Thursday, May 14, 2009

Extended, Sequential, Serial, Lengthy, Longish or Otherwise Self-Limiting Poems

Sad stories should be short,
but I don’t know how to cut corners.

When I cut a corner
it makes two
more (Krista A. Murchison, “Shorthand”)

Is the long / extended poem a dead form? It’s an argument I’ve been having lately, and Stephanie Bolster’s class project at least claims that the conversation is ongoing, but where is it all going? I recently got a copy of the publication Extended, Sequential, Serial, Lengthy, Longish or Otherwise Self-Limiting Poems, a limited edition bound anthology from two Concordia University Creative Writing Department classes conducted by Stephanie Bolster, cited as “The Poems of ENGL 429E / ENGL 672B” (April 2009).
1. Definition

A mustache is hair on a labium. A mustache is a broken nose waiting to be set, a mustache beneath it. A mustache is a must and an ache. A mustache covers a smirk at the corners of a lip. A mustache is shocked beside an ocelot and cane. A mustache is a fascism and a defiance of it. A mustache is a philologist in bifocals. A mustache and a unibrow are equal. A mustache is wax, brushes, scissors and snoods. A mustache is a flippered mammal. A mustache is an indication of villainy. A mustache is what you make it, and you make it a mustache. You don’t see a mustache but you see a mustache, and a mustache, and a mustache, a mustache. A mustache is a father, a rug, a patch of hair on a face.

For the Swedish heavy metal band, see Mustasch. (Hillary Rexe, “Parts of a Mustache”)
There are some interesting moments here and there in the explorations of the long poem; too often, journals and class projects, for the sake of limited space and/or interest, focus on the lyric “finely wrought,” and miss out any explorations of other forms, including the longer ones, with notable exceptions, including The Malahat Review running a long poem contest, fragments of The Capilano Review and Prairie Fire, and an issue of Verse, for example. Of the sixteen pieces inside this publication, many exist as lyric narratives stretched, extended; where does the poem go? Will any of these authors further themselves, their explorations of the form, or is this it? I’m reminded of the amount of first books as extended / long poems that come out of Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press, from projects either directly or indirectly influenced by, say, Dennis Cooley, David Arnason and Robert Kroetsch, et al, out of the University of Winnipeg. For the poems in this collection, where are they coming from?

Pathology I

At 5 a.m., I let you in,
drunk, but it’s
all of you touching
all of me and then (oh
yes) the silence
of your weight
on mine.

I think please could it
be (that you love)
just like this:
all of you touching
all of me. (Linda Doan)

It’s interesting that Bolster is teaching a long poem class; whatever else her poems have worked with and from, it seems to be a form that has brought about her strongest works, from the chapbook of fairy tale poems, Three Bloody Words (above/ground press, 1996) and her third trade collection, Pavilion (McClelland & Stewart, 2002). Still, in a title borrowed from Sharon Thesen, editor of two of the long poem anthologies, is the long / extended poem any more “self-limiting” than any other form? One of the highlights in this collection was the sequence of poems by Linda Doan, small narrative bursts that move from sequences of “Anatomy,” “History,” “Pathology” and “Histology” and a few others, wrapping around each other into something that has the potential to be quite interesting. I like the structures already of her imagined whole.

History I

46 y.o. female
presents with
shortness of breath

married with 3 sons
Dennis is never around

here to test new treatment
for pulmonary hypertension.
a complication
of underlying disease:

scleroderma (skleros: hard,
derma: skin)

pitted scars on hands
tight around bone

body attacks its own


At what point does a surplus of poems become serial, sequence, extended, long? Some of these pieces aren’t really clear about telling the reader if they even know the difference. Another highlight had to be Krista A. Murchison’s sequence “Homefront,” especially the first poem, “Shorthand” (quoted at the beginning of this post), a grouping of pieces perhaps along the lines of Stephanie Bolster’s White Stone: The Alice Poems (1998), say, than Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes (1989; 2002) or Cooley’s Bloody Jack (1984; 2000). She seems capable of the most magnificent small moments, and graceful turns, and I would like to see where she ends up going with these. But why are so many long poems/sequences on family histories?

My grandmother was a stenographer
during the second world war; she always knows
which corners can be cut,

which plosives are superfluous,
how to make a dress with only nine buttons
and no cuffs. (Krista A. Murchison, “Shorthand”)

There is N.S. Worsley, who writes a relatively straightforward travel poem with some interesting moments and lines, there and here, but with one of my favourite titles in some time: “A book bought to soak in a country / through a bus window / to fly down the road with me.” And Wanda O’Connor, of course. Hers is one of the few pieces in this collection that feels like a single poem more than any of the rest, her “sub rosa” (I wonder if she knows that Toronto writer Stan Rogal has a collection of the same name), extending further out some of the explorations of physical space on the page that she’s been working on for the past five or seven years. Larissa Andrusyshyn, a Montreal poet who has been around for over a decade, does some interesting things in a series of poems on mammoths, but only really start to shine when she breaks out of storytelling into really writing.

The Mammoth Sequences the Ivan Andrusyshyn Genome

Claustrophobia was his first obstacle,
then the heat. The mammoth’s coat became
somewhat matted (the lab had very poor ventilation),
but he mapped the Andrusyshyn genome in eighteen months.

The trunk is surprisingly nubile so he was able to handle
data, microscopes and test tubes like any other geneticist.
The traceable graphs are ordered like dental records,
base pairs identified, a collection of letters and mutations:


The mammoth is optimistic, sends a letter
to Ivan’s daughter, says
we are very close.

Ivan Andrusyshyn was the only known specimen.
When the mammoth presents his findings
he brings a small crowd of lab techs to its feet.

Are these even publicly available? I am hoping so, there are certainly some pieces here worth reading, and an enviable publication, for those of us over the years who have taken creative writing classes and not seen a publication after. If they are, I’d recommend either getting a hold of the English Department directly, or floating over to The Word bookstore, just at McGill. Of course they’d have copies.

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