Thursday, December 30, 2004

ongoing notes, December 2004

Hamilton ON: I think by the time I knew who or what Gary Barwin was, he was no longer making regular publications through his serif of nottingham editions, usually self-published chapbooks of poetry and/or fiction for the semi-annual Toronto Small Press Book Fair. One of the "Toronto surrealists," Barwin could uneasily be explained if Stuart Ross and David W. McFadden could ever have offspring.

When we read together in September (at an event with at least 2,000,000 readers, he being the first & me being one of the last), he handed me a publication of his strange visuals, the chapbook a periodic table of the alphabet (serif of nottingham editions, 2003). Ranging from clever tricks of formatting to drawings and altered images, Barwin seems to be one of the few Canadians working with concrete and visuals over the years that has really kept with it for some time; somewhere between the work of derek beaulieu and jwcurry.

A prolific writer, he is also included in Stuart Ross’ lovely anthology of Toronto surrealist poets, Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian poets under the influence, newly out from Toronto’s Mercury Press. As Victor Coleman wrote of Barwin in "An Eglected: Writing Toronto in the Eighties" (Open Letter, Eighth Series, Number 9: Summer 1994),

"His work represents a tradition of Southwestern Ontario pixilation that includes David McFadden, Robert Fones, Kurt Swinghammer, Dennis Tourbin, John B. Boyle, the late Greg Curnoe and, stretching it a bit, James Reaney. There’s something significant in his keeping literary company with the aforementioned because, with the exception of McFadden and Reaney, all are interdisciplinary aritsts. In Barwin’s case the other discipline is music (he’s currently working on a music degree from SUNY/Buffalo where he, surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time with the New Poetics/Black Mountain II crowd)."

Other recent works include Frogments from the Frag Pool (poetry with derek beaulieu; The Mercury Press, forthcoming), Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth (fiction; The Mercury Press, 2004), Raising Eyebrows (poetry; Coach House Books, 2002), and Outside the Hat (poetry; Coach House Books, 1998). If you want to find out what the hell he’s done lately through his little press, email him at

Mt. Pleasant ON: kemeny babineau, it seems, has been around for some time, even though he hasn’t, really. His most recent package included two of his own chapbooks, Winter’s End and A Collection of Water, as well as his The Theory of Half Truths, and Harold Rhenisch’s Snow. So far, most of what he has produced has been his own work, but he has been branching out into other areas. His small publication, HUE MANITEE (forGer ryGil bert) is pretty fun, and includes this piece:

Trojan Condoms

for when its got
the false gift
inside the walls

and the horse
cock is spilling men
blood and pillage laud

to steal a king’s
daughter for the king
dong, king-
dom cum, for

At least, if nothing else, the boy is reading Gerry Gilbert and Erin Moure poems. His chapbook A Collection of Water has some interesting moments in it too, and it’s fun to watch Babineau try out different things, to see how they fit, and watching him evolve as a writer as he does. Besides, I think it’s been a while since we’ve seen a poet write about that part of the country, between Hamilton and London and Buffalo. History always manages to come back again.

What I want to know is

(what was Simcoe
on his head
when he was paddled
up the Thames
toward where London
Colonel Talbot
at his sleeve
The shore
an unbroken
growing darker
by the hour, what
sort of song
did the paddle sing
as Simcoe concocted
his scheme to defeat)

the american’s Dream

Try him, c/o Laurel Reed Books, 206 Maple Avenue, Mt. Pleasant Ontario N0E 1K0 or via His catalog says that "current titles are available for trade sale barter or beg – send chapbooks, small donations, stamps or good wishes." Done.

Another item in the same package was the first issue of a magazine he’s editing/publishing called The New Chief Tongue, a simple 8 ½ x 11 stapled on the side (reminiscent of two other newer publications, Daniel f. Bradley’s fhole and John Barlow’s Kenetic, but Babineau’s TNCT not as well designed), with some interesting contributions by quite a range of writers, including David Fujino, Penn Kemp, Anne Onimous, Jason Christie, John B. Lee, Brian Babineau, Kathryn Carter, Nelson Ball, Rob Read, Harold Rhenisch, Shane Plante, Mike Clancy, Barbara Caruso, Mary J. Williams and Malcolm Randall. Subtitled "Brantford’s Own Literary Way," I do like the fact that he distributes these for free. How can he afford to do that?

