Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ongoing notes: late April, 2011

Might I see you at my Pivot reading in Toronto (alongside Linda Besner and Jacob Mooney) this coming Wednesday, May 4th (“may the fourth be with you”)? Thanks to Cameron Anstee and Max Middle, there’s even been some activity lately on the ottawa poetry newsletter blog, which I’m quite pleased with. Might there be those out in the world interested in posting irregular reviews, essays and/or interviews there as well? And have you subscribed to above/ground press yet? There are forthcoming chapbooks from derek beaulieu, Dennis Cooley, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Robert Kroetsch, Ben Ladouceur and a number of others.

There’s a slew of sites I’ve been poking at lately, from The Bull Calf Review to Kevin Spenst's ongoing interview series, Jacket2 to The Winnipeg Review. How can a boy even keep up? And don’t forget that Ottawa’s The Dusty Owl Reading Series celebrates fifteen whole years in May, with two different events, from May 8 (Ronnie Brown’s poetry, John Lavery’s guitar and the return of Steve Zytveld) and May 22 (with a blow-out family reunion at The Elmdale Tavern!).

San Francisco CA: I recently received a copy of San Francisco poet Beverly Dahlen’s A Reading: Birds (little red leaves, 2011), published as part of the little red leaves textile series, “lovingly sewn using recycled curtains and other textile remnants.”

The greater white-fronted goose in that fair field, geese, more than a thousand in the flock moaning, a kind of low hum, singing the blues. The spectacle of the birds, how we go out to see them now, provide for them, shelters, refugees, how we’ve beggared them and set them aside amid the low-lands of the valley, the trucks roaring night at day over l5, San Diego to Sacramento, ripping up the countryside.

Sacramento to Redding to the Oregon border:

above Keeping Still, Mountain
below The Abysmal, Water

the very place, we say, tearing at the air.

For some years now, Dahlen has been composing a sequence of “A Reading” works, beginning with the trade collection A Reading 1-7 (Momo’s Press, 1985) and continuing with A Reading 8-10 (Chax Press, 1992), A Reading 11-17 (Potes and Poets Press, 1989), A Reading 18-20 (Instance Press, 2006) and the chapbook A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets (Chax Press, 2004). Having not experienced her work until this small chapbook, I’m intrigued to see how she manages to explore the world through such an ongoing form, with this graceful collection exploring and responding to the myth of the mourning dove. Composed in short fragments, this chapbook collages a story of birds and the myth of the mourning dove, knitting variations together into a lovely, small unit. Her canvas might be quite broad and even expansive, but beautifully packed into elegant sections.

House finches now, “like a sparrow dipped in wine” with their querulous call, the question at the end, chatter, chatter, and the lesser goldfinch, tuxedo tail. The mourning doves’ hoo-hoo-hoo [how miserable is this imitation], the call of the dove. Softly, thinking of its story, why does it mourn. Listening.

Ottawa ON: For a couple of years now, Ottawa poet Cameron Anstee [see his Apt. 9 Press 12 or 20 questions here] has been building himself up as a publisher of fine looking limited edition chapbooks, and encouraging and producing some surprisingly good writing from corners known and unknown. This new season of three titles includes former Ottawa and current Toronto writer Jeremy Hanson-Finger’s The Delicious Fields (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2011), launched recently alongside new titles by Monty Reid and Claudia Coutu Radmore. A compelling novella in prose poems, the small seems evident in Hanson-Finger’s extended piece, compiling a narrative that bounces around but never loses the reader. What engages is watching him work the difference between what might be hidden, shown or completely lost, and what might entirely be suggested. Is this entirely self-contained, I wonder, or part of something larger-in-progress? Might there be more?

Michelle and Liam wait in silence. With the car’s headlights off, the darkness around them is almost complete. Liam’s eyes might be closed again. Michelle feels for his face. His eyelids are shut, but his chest rises and falls, maybe faster than it should, but still with strength and purpose. She imagines the ambulance has already parked in front of them, its red halogens swiveling on the roof, burning the bark of the trees and the stucco of the houses to ash except for an empty band where the two of them shield the landscape from the light.

Friday, April 29, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Brenda Hillman;

Brenda Hillman has published eight collections of poetry, all from Wesleyan University Press: White Dress (1985), Fortress (1989), Death Tractates (1992), Bright Existence (1993), Loose Sugar (1997), Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Practical Water (2009), for which she won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry, and three chapbooks: Coffee, 3 A.M. (Penumbra Press, 1982); Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995); and The Firecage (a+bend press, 2000). She has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry for Shambhala Publications, and, with Patricia Dienstfrey, co-edited The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

