Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ongoing notes: late December, 2011

A photo from our recent Christmas party/reading/regatta for ThePeter F. Yacht Club; hopefully we can get another issue out soon. But, of course, a new issue of ottawater is in the works, due to launch in January, and another issue of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics is forthcoming as well, with new works by Monty Reid, Marcus McCann and others.

Nearing the end of another year. I find it staggering the amount of changes over the past year, and the year before. How did I get here?

Phoenix AZ: It’s lovely to get this year’s card from Sheila E. Murphy, a tradition I suspect she borrowed from the late Toronto poet bpNichol, sending out some three hundred cards of original material every Christmas for years. A few years back, Grain magazine even featured Nichol’s cards in an issue [see my review of suchhere]. His widow, Ellie, and daughter still send out a stack every year. For a while, Gil McElroy did the same, changing his a few years back from printed card in the mail to a poem over email. Doesn’t this all make you a bit jealous, knowing you aren’t receiving them? Thank you, Sheila, Gil and Ellie!
Toward the Year Twenty-Twelve

I have spent my life rehearsing to become a child.

Holiday jazz dissonance throughout the room
distracts from tonal sentiment
of past tense.

A double bass plucks percussion
next to woodwinds in a minor key.

I watch the toddler riding in its stroller,
and send a blessing
valid as a citizen’s arrest.

Infants and adults, a single species,

propelled by will
amid the soft perfume of being wanted,

faced with disentangling others
from an infinity of selves.
Toronto ON: I don’t know anything about Julie Cameron Gray, but from the first poem of her chapbook Coordinating Geometry (Toronto ON: The Emergency Response Unit, 2011) I am impressed.
After a Stage Performance of Anna Karenina

Ugly, unloved month. How
partial I am to the muddy clouds,

the concrete defining your sightline.
Stone planter, cement steps—

you would be marble in the sun.
Already you’re only enduring,

the quick night curled in the sling
of your scarf. Slip a small coin

down a magic slot and hear
whatever you have to say

come rattling from your mouth.
Surfeit, these graphite branches,

these milk-grey skies of November.
Take my ears, completely,

haul them back through a Russian
Pastoral, a theatre in St. Petersburg.

Drag me through a wedding ring,
a dark velvet train.
There is a slight unevenness to the short collection of poems, but in the pieces that work, there is an ease, an attention that is compelling, such as in the poem “Viral,” that includes the last line, “Collects the small secrets and loose change of your body and builds an aerie in the hollow of your shoulder blades, where it begins to write its memoirs.” It’s as though her poems are still working to discover a balance between ease and seriousness, working still to hold back a formal sense from tripping her up. I am intrigued, certainly.

Vancouver BC: Vancouver poet and critic Stephen Collis’ Lever (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2011) continues his engagement with the social consciousness of his immediate, with the opening of the first poem, “The Felt World,” that writes: “Sit on a / Pacific beach / watching the ocean / die—acidification / hypoxia toxic / algae blooms to / thermal maximum / the giant carbon / sponge a sink / for tailings / fertilizer killer / microbes hormone / runoff all the / plastic that’s fit / to pitch.” The poisoning of the ocean comes up a couple of times in this small collection, less a theme than an accusation or a desperate realization, both of which they more often should be. The more I read work such as Collis, I wonder why poems and poets aren’t more political, and wonder just how it is that so many on the west coast are? As does Vancouver poet nikki reimer’s that stays news (Nomados, 2011) [see my review of such here], Collis deals with the recent “Occupy” movement in his seven-part “Dear Common” (the idea of the “Common” one that recurs in Collis’ work) as the third section opens:
Vancouver is not a
march or an
occupation but it
seems so in its
unfixed fixity
where we’d
unleash all this
course together
but work on
smoothing the edges
where one breaks
off and another

Friday, December 30, 2011

Toronto, and the (Christmas) week that was,

We come from long lines of people destined never to meet.
Miranda July, “Majesty”

[Christine by giant mask in Distillery District] Today we head back to the Capital, in Toronto since Christmas Day visiting, various running around, and what-not. So much what-not. Will we even recognize Ottawa? Home had snow, Glengarry had snow, but Toronto took a few days, as we stayed with Christine's mother near Old Mill, Toronto. Today, there is snow.

My almost-mother-in-law. My soon-mother. What do I call her?

December 26, lunch on the Oakville/Mississauga boundary with some of Christine's friends. We talked about weddings and comic books, we talked about the kitten we are supposedly getting in January. We toured PetSmart to see what the options were, and staff acted as though we were there to save all their errant kittens. But this one has been here so long, they said. We're just looking, thanks. I'm having a harder time fending off the kitten we're supposedly getting. I think it happens once we return to our little apartment. Two weeks ago, she even bought kitten food.

Burlington, to visit her friend Kim, with baby Addison. I have to admit, I don't feel as though I've accomplished anything through all this Toronto-suburban driving, learning their vast suburban geographies. Did you know that, at least at the border, Mississauga and Oakville look pretty much the same? Both Mississauga girls, Christine and her friend Christine (I know) might claim otherwise...

December 27, Christine and I sat a couple of hours at the Second Cup at Bloor Street West and Windermere with a stack of newly-acquired books, including her own collected Gertrude Stein, and I with a collection of essays by Milan Kundera. Both of us were even able to get some writing done, if you can imagine it. I sketched out the beginnings of a couple of short short stories, including one involving snow globes, another about sexy dreams. What else did we do? Dinner at the Mill Street Brew-Pub in the Distillery District with further of Christine's friends. She sure has a lot of friends. Extended conversation about weddings and comic book movies, Doctor Who episodes and what the hell they did to Torchwood. Didn't you think it was better when it was a series, as opposed to these random mini-series? Many pictures, including the pre-Mill Street image of Christine standing by a massive mask, somewhere on the Distillery grounds. We walked cobblestone older than 1812, older than so many other Canadian things we could even imagine.

