Monday, July 30, 2012

The Factory Reading Series: above/ground press at nineteen,

The quintessential poet’s micro-press, above/ground press — founded and published by poet, writer, and editor rob mclennan out of Ottawa, Ontario — publishes chapbooks by both newly emerging and established poets alike. What makes above/ground press titles stand apart from other micro-press poetry chapbooks (besides their nondescript covers, that is) is that they offer the reader glimpses into collaborations as well as individual works in progress. It’s these glimpses which above/ground gives that makes their titles unique, revealing the process of the poet’s composition, their collaborations, as each waltz’s their muse along the thin razor’s edge of creation. […] It takes guts to write without a net, and particularly to publish those early efforts for all to see. Guts, indeed
                                                Mark McCawley, Fresh Raw Cuts

Ottawa’s above/ground press, a one-man operation run by writer, editor, publisher and critic rob mclennan, celebrates nineteen years of publishing in August with a reading and launch party at The Mercury Lounge with four readings/launches.

The Mercury Lounge, 56 Byward Street, Ottawa
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Door 7pm / readings 7:30pm
Cover $5 (includes a recent above/ground press title)

With readings and launches by:

Cameron Anstee (Ottawa ON),
            launching Regarding Renewal

Marilyn Irwin (Ottawa ON),
launching flicker

            Amanda Earl (Ottawa ON),
                        launching Sex First & Then A Sandwich

and Stephen Brockwell (Ottawa ON),
launching Excerpts from Impossible Books, The Crawdad Cantos

Part of the aesthetic of above/ground press [photograph by Deborah Poe] has closely followed mclennan’s own interest in encouraging and showcasing a combination of emerging and local Ottawa poets alongside more established writers from across Canada, the United States and beyond, and in introducing new writers to the local community. Through over six hundred and fifty publications so far, the press has been fortunate to be able to be part of a number of early publications by now-established writers, including Stephanie Bolster, Gil McElroy, Stan Rogal, Natalee Caple, Stephen Brockwell, Michael Holmes, Clare Latremouille, derek beaulieu, Pearl Pirie, Jay MillAr, Marcus McCann and Anita Dolman.

Over the past eighteen months alone, above/ground press has produced limited-edition poetry chapbooks by three Governor General’s Award winners—Phil Hall (including a section of his award-winning Killdeer, as well as a collaboration he did with Australian poet Andrew Burke), George Elliott Clarke and Robert Kroetsch—and other titles by Kingston’s first poet laureate Eric Folsom, and Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Rae Armantrout, as well as Marilyn Irwin, Amanda Earl, Barry McKinnon, derek beaulieu, Michael Blouin, Deanna Young, j/j hastain, Fenn Stewart, Kathryn MacLeod, Sarah Mangold, Stephen Brockwell, Jay MillAr, Robert Hogg, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Rob Manery, Monty Reid, Ken Norris, Lea Graham, Ben Ladouceur, Dennis Cooley, Hugh Thomas, Camille Martin and Shannon Maguire.

For this year’s poetry month, in April, above/ground press produced new works by Lisa Robertson and George Elliott Clarke as free (with purchase) titles through Ottawa bookstores Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar and mother tongue books, to encourage business.

Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa ON where he runs Apt. 9 Press and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Ottawa. Recent chapbooks have been published by above/ground press, The Emergency Response Unit, and St. Andrew Books. He blogs on things Ottawa, literary, and ephemeral at

Praise for Frank St.:

“Cameron Anstee’s serial poem Frank St. (March 2010, $4.00) is a study of house, history (‘in 1878 this address / was at the city limit’), art and self. He moves through his new/old home precisely but gently, instructing himself and us how to relax, ‘learn to stop,’ in order to then ‘see better, poem.’”
Allan Brown, Jones Av.

This is Anstee’s second above/ground press title, after the collection Frank St. (2010).

Marilyn Irwin partook in two of Ottawa poet rob mclennan’s poetry workshops in 2010, and graduated from Algonquin College’s Creative Writing Certificate Program this Spring. Marilyn self-published her first chapbook for when you pick daisies (2010) which was immediately re-issued by above/ground press. Extrapolated fragments of her musings can be found in issues of Bywords, Bywords Quarterly Journal, ottawater and Peter F. Yacht Club.

