Monday, December 05, 2022

introducing : rob's substack,

I started a substack recently: a space through which I'll be posting short essays (and the occasional other pieces), in part as a way to prompt me to more seriously work on a book-length essay I've had in my head over the past couple of years (a book-length essay on literary citizenship, structurally prompted, in part, through Wave Books' Bagley Wright Lecture Series titles). I've been making scattered notes since 2021, but hadn't really sat down to solidify any of it, so perhaps this will be what helps push that along.

Basically, pieces-as-posted are emailed directly to your in-box, and I'm aiming to post one a week or so, attempting to treat the project as a kind of weekly column. There are paid and free options, and I'm aiming possibly for every third piece to go out only to paid subscribers (given I have to make an income at something, I suppose). I already have nearly fifty subscribers signed up, including three of which that are paid, so it will be curious to see how this all evolves. Given the positive response I've been getting to my essays in the face of uncertainties (Mansfield Press, 2022) (launching in Toronto tonight, by the way), which is itself a book-length essay, a book-length thought, I'm curious to see where else I can go with the form. What else is possible?

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Amy Dennis, The Sleep Orchard: A Response to Arshile Gorky



My lover says I have called out
while asleep for beetroot juice and saffron, declared
the colour of dove’s blood is audible
and must

be written down. I don’t remember.
But know after waking I’ve scavenged

old papers to find antique recipes for ink, hungry
for a hallowed liquid to write about Gorky. In dreams
he is tall and looks into me.

Every morning his paint rattles my thin grasp
on language.

Having produced her chapbook THE COMPLEMENT AND ANTAGONIST OF BLACK (OR, THE DEFINITION OF ALL VISIBLE WAVELENGTHS) through above/ground press back in 2013, it is such a delight to see the full-length debut by Ontario poet Amy Dennis: The Sleep Orchard: A Response to Arshile Gorky (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2022). The Sleep Orchard is presented as a poetic response to the work of the late Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky (1904 – 1948), who, as a contemporary of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, was considered one of the most powerful American painters of the 20th century. “You loved me because I looked / like that period of Picasso,” she writes, as part of the sequence “MARNY GEORGE / AT 36 UNION SQUARE,” “when the walls were taken off / Pompeii. My pelvic cradle // a lava pond / filled with pottery / and ancient shards. I am almost dead / now. And you are ash in the meadow.” Dennis composes her book-length response via a sequence of self-contained narratives, each of which is set as a single step along a longer path; steps, or perhaps tarot cards: she turns over a card, each one offering a perspective that shifts, slightly, what might have come prior. And it is through this progression that she works to establish her portrait. As she writes to open the poem “STAGNATION, SWELL, / A SUDDEN FLESHING,” “The artist, / his hands, his mother’s absent / hands, painted over as clay blocks // because there’s no real way / of reaching.” There is something in the way Dennis works to not simply write through but into the work of Gorky, discovering, as well, the points where the artist and author begin to meet.

The poems of Dennis’ The Sleep Orchard move from examinations of specific artworks to certain biographical elements of an artist shaped through his escape from the Armenian genocide during the First World War as a child, to later suffering a variety of debilitating losses alongside his many accomplishments—a studio fire, the end of his marriage, cancer surgery and injuries garnered through an automobile accident—before he hung himself in a barn at the age of forty-four. As the poem “HIS WIFE, MOUGOUCH, AFTER / HER AFFAIR WITH MATTA” offers: “Moonstruck / raw, open for him // under the crystal liquids of a phosphor / chandelier—same light source, / years later, that the surrealists used, / blaming him for the suicide / of my husband, branding / his left breast with a hot iron, the word Sade / scorched over both // our breasts.” Her poems are emotionally dense, sharp and shaped but allow for a fluidity of lyric ebb and flow, working up to endings that less end than pause, perhaps, before one might either move into the next piece, or start over at the beginning. As the poem “GRIEF HAS NO WORDS, / ONLY A TRAILING OFF INTO THINGS / REMEMBERED INACCURATLY (MAKING / THE CALENDAR), 1947” begins: “This grey was once / made from the soot / of oil lamps. In its light, there were / voices.”

It is interesting that she refers to this collection as a “response” to Gorky, a designation that allows for critique, descriptive and biographical elements, but one that also isn’t constrained by those same details. One could mention a comparison to Edmonton-based Vancouver poet Catherine Owen’s own full-length debut, Somatic: The Life & Work of Egon Schiele (Toronto ON: Exile Editions, 1998), a collection of narrative lyrics suggested as biography but one, much as Dennis’, was shaped through the author’s own response to the life and the work of her chosen muse. And yet, in The Sleep Orchard, Dennis’ response is one that allows as much of herself to seep into the lyric as her subject. The poem “STILL LIFE WITH SKULL, 1927,” for example, is a poem that folds in the author’s separate experiences with childbirth and surviving a car accident with one of Gorky’s paintings. “The background of the painting a Delphic blue,” she writes, “tilting / at times into white // like my son’s umbilical cord before he was cut / from me. He was cut from me, our blood clamped. Last time // I felt pain like that was the car crash. I healed but my words / broke again as they made their way through my body.” It is as though, through exploring and responding to Gorky, Dennis is examining the very possibility of creating work through (despite and even beyond) her own shared layerings of physical and emotional trauma, whether parental loss, the ends of a marriage or injuries sustained in a car accident. Perhaps, through responding to Gorky’s losses and accomlishments, Dennis is able to see through his work to create her own. And for that, I am deeply grateful.


