Friday, June 29, 2007

rob mclennan in Kingston (Ontario); Poetry & Company

Poetry at the Wolfe: The next poetry workshop at the Wolfe Island Bakery will be held Tuesday July 3rd, from 4:00 until 6:00 p.m. with rob mclennan, Ottawa poet. Margaretann Gorham is organizing this event. She can be reached at 613-378-1396, or email:

The next Poetry & Company will be Tuesday July 3rd at 7 PM. Please contact Bonita Summers at to reserve mic time. rob mclennan will be reading roughly 20-30 minutes as part of the event.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

poem of the dominion tavern

never changes; or would you want

the kind of body she could have
that misleads

a heart across the sum

if you could 20,000 poems
against the war in irac

no bird would light upon

tennis an acceptable risk

the fire works display the blank light
july first ignorant of bees

I am not your victory, dance

an airplane down into the crowd

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

ongoing notes: the ottawa small press book fair (part two)

Here are some recent reviews of the Monty Reid book we published last fall, Disappointment Island; one by Ronnie R. Brown and the other by Steve McOrmond, as well as a recent nod Ron Silliman gave our Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets in a longer review of The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century (Chicago IL: Cracked Slab Books, 2007) [see my review of same here]. And did you see these photos Rob Fairchild took at the ottawa small press book fair? Will people start mailing me small chapbooks and magazines again, or am I going to have to start hunting for things (again)? And did you see this recent piece on Ottawa poet David O'Meara by Canadian ex-pat Sina Queyras, or her other on Shane Rhodes? Or this new blog for Atlanta poets? And did you know that Ottawa writer Ian Roy has been posting short films once a month on YouTube, or that Amanda Earl has been posting some of her amazing songs on her Facebook page? Check out the Chaudiere Books blog for more author activity…

Ottawa ON: I've been very liking what Amanda Earl has been working on these past few months and months and months; editor/publisher of Bywords Quarterly Journal and with her husband Charles Earl, she's been working largely (it seems) in the sequence over the past year, working out small moments that fit into other moments. With three new chapbooks published in full colour through her new AngelHousePress, she gave me a package of materials including deadstreet Gallery presents (2007), 8 planets speaking in tongues (2007) and postcards from the museum of the broken (2007). Earl suffers, for lack of a better word, from synesthesia, a condition that pushes one sense over another, and for her case, causing her to see particular colours for particular words. After a suggestion she work that into her writing, she has; to me, the most interesting collection of the three is the second, 8 planets speaking in tongues, playing directly with sound (after she went through, among other things, Steve McCaffery at PENNsound).

Za Sim

Zazim oh che glidara a zazim.
here cantare il sondo de camponelli
jingle jingle aqui sono la felicidad
love making e angeli clouds
azurroblu sunshine shinkle
con la gioia di una new morning.
i popoli want to stay per eternidad.

Wilkes-Barre, PA: It was wonderful to have American poets Dan Waber and Jennifer Hill-Kaucher come to Ottawa to not only visit (Dan claims the whole visit, actually, was structured around wanting to meet Ottawa poet/publisher jwcurry) but participate in the book fair weekend, reading and exhibiting. Some of the things they left behind were Hill-Kaucher's Questioning Walls Open (Kanona NY: FootHills Publishing, 2001) and Waber's own cheer (Port Charlotte FL: Runaway Spoon Press, 2007).

As Amanda Earl said in her blog entry, there was something utterly charming about Hill Kaucher reading barefoot, to feel (as she said) more grounded (it made me think of Joss Stone). Working more in the "traditional" poem than Waber, many of the poems have interesting threads and interesting ideas; perhaps it’s the problem with looking through a collection six years old, but I want so many of these to be tighter, tighter, tighter


I wish you would write. Your letter
would arrive in good time, aloft
in days striated with routine.
I'd put on the kettle, study
the althea on the stamp,
its Latin name a whisper
in my throat. Then I'd tear
the envelope, leave
a line of teeth to read
the marrow of your life
in your hand, that fine fist
we learned - racemose loops
and slanted stems that lilted
us toward other suns. Later,
I'd see the pages folded
beneath my cup, the rim
of stain, O of surprise.

Waber, on the other hand (one of the nicest writers I think I've met), works the concrete and visual, working from his own paper kite press down there in the US where they live. As with cheer, he seems very good with the play of the visuals, much like pretty much everything I've seen so far, but why do I get the feeling that I've seen so much of it before? Waber's play seems very aware of working the same thread and repetition, which doesn’t always work, but when it does, it's completely amazing, such as with the unpublished piece he finished his reading with, at the Carleton Tavern [see John W. MacDonald's post on it here]. Still, they left copies of a collaborative handout that was pretty interesting, "Printed on the occasion of the barnstorming Can-Am tour of 2007," their poem "Riot Heart" (imagine the parts I bold actually printed in red ink…). The poem even shows some interesting structural echoes of what Hill Kaucher does in parts of her small collection, turning the one side of the merging into itself, and coming out the other.

Riot Heart

Your love
is like
how a
bloom riot
blooms in
May, the
sun's heart.

Yes, we
both have
seen that.

Love comes
in like
to riot
nests the

Should we
told that?

No love
keeps a
words in
down heart.

We still
don’t have

Love flaps
like wings,
a white
riot floats
in blue,
the sky's
heart beats.

We will
have all
that, too.

Ottawa ON: An interesting collection produced for the fair was the small chapbook Basement Tapes (Ottawa ON: The Onion Union, 2007), with poems by young Ottawa poets Andrew Faulkner, Nicholas Lea and Marcus McCann.

The car

shaped like a bike tire
sat on, Ikea-lug grey.

Heart a sort of free radio
a waterlogged roadside

blast cap. Looks like
these towns
blew up once,
No Crescendo, Ontario.

A passenger
is a person carried.

Scrub blushed up,
what pricks your sandals
pissing on the shoulder.

Not that I think
carried away

it's hard to get emotional,
easy to get lost. (Marcus McCann)

With poems put authorless (a list exists at the back of the collection, as part of the author bios) in three sections—"Transisted," "(Re)Dubbed" and "Tables, Turned"—the mix of these three particular authors is an appropriate mix, as they are roughly the same age at roughly the same point in their careers. Faulker is a young University of Ottawa student and editor/publisher of the Ottawa Arts Review [see my review of their first issue here], Marcus McCann is a young poet with pieces in ottawater and a forthcoming above/ground press chapbook, and Nicholas Lea recently had his first trade collection of poetry (according to his bio, launched "to wide acclaim") appear with Chaudiere Books in April of this year.

A lovely, serious picture of something lovely, serious

White, spited moonlight
bouncing off the salt flats.
Your arms split in
two: a lotus.

My prior longing, re: visiting
the stagnant waters that
spill into my life.

Fashion like this is in-
surmountable. Why must
the defaults always impose
so cynically?—what?