December 28, driving back downtown to Bloor West and Spadina for lunch, meeting up with Christine's friend Anne, from the East Coast. We ate vegetarian food in a restaurant across from Matt Cohen Park on Bloor Street West, in the area where he lived for parts of his adult life, and wrote some of his novels. I had vegetarian food shaped like meat; shouldn't that be considered strange? I complained, but only a little.

But where are all my friends? I attempted one, caught up with busy and Christmas and parents and stress, so that didn't work out. There is always never enough time in the day, etcetera. We played Scrabble with her mother, one of our Christmas gifts. Christine kept saying she was terrible at it, but then easily won.

And we were (finally) able to watch the new Doctor Who Christmas special; isn't it good that he finally realized he has a home to go to? Lovely. Every special so far ends up being my new favourite.

December 29, I ventured down to my favourite Toronto haunt, the Future Bakery on Bloor Street West to meet and meet up with poet Allison Grayhurst, to talk about her forthcoming above/ground press chapbook. She had a first trade book back in the 1990s, and then life interrupted sending work out, but not getting work done. She claims to have a number of completed manuscripts around their house. Driving over, I didn't get lost at all, and even honked at Nathaniel G. Moore around Bloor and Davenport. Dinner in the St. Catharines area with Christine's mother's uncle and aunt, we two driving down with her mother to Thorold. We talked about local War of 1812 sites, and the history of their magnificent house, which was built by a local lumber baron back in1870. Wonderful! I requested a tour, but they claimed some of the children's bedrooms weren't in the shape for such.

Looking forward to home, though not looking forward to the drive. Already scraped a layer of ice-snow from the car, and Christine thinks we're heading to Yorkdale Mall before the 401.

Looking forward to the three days of mail that is sitting for us. Money? A load of books, certainly.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Liz Worth

Liz Worth is the author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond. She also wrote something strange called Eleven: Eleven. Her new book, Amphetamine Heart, is her first poetry collection.

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, Treat Me Like Dirt, changed my life in so many ways. I am definitely not the same person I was before I started it. Some of the changes were very unexpected. I learned a lot of hard lessons that grounded me quite a bit.

After spending a lot of time talking to some individuals who had fallen into addiction and poverty and ongoing instability I realized how easy it is for those things to happen to anyone. Some people might feel like they’re far, far away from anything like that, but we are really only ever a step or two away from a serious problem. It’s really easy to go from a drink a day to two, three, four, more. I’ve had a lot of family members and some close friends struggle with alcohol so for me it’s always been there, but it wasn’t until Treat Me Like Dirt that I learned that it’s very easy to slide into something like alcoholism or other addictions.

I also learned that no matter how talented you are, or smart, or beautiful, or whatever, nothing is guaranteed. This is a hard one to accept because I think we all want to believe that if we’re good at something, or work hard at it, that eventually it will pay off. But how it all pays off could be a lot different than what you want, or what you expect. It’s really important to be open to all possibilities and to remain grateful for whatever comes your way.

Intent is very important. If you let your ego determine your aspirations, you’re building a very weak foundation for your art, and for your happiness. Aiming for attention, praise, and money means you’re aiming for uncertainty, and it’s very hard to be happy when your work has nowhere to land. If you focus on creating, on making something you want to make and you come from a sincere place when doing so, then you can’t fail. Don’t set out to become known. Set out to bring a certain work into existence, set it free, and see what happens from there.

In terms of how Amphetamine Heart compares to Treat Me Like Dirt, the process for this book was of course very different, though I think it helped to have the emotional experiences I had while working on Treat Me Like Dirt because they kept me grounded.

Treat Me Like Dirt is about a lot of other people, not about me. Amphetamine Heart, in a way, feels like having a first book all over again because it’s so different from Treat Me Like Dirt, and so much more personal.

2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always straddled both non-fiction and creative writing, but it took me a bit longer to get serious about putting my poetry out there. When I was about 12 years old I first got into Edgar Allan Poe, whose writing I found to be very accessible and satisfyingly dark enough for me at the time. I also discovered Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Magic Animals around that time, which to me then felt like discovering an ancient text of secret spells.

By the time I was 13 I’d decided that I wanted to be a poet. I felt very certain that poetry was something I wanted to create in my lifetime, and throughout my teen years I worked on poetry off and on. I dropped away from it for a while in my early 20s because partying and making zines were my main priorities, and then towards my mid-20s, when I was working as a freelance writer and starting to get to work on Treat Me Like Dirt, the need to bring more creativity back into my life became very strong. I love interviewing people and telling their stories, but I needed to balance that out with something.

I was so burnt out after Treat Me Like Dirt that I thought I would never interview anyone ever again. That’s when I started working on the poems in Amphetamine Heart, and that’s when I finally felt I was ready, as a writer, to play around with language and push my boundaries as a poet, which was a place I hadn’t reached yet with my younger work.

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 think I’m like most other writers in that I have a lot of ideas but never enough time to take them on all at once. With poetry, I do tend to write quickly but I will tinker poems and play with them into third or fourth drafts, but the first draft is usually reflective of the direction it’s all going in. I do make notes – some of my best ideas come from dreams, and from walking around – and those notes, even if they are just one or two words, are usually enough to building from.

Some of my work has come out quite quickly, like my chapbook Eleven: Eleven, which was written in about three weeks with very few passages going into a second draft. Most of that was all done in one go.

Once I’ve committed to an idea I get to work on it. What takes longest is deciding whether the idea is the right one to pursue. Time goes so fast and there’s so little of it that I always want to make sure whatever project I’m working on right now is the right one.

