Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Capilano Review 2:44 & west coast line 46

The Capilano Review 2:44: One of the standards of progressive writing in Canada, The Capilano Review has been publishing since the 1970s, and surrounded by editors and contributors such as founding editor Pierre Coupey, Sharon Thesen, Brian Fawcett, Barry McKinnon, Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering, and others; the most recent masthead also shows Thesen, who returned a while ago after a period of years. What I've really been finding interesting about recent issues of The Capilano Review is the fact that they've been including fascinating and meaty interviews by local Vancouver writers of Capilano College writers-in-residence, starting with an interview with August Kleinzahler (conducted by Mark Cochrane) in issue 2:42 (I missed the issue in-between), and most recently with Peter Quartermain (conducted by Andrew Klobucar) in the new issue. One of the founders/publishers of Vancouver's Nomados with his wife, poet/editor Meredith Quartermain, the only part of the interview with Peter Quartermain that disappointed was the lack of further biographical or bibliographical information on him, to get further context of what the interview was coming out of. It would have been good to have a list of his publications, for example, whether as editor or author. The interview talks about poetry in general, including Quartermain's interest in the works of Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, and the British poet Basil Bunting, who he was able to host for a while in Vancouver. As Quartermain says in the interview:

Well, when I look back on it, I realize that in some sense my whole career has been exploring a lot of those patterns which had to do with indigenous American poetics versus a postcolonial American poetics ― whatever you want to call it. But just then, I started teaching Williams and I looked at that and I thought, well, it's no good saying that I'm gonna write about "X" because there's nine million books on "X". And I certainly couldn't work on Hawthorne. I'd done my thesis on Hawthorne, but there's no way I could write [a book] about Hawthorne ― there's just so much stuff, you know, I'd spend months and months getting the scholarship together. But nobody had written about Williams, so I said to the department, "I'm going to write about Williams." There was one book by Vivienne Koch then, but that was all. So I figured, if you're first on the scene, you can be wrong as hell and it doesn't matter. The point is, you're a pioneer; you'll still get tenure and all that.

Actually, I think it was kind of like an epiphany for me because you've got to live inside your own head. You can't live inside other people's heads, but I didn't know that. The whole pressure, of course, was to live in other people's heads, do what you think they wanted.

I mean we're talking about Duncan, talking about Olson, talking about Creeley, Whitehead, etc., etc. What if they're wrong? There is a world out there and we can know it. What I found objectionable about the whole intellectual atmosphere was that it was perpetually concerned about the truth value of everything. They had the truth about poetry. You'd read Yeats. You'd read Eliot. But then there's no Truth in there; I mean you can't tell what Eliot or Yeats is "actually" about ― you can't possibly "know" that a poem really is. It was very slow learning for me that truth value was not a part of the educational process in that sense ― in that notion of objective "rightness" and Truth. The belief that you could sort of step outside of discourse, you know, and decide that the truth is good and then go back into it happily and sort of carry on from there invites a deep insanity. (pp 6-7)

Other parts of the issue included poetry by Calgary's ryan fitzpatrick, Toronto writer Stuart Ross' hilarious "Dear Heidi Fleiss" piece, and selections from Clint Burnham's Smoke Show.

west coast line 46: Last week I spent a few days going through older issues of west coast line, including number sixteen (29/1) from 1995 (when it was still run by founding editor Roy Miki), produced in part as a tribute to (then) recently lost friends and family of the journal, including Vancouver teacher/critic/instigator Warren Tallman, Toronto poet bpNichol and Vancouver poet/painter/musician/teacher Roy Kiyooka, including pieces both on them and by them (if anyone wants more Kiyooka, keep in mind that NeWest recently re-released a new edition of Transcanada Letters as well as a volume of new correspondence, the long-awaited Pacific Rim Letters). I think it's the strength of any journal or magazine that the older issues still hold their ground; how many folk, I wonder, flip through old issues of The Fiddlehead? It was only a few days ago (after a particular cheque came in) that I was able to pick up the most recent issue of west coast line (another standard of progressive writing; now under the editorship of Glen Lowry and Jerry Zaslove). With more criticism than the journal usually has (I'm finding it harder and harder to find critical work and/or interviews in any Canadian journal these days, so this is quite a relief; why keep making more work unless we talk about what we've already done?), the issue includes poems by Natalie Simpson, Mani Rao, Shane Rhodes, a well as critical essays by Donato Mancini (on Jeff Derksen), Caroline Wong, Kim Duff, Michael Boughn and Jeff Derksen.

The "Brick Poems" by Mark Laliberte (where the hell else have I seen them recently?) have to be some of the most interesting visual poems I've seen in a long time, and well worth the price of the journal alone (if the critical pieces don't appeal to you, I mean). The pieces included a note on the idea, writing: The Brick Poems are hybrid "texts" that appropriate the hand-made illustrative markings of different illustrators and cartoonists, as they draw bricks (usually in the background of city scenes). For each piece in this series, the illustrator's drawn source material is scanned and digitally constructed brick-by-brick into walls by the poet; the individual style of each illustrator's approach to an object such as a brick is metaphorically connected to the poet's unique approach to the written word. Each piece, therefore, is conceived of as a visual poem. (p 58).

And if you haven't had a chance to read the poems of Natalie Simpson (check her out in Shift + Switch or Post-Prairie), spend some time with her poems (ten small fragments over ten pages) in this issue, from "Chump":

What a drag means, combed over a rug cut in the
wool dyed blonde and ambivalent, a whale of a good
time beached early and caught a burn. The sun starts
an argument under your skin cells perk and glisten,
steam-pops crack a fist farce, an empty threat. Now get
tramping, cover ground faster than the last man down,
each arm fits a socket, each odd part weighs. (p25).

Saturday, January 28, 2006

consternation theory

whatever I would do; persist

discovered through conversation; not
wanting to disturb; discovered through

they shared a greeting

(I am hard to know my inner selves)

the influence of influence; a paper
filled w/ facts; black turtlenecks

& analysis

suggested this; the hockey
& the universality

goalie goals; he came to city to see
he came to city

he came to city surrounded
he came to city cleared

of virtuosity

Thursday, January 26, 2006

ongoing notes: late late January 2006

Did you see the piece that Ron Silliman wrote on British Columbia poet George Stanley? Or that former Ottawa visual artist David Cation now has a blog of his own? Have you seen the new issue of ottawater yet (what do you mean you haven’t had a chance?)? And with today's article that Allan Wigney was nice enough to write about me + ottawater in The Ottawa Sun, I've now been writ about by them more than anything in the Ottawa X-Press. Or this new sound archive that PhillySound has done on late great Toronto poet bpNichol? Or that Fredericton poet / Broken Jaw Press publisher Joe Blades just had a second poetry collection come out translated into Serbian? (He's been spending a lot of time over there lately, and might even be editing a collection of Canadian poets for them…). Or that Ottawa resident (and Cornwall poet) Jesse Ferguson just had a chapbook published online by Friday Circle (the University of Ottawa chapbook publisher also threatens to publish a print version at some point…)? Or that my poetry collection with British publisher Stride is nearly out? Did you hear that the new Transpoetry is launching soon, Thursday February 9 at 1:30pm at Ottawa City Hall, 110 Laurier Avenue West, main floor lobby. I for one am intrigued to see what they've done with this second run…

