Friday, March 12, 2004

Here's a great review by Montreal/Winnipeg poet & editor Jon Paul Fiorentino, from the on-line Prairie Fire Review of Books. I liked this a lot. His new collection, Hello Serotonin, just came out with Coach House Books.

Groundswell: the best of above/ground press 1993-2003, ed. rob mclennan
Fredericton, NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55391-012-5, 212 pp., $24.95(Cdn) / $19.00 (US) paper.

The cover of Groundswell features a photograph of a huge stack of above/ground press chapbooks (presumably in Joe Blades's bookcase). If you are reading this review, you most likely know exactly what this looks like: solid colour, saddle stitched, photocopied 8.5 X 5.5 poetry tracts, lovingly, if sometimes sloppily, prepared by small press activist and lowercase poet rob mclennan. The cover of this anthology turns out to be the perfect book design--it's impossible to tell one above/ground press publication from another from a side view and it's correspondingly impossible to keep track of mclennan's work as an indie chapbook publisher--the publications are too frequent. Lately, I have found myself with little time to catch up with all of mclennan's poetic discoveries, and so the chapbooks and broadsides pile up on my bookshelf (I could most likely reproduce that cover image with my joycam). So, too many chapbooks, too little time, and now I am faced with a 212-page anthology documenting the rarities and the best of the last ten years of above/ground.

In this anthology, like in any good anthology, there are true gems and curiosities. Dennis Cooley's "two untitled poems" confirm his continual desire for his own prairie project; jwcurry's postmodern blurring in "5 or 4 poems" is a frustrating tease--I would like to see a new jwcurry book at some point; Anne Stone's "Sweet Dick All" is a beautiful mess of visual art and textual/sexual imagery. On the curious side, we find Stephanie Bolster's early work as a lowercase poet in "Three Bloody Words," which is stylistically different from her well-known poetry, yet shares similar subject matter (Alice Liddell makes an early appearance here); mclennan's own "had I written a poem about Montreal it would have looked like this" is a fun exercise in Montreal fetishism--a visual poem made up of transit slips and "cut and paste" nameless bio notes.

At first, I was not entirely delighted to ruminate on the sheer volume of mclennan's publishing endeavour. But through reading this anthology I found myself delighting in its eclecticism, its exuberance, its brashness. mclennan is all about unapologetic publishing. He does not play the typical Canlit games of formalist, avant-garde or essentialist posturing. He does not cater to precious boutique-oriented notions of published poetry. We need more rob mclennans in Canada--we need people who are brave enough to make room on their bookshelves for a plurality of aesthetics. As evidenced by the first ten years of above/ground press, mclennan's tastes are far ranging and rooted in a love of poetry, free from political ambition. As a publisher, mclennan strives to celebrate the obscure, as well as the established, the new as well as the old. This means that in that stack of unread above/ground material on my bookshelf, there are likely many poets published for the first time alongside Canlit vets like Michael Holmes, Dennis Cooley, or George Bowering. This is important. I have some catching up to do.

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I will argue, though, that the cover does allow for knowing which books are which. From Joe Blades' brilliant cover photo, I can pick out at least a third of the titles.
rob mclennan