Monday, April 30, 2012

Christine McNair and rob mclennan read in St. Catharines, June 15, 2012

The Virus Reading Series presents:

rob mclennan and Christine McNair

Friday, June 15, 2012

Christine McNair has been published in Descant, CV2, Prairie Fire, Arc,, Poetry is Dead, ottawater, the Bywords Quarterly Journal, and sundry other places. She won second prize (poetry) in the Atlantic Canadian Writing Competition, an honourable mention in the Eden Mills Literary Competition and was shortlisted for the 2011 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her first book, Conflict, appeared with BookThug in May, 2012, and a chapbook, Notes from a cartywheel, appeared in 2011 with AngelHousePress. She works as a book doctor in Ottawa.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009), as well as the travel volume, Ottawa: The Unknown City (2008). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Patrick Sheehan's Irish Pub
101 St Paul Street, St Catharine ON

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Brian Fawcett, Human happiness

This woman is Rita Joan Fawcett, then Rita Surry. She worked as a cashier in the meat department of the Hudson’s Bay store in downtown Edmonton. She was a dance club queen, and girl-about-town. It is 1933, and she is 23 years old, about to meet Duncan Hartley Fawcett, the man she will marry in 1936.

She’s a big-boned girl, buxom, pretty without quite being beautiful, but healthy and very well-groomed, always. Those are silk stockings on her legs, the watch on her left wrist will last 40 years, her manicure is impeccable but not ostentatious, and the necklace—are they real pearls?—is tasteful.

Her best asset is her smile, which could still light up rooms when she was 90, and made her friends all her life without making her seem goofy or an easy mark. Behind it was a quick and an encompassing sense of humour that didn’t require malice or schadenfreude to fire it up, and which masked her native shrewdness. There are no photographs of her in which she looks like a deer in the headlights, and I never saw her in real life that way. Her weakness was that she couldn’t see things coming. She only saw people coming, about whom she often made snap judgments that were rarely off the mark—and nearly always final. She kept her feet on the ground her entire life, and taught the skill to her children. This was no small accomplishment, given their very different characters.
Nearly a decade in the making is award-winning Toronto writer Brian Fawcett’s courageous memoir of his late parents, Human happiness (Toronto ON: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2011). For years a journalist and public intellectual,Fawcett has been taking on big subjects through non-fiction, from his Cambodia:A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986), Gender Wars: A Noveland Some Conversation About Sex and Gender (1993) and Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are In My Hometown (2003), to Robin Blaser (with Stan Persky; 2010) [see my review of such here]. His subjects have been large and small, and in this new book, the subject is his own parents, their marriage and the family they created. This is perhaps the largest and most difficult of subject matters, and Fawcett manages it with stark honesty, attention and humour, without a speck of sentimentality.

It is a difficult thing to turn one’s gaze upon the speculations of one’s own house, one’s own life, and Fawcett does it with alarming and straightforward skill. Human happiness is a warm, direct, honest exploration and heartfelt portrait of a couple existing of their own place, their own time. Over the years, his non-fiction works have concerned themselves with political and social histories, with calling out those who required it (otherwise known as a low tolerance for bullshit), and he approaches his parents’ history in much the same way. How does one comprehend their own parents honestly, and the contexts through which they became who they were?

As the title attests, this is a book about happiness, after all; about how it is sought after, discovered, and even about how it is perceived, amid the arguments, the long stubborn stretches and the misunderstandings (Fawcett’s scene of he and his brother in their father’s office as their father entirely misreads his two sons is astounding).

If attention might be called the highest form of respect, and even the highest complement, in Human happiness, Brian Fawcett has given his all. 
There’s something else that makes all this worth the telling: the two central figures in this story literally couldn’t have imagined that a story could be written about their lives. They both had the sort of modesty of expectation that prevented them from seeing themselves as central to anything, even, at times, their own lives. They didn’t see their marriage as drama, or their lives as a narrative that had a fireworks-and-orchestra beginning followed by plot-point catastrophes and epiphanies, and they didn’t see its ending coming until it was on them even thought they both prepared for death in exquisite detail. They saw their individual lives and their marriage through the lens of a plan, one that they pursued relentlessly without talking about it very much, and except in moments they thought of as weakness, without looking back to see what had worked and what hadn’t.

