Monday, May 30, 2011

John Lavery post-memorial/wake note:

A note by Steven Heighton, read in absentia at yesterday's memorial/wake for John Lavery [see my obit for him here]:

For years, John and I, who both loved to run (I mean it made us feel good, alive, like suffering yet vital creatures)--for years John and I had talked about getting together for a long run.  Next time I go out for an hour with my dog in the woods north of Kingston, I'll imagine John's with us, and as I pant and chuff and stumble along, trying to keep up, he'll chastise me, in impeccable French, for misconjugating a Spanish verb in one of my novels, and I--after telling him again how I felt about his prose--I'll give him shit, in crude English, about leaving us with just one novel, about leaving us with too few short stories, about leaving us here to raise a pint in his honour without him.  About leaving us.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Peter Midgley;

Peter Midgley is an Edmonton-based writer who was born in Namibia, and grew up there and in South Africa. He came to Canada in 1999. His children's books have been translated into 29 languages and he has written two plays. In one incarnation, he functions as the acquisitions editor at the University of Alberta Press. In others, he is variously a poet, a storyteller, traveller, beach bum, husband, parent, pet owner. Some may argue that differentiating between the last two items is superfluous.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
First book I wrote, or first book I read?

Can't remember the first book I read, but my brother left Albert Luthuli's Let my People Go! at my bedside table when was about eight. My dad once read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to me as a bedtime story. My mom handed me Eugene Marais's Siel van die mier (Soul of the White Ant) when I was four (because I'd told her I was bored).

I wrote my first book when I was twelve: The Soul of the Artist - A tome on the lives of famous painters who lived in artists' colonies. See my early reading list for influences. It remains unpublished for good reason. However, I knew then and there I wanted to work with words.

I wrote two plays before publishing my first book, Thuli's Mattress, which a collaborative children's story that became part of a literacy series. It involved authors, storytellers, community workers, illustrators, musicians and song-writers, and teachers. The idea was to create a series of ten books that spoke to the entire spectrum of South Africa's children in a post-apartheid society. The experience of working with experienced writers, community leaders and elders, editors, and other highly talented people definitely left an impression on me.

My previous books are either children's picture books, or scholarly ones. My plays have never appeared in print. A book of poems is different. The same issues still haunt me, though: human rights, social justice, migrant labour, war, the interplay between fact and fiction, language...

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Came to reading and writing poetry rather late in some ways. Had a prof - Tim Huisamen - who could rattle of reams of poetry from memory and did so with obvious passion. Just seeing him mesmerized by words was enough to inspire anyone. That and having him show us how the poems work. Not what they mean but how they work. One day it just penetrated: this poetry stuff is pretty neat.

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 work at a glacial pace. It takes years of fermentation to get a project going. At first, writing comes in fits and starts, although some drafts come out fairly close to a final form. That's only because I write them in my head many times over before they reach paper. I am obsessive about small revisions once they're on paper. Once tried a traditional sonnet that went through 57 drafts. A great exercise, but I gave up on sonnets after that.

4 - Where does a poem 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?
Stories/poems tend to coagulate in some primeval miasma and slowly percolate to the top of my mind, at which point they say: Write me now! It's an image, a moment on the street, a concept. Can't pin it down. Ideas just happen. I know it's something when the idea still floats in my head three or more years later. Whatever I'm working on comes out as individual pieces, but eventually I begin to see connections and then filling in the gaps goes rapidly. My next poetry project, tentatively called diary of a red chicken, has been floating in my head for twenty years. And now it's not letting me go.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. Poetry needs to be read aloud. Stories need to be performed. That's why I am a storyteller, too. The more you tell stories or read drafts aloud, the more you can hone them. You soon discover what works and what doesn't. You can play whatever tricks you like on the page, but in the end, it's the sound that makes the whole. That's what I like about plays/theatre, too. The whole only comes about when you combine modes of expression - like opera.

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?
Eish! Honestly, theoretical concerns are not uppermost in my mind when I write. I just have to look around me to find enough material to keep my work grounded. I would feel far happier being able to say "My writing made a difference in my community" than I would be announcing myself as an acolyte of a particular theoretical approach.

What I do know without doubt is that writing does change society. Just see how writers have underpinned political shifts all over the world. So the question for me is: how do I make a difference in my own writing? How do I shift current thinking?

I worry about writers being silenced or harassed. Writers should never be silent, or be silenced. That's why groups like PEN and programs like the writer-in-exile here in Edmonton are so important.