Ottawa ON: Even though she’s only recently moved here, why not call it here. Erin Bidlake, who recently arrived from the west, with her chapbook, SEEDS. Published by JackPine Press in November 2003, the relatively young Saskatoon chapbook press produces limited edition runs of books in unusual formats, whether in cloth bags, or in the case of this one, a seed bag. As she begins, in the poem "INSTRUCTIONS FOR GARDENING," writing:

You must begin with tools,
anything wooden
or older than
your oldest fencepost

Gather seeds.
Look under any bush or tree,
slip your fingers
into the mouth of a lily,
remove its tongue,

plant it.

I’m still new to her work, but am interested to hear her read as part of a new season of the Factory Reading Series at Gallery 101 on Thursday, February 17th, reading with Shane Rhodes and Rob Winger.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


The review I wrote of Vancouver poet Mari-Lou Rowley’s last two poetry collections for The Danforth Review. The updated web page for Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory. The review I wrote of Di Brandt’s Now You Care, Suzanne Zelazo’s Parlance & nathalie stephens’ Paper City (all Coach House Books) for The Antigonish Review. Some of the photos Max Middle took for the fall 2004 edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival here. My friend Tom Fowler takes over the artwork of DC’s monthly Green Arrow title here. Robert Kroetsch has a great new poetry collection here. The piece I wrote on John Newlove’s last poem here. The return of William Hawkins, Ottawa’s most dangerous poet. A neat piece by Louis Cabri on hole magazine that he and Rob Manery used to run in Ottawa. Some poems by Jon Paul Fiorentino + others. Some poems by Rachel Zucker. Poems and listings of Ottawa literary events. My Ploughshares author page. Paste magazine, that has amazing compilation cds of new music with every issue. Two older reviews, one of Gerry Shikatani’s First Book, 3 Gardens of Andalucia (The Capilano Review) and Jacqueline Turner’s Careful (ECW Press). Some very odd things involving The Prize Budget for Boys. I recently discovered the work of Ottawa artist Christopher Griffin, that I quite like. I’m working to edit an issue of Australia’s Jacket magazine on George Bowering, but it isn’t finished yet. Have you heard who replaced him as Canada’s second Parlimentary Poet Laureate? Michael Winter’s blog. Mark Truscott’s blog. Ron Silliman’s blog. Some funny cartoons. Happy Decemberwe’en, everybody.
Rachel Zucker

The past few months I’ve been getting more and more into the poetry of New York poet Rachel Zucker, after discovering her work in the first issue of the annual Xantippe (Oakland, California), the absolutely brilliant long poem "The Squirrel in the Palm." A poem in twenty-five parts, apparently written from December 27 to 30, 2001 from "New York – Savannah – New York," and opening line, "a mother without her children is everywhere a woman in a foreign country."

11. consider the body’s aptitude for salvage

cage of regret, nostalgia, ideas, description leaking in trivial half-lives

and technology an even greater failure : the silver-small camera is so compact it lacks the heft for seeing. Think of your skull that holds the eyes the brain that must make sense and them remember. Film is a flimsy predator for trees.

and words?

the palm escapes my everything but wonder

Perhaps the only poet I would consider comparing to Toronto writer Margaret Christakos, talking sensually through language about mothering and children, letting it wrap around long lines and lively action. I’ve not seen anyone use line lengths and spacing so well, her lines almost a counterpoint to the way Saskatoon poet Sylvia Legris uses short lines and spacing. There seem few poets who really acknowledge and understand the use of blank space on a page, and Zucker does it well, especially in the sixth section, that reads only, "6. the opposite of freedom is intimacy / [. . .] / travel is the collision of both." Written during a short trip, the New York resident and mother of two, at the end of "12. alone, the room gets smaller despite there being fewer people," writes:

so drag myself to watchfulness with a stab of catastrophic thinking and so tired, delighted I’ve half a mind to leave them and no mind left to do it and nothing to spare of this utter love incongruous

mother in a foreign

There is so much here to quote, that I could end up repeating the whole poem, written out of the divisions we end up making for ourselves, from mother to lover to woman writing, from the fragment "15. [birthing, ––]" that includes "the child becomes a wedge between her actions and self like a cyclone of gauze wraps himself / around her mothering and makes a hollow form," to "16. night alone, Savannah," the narrator talking of her son, writing, "Sleep with me he says. I like the other sheets, he says. Lime in my sippy cup? anything to keep / me. // Object of desires, I never satisfy because my very body is impractical, boundaried, impermanent." Is there a way to bridge the gaps we end up making?

