Ongoing notes, December 2005
I've been reading Larissa Lai's blog lately of the combined Taiwan trip she's taken with various other west coast authors, and the subsequent other blog they started, with contributors including Fred Wah, Roy Miki and Rita Wong. And why do bloggers ryan fitzpatrick, Laurie Fuhr and Sina Queyras keep mentioning my name? It's enough to make a boy paranoid. And did any of you know that Fredericton poet and publisher (etc) Joe Blades just had two of his collections translated into Serbian and published over there? He even got to go over for the launch. Canadian poet Ken Norris just had a version of Hotel Montreal published in both English and French as well. How can I get something like that? And did you see blogger John MacDonald's clever photo from the annual Gallery 101 art auction? Or the new website being constructed on William Hawkins, Ottawa's most dangerous poet? And what the hell is Nathaniel G. Moore up to now?
I recently got an email from Calgary's Jason Weins, wondering if there's a place that lists all the Canadian poetry books published in a year, something like a year-end review or list. Does Canadian Poetry do such a thing, he asked? Maybe Queen's Quarterly? I have no idea. Does anyone else? It sure would be an interesting list, if for no other reason than to find out about all the books I'm probably missing. Whenever anyone asks me such a thing, what were your favourite this or that over the past year, I'm always at a loss to remember. Just go back through my blog, really. I know I loved the new titles this year by Erin Mouré, Margaret Christakos, Sylvia Legris, Dennis Cooley, Andy Weaver, Meredith Quartermain, Stan Dragland, Phil Hall, Jay MillAr, Suzanne Buffam, Jordan Scott, Donato Mancini, Stan Rogal and Stephen Cain (I know I'm probably missing a bunch else). Steven Heighton, Lisa Moore, Paul Glennon, Jaspreet Singh. And then the two poetry collections I edited: William Hawkins and Shauna McCabe. And that's just the Canadian stuff. What about C.D. Wright, Rachel Zucker, Lisa Samuels, Juliana Spahr, Andrea Baker and Jennifer Moxley (to name but a few)? Geez, what else?
For Canadian poets, it's certainly been a year of poetry anthologies as well, with the impressive companions & horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry (West Coast Line Books), Post-Prairie (Talon), Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea Books, NY) and Writing the Terrain: Travelling Through Alberta with the Poets (University of Calgary Press) [my review of Post-Prairie and Writing the Terrain is due soon in Toronto's WORD], and, closer to home, 25 Years of Tree (BuschekBooks); others I didn't like as much, such as Breathing Fire II (Nightwood), and two I haven't yet seen, Carmine Starnino's pompously-titled The New Canon (Vehicule Press) and intriguing Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (The Mercury Press), edited by derek beaulieu, a. rawlings and Jason Christie. And then there was writing in our time: Canada's Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003) (Wilfred Laurier University Press). What will next year bring, I wonder?
Oh; are you coming to the Peter F. Yacht Club Christmas party? Did you see I'm doing poetry workshops again, and ongoing editing services? And Erin Mouré recently pointed out this link to Harold Pinter's Nobel Laureate speech.
Prince George BC: Reprinted as a facsimile of seventy-five copies of the original handmade chapbook is home when it moves you, poems by gillian wigmore ($12), the first chapbook produced by Sheila Peters' Creekstone Press. A graduate of University of Victoria, wigmore makes a fine addition to other writers in Prince George (and area) such as Barry McKinnon, Hardy Friesch, Rob Budde, John Harris, David Phillips (will he ever publish again?), Donna Kane and Ken Belford.
she goes to bed wet and her hair pillow dries
in the morning she looks like a field bereft of winter
the grasses stuck together, dried in surges and hollows
after a long sleep she is dry, the snow has left her
over coffee in the sun she looks done over, undone
she looks uncertain
the field is aloof in april, the grasses disgruntled
she wants no company
save the absence of the wind
Prince George seems to be the mecca of poetry these days; Rob Budde even recently called PG the poetry capital of Canada (a claim made in the 1970s by a number of people as well, including McKinnon, Brian Fawcett and UBC professor/critic Warren Tallman).
at angles to the trans-canada highway -- ugly in spring, dusty in summer with long
winters, but under a migratory bird route -- the small town hospital under the
flyway sits like a succulent above the river, fat with life and death and make-do,
small town people succumbing to cancerous tumours, colo-rectal disorders, lung
collapses and the handful of stab wounds and broken-bottle inflicted cuts that
make the story believable -- leavable that's the point here but the view, the stretch
of the river, the goat-grazed islands in its lowdown middle, the river meandering
back and lazy forth, its sand bars showing, the river brings you back
-- "small town under a canada goose flyway"
You can find copies by at the end of their website or by writing them c/o 7456 Driftwood Road, Smithers BC V0J 2N7.