Praise for for when you pick daisies:

            “…out of this complexity grows linguistic beauty.”
                        Roxanne Hathway-Baxter, Broken Pencil

This is Irwin’s second above/ground press title, after the collection for when you pick daisies (2010).

Amanda Earl’s poems appear most recently or are forthcoming in the Puritan, fillingStation, Rampike, In/Words Magazine, & ripple(s): a postcard press. Her chapbooks have been published by above/ground press, BookThug, Chapbook Publisher, Free Poetry For, Laurel Reed Books & Puddles of Sky Press. Amanda is the managing editor of & the Bywords Quarterly Journal, & the (fallen) angel of AngelHousePress. For more information please visit or follow her on Twitter @KikiFolle.

Praise for Eleanor:

There is something musical here. something that, like Jeanette Armstrong’s “Winds,” operates like wind chimes, notes hitting and resounding. Earl’s text jousts images and expectations, mundane glasses emptying, histories, feuds, mostly self-referential, domestic images, but still enough surprise here to keep me grasping through.
            Sina Queyras,

This is Earl’s third above/ground press title, after Eleanor (2007) and The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman (2008).

Stephen Brockwell is the author of four trade collections of poems. Fruitfly Geographic won the 2004 Archibald Lampman Award for the best book of poetry by an Ottawa writer. His Excerpts from Impossible Books is an interminable work in progress. Brockwell runs the small business from his basement, borrowed office space and coffee shops.

Praise for Excerpts from Impossible Books: The Crawdad Cantos:

Stephen Brockwell’s Excerpts from Impossible Books: The Crawdad Cantos is the latest installment of Brockwell's ongoing work-in-progress. At times pithy, sometimes brilliant, Brockwell's poems run the entire gamut in this ongoing project.
                        Mark McCawley, Fresh Raw Cuts

Praise for Impossible Books (the Carleton Installment):

“Stephen Brockwell’s ‘Impossible Books project’ (this above/ground book is its second installment) is an ongoing series of individual poems that are presented as excerpts from imagined ‘impossible’ books. The impossible books of this installment range from Prime Minister’s Nursery Rhymes for Insolent Children, to the Evangelical Handbook for Engineers, to Metonymies: Poems by Objects Owned by Illustrious People, and Pindaric Odes to the Objects of Science, among others. This brief collection of ten poems is imaginative and surprising on every page.
                        Cameron Anstee, ottawa poetry newsletter

This is Brockwell’s third above/ground press title, after Marin County Poems (2001) and Impossible Books (the Carleton Installment) (2010).

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

The more I read the more I fought against the assumption that literature is for the minority – of a particular education or class. Books were my birthright too. I will not forget my excitement at discovering that the earliest recorded poem in the English language was composed by a herdsman in Whitby around AD 680 (‘Caedmon’s Hymn’) when St Hilda was the abbess of Whitby Abbey.
            Imagine it…a woman in charge and an illiterate cowhand making a poem of such beauty that educated monks wrote it down and told it to visitors and pilgrims.
            It is a lovely story – Caedmon would rather be with the cows than with people, and he doesn’t know any poetry or songs, and so at the end of the feasts in the abbey, when all are invited to sing or recite, Caedmon always rushes back to the cows where he can be on his own. But that night, an angel comes and tells him to sing – if he can sing to the cows, he can sing to the angel. Caedmon says sadly that he doesn’t know any songs, but the angel tells him to sing one anyway – about the creation of the world. And Caedmon opens his mouth and there is the song. (Have a look at an early account of this in Bede: History of the English Church and Peoples.)

For years now, one of my favourite fiction writers has been British writer Jeanette Winterson, author of the infamous first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) and subsequent Written on the Body (1993). Of her books, some of my favourites include more recent works, such as Lighthousekeeping (2004) and Weight (2005). I was less taken with The Stone Gods (2007), despite enjoying some passages, and even enjoying the connections to one of her earlier works, Boating for Beginners (1985) (which is a very neat book to compare to, say, Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage). After numerous works of fiction, as well as children’s books and screenplays, comes a memoir of growing up, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Knopf, 2011). Named for a phrase her adoptive mother, a Pentacostal, said to her, this is an odd, unsettling and frank memoir. Through the memoir, Winterson attempts to come to terms with the brutal way she was treated by her parents, including being shunned for her sexuality, diminished for being adopted, having her books burned, and regularly being locked out of the house. She writes of working to come to terms with her parents, and even her birth mother, once she is finally able to begin the emotionally and bureaucratically difficult process of seeking her out. She writes of her adoptive mother’s faith warped into madness, and the abilities she developed early on to protect herself, from secretly reading books from the library, to her first romantic stirrings. How does one learn to develop after such deep betrayals from not only one mother, but seemingly two? The first betrayal is the hardest to fathom, and the most difficult to transcend, especially from that person to whom our first bonds are forged.

