Friday, March 31, 2006

Ongoing notes: late March 2006

I think I'm almost recovered from Lea Graham's visit to our fine country + city; are you? (& then there's this blog entry by Joe Blades, that makes only her look good) Apparently beloved Canadian author & Hamilton, Ontario resident Gary Barwin has just started a blog, as has Toronto poet/publisher Jennifer LoveGrove; does that officially mean that everyone is now? & then there's Canadian writer John Stiles, over there in England, his. Even though my spring book from Stride is barely out (just got my extra copies today), the page for my fall book with Broken Jaw Press is up, here; & note I've a new chapbook, generations, with Jonathan Ball's Martian Review, over to the west; those two readings I did earlier, at the Atwater Library in Montreal in February & here with the TREE Reading Series in March (the first 2/3 of the reading at least, sans fiction) are up as podcast (& newly up on sidebar, too); due to the response to my "warehouse sale" I'm extending it for a while; god knows until when (catch it before I change my mind…). Just because we haven't posted a new issue of in a while doesn't mean we've given up on it; Stephen Brockwell has been interviewing web designers for some time, & the fall 2005 issue is ready to go, with the next one right behind.

Ottawa ON: When Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell recently opened for Lea Graham & Nicholas Lea at The Mercury Lounge, he read pieces from a small chapbook he had just self-published, Karikura (Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, 2006). Quiet for a number of years, his Rideau Review Press published a small poetry journal in Ottawa in the late 1980s, as well as a few chapbooks, before reappearing a couple of years ago to produce limited edition poetry broadsides for The TREE Reading Series (available through them), as well as a couple of chapbooks, including Brockwell's infamous sonnet collaboration with Peter Norman. Subtitled "Original Poems and Translations by Stephen Brockwell," his Karikura is a collection of eight small poems.

Karikura on Poetry

I walked up to Karikura and asked
'Karikura, how can I write a poem
that touches people's hearts?' Karikura said,
'You cannot write a poem that touches people's hearts.
People touch a poem with their fingers when
they pick up a book. If it is not bad they
might read it. If it is better, they might
mumble one or two words to savour it.
If it is good, maybe they will remember
the day they first read it when they read it again.
Perhaps they will recollect the taste
of the apple they were eating that day
or they might remember
the breath of the wind in their mother's hair.' (p 1)

I like the way Brockwell deliberately holds back in his poems, works to understate & underscore; the way his poems work almost as children's stories or folk tales, entertaining & teaching at the same time.

Karikura and a Loaf of Bread

Karikura came to me and asked for bread.
I said, 'Karikura, I have ten dollars. Take it
and buy yourself a decent breakfast.'
Karikura scolded me. 'I do not want your money.
I asked you for bread because the bread you make
is not very good. If you do not make more,
you will never make a loaf that anyone will eat.' (p 2)

To find out how to get a copy, write him c/o 157 Geoffrey Street, Ottawa Ontario K1Z 7A7 (or send me an email & I can forward it to him…)

Vancouver BC: From Vancouver poet Jen Currin, born & raised in Portland, Oregon, comes her first trade poetry collection, The Sleep of Four Cities (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2005). Broken up into four city-sections — Mirror City, Embrace of The Blue Gardens, A Town Called Orphan & A Shell on The Bridge — Currin's poems work through the magic & real elements of cities. There is something about the narrative forms & folds in Currin's poems, working a kind of surreal/abstract magic that I respond to, feeling & knowing at the same time.


On the battlefield I buttered bread, whistling
as the sun broke its promise.
An egg landed in my lap.
I had to cross the table to help myself.
I made alliances. The ants
wore me and I wore
red sandals. I carved
a tree stump with our initials.

All was calm, until I noticed
the slippery fins of the flower bucking
just beyond my reach.
My reverie ground to a halt
with a dinner fork grimace.

I found what I thought to be night,
a black billboard
propped up by static.
Here I had been courting the petals of silence,
praising the motives of pencils—
as if I had hands!
The sky fidgeting above me
for years as I read
to butterflies, knowing
I'd never see straight again—

I envied the sky fish
their miniature castles;
the serpent, its fan.
I wanted my tongue to split
on the bridge
so that I could spit without rehearsal.
Of course you know all of this
is now irreversible. (p 74-5)

Still, as much as there is an element of very good in this collection, & in these poems, there is the hint of great, further on, that makes me aware very much that the next collection could push & push so much further; why do I feel as though she is still holding back?


Farewell to the violin lessons.
Their heroes were too young to get inside
the lime and salt establishments.
In homage to them,
elders stand out on the sidewalk
begging and borrowing rhythm
from the roses.