In Canada specifically, I think we're struggling to come to terms with the fact that English and French are not the only languages in which Canadian authors create. We have so many talented writers living here, working here, but when they write it is not in one of the official languages. They write in Cree and Ojibwe; in Kurdish, Spanish, Afrikaans, and Punjabi, to name only a few. But the literary establishment seems to ignore this fact and concentrates only on what is produced in English and French (sometimes). On the bus, I see people reading in Arabic, in Chinese, in Twi and Hausa and Swahili and Greek and Ukrainian and German. Comparatively, only a handful are reading in English. This is the nature of contemporary Canadian society, yet our writing and our publishing and our book sellers don't reflect this reality. These readers and writers have to balance living here while making their voices heard in, or drawing their inspiration from, other parts of the world. Grappling with the inexplicable push towards monolingualism in a multilingual, polyglot world is what infuses my own work.

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?
I think I started climbing onto that soapbox in the previous questions.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
This is a loaded question. I'm an editor. I can state unequivocally that working with an outside editor is always a sheer delight and a necessity.

Seriously, good editors should be cloned and bottled. They ask probing questions, they see possibilities you'd never imagined. I only have admiration for the work they do. Working with an editor has always been a worthwhile experience for me. I've learned so much from being on both sides of this relationship. Indispensable, really.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"Want to discover French literature? Then learn French!"

"Go learn your craft."

I'm still working on both pieces of advice.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Whatever you're writing, you're manipulating words to your purpose. Genre really doesn't matter. Children's picture books are the hardest and the most rewarding genre I've worked in. Getting the storyline to work, keeping the vocabulary appropriate to the age level, making of a point/points that will generate discussion (or critical thinking/analysis, if you wish), while making sure everything hangs together with the illustrations all in handful of pages with a strict word limit. So few do it really well, like David McKee does in Tusk Tusk. Such simple language, such complexity. Such power. Only 32 pages, with one or two lines of text per page. Talk about concision. I want to write that book!

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 get up somewhere between 5 and 6 in the morning, write, read, edit. Then it's off to the Press. In the evenings, I write if I have energy. Weekends and holidays, I get up early and spend a few hours doing writing before the rest of the family stirs. When a project is drawing to a close, it takes over. I've settled into a routine where I keep things boiling for most of the year making notes, writing short pieces, revising and then between Christmas and New Year, I let it all burst out and write for a few hours each day. Repeat until ready.

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

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Where's home? I live between worlds.

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?
I'm not sure I agree wholly with the opening statement. It's accurate at face value, but it's also a very Eurocentric premise that ignores the wealth of oral tradition and indigenous knowledge systems from around the world.

One of the strongest influences on my thinking has been Xhosa izibongo traditional oral praise poetry. It's so much more than "praising," it's a form of social criticism, it's part of a trickster tradition, it's impromptu word battles, it's honouring the ancestors.

Visual art is a strong stimulus. As is live theatre. I go and watch a play and find myself scribbling notes on the program before interval.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Where to begin? What to single out?

In no particular order and only what jumps off the top of my head... Pablo Neruda. Antjie Krog. André Brink. Etienne van Heerden. Multatuli's Max Havelaar. Paul van Ostaijen. Gerhard Walschap. Adrian Roland-Holst. Baudelaire. Arrabal. Genet. Paz. David Yali-Manisi. SEK Mqhayi. Herman Heijermans (love Op hoop van Zegen). Camus. Catullus. Dante. Virgil. Horace. Calvino. Fanon. Biko. Augustine.

And I haven't even gotten to English writers yet: Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Robert Kroetsch. Nadine Gordimer (her short stories in particular). David McKee. Lesley Beake. Diane Hofmeyr. Too many to list. These are just some of the ones I return to over and over.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Wouldn't you just love to know?

Snowboard. Ski. Skate. I've been in Canada for 11 years and I can't say I've done any of these things. Okay, I tried skating once, but I won't count the attempt among my successes in life. What I try to pass off as cross-country/Nordic skiing doesn't really count either. I do own my own skis, though. Do I get bonus points for 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?
This is like finishing school again and having to apply to university all over again! I don't know. Too many possibilities: Archaeologist, Baker, Cab Driver, Dendrologist, ..... Zookeeper.

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

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Great? Hmm. I try hard not to lump books into such categories. It¹s a kiss of death for any book.

Enjoyed Book of Negroes. And AHM Scholtz's Vatmaar (translated into English as A Place Called Vatmaar). It's a sweeping saga about the people of Vatmaar, a fictional community in the Northern Cape region of South Africa. Takes the concept of a community novel to new heights. I'm busy with Arnon Grunberg's Tirza. It¹s gooood. No translation from the Dutch yet, I'm afraid. Perhaps that's my next project right there....

