Ongoing notes: late September 2005
The Antigonish Review finally published my review of Barry McKinnon’s The Centre: Selected Poems 1970-2000 (Talonbooks, 2004); and the George Bowering section in Jacket keeps growing; what will you get him for his 70th birthday on December 1st? Wanda O'Connor, immersed in creative writing at Concordia, has started posting Montreal poems; John W. MacDonald, serial blogger, has started writing a literary column in the books section of The Ottawa Citizen. And I think I want to start getting invited to more festivals. (I mean, I will see you at the ottawa fest, won't I?) When is the Calgary festival or Vancouver festival ever going to invite me to read? What about something non-Canadian? A couple of us just had some poems out of this little zine at Simon Fraser University; apparently everyone can (theoretically) download & print off their own copies. And don't forget, Jay MillAr reads soon, as part of the ottawa small press book fair…
I know it's a few years old, but it's still pretty cool: Louis Cabri's Phillytalks; they did a series of readings down there in that Philadelphia, pairing up (usually) a Canadian with an American poet. Beforehand, though, the two would have an exchange of letters/emails almost like small essays on each other's work, all of which was posted online along with poems by each of them, before the readings took place. A brilliant idea, since that way, the audience could easily be already part of the conversation even before they arrived. Some participants included Fred Wah, Steve McCaffery, Lisa Robertson, Brian Kim Stefans, C.S. Giscombe and Barry McKinnon. Once again, I'm being called "writer-in-residence" at this year's ottawa international writers festival, so if you go to any of the events, you'll probably see me there. Check out the piece I wrote after I did the same thing last fall.
Waterloo, Ontario: One thing I find pretty interesting is the fact that Wilfred Laurier University Press has started a series of critical volumes of Canadian poets. A small selected poems by a Canadian poet, the selection is made by a poet/critic who also includes an introduction, with the last word on poetry/poetics by the author themselves. The first two in this series are Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier, selected with an introduction by Catherine Hunter, and Worth Fifty Thousand Finches: The Poetry of Don McKay, [Crozier and McKay appear at this year’s ottawa international writers festival] selected with an introduction by Méira Cook (read the review I did of her third poetry collection, Slovenly Love), newly out as the first in the Laurier Poetry Series (the McKay title is scheduled to appear just before Christmas). According to the front of each title, the series “introduces the excitement of contemporary Canadian poetry to an audience that might not otherwise have access to it. Selected and introduced by a prominent critic, each volume presents a range of poems from across the poet’s career and an afterward by the poet him- or herself. These volumes offer readers useful, provocative, and comprehensive introductions to, and contexts for, a poet’s work.” I may not be the biggest fan of, say, Crozier’s writing, but I’m very interested to see where else the series leads, considering that so few presses are publishing books of criticism at all, but for the Writer as Critic series published by Edmonton’s NeWest Press, or the Essays on Their Works series by Toronto’s Guernica Editions. But I wonder about the format: since they are tied so closely together, which comes first, the selection of poems or the essay?
The sheer enormity of where I come from resists words, but as I said at the start, poetry often begins with such resistance. How can the small letters you compose, standing as tall as possible on any page, make themselves visible in a landscape that diminishes the human? At the same time, the place demands that you keep your eyes and ears open because the space around you feels attenuated, on the verge, ready to reveal its meaning in the blink of an eye. It duplicates the feeling you get just before the curtain is about to open in a theatre, just before the violinist’s bow is about to meet the strings in a concert hall. Every single stone on the gravel road has its own shadow, sharply defined.
– Lorna Crozier, “A Reflection on Poetry,” Before the First Word
The format does leave me with some stylistic concerns: will the only kinds of writing dealt with in the series be the shorter, narrative lyric? Where else will the series lead? What about those Canadian poets who work primarily within the long poem? What of those poets working within more non-linear or even visual &/or concrete works? Will we ever see a collection of this sort on Dennis Cooley, Steve McCaffery or Daphne Marlatt, for example? I think an interesting consideration would be Artie Gold, but they probably wouldn't go for it.
Vancouver, British Columbia: Producing an increasing number of important works is Meredith and Peter Quartermain’s Nomados, publishing works by such writers as George Bowering, Sharon Thesen, Kathleen Fraser, Susan Holbrook, and Quartermain herself. Another recent publication is Lisa Robertson’s Rousseau’s Boat (2005), winner of this year's bpNichol Chapbook Award (see also the brilliant reviews of same by Ron Silliman and Steve Evans).
Rousseau’s Boat is the first publication from former Vancouver resident, now living in Cambridge UK, Lisa Robertson since she published Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003). Writing from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she includes this quote on the back cover:
The ebb and flow of this water, its ongoing
sound swelling with vibration that set adrift
my outer senses, rhythmically took the place
of the strong emotions my dreaminess had
calmed, and I felt in myself so pleasurably
and effortlessly the sensation of existing,
without troubling to think.