The piano player's checkerboard teeth match his songs.
He masters three: A Bluesman, Not Blind;
The Dreamland Blues; Blue Sunset Reminiscences
Wild garden sessions follow
closely behind drugstore buzzes,
games of Follow The Leader.
He always wanted to play the loudest instrument.

His music flies under bridges, over canyons,
so alive only the dead recognize the raw material
of his voice.
He ingests royal meals,
books on tape, various mahogany liquids.
He knows the words to every song in the world.
They come out from between his teeth
ivory-warped, beautifully blackened.

How quickly grandeur crashes,
a flash in the pan
of quick highs, steady lows.
The drumming pervades our dreams,
changes the tempo to get up and go.

The wind blows ahead
and gives no details on the ditty.
It has a mind of its own. (p 14-5)

As much as I like the poems in Jen Currin's collection, there is just something about her poems that make me long for a second collection by Rachel Rose, after her giving my body to science (Montreal QC: The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999). Do you remember her poems? The strongest had to be the poem "What We Heard About the Japanese" & its sister poem, "What The Japanese Perhaps Heard"; whatever happened to Montreal poet Rachel Rose?


Perhaps they heard we don't understand them
very well. Perhaps this made them

Pleased. Perhaps they heard we shoot
Japanese students who ring the wrong

Bell at Hallowe'en. That we shoot
at the slightest provocation: a low mark

On an exam, a lovers' spat, an excess
of guilt. Perhaps they wondered

If it was guilt we felt at the sight of that student
bleeding out among our lawn flamingos,

Or something recognizable to them,
something like grief. Perhaps

They heard that our culture
has its roots in desperate immigration

And lone men. Perhaps they observed
our skill at raising serial killers,

That we value good teeth above
good minds and have no festivals

To remember the dead. Perhaps they heard
that our grey lakes are deep enough to swallow cities,

That our landscape is vast wheat and loneliness.
Perhaps they ask themselves if, when grief

Wraps its wet arms around Montana, we would not prefer
the community of archipelagos

Upon which persimmons are harvested
and black fingers or rock uncurl their digits

In the mist. Perhaps their abacus echoes
the shape that grief takes,

One island
bleeding into the next,

And for us grief is an endless cornfield,
silken and ripe with poison. (p 52-3)

Boulder CO: Isn't that the city where the television series Mork & Mindy was supposed to be located? I got a package a few days ago from the kind folk there who run Hot Whiskey Press, & the chapbooks Bramble (2005) by Joseph Massey, The Squalicum Harbor Suite (2005) by Anselm Parlatore (with introduction by James Bertolino), and Carrington (2006) by Elizabeth Robinson. Produced in editions of 250 copies, these chapbooks are extremely attractive, simply packaged with printed covers and sewn binding.

Elizabeth Robinson's Carrington prefaces briefly with the information that "Dora Carrington, 1893-1932, was a British painter, intimate of the writer Lytton Strachey, and a peripheral member of the Bloomsbury group." Constructed, then, as a short series of poems on the late British painter, Robinson writes small moments of her life, imagined or otherwise I do not know, writing her by saying "I was a descendant / of a lesson of // overmuch dosing / of behavior and quanine" (np). This poem, "Making Signs," is one of the last of the small set of fourteen:

Making Signs

Irony bites my hand
where I recognize the tooth marks
as my own

Painter of

Bearer of

Gnawer of signs

Whereupon my craft:
I go in
to the inn

and no nourishment there
I avail of myself

Anselm Parlatore's The Squalicum Harbor Suite comes complete with an introduction, framing the work, which seems almost as long as the section of poems themselves. As James Bertolino writes about Parlatore:

Parlatore's poetry, of at least the last decade, has been composed in a Post-Modernist Baroque style. According to the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia (1983), the baroque style emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the "essential characteristic is an emphasis on unity, a balance among diverse parts." The design of Christopher Wren's churches "compelled order upon overwhelming multiple forms." In both architecture and sculpture, the baroque style was often "enhanced by the chiaroscuro (high-contrast) effects of painting." The most significant examples of the baroque offered "…an unequaled sense of drama, energy and mobility of form."

I would return to Charles Olson's seminal essay "Projective Verse," 1950, to locate a generative impulse for Parlatore's work. Olson attended to "the kenetics of the thing." He noted "the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy discharge." Olson also made this, most essential, observation: "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception." While Parlatore's poems are typically written in stanzas, and thus appear conventional, the actual dynamic is close to Olson's ideal—enclosed within the lyric envelope. (pp vi-vii)

It seems a bit of a stretch, somehow, but I otherwise like the biographical information that he provides in other parts of the essay, & I do even like some of the poems.