i published a chapbook and then it took me a long time to publish my first book with wesleyan. i was raising children and working in a bookstore, and publishing a book was helpful when i wanted to teach.  people are sometimes interested in the evolution of a poet’s style. i’ve been writing in the bay area—so that is a big factor because for 80 years or so, the bay area has seen the confluence of many exciting poetic threads— it is like the island of miletus for the pre-socratic philosophers. lots of ideas and aesthetic impulses have come through there so my work has joined this evolution in a way that is darwinian and alchemical. each stage of my writing has come about for some reason but mostly for the same desire to investigate a spiritual or political or aesthetic question…  i wrote death tractates  because i couldn't find many elegies for women by women that were feminist and pastoral. in general my work reflects a kind of bay area innovation that embodies  process and marginalia and emotion. sometimes i’ve been trying to solve a cultural or political problem through my writing. loose sugar comes from alchemy and from trying to think about the body and adolescence while the government started the first stupid gulf war. pieces of air in the epic ­was written in part in europe at the start of the second stupid iraq war. the haunted 'sound' in that book kind of quarrels with a magically abstract language. the last few books have been part of a tetralogy on the elements— my own ecological or environmental poetry maybe different because it’s always had a certain animist impulse. talking rocks and that sort of thing. in cascadia and practical water— and i wanted to experiment with many different sentence structures and forms.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
i've always loved poetry, and fell in love with poetry at a very early age because the sounds of poetry intoxicated me. the more i didn't understand it, the more interesting it seemed. i love the mysteries of the english language— individual syllables, roots, words and the pacing of it.  what makes poetic language rhythmically amazing is something odd about cadence--  probably it was the sound of psalms or ecclesiates in my ear first.  when i started to read poetry seriously i was mainly interested in the fact that a poem could only be said *in that way*-- and every other kind of writing-- however good-- seems paraphrasable. i wanted to write things that people would love as little "language packets" in their pockets, that would note profound things about reality and existence.   you could make things that had the chance of making powerful objects with words that would be eternal, and yet were voicing a particular experience or moment in time, in process

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes? 
i generally have several drafts going at once but usually one is more an obsessive favorite than others. a poem is of interest both as a process and as material object, including the processes of writing, rewriting, failure and re-entry. the process has to do with using scraps the way the women of my grandmother's generation loved quilt-making.  i usually change every word hundreds of times, use notes, work with previous, ancient drafts; sometimes i hypnotize myself to hear the new speed in the right way; often i read to get the pacing from something i've loved..., but the moment of sound- insight-- or i guess "instress" hopkins would say-- is always a line, 'heard' as the "ah-ha" moment-- there! that's the strange link i've been waiting to hear. and it seems to happen only if there is a state of receptivity. it often takes years to finish even a short poem, but this doesn't mean it isn't still spontaneous.

4 - Where do poems usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
i go toward a piece of writing with one of four things, or rather, a combination: an idea, an image, an emotion, or a pure musical phrase that simply arrives. that is how the poem begins for me-- one of those four. to have written a few works that hold up as book-length endeavors is gratifying but one hopes to have written something great that fits in a pocket. my first love affair with poetry was because of its great compression but even though i love the short forms, i am passionate about many long— even very long— poems. the shape of a potential manuscript announces itself when i’m about halfway through— at least this has been the case with the last few books. it often takes me about six months just to make a pleasing arrangement for the poems in book form.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
i like doing readings just fine.  i love going to other people’s readings and hearing poems, but many wonderful poems have visual elements so it is good to to see them on the page.  how poems look. there are all kinds of presentations of poetry and it's cool that we're in an age of such variety. my favorite sort of reading is one in which the poet does not overly dramatize herself-- the poem is allowed to borrow the human voice for a few minutes but is not interchangeable with it--

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
to do the real work of poetry and not be bound by ideologies. people talk about their ‘poetics’;  most people have very weird ideas and their styles should reflect the consciousness they tap into…it’s not clear anything is behind the words in a poem. words are mazes with thick walls, all substance and ether. i love what the painter wayne thiebaud once said when someone asked what he was working on; he said, ‘i'm working on the difference between green and blue.’  that is exactly how i feel about writing. there is an existential puzzle that must be figured out in relation to perception. there are so many theoretical problems to solve but they are all ultimately spiritual, moral and existential. subjectivity was a the ‘difference between green and blue’ problem people were trying to solve 80s. i once heard someone say it wasn't ‘real feminist experimental writing’ if you used the letter ‘i’ to mean a person. that didn't seem very feminist to me. when barbara guest moved to the bay area, i was relieved because she said, "all poetry is subjective" which seems true. i still prefer writing with a lot of information— whether it’s research or just a fancy state of mind. it’s probably good to change your ‘poetics’ every few weeks to keep people on their toes.  at a geography of hope conference on water recently,  several of us—evelyn reilly, jonathan skinner, angie lewandowski and i—were talking about the term 'ecopoetics' and wondering whether even relatively recent terms like that can be co-opted and lose their life-force. i've always felt that—in terms of theories and manifestoes-- writers can be simultaneously inclusive and iconoclastic but that literary traditions are very flexible and don’t really originate at any one point… when i wrote  cascadia  i was thinking that the feminist experimental 'nature-writing' tradition was different from what men had done so with the geological metaphor— the poetic consciousness is like rocks of california.  the main problem is how to live in relation— with a feeling for both endangered earth and endangered language—but one enters a poem through a sphere of the musical phrase rather than to solve any kind of theory.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