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?
With Amphetamine Heart, I didn’t know it would be a poetry collection for a while. I’d just started writing poems and sending them out for publication. I also wanted to do some performance poetry, so I was adapting some of my writing for the stage.

One day I realized I’d generated quite a few poems and started to think it would be a good idea to work towards a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I can be quite shy, but at the same time I’ve always been drawn to readings, both as a participant and an audience member. I remember seeing Toronto’s Monica S. Kuebler when I was a bit younger and admiring her confidence and delivery on stage.

I also had Bif Naked’s spoken word album and Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka’s spoken word recordings and I knew theirs was effective because they were performing and projecting.

When I first started readings I was still in high school. I would do open mics and things like that and people would be very nice and polite to me after my reading but I knew I sucked. My voice was small and I’d read too fast and had no sense of timing, and that stuck around well into my mid-20s.

What helped me get over my shyness was a project I had a few years ago called Packanimal. It was me and this other guy – we don’t talk anymore and I want to keep it that way so I’ll leave his name out of this – and I did spoken word while he built walls of noise with an EMX Electribe, which is like a little synthesizer. Being surrounded by sound helped me a lot. So did practicing. It was really helpful for me to have to memorize my lines and work on delivery with someone else there.

For me, readings, even my worst ones, have been important for my creative process because they’ve pushed me to write for performance, not just for the page, and they’ve also helped me stay inspired. You never know who you’ll see or meet at a reading who will blow your mind and make you want to step up your own work.

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?
There are recurring themes in Amphetamine Heart but I haven’t really thought of them as questions, or as answers. I’ve long been aware of the underlying self-destruction that goes with binge drinking and partying – even if you think you’re having a good time you’re still doing something that could kill you. People do overdose and they get their stomachs pumped, but I don’t think most of us think of those things when we’re hitting it hard on a Saturday night. I’ve always been fascinated by that fine line between having a good time and going too far, and I think a lot of my writing comes from a place that’s trying to understand why that line is there, and why it’s so thin that some of us never even notice it’s there.

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 the writer’s role is the same as any artist. Writers keep people informed and they keep them dreaming. They show them things they’ve never seen and they take things they’ve seen too often and invert them into something new. Words flow through music and fashion and tattoos and film and collage art. They tie so many things together and they need writers to keep making sure that happens. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like working with editors. I think it’s important to get a fresh set of eyes on something, especially when those eyes belong to someone who’s solely dedicated to making your writing work, not to making you feel better about yourself.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If you want to write, just go out and live your life.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to journalism to artwork)? What do you see as the appeal?

I can’t just do one thing. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I was only doing journalism, or only poetry. I have to make things with my hands. I like to make collages and sew.

I don’t find it challenging to go between any of them because I like the break I can get from writing by spending a few hours with a needle and thread. But I do wish I had more time to do all of the things I would like to do.

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 am disciplined but I don’t well with too much routine. If I am driven to do something I will get it done. Over the past year I’ve experimented with more rigid schedules but only came to the conclusion that if I get a fun invitation to go out, I’d rather not turn it down just to stay home and work.

Instead I make sure I don’t overbook myself, so that I always have time to write, and when I do I try to write a minimum of 1,000 words a session or draft one poem from start to finish in a sitting. Editing happens later, after I’ve had some distance from a piece or a big revelation about it.

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

Sometimes I’ll re-read some of past work, to remind myself that I can actually complete and polish a piece of writing. I also like to re-read books that have inspired me in the past, especially if it’s similar in style to what I’m working on.

For example, if I’m working on something a little more experimental, I’ll pick up a Kathy Acker novel. It’s helpful to be reassured that someone’s gotten their weird work out there.

I’ll also go back and read what I’ve written so far. Sometimes you get so far into a piece of writing that you forget the momentum you felt at the start.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lavender. Every year, since I was a little kid, I’ve been going to the CNE with my mom. She always buys fresh lavender there and puts it everywhere – in her drawers, under her pillow, in sachets hanging from doorknobs. At the end of the summer my parents’ house is full of the smell of lavender, and even though it only lasts for a couple weeks of the year it’s the one smell that always reminds me 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?
Oh yes, definitely. Music has always been a big influence for me. I’ve always been very inspired by the fact that poetry is so tied to rock n’ roll, punk, and goth.

Animals and forests feature frequently in my poetry. Astrology, tarot, and the occult do, too.

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

I’m a big fan of Chandra Mayor, Daniel Jones, Poppy Z. Brite, Lisa Crystal Carver, Christy Ann Conlin, Lynn Crosbie, Blake Nelson, Sandra Jeppesen, Lisa Foad, Liisa Ladouceur, Danila Botha, Darcey Steinke, Grace Krilanovich, Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka. They all have their own styles, their own statements, their own trajectories. They do things on their own terms and they do them well.

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

So many things. At the moment, my top three picks would be to learn taxidermy, live by myself in a forest for a while, and go to Norway.

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?

If I could pick anything, I would like to be a tarot card reader. But if I hadn’t have chosen to be a writer, I would have gone to school for social work. Maybe one day I will. I would like to try to live as many lives as possible while I can.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s something I’ve always felt drawn to, and something that just seemed to happen. Sometimes stories or ideas or the right lines just appear.

But in terms of deciding to write, I think there was some luck in being encouraged to do it, as well. It seemed to be something I was good at. It’s a lot easier to decide to pursue something when people support you in it, although I think I would have worked towards writing regardless. I used to play guitar but I wasn’t as good at music as I was at writing, and I was having trouble making time to practice as well as making time to write, so I made my decision one day and have stuck to it ever since.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished reading Dani Couture’s Algoma. The characters in that book stick with you.

