As Margaret Christakos said of me during the evening, “everywhere he goes, he creates community.” After years of books that rarely even get reviewed, how strange is it to have an evening focusing on a writer at all, focusing on a single work?
It was, admittedly, the strangest feeling the other night, being on the receiving end of commentary in Margaret Christakos' Influency Salon, as Montreal poet/performer Kaie Kellough talked about my poetry collection wild horses (University of Alberta Press, 2010). wild horses is a book composed entirely within the nine month period I lived in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, from September 2007 to May 2008. What did it mean for an Ontario boy to exist in such a space? What did it mean to explore that new space, both through its immediate spaces and the spaces that existed in writing?
Christakos said it was a common enough response, the rarity of feedback at all being enough, but the intelligent feedback and focus would be enough to unsettle any writer. Why are they all looking at me? I might not experience the likes of such again. Relief that such occurred as well beside visiting friends in the classroom, Camille Martin and Marcus McCann. What I like, too, that each participating writer responds in a longer way to another of the books, and is responded to as well, in kind. Whereas Kellough responded to my wild horses (2010), for example, I responded to Camille Martin's Sonnets (2010) [see my piece on such here], and Martin responded to Kellough's Maple Leaf Rag (Arbiter Ring Publishing, 2010). I am wishing I could participate in the upcoming session where Erin Moure and Rachel Zolf present on each other's work [see the full list of participating authors and books here]. Hell, I'm wishing I lived closer to Toronto, just so I could have heard more of the presentations during this session.
The evening begun with two students presenting their “wonderments,” a couple of minutes each worth of responses to my particular book before the longer response piece by Kaie Kellough, followed by a half-hour reading by yours truly, focusing on the particular work, and a lively question-and-answer session to close off the evening. The first wonderment presenter, who teaches at York University, opened what will possibly be a larger essay talking about the book's Jack Spicer influence, as well as the title itself, as he wandered various places I wouldn't have imagined. He referenced various “wild horses” songs, from The Rolling Stones to U2. I very much liked what he saw in the collection, but wondered at his listing off what the title made him think of, instead of possibly what my title might have had in relation to the collection. Less a matter of song titles, my use of the “wild horses” title was more of an ironic gesture, the sentimental stereotype of what folk from Ontario might have expected from Alberta. The book, I thought, was made that much more perfect by the fact that a carousel horse occupies the cover, in reference to a poem inside on the West Edmonton Mall (the only wild horses, perhaps, left in Alberta?).
The highly personable and compelling Kellough, raised in Calgary, started his talk by mentioning he'd actually heard me read many years before, at my premiere Calgary reading back in May, 1998, as I toured with Joe Blades, Brenda Niskala, D.C. Reid and Anne Burke for our Open 24 Hours (Broken Jaw Press, 1997). He remembered my above/ground press “poem” leaflets best of all, handed off madly in all directions. I loved his response to the jazz of the language, as he called it, and the way my pieces responded to the prairie space itself. He claimed at first he didn't know how to enter the book, but responding to the geography as a former resident and to the language seemed absolutely perfect. Sitting beside me, Marcus McCann nodding throughout Kellough's vibrant talk. Not a list poem or list book, as someone else suggested, Kellough saw how the book ended up working towards so much more, and I look forward to sitting down with the finished text of such, hoping it will soon see print, possibly up on the Influency site. And I liked very much, found it unsettling, even, hearing my own words reflected back, letting the weight of them settle as he quoted from an interview Patrick Connors did with me recently, opening and closing his piece with such, where I say:
My relationship with home is a multi-layered, complex thing, rife with textures and contradictions. Or perhaps it’s far simpler than I keep making it out to be. How does long distance compare to the notion of home? How far is away, and how does one return? No matter what magical lands were discovered along the way in stories from The Odyssey to Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz, each story if fueled predominantly by the desire to return home, even if that home is seen as ordinary, routine, and black-and-white. Or is it like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, where the return home only results in the desire to return to what had just been, finally, escaped?
During the question-and-answer session, there was much discussion on the book, some who argued with the “exile” status, some frustrated by the “compression” of the poems, some who asked about the “lack of politics” or “direct statements” in the collection. One even accused me of “lacking commitment,” simply because my book (apparently) lacks commentary on the west, on Edmonton and Alberta, as though it specifically mattered to the poems if I “liked” the space. I made a choice to exist within and engage with the space of Alberta for nine months; why would I undertake such a thing for a space I decided to hate?
Part of the class includes postings to Posterous, a site that allows select members to exchange texts, with postings of wonderments, notices and the longer pieces by participating writers. The morning following, Toronto poet Shannon MaGuire, one of the shortlisted authors for the most recent Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, posted her own wonderment. She talked about the Jack Spicer-influenced language and specific Spicer section, writing that:
This is a complicated gesture that has led one critic to call mclennan’s language “allusive and seemingly impenetrable”[i] but I would argue that, rather, mclennan’s is a poetry of resistance, one that tries to resist the poet’s pre-packaged understanding as much as the reader’s. It’s a situated poetics, perhaps an example of a parasite poetics where the poet and reader eat beside the poem.
So much to absorb, so much new to think about. A day or two after the session, McCann responded to me in an email:
One of the things I found interesting: a lot of folks seemed to latch onto the Alberta theme as a way of explaining your work. In itself, that makes sense, given the book. But so much of what they were trying to explain -- compression, punctuation, visual presentation, that-which-is-unsaid -- extends well beyond wild horses. It makes me think that perhaps there's another way of understanding how those technical elements relate to your themes.
Yeah, I mean, they're onto something, but I'm not inclined to pin it on Alberta. The constituent parts of that motif -- exile, geography, history, dislocation -- are present in much of your work over the last decade. In general, "outsidership." Not to pin it to the Westfest theme, but I think the more general label fits, whether you're talking about a compact of words, wild horses, or even, say, The Ottawa City Project. And also, both the novels.
I've long considered Toronto writer Margaret Christakos to be one of the smartest human beings I've met, able to talk casually about writing at such a high level of intelligence, curiosity and knowledge, and watching her negotiate through conversation and commentary through this series only confirms it. Oh, how I wish she had a collection of essays to purchase and pour over. After participating in such, I begin to realize the extent of the rare space Christakos provides for intelligent response to and conversation about writing, a brilliant opportunity for participating authors and students alike, and now think everyone interested in writing should sign up for whatever it is she does next. I just hope these workshops continue.