20 - What are you currently working on?
Too many things. A bunch of children's books, a novel, two poetry collections (one is a collaboration with Kobus Moolman, a South African poet.) And a travel book, A Truce Stranger than Fiction. It's about Namibian Independence. That¹s about all I can think of right now. Oh, there's still that translation from the previous questionS.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, May 27, 2011

fwd; Greenboathouse Press press release;

Having just returned from a 3-week trip to New York, Belgium and Holland, production is now underway on this year's three books. First up, Robert Kroetsch's series of poems Writer's Block is now on the press, to be followed by a new edition of Stanley Morison's classic essay First Principles of Typography. An updated edition of Jason Dewinetz's long poem Géricault's Severed Limbs Paintings will round out the summer, with book announcements to be sent out to subscribers by September. 

New on the website is an overview of the trip, with photographs from visits to the Meermanno Museum of the Book in The Hague, the Enschedé Museum in Haarlem, the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, and the Dale Guild Typefoundry in Howell, NY.

For details on becoming a Greenboathouse subscriber, click here. As an added bonus, new subscribers will receive a 40% discount on our 2009 releases by JonArno Lawson, Matt Robinson and Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst. For non-subscribers, a 20% discount on these three titles is available by responding to this email (or just mention the subject line).

To find more information on recent and forthcoming projects, and plenty of other good stuff, please visit our website at

Thursday, May 26, 2011

thanksgiving, or, the end of history;

I am assembling materials for a recurrent return somewhere. Familiar sound textures, deliverances, vagabond quotations, preservations, wilderness shrubs, little resuscitated patterns. Historical or miraculous. Thousands of correlations have to be sliced and spliced. In the analytic hour that is night in which Olmsted, not being able to see what has happened in his mind with regard to his mother, sleeplessly exists, perhaps there is the surety that after a silence she will contact him again in bits. Escape may be through that dawning light just filtering through the blinds. After all he is forty-five, and certainly not a child.
Susan Howe, The Midnight
Until the days after my mother died, the previously unopened steamer trunk left buried in back shed, photographs I never knew, her life before marriage. Why had this absence never occurred earlier? A surly sixteen year old Joanne at a beach with her family, possibly Cobourg. Her Page grandparents, at that point, still alive. Her Swain same in Kemptville. When everyone’s dying or dead, what survives?

During the period she and six siblings scattered throughout secondary, set across downtown Ottawa in different schools for the purpose of specialization. My mother at Lisgar Collegiate, her sister Patricia at the technical high school since turned to Adult High School at Gladstone, Rochester. The youngest three at Ridgemont, on Alta Vista. For example. My father had one rural option, after starting out in one room schoolhouse, following the footsteps of his own father. Their high school, where I took my grades seven and eight. My great-grandfather, once a one-room school on a long-gone lot, just at the edge of our hundred acre wood.

At sixteen, my surly mother already a drop-out, helping raise her younger siblings, two nieces, and babysitting the neighbour children.

What can we know of anyone, staring at their teenaged selves?

As Phil Hall suggested, something that happens naturally when turning forty, attempting to gain perspective on the whole. Subsequently, the loss of a relationship that was supposed to involve relocation from Ottawa to Toronto, marriage and further offspring. The loss of one future, forced to confront the emptiness of what might happen next.

Not just the end of the future, but the end of history.

1956: a year before Prime Minister John Diefenbaker would have laid cornerstone to Ridgemont High School, less than a block further south along Alta Vista, and a further year before it opened. One of a series of composite schools built up in the city throughout the 1950s and 60s, and where T.S. Eliot is rumoured to have spoken, later in the school’s second decade.

Joanne Page, who worked for the Robertsons, a house at the corner of Alta Vista and Kilborn. Watching the children, a later photograph of two captioned “Mike + Susan Dec 1969 - with love & kisses to our other 'mom' and Douglas too.” Where babysitting, she picked up her scarlet fever.

The absence of archive in the McLennan household, her life before marriage. Was it simply abandoned to family home, long dismantled in her absence, her mother’s eventual move, excess, death, boiled down to bare fabric and stitch? How much archive can a body still carry? Her grandparents Swain, reduced to two tins. A handful of war medals, not knowing which might be his, his brother-in-law’s, his father-in-law’s. Uncertain, even which wars. Reduced to less than zero.

Her wedding dress that haunts my sister’s former bedroom closet, beside pink bridesmaid dress she wore when her sister Pam married, two years previous.

Realizing for the first time how everything begins to slip away, and how stable certain elements of my life have been, throughout. A home to return to. For the first time, feeling as though everything is slipping away, this version of home. These first few weeks scanning hundreds of maternal pictures, back generations of Page to Swain to Friend to Cassidy. A good part of the thanksgiving weekend scanning photographs of paternal grandmother’s family, great-grandfather Campbell, photographs of his daughters as children, or later on, holding his sole grandchild, in his Maxville backyard. My unmistakable father.