Pavilia of the moon's aperture tonight
the veined lineaments of desire to the Bering Strait
beyond. This is jealousy's perfection, the aftermath
of the pack-ice. I only mention it because

reticulated into the stratified, the beatific.
& there are raptors along the high ridges
nomadic Clovis hunters of the Cascade Crest
ostensibly a promenade of phalanxes

for the skulls of ungulates, the bare white plinths
scratches, indentations, scrolls
of predation's delirium, a validation,
the frescoed trellising obviously its grim stain.

& so it goes here in these rainbow archipelagos.
The humped backs & hooked snouts of the dark ones,
invalids of the parapets, the fish ladders…
of the holding ponds. The climax conifers soothe

somewhat, as does the vale & warp of the moon.
But the gaudiness of the death-rattle remains. (p 19)

You can check them out through their website, writing them c/o 1727 Pine Street #1, Boulder CO, 80302 USA, or emailing them at

Amherst MA: One book Lea Graham brought for me that I am very much liking is Eric Baus' The To Sound (Verse Press, 2004). Every year, Verse Press (now officially defunct) ran a poetry manuscript contest, & the winners were published as a collection by the press; coincidentally, Baus' manuscript won the contest in 2002, as selected by Forrest Gander, which is the same year my own stone, book one (which was published in 2004 by a different press) was actually shortlisted for the same award (I really should have tried them again). I can see why poet Juliana Spahr would have a blurb on the back cover; there is just something about his long lyric line.


covered every window in the house with x-rays of my bandaged eye.

"working backwards from the sky" says she follows every fissure
until it's time for the stitches to come out. When something falls
you should pick it up.

"spilled sand and lamplight" has been my sister for a while now.

They say we are slivered glass. Fluttered numbers and milk. Flickers
sutured in skin.

They tried to convince me that half the word filament is night. Every
rattled out lightbulb means a brother's pillow is burning.

We all watch the clock. Eyes running out of aluminum. (p 11)

Going through this collection makes me think I should have been asking for further collections from Verse Press (& now their new offshoot, Wave Books), to see what else they've been up to. Very much shaped as a whole book as unit of composition, the poems resonate off each other with startling result & ease; one that fills me with a small bit of envy, writing birds & sisters & sleep.


I couldn't exhale long enough to explain my delays, to spell out
why I'd been watching the clock, waiting for both arms to align.
I couldn't tell you in the smoky corner how the angle of my knife
to your empty glass was like holding dowsing rods over my head.
I'm lost in my own percentages, looking to slake a thirst in the
gradations of your hunger. (p 35)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Phoebe: eleven ways of looking at travel

I picked up a copy of the spring 2006 issue of Phoebe yesterday; in the issue, they asked what they called a multiview, asking eleven different writers the same question: How does transportation or travel affect your own writing process, or poetry in general? An interesting range & process of answers, the question, posed to writers (many of whom I'd never heard of) Kate Northrup, Kim Addonizio, D.A. Powell, Lisa Jarnot (I picked up the issue for her name), Greg Fraser & Chad Davidson, Matthew Rohrer, H.L. Hix, Joshua Marie Wilkinson & Richard Silken, got me to thinking of my own response (since no one ever asks me anything):

rob mclennan's response: I have always considered that to write of the world, you have to be part of the world, & that includes writing, talking, taking the bus, watching television, movies, politics, comic books, & thusly, travel. Not always without, but working its own way within.

"Travel poetry" can often have a tendency to slide too many surfaces & not enough depths, working to include little more than a new series of place names, & many of these, unfortunately, have fallen into my own learning curve of writing & even into other writers' full collections. I would eventually love to be able to spend a month in, say, New York City, exploring the city & all the distractions therein, writing & writers & living, & still have enough time to do some competent writing of my own (although the thirty-five hours I was in New York City in 2003 with Stephen Brockwell & Clare Latremouille still managed to result in eight quick poems, many of which were written either in the airport before we left for Ottawa, or on the plane).

Usually when I'm about to do a Canadian tour for a new poetry collection (this fall will probably be my twelfth tour), I can spend anywhere from three to eight weeks on the road, doing readings & seeing friends that I almost only see during these jaunts, I come up with some kind of self-contained book-length writing project to work on during the trip, to keep my mind occupied. I know other writers who have said that writing on the road is impossible for them, such as Robert McLiam Wilson (six months into a tour when I saw him, & all of it away from writing), & Helen Humphreys. Dennis Cooley, on the other hand, seems to do more writing whenever he leaves the house.