Calgary AB: Recently in the mail I got the two chapbooks that Jill Hartman describes in her blog entry, "My Alberta Beef, Ice Cream, & Haiku in the Winter," produced by her semi-precious press (which, she claims, is starting to make more items, which makes me very glad). Jill Hartman is a Calgary writer, and part of that whole filling Station / dANDelion mess of folk that have been producing work over the past few years, filling up blog space and sending book manuscripts to Coach House in Toronto. Hartman's own Coach House Books title, A Painted Elephant (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004), is a long poem built almost like an opera of the streets of Calgary (and I highly recommend). The two little chapbooks in question are Hartman's "My Alberta Beef" (from a manuscript-in-progress, "St. Ampede & The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth") and Paul Kennett's "Ice Cream" (from a manuscript-in-progress, "One Great City"), produced in "a limited edition of 30 / printed on the occasion of Jill & Paul's / fourth Christmas together / (& their third with Hunter) / December 2005." Taking the names of saints from bpNichol's life-long poem The Martyrology, Hartman writes her own version through both city and province, writing "Saint Ampede's / undeniable Clydesdale plod / salt water taffy tears of a rodeo clown" (n.p.). Tying Wonder Woman to addressing "Cowboy Poetry" (her local riff, I can only presume, on Nichol's "Captain Poetry") to Saint Ampede, I like the way that Hartman continues to write her city of Calgary, something a number of her local contemporaries have also been doing over the past couple of years, whether ryan fitzpatrick's ogden, or Julia Williams' chapbook MY CITY IS ANCIENT AND FAMOUS (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2004) (see other versions of same in the new Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry, published by Talonbooks and edited by Jon Paul Fiorentino and Robert Kroetsch).

steal the show
& tell

our buffalo bill:


alienation has nothing on
the exquisite embarrassment teenagers invented

my own city my nation

I submit:
Calgary is a hell of a place to be 14

Montreal QC: After weeks of waiting, I finally got copies of two of the Delirium Press chapbooks out of Montreal, produced by Kate Hall and Heather Jessup. Over the past few years, they've produced a number of chapbooks, including a series of broadsheets by Stephen Brockwell, Carmine Starnino, Stephanie Bolster and others that were produced for readings. The two items in my mailbox were HourHour by Christian Hawkey (with drawings by Ryan Mrozowski), and the story Rise, Bright Moon by Fiona Foster (with drawings by David Spriggs). Elegant in their simplicity, each are produced in a signed edition of fifty copies. Considering how much I've heard about this little press, and how long I've been aware of them, existing quietly in their part of Montreal, I expected to like the writing they were publishing more than I did. At least I know they've got a Bolster chapbook forthcoming (as do I), so I suppose I'll just look forward to that. This can't be the best they have; I am still a big fan of the Stephen Brockwell broadside they published a few years ago (a copy sits right above my computer). At least I hope not.


My chest is a kind of top soil
it always slips off in the rain
it has drawers for every insect
I tuck my head into my sternum
a rapid beak nibbling is the
most efficient form of preening
there are glands in my cheeks
I know nothing of how they work
although I am drawn to rubbing them
against the tips of car antennae
fence posts the end of a big toe
often I bite the skin of my arm
and let go the indent is a circle
of books my skin a shelf
submerged in the air it marks
the border of an island
how happy for the land to have an eye
a string of islands is a beautiful sight
the ocean uses them to spy on us
this puddle just winked at me
Donald doesn't like me anymore
his chest is in my teeth
he reads me to sleep at night when
the wind floats the house out
from under my skin into the stars
eating so many holes
in the island the sky the weather
a sweater falling apart in my hands

-- Christian Hawkey, HourHour

West Hartford, Connecticut: poet and publisher Peter Ganick was nice enough to mail me an envelope of some of the chapbooks that appeared recently through his small chapbook project, including John M. Bennett's SHOULDER CREAM, Sheila E. Murphy's A Younger Presence in the House, Noah Eli Gordon's twenty ruptured paragraphs from a perfectly functional book, Camille Martin's call me i, and a chapbook of visuals, Michael Basinski's INVADOURS. About half of this list I'm only aware of through the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics email list, so it's interesting to start getting a sense of where some of these writers are existing, and what they are doing. What I've seen of Bennett's work is all over the place, trying pretty much everything that anyone can, including visual/concrete, language-centred work (I suppose, from where he is, language-centered work), and other text variations, with varying degrees of success, but there are some of the pieces in his SHOULDER CREAM that I quite like.


snored the regguhc bench bill snored the
pmuj touch cash snored the leep train
song snored the hsub jerk death snored
the dworc meal sucker snored the knurd
let stammer snored the emid truss
dripping snored the tsirw dump cleaner
snored the eci rug shining snored the
deggolc roof singer snored the sserd rib

On the other hand, I've been very aware of the work of Sheila E. Murphy over the past couple of years, through a massive trade of books we did a while back, including Falling in Love Falling in Love With You Syntax: Selected and New Poems (Elmwood CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1997) (and I have to admit, as much as I enjoyed the collection, I was still disappointed that the selected didn’t include an introduction; I think all selecteds should…), and her Canadian publication, produced by Nicholas Power, her Pure Mental Breath (Toronto ON: Gesture Press, 1994). Murphy's poems are in almost every American journal (and a few Canadian too) I get my hands on, and I recently found out that her ongoing collaboration with Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour, Continuations, is (finally) scheduled to appear this spring. For all of her publishing, I somehow get the impression (through lack of reviews, interviews and other critical material on her work) that Murphy doesn't get near the attention she deserves, for the amount of extremely interesting material she has published. I love her short lines and line breaks, for example, and her prose poems (something far more prevalent in American writing than Canadian) are some of the few I actively read. Published sans cover, heading straight into the poem from the get-go (which seemed a little odd, but whatever), here is a fraction of her poem/chapbook A Younger Presence in the House:

There are countless hexagrams
contained in
This small airspace

There's this
Afflictive curse of all I want to
Do is craft and say or lotion my way out
All this curfew

If you want copies of some of these chapbooks, email Ganick at to find out how. about copies. send $29 (US)for all 5, or $6 each; please add $2 postage per total order.
to: small chapbook project, 181 edgemont avenue, west hartford ct 06110-1005.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

belladonna* chapbook / reading series, NY

After getting Rachel Zolf's belladonna* chapbook directly from her a while ago, I got a package of a whole bunch more from the publisher. As I wrote in a previous post, the belladonna* reading and chapbook series out of New York City that has promoted the work of numerous women writers both American and Canadian over the past few years, produced and organized by Rachel Levitsky and Erica Kaufman (with help from Canadian ex-pat Sina Queyras), citing itself as "a reading series that promotes the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable, dangerous with language." Hosting an interesting mix of new and established, some of the chapbooks now in my little apartment are Alice Notley's "IPHIGENIA" (#36), Leslie Scalapino's "'Can't is 'Night'" (#50), Nicole Brossard's (trans. Lise Weil) "Matter Harmonious Still Maneuvering" (#66), Susan Howe's "118 Westerly Terrace" (#68), hassan's "Salem" (#72), Erín Moure's "Befallen I" (#74), Lisa Robertson's "First Spontaneous Horizontal Restaurant" (#75), Mairéad Byrne's "Kalends" (#79) and Nathalie Stephens' "You But For The Body Fell Against" (#81)(although I wish these publications would also include biographical information, so I could know a little bit more about each author...). I'm a big fan of reading series that can get themselves together to produce chapbooks by the reader, not only giving a chance for a larger awareness of particular writers than who might have been in the crowd, but producing a printed record of each event (it very much appeals to the archivist in me).

