Wednesday, April 26, 2006

peanut butter & jellyfish
(for diana hartog

That's why I thought, music. Sharps and flats on paper, but in the air, floating, what harm?
— Diana Hartog, Ink Monkey

apart from the suggestion
of what should or shouldnt
a mountainside compels
adhesive, a clarity freshens song

radio waves a breath through water, air

at the long sault, drowned trees would waterlog,
free the roots, to send them shooting
straight up (buoyant) missiles

through boats, ste lawrence seaway

for those who cant sleep at night
or tween cartoons, commercials, the butterknife

so busy in the field

supposedly love, scaffolding & mason

just standing there; a prop
of floating still

would be home often be

peanut butter mark & jelly
on the surface of her belly

or on the surface looks so calm

Monday, April 24, 2006

festival notes, day last (or, so begins the long festival hangover)

A fantastic end to another spectacular festival; I wish I had the energy and notes to write about everything that happened (and perhaps, shouldn’t have happened) over the week, but there are only so many hours in the day. As it is, I spent nearly an hour cleaning up (as Max Middle looked on), and left the hospitality suite just after 4am to jump into a cab (I still have to return to the outside of the hotel to collect my rainy bicycle), to collapse home under the weight of a week's worth of bags and books, exhaustion and papery bits.

Yesterday at noon, Paul William Roberts talked for two hours about the ideas and background in his book Journey of the Magi: In Search of the Birth of Jesus (Raincoast Books), the new and expanded edition of which came out last year. A close reading of the Bible (and other books surrounding) in the original Greek (and various translations since), the book came out of reading a copy of Marco Polo's Travels, and worked out from that point into just about everything else, including the early days of Christianity, fire-worshipping Zoroastrian priests, how no one considers Jesus a historical figure, but they do his brother James, and the complicated politics of the area over the past two thousand years. Roberts (we were dressed frighteningly alike through the day; I felt like the 2nd girl at the prom with the same dress…) is easily the most interesting human I have ever met; the sheer amount and breadth of detail of information he carries around in his head is almost terrifying. So much of his talk centred around the fact that so much Bible information we carry around with us culturally has very little to do with the actual text, and are merely add-ons by later writers and considerations, or are amalgams of various stories shoved into a single for convenience. My favourite example of the lack of reading was the fact that one of the apostles told the story of the arrival of Jesus mentioning Mary's first-born as virgin birth beside the fact that Jesus had the bloodline of King David through his father, Joseph (wait a minute; aren’t those conflicting ideas?). Another was that the original text of the King Solomon "the wise" story gives the baby not to the mother you would think (how did that story get shifted around?); it's almost as though the powers that be would really prefer that Christians don’t read the Bible at all, especially not in the original form (Greek, actually, not Latin). Spectacular.

The second last event included three fiction writers with first novels, lovingly hosted by our own Elizabeth Hay (one of the sweetest human beings alive), with young authors Alayna Munce (When I Was Young & In My Prime), Alison Pick (The Sweet Edge) and Leah McLaren (The Continuity Girl). McLaren's novel, what someone else called "chick-lit," wasn't really my thing, but her reading was entertaining enough (she fumbled a bit at the beginning). For me, it was the other two that really caught my attention; Pick's novel had that edge, and perhaps it was the fact that the two were poets who moved into fiction, making more of the language than the plot-driven fact of the McLaren book (though what do I know; the McLaren will probably outsell the other two put together, right?). Still, it was Munce's novel that I really loved and couldn’t get enough of, written in fragments, where the language itself is the thing that moves you through. Heart-wrenching and break, broken as we watch the narrator witness her grandparents decline. I simply couldn’t tell her enough times how much I enjoyed her reading.

The night before last, Irish poet Paul Muldoon gave a lecture on the Beckett novel Watt called "Watt Now" (previously called "Watt Ho," when he read it a few weeks earlier in Dublin), going ninety minutes of information and wordplay through the most wonderful assault of every form of the senses (Watts in a name?). The "Muldooniest" of anyone I have ever met (a new word I invented for his benefit; he now personifies the very word for me, although he argued that I was perhaps coming up as a close second), Paul was utterly charming. The last event of the festival included Muldoon giving a poetry reading with Toronto author George Elliott Clarke and poet A.J. Levin, lovingly hosted by our very own Stephen Brockwell. Until the festival, I had been aware of Muldoon in name only, and Stephen was nice enough to give me a copy of Muldoon's Moy Sand and Gravel (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). He read a mix of published and unpublished pieces, including one he wrote on the native Ottawans, and their battle with Pontiac. The third of three readers, the event opened with A.J. Levin, who came to us from his new home in Winnipeg (he and partner K.I. Press are formerly of Toronto); he also read from a selection of new poems, which I found made a considerable leap forward from the pieces in his first collection, Monks' Fruit (Roberts Creek BC: Nightwood Editions, 2004).

Of course, who can talk of any part of last night without mentioning George Elliott Clarke, who arrived last minute (thanks to shifting plane schedules) with his usual warm, wonderful and enthusiastic energy to read parts of his new poetry collection Black (Polestar Press). (I had a copy of the collection when I got there, but unfortunately, someone managed to lift it from the stack of books I had at the back of the room; now I have to go out and purchase the damn thing so I can review it…). A former Ottawa boy, it is always a joy to have him in town, and he remains one of my favourite readers of all time; he even had his seven year old daughter with him, who recently was named the official poet of her grade two class (unutterably charming; something George proudly announced from the podium). His new book, from what I can recall, is something I would recommend highly. George has been a busy boy lately, what with his poetry collection Illuminated Verses (Toronto ON: Kellom Books, 2005) out a few months ago, and the novel George and Rue (HarperCollins, 2005) out last year. Check out the first issue of ottawater to see some of the poems that made it into his Black (a follow up to Blue). (check out Amanda Earl's version of same here)

And then there was the most stunningly beautiful blonde woman... (that I won't say anything else about here).

If anyone can even stomach the idea of more readings, Brick Book authors Jan Conn (Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee Poems) and Diana Hartog (Ink Monkey) read at the TREE Reading Series on Tuesday from their new poetry collections (8pm, Royal Oak II, open set + featured reader, free); another event, on Wednesday night, various BookThug authors arrive from Toronto to converge on Richard Fitzpatrick Books (including Gregory Betts, Daniel f. Bradley, Rob Read, Gustave Morin and Jay MillAr himself as they "read and/or launch"...) at 8pm, in his new space at 1098 Somerset Street West, just where it is about to turn into Wellington (map here). Otherwise, check out regular Ottawa-area literary events, calls for submissions, new publications etcetera at Bywords.

Otherwise, tonight I will sleep the sleep of the almost (very close to the "just"); and not put a drop of the drink anywhere near. Tomorrow, perhaps then, back to work.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Elizabeth Bachinsky's Home of Sudden Service

Another young Canadian poet with a second collection is Vancouver resident Elizabeth Bachinsky, with her Home of Sudden Service (Roberts Creek BC: Nightwood Editions, 2006), after her Curio: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2005). More straightforward than her previous collection, the poems in Home of Sudden Service give voice and breath to growing up in the wilds that exist from the suburbs to almost rural, in small town writing of teenage hijinks, failures, successes and those furtive dreams of eternal escape. In poems that exist between childhood and adulthood, between dream and goal, Bachinsky writes of the delinquent teens who will one day become respectable old men, working the same job their whole lives, but still living in that place where everything is still potential, and nothing is actual; each poem existing in that underlying bubbling of sensuality and sexuality, bursting to get through.


Those small-town girls they like to marry early
you know. Can't wait to settle down, have
a kid or two. What they wouldn't give
for a solid man, one who's ready
to rein it in—that rampant prick—and stick
close to home, a good father, provider
and lover, a tall drink of water
who's cool when the pickup's bust,
stick shift stuck in second gear or the condom's broke
again. But there's no such thing as too much man
to handle. Those girls, they like them
rough around the edges, tough boys who'll never balk
at next month's rent with heart enough to love
a woman right, again and again and again. (p 23)
Considering the shift between the two collections, working from the stretches and flows of her first collection, to poems that look more like poems in this one, it will be interesting to see where her third collection will potentially go; it makes me wonder, almost, if the poems in this collection were actually composed before the poems in the first collection, as there is more of a confidence and maturity that exist within her lines that, although not necessarily lacking in Home of Sudden Service, but certainly don't exist in the same way.

after Irving Layton

Their chests like planks, bellies
like planks,
I want to undress boys
as a carpenter undresses

a block of pine.
Their clothes, shed like shavings,
smell of aftershave, of pine.
I want them naked, contrapposto,

still as posts. They are so polished
beneath their shirts and jeans.
They are so lean, penises
rearing, eager, impatient as ponies.