This is also about the desire to find a human and humane happiness, about the goodness of the human spirit, about the unappreciated comedy of our expectations and it is about the will we don’t hear very much about these days. Not the will to dominate others, or make life about ourselves, but the often-interrupted will to love and be loved, and the contagious decency that arises from it.

My private moments? Like most people born in North America during and just after the Second World War, I grew up without the faintest curiosity about the people who’d brought me into the world, and even less about the ancestors who had gotten them to our staging grounds. Toward the end of my parents’ lives I began to understand that this lack of curiosity was a serious mistake, and in part, this book is my attempt at restitution: this is about them, but it is also for them.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Chris Jennings

Chris Jennings’s first book, Occupations (Nightwood), came out in April 2012.  He is also the author of the chapbook Vacancies (believeyourown press, 2003), and his poems and critical work have appeared in magazines, journals, and Best Canadian Essays 2011.  He was a founding editor of filling Station magazine and an assistant editor for the University of Toronto Quarterly, and he is currently on the board of Arc Poetry Magazine.

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

If either my chapbook or, now, Occupations, has changed my life at all, the change is in where I lay my expectations. I’ve gone from seeing the book as an end goal that makes the work tangible and, hopefully, lets it move around on its own to seeing it as part of an on-going activity that includes writing about poetry, doing reviews, and generally just being (hopefully) a recognizable part of the Canadian poetry conversation.

As for change over time, I think there's a stylistic through-line across now and then. I'd like to think I've gotten better at nuancing the work and playing around with different kinds of structure, but I'm not sure I believe in that kind of progress in a poet's work. At least, I don't think the poet is qualified to identify that kind of progress if only because what's new often seems more immediate. I’m not, at least.  It also makes me a little sad to think about the exception to this - the poet who is trying to recapture a lost verve and who is constantly aware of what he or she has lost.  The one difference I can put my finger on is that I can work comfortably in a more diverse range of poetics.  I now have different projects working different poetics in different states of disrepair. Some of these poems were cut from Occupations because they stuck out unduly. It's a situation that makes me feel like I'm caught between this and that from time to time - and then I'll get an idea that lands firmly in one mode or the other and it's like a release. I've never been prolific; setting up additional obstacles for myself is par for the course.

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

This answer is probably part fiction because it's me looking back and trying to devise an answer based on what little part of me was aware of my motivation for doing anything at that time in my life.

When I was in junior high, I think I was that pretty common type - the kid who wants to be a writer but doesn't spend much time sitting down to write. I read a lot, and I wrote chunks of fiction, but I wasn’t really thinking about causality or structure, and I had no sense of how to choose relevant details.  And so I had no patience for what felt like the painful process of creating context and getting characters out of bed in the morning.  I wanted to confront them immediately with the zombie dog or the genetically engineered cow seeking revenge. (My first "published" work - in the high school lit mag. - began: "My name is Cow. I am a cow. My parents, not surprisingly, were also cows. This explains the lack of imagination in my naming.")  The same obstacle existed for non-fiction but with the additional anxiety that I knew I knew, and had experienced, almost nothing.  I eventually got over some of that to write essays and papers, though I still wanted to write aphorisms rather than descriptive bibliographies, and I’ve written fiction since as well, but I’ve never tried to publish it.  I've gotten much better at figuring out how to do it, but I haven't worked at it enough to be happy with anything I’ve done, so I'm still not in any hurry to send it out.

I didn’t start writing poetry with much purpose until after I'd already done a year as an undergrad at the University of Calgary. I'd taken the big survey courses in English lit. from beginning to present, and the whole first semester was poetry of one kind or another - Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Faerie Queene, Shakespeare, the Metaphysicals, Milton, "The Rape of the Lock", the Romantics.... I was aiming for an English degree at that point only because I didn’t know what else to do and because I thought it would be relatively easy.  Then poetry, especially the lyric poetry, defeated me.  The longer works weren’t easy, so you could get into the narrative flow, but because they were longer, it was much harder to hold them all in your head when it came time to write an essay, and I have never been good at taking notes. I felt like I had to find my way with the lyric.