One of my favourite of the series that I've seen so far has to be the work of Nathalie Stephens, a Canadian poet I've been following (and publishing) for years, as she moved back and forth from Toronto to Montreal to Guelph, Ontario and back, before finally heading down to Chicago (where I'm pretty sure she still is). No matter what the other chapbooks might hold, there is just something about her text that I keep coming back to. With a number of trade collections under her belt, in both English and French, I don't know why Stephens' work doesn't get more attention than it does, so it's extremely cool that she is part of this series.

The madness scores the skin. We balk at it before taking it in. We
remove what covers. We are loathe to begin.

We solicit leaving. Shun the evening. The turn of the orange
sun. The encroachment of what darkens. We fall fast. We bargain with
our pain. We deny the thing that moves through dusk into the body.
The ink-swell of rage bottomed into a flat plane of sufferance. Even our
vocabulary is wrought of disdain. And the voices rise against us. And the
hands admonish the thing we refuse to touch. And the body ignites the
sorrow drowned in us. And the mouth starves the motioning of language.
And the skin scars the having lost. Accuse the song named after us.

We are the unburied. And distrust.

-- Natalie Stephens, "You But For The Body Fell Against"

They have a whole list of publications still in print, which can be purchased through their website, or by sending a query to them at 458 Lincoln Place, Suite 48 Brooklyn NY 11238.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

ottawater number two now available

Founded to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa, Canada's glorious capital city, "ottawater," and its chemical formula/logo "O2(H2O)," is a poetry annual produced exclusively on-line, in both readable and printable pdf formats. An anthology focusing on Ottawa poets and poetics, its first issue appeared in January 2005, 150 years after old Bytown became the City of Ottawa. A second issue, launched January 2006, is now available.

Long seen only as a town still echoing its origins as a backwater Victorian lumber town, and made up of bureaucrats and technocrats, and a more conservative poetics, "ottawater," edited by Ottawa-born writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan, exists to remind readers of what work is happening, and has been happening for years, despite government types insisting on repeating that the arts in Ottawa is about to begin. We say instead: we have always been here.

The second issue features work by various residents current and former, including: Stephanie Bolster, Louis Cabri, Rhonda Douglas, Jesse Ferguson, Anita Lahey, Nicholas Lea, Anne Le Dressay, Karen Massey, Una McDonnell, Colin Morton, Jennifer Mulligan, Nicholas Power, K. I. Press, Shane Rhodes, Sandra Ridley and Ian Whistle, interviews with poets Monty Reid and Chris Turnbull, and reviews of work by Diana Brebner, William Hawkins and Nadine McInnis, as well as artwork by Jennifer Kwong, Jeremy Reid, Kerry Cavlovic, Amy Thompson, and Sacha Leclair.

The launch party for the second issue will be happening Thursday, January 26th, 2006 at the Mercury Lounge, 56 Byward Street, Ottawa, from 8pm to 10pm, lovingly hosted by rob mclennan. After short readings by various contributors, stick around for a drink, and listen to resident dj Trevor Walker host Mui Afro Funke, playing Latin and African influenced musics, jazz funk, and house music later on into the night.

ottawater would like to thank designer Tanya Sprowl, Mercury Lounge's Lance Baptiste, the ottawa international writers festival, and Randy Woods at non-linear creations for their continuing support.

Monday, January 23, 2006

WHAT FUCKAN THEORY: bill bissett in Ottawa

On Friday, January 20th, 2006, Ottawa residents in the know were treated to the second installment of jwcurry's Hit 'N' Run Lecture Series (see my note on the first one), as Toronto poet bill bissett read the entirety of his book of theory, Rush what fukan theory a study uv language (grOnk / blewointmentpress, 1971). Consisting of nearly an hour of continuous reading (and perhaps more; the time flew by, and I don’t think a single person checked a watch), it was an important reading of what many of us realized was an important document in Canadian literature. In many ways, bissett has perhaps produced more work and been treated to less serious critical consideration than almost anyone over the past few decades in Canadian writing. Imagine: every eighteen months, bissett has had a book (each one thoroughly line-edited by editor/publisher Karl Seigler) with Vancouver's Talonbooks since at least the early 1970s, if not the late 1960s (most recently northern wild roses / deth interrupts th dansing, published in 2005), with dozens of other publications going back another ten years or so. Still, even with such a large body of published work, text and visual, so much of bissett's work is performative, and needs to be seen/heard to really open up an understanding of what he is doing with it, and has been doing with it for decades.

With an audience of twenty or thirty (curry would have a better sense of numbers, since he made us all sign something afterwards), spectators/participants included Max Middle, Jennifer Mulligan (bissett kept calling her "Chloe" -- apparently he mistook her for a gallery curator?), Anita Dolman, Michelle April, Grant Wilkins, Jennifer Books, Riley Tench, John W. MacDonald (some of the photos he took of the reading, including pics of bissett, curry, Tench, myself and Mulligan are here) and even some of our lovely National Librarians (interesting to see anyone from the library/archives come to such a strange and radical (for this city) event).

During the reading, bissett told the story of when, the day after bpNichol won (co-won, actually) the Governor General's Award for Poetry, he called Nichol to borrow money. The result was Nichol giving bill $100, with the stipulation that he produce a book of theory, thus making Rush what fukan theory a study uv language not only a document written relatively quickly (bill was pretty sure, as far as his memory goes, that he wasn’t getting the money until after the completion of the manuscript), but one that was a co-publication between bill's publishing house, blewointmentpress, and bpNichol's grOnk. (In jwcurry's note for the event, he gets further into detail by explaining that Rush what fukan theory a study uv language was issued as the last publication of bpNichol's grOnk series, Volume 8 #8, and published by blewointmentpress.)

Held in the former Dragon's Tail location at 880 Somerset Street West (directly underneath the current location of jwcurry's Room 302 Books), in the space of a driving school, the only real strange part of the reading was Riley Tench's intermittent demands that bissett read/perform the poem "a warm place to shit," despite the fact that the whole event was set up for bill to read/perform a specific text (Tench wasn't terribly interested in waiting for his request to be performed afterwards). Usually quieter, and quite wry in his humour, Tench was part of a loose contingent of late 1970s and early 1980s Peterborough, Ontario poets and artists that eventually relocated to Ottawa, including Michael Dennis and Dennis Tourbin; other parts of the disparate group, such as Maggie Helwig, moved in the other direction, to Toronto. Unfortunately, Tench, an active poet and publisher, hasn’t produced any material in perhaps twenty years, but has started coming back out to readings since the founding of the ottawa international writers festival. Also, throughout the reading, I realized I wasn't learning a single thing about driving. What I did learn, was a theory that still held about the fear of most writers and writing of anything not straight linear, and how collage works of text over text over text usually get the short end of the stick, let alone critical considerations (I really need to sit down with this document….).

Originally produced in an edition of 500 copies in 1971, I'm now wondering if it would be worth putting bissett's document of theory ("what theory / its a fact") back in print? And who the hell would be interested in doing such a thing? A scattered collage of theory, speculation, drawings, commentary and visual/concrete pieces, much of which feels still ahead of most contemporary poetic thinking, Rush what fukan theory a study uv language is a document that certainly requires (on my part) further study. I'm hoping some university library has a copy for me to bootleg, somewhere (curry says he has a copy or two available for $75 each). Part of the evening made me wonder what curry will come up with next; if further installments might involve/include Steve McCaffery or Daniel f. Bradley, perhaps?

