The other night I participated in Carleton University’s In/Words monthly open set reading, now held at the Legion on Kent Street, just south of Somerset Street West, celebrating the recent publication of In/Words Volume 8, Issue 1, as well as the chapbooks Pirates by Justin Million (Scattered Poem Thirty Four, 2009), Blizzard: Ottawa City Stories by Jeff Blackman and Peter Gibbon (chapbook series 8.7, 2009), Saintliness/Slowdive by Jeremy Hanson-Finger (chapbook series 8.9, 2009), so it’s the first really warm day by jesslyn delia smith (chapbook series 8.10, 2009) and Dust in the water by Mark Sokolowski (chapbook series 8.11, 2009), as well as the recent publication of the second issue of The Moose & Pussy, “Ottawa’s Only Sex & Arts Mag.” Under the tutelage of Carleton University English professor Collett Tracey, the In/Words crew, a “non-profit, student-run ‘small press,’” has been around for nearly a decade, shifting and changing depending on who is around to participate in both the publishing and events, but its only been in the past couple of years that some of these kids have started making their way out into the larger literary world of the city around them, thanks in part to the participation of poet/editors Cameron Anstee, Ben Ladouceur, Jeff Blackman, Peter Gibbon and Mark Sokolowski, among others. Ladouceur, for example, was a runner-up in the recent John Newlove Award run through Bywords.ca, and both he and Anstee had poems in the most recent issue of ottawater [see my recent review of Anstee’s chapbook Remember Our Young Bones here]. Still, for whatever it is they’re doing, I don’t know why I find it so difficult for any of them to remember to get me copies of their publications; why is it I can only get material from them by showing up to where they already are? I know I’ve already missed a chapbook by Ben Ladcouceur, for example.
Poor, poor Mackenzie-King
Forgotten in this town
A mouse-faced bachelor
tips his top hat
to the ladies of Lowertown:
gets giggles in response,
goes home to confide
in the dead.
You’re just trying to cope;
to convince yourself
you’re good enough
in diary entries,
how fucking cold it gets.
Of all the men on Parliament Hill
only Mackenzie King
is dressed for the weather. (Jeff Blackman and Peter Gibbon, Blizzard: Ottawa City Stories)
And I wonder, did either Jeff Blackman or Peter Gibbon, through working poems in and around the late Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, go through Winnipeg poet Nathan Dueck’s first book, king’s(mere) (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2004), an entire poetry collection on the subject of King? And was it Jeff Blackman who made an Artie Gold reference during his reading in the open set? How many people these days, let alone writing students in Ottawa in their early 20s, are quoting Artie Gold [see my piece on him here]?
Another factor in the increase of interesting poets emerging from In/Words could be that poet Rob Winger has been prodding some of these kids through his poetry courses at Carleton University, introducing his students to the Canadian long poem and the ghazal, moving through Michael Ondaatje's infamous The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and John Thompson’s Stiltjack (1976).
There are elements of Mark Sokolowski’s Dust in the water that I think could be quite interesting, taking a page from Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston (originally published in 1974 by Talonbooks, reissued by Longspoon Press in 1984, with a third edition produced by Ronsdale Press in 2001), working his own poems, as he writes in the back, “driven by a quest to examine the notions of ‘locus’ and ‘locality’, in an attempt to find some general truths or questions. The poems depict a specific community, that of Prince Edward County, in an attempt to explore the psychology of the people I have met there.” [Read my own essay on a variant on same, as I was writing my poetry collection The Ottawa City Project.] Referencing, also, James Joyce’s Dublin and Al Purdy’s Prince Edward County, Sokolowski has some moments here and there, but it’s hard to do much more than surface in such a small work, eight poems that move through parts of the county, with his “The County South of Belleville” (a reference to Purdy’s infamous “The Country North of Belleville” poem from his 1965 collection The Cariboo Horses) being the strongest and most effective of the whole group, and worth the chapbook alone, while still struggling between the geographic intent of Purdy and the structural interests of Marlatt. Still, I would have liked to see Sokolowski go so much deeper through the county, through the project; these pieces feel as though he has barely begun.
The Country South of Belleville
see this as a vein: the king’s highway, red spat route strung, thru Ontario
cars trucks pumpt thru to Windsor, Toronto, Kingston, the highwaymen always
hiding the blood & keeping surfaces grey & smooth (man woman & child, late nite back
to London, rainswept tarmac, truck they never saw coming
from greyed veins
go to the organs, the places fed, by blood & vine, find the homes, the people,
the poets that lived, there on the shoulders of the Great Lake, there a part of Ontario,
Prince’s County, “God’s country” the grape grower calls it, as if there is god
& he can live like a vine, boots planted in limestone, on a hill, lakewind
sweeping rain away from grapefields, blessing the old,
“fruitbaskets of Ontario,:
old canning towns, now backed by Midtown Meats,
the mushroom & cement plants, the Frenchmen & women flooding sandbanks the wave
spilling greenbacked into Picton (all summer Marcel makes lefthand turns into grocery
store lots & stops just waits, “seen it happen twice last week, fuckers, cant wait
till fall,” & death when the snow comes,
& the ebb, no more income for seasonal shops,
& the island, the County, slips locks onto its bridges, cuts traffic from Deseronto,
Trenton, Belleville, pass the same, money from hand to hand, everything changing
outside, within, Al Purdy’s house up for sale, cattle herded to barns to drink,
the trough water sheltered, the wind quieted by walls.
To find out more about their publications, or their monthly open set readings, check out their website here, or come by the next ottawa small press book fair on June 20th, where they regularly have a table of their recent wares.