Monday, December 31, 2012

Ongoing notes: late late December, 2012

Another year come and gone. Here’s a photo from our recent Peter F Yacht Club Christmas party/reading/regatta of Roland Prevost [see my full report on such here]. And have you subscribed to above/ground press yet for its 20th year? Forthcoming chapbooks have already been confirmed by Helen Hajnoczky, Abby Paige, Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Abby Paige. Just what else might the new year bring?

Since I’ve done my ‘best big thing’self-interview, two of the five I tagged have posted their own: Stephen Cain and Michael Bryson. Looking forward to seeing what the other three (eventually) have to say. And watch for these upcoming events.

Hamilton ON/Schenectady NY: Another small chapbook from Gary Barwin’s serif of nottingham is American poet NF Huth’s 3 Words (2011). In these nine poems, there is such a lovely quality of repetition and chant, composing poems underneath three little words nearly as an experiment in riffing and/or word association. The poems read sharp and quick, embracing tangents and qualities of sound, and it’s impossible to know where the poems might end up. I am fascinated by what she is doing.


She throws out the dishwater that is still hot.
She throws out the dishwater that is still hot enough to use.
She uses cold instead.
She washes the dishes in cold water.

She rests on a chair that is not cloth.
She rests on a chair that is not cloth but that is wiped easily.
She sits on a vinyl chair.
She wiggles on a vinyl chair that is easy to clean.

She questions the sound from the hall.
She questions the sound from the hall that is rain but not.
She wonders if it’s wet.
She hears the wet rain that is a cough from the door.

Most words begin with B.
Words that flesh out thoughts begin with bees.
Bees are not inside with us.
Words that used to swarm land on the armchair.

Her eyes follow the swarm heavy with rain.
When silence swarms she fills the space between.
Silence is never filled.
Rain heavies the bees. They swell and drop from her mouth.

The clock signals some ends with sound.
A final sound is a puddle of bees ticking on the floor.
Her meter is bursts of three.
Her meter makes constant ends.

London ON: Karen Schindler’s Baseline Press has been producing some intriguing (and quite attractive) limited edition chapbooks over the past year or so [see my review of the recent Gil McElroy chapbook here], and the most recent batch of short works includes Gabriel Wainio-Théberge’s Small Hallows (2012) and Blair Trewartha’s Porcupine Burning (2012). Gabriel Wainio-Théberge is a graduate of Ottawa’s Canterbury High School, and Small Hallows appears to be his first published chapbook.


What is left to say about autumn
and should it be said
before autumn begins? Will the words
curl up and go brown at the edges,
fall like yellow leaves to the ground
while the trees are still green
(in no particular order)?
Will they be gnawed at by insects,
tiptoed on by spiders?
Will the trees smoulder, die
and not be transfigured?
Omen of autumn: lantern leaves
glow yellow in a sulfurous sunset.
Acid of August. A single worried streetlight
watches it eat the night, sleeps
as it fades the day, blinks awake to find
the evening bubbling over
like a science-fair volcano –
day and night reacting,
burning the edges of the leaves, while inside
I wait for the colours to settle.

Largely autobiographical, Wainio-Théberge sketches a series of lyric narrative poems, and the strong narrative impulse throughout is enough that I wonder about his choice for poetry over prose. Why not compose short stories? Still, what there is in his poems does sharpen once the narrative begins to fall away and the image clears, composing into a series of fragments. And yet, he uses similes far, far too often. Why does everything has to be “like” a thing? Why can’t he simply describe “thing”? There are some moments here and there, most of which are still buried beneath youth and inexperience. I would be interested to see where his writing is in, say, another five years, or ten.


Wndryn the rain. A season’s baptism
plasters leaves to the asphalt. Wndryn.

The asphalt sweats out its heart. A clod of cold
slips down its road throat. Something moves.

The leaves are transfixed. A twisting
inside the red branch, a twisting of something green.

The asphalt chokes, but it is
saying something – Wndryn.

Wndryn among the pumpkin fields. The corkscrew
of the cut stalk, cracking,

and energy being released
through hairline cracks in pumpkinstalks and clouds.

Where does it go? Rainwater
is easy to scatter. Draw a picture.

The rain falls like nails and sticks to the gravestones.
Wndryn, like graffiti on the hills.