Tailors are tourists; you said
so yourself…itching
to nip and needle some alien

Marine life! That's
the sort of sordid life for me.
The whishy undulations
that never cease,

the loyal comedy about
what's, in due course, a stiffened
lung—a zodiac sign, forgotten
for hours. (Nicholas Lea)

According to the notes on the text at the back, "The author of each poem only saw the individual poem he had been given and worked loosely within the confines of translation," suggesting a sequence of originals that the three of them all worked on; what were these originals (I know one piece is a phonetic translation, and another all the s-words that appear in a chapbook manuscript of McCann's)? And as much as I like the poems in this book, at least for McCann and Lea (only because I don’t know the work of Faulkner), I know I like what they're doing here, but I also know that they're stronger poets than what this collection is telling us. Still, I'm heartened by the fact that there are young poets in town willing to put themselves out there; I am interested in seeing more…

Suggestive graphing
(or, a portrait of a variable as directive)

for the scientific method

Shaped like a constraint,
a splash deteriorating when soaped.
As advertised, Sunlight's the shortest route
to getting soluble. Skid marks
a landscape similar to sleep,
streaking an unenlightened canopy likes stars.

Unsurprisingly, logic's a non sequitor,
reasoned saltless and buoyant like a day-cruise,
a sea proved dried or unscrubbed.
The art of suggestive graphing, coercion-bound.
Science as a soft-sale: sphincters and screw-topped
ice cream, both served up splitzed and sopping.

Blacked-out and out of
control - say, a parabola gone for a joyride
between gears and slipping.
In case of variable
follow directions closely: something something;
solve for s.

Ottawa ON: Here's the poem published as a little card by Bywords to promote The John Newlove Poetry Award Chapbook Series 2006 winner Roland Prevost (as judged by Erin Mouré). The full chapbook appears this fall, and will be launched at the ottawa international writers festival (the 2007 winner will be announced at the same event). Some of Prevost's poems can be found otherwise in Melissa Upfold's variations zine, or in the most recent issue of the online ottawater.


not just the crook but the crime, never apprehended
in human equivalent chrysalis years, sooner charges laid

a wasp's nest, grey paper long abandoned, on embers flashes
after the flames, a silence as empty, flecks spiral up

tomorrow, we're told, a slight drizzling rain
will ride in on an unusual south-easter

Vancouver BC: When Warren Fulton was here, he left a stack of publications by Vancouver legend Gerry Gilbert [see my note on him here], including a bunch of BC MONTHLY from 2006, a publication that Gilbert has been doing for decades, but for the past bunch of years, has been predominantly his own work, as opposed to the 1960s/70s version of same that existed alongside grOnk and blewointment and TISH as a mailout journal publishing a whole slew of those working around him. Here are the first few stanzas of "2006 POETREES XIII, DECEMBER HAIKUS" by Gilbert. At one point, Gilbert was the master of the excess, including books like From Last Spring and Moby Jane (1987; reissued by Coach House Books in 2004); unfortunately, that mastery has turned more into excess, with the gems hidden beneath line after stanza after page, and much of his work hasn’t been taken seriously in about twenty years, but by publishers such as BookThug. Will there ever be new trade editions of Gerry Gilbert?

care to stare at where
the mirror reflectively
shares dare of each hair

good to go visit
where i used to be a kid
wittily useful

sand sharpens dogs' nails
finds toes to toughen in shoes
beach defeating feet

as well as to us
people & pooches know what
to say to oceans

we'll always see waves
splashing in as inventing
reading & writing

saved my sister's life
in kitsilano pool once
we were each youngsters

wonderful to find
city fulla spots where i
became becoming

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Arc poetry magazine: 13 dead poets you should know but don't

For their summer 2007 issue, Ottawa's Arc poetry magazine has featured "13 dead poets you should know but don’t," subtitled "Resurrecting Canada's Forgotten and Neglected." The premise for this issue is very interesting, bringing back a series of poets from the past that deserve the attention. As Arc editors Anita Lahey and Matthew Holmes write in their introduction:
In the spring of 2005, three members of Arc ― the two of us from Ottawa and Sackville, New Brunswick respectively, and our webmistress Stacey Munro from Vancouver Island ― converged at the Associated Writers and Publishers conference and book fair in downtown Vancouver. Amid an intoxicating few days of seeing such poets as W.S. Merwin and Anne Carson give readings to jam-packed ballrooms at the Fairmont Vancouver Hotel, we also attended a session called Forgotten and Neglected Poets, and were curious to see which Canadians would appear on the roster (the panel giving the presentation was American). To our amusement and dismay, Gwendolyn MacEwen was the sole Canadian deemed in need of resurrection. As MacEwen's been neither F'd nor N'd in this country, we began to wonder who might truly fit the category. By the time we'd returned to our table at the book fair, this special issue of Arc was already unofficially underway.
The idea itself is a particularly interesting one, and even the notion that MacEwen, for an American audience is forgotten, presumes she might have even been known; sure, she had a novel published in the United States at one point, but they managed to spell her name wrong in the first edition, calling her "Gwendolyn MacEven." Does that count as being known in the United States? But that might not have been the point. The essays in this issue of Arc introduce us to thirteen poets we might not have otherwise known (with poems by each for example thrown in for good measure), as Asa Boxer writes about his late father, Avi Boxer, Aislinn Hunter writes about Louise Morey Bowman, Christopher Doda writes about George Faludy, George Elliott Clarke writes about Cheng Sait Chia, Ronald Caplan writes about Paul Potts, Anita Lahey writes about Dorothy Roberts, G. Kim Blank writes about Audrey Alexandra Brown, John Barton writes about Douglas LePan, Chris Jennings writes about Philip Child, Carmine Starnino writes about James Denoon, Matthew Holmes writes about Thomas D'Arcy McGee and Joseph Howe, and Zachariah Wells writes about Kenneth Leslie.

For Ezra Pound

I have waited to ask you this
I could not ask you in prison
I waited until you were free.

But why, why did you let them use
Your name and your greatness
As so many pennies to put
Into the meters of their gas-machines?
You know what they did with their gas
Your gas, Ezra Pound.
The crime was too big;
There are no extenuating circumstances;
You should have known better.

In Jerusalem I asked
The ancient Hebrew poets to forgive you;
And what would Walt Whitman have said
And Thomas Jefferson. (Paul Potts)

The issue itself is beautifully produced, with artwork by Jon Claytor, and a hefty size for their $9.95 price tag, worthy of such a fee if not worth more, but there's something about a magazine that is predominantly a journal of new poetry (with a good amount of reviews and review essays in the back of locals and otherwise) devoting an entire issue to poets that, even according to many of the writers, weren’t really doing anything terribly memorable. Instead, a number of the pieces in the issue are far more interesting for the sake of academic exercise, for biography, and for other-placement of how a literature is considered, lost and gained than in bringing to light a particular writer who needs to be seen for the writing they did. It's as though the argument isn’t for the importance of their individual writings, but for their placement in history. Is that how a literature works? Do young readers go through the poetry of John Thompson because of the times he lived in, or because the work was so kick-ass that it absolutely has to be experienced to believed?