Flash forward to 2007 and I have done nothing about finding my past. It isn’t ‘my past’, is it? I have written over it. I have recorded on top of it. I have repainted it. Life is layers, fluid, unfixed, fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me. That is why I write as I do and how I write as I do. It isn’t a method; it’s me.
            I was writing a novel called The Stone Gods. It is set in the future, though the second section is set in the past. It imagines our world in its protean state being discovered by an advanced but destructive civilisation whose own planet is dying. A mission is sent to Planet Blue. The mission does not return.
            Whenever I write a book, one sentence forms in my mind, like a sandbar above the waterline. They are like the texts written up on the walls when we all lived at 200 Water Street; exhortations, maxims, lighthouse signals flashed out as memory and warning.
            The Passion: ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’
            Written on the Body: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’
            The PowerBook: ‘To avoid discovery I stay on the run. To discover things for myself, I stay on the run.’
            Weight: ‘The free man never thinks of escape.’
            The Stone Gods: ‘Everything is imprinted forever with what it once was.’
            In my previous novel, Lighthousekeeping, I had been working with the idea of a fossil record. Now I was there again – the sense of something written over, yes, but still distinct. The colours and forms revealed under ultraviolet light. The ghost in the machine that breaks through into the new recording.
            What was the ‘imprint’?

Winterson writes of her difficulties with her mother, and the loss she felt at being adopted, raised in a working-class industrial town would be able to escape at all, let alone through the salve of reading that turned into writing, and forced to leave home at sixteen because she was in love with a woman. What else to say? This is a striking, and brutally honest work that struck deep, even as I work on my own work-in-progress dealing with my own mother [see a link to such here]. When I originally read an excerpt of the book in The Guardian, I was struck by this passage:

Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.

Now that I’ve gone through the book as a whole, another passage strikes, also:

But mother is our first love affair. Her arms. Her eyes. Her breast. Her body.
            And if we hate her later, we take that rage with us into other lovers. And if we lose her, where do we find her again?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

fwd: Priscila Uppal Poetic Olympic Coverage

Resuming her position as Canadian Athletes Now Poet-in-Residence for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, join Priscila Uppal as she polevaults and pommelhorses around Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, bringing you poetic coverage of all the action.

You can follow her daily poems in celebration of the games and the athletes for CANFund at as well as more daily poems and every-other-day posts on sports art for the Literary Review of Canada on where, if you feel up to a little friendly competition, you can also find details about a summer sport poetry contest judged by Uppal.

Also, please consider supporting literary risk-taking and our determined athletes by purchasing Winter Sport: Poems, the successful culmination of Uppal's adventures at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Paralympics, and Arctic Games (through or or, or preordering Summer Sport: Poems at (Uppal donates her royalties to CANFund)

If you're enjoying the Olympics, please also consider making a donation at as many of the athletes you see would not be at the Olympics if not for the support of the fund.

For more information about Priscila Uppal and her books visit

Please feel free to post or forward info to anyone who might be interested.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith’s first book, dear Hermes, was published by the University of Alberta Press in Feb. 2012.  She is currently at work on her second poetry book.  Her poems have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, and she is a previous editor of the journal Other Voices.  Originally from Canada, Scotland is now her adopted home.

1 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I thought writing a poem would be easier than writing a novel!  I’m joking - sort of.  I was attracted to the way in which a poem can fit into such a small space, while communicating a great deal.  I liked that intensity, and the precision with language that poetry requires.  The poems in dear Hermes … are inter-linked through imagery, sound, underlying themes, yet each poem is an individual entity.  I like the challenge of striking a balance between that individuality and the process of discovering coherence across several poems that comes with putting together a book manuscript.  Another answer is that I came to poetry first because I was a reader of poetry.  I suppose that’s unusual in a world that seems to be ruled by fiction – and of course I love fiction – but poetry is different, because it’s half music, half words.  That musical quality was irresistible to me as a reader and writer; when I began to write poetry a decade ago, it was very much a natural extension of my reading.