Blair Trewartha’s Porcupine Burning tells the story of an event, as he writes to open the small collection:

On July 11, 1911, the gold rush town of Porcupine started to burn. Citizens fled to the lake, or perished in the buildings they had erected and the bush they prospected. The two-year-old town was cleared right down to the rock by dawn. The next day, survivors set up tents and took stock of what remained. With the dense bush now completely barren, it took only two months for Porcupine to return to a booming mining settlement.

Much like Wainio-Théberge’s collection, Trewartha’s Porcupine Burning composes a sequence of narratives, linked through a shared, historical event. He writes poems amid and between the actions of historical record, including “Porcupine, Burning,” “Vigil” and “Recovery.” Honestly, the poems actually become more compelling once the story is told and nearly out of the way:


In the lake, I am heavy stone.

Compressed weight submerged,
orbiting itself, gravity releasing its spiky grip

until I roll effortlessly, vertebrae separating,
spine snapping into alignment.

I used to call you a lake carp, when we’d fight.
Your slick skin maneuvering through the reeds

like a ghost, jagged rows of teeth
hidden beneath bed sheets.

Even your bite I miss, that sudden punch of breath
at the moment of puncture. The injection of pulse.

Anything is better than this—a stillness more solid
than shore. Your silence an undertow I waltz with blindly.

I’m rarely fond of the poem or poem-sequence reciting history (whether an event or figure), since so many simply regurgitate facts already-known, which make me wonder what the purpose is; why not go straight to the history books instead? It’s a difficult form, certainly, and one of the few that have worked might include Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems (1972) or Steveston (1977), or even George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (1972). Just what is it about the form that compels?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Don Share

Don Share is Senior Editor of Poetry magazine.  His books include Squandermania (Salt Publishing), Union (Zoo Press), Seneca in English (Penguin Classics), and most recently a new book of poems, Wishbone (Black Sparrow), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions), which explores the British poet Basil Bunting’s time in the Middle East; Share has also edited a critical edition of Bunting’s work for Faber and Faber. His translations of Miguel Hernández, collected in I Have Lots of Heart (Bloodaxe Books) were awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize, and will appear in a revised edition from New York Review of Books Classics.  He has been Poetry Editor of Harvard Review and Partisan Review, Editor of Literary Imagination, and curator of poetry at Harvard University.  With Christian Wiman, he co-hosts the monthly Poetry magazine podcast and has co-edited The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine (University of Chicago Press).

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

That first book changed my life by, well, by failing to change my life.  I thought it would be momentous, and momentously gratifying, but though it was given a good write-up in Publishers Weekly, the press died suddenly and ignominiously, and so then did the book.  It was devastating and humbling, so maybe the change consisted of teaching me not to be excessively proud of myself. 

In my earlier work I was very careful with each poem in a technical sense.  I’m older now, and as I go to pot, so does my prosody: I’ve let myself go to seed, and take that metaphor rather literally – it has been, shall we say, productive.  Then again my early poems were written pre 9/11, and my language, like everyone else’s in our culture, has come to incorporate a version of (for lack of a worse word) instress.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first.  When I was done with college, I was out of work for a while and sat down to write a novel: six hours a day, nothing but writing and some coffee.  The result was abject and appalling junk.  I’d always loved poetry, but thought it was too good for me.  But the humiliation of writing prose ended up teaching me the writerly humility required to take up poetry in, as they say, earnest.  As for non-fiction, well, I simply haven’t got the requisite diligence or patience.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I don’t have writing projects.  I realize that they’re very trendy, but I disbelieve in them.  Anyway, writing for me is a slow process because I’m in no hurry, and can’t think that writing is like running, that the more you do it the better you are.  If that were true the most prolific among us would be the best, and it’s just not so (and how would we account for Larkin, Empson, among others?).

Because I have a job that requires my attention at just about all times, I have to write whenever life lets me do so, which is to say when I’m on the train to work, or pushing myself to stay up late into the night with a notebook in my lap.  This induces a kind of pertinent reverie, so I don’t mind at all. 

When I started out, I revised poems for years.  I don’t know how many years I have left, so now I revise them for months.  My drafts do resemble final versions; the relationship is genetic, but a poem can seem to grow up before your eyes almost the way a child goes.  Then you let it leave home.