the writer should be an engaged citizen. i feel more writers should be involved in the public sphere.  unless she is taking care of small children or the elderly or is in poor health the writer can do some form of activism . all working adults must make time to protest what is going on— to refuse to be complicit. less facebook, more faces in the street-- or use facebook to get the faces out into the street... but before i start a rant about apathy…if one of the writer’s jobs is to keep linguistic imagination alive in the culture for herself in a society which is increasingly dead to language, it can include other kinds of activities involving art, absurdist theatre like bringing poems to congress… i like to moan at the gas pump when i pump gas. poets can note the misuse of vocabulary in official kinds of language— some of us dialogued recently about the use of the word ‘spill’ about the b.p. gulf oil disaster. it can be found at i think of the role of the poet as quite radical, actually—as baudelaire thought, to be an engaged representative of the underbelly or the lining of the culture rather than its surface, or whatever is most odd about the human spirit, and if the culture is dysfunctional, as ours is, this means the poet is pointing to things that may be wrong as well to what is beautiful. poems cannot change laws, but we can take poems into the so called corridors of power…not just to protest things about human culture that make it disastrous but also to celebrate existence, its marvels, the non-human.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
my editor at wesleyan, suzanna tamminen, is great. i feel her guiding presence. she has been blessedly 'hands-off' when it comes to my writing and i'm grateful that she allowed me to write from my odd vision of things in work that has changed very often. i'm such an inveterate reviser that by the time a manuscript reaches suzanna's desk i'm satisfied that i've done my best with the work. at times, working with magazine editors, i've been open to suggestions, but not always. i was on an editorial board at for twelve years, and i found the process enlightening but very difficult. making suggestions for an other writer’s art was a great responsibility. the board took the task very seriously and the suggestions we made were always to make the work better in its own terms rather than to shape it to our own styles.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
a piece of language about writing-- not necessarily advice-- i think of every day is from chekhov: 'nothing passes away'-- this captures the great circularity of existence and of linguistic possibilities. my mom, who was born and educated in brazil, learned another version of this—she tells me it was from lavoisier: “na naturesa, nada se crea nem se perde; tudo se transforma.” a teacher told me very early on that i should write not what i want to write to express myself but what i would want to read if i were looking for something good to read.  i'd like to think something of what i've written might survive my small personality and might keep someone going in the future.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
i've actually written very few essays, considering how many i would like to write and have in mind. i'd love to write more. i feel like a house plant that grew one big old gigantic leaf because that leaf was just the main thing. the leaf is poetry.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
i wake up at 5:30 or 6 most days. i usually write in the morning before going to teach or whatever.  i stay at my desk stewing, for a few hours. i either work on new writing or re-writing—i recopy poems until they are finished. i try to attend to a poem every day.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
farther out or farther in. to plants and animals and rocks, spiders, the spirit world. all  forms are potential sources— trance techniques, hypnosis, cooking broccoli. i turn to other writing. to bird manuals, natural history guides, philosophy, airport magazines – i’m a sloppy and undisciplined reader. i hate reading gobs of stuff on the internet so i’m not surprised if no one is reading this now. if i have to read long things i print them out.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
home of origin (tucson) the smell of creosote bushes just after a rain.

in tilden park, where we run there's a plant that smells like taco sauce. we pass it and i know i'm home. eucalyptus trees smell like home-- though they are introduced species. and so does bay laurel -- if you bend the leaf in half, it produces the most amazing smell. 

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
human bodies influence my work… marriage has influenced my work, and i’ve been blessed to have a wonderful husband and family.  domestic arts enchant me— crafts and witchcrafts.  stitching, needlepoint, knitting— very honorable women’s arts. for many years i’ve worked with trance and hypnosis techniques— old and hermetic, theosophical procedures.  my political activism, especially work with code pink, has had a more prominent place in my poetry lately, so people keep asking about activism and poetry — direct action in the street, not in the internet, is very inspiring, especially grassroots activism. poems are such little objects that you can put so many things into— the vast inhuman elements that may or may not have a different form of consciousness from ours.  i've always explored might be called the ecological tradition in my poetry. ecology, various sciences, the natural world. as i say above, gnosticism and alchemy.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
some early favorites were the king james translation of the bible, edna st vincent millay, keats, dickinson, yeats, volumes given to me by my parents and grandparents who encouraged reading. i read a lot of poetry in jr. high and high school in the sixties -- individual volumes of great modernists- including stevens, eliot, pound-- as well as favorites of my hippie peers. we were all reading richard brautigan in high school and smoking a lot of weed while squinting at the liner notes of dylan albums.  my brother gave me plath's ariel as a graduation present.   when i got to college i was introduced to baudelaire, rimbaud and mallarme the minute i got there, and i had several wonderful teachers— ed germain especially, as did my friend luke menand who gave me a lot of contemporary poetry to read.  i read a lot of rilke in college too. reading baudelaire and wordsworth simultaneously, and then andre breton and dickinson simultaneously, formed my aesthetic mostly. i gobbled the modernists in grad school— williams, stevens and h.d— so the business of trying to exclude didn't seem a good thing. in grad school i also read ashbery, duncan, james wright. i read the work of my future husband bob hass’s field guide with a passion, and john wieners’ nerves.  being a bay area poet pretty much requires you to look at  has been to look to the writers of the sf renaissance— rexroth, snyder, everson,  duncan. sarah rosenthal’s anthology about the bay area vanguard points to the later legacy of this.  i feel part of a move toward great aesthetic diversity in american writing, the way an exploratory, ecological and spiritual emphasis has come about, as well as the way the materials of language have been emphasized, many experiments in style-- it is very exciting. as for reading, for falling in love with what i've read-- i’m pretty picky. that is, i read a ton but i'm always looking for very high quality work, not just poetry in the current period styles. i want to find the truly memorable work.  it rarely happens but when it happens i'll read that poet's work thereafter.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
i wish i could learn spanish, play the guitar, learn as many botanical names as possible, make a huge scene protesting drones.  there is unbearable injustice in our social and economic system. and i want never never to have to ski again. i’m from the desert and i hate snow—  offensive stuff.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
i would like to be a firecracker, or a piece of granite on the point reyes peninsula. if i return as an animal, i’d like to be a fox, a dolphin or an owl. i'd like to have the eyes of any insect. if i return as a human, i'd like to be a naturalist, an oceanographer, a revolutionary fanatic of some kind who will not do damage to people or creatures. but i would not want any of these things if i cannot come back writing poetry. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
poetry "took" in every way, from the time i was 9. my parents were very supportive and they still think poetry is cool. previous instances of writing made me want to write, as well as a feeling about the world and about the wilderness inside my brain that nothing could satisfy but poetry.  the great values of poetry from romanticism through modernism— wildness of spirit, wildness of form. to write about whatever you want, including mental processes themselves, to use syllables and the non-human world as subjects; they/ we can be conscious of interconnectedness between our local place and our humanness; and we are likely to make better art if we keep all our mental functions working--  mind has the capacity for all things and can accommodate all you go through in your life--the uncertainty and the complexity, the biosphere including the rocks-- all these are uncertain, full of  paradox-- capture this in poetry—not to hurry through the mysteries. it’s great that poetry is slow and inexpensive—one sheet of paperis .