Young men: all edges, jut of hip, whip of spine.
What temperamental instruments they are,
what clichéd agonies they moan,
my mouth on them now
and then gone. (p 50)
The most interesting writing here has to be the fifteen-part piece "Drive" that ends the collection. There is something about Bachinsky's long thought, stretched and continued that achieves something more in her writing than in the smaller, more individual poems earlier in the book.


This prairie, mostly empty, mostly flat,
affords no respite from the desert heat.
My sister, who can sleep
through anything, will not drift off. She's hot,
goddammitall. She grabs a two-litre
bottle of water, chugs it down as fields
of corn and wheat shimmer past. She unfolds
the map to check out where we are:
seems like nowhere. We sing out Stompin' Tom:
"Roll on, roll on, Saskatchewan" and play at trivia
to stave off boredom. "Did you know," Chris says,
"Saskatchewan has no daylight savings?"
and I'm not surprised. What's there to save?
It doesn't care for us. It merely stays. (p 64)
[Elizabeth Bachinsky reads in Ottawa at the TREE Reading Series on Tuesday, May 23rd: find out other tour information for her here]

Saturday, April 22, 2006

festival notes, day five (or, night of a million billion ninjas)

I hosted the second poetry cabaret last night at the ottawa international writers festival with my usual grace, wit and charm to a crowd of roughly seventy people (twenty more than the estimate from Monday night's cabaret) who were treated to lively and vigorously performative readings by Prince Albert, Saskatchewan writer John McDonald, Toronto poet and editor angela rawlings and Hamilton, Ontario writer Gary Barwin. Through pre-reading conversation I discovered that Barwin attended Sir Robert Borden High School in Ottawa's west end, the same high school attended by actress Sandra Oh, and where my own lovely daughter currently attends grade nine; does this mean potential big things for my Kate? (I say: yes!)

I didn't know anything about John McDonald before last night's event, a Cree writer with his first poetry collection published by Kegedonce Press; a sixth generation descendant of Chief Mistawasis of the Plains Cree, you have to admire anyone who, in July 2000, sent out media releases about his "discovering" and then "claiming" England for the first people of the Americas. Three authors who share the performative aspects of their work, as much as they exist on the page, angela rawlings rounded out the evening with a magnificent performance of her Wide Slumber of Lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006) (see my review of the collection here, if you haven't already) with the whole of her body; currently on tour, she left today for Montreal for another Coach House launch there. (see a review of the same show by Amanda Earl; rawlings' own blog account here; other members of the audience included Monty Reid, Allison Pick, Jennifer Mulligan, John MacDonald (with his version of events), etcetera.

Sometimes the best readings of the festival are the ones not seen by the audience (including a reading a few years ago that David W. McFadden did around midnight a few years ago in the hospitality suite to an audience of seven, reading the entirety of his 1971 collection The Ovi Yogas); Ottawa writer/publisher/bibliographer jwcurry performed a few pieces in the hospitality suite just around midnight last night (with vocal help from Max Middle), including the two-voice Opium Marble (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999), a fraction of bpNichol's The Martyrology Book(s) 7& (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1990) and Mike Patton's "Ma Meeshka Mow Squoz," some of which were also performed at his Messagio Galore last year.

The night before all of this, as part of the Beckett centenary, was the inaugural performance of Ottawa's own Deasil & Widdershins (John Lavery, Max Middle and Carmel Purkis), presenting a series of readings based on the short fiction of Samuel Beckett. An extremely lively event (including three pieces that Purkis arranged for three voices; easily my favourite parts of the reading), Lavery is one of the finest readers of fiction I've heard in a very long time; Lavery manages to put in exactly the right kinds of emphasis and expression, and one easily gets the impression that, depending on how he wanted to present a text, he could completely alter the meaning of any writing simply by shifting his performance. The mad (fiction) genius of the Ottawa area, the only comparison I could make to his reading style generally would be to Leon Rooke (who once included a record of a reading with one of his books of fiction), with Lavery's energy tighter, and more reigned in. In Lavery's hands, words and phrases written by almost anyone can turn into dangerous projectiles.

Middle and Lavery are used to working more of the surreal and nonsensical in their own work, so it was interesting to hear their take on Beckett, whether through selection or performance; the big surprise of the evening to many of us who had been around for years, was the performance by bookstore staff (and one of the three publishers of the slowly-building Ottawa literary publishing company Chaudiere Books) Carmel Purkis. Fluid and almost dangerous, Purkis could easily do documentary voice-overs, but with a twist (madness, perhaps?) that beautifully infected everything she read. And what to say of Max Middle? He simply gets better and better ever time I hear him perform; hopefully this will not be the only performance by such a stellar group (also, if anyone is interested, Middle reads solo on Sunday as part of Sasquatch; 2pm, Royal Oak II on Laurier; open set + featured reader; free).

And let's not forget the conversation I had with Paul William Roberts in the hospitality suite (after everyone else had left) around 3:3o am; somehow all of his stories involve him being in court, or what countries he's no longer allowed to enter. If you ever have a chance to hear, see or read him, I would highly recommend it; he is dangerously informed and wonderfully entertaining at the same time (the last time he was here, he and I watched the vice-presidential debate together; he had lots to say about that...). No wonder the Americans won't let him near the border). His talk, "The Impossible Logic of War," happened yesterday, but you can still catch him again on Sunday at his "Journey of the Magi: In search of the birth of Jesus."

Yes, 3:30 am; will I ever be able to sleep properly again?

Friday, April 21, 2006

hotel thursday (breakdown)
(from "sequence")
I was straining to enlarge a compromise
when the context vanished.
— Lisa Robertson, The Apothecary

ever if function a style; off riding a canyon

ever if quarantine your minivan coffeeshop
, budget the bone

ever if water rock, my daybreak dreams
of long slave

ever if temples of sex diminish, collapse
under intemperate weight, a thousand

points of time like a fish

ever if on the skin & bleeding, sweat

ever if violence, a year listening, delivered; landscapes
capped suspension

ever if principled, the conifers milk mornings

ever if the medium betrayed strong taste

ever if mobile streamlined, her phone message
gasps, intoxicating

ever if wordspeed & release

ever if the knife my throat you speak; the
stone in my stomach, rises

ever if the light shines

ever if ticket a chocolate love in the first place

ever if mornings would melt

ever if temples, temptations; creature noise
& desultory speech

ever if whether nice weather

Thursday, April 20, 2006

festival notes, day three (or, eighty-eight lines on fourty-four authors)

Madeline Thien, from her reading last night of a fraction of her first novel, Certainty (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), has written a book filled with beautiful music; what choice did I have but to buy it? She arrived with greetings from fellow Quebec City author Aurian Haller; I sent her home with an envelope for him (and one for herself, of course). Check out an interview with her here.

Author Tim Ward (who grew up in Ottawa, and wore the same tie two days in a row) had a very interesting presentation on the history (and pre-history) of the feminine divine in his Savage Breast (2006). I found it extremely interesting, in part because of the novel I'm writing on Persephone; Ward spoke of the dual goddess, and the continuity of women shown through Demeter and Persephone (my ex-wife and daughter regularly remind me of the continuity between women and the lack of the need of the male). Another book I was forced to purchase. Still, there were some in the crowd that theorized that he wrote about the goddess to get girls...

Fiction writer Ami McKay, who wrote The Birth House (Toronto ON: Random House, 2006), was completely and utterly charming, and I just wanted to adopt her, and keep her in my little apartment (she liked the idea in theory, but wasn't really going for it); we had an interesting conversation about the concern of research taking over the writing in a historical novel (although I argued, aren't all novels historical?). The fourth author from the two events last night was Anar Ali, author of Baby Khakis Wings (Toronto ON: Penguin, 2006), who arrived in the hospitality suite after the event with a number of friends, including a beautiful young Ottawa doctor (we had a conversation about ususual film, and where the best shawarma in Ottawa can be found). This doctor apparently has a practice in my neighbourhood, even. I haven't seen a doctor (in any professional capacity) or any other medical person since the 1980s; perhaps this is something I should re-think?