Related (recent) posts: bill bissett: inkorrect thots & the bill bissett-related blog that ross priddle introduced me to.

Monday, January 16, 2006

a brief note on the other side of the mouth

The poems that make up the manuscript (in progress) of variations: plunder verse, book three of the other side of the mouth, came out of a conversation with Toronto poet Gregory Betts. During a visit he made to Ottawa, the two of us sat hours at Pubwell's Restaurant on Preston Street and talked about a project he was working on, that he called "plunder verse." To write a poem using only the words from someone else's poem, he said, and only in that order. He had already done it a couple of times, with pieces that appeared in the Calgary journal filling Station, among other places. The result of that conversation was that he would write up his concept as an essay for us to consider for the subsequent issue of our online journal (which, of course, we immediately published). The result, that I almost immediately went home and started writing, to see where the project would lead.

I've been working on a series of more deliberate works as "response" texts for the past few years, after so many poems and books come out of so many other poems and books. Alberta writer Robert Kroetsch has always said that writing is a conversation, and Toronto writer David W. McFadden suggested once that books come out of books. In previous collections, I've written pieces that have come, slyly, out of other works, writing names and quotes and legions of source materials. Why not push it more deliberately? How many different ways are there to involve a "response" work (while being aware of the fact that all poems could be considered "response" works). In the other side of the mouth (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2003), I wrote one hundred pages of short, quick poems, ten each from ten different poetry collections, alluding and collapsing phrases as pure electrical leaps. I was working to write more intuitively, outside of what my poems had already been doing for some time, working in opposition to the carve, carve, carve of twenty or thirty drafts of the short lyric I had been writing for years. As Fred Wah wrote of his ongoing series, Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987), "a critical practice that sees language as the true practice of thought." In his brief into to the collection that made up the first of his own ongoing series of intuitive/response texts (a number of which respond to visual art), Wah wrote of drunken tai chi, of learning to have a control over the moves even with a lack of control; to let the unpredictability take over, and thus make him a more formidable opponent. A poem should not always know where it is going; but the writer should have the skill at least to direct it, or at least, keep it out of trouble.

The manuscript of the second book of "the other side of the mouth," apertures, works a version of George Bowering's collection Curious (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1974), in which he wrote poems for other poets. In each of my pieces, I am trying to write about things belonging to poets whose work I admire and enjoy, while trying to incorporate aspects of their writing style (with varying degrees of success). Between poets and their stuff; is there a difference? By the time the series is finished (I'm aiming for roughly one hundred and twenty pieces), I would almost consider it as much as a list of recommended reading as just about anything, working through Canadian and American poets both. I'm up to about eighty pieces so far, writing poems about the "stuff" of Stan Rogal, Robert Creeley, Anne Carson, Margaret Christakos, Meredith Quartermain, Victor Coleman, Nelson Ball, Stephanie Bolster, Dennis Cooley, Bev Daurio, Susan Elmslie, William Hawkins, Robert Kroetsch, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Cole Swensen, Fred Wah, Gwendolyn Guth, Fanny Howe. Watching the direct result of writing completely feeding other writing.

The poems in variations: plunder verse (the third volume in "the other side of the mouth") work more than poems based on other poems, but poems written from the inside of influence. It is one thing to write a poem based on the insides of a longer poem by Barry McKinnon, but what about writing five pieces from that? Or fifteen? The challenge, then, was to write pieces that could live by themselves, but still be completely different from each other. I've picked a number of texts by Canadian poets, one per author, to plunder, writing my own poem within theirs; my rule, I can only use the words in the original poem, and only use them in the order in which they appear in the original text. I can neither add nor re-order. For me, the interesting thing isn't whether or not I can write one successful poem out of another one, but if I can write five, or fifteen successful poems out of a singular text, trying to make them different enough and interesting enough that they are worth looking at side by side.

What becomes interesting through the process of "plunder" is seeing the threads that emerge through the original piece, stripped away to reveal something new within the piece, put there deliberately or otherwise, and even contradict the original poem, all the time while using the original flesh of the poem to rebuild. It has become (hopefully) something new.

from apertures
Dennis Cooley's permission
Gerry Gilbert's bicycle
Phil Hall's Ontario
Jay MillAr’s adventure stories
Rachel Zucker’s working note
Louis Zukofsky's alphabet

from variations: plunder verse
George Bowering’s “Do Sink,” variation one - six
Barry McKinnon’s “pages from a prairie journal,” variation two + three
Meredith Quartermain’s “I Canadian dream of English,” variation three
Victor Coleman's "Eulogistics," variation two
Mark Cochrane's "Dumbhead," variation three

Friday, January 13, 2006

an interview with Adam Dickinson, Olive Reading & chapbook series, Edmonton AB
this interview was conducted over email from March 2005 to June 2005

Adam Dickinson is one of the founders of the Olive Reading and chapbook series in Edmonton, which he recently left in the capable hands of a small group newcomers, including Kristy McKay and Douglas Barbour. In 1999 he won the Alfred G. Bailey Prize from the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, and his first book of poetry, Cartography and Walking, was published by Brick Books in 2002. He completed a PhD in English at the University of Alberta, and started a postdoctoral fellowship at York University in Toronto in September 2005. The Olive series takes place at Martini's Bar & Grill (9910 109 Street) with a featured reader and an open set. Upcoming readings include poet Olga Costopolis-Almon (Tuesday, February 14, 7pm), The University of Alberta's senior poetry class (Tuesday, March 14, 7pm) and tba (Tuesday, April 11, 70m). For more information on the current Olive reading and chapbook series, email

rob mclennan: How did the Olive series get started?

Adam Dickinson: Beer, really. And the fact that there was not a suitable venue in Edmonton where one could drink beer and listen to more literary poetry. Andy Weaver, Paul Pearson, Jonathan Meakin, and I were the original founders. We wanted to offer a series that featured interesting and challenging poetry in an intimate environment away from the university. From the very beginning we deliberately set the Olive up as something distinct from the university. We wanted to have our beer and our literature. Martini’s Bar and Grill very kindly agreed to let us host the reading series on their premises; they even provided us with a sound system. It was challenging to find a venue at first. Andy has some funny stories about the strange looks he got when broaching the idea at some bars in the Whyte Ave area of Edmonton (the centre of Edmonton’s drinking world).

We always wanted to be more than just a reading series; we had aspirations to be a small press. Initially, we decided to produce a small chapbook of each featured reader’s work to distribute free of charge. The chapbook served the dual purpose of advertisement and memento – the audience always had something to take away from the reading. It was always our intention, however, to produce more elaborate and ambitiously designed chapbooks. Finances limited the scope of our achievements at first. The four of us paid for the chapbook production every month for the first three years of the Olive’s existence. Eventually, we were fortunate enough to receive some small advertising revenue and some significant funding from APIRG (Alberta Publish Interest Research Group). It was at this point that we could afford to pay our readers and to produce to limited edition, specifically designed chapbooks. We were thrilled when Don McKay agreed to let us publish one of his manuscripts (Varves, 2003). We were also thrilled to publish an invocative work by Shani Mootoo (What My Eyes, 2003).

rm: Why do you think Edmonton didn’t have this before you started? The University itself seems strong when it comes to writers and writing, and NeWest Press as well as the University of Alberta Press are strong literary presences. Yet before you, there was still this lack at the level at which Olive exists. Why do you think that was?