(To Seow Kay Wan)

In tears of remembrance
I walk in the snow
the snows of your dreams

Had you but seen once
how the snows of one night
change the whole world

Had you but seen once
how soft the flakes
cover the pines

I would walk in the snow
in smiles of solace
the snows of your eternal dreams (Cheng Sait Chia)

Of the pieces included in the issue, one of the more interesting ones was by the poet Asa Boxer (with his own first poetry collection out this fall with Vehicule/Signal), writing on his late father, the poet Avi Boxer, under the wing of Irving Layton and contemporary of Henry Moscovitch (he had the second book in the McGill Poetry Series after Leonard Cohen; does anybody remember that?) and Seymour Mayne; how does a poet so young in his career write about his father, working the same rough terrain? Exploring the small handful of pieces known and some unknown by his father, Boxer writes the elder poet, finally, as one of great promise explored and begun, but in the end, unfulfilled.
My late father, Avi Boxer (1932-1987), was part of the 1950s literary foment in Montreal. He was a student of Irving Layton's and consulted on occasion with A.M. Klein. Besides my father and his two mentors, the Montreal school at the time, consisted, most notably, of Louis Dudek, Leonard Cohen, and Henry Moscovitch. Often, they would meet at Layton's house in Cote-Saint-Luc with other local artists, including Morton Rosengarten, to discuss poetry and, no doubt, to bolster one another's efforts through workshopping and some erudite chat on literature and the arts. Layton, as we know, persisted; he became a Canadian literary icon, and was eventually nominated (twice!) for the Nobel Prize. Dudek became one of Canada's leading literary thinkers. And Cohen, well, everybody knows. Moscovitch succumbed to mental illness and dropped out of sight. Rosengarten earned an esteemed reputation for his sculpture. And Boxer—though the promising "youngest published poet in Canada" at the tender age of 14, and later (at 33) winner of Sir George Williams University's Board of Governors Gold Medal for Creative Expression (1965)—gradually left off writing poems during his twenties (while working in advertising as a copywriter and negotiating his first marriage). He reappeared briefly in 1971, when he was 39, with the publication of his book, No Address—it contained mostly reworked poems written in his youth—and then vanished from the Can-lit scene entirely. My father referred to himself not as a poet but as a craftsman, meaning he felt that he had not written anything resembling a master-work, was not a persistent enough practitioner, and thus had not explored his voice and potential.
As Toronto writer George Elliott Clarke writes of Cheng Sait Chia (1940-1981), the author of Turned Clay (Fredericton NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1982), he explores an interesting history of not only the author and her work, but of other-ness, being a Chinese-and-anything-else poet in Canada, writing:
Two primary anthologies of Chinese-Canadian literature, Many-Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians (1991), edited by Bennett Lee and Jim Wong-Chu, and Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry (1999), edited by Andy Quan and (again) Wong-Chu, overlook any Chinese-Canadian writer living east of Montreal. In both works, the category Chinese-Canadian implies a Westerner, especially a West Coaster, with a few stray add-ons from Toronto and Montreal, but none from further east. Both anthologies avoid the East Coast, as if the Chinese communities on the Atlantic were simply positioned on the wrong ocean, East Coast Chinese Canada is the "Orient" disappeared from the anthologies. Yet, as elsewhere across Canada, in the previous century, practically every town in Atlantic Canada boasted a Chinese-operated restaurant, and many still do. If it was possible for the celebrated poet and scholar Fred Wah (1939-) to emerge from small-town Saskatchewan and assume a commanding position within English-Canadian letters, why was it not possible for the Maritimes and Newfoundland to produce a similar Chinese-Canadian writer?
And Montreal poet and critic Carmine Starnino's piece "A Scotchman & a soldier: The occasional poems of James Denoon" is far more interesting as an investigation of the shifts in purposes and social impact of poetry, and less about Denoon's actual writing or even poetry itself. During the launch of the issue over this past weekend, I thought: why didn’t I offer to write on David UU, the late west coast visual poet? Most of the poets I've thought about as lost and needing discovery over the past decade or so are ones that, until recently, were all still very much alive, but somehow lost in the ether, including the late Artie Gold [see my note on him here], Judith Copithorne, Andrew Suknaski [see my essay on him here] and David Phillips (I really need to write something on him someday). Others, such as Montreal's Peter Van Toorn [see my piece on him here] and Vancouver's Gerry Gilbert [see my note on him here] and Maxine Gadd [see my note on her here] were long and lost, but have over the past few years been either brought back into publishing, or slowly crept back on their own (it's not for me to decide which). Even Ken Belford, BC poet, had a couple of decades were he didn’t publish at all, until a few years ago (see the recent feature on him in It's Still Winter).

For Arc poetry magazine, what is the purpose of working through such a list? Is it an acknowledgment of lives lived, of poetry written and promise fulfilled, failed or simply just forgotten, fallen out of favour? What is the purpose here? To keep to their rule of the authors being no longer alive certainly kept the writers historical, but it also kept out any sense of real risk by talking about a particular writer who may still be in the world, but for some reason, hasn’t published in it in a very long time. I am hoping somewhere, someone is working on that issue.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A poem on Riley Tench by Richard Harrison

I recently published an above/ground press broadside by Calgary poet Richard Harrison, a short piece he wrote on the late Ottawa poet Riley Tench [see my note on him here]. Due to the overwhelming response to the piece, I've decided to post the piece online to give it a wider audience than mere paper and post could provide.

For Riley

I see Riley downstairs in the Arthur office while I type the first literary section he let me do. I am working on the IBM Selectric – top of the line stuff in those days: New Technology: snap-snap-snapsnap-snap-snap like a
machine gun. Riley calls up, “Hey, Spitfire! It’s poetry, enjoy it!” Riley finding my copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet open at an especially passionate and romantic passage about why the poet writes, and leaving me a note beside it – “That’s Bizarre! You write poems to give pleasure to your friends and pain to your enemies.” Riley on stage giving pleasure to his friends with his Raggedy-Andy hair and wide-eyed yet experienced look that knew the world but could still be amazed by it. What was it this time? “say yuv found this chikn wing in th street,” Riley tipping back like Chaplin, “yur shoin off fr yr frends//walkin fancy, swing it like a cane” – a chicken wing! I bet right now Riley is entertaining the gods of poetry; they’re asking him, “Do that one again, the one about the chicken wing – do you know how long it took for someone to find the poetry there?” Riley in Peter Robinson College’s infamous pub-and-smoke house, giving pain to his enemies who heckled so much I thought the Hangman Poetry Series was done for, Riley jumping up on the table screaming, You think this is just for fun? This … .Is… MY… LIFE!” shouting down an entire unruly bar. Riley sitting me down and talking about where I was and where I might fit into the group of poets he had around him, brilliant poets who gave me the hard gift of being much better than I was. When I finally had the nerve to ask “Mr. Where” about my writing, he said, "These are young and clumsy, but they're poems.” Riley was one of those people who could open your world for you if you listened. Last time we talked, I told him that he had helped make a path for me, and for that I have always been thankful. He gave me that look. And whenever I say farewell, the way I'm saying good-bye to him now, he gave me the image for that, too: "standn alon in the street wavn gudby with th chikn wing.”

Richard Harrison: You asked for a couple of lines on why I wrote this for Riley. That's an interesting question beyond the clear, sad reason we all had to say our good-byes to him. I wrote this to thank him. I wrote this because thanking is a way of holding people in memory. I think, as I age and have a family and teach people as old now as I was when I met Riley, that I've come to appreciate more and more the little moments that point us in the directions our lives end up taking. I respected Riley enormously, and his influence, along with those of the poets whose group he'd become the centre of, helped me get where I am. I'm not saying he made me choose poetry. Only poetry itself does that. I'm saying that a decision to choose what you really want to do -- regardless of any outcome except the doing of it as best you can -- comes at the end of a number of significant nudges of faith from those you admire and who are doing something you need to do even if it forever seems just beyond your grasp.