Winnipeg author Linda Holeman was also quite charming (she reads tonight); apparently she just sold a quarter million copies of her most recent book in Europe; of course, I immediately sold her a copy of my new Stride collection (wouldn't you?).

Paul William Roberts, who has been at the festival before (we watched the American vice-presidential debate together) has been here two days, but we haven't seen him yet; he is like the wind...

And why is Nigel Beale making problems where previously there were none?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Descant #132: The World of Barbara Gowdy

It's always interesting to see an issue dedicated to the work of a particular writer, whether as feshrift to acknowledge passing, late career or mid, and now Descant magazine has published "Entering the Other: The World of Barbara Gowdy" as their most recent issue, to celebrate the work of the Toronto writer Barbara Gowdy. According to the bio at the end of the issue (it would have been nice to have more information like this on Gowdy, such as a bibliography or something, but there you go), she is the author of five novels (Through the Green Valley, Falling Angels, Mister Sandman, The White Bone and The Romantic) and a collection of short stories (We So Seldom Look on Love) that the movie Kissed came from (which started my ongoing crush on actress Molly Parker. Oh, Molly Parker…)(Falling Angels was also made into a feature-length film). She has twice been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Rogers' Writers Trust Fiction Prize, and three times for the Trillium Award.

I'm not always a fan of the work of Descant magazine, but for the occasional issue here and there, but when I do like, I really like, such as the Sub/Urbia issue (#125) that came out as its summer 2004 issue, and includes some of my favourite work by Calgary writer Christian Bök (as well as other personal favourites, such as Sina Queyras, my most favourite piece ever by Emily Pohl-Weary, Mark Kingwell, Sylvia Legris and Marita Dachsel…). Ending with a wounding, terrific line, here's the short untitled piece by Bök:

ENNUI IS THE EXHAUSTION of the mind caught in the riot cell of its own thoughts. While poets always strive in vain to escape this oubliette, their tedium forces them to find in the workings of the padlocks, evidence of a more beautiful
reasoning—a kind of eunoia. Never forget that which makes us weary also makes us
dream. (Descant #125, p 13)
The "theme issue" isn't always interesting, but issues dedicated to individual writers are often very interesting, and there have been a number of them over the years, including issues of The Capilano Review (George Bowering, Roy K. Kiyooka, bill bissett), dANDelion (Roy K. Kiyooka), West Coast Line (Phyllis Webb, Larissa Lai), The Fiddlehead (John Metcalf), recent issues of The Chicago Review (Edward Dorn and Louis Zukofsky), and Descant (Dennis Lee, R. Murray Schafer, Michael Ondaatje and Timothy Findley) (if anyone ever finds that Cap Review Bowering issue, get it for me, will you?). Given that Gowdy is a product of the suburbs, and has written on the 1950s family, I perhaps get the impression that Descant is even (perhaps) best when dealing with the suburbs (but this is only a theory). Broken into a number of sections, the contributors to the issue include Descant editor Karen Mulhallen and issue editor Mary Newberry ("Prefaces"), Steven Heighton and Margaret Atwood ("Talking Gowdy"), Adrian DiCastri, John Bentley Mays and Robert Teteruck ("Situating Gowdy"), Debra Martens, Cheryl Cowdy Crawford, Neta Gordon, Sally Hayward, Deena Rhyms and T.F. Rigelhof ("Critiquing Gowdy"), Mary Newberry ("Filming Gowdy"), Catherine Bush, Catherine Gildiner, Marni Jackson, Natalie Onuska, Catherine Graham, Shyam Selvadurai and Susan Swan ("Postcards from Gowdyland"), Pamela Stewart, Kathleen Kelly and Jim Johnstone ("The Weight of Gowdy"), and finally, Barbara Gowdy herself ("Gowdy Speaks"), with an excerpt of a novel-in-progress, Helpless. As editor Mulhallen writes in her preface:
In a short time span, for her writing career developed quite late, after musical
training, in fact, Gowdy has already made a profound impact. Writers of several generations here attest to the importance of her work, the unique qualities of her imagination, the clarity of her style. Critics debate hotly her epistemology, of The White Bone in particular. Translations into film, and into television of Gowdy's
fictions also signify ways in which the work speaks to a contemporary
sensibility. Grand themes on the family, on love, on diversity capture an
audience emotionally and intellectually. Sacred mysteries. Knowledge and
perception. Innocence. Hers is a fiction which compels us to imagine someone
else's experience, just as she herself has said that the writing of it has done
this for her. In this issue of Descant we are taking a sounding of an artist at
mid-career, in full flight, and we are honoured to present as well an excerpt
from her new novel, her work in progress. (pp 10-11)
Perhaps some of the most interesting work in the issue has to be the piece "Points of Faith: An Interview with Barbara Gowdy" conducted by Kingston writer Steven Heighton:
BG: Writing fiction involves smoke and mirrors to a degree, doesn't it? Sometimes you feel as if you're pulling a fast one. None of these characters actually exist but you're desperately trying to make the reader believe that they do. You resort to certain tricks, you have to.

SH: You do, and that's fine and helpful, but it also bothers me in a way. In a way I wish I didn't know the tricks I know. Or didn't know I knew them.

BG: Why?

SH: No good reason, really ― art has always been about artifice, and I accept that, but there's a younger part of me ― a romantic part ― that wishes I was still innocent of that.

BG: But what's the difference between art and craft, for instance, or art and artifice? Do you know what I think the difference is? I think art is what it does, not how you make it. The difference lies there. Craft can be beautiful and take a whole lot of
talent and a whole lot of knowledge, but as Chris [Dewdney] pointed out to me
once, craft doesn't have the potential to change the way you see the world. Art
does. No matter how you make that happen, if you make it happen, then you've
made art … I'm no chef, and I've had arguments with this one chef who tries to
convince me that cooking is an art. "No," I say, "a spectacular meal is a
pleasure. It can move your soul, it can make you happy, temporarily, you can
feel that it's wondrously presented and that it has ravished your palate, but it
hasn't changed the way you see the world." (pp 32-3)
Also, the issue is worth it alone for the cartoon by Toronto writer Margaret Atwood (which I won't tell you about at all; you now have to go find this issue), which I have always considered completely underrated, and often her best work (they often appear in Brick magazine as well). Will there ever be a trade collection of Atwood's that include her collected cartoons? I certainly hope so.

Or, as novelist Susan Swan writes in her piece "Redemptive Empathy":
BARBARA GOWDY IS ONE of Canada's most important contemporary writers. She is a meticulous stylist and fearless satirist whose sardonic view is informed by a
redemptive empathy that portrays misunderstood individuals (or badly treated
animal species) as legitimate people who are sometimes even loveable. She is
also a hyper-realist whose highly sculpted prose is to literary realism what
pop art was to traditional landscape painting. (p 166)
I don't think its possible to get much higher praise than that.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

festival notes, day one (or, what happens at festival stays at the festival)

Pretty much everyone should know by now that yesterday was the first night of an eventual weeks worth of readings at the spring edition of the ottawa international writers festival. This edition has the added bonus of a second festival appearance by Aidan Wilson (accompanied by adorable mother Kira Harris, who has also been running the festival for almost as long as it has existed), third generation of the Wilson crew (father Sean and grandfather Neil founded the festival how many years ago), born but days before the fall 2005 edition. He had his own staff pass, which will soon be altered to a "complaints department" pass (you have a problem? talk to the baby…). I expect him to be hosting events within the next couple of years…

As part of opening night, I was able to host the first of the three poetry cabarets, an amazing reading by poets Kevin Connolly (Toronto ON), Nicole Brossard (Montreal QC) and Ken Babstock (Toronto ON), with a short question and answer period following. A last minute replacement for a cancelled author, Kevin Connolly launched his third poetry collection drift (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2005) at the festival for a second time (we liked the book so much, he got to launch it twice; I can't wait for him to launch it at the festival a third time…). Babstock, born in Newfoundland but raised in the Ottawa Valley, specifically Pembroke, Ontario (where poet David O'Meara is also from), was launching his third collection, Airstream Land Yacht (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2006).

I've been hearing Babstock read for years now (I remember a reading at the Manx Pub in 1994 with him and O'Meara; we all got drunk afterward and played pool), and the more I've heard him read, or more specifically talk between the poems, the more I want him to start writing essays. I remember a reading I heard him do at Concordia University in the fall of 2001 that had a question and answer period resulting in short essays on poetic form coming out of him; I wanted someone somewhere to have recorded it, or written it all down. Why aren't people interviewing Ken Babstock about what he's doing?