I fell into the trap of thinking that there were “hidden meanings” in the lyrics because I was told they were there and, hey, they must be hidden because I didn’t see them.  I now think of this as a consequence of poetry illiteracy; I didn’t know how to read a poem because I didn’t understand the importance of form, I had no education in formal rhetoric including figurative language, and I really didn’t even understand generally what makes for good writing either grammatically or stylistically.  And I found it much easier to work through these things by trying to write poems than by trying to understand other people’s poetry. There was a lot of banging my head against the wall and writing some really awful poems, and, over time, a lot of resisting the influences of people around me who were much more into non-traditional poetics.  Things really only gained some momentum when I was both trying to write poems and studying poetry with a really good professor, Alexandra West.  She didn’t teach poems as much as poetry literacy, and that was a huge help.  She also gave us Paul Fussell’s Poetic Metre/Poetic Form, which was my first exposure to writing about poetry that I both understood and from which I started to understand how to write about structure and content as part of a whole.  I’ve written poems and about poetry in lock-step ever since.

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?

If I kept everything I wrote, the way you would if you were working on paper in a notebook, I’d say that the poems come out of copious notes.  The delete button makes it look like it comes out in some close-to-final state, but I am a tyrannical self-editor.  I work on key phrases, especially at the beginning of a poem, for weeks – sometimes on the computer but often just walking around with them in my head trying to distill them to the right formula.  Then, sometimes the poem comes quickly for a few lines before there’s another knot to be worried.  Other times, that aphoristic chunk sits there looking for a body.  I should add, these are not aphoristic bits I would ever publish on their own; they’re kernels.  Beyond this, it’s really haphazard.  Unlike, say, Mavis Gallant, I have not structured my life to create the conditions I need to work more diligently from notes to drafts to “perfection.”  I don’t know if I could, to be honest, because those conditions are not solely the conditions that would make me write.

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?

It’s really all over the map.  I have a stub of a book project that’s a riff on Pliny’s Brief Lives – the poems for that book aren’t things I would just start on their own.  That came to me as a book.  Another project I’ve been working on for a long time has always been a book, but some poems come to me and they have so many possible articulations that I want to build something bigger than one poem out of them.  That usually ends up in a sequence of some description – between the short poem and the book.  In general, I’m not prolific enough to be programmatic.

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

I enjoy reading, and I do spend a lot of time listening to and voicing my poems when I’m writing them.  I don’t know how else to think about the sound of a poem than to voice it. The only impact it has on the way I write is that preparing for a reading does force me to get into that head-space again, and I find that I will finish things or push through difficult bits to get them done for that reading deadline, even if I don’t intend to read that poem and that particular event.  It’s an audience thing; there’s nothing more motivating for me to finish a poem than an audience –  simply because, if there’s no audience with whom to share it, I can work out most of the poem in my head for my own satisfaction.

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?

Well, yes and no.  I wouldn’t say I’m writing out of a theory either critical or political.  But many of my poems have loosely connected theoretical origins – can x form or structure or technical approach work if I use it like this?  If so, what can I learn about the way that element of form or technique works that I can apply in other poems where it’s no longer a hypothesis for experiment but simply part of the fabric of the poem?  Can I write a good poem that challenges bits of what we think about poetry and open up other ways of working?  If there’s a big theory behind this, it’s got something to do with connecting poetry’s roots in classical rhetoric and schemes to some of the experimental and theoretical  discourses that present as avant garde but that often seem to me to be an extension of something already implicit in the traditional tools.

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

The writer in general will always have a role.  When I taught, my favorite line was that writing is thinking refined by time.  Writers in whatever field, including those who are not writing for the public like the policy writers and the corporate report writers, are putting the shape on ideas people will take up and on which they will act and base decisions.  Creative writers do this in the most conspicuous and open way and often with ideas that are very broad and fundamental, and sometimes those ideas are so firmly established that they get taken for truth, and a good writer can turn that supposed truth on its head. There are times when that’s exactly what’s needed. On the other hand, I remember hearing the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney tell an anecdote about arriving at a family funeral and discovering that he was simply expected to have prepared something to say because, after all, he was the poet and was needed to put words on people’s grief.

So I’d say there’s a role in shaping thought and a role in expressing the irrational and it’s bloody high and difficult as roles go, but thankfully, there isn’t really an enforcement agency.  And it isn’t a role every writer assumes automatically, willingly or well, but that’s a different question.