I haven’t slept properly in months. Perhaps only weeks, days. As perceptions shift, previous points-of-view become harder comprehend, grasp or even recall. The homestead yard shadows under spotlight of illumination, single eye over the shed. To write out the map of my life. Every time I think I might have a clear picture, it shivers, re-materializes; an alternate universe, a picture of itself. Perhaps this is what everyone experiences.

Smoke. This is smoke. I am writing out smoke.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Leon Rooke;

Leon Rooke [much longer bio here] is the author of seven novels, including this 1981 novel Shakespeare’s Dog, which won the Governor General’s Award, and the most recent The Last Shot, collecting eleven stories and a novella. Other major awards Rooke has received include The W.O. Mitchell Prize, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, and the CBC Fiction Prize. He has published over 300 short stories, as well as poetry and plays, has mentored many of Canada’s most talented writers, and is the founder of The Eden Mills Literary Festival. A native of North Carolina who has lived in Canada for many years, Leon Rooke makes his home in Toronto and Mexico.

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

When my fist book appeared I had not long been living with the magnificent woman who would become my wife. The book strengthened her suspicion that I might be worth having and thus swept us into a forty-year alliance. A long crooked arc connects the first book and the last. Somewhere along the way humour became a part of the mix. My last book is told in a Glasgow street slang. In the beginning it would not have struck me that such was a thing to do.

2- How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry?

I came to poetry first, in high school and later in college, publishing in little magazines such as Flame, Free Lance, and existaria. In Free Lance I had a poem on a page opposite one by Langston Hughes, which was thrilling. Next, I came to drama, then to fiction. Now I also paint and sculpt and if younger would take up the tap dance.

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?

My writing usually comes quickly although some books have taken decades. Many stories, poems, are generated out of an inviting first line. Sometimes the first draft is the final draft. Often first and last bear no resemblance whatsoever.

4. Where does a poem or work of 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 beginning?

I like a first line that invites a second line, and so on. Rarely do I see into the future. I don’t sit down and say, Now I think I’ll write a novel. I have first to learn where the material wants to take me, what length it might demand and so forth. “Lady GaGa, on the beach in her underwear, was unrecognized.” Is that a six-line poem or a 600 page book?

5. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Rarely am I shy when behind a mike. The mike works as a curtain separating the thee from the me. They are not crucial to my being. I now enjoy giving them less than I once did.

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?

When is a thing worthwhile and when is it not. When and why is it that words fall aground and how is it possible to make them sing. The who who who is a recording angel ever content to remain mute. For the serious writer – someone who wants to make a contribution -- I don’t believe the traditional questions have changed that much.

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

To save us from ourselves and each other, to tell the story, to justify, to seek revenge, to honour the fallen, to rescue the disillusioned, to forego the tripe, to bring your lover to the dance, to pass the night in loving embrace.

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

Editors, I’ve by and large found, generally know what they are doing. I’ve had as editor Ellen Seligman, Gordon Lish, John Metcalf, Anne Michaels, and Patrick Crean, among others. Rosemary Sullivan will serve as my editor for a new book of poems. They’ve all been super, whether the work required of them was minimal or vast.

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

WORK, FOR THE NIGHT IS COMING. Be attuned to the spirits. Here the sound of invisible wings.

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

Easy, easy. Feels perfectly natural. No more difficult than a child making mud pies. And let’s not forget stage plays. The appeal is obvious: you’re better than you think. Why limit yourself? How can you know what you cannot do, until you make the effort? Your “known” capacity may be deluding you. Those are not chains binding you.

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

The day now varies. I’ve had a “longish” life, but people die and that diminishes you. When younger I frequently worked around the clock. Around many clocks. A novella in24 hours is not unknown. A novel, and a good one, in six weeks isn’t. That isn’t necessarily to be regarded as work; that is living.

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

Inspiration is the shadow standing next to you. Reach out a hand and it will claim you. Or it may not. I’m not a big believer in Writer’s Block. The stoppage usually has as cause something other than the page. The brain goes into a dormant state. With patience, the reasons may be identified, a first step. Also, it helps if one does something remarkably different, like designing a new costume for a rock star or concocting chocolate eclairs for your sweetie.

13. What fragrance reminds you of home?

Which home? Pine-sol in the long ago. Her perfume in the now and then.

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?

David is right, which is another reason writing instructors keep telling students to read, read, read (not simply to learn technique, etc.). But David is being neglectful of more blithesome fields including those you mention and realities such as our own emotional lives and those lives which we observe. In recent years I have taken up painting; it comes as a revelation to me the likeness of that first slash of paint on a canvas and the opening line on a page.

