Tuesday, October 23, 2018

25th Anniversary of above/ground press at OIWF: w Ridley, McElroy + Mangold

25th Anniversary of above/ground press
with Sandra Ridley, Gil McElroy and Sarah Mangold
Hosted by Stephen Brockwell
as part of the ottawa international writers festival

"The impact of above/ground press has been so great, some authors can’t remember a time without it."
Apt. 613
Tuesday, October 30, 2018
7pm, Christ Church Cathedral • 414 Sparks Street Ottawa

As part of its silver anniversary year, the above/ground press has produced a limited edition set of single-poem broadsides by an array of above/ground press authors.

Curated by publisher/editor rob mclennan and designed by Christine McNair, the series will be launched by Sarah Mangold, Gil McElroy [pictured] and Sandra Ridley, who will be joined on-stage by rob mclennan for a conversation on the press’s twenty-fifth year. Moderated by Stephen Brockwell.

More details on the broadsides to be announced very soon! Copies will, of course, be available at the event;

See Sandra Ridley's bio here ; Gil McElroy's bio here ; Sarah Mangold's bio here

for further information on the event and the festival, check out the link here

Monday, October 22, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with David Hadbawnik

David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and medieval scholar. His Aeneid Books 1-6 was published by Shearsman Books in 2015. In 2012, he edited Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf (Punctum Books), and in 2011 he co-edited selections from Jack Spicer’s Beowulf for CUNY’s Lost and Found Document Series. He has published academic essays on poetic diction in English poetry from the medieval through early modern period, and is Assistant Professor of English at American University of Kuwait. His latest book, Holy Sonnets to Orpheus and Other Poems, was published by Delete Press in 2018.

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

Hardly at all, other than giving me the confidence that someone out there cared about my work. But that is to be expected given that the book, Ovid in Exile (Interbirth Books, 2007), was published by a small press as a labor of love. My most recent work, Holy Sonnets to Orpheus and Other Poems (Delete Press, 2018), builds on the translation practice I developed for Aeneid books 1-6 (Shearsman, 2015) and includes a free translation of some of Virgil’s Eclogues, responses to various “canonical” poems, and an extended sonnet sequence that plays off Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The practice became wilder and freer, and overall I just tried to have even more fun with it.

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

For a long time I was a fiction writer – my first short story, in second grade I think, was about a boy getting attacked by a robot as he walked home from school. And straight through high school and college, though I dabbled with poetry here and there, I focused on fiction. In my twenties I moved to San Francisco and began studying with Diane di Prima, and that was that.

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?

It depends. Working on translation, say, of the Aeneid, is a very slow but satisfying process, because there I copy out the Latin and then rough out a translation, then write the “poem” version by hand in a different notebook, and finally type it into a document, editing and shaping along the way – so day by day, there are incremental but tangible results. For most of the poems in Holy Sonnets… I worked much more quickly, but it still helped to have some framework to start from, be it an actual translation or another poem I was responding to or a sense of sequence that I could plug into each day.

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?

After 20-plus years I still don’t know how to start a poem. It’s a mystery to me. As it should be, perhaps. Sometimes I consciously start a project and keep at it for a long time and then the whole thing falls apart and I have to move on. Other times I like to work from exercises, which can seem either fun or contrived, depending. And then, as they say, there are the poems that just sort of arise seemingly from nowhere and tell you where they want to go. My first book was kind of like that, but for the Virgil I had to make conscious decisions and sort of nudge it along. As I get older there is less of the sustained “inspiration”-type poetry but more of a comfort level and confidence that it’s actually headed somewhere.

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

There’s a huge sense of anxiety around readings for many of us – others’ as well as our own – and I’m not immune to that. I think if you let the anxiety take over it can be counter-productive, in the sense that you might find yourself trying to please a certain crowd or meet some imaginary standard. But in fact poems live to be heard, and it’s important to sort of air them out and get that living response. I enjoy doing readings because I’m confident in the work and over time I feel I’ve developed a way of performing the poems that does them justice. Living in the Middle East as I have for the past three years, I don’t get to do readings nearly as often as I’d like; I’ve only been able to do one reading for Aeneid after the full book came out, and two so far for the new book, but I would love to do more.

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?