19. coffee shop, fire in the hearth, a room of men

newspapers, garish paintings, poor lighting. the room hums with indifference and steaming milk. the foam is a perfect companion.

the man/boy with the black rimmed glasses and comics a condiment for some lightly-battered in-the-basket feast.

and me with my undercover stretch marks, I am almost leaving. although the focal point, deep vortex that demands me calls it, "returning"

I am total incognito: I’ve already never been here.

A chapbook, Annunciation, won the Center for Book Arts competition and was published in 2000. The author of Eating in the Underworld (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), I’m hoping this piece is included in her new collection The Last Clear Narrative (Wesleyan University Press) (I’m still waiting for a review copy).

Friday, December 17, 2004

Diana Brebner’s The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems

When Ottawa poet Diana Brebner died of cancer in 2001, bare weeks before her 45th birthday, it left holes in almost everyone that knew her. The author of three award-winning poetry collections, Radiant Life Forms (1990), The Golden Lotus (1993) and Flora & Fauna (1996) [all published by the now-defunct Netherlandic Press], she had been living with and through cancer for some time, even as she never took her attentions away from her family, friends and her writing. While raising two daughters, working for her husband’s business, and even running for public office, she still managed to win the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Competition (1990), the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (1990), the CBC Literary Competition (1992), the Pat Lowther Memorial Award (1993), and the Archibald Lampman Award (1997). When I met Diana, probably around 1992, she was eager to become a mentor to a younger writer, but we soon realized that she didn’t know what I was doing or working from, so instead we would meet for coffee, and talk about various subjects, whether writing, gossip or our kids. It was only in 1996 when Stephanie Bolster moved east from Vancouver that Diana found the kind of writer she was looking to help, and afterward, when she started teaching poetry workshops at Collected Works Bookstore. Becoming both mentor and friend to younger writers such as Anita Lahey (current editor of Arc), Lesley Buxton and Una McDonnell, it was much more an atmosphere of generosity and a kind of mothering than any teacher-student relationship. Soon after she died, a tribute was included in an issue of The New Quarterly (Volume XXI, No. 1, spring/summer 2001), that included pieces by Kim Jernigan, Bolster, Lahey, Buxton, Miriam Maust, John Vardon, Carol Shields, McDonnell and myself. Once you were part of her circle, it became both easy and essential to stay.

Thanks to the persistence of Stephanie Bolster, McGill-Queen’s University Press has just released The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems of Diana Brebner through their Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series (which has been very quite of late), edited with an introduction by Bolster. This is where all the current poets working within more conservative forms should be looking, from a poet who worked through more formal structures when they were less in favour than they seem now. Still, one of the poems that struck me from the "last poems" section is this one, a take-off of the last of Thompson’s ghazals from the posthumous collection Stilt Jack (Anansi, 1976); his brilliant collection of thirty-eight ghazals, published after he died at the age of thirty-eight. A break from much of her other work, it still works through the constraint, and the fine line between what she holds back, and what she gives.


"Should it be passion or grief" – John Thompson

Both come
unasked for. Grief
(not that I have)
has a sweetness to ist

that cuts
as fine as any knife.
Sweet edge
to the blade, you say.

I am being
followed by grief
(and it skulks
as I turn

unbidden) just
a sense of being.
Passion, as well,
is overwhelming

the air that
a knife cuts through.
Should it be
passion or grief

that we release?
What did you hold
by nerve, or a string?
Hands. Fingers. Fist.

Another of the pieces in the "last poems" section that struck, was this one, that read very much as a response to a review that Montreal poet and critic Carmine Starnino did for Arc #37 (Autumn 1996), "Style at Odds with Passion: Seven Ottawa Poets" that wrote:

"Diana Brebner’s poems also sequester themselves emotionally from their subjects. In Flora & Fauna, we see the suppression of any kind of personal disclosure and the adoption of a voice that has been thoroughly stripped of its introspective abilities. She wants no sentimental slippage. But often it is the heightened concentration that only emotion can allow that helps discipline oneself against phoniness. Brebner’s poetry, in its uncompromising suspicion of feeling, regularly outwits itself into artificiality." Hmmmmmmmm. Diana’s was certainly a dark humour, and it was hard to get on her bad side, but I wouldn’t want to be there. I’m not even going to bother disagreeing with the review, and instead let Diana’s words speak on behalf of both of us.