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

Many, many, many. In fact, nearly everyone. Well, I mean by that that sometimes we may learn something even from terrible writers, though that isn’t something I’d like to see on a billboard.

16. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

I don’t know. That question deserves a lot of thought.

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?

Marvell wrote “wanton troopers/riding by/have shot my fawn/and it will die.” I wouldn’t want to be the troopers, or the fawn. The writing bug bit me at about age twelve, and nothing much has obscured that path. Russell Banks has said he’d have ended up dead.

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

I became a writer after hearing someone say to me, “And you, stupid boy, will you also lead a useless life?”

19. What was last great book you read? The last great film?

The last great book I read (last night) was a Sotheby catalog, Contemporary Art and just before that Carolyn Forche’s incredible Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness. Last great film was the deeply-mistitled Levity, 2003, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Hunt.

20. What are you currently working on?

I’m just finishing up a new poetry collection at the moment called The April Poems. Several short stories are underway, plus a lengthy series of God poems, in collaboration with Marilyn Bowering out in BC. Some paintings, a few art boxes. Then flowers for the yard, should it ever stop raining.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

John Lavery Memorial/wake reading: May 29, 2011

A memorial/wake reading for our dear friend, the late Gatineau writer and musician John Lavery (December 31, 1949 – May 8, 2011) will be held at the Manx Pub, 370 Elgin Street, on Sunday, May 29, from 4pm-6pm.

Hosted by David O'Meara, this informal gathering of friends, admirers, fans and otherwise well-wishers will feature readings of Lavery's own words as tribute by some of his friends

If you would like to say a few words about/for Lavery, or have the opportunity to read a short selection from one of his works, email rob mclennan at or Max Middle at

For those who are interested, a limited supply of some of John Lavery's published works will be available for free distribution at the event. The family has suggested that those who wish may, in his memory, purchase and donate a children's book to the Campaign La lecture en cadeau (Reading as a gift) of the Quebec Literacy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Beverly Dahlen;

A native of Portland, Oregon, Beverly Dahlen has lived in San Francisco for many years. Her first book, Out of the Third, was published by Momo’s Press in 1974. Two chapbooks, A Letter at Easter (Effie’s Press, 1976) and The Egyptian Poems (Hipparchia Press, 1983) were followed by the publication of the first volume of A Reading in 1985 (A Reading 1—7, Momo’s Press). Since then, three more volumes of A Reading have appeared. Chax Press published A Reading 8—10 (1992); Potes and Poets Press: A Reading 11—17 (1989); Instance Press: A Reading 18—20 (2006). Chax Press also published the chapbook A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets in 2004. Ms. Dahlen has published work in numerous periodicals and anthologies. Her essay on beauty and her poem called “A Reading…. the Beautiful” were published in Crayon 5.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was called Out of the Third.  It was published by Momo's Press (Stephen Vincent) in 1974.  I'm not sure how "it changed my life."  I remember feeling a little disappointed by the rather cool reception, but I myself was quite happy, really, to have published a book at last.  Something validating about it.  I felt that I was really now a "poet.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?    
I wrote my first poem when I was in the 7th grade.  I was walking down a street near where I lived in Portland, Oregon, and the poem simply came to me.  I don't mean anything supernatural, but I knew it was a poem, because I hadn't "made it up."  It was like Creeley said somewhere, "is that a real poem, or did you just make it up?"  It was a real poem in that sense.

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 don't do notes.  The work happens as it happens.  After I published Out of the Third I wrote poems, individual poems, but nothing like a book appeared.  There was a chapbook in 1976 called A Letter at Easter to George Stanley (Effie's Press, Bonnie Carpenter).  I probably published individual poems in magazines here and there.  Much of my work is uncollected.

4 - Where does a poem 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 had been, as I described above, mostly writing short poems, not books.  In the summer of 1978, exasperated by my slow process, I decided to write it all.  Everything.  And I began writing something called A Reading.  All of my work now falls under that title.  Except the work that is part of The Main Idea.  I haven't written any "main idea" poems for a long time.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? 
Yes, I've always enjoyed giving readings, and that's one of the ironies of my title---I'll always have "a reading" whenever I am invited to read.

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? 
Yes.  The epigraph in the first volume of A Reading is from George Steiner:  "Wittgenstein asked where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop.  An exercise in 'total reading' is also potentially unending."  I was intrigued by this quotation, with its allusion to "terminable and interminable" analysis.  I liked the idea of open-endedness, but this kind of writing has its pitfalls.  It is not easy to write without boundaries, but that's not actually so different from Olson/Duncan's ideas of "open field composition," or even Williams' notion that anything can be a subject of poetry.  Mind itself is shapely, Duncan said somewhere, and sometimes one writes to see the shape of that mind.