Not at all, and in fact the theory I absorbed over ten years of grad school, while it was often fun and exhilarating to read, was detrimental to my poetry and had to be “unlearned” before I could pick up the thread and move forward. Having said that, I’m trying to discover ways to push at the concept of “translation.” As a medievalist, it’s striking to me that poets from previous ages didn’t really have these categories: “this is an original poem,” “this is a translation,” “this is an adaptation,” etc. There was just verse. You dipped into it and borrowed and shaped what you liked. So I guess the questions I’m grappling with – more trying to ask than answer – are “What is translation? Why do we need to think of something as a translation? What does it mean to divvy up poems into these categories?”

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 like what Lew Welch had to say; something like, “the poet’s job is to listen to the din of the tribe and make a song out of that.” And outside of First-world, Western culture, that’s still very much what poetry seems to be. It’s been lost in the noise of late capitalism for many of us, but that seems to me the job.

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

I’ve been blessed with editors who are very supportive and easy to work with. Since small-press poetry is, as previously mentioned, so often a labor of love, there’s a real opportunity for poets to be involved in the editing, design, and even marketing process of a book as it’s made. Besides engaging with editors in the area of content, I’ve enjoyed having input on the latter elements of the process. As someone who’s been on the “editor” side of things, I really appreciate when a poet I’m working with embraces that role. What you are entering into when you agree to publish with someone is a relationship, and it goes both ways; the poems don’t magically appear in the world after they’re written. So for example with Jared Schickling and Crane Giamo at Delete Press for Holy Sonnets, I suggested an artist to provide the cover image, solicited the art from him, and had a really productive back-and-forth with the editors as the book went through the editing and design process, discussing everything from typeface to page breaks to the dimensions of the book to the cover design.

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

Diane di Prima says that a writer is someone who writes. This simple but profound statement completely removes the need for validation beyond one’s own relationship to the writing, and gives infinite permission to experiment, write badly, mess up, and start over as one learns the craft.

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

It’s terribly difficult and I find that I am a “one thing at a time” type of writer. If I’m writing a critical essay then chances are I will have to submit to that process until it’s over. I see little distinction between poetry and translation, so that’s easier, but still by and large it’s one project at a time. The appeal of moving between genres is that different topics require different modes of attention and thus different forms, so one does well to keep fluent in them as much as possible.

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?

A day begins if possible with a run. Being in the desert, that usually means the gym, but I run outside whenever and wherever possible. This helps get the blood pumping, clears the mind, and sets the tone for the day. As for a writing routine, that’s tough, but I carry a small notebook wherever I go and I try to write something in it, no matter how brief, every single day. When working on the Aeneid translation I try to copy out and translate 15-20 lines per day, which I find is a good discipline and something I can do in the 30-45 minutes I have before the demands of the day rush in.

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

I go back to the basics and play games with words and just try to notice something in the world that takes me out of myself.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Mowed lawn.

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?

Different things at different times. For a long time it was jazz – the avant-garde music scene in the Bay Area during the late 90s / early aughts, along with the greats like John Coltrane, Grachan Moncur, Albert Ayler, et al. who influenced them; going to art museums and galleries in the great cities; just standing for hours on end looking at the Diego Rivera murals in the Detroit Institute of Art, where I spent so many days during college.

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

I am endlessly inspired by writers who translate / channel / “creatively adapt” older forms of literature. This really begins for me with Chaucer, who almost never writes something wholly original but is always making a new version of something, with a particular and often hilarious twist. If we’re talking contemporary writers, then Anne Carson, Patience Agbabi, Thomas Meyer, Christopher Logue… Just last week I came across a newish book by Peter O’Leary called The Sambo, a reworking of part of a Scandinavian epic, and I was blown away by it.

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

Write a novel. Record an album. Translate something wild and obscure from medieval Latin.

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?


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

Lack of skill as a musician.

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

Book: Valis by Philip K. Dick, which wasn’t so much “great” as mind-blowingly weird. Film: Black Panther, which did a pretty good job of being a kick-ass action film that also packed a powerful message.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Since it’s summer, I’m trying to push through the last couple books of the Aeneid, while also catching up on various academic essays, despite my “one thing at a time” rule.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Michael Turner, 9x11


My current project is based on the later poems of Baudelaire. I have on my table a copy of Paris Spleen and a stack of books about his work, stuff that is not yet online.