I will not assume that you
are an expert about feeling.

Nor will I believe that the
quiet & orderly among us have

not been thrown against walls,
that they write from imagination

and not from experience. If
I have not shed tears onto

your pages perhaps it is only
because I would not hurt you

with your indifference. When
you saw me, and asked how I

was doing, the kindest thing
I could do was to say

I was fine. I think of all
the women with bad teeth,

the ones who walk into doors,
the women with holes in

their walls and their lives
where pictures & memory

hung in the balance and how
that empty square on the wall

is a target for good intentions
that have become holy banners.

I will not assume that you
think less of me, nor will I.

After Diana died, Arc magazine founded the Diana Brebner Prize, now in its third year. Named for a poet "who fostered local literary talent, the Prize is awarded annually to an emerging National Capital Region poet who has yet to publish in book form. Run as a blind-submission competition, $500 is awarded to a single poet, based on the adjudication of an established poet living in the National Capital Region. One honorable mention is also chosen," with both prize-winning poem and honorable mention published in the most recent issue of Arc (#53, Winter 2004). This year the award was given to Betty Warrington-Kearsley, with an honorable mention going to Vivian Vavassis. Previous winners include Mary Trafford (2002) and Michael Blouin (2003). Information on future deadlines for the award can be found on the Arc magazine website.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

some notes on narrative & the long poem: a sequence of sequences

In the sequence "death & trauma: a deliberate play of births & endings" (forthcoming, Yard Press: Calgary), I wrote a long poem as a very loose translation of fragments of an essay by Robert Kroetsch, "For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem" (The Lovely Treachery of Words, Oxford University Press, 1989), while over-writing the story of the Frank Slide (Alberta, near Crowsnest Pass) disaster of 1903. Written during the spring of 2001 (in Edmonton, actually, at the Second Cup at 104th Street and Whyte Avenue), the idea was that the poem itself would talk about delay, delay, delay; the tantric nature of the Canadian long poem that Kroetsch both wrote about, and writes in his own work. As the story itself, still there but hidden (and relatively well-known, so why repeat it in the poem?) of the landslide that erased the town of Frank, Alberta (and in hindsight: Kroetsch + Frank + Edmonton = a very "Alberta" composition). As the story goes, three days later, as the remaining men dug themselves out of the mine (where the initial slide had trapped them) to discover that their wives, children, parents and friends were gone, buried under tons of rubble. The town of Frank was rebuilt a mile or so down the road, but the original town remains, as Frank Slide, buried under the mountain. It was considered for years to be Canada’s worst national disaster. The sixteen-part piece ends an unpublished manuscript called "aubade," and begins:

to un-name the silence back into name

survival of so few the thing,
three days & a man
rockslide the face, & whole town
wiped clean

who else
knows what was once there
surviving as testimony
more to make over
than could ever be recalled
or rebuilt

invisible tracks
running through the thread of these mountains

In writing classes and other places, they keep saying, show, don’t tell. If you want to read a story, go read fiction. A poem needs, I think, to be doing something other. Why tell a story if you aren’t going to tell it, you ask. Why would a reader presume there are no reasons. There has to be a reason, the poem working on and on and on. Perhaps the strongest tool a writer of poetry has is the allusion; not to say but to suggest. The delay. In an essay on David Arnason’s long poem Marsh Burning (Turnstone, 1980), Winnipeg poet and critic Karen Clavelle wrote, "David Arnason is a writer / poet whose involvement in the telling of stories is both a focus and preoccupation. Arnason operates in full awareness of the fact that absence is a form of presence, and that all does not need to be revealed, indeed, that it is impossible to reveal all. And this understanding opens the crux of a narrative problem." (p 116, "David Arnason’s Marsh Burning: Beginnings," Bolder Flights: Essays on the Canadian Long Poem, University of Ottawa Press, 1998).

There was such a joy in production, I remember; of flipping through the essay from a second-hand copy of Kroetsch’s collection (found a few days earlier in Calgary), and picking out lines to shift and alter, seeing how far the series could extend. The poem "death & trauma: a deliberate play of births & endings" is but part of a series of compositions built while in Edmonton, Alberta; built during my annual (or so) touring through the western provinces that bring me to stay with poet Andy Weaver; now-familiar haunts, with the drive down to Calgary with Weaver to read, just before or after a similar event in his city, and a few days spent with him before the next train arrives, to take me either further east or west. Almost every trip, a self-contained project written at the Second Cup and/or the University of Alberta grad lounge, waiting for the inevitable delay. Drinks at the Strathcona Hotel. "The Strath."

