind the birches,
revealing only fragments:
matted fur, a gaping jaw.
I fillet bark from a birch,
take this note.
I hear the dog breathe; its shape
spans trees, hunger in the hollow
fragments of its body. Snow falls,
covers my footprints; the racoon’s
tracks are a memory.

– Stephen Brockwell, Cometology

His third collection, Fruitfly Geographic (2004), extends the thread, even as he writes on other subjects and ideas, still held to that notion in the poem "Increase Macdonald," writing on the temperament of the Scots, which he knows so well from his own mother, in this fragment from the poem, starting:

To say that Increase Macdonald’s mother
fretted over her son’s uncertain future
would be in keeping with the understated
character of her Scottish ancestors.
She silently grieved in her sleep. She wept
in the bath quietly.

– Stephen Brockwell, Fruitfly Geographic

More recently, he has returned fully to the concerns first shown in The Wire in Fences, again exploring the plainspeak of the rural Glengarrian against his own formal considerations in a project titled "Bill McGillivray’s Cap And Other Poems." In these, he has taken what he wrote of in his first collection and made it more personal, more about the individual voice of the subject than about the distance made by a third-person narrator:

Bill McGillivray’s Cap

I may not yet be fifty but the field
underneath this cap’s not growing taller.
I can’t imagine going to the barn
without it. Someone would have to sneak
into the shed and steal it from the nail
it’s hung on since Dad brought it home for me
from Chicago before I’d forget to
put it on or take it off. If it weren’t there?
I’d stand as dumb as a November field.
I’ve had this John Deere cap for twenty years.
It wasn’t the last thing he brought me home.
It was the only thing he brought me home.

As Brockwell writes of home, what is it about this place that keeps us, returning, again and again, both in body and text? Or, body as text? What is it that keeps him returning, or Don McKay? In the film Garden State, Zack Braff’s character, returned home for the first time in over a dozen years, says, "That’s what family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place." Wondering, if home really exists; if it ever had. In the introduction to the anthology Solo: Writers on Pilgrimage (2004), Katherine Govier writes:

"Even if she had reached the ancient homestead, would she not have found, like the rest of us, that our mark is overgrown?"

In an essay on "Baler Twine: Thoughts on Ravens, Home & Nature Poetry," in the collection Vis a Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001), Don McKay wrote:

"Home, we may say, is the action of the inner life finding outer form; it is the settling of self into the world."

What does that mean for a writer who has lived and written from various points around the country. What does that mean for a writer who is always returning to his Raisin River, and his "Williamstown autumn."

(taken from a longer essay in progress, "writing and reading Glengarry county")