Even though she was part of the poetry cabaret, Montreal author Nicole Brossard (see my review of her collection of essays here, if you haven't already) wasn't actually launching a poetry collection, but instead a number of other things, including two Coach House novels, one of which she read from briefly, the new paperback edition of Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon (trans. Susanne De Lotbinière-Harwood), before reading a few of her poems translated into English (I don't recall the translator of those, but she did mention them). Part of the reading featured Brossard including me in a performance of a collaborative poem, as she read her poem "Si sismal" (from á tout regard), as I read alternating stanzas (and some together) from Fred Wah's transcreation of the same piece, what he called "If Yes Seismal." It was extremely fun (and without practice, even), and made everyone in the audience jealous (I bet); the poem itself (at least the parts I could understand) especially resonated with me, considering that I feel my poetic far closer to Wah than to Babstock or Connolly (which makes me want to go through more of Brossard's own poems). Here are the first two stanzas of each (with twelve stanzas in total):

si aboyer ou noyer la voix
parmi les images et les mots
éveille un peu de crainte
abrite alors la figure choisie
ie bord renversé de vivre
labelle spacieux

if above the clysmic bark heaves
noise the voice detonates images and
words for life a little crazy we
think but all right before the actual
figures choose choice the border
labels space in you

An impressive question and answer period followed, with many of the audience asking very engaging questions to each of the three writers; there was something pretty entertaining as well about the fact that I could (with two exceptions) respond to each audience member by name as they were handed the microphone. There was something comfortable and intimate about being able to do that; what Kevin Connolly referred to later as "community."

I am also hosting the second poetry cabarets, on April 21, with poets angela rawlings (Toronto ON) (see my review of her first poetry collection here, if you haven't already), John McDonald and Gary Barwin (Hamilton ON). You should go to that. I mean, really.

And, in case you've forgotten, I am fortunate enough to be writer in residence again at this ottawa festival of ours (our tenth year, this festival), which means I not only get to clean up the hospitality suite after everyone leaves, but I get to stay there as well (and only a fifteen minute walk from my apartment). But remember, what happens at festival, stays at the festival. I can say no more.

on another note, check out Amanda Earl's version of last night's reading
also, check out info on my next session of poetry workshops at Collected Works Bookstore

Monday, April 17, 2006

a. rawlings' Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists

In her first trade poetry collection, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006), Toronto writer, editor and Lexiconjury co-organizer angela rawlings works from two threads into a collection built around and out of language itself, from the various states of sleep (more precisely, sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, hypnic twitch, insomnia, somnambulism) to the development of lepidoptera (the birth of egg, larval hatching, a caterpillar's life). Involved with writing and Toronto for the past few years, self-proclaimed multidisciplinary artist angela rawlings has worked with The Mercury Press, the Scream Literary Festival, Sumach Press, Word: Toronto's literary calendar, as well as one of three co-editors (with Calgary poet/editors derek beaulieu and Jason Christie) of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005).

Dedicated to "Northern Ontario," where rawlings is from (the Algoma District), the book works in sections such as "figure 1 : EGG - INSOMNIA," "figure 2 : EGG, LARVA - DYSSOMNIA," "figure 3 : LARVA - NREM," "figure 4 : LARVA, PUPA - REM," "figure 5 : PUPA - PARASOMNIA," "figure 6 : IMAGO - AROUSAL," as well as appendix, glossary and "EPIGRAPHS AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS" at the very end. I like that the small dirty brown cover, bound on its short side at 7 x 5 inches and 112 pages, can fit thick in the travelling pocket almost like a field guide for sleep, for watching the development of sleep and moth movement, complete with language example and illustration.

Here's a fragment of the " figure 1 : EGG - INSOMNIA" section, where she writes:

Slow light touch of hand on wing, scales brush off like butterfly kisses, hand on brow, eyelash dew and fog, breath and fur our entrance and we caress the dulled wet passage, the flicker of soft quiet like sound or sand, when larva eats its eggshell and becomes pupa a hoosh

we tongue our shell, our conch, we smell the honeysuckle sweat heavily in the night air. a hoosh The fragrance a push of belly against abdomen, tongue buried deep in the suckle the honey and the brush-foots wake and crowd, thrust or pulse, spastic praxis, massive pulse out of sync. This is not what this is no, we intended, we thought sleep and none came we come. ha a a ha Horned caterpillars epilepse, wood nymphs spin and hang crude cocoons

we hold our slow high flight (p 15)

There have been other writings on sleep lately, including a talk that Canadian poet Anne Carson gave at the League of Canadian Poets AGM in Montreal two years ago, returning to the waking world as the essay “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)” in an issue of Prairie Fire (Vol. 25, No. 3, Autumn 2004), and later as part of Carson's Decreation (New York NY: Knopf, 2005), where she begins by writing “I want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner–I admit I have never been what is called ‘a good sleeper’ and perhaps we can return later to that curious concept–but as a reader.” (p 19). Carson later goes on to write:

It is in these terms that I wish to praise sleep, as a glimpse of something incognito. Both words are important. Incognito means “unrecognized, hidden, unknown.” Something means not nothing. What is incognito hides from us because it has something worth hiding, or so we judge. (p 20)

Another piece, closer to home (somewhat) is Prince George, British Columbia writer Rob Budde in the piece "A Sleep of Faith," originally published as a chapbook by Budde's own wink books (2005), and reprinted in his trade collection Flicker (Winnipeg MB: Signature Editions, 2005). As much as rawlings, the notion of play has always been an important element of Budde’s poetry, and this piece is no different, working a dart and a hopscotch skill through such reflections from the opening line “sleep as if sleep exists anyway” (p 75), or further on, as he writes (altered slightly from the earlier chapbook version):

preemptive sleep, just in case

sleep like at a poetry reading, polite, filled with linguistic virtuosity,
easing your way to the cheese platter

staring at white paint and not knowing the difference

repose via repository

sleep is overcoded; sleep is underfunded

sleep as if shopping for something you already have

sleep as if your regular breathing is an integral part of an elaborate
ecological which operates the entire earth and its
convenience stores

sleep in moss, mushrooms burgeoning from your eyes, a sphagnum
cornea (p 76)

Budde moves through his sleep as something hidden and unknown, while at the same time, understanding that “faith” is something that can not necessarily be known but can be developed; can be explored but never explained. The whole notion of faith, certainly, is to believe in something that can never be proven, as he ends with:

a court order for order when none will be had, sleep as a public
protest, a concerted civil disobedience, a police line broken–sleeping
off the chaos, sleeping off the anarchy

a paddle in water, a float over there (p 84)

Still, it might be Carson's sleep that exists far closer to the fitful and fitless sleep/s demonstrated in the poetry of angela rawlings, as in this fragment taken from near the end of the book, the "figure 6 : IMAGO - AROUSAL" section, writing:

It's a story it's not a story it has elements of story. 'Y' is a letter. 'Rots' are four letters. The caged body deteriorates, rails.


Pre-end. Exhale three dead white moths - cream moths. Moths with thick, furry antennae. Tickle the epiglottis and struggle to exit. The story is stuck in details. Images bedrail themselves, quilt and sheet themselves, thick no entrance. Exit.

There is no argument, then, let the body do the body does. (p 90)

It seems interesting that rawlings would choose to merge what could be considering yin/yang elements of a disorder (sleep) with order (the natural occurrence of lepidoptera), as one idea reacts up against another one, much as in her piece LOGYoLOGY (a version of which appeared in Calgary's dANDelion magazine, volume 29, number 2, and expanded at; as she wrote beside her name in the dANDelion issue, " LOGYoLOGY is a community of body-related -logies exploring personal experience with sex and sensuality in poems." (p 106). In Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, rawlings' words manage to replicate the fluttering of butterfly/moth wings, and the movement of sleep.

Among the essential elements of rawlings' collection is the notion of notation and play across the page—words and letters work as essential shapes—making most of the pieces in this elegant book nearly impossible to replicate in such a format as this (given my lack of technical skills), as well as the images of butterfly, egg, jar and cocoon by artist Matt Ceolin. In the press releases for the collection, that includes a page long interview with the author, rawlings had this to say about the connections between moths and sleep disorders:

"The phrase 'wide slumber for lepidopterists' occurred during a free-writing session and rattled around in my head for a week. The subjects intersected. What happens when a person obsessed with a subject dreams at night; does the subject matter affect how they think, how they dream, how their bodies process information? I'd been toying with this question for a while, in terms of my own tendency to write poems while dreaming. If a poet writes poems during sleep, how might a lepidopterist work while she sleeps? What effect does intimate examination of insects have on long-term information processing and subconscious behaviour?