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

Both and neither.  It’s difficult because you don’t become a poetry editor without having a vision of poetry and how it works and what it does, so you can get into conversations where you’re really arguing questions of vision and not of technique.  This is essential because that process forces you to sharpen your own understanding of what you’re trying to do in a poem or a book, particularly when the conversation goes into questions of what you’re trying to do with the art.  I find having a few trusted people I can show things in progress is a huge help in getting past my internal editor, who is far more silencing than anyone I’ve met.

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

Toss up between “Be what you wish to seem,” and  “Chaos is hard.  Fools tire quick.”  If you mean specifically writing advice, it’s a toss up.  Doug Barbour gives a talk about the importance of reading great writers if you want to be a writer and his advice is that you’re going to be influenced by all the rhythms and clichés you hear around you anyway, so you might as well combat or supplement them with echoes of the language in its better moments. Raymond Carver’s editing philosophy, that you only stop when the only change you make between drafts is to put back the commas you took out in the previous edit, also works.

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

It’s pretty much a core trait that I move between these two genres.  They’re different ways of approaching the same questions, and so I don’t really see them as that different.  In the critical work, I’m writing prose to talk about someone else’s poetry, but I’m thinking about poetry and language and ideas in much the same way as when I’m trying to write poems.  I don’t mean that I’m trying to hold other poets to what I want them to do or what I’d do if I were them, and, maybe more importantly, I know my own poetry doesn’t set an unattainable standard.  It’s just the same mental space and different ways of moving around in it.

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 one.  It’s a huge flaw.  Maybe I should change that advice answer to reflect the bit about Mavis Gallant organizing her life around writing?  But that would be hypocritical of me since I have never successfully changed my life with the intention of improving the conditions I need to be a more successful or more prolific writer.  My typical day begins with a lot of trying to wake up, then dog walking and then work.  Sometimes the dog walk is like journaling time, but not always. In terms of my writing, a better question might be how my days end, because it’s often late at night, after another dog walk, when I get into a bit of a fugue that allows me to make some progress on a poem.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Nothing inspirational in my answer, I’m afraid – if I’m stalled, I probably need to be reading more and kicking my brain function to a higher level.  Poetry, the London Review of Books, maybe something challenging off of Arts and Letters Daily, maybe a story or novel by a writer whose style has a particular effect on me: Richard Ford, Mavis Gallant, Tobias Wolff, Victor Pelevin....  Music will do it sometimes, but not meditative music – something energetic, in almost any genre.  Sometimes it’s just digging through the million abandoned bits of poems I’ve never picked up again that makes me think “well, here...just finish this off because it’s better than anything you’re doing right now.”  But I can stall for a long time before anything works.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Lilacs.  I grew up in a house surrounded by lilac bushes, and I moved back to that house on more than one occasion, so it’s identified as home because it was so often the destination of homecomings. It doesn’t exist now.  But definitely lilacs – real ones on the bush, so there’s a mix of the green smell of the leaves and dry Calgary grass too.

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?

Yeah, all of the above.  I think it’s basically true that anything with a form or pattern that can be replicated by language in some fashion could influence the way I attempt to write a poem.  A friend of mine wrote a really interesting dissertation on architecture in relation to Walcott, Heaney and Brodsky.  Visual art and music are pretty easy to translate superficially – description, rhythm and repetition – and it’s much more challenging and therefore fun to try to carry any of them over with subtlety and colour.  Sometimes, though, you see the pattern in something else and it just clicks that you could represent that in language.  I like doing this best when the source of the pattern isn’t the theme of the poem, though – if there’s something about the cooling system in a Bugatti Veyron that I think makes for an interesting poetic structure, I wouldn’t necessarily use it to write a poem about a car or speed or plutocracy.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Loo-oo-ooong list.  The writers I’ve already mentioned are pretty much at the top along with Raymond Carver’s fiction, a bunch of Geoffrey Hill, Wallace Stevens, some Browning, Donne, Frank Kermode’s literary journalism, Anne Carson, some Charles Bernstein, some Walcott, some Braithwaite....  It starts to sound stupid when you run down a list like this, but honestly, I get itchy if I don’t know where in my house these books are.  I need to know they’re there when I need them.

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

Mostly?  Learn stuff.  Again, it could be a very long list.  Near the top right now, though I have been known to get bored with my own enthusiasms, is learning to play my guitar well enough to set some of my poems to music.  I’m jealous of people like Kevin Matthews who can do that, or, maybe more accurately, who can write with the guitar.