2 - 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’m good at jumping into a project, and less good at finishing it.  I think, now that I’ve written a book, that finishing a project is a learned skill.  I was profoundly lucky in that I had both a writing mentor, the fabulous Alice Major, and an editor, the excellent Peter Midgley, to keep me going and to tell me when to stop.  For a fledging writer, that kind of insight is priceless, as is the knowledge that other people have faith in you!  As for my actual writing process, it’s pretty idiosyncratic.  I usually begin with a set of words that have a particular rhythm, and I just sit down and write with a pen and paper.  I write pretty quickly to start with, and the words that will become a poem take on a life of their own.  That initial inspiration stops of its own accord, too, and then I usually need to go back and start revising.  For me, every poem is written differently.  Some poems take months, even years, to find their form – “Archangel whose name is waves and sand” was like that.  I did a lot of background reading, because I was writing about a real place with a long history, and I shared the work-in-progress with trusted poet-friends.  Some poems need that kind of time.  Other poems just seem to write themselves, and I feel as though any revision would be nothing but a distortion – “The Bear’s Dance” was like that; I wrote it, and the only thing I changed, after a few years of living with it, was the title.  I’d say that part of the excitement of writing poetry is the not knowing – not knowing where the writing is taking you, or what the final work is going to be.

3 - 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?
Almost always, a new poem begins because I’ve been reading poetry.  There is something about the rhythm and wording of someone else’s poetry that gets into my head, the way you can get a line of music snuck in your head, and that leads to writing.

My whole writing process has changed a lot since I started writing a decade ago.  I started out writing individual poems, and I would start a poem and try and finish it in a very concentrated fashion.  I think I was trying to prove to myself that I could do it, and worried that if I took a break from a poem that it would die from lack of attention. That fear is gone now, and I’ve learned that sometimes I need to shelve poems, give them time to breathe, and then come back to them.

The poems I’m working on now have to be crafted individually, of course, but they’re part of a broader idea, and I can already see how they fit together because of a cross-over of imagery, emotion, and phrasing.  They’re taking shape as a book right from the start.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like doing readings.  I’ve always envied musicians and theatre actors because what they do is shared effort; it’s innately sociable.  Writers, in order to write, necessarily have to spend a lot of time on their own.  I enjoy that part of the process, but I don’t enjoy being alone in and of itself, so sharing my work makes for a welcome change.  That said, I don’t tend to share things that are a work-in-progress, except with a handful of people I know I can trust to give me constructive but honest feedback.  Once a poem is finished, sharing it at a reading is a lot of fun, especially now that I can hold my first book in my hands, and read from that.

5 - 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?
I’m definitely not driven by theory.  I spent six years in graduate school studying English literature, so inevitably I was immersed in theory.  Poetry was my escape.  It’s funny, actually, that critical and creative writing can fit together quite well, but for me, they’re polar opposites.

6 – 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?
Absolutely, writers have a role in larger culture.  The written word is a defining feature of modern society.  The question of what role writers have is harder to answer.  There are so many kinds of writers, and the role of a writer is highly individual to me.  It’s down to what a particular writer wants to achieve, what he or she believes in, and what path he or she follows.  The most common response to news that I’ve published a poetry book is “I don’t understand poetry.”  That saddens me, not least because some poetry is (or should be) incomprehensible, but more importantly, verse is embedded deep in our psyche.  I have a small child who’s learning to speak – I sing to him, and it seems to be a big part of how he’s learning language.  It seems universally agreed amongst the “experts” that rhythm and rhyme, the marriage of words and music, is incredibly important to the human mind and its development.  How do we lose that as we age?  That loss saddens me, because it’s the loss of a little bit of joy, mystery, wonder that’s so readily available.  And we need those things, we need as much joy, mystery, wonder as we can find.

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

It’s essential.  I think if you have the right editor, it’s not difficult.  That’s not to say that it isn’t hard work!  Good editing is essentially a form of collaboration, one that I find rewarding.