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
i can’t say the last great book i read but i can tell you some things i have on my desk right now: talks on occultism; gennadi aygi’s selected works translated by peter france; vallejo's the black heralds; the bible; the story of writing; witches in the southwest; transtromer's selected; the life of antonio gramsci, and plants of the san francisco bay region. i read tons and tons of contemporary poetry-- i try to keep up-- and really read across the aesthetic spectrum, not just my friends’ works. we don’t go to movies much but i loved inside job. as jane austen would say, “how true.” i don’t like to sit through movies if i start hating them after 15 minutes, and most people (namely, bob) are more patient and given them a chance. i mostly hate plots so i like movies in which very little happens.   one of my top movies is woman in the dunes. i like movies with sand in them. visually, lawrence of arabia is my favorite film though the “stance” is a garbled mess politically. i love the way peter o’toole’s nose is always running.

20 - What are you currently working on?
i'm working on poems with fire in them— on small seasonal moments. one thing that interests me right now is investigating ‘half-emotions’ and the kinds of things holderlin worried about--  what you would call the lyric impulse and how it emerges from non-existence. activism has made it impossible not to stay pretty unhappy all the time about the corporate monstrosity that our government has become but there is a great opportunity to be serene and focused on the good of art even despite that. i have a baby grandson i get to see a lot and there is great solace in the non-human is very beautiful to be alive. with poetry you need to be a shaman but also remember to floss.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Helen Guri, Match

Since discovering her work in an issue of The Antigonish Review a couple of years back [see my review of such here, and further mention here], I’ve been anticipating what Toronto poet Helen Guri would come up with as her first trade poetry collection, finally published as Match (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2011). The poems in Match are damned sharp, as Guri writes a collection of compelling poems about love and (as the back cover informs), through “the voice of the emotionally challenged modern male” and his love for his “110-pound fully operational sex doll, ordered over the internet.” Doesn't this feel like an echo or shade of that strange and compassionate Ryan Gosling film, Lars and the Real Girl (2007)? This collection reads much as a novel-in-poems, a lyric tale told in densely-packed lines exploring the relationship between the fictional Robert Brand and his artificial companion, and the relationship’s emotional turns from every possible angle. Is love any less real, here? Still, it's hard to tell sometimes if this collection is a furthering or simply a retelling/re-imagining of Gosling's own Lars. Where does light gallop in?


My brainwave is the size of an arena –
please grab a seat.

Watch the mystery run laps
through a device
composed solely of antiquated childhood games
an ancient pains:

a crescendo of dominoes
sets off a model train; conductorless,

a flashlight’s plasma siren
burrows through textbook
migraines, refracts in a rat trap

below the buzzer – which one,
what colour?

Keep your ears pricked as baskets
for the unmapped sound, for the crash
landing of a tossed girl.

Let your cogs be a crowd in a wave
of plough and follow.

In a suite of three poems and introductory poem, “Apocalypse Wedding,” the sharpest pieces here are often those in which she uses the fewest words, cutting here and then here to say the same in the least. Damned sharp, as I said, but why this slew of poetry collections that keep insisting on telling us stories? Why not simply poems?

With hints of the surreal, of the fantastic, Guri’s poems turn a perspective that might sound like obsession, like madness, into something more breathtaking, and even impossible: something sounding like love, perhaps. Just listen to this, the second section of the three-part poem “RUBBER BRIDE,” a poem that begins with a quote from Louise Glück (“The beloved / lives in the head.):

People at work began to notice
my smell of must and rumpled lilac,
how my eyes were tumblers where trapped goldfish paced.
The chronic tinnitus of your shower opera
was embarrassingly loud in public places.

But when I called the city to get a permit for your removal,
they told me you’d been designated a World Heritage Site.

The tourists came with cameras, prams, ham-sandwich luncheons,
first editions of certain folk tales for signing.
Their kids playing chicken in the intermittent drip
of mood light from the windows.

I took work in maintenance –
sank my pincers into litter,
mowed the acreage with a ride-on
while you let out a feral howl
in perfect pitch with my petroleum drone.
The children flocked and scattered.