Did Sedrak feel pulled by the portrait he left
in his drawer: her face—unframed,
scratching under a scattering.

She starved. He slept
every night, clothed, with a hatchet. Who knows

what his death meant for Gorky, whether it swelled
the expanse of whale ribs or Faust, if it echoed in him
as folklore. Or, like the quick sting of sulfur
against phosphorus, the pain was small—the first strike
of a match when one leans in too close
to the flare.


Saturday, December 03, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Rebecca Hart Olander

Rebecca Hart Olander’s poetry has appeared recently in Jet Fuel Review, The Massachusetts Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere, and her collaborative visual and written work has been published in multiple venues online and in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Her books include a chapbook, Dressing the Wounds (dancing girl press, 2019), and her debut full-length collection, Uncertain Acrobats (CavanKerry Press, 2021). Rebecca teaches writing at Westfield State University and Amherst College, and works with poets in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. She is the editor/director of Perugia Press. Find her online at or @rholanderpoet.

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

Publishing my first full-length collection Uncertain Acrobats in November, 2021 has led to some great opportunities for me, such as being interviewed by you, for one, and getting to read with some folks I really admire at places at which I’ve been honored to read. For example, last year, the month the book came out, I was lucky enough to read with poets Doug Anderson, Tina Cane, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths at McNally Jackson Seaport Bookstore in NYC. Without a book, that would never have happened.

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

I’ve been told in the past that I should try writing fiction, but I’m entirely not interested in writing fiction, even though I love to read fiction. I wrote my first poem at seven, so I feel more like I’ve always been doing it than I “came to it.” My stepmother is the poet Christopher Jane Corkery, and so poetry was around me from a young age in a way that unquestionably influenced me.

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 really varies. There are those odd duck poems that arrive fully-fledged and almost ready to fly, but that’s only happened to me a handful of times. But my work also doesn’t come out of copious notes. I’ll either write when inspiration hits me over the head and forces the issue, or I’ll generate a draft through a prompt.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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 don’t generally have “projects” that would lead to a book from conception to birth. My first book was actually a project book, but it happened by osmosis vs. setting out to accomplish said project. I sort of pine for projects because I think they are cool, but for me I tend to write individual poems over a long period of time and then try to locate their confluences and relationships and work the project shape out of the material at hand vs. starting with a project concept.

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

I love public readings! It’s such a gift to have people come out to receive words I’ve written, and it’s really affirming to be able to interact with readers and also to listen to other writers read their work (so, I’d have to say my favorite readings are group readings). I love the surprise of an open mic, too, when you don’t know who’s going to read or what they’ll offer on a given night. Surprise is so important to good writing, and open mics kind of introduce that element to readings, I think.

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?

One of my main concerns is the passage of time and what that does to legacy, and memory, and even to living in the present moment. An awareness of transience is important to me, as is a desire to memorialize people and places and moments that have been important to me and that I think will have, or do have, some resonance for readers as well. So, I’m concerned with the tension between things passing and wanting to hold on to them. Hmm – for the last bit, do you mean what are the questions of the day, or what are MY current questions? I guess, either way, I believe in trying to be kind to others and affirming and inclusive when writing. So, good questions to ask ourselves when writing/publishing/performing would be who is being heard and who is being silenced? Who is being celebrated and what is being revered? What is being diminished or seen only partially or misunderstood? Generally I like playing with rhetorical questions when I write, and I do employ a lot of questions in my poems, but these are not rhetorical questions. These seem more necessary to ask and to answer when striving to be an ethical writer.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Writers can ask those hard questions, and others, and model doing so through how they share their work. Writers can encourage empathy, by expressing stories that widen perspective and understanding. Writers can bring joy by reminding us to feel joy and gratitude, or by distracting us from the mundane. Writers help inspire imagination and creativity. They can foster community by inviting dialogue and voicing what is necessary and hard to say in other ways/spaces.

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

Essential, absolutely. Sometimes I have to sit with edits before embracing them, and sometimes I don’t take editorial advice, but for the most part I only feel deep appreciation when someone reads my work on a cellular level and wants to help me make it the strongest manifestation it can be.

