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 The sixteen-part piece ends an unpublished manuscript called "aubade," and begins: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
knows what was once there
surviving as testimony
more to make over
than could ever be recalled
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
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
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:
a wagon train
still a child
the wild west
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
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
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
a hole where the rain
& from a young boys window, the eyes
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
at old tractor parts
the rusted metal palm
of john deere model six
indented into memory
the treat out of the old car
the carriage-house, a box
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
a board game made, & opens
a range of contradiction
the way things work
how does the poet win, he wipes
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.