The way I prefer to build is through the fragment, writing piece by piece, leaping from line to line, instead of composing from beginning to end, although even two words side by side presume a narrative thread. Through any of this, unless you are willing to put words on top of each other to produce a concurrent work, with all seen at the same time, there is no way to completely erase narrative and meaning. Unless you begin to work with created, nonsensical words, words can’t help but mean.

& all those fucking tombstones

w/out clamour or blush, the lean-long,
at east w/ space & spacing, intruding
on the potential

in search instead of in vision

revisions of a father, grand

a miltonic scorn for economy
inside the longness, the long
rock slide

the model of the short

its offer of apprehensibility

So much of this craft comes from reading, from the "open form" writings of Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. From the book-length pieces by George Bowering, a mentor by example. From the lifelong poems of Robert Kroetsch and Fred Wah. So much of this from their influence; their fault.

The delay and the inevitable. The long poem and the story of Frank Slide, of knowing how the story will end. With my first girlfriend, years ago, we would have sex in her apartment before going out, so we wouldn’t be distracted during the film, and could properly absorb what we were watching. Putting the end at the beginning. Distracted for what was to come. The inevitable.

Calgary’s dANDelion published five fragments of the poem (Volume 28, No 2, January 2003), just before editorial board member Jason Christie accepted the whole series for publication through his Yard Press. In angela rawlings’ essay on micropress, Christie talks briefly of the series:

"Rob McLennan’s longpoem about the rockslide which buried the town of Frank, Alberta made sense to publish because I’m currently living in Calgary and could easily get to Frank. The reason I wanted to get to Frank is that I wanted to publish Rob’s poem in a bag of dirt and since I was so close to Frank... Well, it just made sense." It hasn’t appeared yet (I’ve been anxiously waiting for some time), but there’s something both marvelous and ghoulish about a chapbook on Frank Slide including a small amount of the Frank Slide soil. The delay. The inevitable.

In a recent review of my collection red earth (Black Moss, 2003), Harold Rhenisch wrote of the title sequence, a poem on travels east to the Atlantic Provinces, saying that "The concept of a poem which is really an anti-poem, a poem which exists on the edges, in fragments, parentheses, lacunae, jottings scribbled on the back of the hand or the inside of the skull, even notes chiseled into the brain stem with a dental pick, is liberating [. . .] mclennan is better than the lot, a kind of Canadian Robert Creeley, presenting us with moments to move into, like museum dioramas, incomplete until we stand in them." (Arc magazine, Volume 1, No. 53, winter 2004). Another key to the supposed puzzle, incomplete until we stand in them; exactly in keeping with my own ideas of composition, how half of any poem what the reader brings. If you don’t know, you must ask yourself. What does that mean.

The poem the true eventual story of buffalo bill had a number of initial sources. There is always something fun (and even liberating) about continuing a line, and it’s something I’ve attempted before, more overtly here than in the Frank Slide piece, whether working my own "Sex at 31" piece (at Barry McKinnon’s suggestion), after the work he and Brian Fawcett started, or the novel I never finished, A Short Fake Novel about Richard Brautigan, which was started to continue the line begun with Jack Spicer’s "A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud" (as part of The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, The Auerhahn Society, 1962), to arthur craven’s "A Short Fake Novel about Spicer" (which, admittedly, I’ve heard of but never seen). the true eventual story of buffalo bill follows from the thread of the true eventual story of billy the kid (Weed/Flower Press, 1970; reprinted as part of Craft Dinner: Stories and Texts, Aya Press, 1978), bp Nichol’s eight-page chapbook that co-won the Governor General’s Award with Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Anansi, 1970). What is it with Canadian poets and American outlaws? (See also: Paulette Jiles and Jessie James). According to the back cover of the most recent edition of the Ondaatje piece (Anansi, 2003), "When Michael Ondaatje won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1970 for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was publicly outraged by the work, and stated that it wasn’t even about a Canadian." As far as Ondaatje’s structure in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is concerned, Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley was hugely influenced by Ondaatje’s book, and took the form even further for his own wild and expansive Bloody Jack. Written on the myth and life and myth again of Manitoban outlaw John Krafchenko, Cooley’s Bloody Jack is perhaps the best example of expansiveness and multiple (even opposing) narratives in the Canadian long poem, and was originally published by Turnstone Press (1984), and later reissued with various revisions and new pages by Cooley by the University of Alberta Press (2002).