Richard Harrison is the author of six books of poetry, the latest being his book of hockey poems, Hero of the Play: 10th Anniversary Edition, and Worthy of His Fall, both from Wolsak & Wynn. His book about his daughter's learning to speak, Big Breath of a Wish, won the City of Calgary Book Prize and was nominated for the Alberta Writers' Guild and Governor-General's Awards. Richard currently teaches English and Creative Writing (with specialties in the comic book and poetry) at Calgary's Mount Royal College. Richard met Riley Tench when they were both undergraduates at Trent University in 1976.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

jwcurry & Richmond Landing: The Martyrology Books 4 and 5

On Sunday June 17, 2007, jwcurry continued his reading of bpNichol's The Martyrology in Ottawa at Richmond Landing along the Ottawa River. With the previous reading on Saturday, July 29, 2006 at the gazebo behind Parliament Hill where he read the first three books in full [see my note on it here]; this second Ottawa event was more relaxed and casual, happening at what's left of the small strip of land originally called Collins Landing, after Jehiel Collins constructed his general store tavern in 1809, later changed to Bellows Landing when Caleb Bellows purchased the business from Collins.

Considered the premier monument to earliest white activity in Westboro, the autumn of 1818 saw 400 soldiers from Wellington's 99th and 100th Regiments and families from Quebec arrive at stayed at Bellows Landing just behind the Chaudiére Falls, renamed Richmond Landing after Charles Lennon, the fourth Duke of Richmond, Governor of British North America, died a tragic death from rabies at a farm near Richmond on August 28, 1819. Working their way west along the Richmond Trail (later Road) to settle the village of Richmond beside the Jock River through a policy of assisted emigration, the same program was also responsible for the founding of Perth (1816), March (1819) and further settlements, through a treaty made with Mississauga chiefs, at present-day Torbolton, Fitzroy, Hantby, March and Goulburn. Unfortunately for the original Richmond Landing site, Douglas H. Fullerton, made a number of unpopular decisions during his tenure as chairman of the NCC to improve Ottawa life (1969-1973), including pressing for the construction of the Portage Bridge, from Wellington Street across the water to Maisonneuve Boulevard, thus obliterating a significant portion of one of Ottawa's earliest heritage sites (one of the few then-popular decisions he made was to open up and maintain the Rideau Canal as an annual skating rink).

For years, curry has been working toward completion and publication of A Beepliographic Cyclopoedia and its side-project, a concordance to the martyrology; and even held a benefit reading in Toronto [see my note on such here] to help with the publication of such a large project after the original Ottawa teaser. At this second event, curry wanted a location on the Ottawa River where he could see the previous and be seen by the previous. Various audience coming and going throughout the day included Pearl [with her entry on same] and Brian Pirie, John W. MacDonald, Sandra Ridley and Eric, and Jennifer Books. By the time Warren Fulton and I got there around 7pm, it was just jwcurry, Max Middle and two fishermen (one of whom was kind enough to take a photo to email later, but that photo never arrived...), and curry soon regaled us with a thread from Book 5 until it became too dark for him to read.

Will there be, at some point, a full reading of these two books? Will there be a follow-up of further readings down the road?

After it got too dark, the small group of us retired to Somerset Street West for Pho, and even further after that for drinks. For information on the either of his bpNichol projects, or to give him information on a bpNichol reference anywhere he might not know about, write him c/o #302-880 Somerset Street West, Ottawa Ontario K1R 6R7

related notes: John W. MacDonald's pictures and video from earlier in the afternoon; the upcoming Calgary reading/benfit for jwcurry!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden

For years now, my favourite poetry collection by Toronto writer, editor and troublemaker David W. McFadden has been his book The Art of Darkness (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1984), with striking blue cover and a detail of a painting by Puvis de Chavannes, "The Beheading of John the Baptist." After reading a number of his collections before this, the poems in The Art of Darkness were the ones that made me finally understand, the poems that convinced me of the strength and force of the writing of David W. McFadden (well before he added the "W." in the middle of his name), with two of the finest poems there being "Frank O'Hara" and "New York."


Frank O'Hara used to say he couldn’t enjoy a
blade of grass unless there was a subway handy;
he spent a month in Boston and when he returned
complained about how provincial they were up there.
This year five people already have been killed
by pieces of masonry falling from tall buildings
and eleven people have been killed by demonic comics
who sneak up behind people in subway stations
when the moon is full and push them in front of trains
but there is no fear in New York for I am here
walking with friends down Fifth Avenue on Eastern Sunday.
There is a De Chirico exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art
but it is so warm and sunny outside and the streets are so full
of happy people gawking at the fire eaters and the trumpet trios
in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and here is a religious
argument, an old guy with bad teeth is holding a Bible
and yelling at this young ordinary-looking guy
and telling him to wipe that smile off his face
because the Bible is serious business
and the young guy says Christ put that smile on my face
and I'm not taking it off, and the old guy tells the young guy
he's a coward, too cowardly to get down on his knees and pray,
and the young guy is a little embarrassed, a crowd is forming,
and I yell out yeah, get down, get down, and the young guy
gets down on his knees with a sigh and he and the old guy pray
and Valerie and I walk on, we seem to have lost Sarah and Kenny
and Jim but we know they'll show up.

In an Indian restaurant
I overhear a man saying to a woman I know what you're going to say
and I agree with you, and I think that could have been me.
And I overhear a stockbroker ask his friend
is that Copper Lake any good? And as Frank O'Hara
lay on his death bed
in Bayview General Hospital
in Mastic Beach
dying of abdominal injuries
after being hit by the left fender of a dune buggy on Fire Island
he joked with the nurse who was French
and insisted on speaking French with her
and Valerie bought a canvas bag marked MoMA
at the Museum of Modern Art where O'Hara used to work
and now I am heading west into British Columbia
where everything is beautiful
and the air is pure
and the water is pure
and there is a general lack of urban blight
and in a moment I will board the plane for Vancouver
and there will be a small delicate sophisticated woman in her thirties
sitting next to me and reading French newspapers
and she will order Tia Marias and milk
and I will order Bloody Marys
and we will taste each others breakfasts
and we will talk about Bonnard and Matisse
and I will tell her about Frank O'Hara
and she will tell me about Mayakovsky
how he was always striking up wonderful conversations
with strange and beautiful women in public places
and we will confess to each other
that we are primarily interested
in the quiet life.

After the poetry of New York School poet Frank O'Hara, there were many admirers (including two more Canadian poets, Ken Norris and the late Artie Gold [see my note on him here]) and even further imitators, but none managed to extend the idea of the "I did this, I did that" sort of poem in any way close to that of David McFadden. The self-proclaimed master of the coincidence, Toronto's David McFadden (originally from Hamilton, Ontario) somehow manages to write poems that exist as part of the world around him, instead of simply being about him. His poems aren’t about the world, his poems are the world. The author of a great many poetry collections, books of fiction and even some recent travel books [see my review of his most recent one here], David W. McFadden was, throughout the late 1960s and well into the 70s, the ying to George Bowering's yang; McFadden was to Toronto and Coach House Press what Bowering seemed to be for Vancouver and Talonbooks. Both close with the late London, Ontario visual artist Greg Curnoe as friends and collaborators, Bowering even edited McFadden's first and only previous selected poems, My Body Was Eaten By Dogs (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1982). This new collection, Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2007), at some 328 pages, is an appropriate homage to his poetic output over the past few decades, working from poems from Letters from the Earth to the Earth (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1968) and Poems Worth Knowing (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1971) to the more recent Five Star Planet (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2002) and chapbook A Little Kindness (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2002). Who else could write a poem about a cow swimming Lake Ontario, or wry sentimental observational poems about Hamilton, Ontario's steeltown?