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?
This is a very vexed question.  What place do poets have in culture?  I don't know.  I think the poet writes poetry.  I think that poetry really can address any issue.  But when the issues are political, poets need to be careful not to mouth propaganda.  There's some very good political poetry.  I think of Blake, his prophecies, or Duncan's prophetic anti-Vietnam War poem.  Poets sometimes have these powers of prophecy, but I'm not sure that's enough to move the entire culture.  And that seems to have always been so---neither did the Greeks really pay attention to their prophets, nor have other nations.  There is something perverse about society---it does not want to hear the truth.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? 
A little of each.  It depends on the editor.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? 
When I was in high school, I was writing very dreamy poems.  One of my teachers said the poems were nice, but why not write about something more tangible?  So I wrote down the bus ride from school to home!  It took up pages.  And it was a great exercise in writing details.  I think that's the best advice to give any young poet, one who thinks poems have to be moonlight and roses.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?   
I don't know about easy.  I've written critical prose, but I only write about poetry I find appealing.  I wouldn't write to put someone down.  My most recent critical work will be in the new issue of The Capilano Review.  The issue is devoted to the work of George Stanley, someone whose work I've known and loved for a long time.

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 don't have a "routine" so much anymore.  I should try to establish that again.  The main parts of A Reading were written every morning.  I rarely missed a day of work in the morning.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?      
I don't look for inspiration.  I just have to sit down and write.  The recent poem about the birds came to me while I was in bed before going to sleep.  I got up and wrote the first words on a tablet, then worked on the poem for several days after that.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?          
My mother was a wonderful cook and baker.  When she baked, the fragrance of her cookies was in the air at least half a block away from home as I came from school.  But I love the fragrance of flowers too, lavender and freesia and carnations.

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?    
Yes, I agree with McFadden (obviously) and he's not the only one who said that.  Margaret Mead said something like books don't just spring fully-formed from the brain, they come from other books.  So what I am reading is one of the bases for the writing.   And yes, I'd include everything else you mentioned, thinking about nature, or music, the arts in general, films.  I hesitate to discuss my ideas before they are fully formed but I have something in mind involving the use of visual art as a base for writing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?  
I've named several other writers already:  Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, George Stanley, H.D, Emily Dickinson----not necessarily in that order.  Adrienne Rich has been important, as has Kathleen Fraser, Frances Jaffer---at a certain period of feminist development, these women were the most important to me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? 
I suppose I'd like to visit the ancestral lands in Europe:  Sweden and Finland.

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 have been a teacher.  I was, in fact, a teacher before I retired.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? 
I didn't fancy working in a bank or at the post office.  I thought being a retail salesperson was awful.  I did it in my school vacations.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? 
I'm reading Lydia Davis' new translation of Madame Bovary.  I've also been reading The Wide Road (Harryman and Hejinian) and am looking forward to Looking up Harryette Mullen.  I read a lot of things simultaneously.

Films:  Believe it or not, my favorite film is the Brit-com series that ran for 30+ years in England:  Last of the Summer Wine.  I own all the DVD's that are available and watch them again and again.  It's a very funny, very physical comedy that takes place in and around the town of Holmfirth in Yorkshire.  Bill Owen is wonderful but then so is Peter Sallis and Brian Wilde---but I won't go on and on.  It's politically incorrect, lots of sexist jokes, terrible puns, and I love it.  I'm the only fan I know.  Everyone else here hates it.

Also, about movies:  of course I like "serious" movies too.  Godard (Breathless) has left an indelible impression.  Antonioni, and lots of others.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Citizen Kane are two classics I love, as well as Battleship Potemkin which I first saw when I was in college.  It's a great film, on everybody's list of the one hundred greatest films.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am superstitious about discussing current plans.  I'm between projects.  That's all I have to say.    Thanks.

12 or 20 (second series) questions:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Influency: a report,

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.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ongoing notes: mid-May, 2011

[photo taken during an afternoon writing in Toronto's Courense Bakery this past Wednesday, at Bloor Street and Ossington] Why is it that so many American publishers send me listings for, and copies of, their new publications, and so many Canadian publishers don't? I would like to review more Canadian small works here, but find it difficult to even hear about such. Is there really not as much happening up here as I would like to think?

Perhaps I can find new things to read and discuss at some of these upcoming small press book fairs in Niagara Falls (June 4), Toronto (June 19) and Ottawa (June 25); will I perhaps see you at any of these? Then, of course, the Dusty Owl anniversary reading on Sunday afternoon, or, otherwise, Pearl Pirie reading at The Sasquatch Reading Series.