The last great film I saw was Drive.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a novel about the end of the world, which is something I obsessed over continuously for a few years throughout my 20s, to the point where I was convinced our last days were moments away. My story about the end of the world isn’t so focused on how it happens, but more about the slow dread and decay as everything unravels.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

above/ground press 2012 subscriptions! + update of forthcoming titles,

Hey, above/ground press enthusiasts! This is a notice to see who might be interested in subscribing to our 2012 annual subscriptions, $50 (in the United States, $50 US; $75 international) for everything above/ground press makes from now until the end of 2012. Can you believe, 2012 marks nineteen years above/ground?

There are a whole bunch of publications in the works for 2012, including new publications by Rae Armantrout, derek beaulieu, Sarah Mangold, Rob Manery, j/j hastain, Kathryn MacLeod, Allison Grayhurst, Lars Palm, Fenn Stewart, kemeny babineau, rob mclennan, a collaboration by Andrew Burke + Phil Hall, and plenty of others. How is it you’ve stayed away for so long?

You can either send a cheque (payable to rob mclennan) at (new address!) 402 McLeod Street #3, Ottawa ON K2P 1A5 or drop the money on my recently-acquired Paypal button (above)

And keep checking author and publication updates on the above/ground pressblog as well, including recent new interviews with Dennis Cooley and Camille Martin, a tribute to Robert Kroetsch, and the online appearance of Ross Brighton's above/ground press chapbook as a free pdf as part of the Dusie Kollektiv 5, as well as the occasional online reissue of a number of above/ground press “poem” broadsides, with recent and forthcoming appearances by Stephanie Bolster, Marilyn Irwin, Amanda Earl and Jamie Bradley.
We, alone, are keeping Canada Post in business. Don’t you forget it.

Happy seasonal things, and best for the New Year.
yer wayward publisher,

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Xing, poems by Debora Kuan


Chao’s double portraits are always of the same person. Lin sitting in the chair, and Lin standing next to the chair. O homonym. Ad hominem. This is one version of memory: The person you dream of is always in duplicate. Or, he swells in size to enormity, lost in layers of sheepskin, and you meet him in blackened cities, as soon as you step out the door.

Look at it another way: One digs a hole to hide the hole the divot made. Around Chao’s neck dangles a little necklace of pins pulled from grenades.

Today, I am in the felt tent, sorting scraps. In the street, a sheet metal worker is setting fires.
There is something about the unexpected subtlety, the small moments in Debora Kuan’s first trade collection of poems, Xing (Ardmore PA: Saturnalia Books, 2011) that resonate, long after the poems have ended. Opening her collection with near-conflicting definitions of “xing,” hers is a book that has cultural resonances that cross and conflict, one idea banging straight up against another, and the twists in her poems are equally tremendous. Consider the opening poem, “Articles of Faith,” that talks about the Book of Mormon and Buddhism, and writes out the conflict one might feel holding both ides, present. From the middle section:
On my way to the post office, I collide with Uncle Chen.
Uncle, I say, you look so

Uncle Chen today. I like the way you
drape your bright chen, it feels
exquisitely Marxist, and I know you are proud to be uncle.
Your socialist car is appropriately rusted, the doors
no longer shut.
Everywhere the magpies are falling, my wires constrict
around the wrists and ankles.
When will it stop?
On the surface, the poems might read as rather ordinary, but there is a dark and complex undercurrent that runs beneath every one, that suggest the poems are barely able to keep themselves from spinning entirely out of control. I admire her twists, and her control.
The Silkmaker’s Bride

The mulberry sheds its owl-shape.
It is guileless now.
Closed zoo, dark school.
A shawl over each unseen thing
that orbits.
Orbits: The worm spins a warm prize.

How can I criticize
the suitor’s offer—a fist of silk
dense as a pendant?
How can I not notice
the spot on the wall, lighter than sun?
Something hung there once.

The bridal veil is unusually heavy.
A frostbitten flag.
I have a cowl around my neck,
but it is no twin to kiss.

Such is this family’s fortune—used-up
a harvest of cocoons.

The solitary pedal endeavors:
Its needle’s eye sated with thread,
a child’s mouth plugged with milk.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Christmas in Glengarry, another in Toronto

[trees, just by my sister's house] A first Christmas, properly shared. We divide between Glengarry and the wilds of Toronto. How does one begin? Christine and I drive to the farm on December 23rd, and return to Nepean briefly to pick up Kate from her job the next afternoon for the sake of a homestead Christmas on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Between work and other family considerations, the options are few; we’re okay with that, having had Christmas Eve Christmases a number of years now, given the large size of my sister’s husband’s family, large enough they require hall rental on Christmas Day to fit them all. We have a goodly turkey meal in the middle of the afternoon at my sister's house, with her brood, husband and our dad, and then the children tear into presents, as is appropriate.

Glengarry, with slow, quiet trees and a layer of snow. We see all the stars, driving in.

[just before Christmas dinner, Christine teaching my sister's girl Emma to knit; Rory on the couch; Duncan with his inflatable gloves looking at gran'pa] Nephew Duncan got an inflatable punching bag with inflatable gloves. The bag had water to weigh the bottom, instead of sand. By the time we'd arrived, he had already punctured the bag, leaking water throughout. I had his sister Rory take it to their bathtub. A matter of hours: I was impressed. This, a boy who accidentally put a hockey stick through their big-screen television, cancelling his third birthday party. My father gave him a Woody doll (from the Toy Story movies) that he loved so much, he was actually stunned the first few minutes. At first, we couldn't even tell if he was happy or pissed off. You. Got. Me. A. Woody. Doll. Repeated about four or five times. I think it's pretty difficult to stun a three-year-old.