Over the weeks before I leave, various structures I want to play with rattle around my head, themes or titles, so I can get started just as the first leg of the journey begins; I prefer to keep such projects separate from whatever usual ongoing projects I have scattered across my desk (I also allow myself to read whole stacks of novels that had been sitting around for months, unread; consider the twenty-four hour train between Vancouver & Edmonton, consider how long the train from Winnipeg to Toronto takes; the last tour I did, I made reread Robert Kroetch's The Studhorse Man, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections & Steven Heighton's The Shadow Boxer, among others). Much of what became my sixth poetry collection harvest, a book of signifiers (fall 2001, Talonbooks) was written while touring Canada for my second poetry collection, bury me deep in the green wood (spring 1999, ECW Press) with Montreal fiction writer Anne Stone & Edmonton poet kath MacLean. As the tours & the writing progresses, I've noticed the travel collections have become less sprawling & more focused; for whatever reason, I seem to write complete twenty page pieces whenever I visit Alberta, sitting at the University of Alberta Power Plant grad lounge every day, scribbling in my notebook.

Whole sections of my forthcoming collection aubade (fall 2006, Broken Jaw Press) are written this way, as a sequence of sequences, with various sections written in various cities, including one completely written in Edmonton, & another in Montreal, for example. Each has its own range of city & city writing to respond to; in Montreal, I am always very much aware of responding to Leonard Cohen & Artie Gold.

I would like to think that I have been in various Canadian cities often enough that the excitement purely of the different place than home syndrome in writing has diminished, & the pieces instead include a flavour of the cities themselves; subtle, but not overpowering.

When I was young, with my father working the dairy farm & my mother's poor health, travel was something we were never really able to do; the one trip to Prince Edward Island I do recall is referenced in red earth (2003, Black Moss Press), or our trip to New Paltz, New York the same time Elvis died, in harvest; & something I certainly didn’t come close to doing on my own until my late twenties. For years I tried to learn the prairies, for example, by not only being there, but by reading Dennis Cooley, Andrew Suknaski, Robert Kroetsch, Aritha van Herk, John Newlove, Sid Marty. You learn a place as much by being there as reading about it; I wanted to understand that question of what is here? In Glengarry we are nearly obsessed with it, so why not ask the same question about everywhere else?

I would like to think, that in my own writing at least, that the question of travel adds elements to the work that otherwise might not have crept in, from my little writing desk on Somerset Street West. What I am really interested in exploring is non-Canadian space, & work to understand a whole range of new references that can't have been possible in a Calgary or Vancouver or Ottawa poem. Do you remember that collection of Richard Brautigan's written in Japan, June 30th, June 30th (1976)?

If I am to explore, I want it to be about everything.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

archival notes: what i remember & what i forget

Thanks to Lea Graham's recent visit, I was forced to clean up much of my apartment. Here are some books I happily found while I was digging around my bookshelf (etcetera) for three weeks, leading up to her arrival.

Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. Ed. Jenny Penberthy. University of California Press, 2002. I'd only been six months digging through my apartment looking for this, and found it while looking for another book entirely (a Lisa Samuels poetry collection that I still haven't found). It's a collection I found in hardcover, remaindered at Benjamin Books in the Rideau Centre (they still have softcover copies; at least they did last week) a couple of years ago. It seems interesting to me, somehow, that all this Niedecker work is being done by someone teaching in Vancouver (at Capilano College); didn't the guy who wrote the Robert Creeley biography teach at York University in Toronto? (Who says we have no cross-border poetic…) As Penberthy writes in her introduction:

Though it was the Objectivist issue of Poetry that had initiated her contact with Zukofsky, Niedecker would never count herself among the original Objectivists—Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi. At the time, she was drawn to its affinity with her own writing: "Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with Objectivism." She admired the priority Objectivism gave both to the nonreferential, material qualities of words and to a "non-expressive" poetry that rejected a too-prominent sense of the poet described by Zukofsky as "imperfect or predatory or sentimental." It appears that her enthusiasm for an object-based poetics was limited. Instead, she pursued abstraction. (pp 3-4)

How can anyone not be moved for the pieces that exist in For Paul and Other Poems (previously unpublished as a unit), written for Paul Zukofsky (son of Louis)?


Understand me, dead is nothing
whereas here we want each other,
silence, time to be alone
and Paul's growing up—
baseball, jabber, running off to neighbors
and back into the Iliad—"do you really believe
there were gods, all that hooey?"
And his violin—improvising

made a Vivaldi sequence his,
better than I could have done with poetry
at twice his age…
so writes your father, L. before P.

