Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Grain magazine 40.2: short grain contest issue,

he played injun in god’s country
where boys proved themselves clean

dumb beasts who could cut fire
out of the whitest sand

he played english across the trail
where girls turned plum wild

garlic and strained words
through the window of night

he spoke through numb lips and
breathed frontier (“injun,” Jordan Abel)

The “short grain contest issue” of Grain magazine is newly out, along with poems by the three prize-winners I picked as poetry judge. Picking from a stack of numbered poems, I selected a piece by Sean Howard for first prize, a piece by Jordan Abel for second, and a piece by Kate Marshall Flaherty for third. The fiction judge this time around was Lawrence Hill, who selected short fictions by Susan Mersereau, Madeline Sonik and Alexandra Sadinoff for first, second and third prizes. Before judging this contest, I hadn’t even heard of Vancouver poet Abel or Toronto poet Flaherty, and was quite taken with the work of Abel, to the point that I immediately had to find out where he was, and solicited a chapbook manuscript from him (his above/ground press title appeared earlier this month, and he even has his first trade collection out this year with Talonbooks).

The judges for this year’s contest, deadline April 1, 2013, are Toronto writer Stan Rogal for fiction, and Winnipeg writer Méira Cook for poetry.

Not that the issue is only and all about contests; Sandra Ridley has two remarkable poems in the new issue, titled “XIII” and “XV,” obviously part of a longer sequence that I would love to see at some point. Part of “XIII” reads:

When your darling thinks of it. When she was concerned with it then. When she believed in the meticulous awareness of sundries of detail. Despair became her whole history. She had a lack of willingness. A lack of discipline.

Her crudest form.

With the same insistence. She is compelled to tendency. Falls with a rigorous ferocity.


            Bitten arms.

                        Bitten hands.

Each imposition accumulated a certain privilege. A catechism given willingly. Or by force. A little later. You relegated her to her bed where you attached her true name. There. Your darling remains. Her body more constant than her mind.

                                                            Beside herself. Each confusion interchangeable.

She comes along. She comes happy.

Poet Emily Carr also has five new poems in the issue, influenced by the Tarot deck. As her biographical note reads, she is the author of “a Tarot novel. While Writer-in-Residence at Camac Centre d’Art, she composed Straight No Chaser on ‘the poetry of fear.’”

knight of wands

As if you were grass or dead—

The truth hums, the truth trembles. The truth holds.
(What do you want you ought to make up your mind.

Solitary for months Lord & she has learned to live directly—
(There’s been a change of wings at the drive-in.

Whitely I am ready to be Liberty says broken apart, revealed,

(Or do you believe I have no plot, even this was taken from
me, as all lies are…

(Would you catch that feeling: in fire & algebra, as windows
are opened, & a bomb is manoeuvered—)

& how she had become human to survive. & would she survive.

Quixotic when you say what is this festival of wet everywhere?
When you say “the sun burns & the lark is singing” what do you mean?

Come again?

What is the heroine to/do when love becomes transparent,
I mean treacherous—

The journal also celebrates forty years, a landmark that Toronto journal Descant recently celebrated as well. What does one gift for the journal that turns forty?

Here is the short “from the poetry judge” note I wrote, included in the issue:

There is an argument I’ve heard against author bios, most often heard after I make any kind of public complaint about a journal that excludes them, whether New American Writing or BafterC. Just who are some of these writers I’m reading? It’s the first thing I usually read in any lit journal. I always want to know more, get some context to the writing in front of me. Is there more I can read? A book, a chapbook, perhaps?

After going through the poetry entries for the 2012 Short Grain Competition, I think I understand the counter-argument a bit better now, able to read through a wealth of poems without interference or biographical baggage. I still haven’t changed my mind on the matter, but at least now I understand.

Perhaps this was why former Grain editor Sylvia Legris thought to bring me on to judge this year’s contest. Legris, who disagrees with me entirely on the issue. Perhaps this was her way to show and not tell, allowing me to come to my own realization. Or, perhaps, I’m simply reading far too much into this, as I so often do.

Contests can be difficult things, for a whole array of reasons, the most notable being, simply, that it is one person’s particular point-of-view. This might not be the list that you, reader, might have picked. This list is short, and simple-sweet. I picked the poems that struck me, and wouldn’t let me set them aside. I picked the poems I thought were doing the most interesting things, in the most interesting ways, according to my own particular biases. This is more difficult than one might think, if you haven’t gone through the process.

“Judging” implies so many things, a word packed with connotations. Let’s just say I opinioned, instead. Let’s just say I offered. As requested, here are the poems of this stack of pieces I thought deserving of prize-winning, in order:

FIRST PRIZE: "something like being (five flights, for rafi),"

I’ve long favoured the sequence, and this short-lined poem is fragmented, and entirely compact, packing in a space slightly smaller than the poem. Not all needs to be said to be articulated. In this poem, speech is made out of single words, and less than. It can be that simple, that complicated.

SECOND PRIZE: "injun,"

I’m fascinated by the movement here, the halts and spaces, the rhythms of this abecedarian-fragment, poems “j” to “o” of “injun.” Is there a full sequence somewhere of these? I’d love to see them. I liked very much how the poem questions and keeps questioning, the troubled naming of the title, the troubled past and complicated present. The politics and social upheavals are here, patterned through the broken words, the broken speech and hypnotic movements. I am so taken with just how this poem ebbs and breaks, and ebbs and flows.

THIRD PRIZE: "Gullywash,"

It was the last couplet I kept returning to, again and again. Something about those last two lines entirely struck, sharp and fantastic. There is a flood that happens, “Clears whole towns / in its wake.” Incredible. Otherwise, the opening strikes for its ruckus laughter, its language-play nearly subversive for the fact that it looks so damned fun. I admire the joy that moves through here, especially given the dark places the poem goes, without dismissing or diminishing the seriousness of that dark. Why do so many poems have to be dour?

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