Friday, November 30, 2012

above/ground press: 20th anniversary subscriptions now available!

Twenty years is a long time to do anything, and in 2013, above/ground press will officially be twenty years old, which means the 2013 annual subscriptions are now available as well: $50 (in the United States, $50 US; $75 international) for everything above/ground press makes from now until the end of 2013.

There are a whole bunch of publications in the works for 2013, but I'm not going to mention any names. This year has been one of the most active ones the press has enjoyed so far, and I'm planning a number of excitements over the next fourteen months. Why not take a chance and find out what?

You can either send a cheque (payable to rob mclennan) to 402 McLeod Street #3, Ottawa ON K2P 1A5 or drop the money via the Paypal button on the top right.

And keep checking notices for new publications, reviews, interviews and other author activities, as well as upcoming events through The Factory Reading Series (which turns twenty years old in January!), over at the above/ground press blog. There's so much more to come...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Christine Pountney

CHRISTINE POUNTNEY grew up in Vancouver and Montreal, and lived in London for five years before moving back to Canada. She has published three novels, Sweet Jesus, Last Chance Texaco (longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000), and The Best Way You Know How. She has written for The Guardian, the New York Times Magazine, The Walrus, Brick magazine, and NUVO. She lives in Toronto with her partner, Michael Winter, and their son, Leo.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It didn’t. It was anticlimactic. The journey is more interesting than the destination. Every book is a progress. With each book, I’ve gone somewhere a little further in terms of skill. But all three feel as if they came from the same place. I write from intuition, not information. And each one has been different inasmuch as my life is - usually about five years later - also different, my concerns, my experience.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I first fell for the idea of becoming a writer while reading Sylvia Plath’s journals at the age of fifteen. I felt a kindredness with a sensibility there. It was the first access I had to the personality of a writer, to the drive and angst and ambition and yearning behind that profession, and I recognized those feelings as something I had myself. And there was an effort laid bare in her journals of an attempt to look at the world and hold it with words, an effort to make meaning. The fact that she was so troubled by depression didn’t deter me. I was susceptible to the glamour of misery, being a teenager.

And as much as I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t do much about it until university, where I fell for poetry. I had a boyfriend who was a poet and we used to have dinner parties with visiting poets. I knew a lot about poetry back then, but my interest in it waned when the relationship ended - for various reasons. And that’s when I turned to my favourite form: the novel. I like to think of myself as a novelist. Novels are worlds. I like the architectural challenge of creating a whole world. Of sustaining the illusion of its existence from beginning to end. I need an extra-large to fit in all the facets of an investigation - which is what I believe a book to be: an investigation.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I rush blindly into feeling and wrestle words until I reemerge, twigs in my hair, a bloody scratch across my face, a torn shirt, holding up a manuscript. It’s both fast and slow.

4 - Where does prose 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 work on “books” - I have large, ephemeral, narrative and thematic arcs in my mind (like rainbows) that I’m constantly chasing down, trying to hold on to, right from the start. And I build around these invisibilities until something concrete, but hollow, takes shape. (The hollow part is where the reader sits.)

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I generally love to give readings, not having done it that much in my life. There is no greater test of the writing than to hear it in your own ear, especially out loud in your own voice in front of an audience. It’s like the orchestra tuning before the symphony, which is the point at which we, the writers, return to work. That’s the real performance.
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?

These are huge questions. I have many theoretical concerns - that’s what’s in the books. Novels are, for me, investigations into theoretical concerns. And, by theoretical, I don’t mean aesthetic concerns so much as moral (although they are inextricably linked in my mind). Books are, for me, lengthy moral investigations, dramatized through character and story - because story is a great model for morality, because stories are all about action and consequence. “The king died, then the queen died,” is not a story. “The king died, then the queen died of grief,” is.

I am trying to answer, with my books, questions no less pressing than, What is this life I’ve been given? How do I live it?  What is there to know, and what is my purpose? And why is happiness so elusive? And can we locate the small, personal moments that give rise to the big shifts in history? Those singular moments which may be, in their fleeting, sometimes imperceptible, initial incarnations, cruel or sad or happy, but which can reverberate, often with deterministic, even cataclysmic impact, throughout a lifetime?

I am a great believer in source, that you can trace all things back to the small mountain springs from which they flow. Novels are, in part, hikes back to the source. Novels are about consequence and responsibility: how things are connected. Remember E.M. Forster’s line? “Only connect.” That is my task.