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’ve been working with a lot of scientists over the last few years, and, if I could go back far enough in time to get the right education, I think I’d enjoy being a research scientist.  I like the attention to detail, the meticulous observation, and in the case of some of the scientists I know, the opportunity to go to remote locations like the high Arctic for months at a time.

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

If by something else you mean pursuing another art, I think the answer is “default”.  Writing is the one art form where you’re using the tools every day.  You’re thinking about how to structure the language, how to describe things and relate information in a way that other people will understand –and often, you’re trying to make them understand it with the same nuances and emphases as you do.  There’s more of a start up cost with other art forms to get to a point of basic competence unless you’re talented, and I don’t think I’m talented in art or music.  Nothing would shut down my creativity like feeling incompetent.  Over time, I’m getting to a point where I feel I understand my guitar enough that I get that pleasure of doing something creative, and I love visual art enough to invest in learning how to use the tools, though I haven’t yet.

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

I don’t know about great, but I liked Ian McEwan’s Solar a whole lot more than most it seems.  Just like Saturday, I think most of the reviews and public discussions of the novel I’ve read are so fixated on his ability to sound credible when writing about science, and his facility with set pieces and unlikeable characters, that they don’t delve any deeper.  McEwan sets up a whole complex web of thinking about why scientific evidence doesn’t change what people believe about climate change, and his protagonist’s life is basically an allegory for that line of thought.

I’d rather put a book of poetry here; I’m sure there’s a book I’ve read recently that deserves to be here but I didn’t pay it enough attention.  Enough attention usually means I’ve read it as though I was going to write about it, and I haven’t done as much reviewing this past year.

I’m not much of a film guy to be honest.  I don’t seek out great films, so I don’t see many.  I watched J. Edgar on a plane recently mostly because the American poet Ai has written a few good dramatic monologues in Hoover’s voice.  Best I can do is probably the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which did a much better job of creating a mood of claustrophobia and corruption than the American version – but that may be a side effect of having to read subtitles.

20 - What are you currently working on?
The next thing I’d like to see in print is a book of critical essays that builds on some of the pieces I’ve written in the last decade.  It won’t be scholarly, but there’s a logic to it that, even if it changes no one’s mind, will at least ask them to think a little harder before telling me I’m wrong.  In poetry, I’ve been working on something called Ode Noir for a while and will probably work on for a while longer.  It’s a technical and narrative challenge over a long haul, so I’m always happy when I make progress with it.  I’m also collecting poems for a book I want to title Misanthropy as a nod to a character in Melville’s The Confidence Man.  Aspects of that character’s personality are the seeds for the book’s tone and mood.

[Chris Jennings launches his first trade poetry collection with Anita Lahey and David Groulx at 5pm today at The Manx Pub as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series/ottawa international writers festival]

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, April 27, 2012

From the Fishouse: an audio archive of emerging poets

Pearl Pirie recently pointed out this website of American poets' readings and question-and-answer sessions. A pretty large archive of new and newer writers, it includes a ton of worthy American poets: Barbara Jane Reyes, Beth Bachmann, Evie Shockley, Ilya Kaminsky, Kazim Ali, Laura McCullough, Mark Yakich, Mathew Zapruder, Paul Guest, Paula Bohince, Philip Metres, Purvi Shah Betsy Sholl, Rachel M. Simon, Rachel Richardson, Ravi Shankar, Reb Livingston, Reginald Harris, Richard Siken, Rick Barot, Rick Noguchi, Robert Farnsworth, Robin Beth Schaer, Sandra Beasley, Sarah Manguso, Terry L. Kennedy, Thorpe Moeckel, Tim Seibles, Tom Thompson, Tony Barnstone, Victoria Chang, Vievee Francis, Xochiquetzal Candelaria and Yona Harvey.

Pretty envious, this. Should we try to convince them to include Canadian poets as well, or should someone here simply attempt to construct our own archive?

Their website self-describes as:

Poets Q & A:

From the Fishouse is designed to be, in part, a resource for teachers and students of contemporary poetry. What better way to learn about poetry than from the mouths of those who practice the art? Listen to poets talk about writing, the writing process, and about particular poems featured here at the Fishouse. Below are links to more than 500 audio files of poets talking about their craft, arranged by author. These Q&A files can also be accessed through the individual poets' Fishouse pages.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ongoing notes: late April, 2012

Did you see that we now have information on the performers for our upcoming SOCIAL, the fun/draiser for our September wedding? June 21 at The Mercury Lounge. Check here for details, as well as tickets.