Ottawa ON: I recently got my contributor copies of the new and improved Arc magazine in the mail (I had two reviews in the issue). Whatever issues I have with Arc (and I have plenty), they are at least doing a considerable amount of work, including the "poem of the year" contest (now ten years old), the annual Diana Brebner Prize, and the monthly "How Poems Work" feature on the website, that they took over when The Globe & Mail dropped the feature. Even more impressive, watch for poems to reappear on Ottawa city buses, as last year Arc took it upon themselves to restart the one-off known as Transpoetry that happened in 1999 (the new version to appear in February); apparently a number of people have already been notified that their poems are soon to appear throughout the OC Transpo system.
Featuring a new design for their winter 2005 issue, #55, Arc still leans more toward the formally conservative than I, personally, am comfortable with (but what the hell), and the issue even sports a review saying good things about Carmine Starnino's collection of essays (in my mind, the essays were like The Passion of the Christ -- you walked out of it with exactly the same opinion you walked in with; essays as spirited as his, I think, should be attempting more than that; I might not always agree with John Metcalf, for example, but his essays have made me rethink a few things…). Still, the issue is thick with reviews, something that seems less and less prevalent in Canadian Literature, especially where many of the journals seem to be concerned, and every fall, Arc always tries to review as many of the poetry books published in the Ottawa area as possible, including a feature review of the books shortlisted for the annual Archibald Lampman Award (for best poetry book by an Ottawa area writer).
The issue features, among other things, a poem by Ottawa writer Sylvia Adams, winner of the fourth annual Diana Brebner Prize, awarded to an emerging National Capital Region poet who has yet to publish in book form. It's good to see Adams get this kind of recognition, finally. Adams has been writing for years, and was director of the TREE Reading Series, ending her run way back in November 1993, and is currently a member of a number of writing groups around town, including the Ottawa-based Field Stone Poets. Judged by Michelle Desbarats, the honourable mention was Dilys Leman. The issue also features "Four Cantigas from O Cadioro" and "a preface to come" by Montreal poet Erin Moure, poems by a multitude of writers across Canada (and beyond) including Suzanne Hancock and Christopher Doda, as well as some love poems by former Ottawa resident and current University of Toronto professor George Elliott Clarke.
I will tell you of my vow my
lovely 7 later when i have from you de-
parted. i had for you my beauty my lovely
but to die 7 i would have died but pining
That never would i see you werei.dead
7 because of this i died not.
Pining at how god gives you so much.
in appearance.7 in fine speech.
i wd die but for my own good.
i loved you 7 god makes me realize
That never would i see you thus.
Pining for the way you looked
i should have died if god wd pardon me.
and for your appearance so fine.
i wd die but awaken then.
Pining for you i should have died like this
7 pining for you my lovely i died not.
CXL! (150,1)  #262
-- Erin Moure
St. John's, NFLD: A lovely little hardcover collection of sixty-four pages, Stan Dragland’s small vignettes in Stormy Weather / Foursomes (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2005) read almost as personal meditations, sliding easily between the essay and prose poem. Even Dragland’s more formal essays move through the personal, much like the essays by Calgary writer Aritha Van Herk, including (as he calls it) his “prose blues” piece 12 Bars that co-won the bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2003, and was included in his collection of essays, Apocrypha: Further Journeys (2003), part of NeWest Press’ Writer-as-Critic series. In many ways, Stormy Weather seems an extension of the work done in Apocrypha: Further Journeys, moving from topics such as kitchen music and the McGarrigle Family Album to the rituals of pool-playing and literature (Agnes Walsh and James Reaney) and “after September 11, 2001,” all set in his new home of St. John’s, Newfoundland, while still holding together as an extended elegy. “Look here, dear reader, I feel like hell but that hasn’t stopped me from writing this stuff. I’m writing this stuff even though I feel like hell. When have I ever had any more inspiration? Jack up the beanstalk, the legend of Mr. Iceberg – when have I surprised myself more? When have I been more surprised?” (Dry Bones).
From all his years of hard-won wisdom, Dragland brings us into the work through the filter of his own experiences, both emotional and intellectual, and often through the filter of music as well, not only through this collection of prose meditations / poems, but through Apocrypha: Further Journeys, and even back to his biographical first novel, Peckertracks: A Chronicle (1978). Stormy Weather reads as an elegy while talking of aloneness without being alone, writing about living with his books and his friends and his reading.