8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was starting out, I took a writing class in which the teacher argued that no two writers will write the same thing, even if they begin writing from the same place.  To prove the point, she gave us all the same three-line opening and fifteen minutes to write.  The differences between the pieces that people wrote in those fifteen minutes were astonishing.  It’s a message that I hope will always stay with me; being able to trust in your own vision and voice, and simply believing that you have something worth saying, is crucial.

9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Critical prose is a curious anomaly for me – I came to it as a young adult in university, and carried on with it throughout graduate school, but I wouldn’t say it’s ever come naturally to me.  It’s hard graft, whereas my creative writing has this wonderful feeling of coming home … I once got in trouble for being too creative in an essay, and I think that says it all!  I’ll read a great line in a book, and feel inspired by it, and I’ll want to go off in my own direction.  I’d like to write and publish fiction one day, in addition to poetry, but it’s a matter of one-thing-at-a-time for me these days.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
While I was working on dear Hermes… I’d get up in the morning and write first thing.  I’d free-write, which was how I generated new material; it was a process that seemed to work best early in the day.  Then I’d turn my attention to revising something I’d already drafted, or seeing how different pieces worked together.  It was a luxury, having the freedom to structure my time like that.  I was lucky enough to have funding to give me that time to write.

My routine has changed since my little boy was born, and I’ve gone back to working full-time in the conventional sense.  So, at the moment, my writing gets done in the evenings, and I try to write something even when I’m exhausted (which is most evenings!).

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other poems.  Sometimes it helps to go on a walk.  Other times it helps to whine, just a little.  But it’s always reading that gets me writing again.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sunshine … the warm, slightly dusty smell of a house in summer, or the fragrance of garden flowers (lavender, sunflowers) on a hot day.

13 - 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?
Travel, painting, sculpture.  The two always seem to go together, too – I go to a new city, and the first place I visit is the art gallery.  Both things sharpen my attention.  I guess I’m slightly on edge when I travel, because I’m in an unfamiliar place, and that makes me nervous.  So I take everything in, notice details, overhear bits of conversation.  Even if the conversation is in another language, you can always pick up on emotion and tone … and then there are the moments when I stumble on beauty – a ruin, a vista, a fresco – and inspiration strikes.  Maybe that’s a cliché, but if it is, it’s a cliché for a reason.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Right now, I’m reading Alice Oswald’s Memorial; it’s amazing.  So is Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture and The Bees.  I like both poets because they’re so accessible; the imagery and musicality of their writing is stunning, yet there’s a transparency to it – although Oswald uses the word translucence to describe Memorial.  I never feel confused or left behind when I read their poems.  Maybe that’s important to me about their work, and what I’m aiming for with my own writing.  I’m sure if you ask me this question again in six months, I’ll give you a totally different answer … I’m always reading new things, and that newness, the constant discovery of others’ writing, is really important to me.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Oh, so many things.  Travel more extensively.  Finish my new poetry collection, and write a third one that I already have in the back of my mind.  Practice yoga daily.  Help my son grow up to be confident and well-adjusted.   That’s the short list …

16 - 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 don’t think I could be anything else.  Writing is my obsession and my peace of mind, all rolled into one.  Purely hypothetically, though, I think I’d choose something really grounded and practical – maybe a yoga teacher.  Or a baker – my great-grandmother and my grandmother owned and ran a bakery together, so perhaps it runs in the family!

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Seriously, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.  As soon as I could hold a pen, I started scribbling, and as soon as I could read, the scribbling became story-telling.  When I was growing up, there was a lot of pressure on me to choose a wordy career that wasn’t writing – law, namely – and I remember trying to picture myself wearing a suit and sitting behind a big desk in an airless office, telling other people what to do (because that was my impression of what lawyers did).  Whenever I thought of that, I always imagined myself going home in the evening and writing novels and poems – on the side, you see.  So the writing was always there, no matter what else I tried to imagine myself into being.

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

I’ve already mentioned Memorial and Rapture and The Bees.  For novels, I loved Andrew Miller’s Pure.  Set in Paris just a few years before the Revolution, it follows the progress/plight of a young engineer charged with removing the deceased from the Parisian cemetery Les Innocents.