A 'pataphysical question cropped up, too … What happens when you breed the vocabularies and ideas of two disparate subjects together (in my case, lepidoptery and sleep/dream studies)? What does the spawn of incompatible bedfellows resemble? From that perverse breeding, Wide slumber for lepidopterists was born."

[a. rawlings reads at poetry cabaret #2 on April 21 with John McDonald and Gary Barwin as part of the ottawa international writers festival]

Sunday, April 16, 2006

George Bowering's Baseball Love

Anyone who knows anything about me already knows that I'm a pretty big fan of the Vancouver writer George Bowering (look here and here and here and here), so it comes as no surprise that I loved (appropriately enough) his new memoir on baseball, Baseball Love (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006), enough that it made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions (and often multiple times on the same page). After years of books in almost every other genre, including poetry, fiction, history, young adult fiction, literary criticism and personal memoirs, Bowering is writing fully and finally on the game he has played and loved for years, and written about as either newspaper journalist, literary critic, poet and fiction writer for the length and breadth of his writing life (Bowering started out as a baseball journalist while still in school). Filled with the usual Bowering-isms ("In his A Trip Around Lake Erie, David McFadden called Cleveland the most beautiful city in the U.S.; but then he is also on record as calling Hamilton the most beautiful city in Canada." or "After a few innings of my witticisms in Municipal Stadium, I had a clear view in front of me." p 185), Baseball Love follows Bowering and his companion Jean Baird throughout Canada, the United States and a few other places (including games in other countries, memoirs and movies on baseball over the years, and other anecdotes stretching throughout Bowering's long past with the game) starting soon after he was named the first ever Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2002-4) as they traveled on various baseball trips, seeing as many games in North America as possible.

When she was here to do a reading of her own poetry, Vancouver writer and publisher Meredith Quartermain suggested that George Bowering is making a killing of this new memoir to all the folk across North America who have a stake in the game, whether journalist, player or simple enthusiast, based, I would presume, on not just the humourous aspects of the memoir, but on the fact that he knows and loves the game so well, writing on why he preferred Ted Williams to Joe DiMaggio, the few female umpires in the game, baseball games in Kamloops in the late 1880s, mascots and the number of variant uniforms per team getting out of hand (suggesting that someday your kid will be asking you for a particular team's television interview hats…). He has a whole chapter simply writing about books on the game, written by players and enthusiasts both, all the time while sprinkling names, stats, trivia and a wide range of knowledge throughout. After a week of baseball in the United States, for example, Bowering and Baird headed north, writing:

"We crossed into Canada just below Val Marie, no place at all, and drove on a very bad skinny dangerous highway out of 1943, between fields of canola, heading towards Swift Current, where I proposed staying the night, thus giving us a nice leisurely drive to Moose Jaw the next day, registration day for the seventh annual Saskatchewan Festival of Words.

But Jean was driving, and when she saw Swift Current, she just got onto the Trans-Canada and booted it the rest of the way to Moose Jaw, 755 kilometres for the day. For the second July in a row I got to stay a few days at the famous Temple Gardens Mineral Spa Resort Hotel in the middle of Moose Jaw. The whole fourth floor is a hotsprings pool (99 degrees), and you can even swim or wade outdoors (101 degrees), where there is a hotsprings balcony, people sitting around the pool out there, sipping on healthful drinks. Last year I didn't bother, which is usually my way, but this year I had Jean Baird with me. She got us into our river-rafting outfits and plain white bathrobes, and we headed straight for the mineral springs in the middle of Canada.

If you get a chance, do it.

Especially if you have a bit of a hangover. The mineral-smelling, body-embracing hot water has no other desire than to make you well. When we went for our second visit to the waters, we encountered the cause of said hangover. Shelagh Rogers and Alison Gzowski, the CBC ladies, were there too. The night before they had added tequila carousing to our late night vodka carousing with some poets, including the soon-to-be Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, M. Herménégilde Chiasson.

The organizers in Moose Jaw always put on a good writers' festival. I didn't go to as many events this year as I had last year, partly because I was not as excited by the lineup of writers, partly because I had my inamorata with me, and partly because I chose to watch the season-ending Canadian Baseball League all-star game on television. As it turned out, the teams were tied after ten innings, so they decided to decide it with a home-run derby such as the one held the day before the major leagues all-star game. Five hitters from either side, the western division and the eastern division, were given ten outs each. The west won 1-0. It was pitiful.

I was feeling bad for Canadian baseball. What I saw next made me feel worse.

According to the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, there were baseball tournaments of all sorts going on in Moose Jaw, this writers' festival weekend. There were the Intermediate "B" Women's Championships and the Intermediate "C" Men's Championships. And there was the Junior "AAA" Provincial Baseball Championships.

Well, Jean and I reasoned, this is a baseball trip, not a literature trip, so we walked kitty-corner across Moose Jaw's very nice downtown Crescent Park and found two ballparks across the street from one another. We chose Ross Wells Field, and sure enough, that was where we would witness the Junior "AAA" contest between the Moose Jaw Eagles and the sadly undisciplined Regina Rebels. The score was 12-2 Eagles. Ross Wells Field is a little primitive, but there were good loyal baseball organizers there, though not a lot of other people. Despite the arguments I have always made, I felt doubt rising in me. I began to doubt that Canadians dig baseball the way that USAmericans do. There are some, such as I, who will know more about baseball than 99 percent of the people in any Tulsa ballpark, but I am beginning to suspect that my fellow Canadians will let themselves settle for hockey. Or as my good friend Victor Coleman put it in one of his poems:

There's no precision ion hockey
all the tension is in losing the puck
I have talked to people
people who find baseball boring
They deserve hockey

I'd always thought that there were a lot of stout people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but after being in ballparks and hotels in the U.S. for a week, I found these people at Ross Wells Field to be just plain normal in size.

That's perhaps a little surprising. I was impressed by the number of folks opting for the "special" at the lineup concession booth—chicken strips with macaroni and french fries.

The quality of the baseball was not high, but these were young amateurs, after all, and we cut them some slack. Probably they could all skate like the devil." (pp 115-7)

Baseball has been in a pile of Bowering books over the years, including poetry collections, snuck into novels, and even as a collection he edited of short stories on sports; if you need proof, be sure to check out the recently reissued Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1967; Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004), his poetry collections Poem and Other Baseballs (Coatsworth ON: Black Moss Press, 1976), The Catch (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1976) or his novel Caprice (Toronto ON: Viking, 1987, 1988; 2nd ed., 1994). You can see baseball mentioned as a thread throughout his entire career as a poet and fiction writer, like bread crumbs for the reader to follow, as in this poem from In The Flesh (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1974):


There comes a Time when you must Act
they told me & I went into my role,
tripping, really, across the stage till
they said you idiot you know
what we mean.

Sure, do you, I replied, I the player
in the first Act, the first half
of the double header, the beginning
of Thought.

Will-full man they said & I
was reading Will, rounding the base,
playing it too, picking it up & acting
on all their opposing intentions, what they
mean, poor visiting team at the dis-
advantage. (p 85)

Despite all that, somehow it has almost always been that other Vancouver baseball fan and writer, W.P. Kinsella (who wrote the story that became Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner), who got asked anything on the CBC when it came to the game. As Bowering, in Baseball Love, writes (one of a few times) of fellow Vancouver-scribe Kinsella:

"On the same weekend I was walking down East Sixth Street in Cleveland, with W.P. Kinsella. Bill was at the time in his full Richard Brautigan mode—hair dyed yellow and pretty long, mustache dyed yellow and waxed into a Buffalo Bill configuration. Walking beside him, I just looked like some faithful poet companion. It was nice and hot in that Lake Erie way, and a dump truck pulled to a stop for the red light at Superior. The driver stuck his head out the window and shouted:

"Hey, Shoeless Joe!"

Bill didn't know, but several years earlier I had been the judge responsible for his winning the Alberta Best First Book Award. The other two novels weren't bad, but they weren't about baseball, eh?

Now, it so happens that Kinsella and I are the only two novelists in western Canada who write about baseball and about Indians.