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?
There is a great deal of entertainment culture now, and literature that asks of the reader that they participate, ie. bring an interpretation to the drama, not quite a parable, that is being played out before them, is increasingly met with reader indifference and fatigue. They do not possess the muscle to do the work, because that particular muscle - the muscle of interpretation - is weak from disuse. If I give my students a story they have to work at in order to understand, they tend not to like it, until I give them the tools with which to analyse it. Then they discover the satisfaction of something earned through effort, like ploughing a field - and they all want to become farmers.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It is of course necessary and fruitful to have another talented eye cast its discerning gaze on your work. I had the great privilege of working with Ellen Seligman at M&S, whose contribution to the book was enormous. She is an ideal editor; never tries to make the book into something it isn’t, or even put her stamp on it, whatever that stamp may be. Rather, knocking her tuning fork against every word and sentence and paragraph and section, she works her way through the manuscript with incredible meticulousness and patience, like a master piano tuner, and doesn’t stop until it’s pitch perfect.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Do what you have a timorous inkling to do, and do it now, because if you don’t, someone else will beat you to it and get the credit for it. (This is a wildly loose paraphrasing of something Emerson once wrote.)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have been teaching an autobiographical fiction class for the last eight years at the UofT School of Continuing Studies, so I love the topic of how fact and fiction overlap, are mischievous, cross-dressing cousins.

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?
My typical day begins with taking my five-year-old to school. From there, because we live in an apartment, where my desk is in a narrow hallway, I go to work in a café. It’s not an ideal set-up, but that’s one of the many sacrifices I make doing something I love which has yet to prove financially rewarding.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to figure out what emotion is causing me to rebel or shut down. Stalling is an act of will, and can successfully be reversed to the extent that you have an ability to tackle your own demons, perform magic healing rituals on your own damaged psyche.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh baked bread. Palo santo. Burning sage.

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?
Life influences my books the most, conversations with friends, social life, interaction, adventure, emotional states, observation. That’s where I get my material. 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The answer to this question changes every six months or so. I will say that, for my last book, I had the word audacious taped to the wall above my computer, and, in my mind, I held Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood like koans.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go horseback camping.

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’d love to have been a singer, or a circus performer. If I hadn’t been a writer, probably an academic, or a criminal lawyer. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Nothing made me write, but when I look back at the pattern of my life, I see that it is the thing I keep returning to, that I can’t shake - and god knows it hasn’t been for the ease of the profession, or financial reward. I need to do it. I can’t not do it. The experience of reading a book that I love, and as a consequence changes my life, ranks as probably the most valuable experience I can think of, apart from loving someone, especially my son, which is an act purifying and enlightening in the same way.

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

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A non-fiction book of essays.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, November 26, 2012 1-8 (2002-2007), the poetics journal edited by Stephen Brockwell and rob mclennan is back online,

Edited by rob mclennan and Stephen Brockwell, disappeared from the internet for a short time, but now has a permanent home off the ottawater site. A precursor to seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, worked to engage a dialogue between different styles, geographies and tastes.

issue 1 Table of Contents
Sweet Poetry or Mystery Meat
by David McGimpsey

by nathalie stephens
That Bastard Ghazal
by Andy Weaver

Two Sides of American Poetry at the Millennium
a review of recent work by Rachel Loden and Wendy Battin
by Colin Morton

Between Two Bowls of Milk or downstream from The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhh
a conversation between Stephanie Bolster and rob mclennan

issue 2 Table of Contents
Blackening English: The Polyphonic Poetics of George Elliott Clarke
by Jon Paul Fiorentino

What's Love Got To Do With It?: two Margaret Christakos poetry collections, & Excessive Love Prostheses
by rob mclennan

(The Function & Field) Of Speech & Language
by Gil McElroy

Notes on Andy Weaver's "Three Ghazals to the constellation Corvus (The Crow)"
by rob mclennan

Spontaneous Speech Maps: A Discussion on Poetics
between Ken Norris and Stephen Brockwell

issue 3 Table of Contents
STOP AND GO TO SLOW: a Conversation with Stephen Cain
by rob mclennan

Trailing Nadja: On Writing I Nadja, and Other Poems
by Susan Elmslie

Talking about Collaboration
by Douglas Barbour and Sheila E. Murphy

Questions About the Stars and Other Matter: an Interview with Robyn Sarah
by Stephen Brockwell