For films – you know, I love many films, but I always go back to this one film called Sleep Furiously.  It’s the most beautiful film.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I started writing a new poetry book in December.  I’ve written around 15 new poems, all in varying states of revision right now, and I’m very excited.  I’m not going to say more than that at the moment … for me, new writing is like film that hasn’t been developed yet – you expose it to the light too soon, and you lose everything.  So it’s under wraps – for now …

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

j/j hastain reviews Glengarry (Talonbooks) and C. (little red leaves) on Turntable + Blue Light

American poet (and above/ground press author) j/j hastain reviews my trade poetry collection Glengarry and poetry chapbook C., alongside Jennifer H. Fortin’s Mined Muzzle Velocity (see the original review here). Thanks, j/j!
rob mclennan’s Glengarry

rob mclennan’s new book Glengarry (Talonbooks) is both visceral and concrete. Glengarry appears as a three section wonder that in my reading of it, I experienced as a triptych. Not just three-fold but held together by hinges. The two hinges that held the triplicate together for me were place and body, and they allowed the whole of Glengarry to be a sort of art for me. I will speak about both place and body in a blended way throughout this review. My intent is to reveal how these two hinges work together (enacting Glengarry) in a communal way in order to hold the book together from the inside out.

Part of the triptych feeling certainly came from the aesthetics of the poems. Dripping from themselves--but in a clear and calculated way. Like rain dripping from an aerial gutter that has just reached its max. Addition of drips making drips leak. It is raining right now as I write this. Rain that makes the sky look like a shadow. I think about apparatuses that can fill to a max. That have an end point. I think about what it is to extrude beyond an end point. Is Glengarry just such type of apparatus? Does it have an end point? Or is it the extrusion beyond an end point? What is it for an it to spill over from within itself? Is it possible that spilling over can be an activism? Oh “many-splendoured” wake!

To spill over                        as an activism.

In this book there is something that emerges from what feels to me like a gestural admixing (on the part of mclennan) of the details considered to be history. Prior to reading this book I thought of history as something fixed--as frustration. As site that would always indelibly remain past tense. However while reading through Glengarry’s sections (glengarry: open field, “whiskey jack” and avalanche”) I was struck by the way that through continual threading of the materialities of mclennan’s history (“beyond the darkening side of trees/ beyond the county line”) into other aspects of that history’s materiality (“the junkyard alive”) what emerged was a different (torqued?) site (not necessarily past tense “push of seasons; on,/ unending”) from which to proceed in the considerations and meditations. For perhaps “if you know where the history, happened” you can begin to unravel how to hone that history into home.

Perhaps it is engagement or method (threading) that turns history into home. By way of a process of honing? What generally are the differences between history and home? Does one or the other emancipate us more? Destroy us more? Make us more mute to ourselves? Add to our vividity?

Glengarry often made me wonder about how to be a conduit for transductions of (or conflations of) place. How to be part of an obsession regarding history and home but to do so by way of an awareness of the unavoidability of fractured frames? I see Glengarry’s poems themselves as fractured frames. I see some of the lines in the book as fractured frames (“to become one/ a hardened break” or “think you/ in my standing stall/ a testament/ to all the weather we lived”)—fractured in that they do not enact any singular image—fractured in the way that they move rhythmically. With hard jolts of consonants against smoother mouth and ear shapes (the smoothness of “to become one” against the hard “k” in “a hardened beak”) or how the inner workings work with slanted rhyming (“in my standing stall” to “a testament/ to all”).

“I sometimes talk about my home, my point of origin, as though it isn’t there anymore.” Perhaps this is what we must do if we want to galvanize any given (birth or context) origin for a more animate and current version of origin. This current version--no doubtedly one that we would have to have our hands in. Hence the gestural admixture I see mclennan enacting (mentioned earlier in this review) as one of this book’s main strengths.

I feel that in this book home is “a resolve marked by passion.” A commitment. A shifting and a staying. A site where mclennan and his characters (“partner”, “children”, “her”, “our grandma”, “ex-wife” “the very taste of iron you”, etc.) can interact and interject. Can deepen the myriad landscapes for the sake of a reversal of “can you ever go home again?”--for some sort of guarantee that we are in fact in a home that is our own.

In the multiple times I read Glengarry, I kept thinking of calculated leakage becoming solid flow. I felt Glengarry materialize itself in the ways that “a river is always certain.” A river that is actually capable of never stopping. This river mixes. It reconfigures. It flows over cracks, crags, boulders--borders.