One time I was in Ottawa for some conference or festival, staying at a Swiss bed and breakfast with Bob Kroetsch and others. In my spare time I went to see the people at Oberon Press, publisher of Kinsella and me. Oberon was in the Delta Hotel building, and after my visit I was on my way to the National Library. This involved crossing the lobby of the Delta Hotel. In the middle of the lobby, in front of the fireplace, were two guys in chairs. One was W.P. Kinsella and the other was the guy who wrote about books for the Ottawa Citizen. I hadn't known that Kinsella was in town. He wasn't there for our conference or festival. I guess he was touring his new book from Oberon Press.

In any case, I did not slow my pace on my way across the lobby of the Delta. As I strode by this interview in front of the fireplace, I spoke a few words to the Citizen.

"This guy may know a little about baseball, but he doesn't know anything about Indians."

An enigmatic strider.

It was one of my greatest days in hotel lobbies." (pp 186-7)

Recently a friend of mine admitted that she couldn't get through his collection of essays, Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing (Vancouver BC: Raincoast, 2005), as she said, because it was all about him. On the other hand, even as I disagree with the absoluteness of her complaint, I have no problem with the suggestion of it; still, this isn’t a book about Bowering, it's a book about baseball, with George and Jean simply along for the ride. This is a book about the sheer joy of the game, learning stats on the players on his fantasy team, why he hates hockey, what baseball hats he refuses to collect, and his favourites (most and least) about the game, including players, stadiums, foods and teams (although I find it strange that Bowering's favourite Ottawa eatery, according to the memoir, is The Glue Pot). It even comes complete with a George Bowering baseball card, with stats on his (mostly literary) awards, and what team he was on at the time, from the York Street Tigers in Montreal in 1969 (GG Poetry) to the Granville Grange Zephyrs in Vancouver in 1973 (All-Star Team, Kosmic League), Mark's Team in 1980 (GG Fiction), Paperbacks in 1993 (bpNichol Chapbook Award and CAA Poetry Award) and Friendly People in 2002 (Canadian Poet Laureate). (Apparently Fredericton poet matt robinson, when he had his collection of hockey poems published last year with ECW Press, it was issued with a card as well, but I haven't yet been given one.) Writing of his baseball days in Montreal, when he taught at Sir George Williams (what later became Concordia University), Bowering writes:

"I remember Hanford Woods, of course, but I don't remember any nickname. Maybe it was too obvious. He himself did name his daughter Georgia Woods, and I saw her years later, a terrific roller skater in the student ghetto.

Young Dwight Gardiner, a poetry student who would become a lifetime friend, was there, but I didn't give him his nickname "Expressway" until the first season of the Kosmic League. My other poetry student Artie Gold would sometimes ride out to Domtar with us, but Artie didn't presume to be an athlete. He could not catch a softball if you rolled it to him across the kitchen table. But he could recite the poems of Jack Spicer, one of the great baseball fans of all time.

Clark Blaise, who also taught at Sir George Williams University, was a couple of books into his terrific fiction career. Of all the fellow writers I have known, Clark Blaise and Hugh Hood were the most fun to do trivia with, especially sports trivia, and especially in Clark's case, baseball trivia. He has a prodigious memory. But during his few appearances as a first baseman for the York Street Tigers, he proved not to be a well-tuned machine made out of coordinated parts. As for Hugh Hood, you could check out Robert Kroetsch's description of him as a would-be ballplayer at a writer's retreat by reading Kroetsch's Crow Journals. I saw W.P. Kinsella trying to throw out the first ball at a game somewhere. These successful fiction writers who love the Great Game were really what I was afraid I might be when I was younger. It took me till the York Street Tigers to find out that given a clean slate, I could do it. I had my father's DNA. My body knew what to look like." (pp 107-8)

[For anyone interested, Bowering will be again in Ottawa for the conference on late Canadian poet Al Purdy in early May, 2006, both presenting a paper on Purdy + doing a poetry reading; watch for a new collection of Bowering's poems, too, out this fall, also with Talonbooks]

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ongoing notes: early April 2006

(photo of myself with distended belly & Rain Taxi t-shirt with Lea Graham at Pubwell's on Preston Street, Ottawa, the first day she & I did all of them collaborations... photo by Melanie McFadden)

"Everything I say cancels itself so I'll have said nothing." (Samuel Beckett)

I know it seems like I mention her all the time now, but here's a new Lea Graham link, to a feature with her at Chicago Postmodern Poetry (note the photograph of her from the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, with our Parliament Buildings in the background); & an interview our Ama did with Kingston writer Stephen Heighton (who will be here in early May as part of the Al Purdy conference at the University of Ottawa). & don't forget to plan your whole life around this spring's ottawa international writers festival, starting on Monday… other blog bits on the same can be seen on literary starlet John W. MacDonald's blog, or on Nigel Beale's site (with smarmy comments here & there... as well as John's smarmy updated version...)

You probably know all about award season: Edmonton writer and blogger Thomas Wharton is the only Canadian on the IMPAC short list, for his book The Logogryph; the Trillium Award shortlist includes F.T. Flahiff (Always Someone to Kill the Doves), Camilla Gibb (Sweetness in The Belly), David Gilmour (A Perfect Night to Go to China), Sheila Heti (Ticknor) & Alayna Munce (When I Was Young & In My Prime). The only one I've read is Flahiff's book, an amazing biography of the late Canadian writer Sheila Watson (read my review here). & then of course, the Griffin prize, with Canadian shortlist Erin Mouré, Phil Hall & Sylvia Legris; how can I root for anyone when I think all three are brilliant? Damn you, Griffin shortlist. On a whole other note, after a hiatus, The Factory Reading Series (which I've been running on & off for about twelve years or so; earlier known as poetry 101) restarts in June at its new location, the Ottawa Art Gallery, which is extremely exciting (they asked me); upcoming events to be announced, but involve poets Max Middle (Ottawa), bill bissett (Toronto), Stephanie Bolster (Montreal) & Leanne Auerbach (Vancouver), etcetera. Watch for details…

Ottawa ON: Since Alberta poet Monty Reid moved from badlands Alberta (Drumheller) to badlands Quebec (Aylmer) in April 1999, he has barely published at all, with his last trade book out the fall before, Flat Side (Red Deer AB: Red Deer Press, 1998). Now that he has (over the past few months) moved directly into Centretown Ottawa, he has a new book out this fall, an above/ground press title just behind him, pieces in both issues of ottawater, and a chapbook title newly out, Sweetheart of Mine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006). In this collection, the poems are short, individual, and even quick. I like the historical element of the poem "John Hardy," that resonates through simple information, in that way that feels almost Creeley-esque.

John Hardy


is a debt to be paid

he shot a man
over 25 cents

and was hung in 1894

in West Virginia (p 16)

In poems that reference music (Reid participates in bluegrass festivals & events almost every weekend throughout the summer, & even composes his own pieces), the lines are far shorter than what we have come to expect in a Monty Reid poem, with ideas stretched out across the line, stretched across; instead, Reid condenses to the bare stretch of bone, pulling instead the small moment down. With all the banjo references that Reid makes in these pieces, it makes me want to be in that room if he ever gets together with that other Canlit banjo player, Newfoundland writer Stan Dragland (there's a great photo of Dragland with banjo & Alison Pick in the new issue of The New Quarterly, alongside an impressive & highly entertaining interview conducted by Pick).

Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy

the banjo
played clawhammer style

makes me think
of a man

in front of the demolished house
where he can smell

the grey reek of potatoes
and the stench

of ageing grease
just before the war

come home with me tonight
anyway (p 17)

Monty reads soon as part of a series at the Ottawa Public Library; to find out about getting a copy of his latest chapbook, check out Jay MillAr's BookThug.

Vancouver BC: Recently I was complaining that I hadn't heard anything about poet Rachel Rose after her first poetry collection, Giving My Body to Science (Montreal QC: The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series, McGill-Queens, 1999); since then, I've discovered that she had a second collection out last spring, Notes on Arrival and Departure (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2005). What I liked about her first collection is here, but more subtle, underscored. It is almost as though after her first collection, Rose has a better sense of what she is doing, and the electricity of that first fearful collection is somehow missing.


The night I weaned you
I checked into Bienvenue B&B
and left you in arms far stronger than mine.