A Goose in the Caboose: Ideas on the Sonnet
by Peter van Toorn

issue 4 Table of Contents
Appropriation of Frank O'Hara
by Steven J. Stewart

Hi, Fidelity! or Translating Fernando Pessoa: Felicity was Ever My Aim
by Erin Mouré

A Time and a Place: an Interview with Jonathan Bennett
by Stephen Brockwell
Sex at Thirty-One -- McKinnon, Fawcett, Gold, Stanley, etcetera
by rob mclennan

Vulnerability, Embarrassment and the Final Draft
by John Barton

issue 5 Table of Contents
William Hawkins: a Unique Voice in Canadian Poetry
by Roy MacSkimming

Plunderverse: A Cartographic Manifesto
by Gregory Betts

The Anonlinear Aesthetic
by Adam Seelig
Excerpts from a conversation between Nancy Holmes and Sharon Thesen
The Mimetic Music of Negation: The Imitation of Wallace Stevens in Robert Bringhurst's "Hachadura"
by Stephen Brockwell

The Trouble with Normal: Breathing Fire II, Pissing Ice and the State of Canadian Poetry
by rob mclennan

issue 6 Table of Contents
A Bridge to Naridive: The Poetry of Andrew Suknaski
by Kemeny Babineau

Modern Fiction & The Decay of History: bpNICHOL'S the true eventual story of billy the kid
by carl peters

Interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa
by Soraya Peerbaye
Writing a Long Poem for a Very Long Time
by Ken Norris

the stone-boat heart: letters to Andrew Suknaski
by rob mclennan

issue 7 Table of Contents
Ulterior Thule: Compulsion
by Phil Hall

The Vehicule Poets and Second Generation Postmodernism:
An Essay by Ken Norris,
With questions by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift

The Vehicule Poets
a collective essay written by the Vehicule poets

Introduction to The Collected Poems and Translations of Edward A. Lacey
by Fraser Sutherland

Love and Other Affairs
by John Newlove

an interview with Rachel Zucker
by rob mclennan

issue 8 Table of Contents
Notation for Willing suspension of belief
by Lawrence Upton
Phil Hall’s surrural: Ontario gothic, the killdeer, the music of failure and the distraction of shifting ground
by rob mclennan
A De Tour
by James Wilkes

Going ‘Round the Outside: Adam Dickinson
by Tim Conley
NAMING for Ricki Redhead
by Lawrence Upton

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ongoing notes: the Ottawa small press book fair (part one: Ferno House),

Another Ottawa small press book fair has come and gone, an event now eighteen years old (something I still find completely amazing). Here are some of the items I picked up during this year’s event. Watch here for information on the spring 2013 event, most likely to happen later in June (and announce around February or so).

Toronto ON: Ferno House might not have won the bpNichol Chapbook Award this year (neither did above/ground press, obviously), but the fact that they had two publications on a shortlist of six titles is impressive. Spencer Gordon was up for his own chapbook [my review of such lives here], as was Toronto poet and AvantGarden Reading Series co-organizer/host Liz Howard’s first chapbook (skullambient) (2012):

(Steinian aphasia)

I that I am thy.
At thy happenstance of atoms.

Were the where of my happening into happened.
But only slightly.

So many, so manlike, multiplying thusly.
Into a permanence of flux, disconcerting.

Sister none.
Other than the keeper.
Of another heart bleeding in December.

Some of those boys who know no boredom.
Golden, even, in the significant design.

Sing glyph.
Sing slow creep of limbs and neural tube.

Gone too far too few in fathers.
A husbandry of worms between.

Over there.
The sigh almost silenced.

Thereby a maple tree. (Liz Howard)

I’m startled by the pure electricity of the language, a poetry that perhaps needs to be heard to fully appreciate the cadences and wordplay. Howard’s poems embrace the abstract with concrete language, strafing the familiar with disconnects that alter perception, into a kind of hyper-familiarity. I’m taken with the way she uses information and twists it, playing with the sounds and meanings, such as in the poem “ (may-tea-non-state-is-abhor-original) ,” where she writes “bienvenue / the residential school / —or ancestor, ascended” (p 16). Already in a second printing, this chapbook strikes as an incredible debut. The last page of the final poem in the collection, the four-page “ Psychogeography),” reads:

I slept in voices of smoke
by the woodstove in the basement
of our house by the cemetery
to be small and dreaming parallel
to ceremony and decay

sometime ago I found
the body of a métis fur trader
in the hunting shack back there
in the woods where I guarded
him like a treasure

Chapleau         vexation and myth or
                        rabbit under the scrap car
                        or fox corporeal or
                        a mother and ravens

Toronto, now
this breathless forest.