It was not long before I turned into a cat
and you flicked paper mice between the shutter slats
on fly-rods. You knit your golden hair in windsocks,
I ran into a paper bag.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Joel Yanofsky;

JOEL YANOFSKY is the author of the essay collection Homo Erectus ... And Other Popular Tales of True Romance, the novel Jacob's Ladder, and the memoir Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, Chatelaine, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the National Post, and The Walrus. He is a regular book reviewer for The Montreal Gazette, where he also writes a business column. His most recent book is the non-fiction title, Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
A: My first book, a collection of humourous essays called Homo Erectus and Other Popular Tales of Romance, did not change my life except to serve notice that writing a book wasn’t going to change my life. Too bad about that. My books have tended to be in different genres – the first essays, the second a novel (Jacob’s Ladder), the third a biography/memoir and the latest a straight memoir (Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism). But what they have in common, I suppose, is that all of them are personal and all of them seem to come back to the same theme about an unrealistic desire to maintain the status quo, a time before things changed, became more complicated, more filled with sorrow and regret.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
A: I suppose I did come to fiction first. I suppose it was from studying all those novels as a student and then reviewing them as a critic.  But while I still enjoy writing fiction when I can, I’ve come to prefer the intimacy and immediacy of memoir. Memoirs also seem to be more marketable these days, which is, alas, a consideration.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A: It usually takes me a long time. The process is invariably slow, probably because my first drafts tend to be worked at over and over again so they really aren’t first drafts. So yes first drafts are close to final shape, but it all depends on how you define your terms.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

A: Well since my new book, Bad Animals, is non-fiction, I'll speak about the process for it. I did want to write a book from the beginning but I didn't know how to tackle the whole thing so it was important to break it down. I compare it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You work on one section -- the border, the sky -- all at once and then see how they fit together with the other sections of the puzzle. In the case of Bad Animals, I started by writing very short pieces and getting the tone right and then extending it from there.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
A: I don't see how they could be counter to the process since I generally do them once the creative work is over. Then again if people asked me to read and paid me I would do them more often. And, yes, I enjoy reading except no one wants you to read any more they just want you to chat about your book. I like to do a little of both and I like having the spotlight on me after a long time hidden away in the basement working. I am an occasional ham.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
A: Theory is generally death to any creative work. I've seen that in universities where academics have tried to prove that their analysis of a work of art is as important as a work of art. This is nonsense. And it's also destructive because it has undermined a whole generation of readers who have been taught that books aren't meant to entertain them but confuse them. I have no idea what the current questions are and I could care less. The only question I try to answer when I write is can I make this interesting and entertaining, can I make other people care about what I care about? Can I make them laugh and cry and preferably both at the same time?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
A: The role of the writer is diminishing for a simple reason; people read less. At least they read serious fiction and nonfiction -- and needless to say, poetry -- less. Part of the onus for this is on the writer. He or she has to work harder to be accessible without dumbing down his or her work.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A: I don't find it difficult. I don't know if it's essential but in my experience it has always been valuable. And my editors on all my books have helped make the books better, more organized, tighter etc.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A: A colleague read an early chapter of Bad Animals a couple of years ago and liked it a lot, going to some length to say why and then he said, "Now, just don't fuck it up!" which was good advice. I also like the E.L. Doctorow quote about writing a book is like driving a car at night. You can't see much further than your headlights but if you stay focused you can make the whole trip that way. That's a paraphrase, by the way.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to critical/journalistic prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
A: This has never been an issue. I believe there are only two kinds of writing: good and bad and that applies across the board. I don't make much distinction between the reviews I write and the books I write at least in terms of the effort I put into the writing.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A: I try to write every day for a few hours. That is an ideal, however. it doesn't always work out. I work in the morning and then an hour or two in the afternoon on a good day.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
A: I've found it's useful to just switch to writing something else. Perhaps something very different. Something shorter. Fiction if you're writing nonfiction or visa versa.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
A: I have no idea.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
A: My books do tend to come from other books, that's true. But TV and movies have been great influences, often in ways I don't always recognize.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A: The writers whose work has meant the most to me include Philip Roth, John Updike, Carol Shields, Peter de Vries, Stanley Elkin, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Phillip Lopate, Geoffrey Dyer.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A: If you mean as a writer, I can't think of anything. A second novel feels like something new so I'd like to try that.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A: No idea. I became a writer because I didn't want to do anything else. Maybe, shrink or mime.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A: As I said, it's all I really ever wanted to do. I think it helped that it was something I was good at when I wasn't very good at anything else, at least in school. I remember I won some minor prize in grade six for a composition I wrote about brotherhood and that made me think I could do something different than my friends and classmates, which is what I wanted.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A: The last great book I read was probably Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin. I also loved Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage and Paul Collins' book about his autistic son, Not Even Wrong.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A: Not sure yet. I have a writing job job, which may turn out to be more interesting than it first appeared.

Joel Yanofsky reads at the ottawa international writers festival on Saturday, April 30, 2011;

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

vote for rob as this year's poet laureate of the blogosphere (what, again?);

Again, the poet laureate of the blogosphere contest has begun, and it's up to you to vote. Since this is the third time I've been up for it, I'm less excited about another round of potentially not winning (as Bugs Bunny cries, always the bridesmaid, and never the bride), so not really sure what to think about it all. Still, here's the posting from the site (to vote, to go the link, including further links to all the individual nominees);

Voting Begins For For The 2011 Poet Laureate Of The Blogosphere ®

Nominations have ended, I have looked at every nomination that was presented and found the following poet bloggers all to be eligible to become the 2011 Poet Laureate Of The Blogosphere ®, a laureateship in name only but an honor to those who are nominated and the one who will finally be chosen by his or her fans and followers, who I hope will take the time to look around at my own poetry and the works of hundreds of other poets before they leave this site. Below is a list of the poets with names hyperlinked to their blogs. Below that is the form you can use to cast your ballots and make the final call.