And check the above/ground press blog, for recent and forthcoming chapbooks by Lisa Robertson, Jay MillAr and George Elliott Clarke, as well as Rob Manery and Mark Cochrane.

Australia/Canada: forward slash is, as the colophon page says, “a Black Rider collage of Australian and Canadian innovation” edited by Matthew Hall and Jeremy Balius and produced by Black Rider Press ( For the small chapbook anthology, they’ve selected seven writers from opposite corners of the world: Duncan Hose, Michae Farrell, a.rawlings, Louis Armand, Kemeny Babineau, Astrid Lorange and Jay MillAr into a small and fascinating sampler of writers.
private celebrations
of speaking (not at all like fasting)
with diagrams
full-bodied and fruit

thud missiles
rattling into the ear
making each
the first available name (“LOBE,” Astrid Lorange)
Since former Toronto resident a.rawlings released her first trade collection, Wide slumber for lepidopterists (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006), she has released various ephemeral pieces out into the world, and I’ve been intrigued to see what a second collection might look at. Some of her work in this small collection includes the sequence “The Great Canadian Injuries,” from “Object,” “Subject” and “Wolves’ Enemies,” each of which provide a variety of critiques on writing, language and perspective that is quite refreshing, and nearly twist writing to the point of making much of what is currently happening appear already out-of-date. Just how long might we have to wait for a second collection?

Dissent. Own or feel. Buy land. Wager. Languish. Ail. Ache. Buy feeling. Wait. Adjust. Affect land. Wedge essential feeling. Use edges. Vary wear. Hear. Languish histories, howls, holes. Slay adages. Mosh. Row. Mouth. Land. Engage. Seethe.

Descend on a field by language. Language is a lake by a field. Language is a field. Language is in the field. Language is everywhere here. Language is trees, owls, wolves. Language is mushrooms, moths. Language is trees.

Language is a forest filled with forms. Language forms the forest. Language informs the interior. Language fills holes with letters. Descend from a cliff into a forest near a field by a shore on a river that empties into a language.

Language is a habitat. Language is a habit. Descend on language. Language may finish in nonsense. Language will not ruin the environment. Language is still home.

How does “home” translate in a linguistic environment? How would I choose my language? Do I choose my home? Where is my agency in choosing a home? Is home selected for me?

Where is my home? Here is my home: a field.
Buffalo NY: I was fortunate enough to receive the fifth issue of Yellow Field (spring 2012), “a journal of anglophone poetries, open to works visual, graphic, musical, and experimental. its mission, to bring together work from various geographies in the desire to forge community around the poetic exchange, from the emergent to the established to the undersung.” This issue includes a wide array of work, with new writing by Peter Larkin, Rhys Trimble, Shane Rhodes, Michael Leong, Aisha Sasha John, Megan Kaminski and an interview with Michael Basinski, among other works. There are always such fascinating publications coming out of Buffalo, which make me slightly envious every time I hear of another. Why haven’t I heard of this journal before?
in that month of moths I swelled
staph bacteria filled the lid of my eye
so badly did I want to share my mouth

goodness and mercy will follow me

none of you have for me unzipped
the light of your eyes

my mountainous want of foam
it’s flattening and for where will
I go in Toronto to receive little soul
oh Lord. (“from The Book of You,” Aisha Sasha John)
Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes has a compelling batch of poems in this issue, from an ongoing political work (has anyone else noticed his work becoming more politically aware over the past couple of years?) that highlights some problematic features of Canadian history that continue not to be dealt with, turning the language of treaties into the language of poetry. A “Notes to the Poems” included with his submission reads:
Using the prescriptive constraints of “found poetry” and collage poetry, where the poetic text is constructed of previously existing material, all words in these poems are from the Government of Canada transcripts of the Canadian Post-Confederation Treaties (also called the Numbered Treaties) and their associated documentation. Conducted by the Government of Canada over a 50 year period, the Numbered Treaties remain one of the largest systematic, colonial land appropriation projects in the world. Daunting for the history and future they carry and their impenetrable legal diction, these texts are the foundational logic of Canadian colonization and Canadian settler, First Nations and Metis race relations.
Apart from the geographic and stylistic range of the work, and the high quality of the submissions included, I very much appreciate the straightforward production and subtle design, allowing the work to be unadorned, and predominantly featured. Unlike some out there in the world, this is a journal all about the work. And what work it is.