AD: I suspect that this kind of regular series didn’t exist before us because of the considerable ongoing organizational effort that it requires. Also, we had to pay for it ourselves at first (which limited the number of interested new members). You’re right; Edmonton has a strong literary presence. The university has several fantastic emerging writers in the creative writing program. We were fortunate with the Olive in that we hit upon a receptive venue and we exploited the various talents of our collective to initially get the series off the ground. There is a lot of inertia to overcome when starting something like this: in addition to the logistics of the reading itself, we had to develop and maintain a regular audience. As you well know, these things take effort and time. We were also fortunate in the early going to have the support of some established writers, in particular Doug Barbour. He has been a fervent supporter and invaluable resource for us over the years. There aren’t too many readings he has missed.

rm: Of the group of you that founded Olive, I do know there are a few different points of view when it comes to stylistic preference. Were there ever readers that came through that perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen, but impressed upon your own work? How did the creation of a reading and chapbook series affect you (or anyone else in the group, as you saw) as a writer?

AD: There were certainly situations where one of us was more keen than the others on having a certain reader. However, there was never a situation where we had someone read that another group member opposed. We try and have tried very hard to represent a balance of poetic styles and interests.

There have been readers who surprised me and inspired me with their excellence; however, I’m not sure I can say that these writers necessarily impacted my work. A good poetry reading for me is a generative experience inasmuch as it makes me want to go home and write poems – it doesn’t make me necessarily want to write like someone else. The Olive has certainly made me feel more a part of the Canadian poetry community (a relatively intimate scene as it is). It has been wonderful to be able to provide a venue for writers from across the country.

rm: Since the series started, a number of the original members have moved on, such as Andy Weaver and Paul Pearson. Who are the newer members of the Olive group, and how have they added to the dynamics of the series?

AD: The Olive has indeed seen some transition in the past couple of years. Paul Pearson was the first to move on (because of work commitments) followed shortly by Jonathan Meakin. Andy and I brought on three new members to fill the significant void left by these founding poets. Roger Davis was the first to join us, bringing his considerable expertise in and enthusiasm for poetry. Roger did his PhD in Calgary studying the journal Open Letter as well as experimental Canadian poetry. Theresa (T. L.) Cowan also became a part of the Olive collective. In addition to her fine spoken-word and performance work, Theresa’s organizational energy and exceptional hosting talents have been invaluable. Lisa Martin-DeMoor joined the Olive in the spring of 2004. Lisa has perhaps the most complete perspective on the Olive because prior to joining the editorial board she was a regular at Olive readings, presenting her outstanding poems. Lisa has, consequently, become intimately acquainted with both sides of the Olive event. She has handled the difficult work of zine production for the past year. Several new members are set to join the Olive as well: Kristy McKay (formerly of Ottawa and also the publisher of the SPIRE broadsheet series); and Sheri Benning (a poet and PhD student at the University of Alberta). I have learned recently that I will depart for Toronto at the end of the summer; Roger Davis also has decided to leave, given work and family commitments. Thus, this coming fall the Olive will have completed its transition from a collective of four male poets to one of four female poets. The Olive is in very strong, creative hands.

Monday, January 09, 2006

shift & switch: new canadian poetry

Every few years in Canada, outside of the visible mainstream of Canadian poetry (something that mainstream Canadian writing seems quite intent on marginalizing), someone decides to open up the conversation a little more by publishing an anthology of "avant-garde" and/or more "cutting-edge" writing, in increasing combinations of text, visual and even sound (poetry anthologies in Canada, I've noticed, also seem to come out in waves, so if one appears, you can usually expect anywhere from two to five more to appear). In many ways, I wonder if all anthologies of "new" writing that come out are simply trying to replicate a more modern version of the importance of Donald Allen's seminal anthology, The New American Poetry (New York NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1960), influencing writing and reading on both sides of the border, culminating (in Canada) with the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963? (Writing has become too big; the influence of such a collection can never be repeated.) Previous incarnations range from Raymond Souster's influential anthology New Wave Canada (with editorial assistance from Victor Coleman; Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966), Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), George Bowering's The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984), Michael Holmes' The Last Word Anthology (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1995), Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar's Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1999), Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie's cd Carnivocal: A Celebration of Sound Poetry (Calgary AB: Red Deer Press, 2000), Jay MillAr and Jon Paul Fiorentino's chapbook response to the then-forthcoming Breathing Fire II (Vancouver BC: Nightwood Editions, 2005), Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2004), and even my own side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002), working to take the straight poetry anthology further.

Focusing more on visual poetry/poetics, there have been fewer examples, with the 1960s on including publications by bill bissett's blewointmentpress, including books, chapbooks, magazines and anthologies, and bpNichol's ongoing productions (up to his death in 1988) that included grOnk and Ganglia. More recently, there was Michael Dean and jwcurry's HEADS & H&Z (Underwhich Editions, 1985), which was a reprinted selection of jwcurry's Curvd H&z material that he had been producing, at that point, for a little over half a decade; it was an anthology that, some have suggested, beaulieu was trying to replicate in his own box of text/visual materials, courier (Calgary AB: housepress, 1999) (suggested most recently by Daniel f. Bradley in his own shift & switch review). As Dean wrote in his introduction to HEADS & H&Z: “Consistent through curry’s publications is this sense of a text being complete only when it has found its format. And as the text achieves its format this achievement tends to turn the text back on itself, reflecting automatically, and more deeply, on its content.” Still, given that so few trade collections of Canadian writing have included visuals at all, it becomes hard to complain.

The most recent version of any of these anthologies is Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), edited by Calgary poet/editors derek beaulieu and Jason Christie, and Toronto poet/editor a.rawlings, with text and visual contributions by derek beaulieu, Gregory Betts, Michael deBeyer, Alice Burdick, Jason Christie, Chris Fickling, Jon Paul Fiorentino, ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Gamble, Sharon Harris, Jill Hartman, Jason Le Heup, Jamie Hilder, Geoffrey Hlibchuk, Matthew Hollett, Jesse Huisken, Kedrick James, Reg Johanson, Frances Kruk, Larissa Lai, Glen Lowry, Danielle Maveal, Jeremy Mcleod, Max Middle, gustave morin, Janet Neigh, a.rawlings, Rob Read, Jordan Scott, Natalie Simpson, Trevor Speller, Nathalie Stephens, Andrea Strudensky, Hugh Thomas, Mark Truscott, Douglas Webster, Jonathon Wilcke, Julia Williams, rita wong, Suzanne Zelazo and Rachel Zolf (there are interesting links to most of them here).