The Nominees Are:

*Adam Dustus
*Brian Miller
*Fireblossom, aka Shay Caroline
*Gabriel Gadfly
*Jessie Carty
*Joanne Marie Firth
*Jo Janoski
*Leslie Aka Moondustwriter
*Maria Padhila
*MaryAnn McCarra-Fitzpatrick
*Natasha Head
* Neva Flores
*Robert Cameron Hazelton
*Rob Mclennan (why do they insist on upper-casing?)
*Sara Diane Doyle
*Shân Ellis
*Shirley Allard
*Walt Wojtanik
*William Manson

And with that part done I give you the poll which will close on April 29th at a time of my choosing. If you can't decide you may chose more than one. The winner will be announced on April 30th, again, at a time of my choosing.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The VEG Literary Magazine interviews rob mclennan

This interview was conducted over email, from Tuesday, March 15th to Wednesday, March 16, 2011, by Gillian Massel, editor of McGill's The VEG Literary Magazine, and published in same later that month. For info on the journal, email Gillian at

VEG: Today is your 41st birthday (happy birthday rob!). Twenty-one years ago, you would have been the same age as many of our readers and our writers; at the beginning of, some would say, your adult and professional life. What were you doing at that time? Did you imagine you would be doing what you are doing today? In what ways have your plans changed and in what ways have they stayed the same?

rob mclennan: Thank you so much! By the time I was twenty I already knew I wanted to write, although I didn’t exactly know how to go about it or what exactly it meant. Twenty years ago my daughter was two months old. I don’t want to tell you what I was doing a year earlier than that (certainly not going to school or doing anything useful). I didn’t know much about anything. Once Kate was born, I went from writing a poem a month to pushing myself to set up a daily writing schedule.

VEG: You are an established poet, novelist, reviewer, editor, publisher, and a prolific blogger: how does working across such a variety of disciplines influence your writing? Do you think it is important for writers to explore more than one way of expressing themselves? Why or why not?

rm: Art should never remain static, and I’ve always been interested in a great number of things, so why shouldn’t I move around as well? I think the best way to approach one’s art is to go where your interests take you. Besides, figuring out something in one form can often allow a new element to appear in another. One form can only enrich another. And I’ve always thought that if we don’t bother reviewing, don’t bother talking about and working to understand the writing that has already been published, why make more?

VEG: As well as a poet, you are also an editor and publisher for above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, 17 seconds, and ottawater. In your opinion, what is the importance of small press publishing and the underground writing community for the literary scene in Canada as a whole?

rm: It just kind of happened, if you can believe that. Apart from writing itself, the best way to learn about writing is to read, completely, broadly and expansively, and publishing simply creates a broader opportunity for me to read as much as possible that interests me, by directly producing it. It also allows me to spread work I find interesting around to others, which encourages community, both writers and readers alike.

I grew up on a dairy farm, so I’ve always been aware of the essential nature of living within a community. We provide for our neighbours those things we are able, those things we can do. It is impossible to do all things on our own, alone. One person might be good at editing, one might be better at encouraging, another might be better at hosting and promoting events, etcetera. To help those who need it as they require raises us all. As Ondaatje wrote for The Long Poem Anthology, the poems can no more live on their own than we can.

VEG: Your collection red earth features poems you wrote while living in Prince Edward Island, while wild horses includes poems about your time spent in Alberta. You currently live in and write from Ottawa. Do you find that the geography of a place influences your writing? Do you think it is important for a Canadian poet to respond to the landscape that surrounds them? Is it possible to associate a specific aesthetic, as you would with a poem, with certain places in Canada?

rm: I actually wasn’t living in Prince Edward Island, but through briefly on a trip across parts of the east coast with my friend Sandie Drzewiecki. The long poem “red earth” came directly out of that little trip, but the remainder of the collection was actually written in Ottawa, in the apartment above where I currently live now, when I was apartment-sitting for Ottawa poet, publisher and bookseller jwcurry (that was when I still lived a block north). I spent three months apartment-sitting, and using his space as my summer writing studio, where the poetry collection cohered and finally completed. I think writing should respond in some ways to the immediate, whether that be geographical, literary, social or political. We live in the immediate world, Gertrude Stein told us, so we must write of it as well (I’m paraphrasing).

In wild horses I was making certain conscious choices about Alberta writing generally and Edmonton writing specifically. I wanted to compose a book that couldn’t have existed otherwise, but for my interaction with the city and the poetry of/by that city. I was experimenting with long prairie lines in ways I couldn’t have, all the way from Ottawa.

I mean, we have to react to the world around us, don’t we? It’s part of how we learn about where we are, who we are, etcetera. I wanted to learn Edmonton at a deeper level through writing it.

VEG: You use “______” blanks often in your work, which suggests a sense of absence. Are you concerned with what Earle Birney once said about Canadian Lit: “it’s only by our lack of ghosts that we're haunted?”

rm: I’m intrigued by the use of silence across the page, and the more overt ways of suggesting something that isn’t there. Ghosts can’t be helped, I don’t think. Every journey has some.

VEG: You tend to work a lot with memory and the notion of one's own personal history. In “Saskatoon” you say: “is it write what you know or what you don't?” Do you support the old adage, “write what you know” or do you think it's a bunch of hogwash? At what point must a writer must mythologize, create the “tall-tale”?

rm: I much prefer what George Bowering wrote, saying “write what you don’t know, otherwise you’ll never learn.” I don’t think I’ve ever been a writer of tall tales; I leave that to Robert Kroetsch. I simply move where the writing takes me.