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?

A poem begins for me as a mystery.  That’s all I can say about it.  Short pieces for me used to get woven into larger work, but now I let them stand alone and fend for themselves.  If they’re too weak to stand, I just kill them off.  I do somehow seem to know when things are part of what might become a “book.”  It’s a question of knowing when and where to begin – and when to leave off.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
The best critique of a poem, in my experience, comes from having to read it in front of other people.  If something sucks and you’re not being dense or perverse, an audience will let you know that… vividly.  It’s not right to use people in this way, but we all do it, yes?  That said, I enjoy doing readings, and try to do them well, because I know how difficult it is to sit through them.

There’s a story that comes to mind.  I was in, shall we say, a bad way when trying to write the poems that went into Squandermania.  At a reading for Amherst Books, I read aloud the angriest poems I thought I’d ever written.  And people started laughing – a lot.  At first, I was pretty confused and upset; I figured that I’d misjudged things so badly that I felt I’d better give up writing altogether.  But then I realized how right my listeners were: the pathos of personal anger really is comedic.  That insight put me on what felt like the right track, after all.

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?
Lord no, no theoretical concerns.  I’d have to be a philosopher or scientist or rabbi to address those adequately.  It’ll sound portentous (part of the comedy, really), but it feels as if my poems are asking questions.  Asking me questions.  Like what the fuck do you think you’re doing?  I’ve yet to come up with any answers.

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’m sure that the writer has a role in larger culture, alongside all the other kinds of roles that makers and doers have.  But I can’t really say what that role consists of, exactly.  I suppose the role of a writer is to write, and take his lumps, and then lie down, as Machado says, under the ground.

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

I’ve never had an outside editor, as such, for poetry.  Well, once, the poetry editor of a pretty well-known magazine said he would publish a poem of mine if he could rewrite it.  I was so charmed and fascinated that I let him do it.  He did a worse job than I did.  I wouldn’t let it happen again.  Poets are pretty much left to their own devices.

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

There’s an Allan Sherman song, “Good Advice,” which nicely points out that good advice is just the same as bad advice. “Good advice costs nothing, and it's worth the price.”  (Video here:  That’s about it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Critical prose is very hard to do.  I adore reading it, and am relieved not to have to write it.  Most of what gets called poetry criticism now is really just book reviewing mislabeled, or writing for the entirely understandable purpose of academic credentialing.  Mostly, I’m lucky enough to get away with blogging, or writing pieces of what used to be called “appreciation.” 

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

I don’t have any kind of routine.  I do carry all the implements with me, in case there’s a chance to work on something.  Otherwise, I’m just living what passes for my life.  And so a typical day begins for me with my eyes opening and becoming adjusted somehow to the light… after which I let the coffee and anxiety kick in.  The rest, as they say, is hysteria.

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

When my writing gets stalled, I figure it’s my writing’s way of telling me to shut the hell up.  So I stop.  And then, unaccountably, it starts up again, particularly thanks to reading a lot (and not just reading poetry).  At some point, one will have worked on his very last poem, but they don’t tell you when that moment comes.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Great question!  Memphis BBQ.

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?

All of the above.  But beyond influence, one needs stimulation.  The crap that happens every day is the stimulus (I spend a lot of time on public transportation in a vast city, which is quite nicely stimulating).  Books come, in other words, from life.

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

The list changes daily, sometimes even hourly.  Louise Gluck says that we feed on other writers and move on.  That’s pretty accurate (and vivid).  We’re cannibals, aren’t we, when we read and write?

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

Once when I was young, one of my mentors, Derek Walcott (the other was George Starbuck) shoved a sheaf of okay-ish drafts back at me and said, “This is fine, but it’s not a life’s work.”  He was right about that.  So what I would like to have accomplished, and have not yet, is something resembling a life’s work.

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?

Well, I’ve had all kinds of odd jobs in my life already.  I’m quite happy doing the work I do now, thank you very much.  If I hadn’t been a writer, well, Patrick Kavanagh has the best response.  [You won’t be able to use the whole quote, but here it is! - ]

“I am always shy of calling myself a poet and I wonder much at those young men and sometimes those old men who boldly declare their poeticality. If you ask them what they are, they say: Poet.