"It seems that a lot of Canadian poetry anthologies are more about Canada than about the poems, more concerned with defining a National Poetic than with providing incidences of exciting and intelligent writing, such that the term 'Canadian' pertains less to a geographic boundary on a map and more toward some paranoic literary marker meant to distinguish our writing from American or European poetry. A lot of anthologies play it safe by showcasing already published and possibly well-known writers in an attempt to demonstrate an upper echelon of Canadian writing. While the writers that have writing in Shift & Switch are Canadian, their concerns include and extend beyond being an example of Canadian writing; their poetry reflects the presence of diverse and numerous talents just below the surface radar of Canadian Literature." (from the introduction by Jason Christie, p 10)

What makes the anthology interesting is that there are a number of writers here that are below the radar, including names I previously haven't heard, and writers whose names I've heard, but work I haven't seen (and I've been pretending to pay attention), such as Kruk, Webster, Neigh, or Lowry, and then just others that are plain brilliant, no matter what the context, such as Suzanne Zelazo, Mark Truscott and Rachel Zolf. Given that she has published poetry only sparingly (focusing on fiction), and predominantly in self-published titles (but for the recent West Coast Line issue that featured a selection on her work; see my post on same), it's good to see poetry by Larissa Lai, and Vancouver poet Reg Johanson, in comparison, who has barely published at all. It's amazing, too, to see the work of Ottawa poet/performer Max Middle get some larger attention, as he has been publishing and performing furiously over the past couple of years (another above/ground press chapbook, he says, is forthcoming). As far as the anthology as a whole, names I know and otherwise, there are a number of truly interesting and progressive texts represented here, including the aforementioned, as well as Gregory Betts, Julia Williams, Nathalie Stephens, Rob Read, a.rawlings and Jon Paul Fiorentino.

As editor derek beaulieu writes in his introduction (and all three introductions are available online):

"For too long and for far too often, Canadian poetry anthologies have presented a neo-conservative poetic as the 'cutting edge' in Canadian poetry, marginalizing voices that work to challenge the reading & writing status quo. The poem as finely wrought epiphanic moment of personal reflection (the poetry norm) undermines mass-culture & political sameness; it does little to question or confront how language itself defines the limitations of expression -- both personal & critical.

Anthologies that emphasize the classical & humanist definitions of poetry without considering work being done in alternative forms do little to further the writing of Canadian poetry as they offer only what is most palatable to the most conservative of audiences.

An alternative must be offered." (p 7)

Impressive, too, that the editors would include as much visuals as they have, since visuals in trade books seem few and far between (the production values of "Cantextualities: Contemporary Visual Poetry in Canada," the visual poetry issue of Open Letter edited by Jars Balan [10th series, number 6, summer 1999], was unusually bad). Unfortunately, very little of the visual pieces do anything for me, and even for me, who knows so little of visual works, I feel as though I've seen so much of this type of work before in the works of older Canadian writers, including bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Judith Copithorne, bill bissett, jwcurry and others, but for a piece here or there by Max Middle, or derek beaulieu's "For Brian" piece (otherwise, I know for a fact that derek, one of the most visible of the younger visual poets in Canada, can do better, and has, such as the work in his Coach House Books collection with wax; we will know more when his book of visuals from Talonbooks comes out in the spring…). Windsor, Ontario writer gustave morin, as well, has produced some extremely interesting visual works, but unfortunately, there is little evidence of it here, and Jason Le Heup, who used to self-produced odd chapbooks of visuals when he still lived in Vancouver, included text as his submission (he's been threatening to produce a full manuscript of visual pieces for years, but so far, nothing seems to have surfaced).

"who what how is introduction is editing is reading and how do we read how do we give our bodies over to text we recognize or don't and how do we comprehend 'Language is speech less speaking' while 'every body participates in language all the time' (Simpson 140) while simultaneously 'This is as your language swallows me' (Stephens 146)

and as 'we transfer between us' (Neigh 108) there may be ( )duction of thought of 'what difference a fucking line makes' (Lowry 95) of the moment 'voice' (Morin 106) breaks through to share its urgent admission of the imperative 'open your mouth and speak. Sing' (Scott 128) of 'make this sing' (Zolf 182) yes 'touch her. she sings' (Williams 174) all because 'She broke into a run up its language / … / then around the whole thing to force it downward in its throat' (Le Heup 86)" (from the introduction by angela rawlings, p 12-3)

The smartest part of this anthology, as beaulieu writes, is the framing of such as an "introduction" and not as any comprehensive sort of anthology of young(er) Canadian avant (usually where my problems with an anthology begin and end, in foolish claims of "representation" -- see my piece on Breathing Fire II, for example). Shift & Switch is a hit and miss anthology, with far more hits than misses, and an important opening to further reading. As such, I would highly recommend this, as well as some of the Canadian publications that also favour such writing, including (in no particular order): filling Station, dANDelion, Matrix, above/ground press, MODL Press, Talonbooks, Coach House Books, The Mercury Press, Insomniac Press, The Capilano Review, Nomados, The Gig, BookThug, W magazine, West Coast Line, STANZAS and Open Letter (etcetera).

Launches for the anthology have already happened in a few places west, but are still to happen are Ottawa (mother tongue books, 1067 Bank Street, Friday January 13th at 7:30pm), . More information on Shift & Switch launches can be found here.

Related entries: Ron Silliman's review, a.rawlings' response, etc, with links here.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ongoing notes: early January 2006

New year, new writings and new readings, although one can consider that in this, as in so many things, it is simply ongoing. Will any of you be around in February when I read at the Atwater Library as part of the Atwater Poetry Project in Montreal on February 16? Massachusetts poet and academic Lea Graham was here with her husband in Ottawa for a few days around New Year's Eve, visiting friends of theirs that now live in Maxville, of all places. If you ever get to meet them, make sure you do, cuz they're plenty of fun (she's writing an essay on Suknaski for the Guernica Editions collection on his work that I'm editing). And remember, above/ground press 2006 subscriptions are still available for $30…makes a great gift! Late on plenty of publications (you have no idea how far behind I am), some forthcoming ones include Sharon Harris (Toronto), Cath Morris (Vancouver), Karen Clavelle (Winnipeg), Barry McKinnon (Prince George BC), Dennis Cooley (Winnipeg), Stan Rogal (Toronto), Lori Emerson (Buffalo) and Stephanie Bolster (Montreal). Send me money so I can make more! And check out my review of the anthologies Writing the Terrain: Travelling Through Alberta with the Poets (University of Calgary Press) and Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry (Talonbooks) in the January/February issue of Word: Canada's Magazine for Readers + Writers. And have you considered taking my upcoming poetry workshop?

New York NY: I am very interested in the belladonna* reading and chapbook series out of New York City that has promoted the work of numerous women writers both American and Canadian over the past few years, produced and organized by Rachel Levitsky, Erica Kaufman and Sina Queyras. As it says inside Rachel Zolf's from Human Resources (chapbook #82; Rachel was nice enough to send me a copy), "belladonna* is a reading series that promotes the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable, dangerous with language." Hosting an interesting mix of new and established, some other writers in the series include Nathalie Stephens, Mairéad Byrne, Lisa Robertson, Erin Mouré, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Kathleen Fraser. Most are still available for $4 (US), but a number of titles are already out of print.

Through her two poetry collections Masque (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2004) and Her absence, this wanderer (Ottawa ON: BuschekBooks, 1999), Toronto writer Rachel Zolf has certainly been producing more and more interesting writing the past few years, but it’s the writing in her work-in-progress Human Resources that has really moved her work up to another level. A long series of fragments, Human Resources explores the language that sits between critical prose and office-speak (an almost gibberishly double-talk). Working through a poetic that includes critical writing and thinking, the pieces in Human Resources take a page from Montreal poet Erin Mouré (a direction also being taken by expat Canadian Sina Queyras), that the essay doesn't have to be separate from the poem.