Broken into four sections of three pieces each (nearly as months and seasons), Dragland moves through such placement of people and place in his writing that it becomes hard to see it not shaped as a story he’s telling. Do you remember from the old Fat Albert Show (circa 1970s), when narrator Bill Cosby came on at the beginning and said, “If you’re not careful, you just might learn something before we’re through”? “And Agnes said to her therapist, who was really not grasping the problem, she said, ‘You can look out your window at the beautiful snow falling there, and just enjoy it, can’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well,’ said Ag, ‘I can’t ever look at that beautiful snow without having to search and search for words. I have to write it down.’ And he looked at her funny. Which gave her serious doubts. Was he the therapist for her? Which of course made me chuckle. You’d better write that or else I will, I should have said. But of course I’m a dab hand at keeping things to myself.” (Come All Ye).
(a variation of this review appeared in Arc #55)
Victoria BC: Continuing their own tradition of finely produced chapbooks is George Murray's A SET OF DEADLY NEGOTIATIONS, produced by Caryl Wise Peters' Frog Hollow Press. The past couple of years, since returning to Canada (Guelph, I think) from New York City, Murray, the author of three trade poetry collections, has been so busy with the BookNinja website that he started with fiction writer Peter Darbyshire, so it is good to see that the poems are still there, somewhere. An impressive weight to the collection (printed on a heavy stock, and large enough to have two signatures), it was originally promoted as a collection of sonnets; sonnets are a dangerous form. The past few years, I've noticed more and more poets writing in the form again, which by itself is interesting (I remember when late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner was one of the few writing them, back in the mid-1990s, before it became fashionable again, or the hidden sonnets of John Newlove), but such a form so worked and overworked, it can be difficult and more demanding to master (I think of Leonard Cohen working in lyric rhyme, and writing eighty or ninety verses before he works his way back down to four or five). Imagine: to write a sonnet you are suddenly in the context of every other sonnet written, from William Shakespeare, to Ted Berrigan's collection The Sonnets from the early 1960s (included in a new Collected Poemsout from University of California Press), to the chapbook ESP: ACCUMULATION SONNETS (BookThug, 2004) by Toronto poet Jay MillAr (although MillAr, as an example, worked pretty loose with the form) [Let's not forget the brilliant collaboration by Stephen Brockwell and Peter Norman, the best argument for the form]. Sure, structurally these are "real" sonnets, far more traditional. But to what end?
The John Newlove poem, "The Tasmanian Devil" (Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003), is impressive because the fact that it's a sonnet isn't the first or even the second thing it tells you, but something you have to realize, after you've gone through the guts of the poem. It's a great poem first, and a great sonnet later.
It seems there are a whole bunch of these poets around, including Murray, Zach Wells, Peter Norman and various others, working in this whole "new new new formalism" thing I keep hearing about. Where do I keep hearing that? An issue of Cross-country from the 1970s with David McFadden and Ken Norris, writing new formalism. Was it even new? Was it even formalism?
THE BEAUTIFUL HANDS OF SKEPTICAL WOMEN
The beautiful hands of skeptical women,
the mouths of pursed disbelief. The dirge
interrupted, the broken pall: elegy's
need for repetition, weeping widows,
and other forms of calm continuance.
The ambulettes are full to overflow,
carpools of the gory, overrun
with flesh; the hospital doors have had enough.
The fear of contact, the need for touch.
Some women are always shivering:
light sweaters and arms across chests, chilled
even in the blood heat of August. Trace
in your palm what would permit each to die
or heal in private; what will be left to chance.
These are good poems, as Murray is a good poet, but they are not great. I want so much for them to be great. Impressive as a collection of sonnets, as a collection of poems I somehow find them less interesting. Of his three poetry collections -- Carousel: A Book of Second Thoughts (Exile, 2000), The Cottage Builder's Letter (M&S, 2001) and The Hunter (M&S, 2003) -- it was his second that I found most compelling. Murray has a good sense of craft and a fine ear, but he sometimes lets the craft take over, to the detriment of the poem. I like it best when he simply writes and isn't carving out a particular.
And I can't help but ask, why don't Frog Hollow Press chapbooks include biographical information about the author? Some of us actually like to know those things.
Frog Hollow Press can be found at their website, or by writing c/o 1758 Armstrong Avenue, Victoria BC V8R 5S6.