I was also able to pick up copies of Shannon Maguire’s Fruit Machine (2012), Andrew Faulkner’s mean matt and other shitty people (2012), as well as the anthology For Crying Out Loud II: Another Anthology of Poetry & Fiction (2010). In her Fruit Machine, Shannon Maguire, about to launch a second poetry chapbook with above/ground press, writes of a dark and largely forgotten part of Canadian history that destroyed multiple lives. As she writes in her “Notes”:

The Fruit Machine was a battery of psychological and physiological tests developed during the 1950s and 60s by Carleton University psychologists Frank Robert Wake to “scientifically” detect whether someone was a homosexual. At the time, homosexuality was deemed a threat to national security and authorities sought reliable ways of identifying and expunging lesbians and gay men from the civil service as well as other professions. Fortunately, the tests never proved conclusive, but the harm that their development and underlying assumptions caused was felt in the LGBT community.

Needless to say, thousands of people in the public service, military and police lost their jobs during this period, and the stain of the fruit machine can still be felt in certain corners of Ottawa. Because of this potentially loaded title, I’m not sure it aligns with the work in the chapbook, and even works to distract away from the rich variety within. The title seems to have been pulled only from a single poem, salvaged from a slight reference towards the end:


of queen with circus & coo
with wolf-velvet, blackmail
to rim with prowl for fish for flute
with bell of fruit in swing to sew
her tearoom & top fish
her swing & trade with mother-punk
of cruise wolf, of queen wolf, of punk prowl,
fish-wolf queen for velvet bell
whole sew bull
sew bull sew …
with normal words
like breast & blond & stiff & newspaper
radiator farm asphalt politician hammer
erect child cigar fight & stroke
like tearoom fight & breast fruit
like swing stiff in blond fish
like camp politician with mother-punk radiator
like top men hammer blond on asphalt
fight blond for top
blind blond with trade cigar
all part of a lexicon
of aversive substances & shocks
change in size of pupil
of the fruit machine
by the fruit machine
for the fruit machine
subdivision did

The poems within explore systems of language, perception and sensation, with a sprinkling of her favoured “wolf” scattered throughout. Maguire is very much a fan of structure, and experimenting with structure throughout, such as in the poem “Pleasure,” where she playfully echoes a binary played from Robert Kroetsch’s The Sad Phoenician (1979), a structure more recently played with by Amanda Earl in The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman (above/ground press, 2008). As the notes at the back of the collection claims, this chapbook is “part of a book-length ‘exploded sestina called Myrmurs.” Shortlisted previously for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Writing, she already she has a first full-length trade collection out in the spring, fur(l) (BookThug). I am very much looking forward to seeing what she ends up doing with larger structures, and the larger canvas.

existing independently of zip-stripe; openness of destination

if she loved a man on Tuesday; epiphytes rather on Saturday

if she only undergoes a not entirely determinable series of women

admiring them for their inkjet streams & analytical coups

if anarcho-sundicalist organizers appeal to her & mother
            is in a state nursing home

if by sunrise the next day the girl escaped drowning

then she takes moisture from the air; that kissed all she saw
            in the factory (“LETTERS”)

Author of Useful Knots and How to Tie Them (Toronto ON: The Emergency Response Unit, 2008), Andrew Faulkner is one of the Ferno House editors and co-editor/co-publisher of The Emergency Response Unit. To my knowledge, he hasn’t had a chapbook out in some time, and his poems on terrible people explore a range of characters and voices, some of which work and others that don’t.


If you are what you eat then I
am the ass of a high school cheerleader,
high on boredom, behind the bleachers
after school. I am listening to robot rock at dawn
in a Ferrari made of glass. My body is hairless,
strong as OxyContin. I sweat oxytocin.
I gather the wind in my pipe and puff, puff.
I will not pass. I transpose your love song
from C-major to apathetic. I’ve consumed the future.
My farts articulate the past. The secret fifth chamber
of my heart weeps for your scoliosis,
but style does as style is, so I’ll be cruising
the night with my gilded twelve-foot dick.
I hope you catch my drift, emphasis dick. (Andrew Faulkner)

Friday, November 23, 2012


Work now turns to RAISING FUNDS TO UPGRADE AND INSTALL a writer-in-residence

The A-frame home built here in 1957 by the late Al Purdy, one of Canada's greatest poets, and his wife, Eurithe, has been assured of preservation and a continued vocation as a place for writers to gather and work.