*             *               *

Creative Engagement with rob mclennan’s C. (LRL, 2011)

mclennan’s new LRL chap “C.” is a masterful blend of mysterious motion and non-normative meta-narratives of the quotidian (“the lights in human form”). With subtle repetition of objects of human sentiment (“figs […] artichoke hearts”) which roots us in the physicalities of planar existence on Earth) as well as with a sort of slipping in of philosophically and compositionally profound phrases (“I wanted change/ to not break; narrative,/ thick and strange” / “titled; sad/ phonetics”), we are taken by this book’s gentle whirling.

It is as if, for a time, we are enacting dervish-spins around unforeseeable derivatives (“a spherical notion/ sometimes a great theory/ of untuned strings”) and that act, motion and location is how we find our relation or home here.

What could be more inductive of connection between the quotidian and mystery, than a “constant renovation”? mclennan takes us into “combined reflection”—a place where there do not seem to be ultimates but instead, so much upturning (“threadbare/ caked in ash”). Here I feel like we are digging up “symbols [] to turn [] angles/ to action” finding ways to “live/ beyond each limit.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Heather Jessup;

Heather Jessup grew up in Vancouver and now lives in Halifax. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto and a creative writing instructor at Dalhousie University. Her fiction, poetry and reviews have been published in literary journals across Canada and in the United States. The Lightning Field is her first novel.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Which part of the first book? The writing of it, which took ten years? Or the publishing of it? The having it out there in the world outside my head, in its handsome-looking dust jacket? The days of sitting myself down at my desk, even if I wanted to be outside, or doing anything else other than writing? The relief of moving on to other lives and stories that have been stuck in my head? I don’t know if my first book has changed my life. I’ve travelled a heck of a lot this year. I’ve had tremendous experiences at writing festivals, in elementary schools, and in libraries. I’ve met lovely writers I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet if I too wasn’t now magically a writer in a more public sense. I met the lovely Shelagh Rogers. But is my life changed? In the way any life changes over the course of ten years, I suppose. Over many cups of coffee, through many conversations, with many dear friends, over many mornings.

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

I think I’ve always written in all three genres, without necessarily worrying very distinctly about which was which. But poetry somehow let me say what I was thinking and feeling best when I first started to write. Poetry came most easily to me – now I find writing a poem extraordinarily difficult. I need to be open and slow to the world in a way that I haven’t had a chance to be in the past few years. I miss writing poetry, although I still read poetry quite a lot.

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?

Every writing project I’ve worked on has been a different entity and has required different amounts of time. I have short stories that I’ve tinkered at for seven years. I have poems that have come out Athena-like at first. I tend to like projects that involve research, which can involve a slow process of reading, visiting archives, and taking out library books. Copious notes for some stories, a blind leap into that swimming pool of a blank page with others. Always careful editing.

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

I finished my first novel The Lightning Field by telling myself that I was just writing a series of prose poems. Thinking that I’m writing a “book” from the very beginning seems very scary to me. Especially given that a book involves a publisher and readers and a whole lot of people outside of my room with its desk and its window. I think what ultimately makes a good piece of writing is a whole bunch of very good sentences – so I try to take it back to that: the sentence. Every project begins with a sentence. Hemingway suggests trying to write the “truest” one. This is incredibly good advice, but much more difficult than at first it sounds.

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

I love readings – both sitting and listening to writers, and also reading my work to others. I often think when I’m attending readings how beautiful it is that even in these days of a million personal and technological distractions, we as humans still gather to hear stories and poems being told to us in cafés and bars and classrooms and libraries. It makes me wish for a warm fire and lots of stars.

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?

I don’t know if I would use the term theoretical concerns so much as curiosities or obsessions. In The Lightning Field I was wondering about disappointments and expectations. What we do when our lives don’t work out as we’d imagined them. I actually think that personal disasters or disappointments can be incredibly good for us, in revealing what we hadn’t yet imagined for ourselves, in demonstrating reserves we might not have known otherwise.

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?

Attendants to the world. We pay attention to the details of crooked hemlines, glass on pavement, bathtubs, balloons, starlings, the crispness of good baguettes, all of which might otherwise go unnoticed. In noticing, we ask readers to notice too: to live more fully to what at first seem like insubstantial details. But really, to recognize people in their humanness and things in their thingness might actually be the most important part of life. Writing and reading is like the slow movement of the mind: taste everything fully. Linger, a good book might tell us.