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

Persist! Uncertain Acrobats was submitted something like 60 times before it was accepted. If I’d let rejection get to me, I wouldn’t have published this book, which is all the stronger for having been revised and reshaped over the course of those many rejections, and many years.

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

I really love the idea of hybrid texts, so I think experimenting with writing different genres helps breed that eventual hybridized result. I no longer write book reviews because I don’t have the time—and I would write them with a LOT of care and time—BUT, writing them and getting inside the books of others in that critical way helped my own poetry writing without a doubt. When I have moved between creative genres, it has been less traditional genres. For example, I like to create collages with visuals and text, and I like writing in epistolary form and exchanging that writing. If I ever do shift genres, it feels fun and fruitful all at once. And I love collaboration as a method of creating. The appeal of that is the emphasis on play, community, and surprise, and it’s an avenue to openness.

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 a daily routine. My routine is more dictated by the seasons. Since I teach, I tend to have more time between semesters and in the summer. That’s when I make a point of creating routines so that I can milk every moment out of the possible time I have available to me.

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

Reading poets I admire is one steadfast answer. I also love traveling to new places, even local places I haven’t seen. Something about seeing new things tends to inspire me. Prompts also really work for me – I don’t tend to get stalled as a stop to my writing as much as I can’t find the time because I am otherwise over-committed. But when I have the time and want to write, I make it happen by going out in nature, reading, or responding to a generative prompt.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My original home is Gloucester, a small coastal city north of Boston, MA. So, when I smell salt water, especially the ocean, it always reminds me of home and also relaxes me and brings me joy, two feelings that, if we are lucky enough, are associated closely with home.

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?

Yes, this brings me back to my other answer about inspiration. I also love going to museums and writing ekphrastically, and sometimes science inspires me if I hear an interesting radio piece and learn something that blows my mind and makes me think about the world in a different way.

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

Even though I don’t write fiction, I think I get the most pleasure out of reading fiction vs. any other genre. I love the feeling of getting lost in a great novel and never wanting it to end and being totally absorbed in it. I can’t really read that way during the academic year while I am both teaching and running a small press, so those moments are saved for summertime and January. The writers that are most important to me are the ones I share writing communities with – the Perugia poets I publish, and the poets I am blessed to share writing groups and friendships with. It’s the sharing of work, but also the sharing of the writing life, that sustains me.

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

My first thought is travel to places I'd like to see that I haven’t: Greece, Turkey, British Columbia, and some of the states and places I haven’t seen here in the US, like Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico. I’d love to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain/France/Portugal. It would be cool to snorkel, and ride on a glass-bottomed boat. I’d like to be a grandparent. I’d like to publish another book.

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 have two jobs besides being a writer now – being an editor and a teacher. I don’t usually think of writing as my occupation, but I also don’t think of it as a hobby. It’s my life, the way I breathe. I’ve always loved libraries and bookstores, and I dig organizing things, so maybe owning a bookstore or directing a library. Or something to do with travel.

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

There’s not an option – it’s how I navigate the world.

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

The last great book was Anthony Doerr’s latest: Cloud Cuckoo Land. I loved it in a deep, abiding way and it felt necessary, enjoyable, enriching, surprising, and sustaining all at once. I watched some pretty great films online in the “virtual cinema” hosted by my local movie theater during the pandemic. I really enjoyed Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, Beans, and Hive. Based on those picks, I guess I prefer protagonists who are women and girls, stories that are based on true events, and films that teach me something new.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve just launched the annual contest for Perugia Press, which invites submissions of first and second full-length manuscripts from women-identified poets. We’re also about to release this year’s book, American Sycamore by Lisbeth White, so that’s exciting! I’m prepping my fall courses as I’ll be back teaching in a couple of weeks. For my own poetic work, I’m looking forward to going back at revising my second full-length collection, which I hope to submit for publication this fall.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, December 02, 2022

Edward Byrne, Tracery


Behind the weather
the storm

behind a
rhetoric of clouds

Behind capital
the war

at odds
with the adages
argument conceals (“(TRACER)”)