You can apparently find information on the journal on Facebook, or by writing c/o 1217 Delaware Avenue, Apt #802, Buffalo NY 14209.

Louisville KY: Over the past number of months, I’ve been pouring through everything I can learn from American fiction writer Lydia Davis’ seven hundred pages plus The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Picador, 2009), a book that has quickly become essential. More recently, Sarabande Books has released a short story of Davis’ as a lovely chapbook, her The Cows (2011) as the ninth title in their “Quarternote Chapbook Series.” What intrigues about this short story is in the sheer simplicity of Davis’ language, documenting movement without mistaking bovine actions with human interpretation. In Davis’ hands, the cows in her daily view become nearly zen creatures, an odd quality that seems to come out of her unadorned descriptions, and find, by itself, such an incredible wisdom through an equally incredible patience.
They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.

Or we pull back the curtain in the morning and they are already there, in the early sunlight.

They are a deep, inky black. It is a black that swallows light.

Their bodies are entirely black, but they have white on their faces. On the faces of two of them, there are large patches of white, like a mask. On the face of a third, there is only a small patch on the forehead, the size of a silver dollar.

They are motionless until they move again, one foot and then another—fore, hind, fire, hind—and stop in another place, motionless again.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Aby Kaupang, Absence is such a Transparent House

it is always contradictory
our houses have transparent walls
the dogwood blossoms brown in their golden borders

I can’t make a new room for us

shapes make the living too cramped
the darkness of my evening house
is far more formal than the shutters themselves (“in the hedges of loving kindness”)
My initial reaction to the poems of Aby Kaupang’s Absence is such a Transparent House (Huntington Beach CA: Tebot Bach, 2011), published as the 2011 winner of the Patricia Bibby First Book Prize, is to their structure, reminiscent of Douglas Barbour’s Fragmenting Body etc (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000), but perhaps closer to the ongoing work of Emily Carr—author of 13 ways of happily (Anderson SC: Parlor Press, 2011) and Directions for Flying, 36 fits: a young wife’s almanac (Baltimore MD: Furniture Press, 2010)—for their shared ability to cohere all their writings into a single unit. Given that this is the first and only work of Kaupang’s I’ve seen so far, this might be a stretch to see beyond this book’s borders, but the collection is, in part, remarkable for how well it exists as a unit, and almost suggests itself as a project larger than itself.
in which Nothingness
posited its being
in my earthen locker

in which Nothingness
found being {tensions all hewn in}
in a inked realm

in which Nothingness
in an icy fetal lockbox
corded my contractions (“some bodies are coffins and we sense it”)
Absence is such a Transparent House composes a collection-as-fragments, a collection built through accumulations and equal, endless fractals, composing poems on grief and absence, poems on the staggering complexities and contradictions of faith, managing some of the most startling poems I’ve read in some time. As she writes in the poem “in the hedges of loving kindness”: “there are delineations I misunderstood / mansions and Thee and ice // anything that has shape is cheating / life and death are endless // what I fear most is evident in the saying” (65). There are scary questions of existence brought up in Kaupang’s poems, questions that even to consider exploring shake the poet to the core, yet she continues, questioning. Where is Kaupang, possibly, going? In her generous introduction to the collection, Gail Wronsky writes:
Little “g” gods and almost trees and “the dead/perfume of flies,” and “copses” becoming “corpses” and a most richly detailed and populated “Nothingness,” and I don’t want to think “Emily Dickinson” but I keep thinking of her as I read this book of oddly both voluptuous and spartan poems written with an almost otherworldly amount of self-possession, of certainty in craft. This poet’s concerns are Dickinson’s concerns: death, what eternity is, the effusions and miracles of the natural world, the dependencies and fortitudes of the self, and yet the rhythms and diction here are entirely unique […].
You’ll notice that the poet has named the four sections of her book “Symphyses” (Symphysis I, II, III, and IV). It’s a bold gesture, as the word is so unfamiliar, so specific to medical discourse, and yet the payoff is enormous. Doing so, Kaupang could be said to be inventing a poetic form—one rich with resonance and possibility—out of this term for the articulation of bone, for the way bones grow and heal, evoking as she does the visual similarities between bones and lines (both sometimes out of necessity broken) and at the same time wisely suggesting that bone itself is articulate, that poetry, like marrow, resides deeply and actively there. I’m sure Emily Dickinson would have agreed that it does.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sarah Manguso, The Guardians: An Elegy,

The problem with dying in private is that the rest of us don’t get to watch it happen, and things that happen without us seem less real, not quite finished, maybe even impossible.