There is, of course, a poetic movement which sees poetry materialistically. The writers of this school see no transcendent nature in the poet; they are practical chaps, excellent technicians. But somehow or other I have a belief in poetry as a mystical thing, and a dangerous thing.

A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life. Versing activity leads him away from the paths of conventional unhappiness. For reasons that I have never been able to explain, the making of verses has changed the course of one man’s destiny. I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland. I might have stayed at the same moral age all my life. Instead of that, poetry made me a sort of outcast. And I was abnormally normal…

I suppose when I come to think of it, if I had a stronger character, I might have done well enough for myself. But there was some kink in me, put there by Verse…

But I lost my messianic compulsion. I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal in the summer of 1955 and let the water lap idly on the shores of my mind. My purpose in life was to have no purpose.”

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

See above.  I really have no idea.  And yet… my fifth grade teacher - to punish me for doodling rather than taking notes on his lecture about volcanoes - smacked me on the crown of the head with the stone in his bulky class ring, exclaiming "One day, Don is going to be a GREAT WRITER." The gauntlet... almost literally... was laid down. Pete Townshend had his nose for motivation; I had Mr. Kramer.

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

Volume 4 of W. H. Auden’s collected prose.  It was a better education for me than college!  Last great film?  2001: A Space Odyssey, which I saw in Cinerama in 1968.  I do think Spielberg’s Duel is a minor classic.  I don’t get out much, as you can see.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A book of poems that are one sentence long each – not to be confused with tweets, by the way.  In looking over a pile of recent drafts, I realized that almost every poem has maybe one good line in it; why not, I thought, just cut to the chase and keep that one line?

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Toronto, and the (Christmas) week that was,

Tuesday, December 25, 2012: We are still learning our combined Christmases, coordinating between my father and sister and her enormous brood (who go around her husband’s family’s schedule), my lovely daughter, and Christine’s parents. This year, a shift in schedule allowed us to spend an evening with her father and his wife in Ottawa on December 22nd, dinner at the Chateau Laurier. Of course, all four of us managed to forget our cameras in other places (which, for good or for ill, prevent any real evidence). But it meant we didn’t have to be in Toronto for 2pm on Christmas Day this year. Relief. Given the 5-plus hour drive from the farm, we barely made it (through a snowstorm, no less) last year.

A drive to Toronto on Christmas day from the farm (via Ottawa, where we returned my daughter home and retrieved Lemonade the cat) isn’t optimal [see my post on such here], but I always remind myself of the story Monty Reid told of when his boys were young, and driving the eight-plus hours on Christmas Day from Drumheller to his mother’s house in Saskatchewan, two young kids in the back. In comparison, ours seems quite reasonable. And although the cat didn’t enjoy the drive, he didn’t necessarily give us any problems, either. He curled up into a quiet, anxious ball.

Ottawa and the farm might have some good snow, but so far, Toronto is rather green. Once we braved Christmas Day traffic along the 401, we had a big dinner at her mother Karin’s house with her great-uncle Bob, cousin Kim, her brother Michael and his lovely fiancé, Alexis [post-dinner photo above: Michael, Karin, Alexis + Christine].

Wednesday, December 26, 2012: Boxing Day, as Toronto threatens snow, at some point. We wake and move quite slowly, having been up rather late with dinner, drinks, stockings, drinks, gifts and more drinks, all while the cat explored the house and was skittish with the strange, new place and all the strangers within.

Today, also, I received confirmation on my “Canadian writing” section of the 2013 edition of the annual journal New American Writing. For the sake of space, they’ve cut my section in half, but it will include new work by Rob Budde, Stephen Cain, Margaret Christakos, Trisia Eddy, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Phil Hall, Marilyn Irwin, Nicole Markotić and Andy Weaver (it seems a strange and terrible thing to send out rejections on Boxing Day). The issue should be out later in the spring, and also includes a comparable selection of Mexican poetry edited by Cristina Rivera Garza. In the works for over a year now, I’m very excited to see the completed issue.

We had brunch with her mother, brother and fiancé, and her cousin Jeff, his wife Jen and their two small children before heading off to Burlington to see her friend Kim. Is it possible to enjoy time in Burlington? I keep thinking not, but there you go.