The mystical white crow, the sword & the flower that
shattered stone standing in a Chelsea gallery watching
an artist get fucked by a collector for $20,000 U.S., it's
always the first cliché 44 would mom off our tongue
they love best: your dreams are possible, you can create
the life you want, there's no better time to make an
investment in your future. How limited the sphere you
negotiate liu Ouagadougou pogrom, "flourish" boasting
too many vowels, "thrive" too abstract. Internal censor
cheapening the impact of words, no nick or dent in the
narrow way the victorious city ritualist G-3 monoculture.
Like the unemployed former Democrats from Flint
swerving behind Bush and false, disfigured certainty, you
hand over the car keys to Jesus and the boss pockets 200
bucks an hour

Zolf has been publishing bits of the work-in-progress in various places (I even published a fragment as an above/ground press broadside), so keep your eyes open for other pieces in other places. Information on the belladonna* series can be found on their website, through email (, or by writing the editors c/o 458 Lincoln Place, #4B Brooklyn NY 11238

Vancouver BC: In a package I received from the publisher a while ago is Vancouver poet Lissa Wolsak's A Defence of Being (Ireland: Wild Honey Press, 2005). A 48-page chapbook, Wolsak's A Defence of Being is a sequence of combined fragments that exist as a treatise for existence.

When eyes slither up an arapahoeish moon,
mosquito-net yurt spread with summer quilts,
that is…on simple grounds of luminosity
we cross a ravine by way of a fallen pine-trunk,
water, wind, solar energy and peacefully split atoms
in our employ,
pleasures of emptiness and
absence of telo-numb theatrical gestures,
but if, then, one is the gloss of the other,
observer quandaries
we haven’t the leisure to defeat,
shall it next press that loving to eve,
for here…evidence…an inchoate ear
is my hand smoldering and agape sits lightly upon us,
or rather…less
and less chthonic thrall
release us
fee-simple (p 36)

For a long time, I've wanted to see more of Wolsak's work in a larger format, and available to a wider audience (in Canada at least), after other publications floating around, including The Garcia Family Co-Mercy (Vancouver BC: Tsunami Editions, 1994), An Heuristic Proclusion (Vancouver BC: Friends of Runcible Mountain, 2000) and Pen Chants, or nth or 12 spirit-like impermanences (New York NY: Roof Books, 2000). Why do so many of these Vancouver poets only seem to get trade books either in limited release locally, and/or larger release in some other country?

~ Writing is my way of listening and ventriloquising
until I reach the place of speaking. Or, in order to
perceive, I create distance, and re-situate my own
epistemological ideas of causation, separation, and
otherness. To find axis, or, an orbital angular
moment, in rejection of its own centrality, always
already disturbing its own refinement. To equipoise
opposing forces, in their moving equilibriums, their
tableaux. (An Heuristic Proclusion)

Vancouver BC: I found myself recently going through my copy of Sharon Thesen's Weeping Willow (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2005) again. Written as a slow sequence for George Bowering's late wife Angela (1940-1999), it moves as an elegy, through the period Thesen spent with Angela before she died. I've always been a fan of Thesen's poetry, and have always wished there would be just a little bit more of it (someday I will have to learn patience), Thesen is the editor of The New Long Poem Anthology, Second Edition (with a lovely cover image by Greg Curnoe; Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2001) and co-editor (with Ralph Maud) of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence (Wesleyan University Press, 1999), and author of a number of poetry collections, including Artemis Hates Romance (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1980), Confabulations: Poems for Malcolm Lowry (Lantzville, B.C. : Oolichan Books,
1984), Aurora (Coach House Press, 1995), A Pair of Scissors (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2000) and a second volume of selected poems, News & Smoke: Selected Poems (Talonbooks, 1999).

Down Larch St. to suppertime.

Angela'd had another dream
in which a school of fish…

& how she should have run off
with the visiting professor…

--Dear reader,
shouldn't we all have run off with someone.

At any rate
we'd talked for hours at the kitchen table,
Angela dispensed Sweet 'n Low
into her coffee as the windows darkened
and it was time to go so

I put on my coat and drove
down the hill in the Honda

many autumns back then

What I have always admired about Thesen's writing are the slow, considered steps she takes, and her poem on Roy Kiyooka after his death was absolutely heartbreaking in its simplicity, saying everything it needed to say (I was disappointed, actually, and surprised that it wasn't included in her Talonbooks selected; and if I could find my copy of Aurora I'd include it here…). Dedicated to George Bowering and his daughter Thea, Thesen's Weeping Willow writes of her relationship with Angela, and Angela's garden, just outside the bedroom window. Fortunately or unfortunately, grief and wanting to work your way through it can be quite an impetus for writing (see also: Frank Davey's honest and heartwrenching journal about his wife, How Linda Died, published by ECW Press, which is an almost essential read). In fragments written almost as small journal entries, Weeping Willow seems reminiscent, somewhat, of the book that George Bowering wrote for his late friend, the London, Ontario painter Greg Curnoe in The Moustache, Memories of Greg Curnoe (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1993).

I remember the last few times I saw Greg Curnoe he had his
current favourite jacket on. It looked like an often-washed,
blue, somewhat-faded jacket with a small crest on it. The crest
had the name of some town in France. A few days after he died
we were at his house, and at the kitchen door, which is the only
door you use to get into that house, I saw the jacket hanging
on a hook. This is an entrance hall with the laundry machines
in it, I think, and a lot of large shoes and boots. On the wall are
the coat hooks, up really high, just under the ceiling. The
Curnoes are all tall. On the way out that night I saw the jacket
hanging where Greg had put it a few days before. I reached up
and touched it and looked at the crest, but I cant remember
what the name of the town is. (The Moustache, Memories of Greg Curnoe)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

a brief note on the poetry of Lisa Jarnot

Lately I've been rereading Lisa Jarnot's Black Dog Songs (Chicago IL: Flood Editions, 2003) and her more recent chapbook Reptile House (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2005). A New York City poet born in Buffalo, Jarnot is the author of two previous volumes of poetry, Some Other Kind of Mission (1996) and Ring of Fire (2001/2003), and chapbooks that include Heliopolis (rem press), The New Mannerist Tricycle (Beautiful Swimmer Press), 9 Songs (Belladonna) and Two of Everything (Meow Press), as well as a novel, Promise X , and a biography of the poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus (both due in 2007). Since I've not yet seen any of those other books, I'll focus on the two at hand.