Thanks to the generosity of Eurithe Purdy, who dramatically reduced the asking price for the property, and donors from across Canada, the A-frame was acquired on October 9 by the Al Purdy A-frame Association, a newly incorporated national non-profit organization with a mandate to promote Canadian literature and Canadian writers. A major benefit is planned for Koerner Hall in Toronto on February 6th to continue the restoration of the A-frame.

Now we can turn our attention to the next phase of this effort," said Jean Baird, president of the association. It's not only a celebration of Al Purdy's legacy, but a mission to educate today's students on the value and worth of Canadian literature, and to preserve the Purdy home as a retreat for future generations of Canadian writers.

The A-frame, a lakeside cottage in Prince Edward County, was the centre of Purdy's writing universe and one of the most important crossroads on Canada's literary map. In their 43 years residing there, the Purdys hosted a who's who of Canadian authors: Margaret Laurence, Milton Acorn, H.R. Percy, Michael Ondaatje and hundreds of others. The association plans to begin work on upgrading the property immediately, and hopes to have its first writer-in-residence installed next summer and working in local schools by fall 2013.

Donors acknowledged
The association gratefully acknowledges the generosity of all donors to the project to date, including writers, poets, publishers, academics, students, booksellers, librarians, lovers of literature and, especially, Eurithe Purdy, who was crucial to the success of this effort.

Special thanks are extended to major donors ($5,000 to $40,000): The Good Foundation, Avie Bennett, George Galt, The Chawkers Foundation, The Glasswaters Foundation, The Metcalf Foundation, Michael Audain, Jeff Mooney and Suzanne Bolton, Leonard Cohen, Rosemary Tannock, Tom and Helen Galt, and Josef Wosk.

For a full list of donors, go to

Fundraising efforts continue and are critical to the next stage of this project--upgrades on the property are required and the association will be building an endowment. Online donations are being accepted through PayPal at, or cheques may be sent to:

The Al Purdy A-frame Association, 4403 West 11th Avenue, Vancouver, B.C. V6R 2M2.

For further information:
Jean Baird
or 604-224-4898

Thursday, November 22, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kate Schapira

Kate Schapira is the author of four full-length books, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press), and seven chapbooks. She's a lecturer at Brown University and a visiting writer in Providence public schools.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, it changed my life in an, "I wrote a book! With a spine!" kind of way. It gave me a concrete thing to feel good about and I still do feel good about it. I've also published a lot with chapbook presses and I frequently make my own short-run chapbook editions, and those all feel great to me as well, but a perfect-bound book does still feel extra special, "real" and important. It's not a particularly rational feeling.

My first book has a semi-collaborative structure, so the process of doing it changed my life a lot while I was doing it. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure the collaboration, how to fairly appropriate words put together by others, how to acknowledge the way the book was made at all its different stages of being.  That concern goes even deeper in a completed but as yet unpublished manuscript, part of which includes and responds to excerpts from soldiers' blogs. I've been offering to write "amulet" poems to help acquaintances draw something (that they name) toward them, push something away from them, or accomplish a task -- the thing they want help with drives the poem's ideas and progression, and the need for incantation and insistence drives the sound. The Make it Rain Project, which I just started to raise small amounts of funds for libraries in regions hit hard by this summer's drought, also has a quality of incantation and invocation in its "rain dance" poems. These are examples of some of the structures I create for myself to write responsively and with some aspect of the writing given over to others.

My most recent finished projects, though, are more turned inward, I think. The full-length book The Soft Place (Horse Less Press) probes barriers and boundaries between "me" and "everyone else" as well as between "me" and a particular given "you"; a series of self-published mini-chapbooks (The Ground / The Pass / The Wave) reflects on fidelity in love, mainly. A new project seems to be wrangling with the ethics of behaving as though there's a future that we're going to live in, but they're mainly my ethics -- more about that below.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I'm confused by the placement of that "first" -- do you mean "how did I first come to poetry", like, how did I start writing it? Or is your question more about what poetry offers me that fiction and nonfiction don't? Please advise if you want me to try to answer this, or don't worry about it.