Increasingly, Robertson’s poems have been pulling themselves apart, from Xeclogue (originally published by Tsunami Editions, the collection is newly reissued by New Star Books) to Debbie: An Epic and the strongest of the three, the weather. Built out of four poems/sections -- "Passivity," "Face," "Utopia" and "This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time." -- the collection works its way through a quiet uncertainty, growing more confident of its own uncertainty and explorations as it moves, through exploration upon exploration colluding in individual lines that add up, or even contradict, slamming together, to something further.
In the spring of 1979
Some images have meanings, and some have a change in soul,
sex or century.
Rain buckles into my mouth.
If pressed to account for strangeness and resistance, I can’t.
I’m speaking here for dogs and rusted ducts venting steam
I wanted to study the ground, the soft ruins of paper and the
I discover a tenuous utopia made from steel, wooden chairs,
glass, stone, metal bed frames, tapestry, bones, prosthetic legs,
hair, shirt-cuffs, nylon, plaster figurines, perfume bottles and
I am confusing art and decay.
Elsewhere, fiction is an activity like walking.
Any girl who reads is already a lost girl.
The four poems that make up Robertson's Rousseau's Boat are more about questions than actual answers, working their way through until the final single page piece, "This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time." It reads as though the whole poem is not only about searching for meaning throughout (between meaning and meaninglessness: a parable for just living, perhaps), before finally acknowledging that the movement of searching isn't as accidental as one might think, and refusing to apologize for it. Is the purpose of writing to understand, or to explore?
And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused to believe
I transcribe a substitution
Like the accidental folds of a scarf.
From these folds I make persons
Perfect marriage of accident and need.
And if I become unintelligible to myself
Because of having refused a style
I transcribe a substitution
To lose the unattainable.
Like the negligent fall of a scarf
Now I occupy the design.
Creighton, Saskatchewan: Blogger, visual artist and poet Brenda Schmidt’s second poetry collection is More Than Three Feet of Ice (Thistledown Press, 2005), after her debut, A Haunting Sun (Thistledown Press, 2001). Working in longer, more linear narratives, hers is more a poetry of straight speech that seems to move far and wide across the poetry of Saskatchewan, from Lorna Crozier to Brenda Niskala to Gary Hyland to Glen Sorestad. Where else than in the prairies could you write a poem called "Points of Interest" and highlight such points as "The Crosses," "The Cemetery," "The Rock," "The Path" and "The Other Path," writing:
A raven perches on the right wrist, watches the lighter
shadow of a bird move across the stone chest
while he tears bits of meat from a bone;
a piece falls on the hand and slides down a finger
to the ground, leaving a pink streak that drips once
as it follows the direction of descent.
I find the most effective pieces in this collection are those in which she goes fully into prose, such as the poem “Rise” (p. 81), that ends with:
I want this place to be a slice of bread with jam on it. I want to be the
knife spreading wild strawberry. Think about the rules for the use of these
words, he says. It’s not about want.
As the bread bakes, Wittgenstein sits me down for the final exam. One
multiple choice question worth 100% of the final mark:
Burnt toast and the Canadian Shield. Both
a) set off smoke alarms
c) make mouths water before things went wrong
I circle an answer
Toronto, Ontario: A third collection by former Hamilton resident, now moved into Toronto, is Shannon Bramer's The Refrigerator Memory (Coach House Books, 2005). [Bramer appears at this year’s ottawa international writers festival as part of a Coach House night with Sherwin Tjia, Stephen Cain and Margaret Christakos] After her collections with Exile Editions, the poetry collections scarf (2001) and suitcases & other poems (1999), it’s good that she has finally found a publisher willing to more actively promote her collections of finely crafted poems. The Refrigerator Memory (complete with promotional 'fridge magnets, if you ask Coach House nicely) is more a return in structure to her graceful first collection, suitcases & other poems, which was made up of a suite of individual poems, as opposed to the more narrative suite of poems of scarf, and main character who worked the scarf counter in a department store.
My forks are Chinese ideograms; my knives
draw ink from the stiff linen cloth.
We've a snake to take care of the mice.
He suns himself in a crooked line on the patio stairs.
I'm in love with Ezra, the new saucier,
who speaks six languages
and leaves no fingerprints
on the large white plates.
The poems in The Refrigerator Memory work from small domestic moments, writing the moments between hands and the innocent moments between sleep, marked by a deep, simple wisdom that is usually lost as childhood ends; a mixture of childhood delights and grown-up fears. There even feels a trace of Creeley's deliberateness, and his own domestic, writing out small moments smaller, and the break of the line; she holds her moments so fine, that even the slightest movement extends, and becomes more fantastic.
His Peacock Shadow
This is how the story goes.
A peacock became a man
and soon enough fell in love
with a woman.
A female of the highest caliber
with bright black eyes,
muscular arms, hair the colour
of burnt raisin.
The peacock knew pain but
had no memory. At night he felt
the prickly bones of absent feathers
scratching on his skin.
She became his Doctor
and looked like a saint
in her stiff white coat.
He had been referred
to her before, was regal, cocksure
of his diminishing strut suggested
a former plumage.