You're waiting for a bus at Ward and Baker
and a woman comes up to you
and asks for a dance.

You tell her you don't want to dance
for there is too much snow
and not enough music
and she says you didn’t mind
dancing with me last night.

And when you tell her she's mistaken
you didn’t dance with her or anyone last night
she says oh yes you did
and when you ask where
she says up there
on the roof
and she points to the roof of Hipperson Hardware.

In fact, she says, as her voice drops
and a shy look comes into her eyes
I've even danced with you on other planets
Venus and Mars for instance
and then she walks away

leaving you to wonder about the part of your life
that is secret even from you.

With some thirty or more trade titles published since the late 1960s, that seems quite a lot of work by someone who hasn’t really had a lot of critical attention over the past few years; hopefully a collection of this sort will help change some of that. The editor of the current project, Toronto writer and editor Stuart Ross, is even considered by many to be influenced by the strange humour and often surreal turns of McFadden's poetry, and an entirely appropriate fit to go through the decades of Uncle Dave's work for such a collection. As Ross writes in his introduction:

If Frank O'Hara was the poet of "Personism" — recording the minute details of a life lived in New York City among writers and artists — then David W. McFadden might be the poet of "Otherpersonism," recording his fascination with everyone around him: writers, artists, the guy working the convenience store, the woman on the bus, in Toronto, Hamilton, Havana or wherever the poet happens to be.

That's not to say the chameleon-like narrators of David's poems don't play a pivotal role in the works, whether they are McFadden himself, an innocent observer or a plain-spoken killer. But David's poetry, like David, is social. It's interested in people, and in trees, squirrels, dogs and oceans. It's also social in that it wants to be read, and it makes itself readable — not just to academics and to other poets, but to the convenience-store guy and the woman on the bus.

The socialness seems to arise from a deep humanistic impulse in David's work, an interest in and compassion for others that exists contemporaneously with an imbued despair. When David read through the final selection for this volume, he remarked on how sad it is. But when I read his work, I feel that he acknowledges sadness — the sadness of mortality, missed opportunity, war — but then revels in a delight and wonder, in even the most ordinary things, and in the privilege of being alive and getting to look at clouds, watch movies, listen to Ella Fitzgerald, walk through a neighbourhood and talk to strangers in bars. Even as a mopey teenage poet, I saw this love-energy in those fantastic McFadden books I stumbled across in the public library. Of course, what also attracted me was how god-damn funny these poems so often are.
Writing out from the social, as Ross suggests. George Bowering said much the same thing over twenty years ago in his piece "Proofing the World: The Poems of David McFadden" from his book of essays A Way With Words (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1982), writing:
One Saturday night I sat with David McFadden in Maple Leaf Gardens, watching Toronto beat Detroit 6-0. At game's end, when sixteen thousand people began to rise and file out, McFadden opened his book bag and shouted, "Wait, wait, I have some poems to read to you!"

He was joking but he was not kidding. All his writing life he has acted as if the poet had a real function in the social life of his country and world, as if poems were composed by a human being intent on taking his part in the building of a place to live in. The poet is perhaps not the unacknowledged legislator of the world, but if the citizens could have their ears unstopped they would at least recognize him as a functionary.

McFadden does not want to replace the famous athletes in the workaday dream machine; he simply wants to take his turn with them.

One of the strengths of the plain-speaking poetry of David W. McFadden, as referenced by both Ross and Bowering, is the strange humour and humanity that he brings to the table, without falling into sentimentality. McFadden is a poet who wants the odd thoughts that flutter inside his skull to reach out to a wider audience, whether he be writing a poem or walking down the street. In an interview conducted by David Collins in the first issue of the late lamented Missing Jacket (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, January 1996), McFadden talked about the effect he wanted his poems to have on readers, saying:
They'll have a different effect on different readers. We always want what we can't have and as for me I want to write poems that can be read over and over and over again. Somebody can read my poems with such immense delight they will want to do it again next week or next year and they'll want to buy copies of my books for all their friends. I consciously try to design my stuff in such a way that it will become more interesting the older it gets, like photography in general. I think it's perfectly okay to do that. But to strive for the kind of effect that will cause a reader to want to read the piece over and over again (or even just remember it fondly) for the rest of his or her life, well that just isn’t in me. It just seems so damned fake and so damned egocentric and so damned pretentious. It's not craft, it's self-regard. I'd like to be able to do it but something in my genetic spiritual makeup forbids me. Great if it comes naturally but I forbid myself from striving for it or even twitching a muscle in that direction. Call me perverse, but that's the way I am.

There are many popular songs, even some cheesy sentimental ones, that I'd truly love to have written. Like "I'm My Own Grandpaw" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Stardust" or "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or "Louis Louis" or "Bad to the Bone" — or (my fave) "The Marseillaise."

Heaven forbid I'm not trying to effect any behavioral or psychological changes on my readers, like make them better people or anything like that. Improve my readers, moi? I'm not one of those people who practice what the poet Victor Coleman calls "American Fascist Buddhism." But the individual artist does have something vital to say about the fate of humanity. The harder the individual artist works the more wondrous the human race becomes… We're involved in a very political process, and this won't be realized for a few decades yet just exactly what it is we're doing, but dammit it's important. As the Tibetan Buddhists say when they sit down to visualize the cosmos wheeling in their minds: "I do this for others." If large numbers of readers decided my work was seriously worthwhile, that would be nice. After all, I've over the years found it largely worthwhile in spite of all that anguish and despair that tend to go hand in hand with life as an artist, and poverty.
Too many times the appearance of a Selected Poems reads like a tombstone to a particular author, or a reminder that someone still exists, after not publishing for a few years; at least McFadden's last trade poetry collection was published as recent as 2002, and even the introduction by Stuart Ross talks about McFadden recently putting the finishing touches on a sequence of one hundred sonnets, putting David W. McFadden still in the midst of creating. It helps, too, that a number of his books are still in print, including his last few poetry collections published by Vancouver's Talonbooks, as well as his three Coach House Press novels A Trip Around Lake Erie (1981), A Trip Around Lake Huron (1981) and A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988) rewritten to become the single volume Great Lakes Suite (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1997), his Curnoe-McFadden collaboration two-volume reissued as The Great Canadian Sonnet (Coach House Books), and his more recent travel books published by McClelland & StewartAn Innocent in Ireland (1995), An Innocent in Scotland (1999), An Innocent in Newfoundland (2003) and An Innocent in Cuba (2005). One of the interesting touches to Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden is in how the book is structured (as Ross says in his introduction), less a matter of a thematic or chronological flow to the poems than a collaborative selection of what both editor and author thought most interesting throughout McFadden's poetry, existing in the order that made sense for the selected as a whole (although a list at the back of the book gives a sense of what poems are from what previous books). Interesting, too, are the notes written in the back by the author, giving little bits of extra information about particular poems, whether writing

On the Road Again: An attempt to describe a momentary experience of unconditional love of country. Sir Walter Scott does it more memorably in his "Lay of the Last Minstrel." At a press conference a few years ago, journalist Helen Thomas told President George W. Bush that "to understand the Iraqi resistance, I suggest reading the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott. He wrote: 'Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said this is mine own my native land.'"