Toronto is as it ever was, waking up Christmas morning to get into the car. Our original plan was to drive Kate back to Ottawa and continue, onward, to the Big Smoke for a late lunch with Christine’s father and stepmother, as well as her brother, Michael. My father offers to drive Kate, and we take it, in the car by 9am and at Christine's father's house not until just after 2pm. It is so good to not be in a car anymore, driving. It is good to not have to be driving. At least the 401 was relatively clean, and the snow, once we moved west from Cornwall, went from a light dusting to nothing at all.

Strange, the idea of being out on the 401 at all, driving such lengths on Christmas Day. 

[Christine, mother Karin, + brother Michael at their mother's house] Mike lived in our new apartment before we did, and he often, still, gets more mail than we do. What else could I do but wrap it all up in a tidy parcel, lovely bow? The evening, Christine, Michael and I make for their mother’s house for a dinner with extended clan.

With all this new family and driving, feels odd to have Christmas without even a reference to the Queen's Message, without being able to (yet) catch the new Doctor Who Christmas episode. Odd.

But, a stocking at her father's house, another at her mother's. Lovely, and unexpected. I haven't had a stocking since, I think, my sister started having children (Emma just turned eight, a few days ago). The years before, stockings at the homestead for myself, sister, my daughter. Nearly a decade since, and here I get two. Nice. 

In Toronto until the 30th, Christine has us scheduled to visit with various folk once, if not twice, daily, driving from downtown to Hamilton to Burlington, some days. There will be an hour or two, perhaps, daily for writing of some sort, in-between the wedding magazines and what else. Apparently, in a few days we drive down to St. Catharines/Niagara with her mother for a dinner with further family. Just what have I got myself into? Hah,

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ongoing notes: the Small Press of Toronto Winter Fair

I’m not entirely sure when or why the Toronto Small Press Fair turned into the Small Press of Toronto (SPoT), but there it is (with the most recent one at University of Toronto's Hart House on December 10th), with the implications continuing to broadcast further and forward from the schism of a few years ago, none of which the current incarnation of fair organizers know anything about, but for second or third-hand reports. Why the continued schism?

Kingston PA: I don’t know if this series exists anymore, but I was recently given a copy of Fredericton poet Hugh Thomas’ heart badly buried by five shovels (Kingston PA: paper kite press, 2009), produced as part of the “Supernova Tadpole Editions” series, edited by Hamilton, Ontario writer and musician Gary Barwin. How many chapbooks were produced? Why did it stop? Thomas, who lives in Fredericton but keeps appearing in Toronto, begins his chapbook with the dedication-line, “The last revision is a glass of water.” I don’t entirely know why, but that might be a line that sticks with me for quite a long time.
In pieces, the lament
of the guitarist.
Romping the scope
of the madrigal.
In pieces, the lament
of the guitarist.
It’s useless to call her.
It’s impossible
to call her.
Laura monotonous,
Laura like water,
Laura like the wind
over Nevada.
It’s impossible
to call her.
Laura for distant
Arena of the South calling her,
paid in white camellias.
Laura, flesh covered in blankness,
Trades in tomorrows,
the first package of mortar
under her arm.
Oh, guitarist!
Heart badly buried
by five shovels.
Unlike much of Thomas’ work that I’ve seen over the years, there is something more emotional about this small collection, something more concrete than his usual-surreal, anchoring the poems in a particular way, even as “THE CITY” (a poem dedicated to Stuart Ross) ends with the lines “Yesterday, this city was named Toronto, / and today, it will be named Toronto.”

Toronto ON: After years of his work at co-founding/editing The Puritan, a fiction journal that moved from Ottawa to Toronto a few years back, as well as the Toronto small press Ferno House, Spencer Gordon has released his first poetry chapbook, FEEL GOOD! LOOK GREAT! HAVE A BLAST! (Toronto ON: Ferno House, 2011). Impressive for a first offering, one might have thought Gordon wrote poems like a fiction writer would (there are so many bad examples of such), but these pieces certainly can’t be mistaken for prose, and Gordon has a good sense of the line, such as in the poem “THE YOUNG BAROQUE PAINTERS,” or “A BILLIE HOLIDAY KINDA SUNDAY.” The poems here might be slightly uneven, but there is a clarity here that comes through, and a humour that allows entry where one might not have been able, otherwise.

Life is a long time grieving, especially the first time.
The second time you try, and it’s alright, there’s less tears;
it’s a reunion you never thought would happen. Then
the call comes back: the hard line in the head that said

don’t kiss, don’t dance, don’t do that. And even drinking
is easier, somehow, like each sip was watered down with
berries and pills and ice. You never dreamed it
would be so easy. But this is your second time around,

and you’re used to feeling used, and you want to see
the people you thought were gone for good, and so you
lean toward the fat neck beside you, and you say kiss me
darling, I’m back for you, and you alone, and the trees

aren’t sad, are they? The air is a calm mourner, you say;
it doesn’t need a wake to drink at. It doesn’t need friends or
family. You’re like the wind, you think. You don’t need a friend.
You don’t need another life. And so it ends.
Gordon also recently announced that his first trade collection of short stories is forthcoming next year with Coach House Books, which is pretty exciting. What might those look like?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Vancouver poet Fred Wah is named the new Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada

On Tuesday, Saskatchewan-born Vancouver resident and longtime poet Fred Wah (photo credit: Marty Gervais) was announced as the fifth Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, after former poets laureate Pierre DesRuisseaux (2009-2011), John Steffler (2006-2008), Pauline Michel (2004-2006) and George Bowering (2002-2004). Congratulations Fred! I wonder, after numerous groups complaining about the lack of a new writer in the position for months, did the announcement have anything to do with the Globe & Mail adding their voice to the storm a week or so back? Wonderful! Does this mean we might actually see him around Ottawa, at some point?