VEG: In your poem “a little white li(n)e” from your collection what’s left you say “the first thing to do is abandon style.” For a poet who shows a preoccupation for experimenting with form, punctuation, spacing, and even the use of shorthand such as “thru” and “w/”, in what ways does a “poetic convention” limit or restrain your writing? In what ways does it help?

rm: Well, convention according to who, whom? Not every writer or reader is working from the same set of interests or influences. I know many who work happily in the sonnet, for example, doing amazing things with a form that most writers manage to mangle in the most dreadful and dull ways. Constraint can really bring out some magnificent and unexpected moments; George Bowering has done years of constraint writing, what he calls “the baffle,” and the best thing a writer can be is surprised by his/her own work. Isn’t that part of the point? I want my writing to be the best it can be; I want my writing to end up in places I haven’t yet been.

I often wonder at those writers who insist upon working within certain forms (like the sonnet) who refuse to bring anything new to it, who refuse to do anything interesting with them. If you love the form so much, why do such horrible things to it? Why bring it down? Why bother, I wonder.

VEG: When do you know a poem is good or “done”? Do you ever abandon a work, or do you continually go back and revise?

rm: Poems often get abandoned, even after major revision. Often when I’m at the beginnings of any book-length project, the first few pieces fall away in later drafts; those first few pieces are often my attempts to understand and clarify the shape of the project, and often end up feeling more like warm-up poems. Some pieces go through minor tweaks over a period of a few days, and others go through major upheavals. Often a completed manuscript sits for a few months before I return to it, to see what pieces might need removing. Distance is a good test for any piece; does this still work? Do I still like it? I’m no longer in a hurry, it seems.

You only know a poem is “done” (or, “abandoned,” as some have suggested) through practice. Lots and lots of practice. Some pieces you only know complete or incomplete or nearly-there through other ears, whether handing to a trusted friend or performing at a reading, to catch what works or doesn’t. These tests don’t always work out the way you’d expect.

VEG: Who and/or what are some of your major literary influences?

rm: Early influences, starting with my later teenage years, came out of the Poets of Contemporary Canada, 1960-1970 anthology, edited by Eli Mandel, including Margaret Atwood, John Newlove and George Bowering, and Leonard Cohen. Reading Bowering really opened me up into a great many directions, not the least of which was his exploration of other forms and constant mutability, as well as his endorsement of other writing and writers. He is one of the very few writers who has regularly engaged with a whole slew of genres, from long poems, short lyrics, short stories, novels (including young adult), criticism, history and plays, and appears constantly reenergized from his years of encouraging and engaging younger writers. From Bowering I flew off into a hundred other directions, almost at the point of original contact.

Since those early discoveries, I’ve developed a number of healthy touchstones for my writing, including Michael Ondaatje, Sheila Watson, Elizabeth Smart, Aritha Van Herk, Barry McKinnon, Judith Fitzgerald, Rob Budde, Robert Kroetsch, Phil Hall, Stephen Cain, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Artie Gold, Stephanie Bolster, Michael Holmes, Stan Rogal, Gil McElroy, Ken Sparling, nathalie stephens, Pearl Pirie, Anik See, Monica Kidd, Dany Laferriere, Richard Brautigan and Lisa Robertson. More immediately, I’ve been influenced by the startling works of a great many American poets: Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Lea Graham, C.D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, Richard Froude, Kathleen Fraser, Juliana Spahr and Elizabeth Robinson. Reading great writing can only improve us.

VEG: Which contemporary writers inspire or excite you and why?

rm: I think I covered some of this in the previous answer. What I look for is writing that excites me, even confuses me. I want to be challenged; I want to have my point-of-view shift a little, if possible.

VEG: As a publisher and editor, what qualities do you look for in an emerging writer?

rm: Again, I think my answer continues from where the previous went. I want writing that engages, excites. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had enormous fun watching writers such as Amanda Earl, Marcus McCann, Nicholas Lea, Jesse Patrick Ferguson, Sandra Ridley, Marilyn Irwin, Michael Blouin, Christine McNair, Pearl Pirie, Chris Turnbull, Roland Prevost, Ben Ladouceur and Cameron Anstee work their ways up into chapbooks, towards and, for some, already beyond, their first trade collections.

VEG: And just for fun: if you were a vegetable, which one would you be and why?

rm: I don’t really think I’ve ever had vegetable notions. I’d never be able to answer this.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Anatomy of Clay, Gillian Sze


The man on Queen Street
spends his days kneeling before a broken city,
cheating gravity as he builds towers
with bricks,
rocks and cinder blocks.

He can teach me something about balance.

On a day when the skies
Are more tiring to reach
I will ask for my turn, look down,
watch him break and re-erect me
with goldenrods for kneecaps,
hair of sweetgrass,
insides flavoured like mint and promise.

The crowd will toss coins at my feet
and I will grow, tall as a ponderosa
amidst his concrete, votive offering.

I am intrigued by the poems in Montreal poet Gillian Sze’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] second poetry collection, The Anatomy of Clay (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2011), a follow-up to a collection she launched in Ottawa at the small press book fair, her Fish Bones (Montreal QC: DC Books, 2009). The poems in Sze’s The Anatomy of Clay exist side by side as an extended suite on, as the back cover claims, “the Promethean myth of human creation,” and “the individual as a sentient mystery.” What does it mean to live, to think or even know, and are the great questions more important than the great answers? In an article on Sze’s new collection in the spring 2011 issue of Montreal Review of Books, Abby Paige sees a comparison between these pieces and snapshots, writing:

Her poems are snapshots that, by focusing with photographic detail on the humdrum of the everyday, evoke life’s less effable animating forces. “I would never call myself a photographer, but I’m like that,” she says, meaning a bit of a voyeur, interested in framing an image to tell a story. By capturing ordinary moments, Sze enacts a search for what, if anything, is universal in human experience. she is reticent about any grand thematic pronouncements, though. “It’s a book about people,” she smiles, knowing the description is as incomplete as it is apt.