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

I find the process of working with an editor absolutely essential. An editor allows the writing to be seen again differently, for a writer to re-vision or revise what has come before. I don’t consider a piece finished unless it has been edited by a reader and wise-person I trust. I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with outstanding mentors and editors: Michael Winter, Jack Hodgins, Lisa Moore, Kate Stearns, Sarah Selecky, Stephanie Bolster, Derk Wynand, Lorna Crozier, and so many more.

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

Do what you love.

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

I don’t know if I find any kind of writing easy, but I just can’t imagine only writing in one genre. Some thoughts are poems. Some are stories. Some are longer pieces of fiction. Some thinking requires an academic project. Sometimes I wish I could write comic books. The appeal? Perhaps the same feeling that comes when I pack my purple wheely  suitcase for a voyage: the pleasure of not knowing what will happen.

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

Right now my writing routine varies in accordance with other obligations in my life. I wish my routine was more regular than it is at the moment. I would like to say I rise and immediately sit down to write and bluebirds swoop down to bring me my coffee, and I never run out of good ideas – but teaching comes in, and this whole PhD I’m working on, and life, and making a living. My best attempt lately at finding writing-time is to set a kitchen timer for 45 minutes. Sometimes 45 minutes of writing a day feels like a miracle. Sometimes I can fit 5 or 6 of these timed writing spells into a day. With every new project I kind of feel like I’m still trying to figure out how to be a writer. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to be an academic writer as well as a creative writer. Really I don’t want them to be too terribly different.

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

I usually do laundry. If I’m stuck, I’m stuck. And if I’m stuck, I may as well have clean clothes. Or I return library books. Or go for a run. A page usually looks different after I’ve seen the sky.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Home. That dreaded word for those of us without a pair of ruby slippers. I have had many homes with many different fragrances. The smell of wool reminds me of Regina, because my mom was a weaver then, and I used to help her card the yarn. The smell of Gortex and rain on concrete remind me of Vancouver, and cedar reminds me of Gabriola Island. The smell of cigarettes and a freshly pulled café au lait remind me of Montréal. The smell of slightly damp library books reminds me of Toronto. Salt air, Warren’s homemade curry, and cinnamony market-crêpes remind me of Halifax. Which one of these places is home is another question entirely. I love them all.

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?

Books inspire me most stylistically, but yes, also visual art (right now the art of Jeff Wall and Brian Jungen and Edouard Manet), and music (Tom Power’s Deep Roots on CBC Radio Two), and a well-eavesdropped conversation (“You know the Titanic wouldn’t have sunk if it weren’t for the British steel. Now British steel is strong, sure, but it’s brittle. That iceberg just poked at the boat and Bob’s your uncle it was over”). Isn’t anything an influence if one stops to really pay attention to it? Spider webs? Cherry blossoms? The house on the side of the road on the way to Great Village that sells quilts? Immanuel Kant?

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

The writers who are truly important to me right now are my students. I’ve just taught my first two semesters of creative writing fiction at Dalhousie, and the imagination, revision, insight, and boldness of my students inspires me continually. They are superstars.

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

I would like to take flamenco classes in Seville and walk the Camino de Santiago. 

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 don’t really want to attempt another occupation right now. I love writing. I love teaching. I love being a student. Right now I’m all three. I suppose, if pressed, I would choose an occupation equally impractical and financially-absurd: an organic farmer, a letterpress operator, a small-press editor, a tinker, a parent, a button-maker, a purveyor of fine homemade preserves, someone who gets paid to ride her bike. Whatever the job, I would need to be called to it by love (see question 9).

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

Foolishness and falling in love with language made me write. Stubbornness and perseverance helped to get a book done.

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

I just finished reading Scott Fotheringham’s new (first) book The Rest Is Silence and it was pretty darn phenomenal. A few of my latest favourite reads have been Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Middlemarch, and Amanda Jernigan’s collection of poetry Groundwork. The last few great films I’ve watched have been by the French director François Truffaut: 400 Blows, and Stolen Kisses, with the wonderful character of Antoine Dionel. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s face is a marvel.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my dissertation for my PhD at the University of Toronto in English Literature. It’s about the distinctions between truth and fiction in contemporary Canadian literature and visual art.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;