Fred Wah's bio, from the Parliamentary Poet Laureate website:
Fred Wah was born in 1939 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan to parents of Swedish and Chinese origin. He grew up in the West Kootenays in rural B.C. where his parents owned or ran several Chinese-Canadian cafés. Wah studied Music and English at U.B.C. (BA 1962) and took an MA in Linguistics and Literature at SUNY Buffalo in 1967. From 1967-1989, he taught at Selkirk College and David Thompson University Centre, Nelson while living in South Slocan, raising a family (with teacher and literary critic Pauline Butling), and writing more than a dozen books of poetry. They moved to Calgary in 1989, where he taught English and Creative Writing until his retirement in 2003. Currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary, he divides his time between Vancouver and a seasonal home near Nelson.

Wah began publishing poetry in the 1960’s as part of an international avant-garde movement located in Vancouver. His early poetry is improvisational and experimental, based partly on his interest in jazz. Yet it is also deeply rooted in the geography of the Nelson area, as his first seven titles show: Lardeau, Mountain, Among, Tree, Earth, Pictograms from the Interior of B.C., and Loki is Buried at Smoky Creek. In the 1980’s Wah’s focus shifted to his mixed-race history in Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh and Waiting for Saskatchewan. With the publication of Diamond Grill (1996), a biofiction based on his experiences working in his father’s café, Wah emerged as a central figure in race writing in Canada and abroad. His collection of critical essays, Faking it: Poetis and Hybridity further elaborates his long-standing interest in mixed-genre texts and racialized poetics.

Wah has received major literary awards in three genres: Waiting for Saskatchewan won the Governor General’s award, So Far won Alberta’s Stephanson Award, and is a door won the Dorothy Livesay prize for poetry; Diamond Grill received Alberta’s Howard O’Hagan Award for short fiction; and his essay collection, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Literary Criticism in English Canada.

Wah has given thousands of hours of volunteer work as an editor or contributing editor of small, grass-roots magazines and presses that are the life-blood of Canada’s thriving literary culture. Starting with Tish: A Poetry Newsletter (1961-1963) he has been involved with numerous magazines, including Sum, Open Letter, Swift Current (with Frank Davey, Canada’s first electronic literary newsletter) and West Coast Line. He was Poetry Editor for The Literary Review of Canada (2003-2005). Wah’s community work has also been extensive. He regularly organized readings and workshops at Selkirk College and David Thomson University Centre in the Kootenays. In Calgary he played a key role in starting and developing the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Program. Since moving to Vancouver in 2003, he has been engaged with the Kootenay School of Writing. He has been writer-in-residence and has taught writing workshops across the country. He served as President of the Writers Union of Canada (2001-02) and worked on its acial Minorities and Social Justice Committees for several years.

Wah is well known both in Canada and abroad. His work has been widely anthologized and he has been invited to many international literary festivals to give readings and talks. In 2002-2003, he was selected for a Canada-Mexico cultural-exchange with residencies at Banff and Merida, Mexico. He is currently on faculty for the Banff Centre for the Arts “In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge” program.

His recent publications include two collections of poetry, Sentenced to Light (2008) and is a door (2009). A selected poetry edited by Louis Cabri, The False Laws of Narrative, was published in 2009 by Wilfrid Laurier University’s poetry monograph series.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jan Zwicky, Forge


And so I lay, waiting: a single flame felting the darkness.
Dawn, they tell us, breaks. It breaks.

Your voice came into me, then, like music. My lips,
your brow, your temple: how you called me

to the edge of myself.
Did I choose? I chose.

Sharp flutter in the feral trees: your voice
lifting in me like the wind, your touch

breaking through me like rain,
like sunlight. And the rain

falling in the silence behind the broken wind. O river
of kisses. O dance of the heart on the skin. (“ENVOY: SEVEN VARIATIONS”)
Over nearly a dozen collections of poetry, Quadra Island, British Columbia poet, musician and philosopher Jan Zwicky has excelled at the small moments, writing meditative poems constructed around philosophy and musical composition, and her newest collection, Forge (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2011), continues her examination of slow movement. Along the lines of other writers such as Erin Mouré, Phil Hall and Anne Carson, Zwicky’s poems are best when composed as small essays on subjects so large they become philosophical, from her Governor-General’s Award-winning Songsfor Relinquishing the Earth (Brick Books, 1999) and Thirty-SevenSmall Songs and Thirteen Silences (Gaspereau Press, 2005). In Forge, she writes poems-as-variations, referencing Schubert, Hölderlin and Bach as well as variations on music, including vespers, love songs, silence and sarabande. These are poems, as the title suggests, hammered out over an extended period, or perhaps, instead, poems that require a push of the breath, foot-pedal pushing each meditative line into sequence.

It’s a blue sky today, ice
on the step. In the woods,
the beech tree is turning; two branches,
the rest still green. Its leaves
are stiff and supple, a fine
starched leather, more burnt
than tanned. What amazes most,
though, is the colour: its evenness
uncanny; shy, sinewy, a shade
our mothers might deem
serviceable in a shirt or coat, in isolation
unremarkable. Yet leaf against leaf,
branch on branch, that spare bronze
flares: voiceless
and articulate, clean
spoken through.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

rob recommends Jesse Patrick Ferguson's Dirty Semiotics at the Advent Book Blog;

Yesterday, I recommended Fredericton (formerly Ottawa, formerly Cornwall ON) poet and musician Jesse Patrick Ferguson's first trade collection of concrete/visual poetry, Dirty Semiotics (Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2011) over at the Advent Book Blog. Check out my little write-up! You should get this book!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pattie McCarthy, L & O

honest work—that makes me feel verbatim.
the widow says : sorrow is my own yard. I don’t
have to look it up. it is one of the poems
I’ve accidentally memorized & when
he was in the hospital I could recite it to him.