I ate alone, pausing between each bite, trying to recall
who I had been before you came.
I did not want company, I did not want

to go out. The TV was set to hearing-impaired
translation, and I could not switch it off.
All evening I stayed inside, watching

what I never get to see: reality TV.
The Maury show
asking me: Is your teenage daughter

about to get married and you think her fiancé's
cheating? Then call. Are you ready
to find out once and for all

who is the real father
of your child? Call.
Underneath, the closed-captioning ran wild,

CNN discussed wars in distant
places, and I read the mysterious translation:
fighting among Ivory Coast rib bells,

and thought how far
the world seemed from me!
All night I lay on my back, breasts pulsing

their separate migraines, blind and aching.
Very late I watched a documentary on Susan Smith
and was reassured about my own slipping

maternal instincts: the fierce, sucking love I carry
for you. In the darkness I thought of
Alex and Michael Smith,

the six minutes it took their car to sink.
All night my breasts sobbed thin tears
and I wiped and wiped their tiny, streaming mouths

with a corner of white Kleenex.
The TV flashed its lights across my skin, body
my own again, if just for a night,

while you at home, screaming for milk and solace,
learned, finally, the comfort of your thumb,
flesh of my flesh

the jingle bells of your sleepy bunny,
that you could be nourished without me,
rib of my rib

that your world extended beyond my grasp,
that another's arms could console you. (pp 28-9)

Her poems are dazzling, resonant and unsentimental, but there is just some element of urgency that didn't come through here, the way the first collection did. Call it maturity, I suppose; it might be the equivalent of complaints that Elvis Costello wasn't an angry young man anymore, by the time 1980 hit. Am I simply unable to adapt? But who can deny the power of a poem such as this one, second piece in:


How dangerous your life is
between the walls of wet teeth
and the chasm we call throat.
Life is sweet at the beginning,
bitter and sour in the middle, and finally tasteless
at the end of it all. O the way you curl when I ask you
to say mulberry, say cunnilingus,
the way you tremble and wet yourself
at the sour anticipation of lemon tarts.

You have fed me well, satisfied my lovers, told my stories.
Your hinge has been wounded against sharp pearls,
the price for stretching full length
in pleasure. You have caught the bitter
draught of men, the rolling pungency of women,
and after, in the quiet room,
you have lifted yourself from where you lay,
pressed your tip against the palate's chapel
and formed the word Love.

Tonight, eating curled squid cross-hatched with diamonds,
I bit right through you. I believed you tougher than that.
My throat filled as you swelled and swelled.
Panting, my mouth open and spilling blood,
I gave birth to hunger, abstinence, silence.

It was only when mute that you revealed
the wound that can't be stitched must be concealed. (p 4)

Toronto ON: Another BookThug publication in my mailbox recently was the first issue of BafterC (January 2006, Volume 2, No. 1), edited by Mark Truscott & Jay MillAr (are there copies of volume one still available, I wonder?). A tastefully designed publication of challenging writing, the issue includes pieces by a. rawlings, Laynie Browne, Lynn McClory, Adam Seelig, Kemeny Babineau, Lisa Jarnot and derek beaulieu, as well as a piece by Calgary writer Julia Williams ("Community and Accessibility: An E-mail") and Toronto writer Sandra Alland ("Some thoughts on Poetic Translation"). Here's an example of one of Browne's poems, from her work-in-progress "Daily Sonnets"; Browne is an Oakland CA poet I was previously unaware of:


A dumb duration that enters
the body, used to color textiles
paper, hair, dyed-in-the-wool
Dutch uncle subject to dust storms
A cloth brush for removing duplicate
Dumps, dumplings or dumbfounded
Pennyweights used to designate
Difficult shortwave reception
To cause to appear smaller in size,
Character, a couple or pair of
Dungeons pertaining to twelfths
A person easily duped, dipped
Into coffee, denim fabric, to make a
Speechless collection of ammunition (p 6)

Prompted by an email question by Truscott, asking if the ideas of community and accessibility are related, Williams' piece is quite interesting, although starting from the somewhat pessimistic base idea of a Canadian poet selling no more than 26 copies of any title (anything that sells that badly is the combined fault of the writer, publisher and booksellers, and not a reflection of Canadian poetry in general). As she says in her piece:

Why do writers pursue publication if they don't care that only a handful of people will ever look at their work? If we want no more than 26 people to read our poems, wouldn't it be simpler to find out their names and e-mail them the file? There's something truly disingenuous about insisting we don't want a large readership and then sending our manuscripts to a bunch of publishers. This attitude won't keep publishers (especially small presses) in business, and it certainly won't give us the ability to devote our energy to writing creatively as opposed to making a living (the two pursuits being mutually exclusive - not to keep harping on this point). In a nutshell, if poetry is just for poets, then it becomes a hobby and not a profession. I want poetry to be a profession. I want to earn compensation commensurate with my experience and education. I want every writer and publisher in Canada to spend less time working day jobs, writing grant applications and panhandling to corporations, and more time doing their jobs. (p 26)

I completely agree. Unfortunately, print (or any other) media doesn't seem to take poetry seriously (much of the time), and it becomes even worse for a poetry in any way challenging. As far as poets and/or writers unwilling or uninterested in promoting their own publications after they appear, I don't even understand why they bother; why ask someone to spend thousands of dollars producing a book of yours and then refuse to tell anyone? It just makes no sense. I've seen to many of them over the years.

According to the colophon on the cover, BafterC "appears as often as is either possible or necessary." Check the website to find out how to get a copy, or submit to potential future issues.

Philadelphia PA: If you remember any part of the late poetry journal Ixnay, then you should be excited about the ixnay reader, volume two that appeared sometime last year (but only recently in my mailbox). Still edited and published by the usual suspects, Chris McCreary and Jenn McCreary, the second volume of their ixnay reader includes sections by various poets, including Fran Ryan, Kaia Sand, Kevin Varrone, Daniel Hales, Jen Coleman, Pattie McCarthy, Eric Keenaghan and Eli Goldblatt.

I have to admit, Pattie McCarthy, author of two trade collections with Apogee Press, is one of my favourite (I should say, favorite) young American poets, so it was a joy to be able to go through her twelve part "iron :" that includes

6. hale & hearty, whole & hale—
a system of hereditary skepticism.
the ostrich [which
bird can consume iron] unnecessarily
fecund & vespid.

it's a delightful system (even a workable system).
the act or practice of opening a vein; (of insects)
bloodsucking— while it might
seem a bit medieval, this treatment, it is something
close to astonishing in its simplicity.

But really, there were parts of every section that were interesting, such as this fragment from Fran Ryan's "Blaise," that reads:

This is practice speaking through a violence.
Practice for a cut a practice speaking through fear.
Use these lines these are leaves in a light.
Practice for a cut mouth in a violent place.

Not to be detected speaking in silence in a cassette.
Speaking of a way through a violent way for you.

He is not to be detected.
The cave as a refuge from violent
Place to speak again
And flaw in the voice therapy to pronounce.

Blaise speaking this practice whisper from a violence.
Blaise in the leaves wanting peace speaking in leaves.
Place the fingers at the throat
Fingers remove the bone that cut the throat and mouth.

Blaise stammer in a practice not to be detected.
Speaking as a poet speaking into cassette.
The impediment
Leaf the mouth a small tree
This seeks peace in speaking in public.
Remove the bone the precise throat
Remove the bone and sing.

Check out their website or write them c/o McCreary, 1328 Tasker Street, Philadelphia PA 19148 to find out how to get a copy of this, or any of their backlist.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Boiling down to stone: recent Don McKay

It is a tale full of its endings.
There are all these poems standing
like plumbers amid the ruined buildings
gesturing tool boxes
at the absence of bathrooms in the air, is this
some sort of joke?
And only the Long Sault is laughing:
Fuck your renaissance, get me a beer. ("Bedrock," Long Sault)

It's been an impressive period, from fall 2005 to now, for Canadian poet Don McKay, with the publication of his prose/poetry collection Deactivated West 100 (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005), his first new poetry collection in six years, Strike/Slip (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), as well as the appearance this spring of a small critical selected, Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay, edited by Meira Cook (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006), and the forthcoming Don McKay: Essays on His Works, edited by Brian Bartlett (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, forthcoming). I call him "Canadian" as opposed to anything more provincial or closer because he has become a difficult man to track, in many ways, born in Owen Sound, Ontario, raised in Cornwall, Ontario, and extended years in London, ON (teaching at the University of Western Ontario), Fredericton, NB (where he & his partner, Jan Zwicky, taught at the University of New Brunswick) and now, Victoria, BC (where Zwicky teaches at the University of Victoria). Through that period of silence between poetry collections, still, there was the appearance of the selected poems, Camber (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2004), which, frustratingly, included no new material, & very little from his earlier collections (we really need to find someone willing to reissue his Long Sault collection from 1976…); that period of shift in his subject matter can almost be summed up in a section from his piece "Between Rock and Stone: a geopoetic alphabet" from Deactivated West 100 that writes:


What is the difference between a rock and a stone?
Had we been proceeding logically, this issue would
have come first. Many will say there is no difference.
But if we ask a geologist, the answer comes out pat:
a stone is a rock that's been put to use: stone ham-
mer, rip-rap, gravel, wall, paving stone, tombstone,
milestone, statue. Now, a geopoet, I surmise, will
give the same answer, but where the geologist snaps
a lid shut, the geopoet opens Pandora's box. What
happens between rock and stone is simply every-
thing human, from the modifications necessary to
make homes to, at the other extreme, the excesses
of ownership and exploitation which submit all
ends to ours. So another answer might be: rock is as
old as the earth is; stone is only as old as humanity. (p 59)

I don't mind saying that for whatever reason, my favourite (still) of McKay's works has to be the early long poem that worked both stone and water, human story and habitation, his Long Sault (1975). First published as his second book in 1975 by Applegarth Follies, a precursor to his current Brick Books, and appears in full in Michael Ondaatje’s anthology The Long Poem Anthology (1979). Written on the Long Sault project, building the dam and drowning towns, just west of Cornwall, where he lived in grew up. A project my ex-wife’s father worked on, one of so many jobs. Before his thirty plus years driving a truck for Glengarry Transport Limited. In a statement for Long Sault, McKay wrote:

"[. . .] When the hydroelectric dam was constructed at Cornwall, Ontario during the late fifties, the St. Lawrence River flooded upstream as far as Iroquois, submerging a length of shoreline rich in history and tradition. Villages like Wales, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Dickinson’s Landing were ‘relocated,’ and — focal point of this poem — the Long Sault Rapids was drowned. It was only after I got going that I found myself in a longer sequence which then grew by grope and feel. At first I had in mind something short and tough, left jab, angry elegy. But doing that I found other planes of the subject, realized that the moves and power of the long sault weren’t really locked up in the dam, began thinking of all the rapids I’d experienced and found them moving in surprising places and pushing the writing into different forms, looked into historical accounts which touched on the long sault, like those by Alexander Henry and George Hirot (whose words introduce ‘At the Long Sault Parkway’), and I guess generally got sucked in, the way my eyes always got sucked into watching the long sault during Sunday excursions, and still get mesmerized by that furious stillness."

My father has a photograph taken, he says, between 1958 and 1961; the time the new milk-house was built, but before the previous had been torn down. It shows both buildings, one that was just new, and the other, that no longer exists. Apparently it became required to have the milk-house attached to the barn, so the original, ten paces or so from the barn door (where he now keeps the gas pumps, one for diesel and the other for ethanol), could no longer be used. He tells a story of his father and a neighbour going out to Long Sault to buy wood as the towns were being moved, his father buying an abandoned shed as his neighbour bought a gas station, bringing both buildings home in pieces on the back of a rented truck, to rebuild what they needed out of the materials. Our milk-house, then, where the tank of milk sat, emptied every two days by the milk truck from Montréal, built from wood taken from an entire small building that once stood where twenty or thirty foot of water now rests, moving slowly out along the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic ocean.

The Long Sault sucks
astonishment into a jaded lung.
The trees, the bald cat, and the telephone
hang on the inhalation till he coughs.
Goddam, he says at last, the absence of a wire
whangs there like a goddam tambourine.
That’s better son, she rocks, you just
keep on knitting them like that. ("The Long Sault Rapids’ Grandmother," Long Sault)

Despite the fact that McKay and Zwicky still spend a part of their year writing in the McKay family cabin somewhere in Glengarry County (I haven't found it yet, but swear I someday will…), there has become a deeper consideration of place itself, that pastoral, that once included poems on old windows in Glengarry, rocking chairs and particular birds, but now goes deeper into the literal and figurative strata of earth, as in this poem situated close to the beginning of the collection Strike/Slip:


your heart's tongue seized
mid-syllable, caught by the lava flow
you fled. Fixed,
you stiffen in the arms of wonder's dark
undomesticated sister. Can't you name her
and escape? You are the statue
that has lost the entrance into art,
wild and incompetent,
you have no house. Who are you?
You are the crystal that picks up
its many deaths.
You are the momentary mind of rock. (p 4)

In an interview conducted by poet Ken Babstock (reprinted in the Guernica Editions collection), Don McKay talked about the abandoned farm his parents, then still living in Cornwall, intended to retire on. “The farm’s actually just inside Glengarry County. It’s become a kind of retreat, really. It’s a place to go away to and write.” McKay, though, has always been a writer never in any particular hurry, so the space of time between this book and the last, Another Gravity (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2000) is certainly not significant. Even in the thirty-some years he has been publishing, he has published only nine trade poetry titles, before his selected poems appeared: Air Occupies Space (Windsor ON: Sesame, 1973), Long Sault (London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975), Lependu (Coldstream ON: Nairn/Coldstream, 1978), Lightning Ball Bait (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1980), Birding, or desire (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1983), Sanding Down This Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1987), Night Field (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1991), Apparatus (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1997) and Another Gravity (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2000), as well as his two collections of essays, Vis à vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry and Wilderness (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2001) and Deactivated West 100 (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005). If you want to look at the work as a whole, McKay started by looking around him, whether in the air at the birds, ahead him at the Long Sault rapids, and slowly made his way working further and further down; moving metaphor from the air to the ground. As Cook writes in her introduction to Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay:

The wilderness McKay's poetry discovers in landscape, creatures, faces, tools, and objects bespeaks a lyrical encounter with otherness, with what is non-human or alien as well as the resulting disproportion, incongruity, and incomprehensibility of these encounters. Such confrontations may be uneasy, disordered, even chaotic, but they are always illuminated by humility and respect, by "a mind / widen [ing] with expectancy" in the words of "Le Style" (Sanding). For McKay, the wilderness is clearly not a circumscribed category of endangered species […]. (p xvii)

The essays that make up Don McKay: Essays on His Works (forthcoming) are extremely impressive, and of the volumes I've seen of Guernica Editions' ongoing series, this has to be the most substantial so far, edited by poet Brian Bartlett. In the works for a number of years (it makes reference to Camber as being "forthcoming," for example), it includes pieces both old and new, including earlier pieces rewritten for the collection, such as pieces by Stan Dragland (a very early review of Long Sault), Robert Bringhurst, John Oughton, Louis MacKendrick, Christopher Levenson, Don Coles, Kevin Bushell, Susan Elmslie, Sue Sinclair, Barbara Colebrook Peace, Margo Wheaton, Ross Leckie, Brian Bartlett and Ken Babstock. What makes the collection interesting is not only its size and depth, but its range of McKay, moving from point to point to geographic point along the mythology of his own ongoing mapmaking. As Bartlett writes in his introduction, "The prose in this book traces many elements of McKay's work — technical panache and complexity, indebtedness to and differences from Romantic predecessors, philosophical underpinnings, descriptive exactitude, fertility of metaphor-making, excursionist motifs, humour and wit, ecological attentiveness, considerations of human tools and technology. The pieces date from 1978 to 2003. Many of them originally appeared as book reviews, in some cases since revised and expanded. Two of them appeared as scholarly essays adapted from M.A. theses, and revised again for this book. It seemed appropriate to follow up the essays and reviews with a recent interview, in which McKay is heard in conversation with a poet from a younger generation." (pp 8-9). There are some who have suggested that the particular kind of metaphor-playing McKay has been working over the years is beginning to wear thin (in general, as Mark Truscott recently suggested, and not just in McKay's own work), but it is hard to deny that he is certainly one of the finest there is at what he does, what he does so well.


So many vexing anonymities – shrugs,
aliases, crepitations, secrets of the séance,
secrets of the sea. Who goes there,
publishing its deep–fried alphabet? Who needs
fifty letters to say sh, twenty-five
articulating f? Maybe it's a flock of juncos
scratching the forest floor, or chipmunks,
or a bit of breeze
leafing through the pages of the Tao Te Ching.
Maybe it's the dead
come to visit with their dreadful lisps
and talk-show gossip from the other side,
or the subtext, a.k.a. the black bear who will
enter in Act III to marry us
or eat us up. Or maybe just those
mindless feet of yours, still
doing the goose-step, soft shoe,
goose-step through the washed-up
desiccated turf. (Strike/Slip, p 61)