Oh Canada, you are melancholy today
and so am I, and here is the giant metal airplane
that fills the sky above the steam heat of my
dreams, beside decisions well between the
quiet that's between us

and also do you think of the hibiscus
on your roadsides, Dutch, like bags of carrots
still heroic wrapped in snow upon the tiny
screens that show it to you, particular neighbor
who breathes, alive, asleep, beside the surface
of the ice, upon the moon in silver deep. (Black Dog Songs)

There does seem something funny to me, typing in a poem about "Hockey Night in Canada" by an American, and wanting to type in the Canadian/British spelling of neighbour, instead of her "neighbor." A resonant and lively collection, the poems are broken up into four sections -- "Early and Uncollected Poems," "My Terrorist Notebook," "They" and "Black Dog Songs" -- and the ones that really grab are the ones in the second, "My Terrorist Notebook," that begin with:

This is the beginning of my terrorist notebook--all terror-
ism all the time. I would have had to blow up the World
Trade Center to get anyone's attention when I was a kid.
I'm tired of being nice. Nice is out. I want to live in a cave
with Osama and sleep on the floor of the cave. I want to
poke people's eyes out with their cell phone antennas.
Maybe I would feel better if I exercised more. Pretty soon
I will run out of money and that will be the end of my ter-
rorist activities. We have a situation here, we terrorists, in
our caves, blowing up the rest of the many muddy mouses,
swinging by their mousie tails over the heads of the mousie
moms under the muddy mousie moon, don't move, and
watch the mousie moon, you mom of mouse, now watch the
mousie moon. (Black Dog Songs)

In seven short, sharp poems, Jarnot eviscerates the government reaction, in poems for Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, writing the sameness of these acts and all acts, as acts of recognition, fear, response and terrorism.


for Donald Rumsfeld

As if they were not men,
amphibious, gill-like, with
wings, as if they were
sunning on the rocks, in a
new day, with their flickered
lizard tongues, as if they were
tiny and biting and black,
as if I was a hero or they were,
as if the they and these us that
arrived, out of the same blue
ground bogs, as if from my
bog that I saw the sun and
swam up to the surface, as if
the surface was shining, like a
lizard to embrace, as if the
random pain of lizard heads
on sticks were prettier to eat,
as if I didn't kill the plants, the
water, and the air, as if the
fruit and the sheep were all
diamond shaped and melted,
allowing in the sun, underground,
crowned, in shadows, in the
main dust, from the self same
main dust spring. (Black Dog Songs)

What I like about Jarnot's poetry is the fact that she seems to work within these thematic sections, writing whole sections as fragments of one piece, shifting between connections of form and content in a wonderful sense of humour and formal play. These very much feel like poems that are responding to the world around her, made up of the world instead of working to recreate the world. The thirteen pages in the space of Jarnot's chapbook Reptile House, published by Jay MillAr's BookThug, work thematically through just what you would expect from the title, moving through the same energies of form and play shown in Black Dog Songs.


Some ancient trauma
made you who you are
all made of meat
without a heart unscarred
that has no fur
that rounds the netherworld,
whose gaze is glassy,
teeth quick-witted pearl,
a water-snake,
not human, lacking hobbies,
with small eyes and a flat head
sculpted knobby
in snow you're useless,
dinosaurs relate
with feet that stick out
sideways from the plate
while worlds are modern
not so is your pose,
of tail and doze,
yet like the eggs
that peep out in the spring,
o crocodile to you
I here will sing. (Reptile House)

What I am really looking forward to is her biography of the poet Robert Duncan (some of which has already appeared in John Tranter's Jacket), one of a trio of San Francisco poets that met up in the 1950s that included Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, all of which had tremendous effect upon Vancouver poetry throughout the 1960s and beyond (Blaser even moved to Vancouver to teach at Simon Fraser University in the 1960s). Apparently there was even a conference on Duncan in Vancouver last April, but I wasn't able to make it out; hopefully someone eventually will be publishing a volume of papers from said conference, perhaps?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Irving Layton: 1912-2006

When I was still a student wandering the halls of Glengarry District High School in Alexandria, Ontario, the first single-author poetry collection by any author that I got my hands on was Irving Layton's For My Brother Jesus (1976). It was probably the only single author poetry collection in the entire library (and why that one? I remember asking). I don't know if it made me write any more, or any better, but it was certainly a book that I remember. After years of battling Alzheimer's, Irving Layton died on January 4th in a Montreal care facility where he had been living since 2000.

Called many things over the years, including misogynist, leader, crank, minor poet and great poet, Montreal poet Irving Layton was a great many things to a great many people, including one of three involved (with Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster) in the magazine and publishing house Contact Press, publishing not only their own works and writings by their contemporaries, but important early works by George Bowering, Gwendolyn MacEwen and others. As important as a public figure as a writer of verse, Layton was the author of over forty poetry collections, as well as a memoir, Waiting for the Messiah, where he claimed that he was born circumcised, making him (obviously) a reincarnation of the long-awaited Messiah. In his introduction to Layton's work in 15 Canadian Poets x3 (Toronto ON: Oxford University Press, 2001), editor Gary Geddes wrote: "Because he is so outspoken and graphic in his denunciations, Layton was for many years the best-known and most controversial figure in Canadian poetry. Like Auden, he believes that the writing of poetry is a political act […]." Geddes goes on to quote a section of the Preface Layton wrote to Laughing Rooster (1964):

"In this country the poet has always had to fight for his survival. He lives in a middle-class milieu whose values of money-getting, respectability, and success are hostile to the kind of integrity and authenticity that is at the core of his endeavour. His need to probe himself makes him an easy victim for those who have more practical things to do--to hold down a job, amass a fortune, or to get married and raise children. His concern is to change the world; at any rate, to bear witness that another besides the heartless, stupid, and soul destroying one men have created is possible."

An important part of Canadian modernism, his bravado and prolific production made Layton the first poet that many people in Canada first heard and read, especially when he started teaching high school in Montreal, or university at York University in Toronto, counting CHUM mogul Moses Znaimer as one of many former students influenced by him. He had a selected poems published by American publisher New Directions in 1945, and corresponded regularly with a number of poets, including Robert Creeley, and former student Leonard Cohen helped support him during his last few years, and called him master. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a number of times, Layton was perhaps but one of a couple of Canadian writers that have nearly taken the prize (Canada only got the award once, if you count Montreal born Saul Bellow, who left with his family for the United States when he was still a baby).

I saw him read only once, when he came to Ottawa to launch a new edition of his selected love poems, Dance with Desire (The Porcupines' Quill, Inc.) back in March, 1993 at Magnum Books, as part of a reading series organized by The Porcupines' Quill senior editor, John Metcalf. It was standing room only, with a number of latecomers forced to stand outside in the cold, as Layton held court from the podium. The best part, of course, that the event was (accidentally, I'm sure) held on International Women's Day, something I found enormously funny at the time (and still do). My favourite Irving Layton poem has to be "Misunderstanding," simply because of the sheer simplicity of the feelings (lust, arrogance, etcetera) presented within.


I placed
my hand
her thigh.

By the way
she moved
I could see
her devotion
to literature
was not perfect.

There are a few of his collections still available, including Dance with Desire and a new edition of The Improved Binoculars (1956) that was reissued by The Porcupine's Quill a few years back, as well as Wild Gooseberries: Selected Letters (1989), edited by Francis Mansbridge.

Ottawa poet Colin Morton sent this note out about Layton on the League of Canadian Poets list-serve yesterday (I've actually heard him tell this Newlove story a few times, each one slightly varied from the previous…):

Irving Layton was one of the first poets I read, in the old Poets of MidCentury anthology, when I caught the poetry bug in grade 12, certainly one whose example encouraged me, in the arrogance and inexperience of youth, to go ahead and write:

"Whatever else poetry is freedom.
Forget the rhetoric, the trick of lying
All poets pick up sooner or later."

On rereading, it's disappointing how often his poems and their rhetoric have failed to age well. About a decade ago I saw John Newlove at a reading, and the bee up John's nose that day was the nerve of Layton's biographer to say that Layton wrote only six great poems in his lifetime.

"ONLY six great poems!" John griped. "How many does it take?"

Jokingly, I replied, "Well, John, you've written five. Do you have another one in you?" He didn't, but I'd now grant him eight or ten, and wish I could tell him so.

Layton okay, six. But add that to the distinction of having waged, and even won, his one-man culture war against Canadian stuffiness and decorum. There's something to celebrate.