honest work—the same
bones, only
compressed. apologies
for the delay, someone left
a package on the train. the army
experience center at Franklin
Mills Mall includes three mission
simulators, a café & lounge. all your
recyclables in one bin! ring in
the frost upon them freedom
from fire. in fact, people are not
particularly kind to pregnant women. I have never
In a review of Patti McCarthy’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] first trade collection, bk of (h)rs (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2002), in Rain Taxi, American poet andcritic Catherine Daly writes:
McCarthyjoins a post-confessional focus on information of various sorts ascontent in poetry with the still-increasing awareness thatnon-canonical texts from the middle ages, renaissance, and “earlymodern” baroque period were written, spoken, or used by women. Shecalls attention to survivals in the language which indicate survivalsin the way we perceive our days and read old texts. She firstimmerses us in language, and a particular language of time andspecial case, creating a sense of intimacy and identification ratherthan identity. “[T]he clerestory as choice & not-choice” in“matins” is also a window in a cloister. A woman becomes “anyonewho grew up behind / the wreckage of a pastoral screen door” in thefollowing poem, “lauds.” The word “door” changes the screenof a harem window, a Japanese Imperial Court, or a monastery into acontemporary screen for keeping the outside out and the inside in,the screen on the doorway of the sublime. Then she matches andmismatches her present situations, what she knows from experience,with images from the past, what she knows from reading and studyinglanguage. She is both writer and reader: her subject matter is bothpublic and private. Finally, McCarthy establishes what she thinksabout the women she reads and writes about, “glances and hair down,their bodies produce no sound.” Their images, languages, andwritings speak through McCarthy’s prophecy of survival.
After three trade poetry collections—bkof (h)rs (2002), Verso (2004) and Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (2010)—allfrom Berkeley, California publisher Apogee Press, comes Pennsylvania poet Pattie McCarthy’s chapbook L& O (little red leaves e-editions, 2011). Constructed out of the sequences “liminal :” and “oyer :,” she explains the impetus for the first piece in her “notes & acknowledgments”:
This poem was brought to you by the Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania. Written for the event “William Carlos Williams andthe Women: the Legacy of WCW at 125,” on 11 November 2008 [you can catch streaming of such here]. With many thanks to Jessica Lowenthal, organizer & host, & to my fellow participants : Sarah Dowling, Jena Osman, & Michelle Taransky. Includes much quotation & thievery from many poems by WCW (e/g/ everything after the second masses of flowers is quotation).
October – November 2008.
Possibly written during or perhaps after the composition of her third trade collection, L & O forgoes McCarthy’s explorations of Old English for another type of language, and, as the first sequence lifts and resequences lines and phrases from William Carlos Williams, the second, “oyer,” hosts a list of that stretches more than two pages, from Eleni Sikelianos, Anselm Berrigan, Jen Hofer and Cathy Wagner to Lorine Niedecker, Fanny Howe, William Blake and Samuel Beckett. In her published work to date, McCarthy has managed to collage filtered and found language into acrobatic and emotional shapes, working though a passionate embrace of language writing, reminiscent of the work of Toronto poetMargaret Christakos, or even New York City poets Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg. The poem-sequence “liminal :” catches a number of references, skipping stones across heady surfaces, wrapping one narrative sequence through the immediate of the author/narrator, from “it was so much empty / air to fill with ocean.” to:
& toddlers arrive & I
should have stayed
home with my own
kid & had free
coffee & graded

all the usual margins.

honest work—a busy kind of diction
limning out a greenglass
insulator make these calculations
more complicated. ring in the new
baby […] open well its eyes
love & wrestling
were brothers on the Mayflower
& (one assumes) thereafter.
katie & timothy
mccarthy were not
(presumably) siblings on the Titanic.
The second sequence opens: “everything begins with A,” focusing deeper on pregnancy, and the immediately domestic, even as both sequences wrap themselves around pregnancy, the body, mothering, birth and children.
make it hard for me & I’ll make it
impenetrable for you. crafting
a code & its key simultaneously,
though a cipher is preferable
(the former is cumbersome & unflexible).
swags of pine, the day’s familiar. you need
language where you sit. the room where
our house is slowly (& with much old-world
gentility) falling apart. he coats
his fingers in antebellum plaster
dust—the damp creeps (as they say) & his fingers
plug the faucet. isn’t there anything
beautiful in decay anymore? you squirm.
I felt [your] bare foot from the inside.
There is something of the fragmented journal to both of these sequences, a form that McCarthy revels in, writing individual entries made in the spaces between the chaos of writing, teaching and children. As any writer with small children knows, there is the constant difficulty in finding time, in balancing writing and parenting (there is a reference to being on maternity leave in the second sequence, for example), yet its an effect that still seems to be felt more (and written about more) by women writers than their male counterparts. Where, I wonder, are the maternity/paternity leave poems by male writers?
at the boy’s birth in whom the iron shall cease—
apologies, I ignored you to write
a poem about you.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Open Letter: Breakthrough Nostalgia: Reading Steve McCaffery Then and Now

Even if the work of Steve McCaffery did not so resolutely resist categorization and containment, this special issue of Open Letter could not hope to encompass his prodigious and heteroclite publications. Consider that McCaffery is the author of over 25 books of poetry, two volumes of criticism, a novel, three selected collections, three edited anthologies, and countless broadsides, posters, and uncollected ephemera. To this one must add his sound poetry and performances, including those that have been recorded or filmed, but also the numerous scores and pieces that have only been performed once and exist in the memories of audiences across North America and Europe. Nor can one overlook McCaffery’s collaborative work with bpNichol, the Toronto Research Group, the Four Horsemen, and other individual poets, critics, and composers including Karen Mac Cormack, Dick Higgins, Jed Rasula, Charles Bernstein, R. Murray Schafer, Bruce Andrews, Richard Truhlar, and Alan Halsey.