And I see, too, that Spicer wrote a book called Billy The Kid (Enkidu Surrogate, 1959). Is that where Ondaatje got the idea?

Built entirely different than the original two, my own interest in Buffalo Bill Cody was in the fact that he played an active role in the creation of his own myth, eventually playing a caricature of himself in the touring "Wild West Shows." From two individual articles on Cody’s life found on the internet, I used the language of the articles as my base for how I would write about Cody, reworking the same language over and over, whether through baffles (taking every second word of the article, and creating line-breaks where there were paragraph breaks) or by simple randomization (each piece writing from and through all the previous pieces), the poem writes through the man, and the myth of the man, while still writing the piece in a particular order of events throughout his life, from his participation in the American Civil War to his tours headlining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show:

hurts, the civil war

the united states army, continuously employed
by uncertain scouting. a hazard

across the ambush. a plain scout,
when born a new name kansas

given nickname, buffalo bill, when
he only twenty two. no single eye

a riding view of thieves deserving green,
recruiting army. the high breeze,

a peak of endorsement sales. firearms
and the glory of the regiment. considered lucky.

considered a head wound and his life
his only badge. buried everything

in gyrations. even a mountain
must preserve.

Published in its entirety by Xpress(ed) in Finland as a pdf file, the twenty-six part piece eventually breaks down, leaving the whole of a man’s life and myth in but a handful of words:

cody, coda

buffalo bill
wife louisa
a wagon train
army thieves
spectacular view
still a child
the wild west
pawnee east
lookout mountain
pony express
sitting bull
a ranch hand
cowboys and indians

What is narrative, really? Is it the story that is told, or as simple as the two words placed side by side. My own concerns of writing narrative in the long poem fall under the umbrella of the title, whether idea or simply the words themselves, and writing as far and as much underneath the umbrella as I can. Does every poem have to fit together in a straight line? Does every poem have to be about what the piece is about, or reference it at all? And if not, should there even be a reason why?

A good example of breaking the narrative is this brief fragment from bp Nichol, published both as an individual piece by jwcurry’s 1cent / Curvd H&z (1982) under the title "THE MARTYROLOGY, BOOK V: Chain 10," and as part of The Martyrology Book V (Coach House Press, 1982), that reads:

every (all at (toge (forever) ther) once) thing

So much of this is concerned with pieces that aren’t (necessarily) built to work on their own, but to work together as a larger unit. A fragment of a novel might be interesting to read, but it’s not giving you the whole story. Using the word as a metaphor. Why does this always have to come back to story. Too many people have been suggesting to me lately that poems are made out of individual moments, of individual things, inferring the absolute need for the poem to live on its own. As Michael Ondaatje wrote in the introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (Coach House Press, 1970), "Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can ..." (p 14). Earlier in the same essay, he also says, "The stories within the poems don’t matter, the grand themes don’t matter. The movement of the mind and language is what is important –" (p 12).

In his statement on his Seed Catalogue for the same anthology, Robert Kroetsch wrote:

The continuing poem: not the having written, but the writing. The poem as long as a life. The lifelost poem.
The poem as big as a continent. Roy Kiyooka’s Transcanada Letters. (How do you like them apples, Roy?)
And speaking of silence: see Phyllis Webb’s ‘Naked Poems.’ It’ll give you the shivers. The heebie-jeebies. Love is like.
See David Jones’ The Anathemata. I go on coming back to that book. Trying to read the poem. A curse, so much like heaven.
And maybe Blown Figures, by Audrey Thomas, is a long poem disguised as a novel. The (at)venturing [in]to Africa. To neverywhere. Shore enough.
The writing the writing the writing. Fundamentally, I mean. The having written excludes the reader. We are left with our
as critics. We want to be readers. The continuing poem makes
(p 311-2).

Writing poetry is not fundamentally about. Even to say it is "about language." It is language.