Ottawa ON: Ottawa poet Monty Reid's Site Conditions (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2011) reads as an interesting sidebar, an extension of the local elements discussed in his ongoing “In the Garden” series (produced so far through chapbooks by above/ground press, Obvious Epiphanies, LaurelReedBooks and others).

6. Scaffold

We built this rickety structure
out of insect legs and wind

so you can't see what we're working on.

When we take it down
we'll be gone.

Reid's poems have always been highly aware of space, moving from the geographic spaces of Alberta, specifically Drumheller, to Luskville, Quebec (The Luskville Reductions) and an island near Kingston (Lost in the Owl Woods) to more recent personal spaces, such as the “In the Garden” poems, and now this, a twenty-poem sequence composed on a construction site. Reid's poems often explore the small and simple moments, pausing there, to extend. Meditating on a construction site, a poem stretched as far as it can go.

12. Architect

The architects are on site
with their hardhats and blackberries.

This was supposed to be a bridge, they say.
This was supposed to be a temple.

This was supposed to be

Now it's not.

Fort Collins CO: Anyone interested in the construction of the poetic line, the construction of the sentence should be reading, among others, American poet Kate Greenstreet, just to see how well she does it. The author of two trade poetry collections, case sensitive (Ahsahta Press, 2006) and The Last 4 Things (Ahsahta Press, 2009), she is the author of a small handful of poetry chapbooks, including RUSHES (above/ground press, 2007), and the most recent called (Fort Collins CO: Delete Press, 2011). Greenstreet's is one of the best examples of poetry-as-thinking, how her straight statements twirl in her wake, held together by the strength of intent, safe as houses.

We know a little bit about the driver.
The red kimono is wrong.

He had a brother, who died when they were very young.
Who was older, and handsome.

I think everybody wants to hear
why it happened—what's on the other side
of that wall.

Animal to person, person to plant. Who's not going to accept a call?

Mostly, we kind of liked each other.

I could remember the life
in the chair, the mirrors hung to misdirect misfortune.
The little one with the little flowers—something something May...

A slow, determined poet, Greenstreet has long played with the straight line and journal sequence, allowing fragments and poem-fragments to interplay, setting one poem down after another, setting one journal entry and suggestion of loss down like the cards of a tarot deck, each piece changing the entirety of what it is that you see. Each of her small constructions are damned powerful, and restrain themselves from hinting at so much more.

The building is designed to make you look to heaven.

The ice?
A lake.

Two years after he disappeared, I woke, having dreamed of him.

Ottawa ON: Former Montrealer, currently living in Carleton Place, Ontario Claudia Coutu Radmore [see her recent 12 or 20 questions here] recently published a small collection of poems composed predominantly in couplets, her Accidentals (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2011). Over her past few years of publishing, I haven't been as interested in her work in Japanese forms or in her lyric historical narratives, but intrigued by the extended lines in these couplet-pieces.


movement of air in and out of a cave entrance pulls
at small creatures accidentals drawn in by the suction

of cave breathing how is it that mongoose pups pick
their own parents defend territorial zones around them

three-metre-tall phorusrhacid terror birds once roamed
patagonia eagle-beaks devouring dog-sized creatures

in australia's tropical north the discovery of the one-
and-a-half inch armoured mistfrog thought extinct

small islands of meaning
to keep nothingness at bay

Composed nearly as breath-lines, her long lines intrigue, and make me wonder what she might accomplish with short prose and/or the prose poem?

San Francisco CA: From Chicago poet Lisa Fishman, author of more than a couple of trade poetry collections, comes the poetry chapbook at the same time as scattering (San Francisco CA: Albion Books, series 3, no. 1, 2010), a poem-collage that begins with:

Every twin

to tell you of is singular

as flowers in a hatbrim

or roses on the seat beside a man asleep

The train goes through this borough

on the island is it

land or I am leaving

out the story all for you

It's difficult to tell if this is a single, continuous piece composed out of fragments, or a series or sequence of self-contained untitled poems, and perhaps that doesn't really matter, existing as nearly a series of journal entries. In the piece, Fishman writes of the double, the doppleganger, a subject discussed at length by poets including Eli Mandel, Andrew Suknaski and Lisa Robertson; who might Fishman's double be? Is she simply her own, feeding off her own self?