I am interested in his thoughts on poetry, how he arrived at making poetry through prose. I am less interested in distinguishing between poetry and prose than I am in our perceptions of them.

Perceptions are what I am particularly interested in, like what I said about stock narratives, stereotypes… Perceptions, like nightingales, are two things poets have to work with. (“9x11”)

The latest from Vancouver writer Michael Turner is 9x11 (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2018), subtitled “and other poems like Bird, Nine, X and Eleven.” A follow-up, one might suspect, to his previous poetry title, 8x10 (Penguin, 2009) [see my review of such here], both for the minimalist form displayed throughout, as well as the obvious linkages between titles, but a collection that also plays very much off the ripples and consequences surrounding September 11, 2001. Composed as short, lyric vignettes, 9x11 is a book of distances and collisions, of ground-level street life, including coffeeshops, corner groceries and contemporary housing anxieties. Turner writes of a constant, and underlying potential for violence and repeated near misses, referencing a series of tensions, and acts of terror both contemporary and historically, such as the poem “Synesthesia,” that includes: “not the opposite of bombs dropped / concurrently on Hanoi, Nam Dinh and Viet Tri / but the appearance of an opposite / because what was sent to the moon / and what fell on North Vietnam / was the coffee mom bought at the supermarket [.]” Or, as the poem “Cold War” opens:

all day long we accumulate, and when we stop to ask ourselves why
we are shown a Soviet bread line, or a winter’s day in July

a spy satellite explodes – the Space Shuttle – and Israel responds
with bombs on Southern Lebanon

South Africa is a class problem, not a race problem, and for saying so
she is beaten by her sisters

In short, sharp lyric turns, Turner blends the daily mundane with the horrific, articulating how easily such terror becomes muted, presented and eventually dismissed, writing out wars in other places, and left far behind, yet with a violence that often perseveres; carries through, is carried, and continued. As the press release informs: “How you view 21st century life depends largely on the view from your place, which depends on where you can afford to live. In this suite of texts and poems written over twenty years that span the infamous towers, Michael Turner drops in to see what condition he’s in, a subject whipped into insistence by the rhythms that shape his city, his neighbourhood, his universe.”

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Christine McNair wins the Archibald Lampman Award for Charm (Book*hug, 2017)

In case you hadn't heard, my brilliant spouse Christine McNair won this year's Archibald Lampman Award for Best Book of Poetry in the Ottawa Region (an award administered by Arc Poetry Magazine) at Ottawa City Hall on Wednesday night for her second poetry collection, Charm (Book*hug). Congratulations! Amazing hoorays! And, as she has been pointing out, she is but only a small handful of women to win such an award, after the thirty-something year old prize has gone, repeatedly, even, to a small handful of men. So, further hoorays!

Further of the English-language Ottawa Book Awards (prizes are awarded in both French and English) included brand-new-father Shane Rhodes' Dead White Men (Coach House Books) [see my review of such here] winning the Ottawa Book Award (fiction category) and Roy MacGregor's Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada (Penguin Random House of Canada) winning the Ottawa Book Award (non-fiction category); MacGregor mentioned as part of his acceptance speech that they'd found out that day they needed a new furnace which, coincidentally, was going to cost exactly the amount he'd won as part of the prize, so he added relief to the surprise of his win. 

And yes, Christine was technically in Toronto on a course all last week; she actually flew home from Toronto just in time for the event, heading back out for another two days of course on some god-awful 7am Thursday morning flight. Could you blame her, not wanting to miss out on her first book award?

As fun as it was, though, it was "dry" this year for some reason, which actually made me miss the years' worth of needlessly-expensive wine offered at prior ceremonies...