In an interview conducted by Ken Norris in the George Bowering issue of Essays on Canadian Writing (1989), Bowering had this to say about poetry and meaning:

Poetry, as far as I am concerned, is not interesting insofar as it is "about" anything, though I may out of curiosity read some poem about baseball or about Mexican food. I am not sure that poetry is interesting insofar as it is "about" poetry, then. But I do believe that when a novelist is making a novel, his intent is on the shape of the novel, not on the shape of life. If it were on the latter, why wouldnt he write an essay, or a letter to the paper, or anything else that is more often encountered than a novel?
[. . .]
I will tell you what art, what poetry is separated from life. It is the poetry that is written by somebody who has decided to use it to express herself. You do that by crying, or by hitting someone, or by wearing some stupid thing – three earrings in each ear. As soon as you start expressing yourself in a poem, the resources of the whole language, and the response of the reader are both infibulated.

Another sequence, monopoly/antiques (a number of which were first published in Jacket, later appearing as a whole in chapbook form through above/ground press), the most deliberately lyric of these three sequences, is a twenty-one-part piece working from the loose tradition of the English-Canadian ghazal, brought into being from the late John Thompson’s brilliant Stilt Jack (Anansi, 1976). Called the anti-sonnet, the ghazal (an ancient Persian form) works deliberately from the breaks that exist between couplets, constructing a poem that only fits under the title very peripherally. How does one work that peripheral, especially in a longer sequence of ghazals, as Thompson did, and later, Phyllis Webb, Douglas Barbour, and almost every poet in the book (but so few done so well as these)? The poem, although working from the reference to a break-up, a weekend of travel, the game of Monopoly, and visits to various antique stores around the Rideau Lakes, it also works against the referencing, writing so much around them as well:


fifteen hundred dollars each, & i
the milk bottle

wood replaces metal, or then
replaces glass

the rust comes over thru the rain

the implication is clear, if
your parents owned, nostalgia

anything earlier, an antique

she winds the victrola, & builds it

speeds up to 78, until the belt
slips up

a hole where the rain

& from a young boys window, the eyes
then fill

Not built to exist in any particular order, the order still exists, whether arbitrary or otherwise, in a series of individual pieces, each with the same title. Does that make these twenty-one individual poems, or simply one? Is this a serial poem or a sequence? I’ve always been relatively unclear on the precise distinctions of the "serial poem," but don’t mind borrowing from the example of its imprecise ways. Is the "serial poem" simply "ongoing," the poem built out of many poems, extending sometimes throughout the whole of the author’s life, whether Spicer, Blaser, Robert Duncan, Fanny Howe, bp Nichol or Fred Wah?

In her thesis on the Canadian long poem, critic Smaro Kamboureli wrote, "Dislocation, a theme consistently used in the long poem, declares a yearning that exceeds the lyric’s potentiality to locate the self. It is not that dislocation produces impediments not conductive to the prolongation of lyric intensity or that narrative can better accomodate what the lyric’s brevity leaves untold; rather, the absence of epic nostos becomes a nostalgia for the lyric." (p 71, On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem, University of Toronto Press, 1991).


the last weekend we will ever
spend, looking

at old tractor parts

the rusted metal palm
of john deere model six

indented into memory
& flesh

the treat out of the old car

the carriage-house, a box
of doll-heads

brown couch left out
the rain, & suffered

& a technology of dogs
& darker bone

Written quickly, in May 2002 in Ottawa, unlike the other two sequences, it was written with no specific starting point or end point in mind, but was written simply until the sequence felt as though it ran out of steam. The lyric or anti-lyric as it bustled forth. Both delay and inevitable. In the construction of each of these three sequences, I was not as interested in the individual as compositional unit, but a series of larger frameworks, with each sequence, too, fitting inside a much larger, book-length work. Although, in probably all that I do, working the book (and even, the multiple book) as the "unit of composition." Where is the lyric and meaning there. Where is the story.