I’ve been enjoying the poetry collection Tracery (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2022), the latest from Vancouver poet and editor Edward Byrne, a lyric meditation of in-transit pinpoints and sequences that collect together to form a kind of thinking portrait of daily and domestic thinking. His poems are composed via short takes and phrases, accumulations of hesitations, pauses and small points, akin to a lyric reminiscent of the poem-length lineations of Monty Reid, Cameron Anstee, the late Nelson Ball, or possibly Robert Creeley: each poem offering a meditative slice of dailyness composed through a single, ongoing, staggered line. “You are a point of no return,” he writes, in part six of the numbered thirty-poem sequence “MORNING SONGS,” “this and every morning / where my thoughts / exit from dream’s grasp / never grasped / all the little signs / all your stars blinking out [.]” Byrne composes a precision of small points along a continuous thought, offering a pacing of slow, accumulative and artful steps, each one carefully set. As the first poem in the six-poem sequence “(TRAME)” reads: “This morning on Union Street / I saw Arthur Rimbaud on a girl’s bicycle // And then / close behind him / Jean Seberg // They smiled at me and waved // Then came Antonin Artaud / weaving and shouting curses // None of them wore helmets // I worry about their heads / which I adore [.]” Byrne’s pacing demands an attentive eye, composed with care across each phrase, each line. His poems exist simultaneously in the present moment as well as across vast distances, allowing the short form to contain such enormous volumes. Composed, as the back cover offers, “in a time of plague, through dreams and daily life,” Byrne moves easily through his translations of lyric form and the shimmering space between dreaming and daily tasks, catching memories across the dawn’s sweep of early morning clouds. He traces his lyric, one might suggest, around and through the minutae of his present moment. And, closing the collection, his engagements with responding to works by poets such as Blaser, Aragon, Rilke, Artaud, H.D. and Dante allow for the shape of not only influence but response, offering a lyric of experience and fine craft:

The wayward conveyance
of these small songs
against the fog of morning
before the rain
by slight of hand
where the letters are mobile
a variant turning
by the ear’s fine judgment

There is something curious about how so much poetry out of Vancouver is centred on movement, whether Bryne’s compositions while riding BC Transit, on bicycle or on foot, comparable to Meredith Quartermain’s walking [see her 2005 collection Vancouver Walking] or George Stanley riding a similar Vancouver bus route [see my review of his 2008 collection Vancouver: a poem here], to George Bowering thinking his way through Duino Elegies via Kerrisdale. In comparison, there aren’t many poems I’m aware of composed overtly across the lines of the Montreal Metro, or Toronto’s GO Trains, let alone their expansive subway system (although bpNichol famously spoke first-draft thoughts into a hand-held tape machine while driving the distance between Coach House and Therafields). In certain ways, there’s almost something comparable to Vancouver’s transit-poems to England’s handful of poems composed on foot, responding to the uniquely-English meditative tradition of walking vast countryside distances [see my review Mark Goodwin’s 2014 collection Steps, for example, here]. Frank O’Hara may have composed a collection of poems during his lunch break, but, more recently, Mary Austin Speaker composed her 2016 collection, The Bridge, while riding daily commuter distances across New York’s Manhattan Bridge [see my review of such here]. How much, we might begin to ask, has literature been shaped through the physical requirements of each author’s particular geography? As Byrne offers as part of “MORNING SONGS”: “I saw Kirilov / fifty years ago / on the Barton Street bus / and again this morning / on 6th Avenue // One of us hasn’t changed / in all those years [.]” Or further in the same sequence, writing:

Woke this morning
without the burden
of love and loss

Cold air of October
ate my hopes
as I returned
to where I fell

The crows
at war
in the high branches

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Laura Jaramillo, Making Water


I’ve never liked anything more than time. The rites of spring in the strip mall parking lot. What flesh can do in masses with the violet day through the slats. A tendency to float de-realized above the afternoon, bodies on the gravel.


People ask if in America we only eat hamburgers. Dust that traverses the sun’s rays down to its depth (“QUARRY”)

The latest from Queens poet and Durham, North Carolina resident Laura Jaramillo is the poetry collection Making Water (New York NY: Futurepoem Books, 2022), a thread of fifteen extended sequences constructed via short lyric bursts of prose layerings. “Failure not visible on body’s surface yet.” she writes, early in the poem “AUTOIMMUNITY,” “She picked up a small magazine called Time Cuts Us into Pieces.” Her second collection, appearing a decade after the publication of her full-length debut, Material Girl (subpress, 2012), Jaramillo’s Making Water writes across and aside narratives, composing an extended, taut, lyric book-length sentence as an indictment on language, poetry and community; of poets, readers, relationships and other losses. “I sold most of my books.” she writes, early in the poem “BAD MAGIC,” “The city will forget my face tomorrow [.]” Two pages further, she offers: “I will never be so alone again as I was then / and it aches [.]”

Through this book-length sentence of accumulations, Jaramillo works the long poem to articulate desolation, agency, nostalgia, loss and longing that extends through and across poles of trauma and melancholy. These are poems on love that articulate being, and the aftereffects and conditions of heartbreak, while seeking out, fully and finally, a most difficult sequence of possible truths. There is such an elegant tension to her lines, such a lush and beautiful anxiety through her extended lyric. The only way around, one might say, is through, and she articulates her progress with such delicate, difficult beauty. As the poem “BAD MAGIC” continues: “All of history the story of its retraction. The squats and encampments taken over by the knifey glamour of filial names and economics, the ecstasy of class and mirrored display. If the storage unit throws our clothes and our letters in the trash, let us not live / in remembrance of them [.]”