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?
All of that varies from project to project and has also changed over time. Most projects start with a language seed of some sort, although occasionally it'll be more like, "I want to reflect on this question / wrangle this idea / dive into this feeling." I usually generate a draft bit by bit, in one or two sittings for a shorter piece and over a few days for a longer piece. Then I expand upon from the middle and both ends, and then cut/condense a lot. I do a lot of leaving and returning, both because that's what the non-writing parts of my life allow and because it lets the words compost and gives me new things to bring to the piece. And then maybe I bring some things together because I realize that they have things to say to each other / ask each other, or that they're really on the same map of questioning and thought and feeling.

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?
Again it depends. All my first books (first written and first published) were books from the very beginning. I do tend to think of poems in company, but I don't always know what the company will be -- so sometimes I'll write something and ask, "What project is this part of?" and other times I'll sit down to write and think, "What else can I do for/with this project?"

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I like hearing my words out loud and adding a layer to them with my voice. I like watching people respond to my poems, seeing the reaction happen, which I don't get to do when I give them the poems or they buy them and then read them somewhere else. Related to that, I love reading as a public and shared act of poetry, something that makers and listeners do together. I like meeting writers whose work I've admired and writers whose work it turns out I admire after I hear it. As a lifelong approval-seeker, I like being invited to read and hearing people say they liked the work, when that happens. I like it when there are snacks.

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 seek or have a lot of contact with formal, rigorously expressed or explored theory. Sometimes I discuss a project with a friend and they'll say, "Oh, like such-and-such theory person who writes about these things?" and I will say something like, "I guess so." What I mean, I think, is that theory, in the sense I described above, knows about me but I don't necessarily know about it.

If you mean do I have abstract concerns, yes. I think about ethics and accountability in language, about implications and suggestions and the wells of history and context that my phrases are drawing from. I think a lot, perhaps too much, about what it is right for me to say. That creates a kind of puritanical strain, maybe, in my writing -- so lately I've been trying to counter it with tones and approaches based in impulse and expansiveness, maybe a little bit flaily or floppy or fountainy. Not sure yet how that's going.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I certainly don't think there's one role that all writers have or should have. There are some opportunities that I'd like to see more writers (including me) take more advantage of: to play an idea out as far as it will go; to probe and test a particular body of language that's usually used for something else; to invite or goad us to a leap in our thinking or our vision; to enact a separation, rupture, or shift in thinking. It doesn't seem like there's ever a direct relationship between what we read and what we do, but I do think that what we read can affirm or unseat what we think we know, or offer us a new angle of vision or a new sense of the stakes, which can then affect what we do, whether we keep our actions the same or change them (and what we change them to). But I don't feel well placed to tell other writers what they should do about that.

One other thing, I guess, is that writers are continuous and contiguous with "larger culture" -- I mean, of course -- and the writing that we do can affect our other ways of participating in it, as well as being a way of participating in it. Writing often helps me sort out how I want to be the rest of the time. A poet-friend is working right now on some writing about why people do things they know to be stupid and destructive, and I'm starting to get interested in that.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Recently I've been meeting with fellow poets Kate Colby and Darcie Dennigan for mutual editing / critique of work that's partly done. The more we work together, the better we become as editors for each other. That was also the case when I was an MFA student -- my fellow students (Tod Edgerton, Bronwen Tate, Lynn Xu, Caroline Whitbeck) reshaped my work and a lot of what's good about it now comes from having worked with them. I have less experience with post-acceptance, pre-publication editing, but when it's happened I have found it useful in the same way: to help the work find its best shape. There can be that initial moment of difficulty where I want to get out my flamethrower because they're CRITICIZING ME, but I've (mostly) learned to get past that.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I actually have no idea how to answer this question.

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?
Depends whether I have work (teaching, meetings) or another commitment in the morning. Right after breakfast is my favorite time to write -- the caffeine interacts with my brain in a satisfactory way, and I haven't turned the computer on so I'm not in massive internet mode -- but if the only way to get that time in would be to get up at five-thirty instead of six-thirty, I'd rather sleep. I do try to write a little bit at that time, on the bus if nothing else, and sitting on the front steps if possible. One reason I like to work in project or sequence form is that it gives me something to hop onto, rather than having to start over every single time.