The long poem (as I see it) what’s left (Talonbooks, 2004) is part of a trilogy of works that started with paper hotel (Broken Jaw Press, 2002) and ends with ruins: a book of absences (Black Moss Press, 2005). Reviewing the collection what’s left on his blog, Calgary poet ryan fitzpatrick said, "Effectively extending Paper Hotel’s project of sifting the fragments of self, What’s Left - a title invoking both the picaresque beauty of a ruin and the faint trace left by something moving - leaves us with detail of history and geography, interested in the shift of people across the land. Vikings and settlers meet pop detritus and road trips, inviting slips between them, forming constellations of meaning. For mclennan, borders fracture like water freezing in rock cracks; we are left with rubble - narrative unanswerable in its native state - that can only be combined and not fixed (repaired or made static). mclennan daftly employs family history, ancient history, and recent event to enact an archaeology of self."


do not pass go, do not collect
the extra inning

a three day weekend, despite
the fact

a board game made, & opens
a range of contradiction

the way things work

how does the poet win, he wipes
the board

clear of competition

picking away, like a scab
until the blood flows

till there is nothing left
within collapsing veins

a thin light left
on the opposite bank

Writing of Robert Kroetsch’s poems, Robert Lecker wrote, "in [Kroetsch’s] long poems, as in the best verse in Stone Hammer Poems, we note several points of tangency and ongoing concern: an involvement with establishing through poetic language and a particularly Canadian and western sense of place, a desire to represent a peculiarly double sense of Canadian experience, and a need to find a sense of personal and public origins that may be dreamed by the poet whose task it is to write his world into existence." (Robert Kroetsch, Twayne, 1986). And there, at the end, is the part I understand best: to write his world into existence.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Ian Samuels, The Ubiquitous Big
2004, Coach House Books, $16.95 CAN / $13.95 US
96 pages, isbn 1 55245 135 6

If there’s a little truth in truth it’s this drop of rain
searching for an umbrella.

p 13, Whiching

For his second poetry collection, Calgary writer Ian Samuels has chosen to write about film noir, in The Ubiquitous Big, published by Coach House Books. In what seem to be a series of thematic poetry collections, his first, Cabra (Red Deer Press, 2000), explored "the mythification of 19th-century Brazil," while the current, works in blocks of found text and film noir, 40s/50s mythification and the birth of atomic power, writing big subjects of hard-hitting strength and irony. Much as Cabra, this collection feels as though it is much closer to the book as "unit of composition," structurally more a collection of parts than a grouping of individual pieces.

Working in blocks of poetic prose, it makes me wonder if this is becoming a specific tic to younger poets in Calgary, as others such as derek beaulieu, jason christie, Jonathon Wilcke (who has collaborated with Samuels, such as in the piece "COPPING: The Double Voice and Jazz Ethics" from side/lines: a new canadian poetics, published by Insomniac Press in 2002) and Julia Williams have done the same. Is it then, too, a coincidence that beaulieu’s first collection, with wax, and Williams’ The Sink House, also appeared with Coach House Books?

Samuels writes a series of evocative, descriptive blocks, both emotional and physical, that move to further the collection as a whole.

The gods gather for a swill of sake in the last
volcanic breath of an island yearning for a
descent beneath the waves, away from the
demands of cellphones and rat-race lifestyles
that tear into its face.

The gods smile at each other with poison-
slicked knives secret behind their backs and stir
to the rhythm of a Geiger counter’s memory of
Trinity and the walls coming down.

p 25, Arrivals

There was good coffee and fresh rolls steaming
just like a kill on the savannah, except with
more butter churned up by refugees walking to
shore and climbing into thousands of forgotten

p 31, Morning

Samuels’ plays a series of standards, playing off them, playing them against themselves.

The hacienda

A cup of coffee, that’s what a man needs. An
apple, a place I can feel, a growth that looks like
chicken. Dinner with the family lasted seven
months, but why not? In the bonds of matri-
mony that’s how the Feds weigh cellophane off a
cigarette pack. They tell the core stuck between
my teeth how it’s a crummy finger joint, but a
nickel gets a piece of the ‘haves’ and a drink
keeps murder heavy on my soul until the bunga-
low sags right to its floorboards.

p 63

I would be very interested to see what Samuels could do with a sustained longer prose, whether novel or short fiction. The Ubiquitous Big exists in three sections of prose blocks, from "Personality," "Arcana" and "The Ubiquitous Big," each writing from what you think you know of old stories, icons and standards. Through all of this, though, what does it mean and where is it going? From the Kenneth Patchen quote that opens the first section, Samuels’ interests in his explorations aren’t fixed in any time or place, but I wonder what it all means, and where he will be going next:

They invented the printing press out on the plain
this morning; Constantinople fell in the afternoon.
I suppose they’ll discover America tomorrow. What
a lot of running around they do.

Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight

Samuels writes contemporary poems that belong to another age, but hold quite firm to this one.