A Moment in the Life of the Members of the Graduating Class of Arnprior High School, 1976: The Ottawa Valley is very beautiful during spring thaw.
A particularly interesting one was for the poem "SEX WITH A SIXTEEN YEAR OLD," a poem that apparently got him into more than a bit of trouble when it appeared in his poetry collection There'll Be Another (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1995), writing:

Sex with a Sixteen Year Old: Maybe I should have replaced "Sex" with "Flirtation," but it's too late now. One wouldn’t change a word in a poem after the poem had been published, just as a painter wouldn’t be allowed to mess with a work he had signed and sold.
It's an interesting theory, especially after Ross in his introduction talks about McFadden working through the poems in this collection, "correcting" various mistakes from previous editions, and even tinkering with a few of them; I wouldn’t have wanted this poem changed if he had.


What I hate is being in a bar and a
beautiful woman squeezes in next to you
and you strike up a wonderful conversation
with a lot of vertiginous eye contact
and just when you think you might be falling in love
some big tough-looking guy shows up
with a nasty scowl on his face
and the woman sighs and gives you a sad look
and whispers adios mi amigo

Also I hate it that you are flying off
to Vancouver this afternoon
just as I am getting interested in you
which is unusual for me because
I never get interested in anyone under forty
and you're only sixteen. Sixteen! I know I
refused to go for Chinese food with you last night
because I figured there was a danger of us
ending up in the sack and you only sixteen
how could I have ever forgiven myself
and what if my daughters ever found out

And today on the phone you give me
a few more tantalizing details about your
seemingly extensive and far-ranging
sex life and you happen to mention you're a big
when you get going you wake up
neighbours dogs cats birds for blocks around

And all of a sudden I realize I should have
gone with you last night for Chinese food
I love noisemakers
they're my favourite people
but it's too late and the next time I see you
you won't be sixteen anymore

Sixteen come to think of it
isn't all that young the little woman
Charles Dickens left his wife and eight kids for
was not much older and Lauren Bacall
(when she put her lips together and blew
in To Have and Have Not)
was only sixteen
and Bogie who took one look at her
and decided to devote the rest of his life to her
was three times her age
four times would be scandalous
but three times is okay

Friday, June 22, 2007

Peter Gizzi's The Outernationale

Over the past few years, the name Peter Gizzi is one of those names of American poets I've repeatedly heard, but not really read until his fourth poetry collection, The Outernationale (Middeltown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), arrived in my mailbox. The author of Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan, 2003) and the editor of the enviable (if I can ever find a copy for myself) The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 1998), Gizzi is part of a generation of American poets that seems to have come into maturity over the past fifteen years.


We know time is a wave.

You can see it in gneiss, migmatic
or otherwise, everything crumbles.

Don’t despair.

That's the message frozen in old stone.

I am just a visitor to this world
an interloper really headed deep into glass.

I, moving across a vast expanse of water

though it is not water maybe salt
or consciousness itself

enacted as empathy. Enacted as seeing.

To see with a purpose has its bloom
and falls to seed and returns

to be a story like any other.
To be a story open and vulnerable

a measure of time, a day, this day one might say
an angle of light for instance.

Let us examine green. Let us go together

to see it all unstable and becoming
violent and testing gravity

so natural in its hunger.

The organic existence of gravity.
The organic nature of history.

The natural history of tears.

There is something about his political threads and deceptively straightforward lines that remind me of the poetry of another American poet, Juliana Spahr [see my review of her last book here], or even New York poet Rachel Zucker [see my earlier note on her here]. The poems in this collection form almost a single piece, moving through art and politics and working Gizzi as a creature of the entire world; not inter- but outer-nationale. Gizzi's use of inference and reference end up taking more of what exists outside the poem into the poem as he leaves the appropriate spaces for the reader to enter, through a series of alternate meanings and directions. Writing in a series of fragments, there is almost the sense that any part of any page could fit easily into any other part of the poems in this collection, as in this self-contained fragment of the poem "STUNG," that writes:

To remember correctly
the color of pale grass in March,
its salt hay blonde flourish.
To see it has it was,
faded cloth, mute trumpet,
the seam inside a day
the sun climbs.
Simple the life of the mind
standing outside in the grass
in March. Outside memory.
Spring interrupts
one cardinal monody
transmuted by a signal red
developed against
a draining blue horizon.
To want to go there
and to have been there
and to be there now.

This walking right now
by a river, simple and not so clear
when transcribing this
unstable multiplying narrative spring.
It can't be called anything.
We too are sprung and wound
with evolution, I want to say.
That's it: love. Not spring.
I have felt it also
in quilted drowning snow
under the sheets
in a clanking house.
Clank, I love you.
Clank. Not spring.
Glossy grass wigging
in a brightening sky.
The thrill of hair
standing on my limbs.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century, edited by Birk Sproxton & Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift

Part of my thinking on geography lately led me to the book the late Birk Sproxton [see my note on him here] did through Prairie Fire Magazine out of Winnipeg, the collection The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century (Winnipeg MB: Prairie Fire Press, Inc., 2006). What is it about all this geography lately? Why do I feel, almost, that once you look for something, it's just about everywhere? As well as a recent poetry anthology for Chicago [see my review of it here] or what I've been doing recently for Ottawa poetry and fiction through Chaudiere Books, apparently there's even a new anthology of Saskatchewan poets I have yet to get my hands on. So much history, if it doesn’t get collected or talked about, somehow manages to completely fall by the wayside, as so many of these histories do. For Winnipeg and Montreal, like any centre, they might be the centre of essential activity, but they are the ones that have to keep presenting that argument out into the world (a joke from the 1980s suggests that if it weren’t for Winnipeg, Toronto would have no arts scene…). If not for Lawrence Ferlinghetti as publisher and Allen Ginsberg as promoter, would any of us have heard of the Beat writers? Without Ken Norris spending much of the 1980s doing the same for the Vehicule Poets of the 1970s, would they still even be close to any sort of equal conversation? Any community needs its promoters and cheerleaders as much as it needs those directly active in the production of new writing; without the next logical step, audience a few years down the road could easily suffer the same kinds of forgetfulness. Editor Sproxton begins his introduction to The Winnipeg Connection by telling us:
The Winnipeg Connection began in the afterglow of the special issue of Prairie Fire published in 1999 to coincide with the Pan-American Summer Games. We called the issue "Winnipeg in Fiction," a collection designed to celebrate Winnipeg's history as a place of writing. That summer Winnipeg was alive and bristling with good feeling about herself as she welcomed visitors from across the Americas. The special issue sold out quickly, and we realized we had tapped into a widely shared interest in the city's writing life as it emerges in English-language fiction. With fifty contributors in all, including striking art work and an intriguing batch of archival images selected by Louise Jonasson, the book-size magazine offered a visual as well as verbal feast. For visitors and Winnipeggers alike, "Winnipeg in Fiction" served as a healthy introduction to Winnipeg's literary and artistic life.