I like to do some sort of writing every day, and I feel better if I do, but I try not to destroy myself about it. If I have a lot of commenting on student work to do, I might not worry about doing my own writing that day.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Lately, Bernadette Mayer's sonnets and Ana Bozicevic's chapbook War on a Lunchbreak. Walking around and looking at things is also good.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home where I grew up: lavender, clay, frying onions, wet gray-green lichen.

Home now: we just moved, so actually nothing smells like home right now except my husband. I'm waiting to form new associations and build up my scent portrait of the new place. Will it be the dog hair (we don't have a dog, but the guy whose house this was had two and their hair is well engrained)? The grape arbor? Wood smoke? Cleaning spray?

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?
Science! I love the language of science, its rigor of practice and flexibility, mutability and mess as a body of knowledge. I love that destruction, correction, augmentation and revision are built into its nature. I love how full of metaphors it is, I love how it borrows. One of my favorite things to do as a writer in the schools is to offer students the chance to approach scientific concepts and topics poetically.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In the order I happened to think of them and not including people I've mentioned elsewhere: Joan Retallack, Rex Stout, Missoula Oblongata, Gertrude Stein, Ish Klein, Jamaica Kincaid, Stephen Jay Gould, Cliff Pervocracy, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Rosmarie Waldrop, Samuel Delany, Roxane Gay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ann Lauterbach, C.D. Wright, Brenda Iijima, Virginia Woolf, Bhanu Kapil, E.B. White, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Dorothy Sayers, Alice Notley, John Porcellino. I've come back to this list several times and I keep adding people, so I think I'll stop there.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Something that requires real bravery.Of course, the conditions that will require it will probably suck, and probably not just for me, so it doesn't seem like a good thing to wish for.

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 know. I've been writing since I can remember, pretty much; I don't ever remember thinking that I would be just a writer, a writer only. When I got hold of the idea of being a writer, even then I don't think I ever thought of it as the only thing I would do or the main thing I would do, but I also have always thought of it as something I'll be doing, whatever else I'm also doing (see below).

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don't think it is opposed to doing "something else", although there are some things with which it might be mutually exclusive or tough to maintain for me personally. It would be hard to be a writer and a doctor (although one of my former students just started in Columbia's Narrative Medicine program as a prelude to medical school) but I didn't and don't want to be a doctor or a nurse or any other kind of medical worker. It doesn't seem opposed to most of the things I'm doing right now. It would be opposed to me becoming an entirely different person, if that were necessary or desirable. What "made" me write is that I loved (and love) doing it and people kept encouraging me; if I hadn't gotten that encouragement I might not be a writer now, because I like encouragement and approval.

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

I am going to tweak this question. I loved I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid, and I really appreciated Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

20 - What are you currently working on?
The abovementioned Make it Rain project; a manuscript called The Duration that's almost done; and a new project, just formulated. called Bad Sentence, about the relationships among grammar, power and beauty. And I have an amulet to restore optimism to write for someone.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rachael Simpson, Eiderdown and Phil Hall, A Rural Pen: Apt. 9 Press

The suitcases were disturbed
long before we touched them

but some had wintered over
better than others

shrouded in the lasting
odour of mothballs. (“Suitcase Poems”)

In Ottawa poet Rachael Simpson’s first poetry chapbook, Eiderdown (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2012), many of the poems address the former Willard State Hospital in New York State, including the more overt “Willard Asylum, 1869” and the seven-part “Suitcase Poems,” as she expands upon in her “Notes on the Text,” writing:

When New York State officially closed Willard State Hospital in 1995, curators and other personnel hurried to the site before its teardown. Their hope was to recover anything that might speak to the institution’s 126 years of operation and, more generally, the history of mental health during a period that saw both the rise of eugenics and psychiatry. Beverly Courtwright and Lisa Hoffman, two women that worked at the hospital for a number of years, led one of New York State Museum’s curators, Craig Williams, up a steep staircase into an attic that, as far as they could tell, hadn’t been disturbed in decades. There, they discovered 427 suitcases belonging to former patients, some of which would later be incorporated into the museum’s Willard Suitcase Exhibit in 2004.

Simpson’s “Suitcase Poems” exists as a series of meditations on the physical space of the hospital, its history and mental health, centred around the image of these forgotten and abandoned suitcases. There is a calm to these poems, an articulation and emotional description that can sometimes give the occasional impression of too great an emotional distance, and yet, the distance works in many of these pieces. As she writes to open the poem “You Will Write”:

Who stopped writing first?
I’ve forgotten your hand,
but if a piece of you
were returned to me,
your small-boned words,
the flesh of each
would all rush back
like blood.