If Harris had died slowly, under a beautiful lace-trimmed coverlet, with stage four something or other, and if a yellow light had been burning somewhere in a far corner of the room as we quietly cried, and if everyone had had a chance to say goodbye or otherwise get to narrate the end of the story, then maybe I could believe that Harris is better off dead and freed from his torments.

After your friend throws himself in front of a train, you tell the rest of your friends that you love them in case they all throw themselves in front of trains before you have a chance to say it. Maybe you’ve said it to them before, but you do it again, just in case, as if giving them permission to forego the lace coverlet and to die as Harris actually died—as if to say that with the lace coverlet, it would be easier.
In her fifth trade book, The Guardians: An Elegy (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), American writer Sarah Manguso has achieved a rich and varied elegy to a friend who escaped a mental hospital in 2008, and committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. The Guardians is a book that provides a shape to her late friend, and a shape to her grief, writing out his illness and his health, their shared history of intimacy, writing out a background of growing up, New York during and following the 9/11 attacks, and the toll that mental illness takes.
One month after the attack, while I rode the subway to the office of the New York Post for my first day of work on the night shift, the United States and Britain launched air strikes in Afghanistan.

I didn’t work on the cover story, whose headline was Tali-BAM!

I was assigned the article about the Franciscan rite of the blessing of animals, which also happened that day. All the depressed rescue dogs were brought to the church and taken up to the altar.

At St. Bartholomew’s, a bald eagle led the procession, followed by the police and rescue dogs. The article accompanied a picture of a bloodhound named Chase sitting at the altar to receive his blessing, so I wrote the caption Heavenly Hound.

Six weeks after the attack, at the site no one spoke. The crater was still smoldering, and its poison smell filled the air. Some people wore gas masks and some didn’t. They walked among each other like the uniformed members of opposing teams.

Some of the stores in the neighborhood were open and clean. Others had been abandoned. Makeshift bars crossed a lingerie shop’s broken windows, the panties in the vitrines scattered and covered with an inch of fluffy gray dust. My black coat and shoes were gray, too. The fire trucks drove the streets unwashed and covered with red names drawn in the dust with a finger.

After the press conference when he was asked How many? and he answered More than any of us can bear, the mayor assumed the charisma of a movie star.

The fire burned until February, and by then the Stars and Stripes had sprung up all over the city, a tri-color weed nourished on ambient fear.
What appeals about all of Manguso’s prose is the stripped-down clarity she projects, beginning with her short story collection Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (San Francisco CA: McSweeney’s Books, 2007) to her memoir on years of illness, The Two Kinds of Decay (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). Even while writing about enormously difficult events and situations, Manguso’s prose projects such a calmness, fearlessness and clear-headedness, never lapsing into sentiment or wallowing. Still, The Guardians is a book that doesn’t let the author off the hook for her friend’s death, despite the impossibility and futility she knows of such self-blame.

The Guardians is a memoir about Sarah Manguso’s relationship to her friend Harris, who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train in New York, and some of the emotional aftermath of that act, but is far more than that, just in the way that Ianthe Brautigan’s You Can’t Catch Death (2000) was not merely a book about her famous father’s suicide. The Guardians also writes about the aftermath of New York after 9/11, the aftermath of leaving the United States for an extended period of silence, and what it meant to return home to this death; this book writes of the agony of home, leaving and hope, the man who would become the author’s husband, and even incorporates some fragments of one of Manguso’s self-claimed failed writing projects.

It might have been in an interview, but I recall hearing Manguso claim that she doesn’t necessarily assign genre to her projects as she works, thus opening her projects up to become more. Somehow, Manguso manages books that explore and describe how it is to live in the world, and how to be better at it, composing passages on love, friendship, illness, suicide, leaving, intimacy, marriage and death, and the moment of asking her late friend’s parents permission to even begin. As in all of her works thus far, this book is about and requires a strict attention. It would be impossible not to be moved.