That boy lying down on the weight of the ground
pushing back against his weight, did correspond
by breathing—if he thought so
then, or later, hard to say
You miss me
when I sleep late in the morning

Slightly altered in tone and structure from each other, they combine into a kind of poem-collage, and even containing the same series of queries, writing “The question is who to be writing // this single // moon in the daylight full.” Perhaps, between Fishman and Greenstreet, they merely prove Jack Spicer's mantra (repeated by such as Michael Ondaatje), that the poem can't live by itself any more than we can?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

rob participating in The Niagara Literary Arts Festival, June 3, 4 + 5, 2011; 2 readings + a book fair,


JUNE 3 Friday
Reading With

• rob mclennan• Monty Reid •Kees Kaptyn • James Takeo •
Sami’s , 87 East Main Street, Welland

JUNE 4 Saturday
"A Book Affair"

• Heronwood Enterprises •The Book Band •Alexandra Fic •Kevin McCabe •rob mclennan (Chaudiere Books + above/ground press)• Catherine Owen •Warren Dean Fulton •Monty Reid •Thee Hellbox Press• Brock Creative Writers Group• Bygones Publishing• •Cormorant and Dancing Cat Books •Pedlar Press•Proper Tales/Mansfeild Press •Grey Borders Books •Steve Fulton• Precipice • Greald Archambeau•And More!•

The Niagara Falls Public Library
4848 Victoria Avenue, Niagara Falls

JUNE 5 Sunday
The Virus Reading Series Presents:

• rob mclennan • Catherine Owen • Warren Dean Fulton •
Dani’s Bistro, 176 St Paul Street St Catharines

email for further information, or check out the website here;

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ongoing notes: the dusie kollectiv,

Here are some brief reviews of more of recent chapbooks received as part of my participation in the “dusie 5 kollectiv” [see my previous note on such here].

New York NY: New York poet Lynn Behrendt's offering is the chapbook This is the Story of Things that Happened (2011), a long poem of thirty-six stanzas, with all but one composed in four-line stanza-sentences. Apparently the author of a number of other small chapbooks, as well as the full-length collection petals, emblems (Lunar Chandelier Press), her poem is composed of a list of items, accumulating lines and cross-purposes, writing out what happened, what might have happened, should or even never did. As she writes, “Every rock tells a story / about how it formed. / This is an anecdote / about how to sound like yourself.”
This is not a story about recruiting,
not a story about me
and most certainly
is not a story about you.

This is a story about a new subset
a black sheep story
the resettlement, revolution
& reform of the Chinese in Cuba.
Santa Cruz CA: There are two sequences that make up Jessica Breheny's Ephemerides (Embusan Press, 2011), “Ecliptic” and “Lunar Calendar.” I'm taken with Breheny's sharp turns, and her inventive takes on familiar patterns of astrology, writing, at least in “Ecliptic,” small fictions wrapped in poems. There are some fine moments here, as she writes as part 3 of her second sequence, “Open your blurry mouth. You will not / always swallow the sky from right to left.” I'm intrigued by these string-bound chapbooks, produced by American poet Jim Maughn, through a press so new the website claims only “under construction.” When will there be more than construction? Although, admittedly, I'd rather he be making books than websites. Here's the last of the twelve poems that make up her first sequence, said to be the last of the twelve signs, holding the best and the worst of all the rest:

Today you will meet a man with a mysterious accent who will serve you figs
on a plate made of ground whale bones. You will dip a fig in honey
and your tongue will know each calorie as sunlight.

The man will take a book out of a satchel and read to you words made of feathers
and footprints. He will reach across the white clothed table for your hand and kiss
your index finger, and in that moment you will not feel the rattle of bones,
the gamble-game of knuckles, or your inclination to point,

The language of your hand will fall silent,
your beaked no's and fisted yes's stilled.
You will look into the obsidian of the man's eyes
and see only your ink-blot self there.
Your tongue, stunned with honey
and all of the processes of sun, will not answer the question of the mirror.
And when you stand up, you will find that the man has removed all of the props,

such as the door, the chair, the music stand.

And your life, once again, will be a clean bone plate.
Dillon MT: Rebecca M. Knotts' We Speak of Sacred Things (2010) exists as a series of meditations, riding intent and straight lines across in sequence, writing:
And they say, “Each one prays to God according to his own light.”

And I find it difficult to believe there was nothing I could do to save you.
Self-described as a “polyphonic collage” using quotes and/or excerpts from such as Sophy Burnham, Paramahamsa Yogananda, David Smith, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others, Knotts' poem works very much in a meditative mode, straighter in intent and language than many of the (so far) dusie offerings. Discovering its own grace through its singularity of purpose through collaged elements and unadorned speech, it is a poem searching for what can be said after such great trauma, when all else has been burned away.
Sadako Sasaki was two years old when America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.
Sadako was a little over one mile from the site of the explosion. All around her, adults and children –

and this is where you should speak and there is only silence