What appeals about this chapbook includes the occasional blade-sharp line or phrase, and a cadence that flows over each just as easily, without wearing down any edge.


A voice sits on the edge of the bed.
Coil springs and endless
turning. We slide a hand over its back.
Come to bed, we say. It’s late
and you’ll feel better in the morning.
But the voice wants out of the room
There’s a frog in its throat it’s tired of
catching. The voice curls into a ball.
Its ears burn with thoughts
someone might be thinking.
Below we can hear
the tight-winged cricket
release its heat-song.
We trap the voice in our palm.
How insistent a word is
without another word beside it.
The voice repeats itself, the bed
breaks from the sound.

Simpson emerged from Carleton University’s ongoing In/Words magazine, press and reading series, a series of publications and activity nearing a decade’s worth. In/Words has developed an interesting cadre of writers over the past couple of years, including Jesslyn Delia Smith, Cameron Anstee, Ben Ladouceur, Leah Mol, Justin Million, Bardia Sinaee and Jeremy Hanson-Finger, many of whom have also appeared post-In/Words with publications through Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press. Through his work so far as an editor and publisher [see my recent profile on him and the press here] Anstee has emerged as one of the strongest champions of these writers, encouraging them to evolve beyond the immediate group, and challenging many of these writers to produce some of their strongest work to date.

Award-winning Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall (who is currently finishing up his writer-in-residence stint at Queen’s University, Kingston) expands and extends his “Ontario gothic” [see my essay on such here] in A Rural Pen (Apt. 9 Press, 2012).


 Ah research—now there’s the ear’s coffin


If you win—your earnestness means more—each epiphany a bronzed mite

 But failure tumbles effulgence until Anonymous muddles true


 Sing we—who threw ourselves overboard—to found a unifying—horrifying—anonymity (full of bloated crusticles & furred hatches listing)

 sing we—names who—rescued into isolation by know-how & fear—call each other on tins of sardines (while riding tire-swings—torched—spun)


 A wet hem—becomes we/them—becomes me-themes

who took—half in the buggy’s shadow—this blurred snap
 of a horseshoe-toss & a snake-writhe


but heyMr In-Between herepleased to meet you

A sucked thumb has snuck off by itself—half-submerged at 4:00 a m in the swampy field it won’t shut up

No—it is not a thumb—it is a tongue—ungulletted—marooned
 As we watch it splits at its tip to brag a little wound-mouth all its own

Freaking—slick with awe—croak

Sketching a series of (as he calls them in his acknowledgements) “hacked scrawls,” he borrows his title from William Blake to write short and quick meditations with fireworks-momentum. As he writes in the poem “Plum Hollow”: “The failure of order is the work / disorder is not the work.” What is continually astounding about Hall’s writing, via his last few poetry collections, is in the series of shifts, whether gradual or sudden, that bolt through the poems. Move your way through this work back, to his previous collection, the award-winning Killdeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011) [see my review of such here], to The Little Seamstress (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2010) to White Porcupine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and everything that came previous, and you will begin to understand the differences in tone, mood and question. Urban explorations and a dark rural history have shifted entirely to an ease and sense of peace in a country setting, sketching poems and fences and birds. His recent collections have continued his interest in exploring and questioning through collaged-fragments of turned and twisted phrases, composed as poem-essays, but more recently the poems have shifted into poem-essays that explore the purpose, means and goals of the writing itself. The poems question, respond, reiterate and shift, as the hand that scrapes the rural pen moves throughout the world, working to ask exactly what the meaning precisely means, and if that is even possible.

 Do not look up X lick a pencil X begin


 It is loon-quiet when I stopped jerking & go under

a small can of beans explodes on a manifold

 all what’s left of the fence-builder is a fence or two

no one sees a rage tending a day’s length of work
 the chainsaw overhead a bayonet a scythe (“A Dancey Fence”)

Still, precision is an essential quality to Hall’s poetry, even as it discusses the impossibilities of such precision. There is such a great comfort to the work in A Rural Pen, one that knows the important answers might only emerge from important questions, and the level of self-awareness and self-questioning is remarkably rare and deep. If a pen falls in a forest, might anybody hear?