Some time later, the idea for The Winnipeg Connection began to brew. Then I approached the Prairie Fire people with a proposal to focus on Winnipeg at mid-century, especially the 1940s and 1950s. These were crucial years, I argued, for the emergence of an internationally acclaimed contingent of writers—Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman, Patricia Blondal, Jack Ludwig and John Marlyn among them, a group aided and abetted by Malcolm Ross, James Reaney and many other. This was a time when Winnipeg once more remade herself as a vital hub of the literary arts. She had reached pre-eminent status through her many newspapers and the early-twentieth-century writing of Ralph Connor and Nellie McClung. In the World War II era Winnipeg's output and influence reached new heights, as the list
above suggests.
A celebration of any sort along these lines is worth noting, and worth paying attention to. I just hope that someone continues the thread that Sproxton started, pushing further into the second half of the twentieth century and beyond with, perhaps, a further volume or two? It becomes interesting to see the community that developed that would end up inventing such writers as Dennis Cooley, Rob Budde, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Di Brandt and Meeka Walsh, and so many others. The collection also includes a previously unpublished Margaret Laurence poem, "North Main Car" written in Winnipeg in 1948, that begins:

morning, and the city's steel hulk
heaves, stirs itself, who has been
a lovely giant held by enticing night,
ungilding daylight, exploring now
her savagery and blemishes.

out of the north the streetcar crawls,
an outsize wood-and-iron worm.
people clamber aboard, still yawning,
an uneasiness in their faces
that the harsh day has not yet
pulled into tensions.

people have come from far off to this town,
from europe's handkerchief-sized farms,
from the winding streets of the world,
exchanging the known devil, the overseer's whip,
for another, sight unseen.

Somewhat closer to home (both geographically and temporally) is the critical collection Language Acts: Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2007), collecting new essays dealing with various aspects of Montreal poetry over the past few decades alongside a few older pieces by the late poet/teacher Louis Dudek, Peter Van Toorn and Geoff Hancock. The collection includes newer essays on works by Robert Allen, David McGimpsey, Van Toorn, Erin Mouré, Robyn Sarah and Anne Carson. One of the finest of the collection has to be Dean Irvine's piece "Fugitive Places: Anne Carson and the Unlost," that writes:
Carson's rise to literary celebrity coincided with her tenure as a professor of Classics at McGill University from 1988 to 2003. Although an English-language author living in Quebec, she had little reason to be concerned with Montreal's limited Anglophone audience. If she ever shared David Solway's anxieties about being a "double exile"—at once exiled from Francophone Quebec, and exiled from the rest of Anglophone Canada—her early critical success in the United States and concomitant penetration of international markets must have helped to assuage any concerns by enabling her to transcend limitations imposed by locality and nationality. After the London, Ontario small press Brick Books brought out her first poetry collection Short Talks in 1992, she rapidly secured an international following through publication by major American presses (New Directions and Alfred A. Knopf). To say that Carson has achieved a kind of literary celebrity unbounded by civic, provincial, or national boundaries is to state the obvious. As accruals of symbolic capital, neither her celebrity nor the status of her work derives from local or national recognition; this is the cultural logic of literary values transacted in an era of late capitalism. Carson trades her capital on a transnational English-language market, where the materiality of civic and national markets is liquidated under the pressure of late capitalism's push toward globalization.
Working to represent some of the threads of English-language poetry over the past few decades, alongside a bibliography of poetry magazines throughout the period, English-language (or, "Anglo") poetry publishers, poetry prize winners and Concordia University M.A. Poetry Theses, I have to admit I was disappointed to not even see a single reference to the Montreal anthology that Andy Brown and I put together a few years ago for the same publisher; was it simply because YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2001) wasn’t a poetry anthology, and instead an anthology of poetry and fiction? As Andre (later, Endre) Farkas and Ken Norris wrote at the beginning of their introduction to Montreal: English Poetry of the Seventies (1978):
English poetry in Montreal has always been written under the most unique conditions. Being a member of a minority culture within the bounds of a dominant Francophone community has made the English poet in Montreal intensely aware of his own language as well as informing him of the problem inherent in the use of language as an agent of communication. When he writes, the Montreal poet knows that the vast majority of people living in his city have no interest whatsoever in what he has to say because what he is saying is in a language that has no relevance to their cultural life. He also recognizes that, because he is Québécois, he is isolated from English Canada. The third disadvantage he experiences is that the isolated Anglophone community, unlike the Francophone, does not consider its arts as necessary for survival; rather, the modus operandi has been economic dominance. Yet, despite these somewhat sobering facts, or perhaps because of them, Montreal has been one of the important centers of English poetry in Canada for most of this century and is now, once again, after the lull of the sixties, beginning to assert itself.
An interesting product of the collection is seeing how Ottawa poet Karen Massey [see my note on her here] finished her M.A. Poetry Thesis, "Soundings / 74 leaves" in 1992 (the only one that year, according to this book), making her a contemporary of 1990-1 students April Bulmer, David McGimpsey, Mark Cochrane, Richard Harrison and Ruth Taylor [see my note on her here]; is it any wonder I think she should have a book out? With a book working to encompass a space this large, it could only, in the end, be as large as the submissions will allow, showing but a fraction of the activity that has occurred in the city of Montreal over the past few decades (two essays that didn’t fit in the collection were actually included in a recent issue of Montreal is a complex town, and its poetry could never be encapsulated in a single bound collection of anything; perhaps the editors, or someone else, will see fit to continue the work they've started, perhaps as a subsequent volume, or through some other medium to continue the conversation?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Souvankham Thammavongsa's Found


Because glass
has not yet

to bend

and because
even now

will not bend

must come in bent

Working an interesting combination of small moments and extended movements is Toronto Souvankham Thammavongsa's second poetry collection, Found (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2007). On the heels of her first poetry collection small arguments (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2003) [see also the interview with her posted at], the poems in Found work almost as pointillistic constructions, echoing Paris, Ontario poet Nelson Ball for their brevity, and small, perfect moments across the page. As she writes at the beginning of the collection, "In 1978, my parents lived in building #48. Nong Khai, Thailand, a Lao refugee / camp. My father kept a scrapbook filled with doodles, addresses, postage stamps, / maps, measurements. He threw it out and when he did, I took it and found this." Referencing the dislocation of tens of thousands of people during the Indochina War and the after-shocks to the country (the war officially ended with the communist victory in 1975), affecting Laos and every one of its neighbours, including China to the North, Vietnam in the East, Cambodia to the South and Thailand and Burma to the West. The way Toronto poet Thammavongsa (born the same year as the journal, 1978) works this part of her own family history, there are even echoes of working a personal history in the same way American poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa worked her own Tibetan landscapes in her first poetry collection Rules of the House (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2002) [see my review of it here].

Still, this is more than history and even less than that; how does she get her moments this good, this right? These poems exist in the space between the points of history, in the way a body understands itself within those moments. These poems strike full force against the body like a blow; see for yourself, in the last poem in the collection.


My father took
a pigeon

its hard neck

cut open
its chest

dug out
a handful

and threw back
its body


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

the ghosts of geography: de Leeuw & Dragland & writing my eventual non-fictions

Since learning about my writer-in-residence position in Edmonton this fall [see my related piece in The Danforth Review], I've been thinking a lot about geography and non-fiction more specifically than I had before; it's always been in the back of my mind, wanting to eventually get a more traditional book on Glengarry County started down the road, after my book-length essay is finally finished, and perhaps my genealogy project recording all the McLennan / MacLennan lines throughout Stormont and Glengarry is finished [see my related note on such]. I've been working on that last one now for about fifteen years or so, and it's nowhere near finished, so god knows when it would come out, let alone allow me to go somewhere further with the same research; still, I know easily I'd know enough about county by then to pretty much be able to write anything. I've been thinking about that thing called literary non-fiction, a flow of literary prose that talks about every thread of what is happening from the inside to the outside in a way that brings the reader not only into that place and the mind of that place being talked about, but inside the mind of the author as well. Where do the lines exist? There is so much more I have to learn.