Going through Burlington and Mississauga is to return through Christine’s history, and she has, during various trips, shown me a variety of sites from old schools, houses and workplaces, and the sites of youthful adventures, both good and bad. Most of our comparisons go like this:

Christine: down here is where I met ____ to see movies.
Me: I was on the farm.
Christine: this is where I worked my first job.
Me: I was on the farm.
Christine: this is where I used to hang out with _____, at this other mall.
Me: I was on the farm.

After spending a couple of hours in Burlington with Kim [photo above of Christine and Kim; photo left of myself, Christine, Matt and other Christine] and hearing various stories of youthful hijinks, we drove through blowy snow back to Mississauga, having dinner at a Pickle Barrel with her friend Christine and her husband Matt. Given that the restaurant was five levels, would that be more of a Pickle Silo than an actual Barrel? Mediocre at best, at least the service was good enough. We wandered the mall where Christine apparently had her first date, hundreds of years ago.

And why have we not yet watched this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special?

Thursday, December 27, 2012: After a morning of wondering what the cat might get up to in Christine’s mother’s house, Christine and I wandered out into the mounds of snow that fell upon Toronto overnight.

We had tickets to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see their Frieda & Diego: Passion, Politics and Paintings show, which is in the midst of its final week. Christine knew much more of their work than I did, knowing only a bit of Frieda Kahlo and nothing of Diego Rivera, two of Mexico’s most well-known artists. During his lifetime, Rivera was enormously famous, yet Kahlo was the first modern Mexican artist to show work in the Louvre.

It was interesting to see the range of styles the two artists worked with, and the European influences that worked through a number of paintings, from Botticelli’s influence upon a particular Kahlo piece, to the Surrealists and Pablo Picasso, among others. The show presented the two artists as equals, two artists working side-by-side on their numerous projects, including a number they both did that included references to the other (including a great deal of self-portraits). A Christmas present from my lovely wife on our first married Christmas, was she saying I needed to refer to her more in my work? Or me in hers?

The AGO didn’t allow cameras in the exhibit itself, so we had to take photographs in other places, including the small exhibit immediately outside, as a coda to the show, created by a group of Toronto Island artists known as “Shadowland.”

With nearly an hour between finishing the Frieda & Diego show before our lunch reservations at the AGO restaurant, we found another exhibit that excited, Michael Snow: Object of Vision. Michael Snow has always been one of my favourite Canadian artists, existing in a number of realms concurrently. Paired with the presentation of the 2011 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, the exhibit had a number of large sculptural works, many of which require audience participation. What I’ve seen of Snow’s work over the years (including a number of pieces at the National Gallery of Canada), I notice that his work requires, if not outright demands, a particular shift in the viewer’s perception.

One work, called “Seated Sculpture” (1982), allows the viewer to sit inside.

My favourite was the work “Blind,” that I played in for a while. As Snow writes in the “Artist Statement” in the handout:

Several descriptive analogies relating to Blind come to mind: it’s like a three-dimensional cross-hatched drawing, an object that monumentalizes fading in and fading out, and in another film-related resemblance, it’s like a zoom. The spectator experiences optically what is called “depth of field” in reference to focusing with the camera lens at different planes. Viewing it requires the spectator to focus; movie effects happen as the spectator moves.

I stood inside for a while, taking pictures of Christine wandering through other parts of the gallery. 

Later on, Christine (at my request) took a picture of me inside the work. Wouldn’t this make the best author photo ever? For our collaborative project [see a fragment of such here], I’d love for a portrait of each of us inside the work, her on the front and I on the back (perhaps). Do you think such a thing would be difficult to achieve, permission-wise? I’d hope not.

From there, we had lunch in the restaurant, a set-lunch-menu with a Mexican-Spanish theme (to go along with the exhibit, obviously), and a Spanish wine as well. Magnificent!

Post-AGO, we hit a bookstore and spent much money. I picked up some trades of Avengers, Fables, Krazy + Ignatz, and some issues of McSweeney’s and Granta. Had we been here a bit longer, we might have had time to get a bit of writing done [as we did last year], but unfortunately, not. At least Saturday, again, will be a work day.

And then back to her mother’s, exhausted, to a quiet, quiet evening.

Friday, December 28, 2012: We looked at the snow, and we wondered. And we still drove home, due to the Peter F Yacht Club Christmas party/reading/regatta the following night.

Home, home, home.