With so much material, and such a long history of production, questions of where, and how, to begin arise. (Stephen Cain, “Introduction: Clinamen/ Context/ Concrete/ Community/ Continuum”)
And so begins the special issue on Steve McCaffery of OpenLetter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory (Fourteenth Series, Number 7, Fall 2011), “Breakthrough Nostalgia:Reading Steve McCaffery Then and Now,” edited by Toronto writer,editor and professor Stephen Cain. How does one begin? One could only imagine that an editor would attempt to be as broad and complete as possible, but that the actual process would perhaps liken closer to a collage than a strict trajectory of writings on complete works, and this collection certainly manages quite a range of pieces on quite a range of McCaffery’s ouvre. How else to begin?

There has been a considerable shift over the past twenty years in how Steve McCaffery, a British-born Canadian writer currently living and teaching in the United States, has been viewed by Canadian readers. No longer seen as an extension of or overshadowed by the personality and poetics of the late bpNichol, his work is seen for its own merit and in much broader terms, part of which, I would suggest, came with the publication of the impressive two-volume selected, SevenPages Missing, through Coach House Books in 2000, as well as his move to teach at SUNY-Buffalo in 2004. Cain’s introduction adds that McCaffery’s critical consideration vastly improved through writings on his work by important American poet-critics Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff. For this issue, it is the younger generation of critics/poet-critics who are engaging with McCaffery’s work, and the issue includes assessments by Gregory Betts, Lori Emerson, Tim Conley, Andy Weaver, Christian Bök, derek beaulieu, Alan Halsey and Peter Jaeger. A particularly engaging piece is by Christian Bök on McCaffery’s visual piece, “William Tell: A Novel,” entitled “from ‘Two Dots Over a Vowel’” (if you know the piece, you will understand the reference).
While McCaffery has written a work that might, at first, seem too cryptic for any extended, literary analysis, such a “novel” does at least refer to the famed story of Tell, the medieval marksman from the village of Altdorf. Tell (in the apocryphal recounting) flouts the edicts of his Austrian overlord, Gessler – a Vogt who, in 1307, orders that all locals must bow before his hat, which sits atop a pole in the square of the hamlet. When Tell defies this decree, he gets arrested, and as a punishment for his insolence, he must prove his marksmanship by firing a crossbow at an apple, set up as a target, upon the head of his son, Walter – or else both the man and the boy must suffer immediate execution. Tell passes this awful trial, but nevertheless earns his incarceration after acknowledging that he has come to the test with two shots in his quiver, reserving one for the Vogt in case the child dies after the first salvo. Tell (bound and forced to board a ferry) gets taken to the keep of Gessler in Küssnacht – but during a tempest in transit on Lake Lucerne, Tell escapes from the hold of the ship and thus travels by land to the keep, where, with one shot from his crossbow, he obtains his revenge, murdering the Vogt, thereby fomenting a rebellion that leads to the confederation of the Swiss state.
Part of the appeal of the issue is that this is the second Open Letter issue on McCaffery’s work, after one edited by bpNichol (Sixth Series, No. 9: Fall 1987), which means that Cain doesn’t have to focus on the expected works, allowing the issue the luxury of far more freedom, as well as the benefits that such a distance of time often allows. As editor Nichol began his introduction to the earlier issue:
When I approached Frank about the idea of an issue like the one you now hold in your hands, my idea was simple. Bring together a number of articles by writers and critics who’ve read and appreciated the work of Steve McCaffery. I’ve read lots of negative criticism of his work in Canada, but very little that dealt seriously with his attempt, right or wrong, to come to terms with some of the problems in contemporary writing. That’s what I was looking for and I made that clear to Frank. I didn’t want to edit a festschrift but I did want to edit a collection of mostly pro-McCaffery pieces. My attempt is to balance the lack of same with this issue.
Then and Now,” as Cain writes, and the collected papers move through the years as easily as they do through pages. Another feature of this issue is that it includes new work by McCaffery, as well as the essay “Parapoetics: A Soft Manifesto for the Nomad Cortex,” which begins:
Let me argue for a poetics on the move and formulated from my own thinking in transit, without finality and without the suffocating safeguard of certainty; a sort of broad experiment in negative capability projected along a hypothetical trajectory: from the end of poetics to a beginning from poetics.
After such responses that experimental writing has had over the years in Canada, it becomes hard to really formulate an argument that there hasn’t been a long-standing resistance here to experimental work, in favour of more conservative forms, and Open Letter remains one of the stronger critical forums arguing for more experimental and avant-garde works. It’s interesting, in such a context, to consider the opening lines of Alessandra Capperdoni’s “Theorizing the Letter: Steve McCaffery’s Writing as Analytic Discourse,” that begin:
The line from McCaffery’s Seven Pages Missing, “provide the context and the content will follow” (224), is a helpful opener for a discussion that follows two invitations at rethinking the legacy of McCaffery’s work and the different impacts it has produced since the early critical reception in the 1980s. Both Clint Burnham’s panel organized for ACCUTE 2010 and the current issue of Open Letter are long due calls to attend to a tactical poetics that scarcely fits any definition and, until recently, has been excluded from institutional reception both in Canada and the U.S. As McCaffery himself notes in an interview with Antoine Cazé, his poetry “has never appeared in major anthologies of Canadian poetry” (30) and has been excluded “in the construction of the Canadian Long Poem canon” (30). If, in Canada, cultural nationalism’s suspicion toward ‘theory’ and ‘intellectualism’ is in part to blame, in the U.S. McCaffery’s poetry has undergone a sort of “ostracization” (30) for different but also related reasons – the construction of an ‘American’ lineage of LANGUAGE/oppositional writing.