Still, books are made from books (as David McFadden keeps telling me), and I've been stockpiling for some time, waiting for the sparks of an accumulating idea to come to the point of being ready to begin. Lately I've been reading Sarah de Leeuw's Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2004). Written as a memoir working itself through geography, it follows the author along a path of growing up and grown in northern British Columbia and all the places that her family lived, using the thread of Highway 16 as the current that runs beneath the piece, writing from Juskatla, Queen Charlotte City, Prince Rupert, Cranberry Junction, Kitwanga, Prince George, Fraser Lake and Terrace.
Over the bridge, the waters of Kumbis Creek brown under the thickly creosoted deck. On the right hand side, a CN Rail worker from Quebec lived in a trailer court with four trailers. I knew because I babysat for his kids; someone in town heard I spoke a few words of French. On Friday nights, once a month, I put the two children of the displaced CN Rail worker to bed.

"Bon nuit," I would say. "Bon voyage."

I had forgotten how to say "sweet dreams" in French, and in the silence of a logging camp town I sent those children into the night journeying. The beginning of something, even if translated incorrectly, into a lapsed language.
As the back cover asks, "What falls in the space between the dots on a map?" This is country that exists for loggers, where so few others would ever need to go, and landscape shaped by the hand of those who work it as much as any place in the country. Somehow less a book about geography than working itself through the geography into the place where memoir sits, de Leeuw exists on that line between what kind of book she seems to be writing, where the landscape and its people are separate from her, but never apart from her own sense of self. At what point after physical escape from geography will she realize that escape is impossible, as the land and its people imprinted permanently on her body? As de Leeuw writes, "How far away is away? How far away is far? For that matter, how far is far enough?" This is a land where cultures not only clash, but they had long crashed headlong into each other, but the evidence still forefront. As she writes,
As I made my way over the suspension bridge into Gitwinksihlkw, I noticed for the first time the small white church about twenty-five metres down stream. once I had crossed the bridge, both feet now in Gitwinksihlkw and the snow-covered flatness of the lava across the river now, I picked my way along the icy path to the building. In the strange grey light that takes over the Nass Valley in the winter, the church seemed even more run down than it truly was. In fading red letters above the doorway, which was now boarded and sagging, was the emblem of the Salvation Army.

The windows of the church were smashed and gaping open, the entire structure leaning into the wind. It seemed like at any moment it would fall into the waters of the Nass River and be washed away forever. I bent down into the snow to look at the old building from the bottom. It was only from this angle I noticed the church's foundations.

At first, as breath steamed in front of my eyes, I thought I must be mistaken.

But as I bent lower, my hands freezing against the snow, eyes of bears and killer whales could still be made out. The huge logs making up the foundation were totem poles, hacked and sawed so the church could be built on top of them, slowly turning to earth in this tiny village on the edge of the lava.
When thinking of non-fiction prose and travel, when thinking of non-fiction prose and turning geography from that prose, turning the words over like soil; thinking the Alberta before me and the Glengarry that can never be completely behind. Thinking about the piece I've been working for months for a book I've been editing on Glengarry County for Chaudiere Books, out sometime next year, with pieces by Don McKay, Stephen Brockwell, Clare Latremouille, Bonnie Laing, Joan MacLeod, Patrick Leroux, Nicholas Lea and others, working that same bit of ground in their own ways. Thinking about the project turning slow in my head for my eventual west, how in so many ways I have never left home, and how to work that into prose, writing the story of my travel that ends up being, predominantly, my story of home.
It's a difficult thing to write about places you know so well they become ingrained, or so you think, but somehow everyone tries. The percentage of first novels as coming-of-age. Even through leaving, I kept ties, including Gary Geddes and Henry Beissel, poets and Concordia University creative writing professors who had made homes in the area. (Both have since retired, with Geddes on the left coast, living on Vancouver Island for the last decade, and Beissel moving in 2005 to an Ottawa suburb.) Both from places of their own to appear in mine, appearing in the 1960s. Gary from the west, the prairies of the 1940s and 50s, and Henry a young teen in Germany during the Second World War. If you can imagine, Henry Beissel from 1950s Toronto deciding to travel in a car with a friend three months from coast to coast before he took Canadian citizenship, just to understand the context of what he was entering into. Why doesn't every Canadian-born do such a thing? It should be mandatory.

When they put out (what I called) their Glengarry poetry collections, dealing with the spaces around them, Beissel’s Stones to Harvest (1993) and Geddes’ Girl by the
(1994), influenced by the green landscape, I had mixed reactions. Gary Geddes’ as a section, from a poet who could, for a while, write politics better than most (as he was one of the few poets in Canada at the time seeming to try), and Beissel, as a whole, attempting, perhaps, to situate himself; each finding their own particular place in the wood. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in admitting a certain jealousy, a feeling of lines being crossed. I liked the books when I read them, and the rush of seeing in other people’s words the things you know, but neither of them were the ways I saw them, the difference between observation and those things that are built in at birth. I saw them as markers, strengthening my resolve to build my own collection, to reacquaint and ever re-appropriate my own history from the mouths of others.
When thinking of non-fiction, thinking the succulent prose of Stan Dragland, originally from Alberta but decades in London, Ontario before retiring from teaching, and heading about as far east as he could, ending up in St. John's, Newfoundland. While thinking about all of this, I've been going through his collection Journeys Through Bookland (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984); I've been going through his Apocrypha: Further Journeys (Edmonton AB: NeWest/writer as critic: IX,2003),
The word "bridge," in the name of the Alberta city on the banks of the Belly River that was named for William Lethbridge, no longer signifies.

But there is one helluva bridge in that city. Here is a postcard of it. On the reverse, under the space for a message, is the caption: "The longest, highest railroad bridge of its kind in the world. Constructed in 1909 in Lethbridge, Alberta." I bought the postcard to take into my classes whenever I taught Thomas King's Medicine River. Harlan Bigbear tricks his brother Joe into jumping off that bridge, and young Lum is a suicide off that bridge, or one like it, in King's Truth & Bright Water. The same bridge is the key to my past, and a clue to my moving now.

My father had a small stock of family stories, like the one about my jumping into the Banff Hotsprings pool at the age of six. I had never been near a pool but swimming looked simple from the observation deck above, so I hustled into my trunks and raced from the change room to the pool and jumped in at the five-foot level. The
second time I surfaced, someone noticed and pulled me out by the hair. The punch line my father savoured was the line I met him with as he emerged poolside: Dad!—he always caught the amazement in my tone—I can't swim at all!

And my father used to tell about hopping a freight in the dirty thirties on the Lethbridge side of the world's longest and highest bridge and hanging in numb terror out over the valley until the train made the fair side and he tumbled off, never to ride the rails again. So I was conceived out west, in Alberta. I was not and never will be born in Ontario, where I lived the second half of my life to date, where my children were born. Two thousand miles away from Alberta and that bridge back in Lethbridge, an okay place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Don’t have to; I brought Alberta with me when I moved east. And sometimes, during one of those long, lovely Ontario evenings, if I'm not careful, having had one too many Scotches, I feel Alberta begin to throb inside me and I hear some ambient western movie soundtrack stir, and start to swell and, and (wouldn’t you know it) there's my dad's beautiful tenor in unison with the Yodelling Cowboy, Wilf Carter:

In the Blue Canadian Rockies
Spring is sighing through the trees…