Friday, October 19, 2018



The woman at the Native American Cultural Center wears her Indian proudly. The earrings are turquoise but she is Creek, a member of the Cherokee Nation. You are harder to recognize. One grandfather who headed west two years before the state of dispossessed Chippewa formed their own federally recognized tribe. He left everything of his heritage behind. You came later, at a time without tribe, family, your Native tongue. You withstand the genealogy exercise, smile, tell what you know, apologize for what you do not. She is kind, she will embrace you, but she wants to know what kind of Indian you are first. This is both old and new. Lineage is important: blood lines define clans, delineate tribal communities. But blood quantum is new. Established by the government in 1934, it is one of many gifts of the Indian Reorganization Act whose purpose is to define membership, restrict recognition, effect the eventual termination of federally recognized tribes. It is how you end up being a fraction of. The rules not withstanding, the Creek woman introduces you to the others as if you are one of them. But when you leave the Center, by virtue of blood law, you are already disappeared.

I’m admittedly late to the game on Bay Area poet Aja Couchois Duncan, a poet I discovered thanks to BAX 2018 [see my review of such here], quickly moving to pick up a copy of her debut collection, RESTLESS CONTINENT (Brooklyn NY: Litmus Press, 2016). In RESTLESS CONTINENT, Duncan utilizes the short and long-forms of the poetic line and prose structures to focus on the minutae of, and responsibilities inherent to, language, culture and human interaction. “No language considers itself part of another.” she writes, to open the poem “GRAMMAR :”: “It is not just the / eyes or lips or the fault line cleaving muscle from earth, its bone.” In her piece “What Story Will Love You Like I Do?,” included in the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004)—a book I’m a bit disappointed I missed her in (I know, I know: there were forty-eight contributors included, but still)—she wrote:

We know culture the same way we know the body; there are markers, symbols, rituals, events. And like the body, culture is multitudinous, discordant, beyond its disparate recordings.

The poems throughout this collection are exploratory, documenting the world from which she has emerged through pieces composed in a lyric sensibility both sensuous and rich. As she writes to open the poem “RECUSANT :”:

England has inspired many rebellions. Something about the dampness, the fog and stone. When the colonies threw off their master, the penchant for boiled potatoes remained. I do not worship in the Church of England, but I was baptized by the hands of its descendants. I can still name all of jesus’ disciples, describe every betrayal.

This is an absolutely remarkable book, debut or otherwise. Duncan’s poems are teeth and skin and gut and bone, writing desire and an alphabet cut with a sharp knife, taming what can’t be forced, writing out what shouldn’t become lost, and punching up into what can’t be reasoned with. Structured in ten sections of prose poems occasionally stretched into sequence, the book is focused into a series of stand-alone accumulations or broken down to the strength of each individual word. Duncan’s narrator feels very caught between the opposing sides of the legacies of colonialism against the North American aboriginal peoples, both of whom she can claim descent from, a binary she attempts to write her way through to at least comprehend, if not entirely achieve comfort in. As the poem “BAGIJIGAN :” writes:

Offering. I have only this. A life without footprints.

From the rooftop anything is possible. Free of ground and its gravities, there is no track of your departure. I found a book of two tongues from which I describe twilight. I too am this in-between thing.

Miziwekamig is not earth. It is adverb; it is strewn about and across. Aki is the name by which the earth is called in secret, what I would have whispered into the soft yield of your belly if you had remained. Now, alone, I could call the world akiiwan, this celestial body. To be gravity and mass, to cling to what you know. I would have given you this, my slippery tongue, but you were walking backward toward the edge of the rooftop. Beyond you was the emptieness of horizon, asphalt, another inamiate future self.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

David Helwig : April 5, 1938 – October 16, 2018

Sad to hear that Canadian writer David Helwig died this past Tuesday, after a brief stay in palliative care. It was good to know, at least, that he was able to see and appreciate Ingrid Ruthig’s work editing David Helwig: Essays on His Works, a book that managed to appear mere weeks before his death. My own small contribution to such, solicited by the editor, was the “12 or 20 questions” interview I did with him, way back in December, 2009.

I moved through a number of Helwig works during my twenties, and he was even good enough to read for me at one point, somewhere in the early 1990s, when I was running poetry events as benefits for the Ottawa Food Bank. The collections of essays he edited, The Human Elements (two volumes), were important books for my young self. And he was always both kind and attentive those few times we did interact. During a trip to London with Stephen Brockwell back in 2006, I actually brought his then-new memoir with me to read [see my review of such here], and sat afternoons in a park by Westminster Abbey, moving slowly through his adventures in Kingston, in both writing and theatre circles.

Condolences to his friends and family.