Sze’s poems of small and smaller narratives etch out a series of human movements, sketches carved to illuminate simply who and how we are, exploring the remarkable unremarkable moments. These poems are smart, and I’m intrigued by her thoughtful wisdom and meandering, her carefree and deliberate movement, even in those poems where her light touch sometimes feel writing out too many steps in a straight line, giving the reader too much. Is this simply a matter of time, waiting for her subtleties to work themselves out? In some of these pieces, I wonder: do we need to see every step of her journey, like long division? Do we need to see every step? I like the connections she makes, but there are moments I’d like to see connected less obviously, and more subtly, leaving space for the reader to enter. As Paige continues:

Indeed, many of the new poems begin with an observed moment – a neighbour talking to his plants, a busker attracting a crowd on a street corner, birth in a nest in the tree outside the bathroom window – and develop as the poet finds or imagines connection.

The statements and questions in some of these pieces are sometimes far more compelling than the more straightforward descriptive poems, but in the end, they manage to balance each other out (the comprehension of a good eye in selecting order, whether by author or editor or both), making these poems, perhaps, not easily set aside for magazine or journal submissions. It makes me wonder: with more writers conceiving full book-length projects as opposed to collections of individual poems, is the idea of the literary journal publishing a poem or three per writer becoming outdated? What is the reader of literary journals potentially missing?


She is there every night at 9:08,
four stops before his route ends.

The aisle is always clogged,
so she stands near him,

gripping the pole.
Signs of a crowded bus

show on her face
in the rear-view mirror.

This summer,
he was early just once,

and he didn’t pull from the curb,
even when feet carped the ground.

He just watched her
run past the dumpster

and, under the streetlight,
like a loose piece of paper,

fly straight through
his door.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Susan Howe, That This

On the Shoreline Express I like to sit on the side where between Stony Creek and Guilford I can see my neighbor’s house, and in winter a little further up the road catch a split-second glimpse of ours through the window as the train passes. I suppose I’m trying to capture a moment before mirror vision—because when you view objects that lie in front of your eyes as well as others in the distance behind, what you see in the mirror has already been interpreted—so far as you can tell.

More and more I have the sense of being present at a point of absence where crossing centuries may prove to be like crossing languages. Soundwaves. It’s the difference between one stillness and another stillness. Even the “invisible” scotch tape I recently used when composing “Frolic Architecture” leaves traces on paper when I run each original sheet through the Canon copier.
Susan Howe’s That This (New Directions, 2010) is an extended series of prose and poem fragments that make up a work of mourning, “an essay about Howe’s husband’s sudden death.” In three sections and untitled coda, Howe’s That This is a book that quickly becomes much more and deeper than such a deceptively simple description. Working directly from life and from books, she writes out a concordance of all the right things, despite their distances, bridging the widest gaps in a sentence or two. Howe is everywhere, suddenly, and all at once.
Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

Friday, April 22, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien [photo credit: Rawi Hage] is the author of two previous books of fictionSimple Recipes, a collection of stories, and Certainty, a novel. Her fiction and essays have appeared in GrantaThe WalrusFive DialsBrick, and the Asia Literary Review, and her books have been translated into sixteen language. In 2010, she received the Ovid Festival Prize, awarded each year to an international writer of promise. She lives in Montreal. A new novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, will be published in May.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When Simple Recipes was published, I was young, twenty-five years old. Publication took me out of my head and into a conversation with the world around me. I don't think I would ever want to let this conversation go.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I came to poetry first, when I was a teenager, but soon realized I was a truly untalented poet. I needed the foothold of narrative, and I needed more words to build what I wanted to say.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Strangely, no matter how many times I write a book or a story, it is usually the same size / length, even if all the words have changed. After three books, it remains a mysteriously slow and unpredictable process.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I begin with fragments. I feel like I'm writing my way into the middle of a room, or the middle of the city, or the middle of a spiralling thought.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I'm shy and usually panicked, and yet I do enjoy them in the end. I like being part of something with other writers. I'm always happy that there are readers.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Why is this the way it is? What have I known? What can I do?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

To listen, to think widely, to question, to pay attention to the words.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both, but I would be worried if it were not difficult.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Be brave.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to full-length novels)? What do you see as the appeal?

They seem to me like very different shapes and forms, and so some ideas make themselves known as stories, and others as novels. They have a different relationship with time and motion.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Coffee, bagel, tea and writing.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I think the answer, for me, is plenitude--of experience, stimulus, people, life.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Everything, science, art, the way people live, not just here, but elsewhere.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Colin Thubron on travel, Antonio Damasio on neuroscience, the war correspondents who reported on the Vietnam War and the Cambodian civil war, and who welcomed me into their company when they gathered in Cambodia in 2010. The funny, brief emails that my mother wrote to me, and which are all I have left of the things she composed.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel the 6,000 kilometres of the Silk Road from Xi'an, China to the coast of Lebanon.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

A choreographer. I started off as a dancer, ballet and modern dance, and it's a part of my life that feels unfinished.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

A love of stories, a need for solitude, and a lot of things in my head that needed saying.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

20 - What are you currently working on?
Short stories, and a long essay about travels through the American South and mid-Atlantic.