Whenever he got drunk he called
himself a fancy chicken; she
discovered his peacock shadow
after they were married,
while feasting by candlelight.
New York, New York: Don't let the cover image (and subsequent inside page, images both taken from suicidegirls.com) fool you; Fence is one of the finer poetry/literary journals in the United States. I started getting the magazine by entering their annual poetry manuscript competition (that I still haven't won), that includes a year's subscription to the journal. The cover image of the current issue, of an extremely cute naked girl clutching her breasts is a reaction to poor sales of a previous issue, Volume 6, number 2 (fall/winter 2003), what the editor Rebecca Wolff in her "Editor's Note" called a "fine issue, packed with the usual highly individualized, specifically loaded, virtually unrepeatable content." Were the poor sales due to dark, subtle art on the cover, she wonders? Is there a different way they can promote themselves? A bit of overkill, with what she calls a "tits" cover, but I appreciate the irony (I just hope it doesn't backfire on them). I want to make editor Rebecca Wolff happy; she produces an extremely fine magazine (and I have that issue: its worth it alone for the amazing conversation between poet mother and son, Alice Notley and Edmund Berrigan (son of the infamous Ted, for those who don't know), "Cubism, the Blues, Visions: A Conversation). Send her all of your money. You will not regret it.
Usually two issues a year, they've put all their chips on the one horse this year in a larger "summer fiction issue" that includes over one hundred pages of poetry, and nearly three hundred pages in all. Since I'm still learning who all the names are in the United States, there is something exciting about going through what I know is a quality mag, but not yet knowing any of the names of the contributors (the only names I knew previously were British author/editor John Kinsella, whose memoir, Auto (Salt Publishing; a quote on the back from beloved Canadian prairie poet Douglas Barbour), I found second-hand recently in Vancouver and enjoyed very much, and New York/Maine fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, whose collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist, out earlier this year with Doubleday, was highly entertaining and is well worth picking up). Some of the poems that jumped out at me included Michael Dickman's "Five American Plays" and Stefanie Marlis' "five from choices," including:
A man stops drinking and meets a woman who betrays him, then one who
His mother prides herself on sweeping her hair into a perfect chignon in under
His stepfather polished his boots with mink oil and woke in the night with leg
The man looks at where clouds have come together, puzzle pieces.
He likes the one woman. She keeps his favorite ice cream in her freezer.
The other, whose lies are black, lies back.
After reading her bio, it doesn't surprise me that her work is being published, too, by Apogee Press, one of those American poetry presses that manages to publish work that also jumps out at me, publishing both her third collection, fine, and more recent cloudlife (2005). I think I will need to find out more about her. Otherwise, I'm still going through the issue, but another highlight was a little poem by Jesse Ball:
Missive in an Icelandic Room 2
by the ring
the mind of
if we cannot
name it truly
Fredericton, New Brunswick: Lately, poet, visual artist, publisher and general man-about-town Joe Blades has been posting a second run of "casemate poems" on his blog. The original casemate poems, published in 2004 as a small book by the ghost-like press widows & orphans (hiding somewhere in Waterloo, Ontario), were written as part of two week-long artists' residencies (one in late July and one in early September, 2003) through the Fredericton Arts Alliance. Containing easily some of the best writing I've seen from Joe Blades, he writes a series of lovely ghazal-like entries in the short collection. I can only hope that perhaps, at the end of the whole process, a larger edition of casemate poems might appear in print, somewhere. But I'll let the work speak for itself:
shoelaces come undone what a
start need head pills for ache
art wholesaler giant art show
liquidation sale no pills with
me run home for supplies flat
poetry without "chipman canada"
bricks in casemate wall raku
firing in soldiers' barracks square
students of peter thomas learn
watch their glazes melt
poetry these days hole in the
head to let it out sight better
than sphincter cancer having it
removed "out spot, out" or
however that shakespeare goes
clamp the words together drill
thread the to-be-hidden holes
together knot and trim threads
stanza done now the covers
thread 5-times cover height to bind
Joe Blades is one of those guys who's been around forever; doing readings in the early 1980s in Toronto with Patrick Lane, and publishing even when he was only seventeen, which means twenty five years as a publisher (Broken Jaw Press)/writer/artist. He was even hanging around Alberta (when he worked at the Banff Springs Hotel) and with Robert Kroetsch during the founding of the Alberta Writers Guild. On the casemate poems, Blades writes in the "afterword" to the little collection:
Fredericton Arts Alliance coordinated the Artists In Residence 2003 Summer Series consisting of one- and two-week residencies by over 20 Fredericton-area artists. These were public, interactive residencies with visitors in the studio. There were two artists-in-residence scheduled at any given time.
The residency was located in a former munitions casemate on the ground floor of the former Soldiers' Barracks building within a former British military facility now administered by Tourism Fredericton as the Historic Garrison District.
Buildings adjacent to the Soldiers' Barracks contain the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, several museums and Gallery Connexion, an artist-run centre, and a guardhouse with summer student tourism "soldier" tour guides. Other casemates of the Soldiers' Barracks housed local craftspeople selling their wares.