A start in life for Paul.
The efforts of a life
hold together as Einstein's
and lead to expectations of form.

To know, to love…if we knew nothing,
Baruch the blessed said, would we exist?

For Paul then at six and a half
a half scholarship—
turn the radio dead—
tho your teacher's gone back to Italy
stumped by American capital.

In my mind, the child said,
are rondeau-gavottes 1 to 11,
here is number 12. (pp 138-9)

There's just so much to go through in this collection that I've barely scratched the surface; but for George Bowering mentioning her name on the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics list-serve a year or so ago, I might never have heard her name. There is so much still to be learned.

I've been quite taken with the collecteds that University of California has done over the years, as I slowly learn & acquire copies of the most recent The Collected Books of Ted Berrigan, for example, or copies of older selecteds of poems by Robert Creeley & Charles Olson; did you know they're (supposedly) publishing a larger selected/collected of Creeley's next year?

poems for jessica-flynn by michael dennis. Ottawa ON: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986. Another book I spent six months looking for, so I could include a piece or two in an essay I've been tinkering with. This was the first collection of dennis' that I found, written during a month of writing as he sat in the window of the now-defunct Avenue Bookshop on Bank Street in Ottawa (where the Herb & Spice is supposed to be, now), from January 7 to February 7, 1986; I attempted my own version of the same project (somewhat less successful than his), spending the month of June 1995 in the window of Octopus Books in the Glebe (who writes in a window in the middle of a heat wave? Even Frank magazine made fun of me for that), writing the chapbook we live at the end of the 20th century (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1996). An important collection in my consideration of being a writer, & the city around me, the poems about places I knew & things that I saw really resonated, especially with pieces I was reading in 1991 of sitting at the original Royal Oak Pub at Bank & MacLaren Streets (I made the pub my home for nearly ten years, before they managed to wreck it; I was very impressed when I was twenty-one, sitting in the pub that Ottawa poet michael dennis had written in, writing my own youthful, terrible verse…).

1st in a series of poems from a bookstore window

so, i'm finally here
sitting in a bookstore window
and trying to write
of all things, poetry

you have to get everything right
you have to be sitting in the perfect position
with the typer at just such an angle
you have to be feeling a certain way
and then you can do it

you can let go
of whatever it is that controls you
whatever it is that sets the rules
and you simply go the other way

that's exactly what i'm doing
here in this bookstore window
in the middle of winter

I admired the immediacy of dennis' writing, & even went on to eventually help put together a selected poems of his, This Day Full of Promise, that appeared through my cauldron books series published by Broken Jaw Press. dennis published a number of collections over the years, including a chapbook with Maggie Helwig's Lowlife Publishing, a trade collection with Pulp Press in the late 1980s (what later became Arsenal Pulp Press), & later chapbooks with my own above/ground press. Even though he was easily the most published poet in Ottawa throughout the 1980s (over seven hundred magazine/journal publications, supposedly), he hasn’t participated in as much over the past decade or so; but rumours have him still writing. There was a small chapbook that came out last year, but I never saw a copy. Will we ever see anything else?

The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-in Book of Arkansas. Ed. C.D. Wright. Photographs by Deborah Luster. The University of Arkansas Press, 1994. With all the talk with Lea Graham about Arkansas, where she grew up (though born in Memphis), the same place that bore & bred American poet C.D. Wright, I returned to my favourite poem in this collection of the local, a piece by James Whitehead. I remember, a few years ago, including the poem in a letter I sent to John Newlove (before he died, yes; even though he was roughly a block away); there seemed a particular kind of overlap between what he did & what this author was doing; particularly in the final stanza. According to Graham, the state of Arkansas has many corners still difficult to reach by road, since the waterways worked so well for so long (so road construction wasn't seen as necessary).

About A Year After He Got Married
He Would Sit Alone In An Abandoned
Shack In A Cotton Field
Enjoying Himself

I'd sit inside the abandoned shack all morning
Being sensitive, a fair thing to do
At twenty-three, my first son born, and burning
To get my wife again. The world was new
And I was nervous and wonderfully depressed.

The light on the cotton flowers and the child
Asleep at home was marvelous and blessed,
And the dust in the abandoned air was mild
As sentimental poverty. I'd scan
Or draw the ragged wall on the morning long.

Newspaper for wallpaper sang but didn't mean.
Hard thoughts of justice were beyond my ken.
Lord, forgive young men their gentle pain,
Then bring them stones. Bring their play to ruin.

James Whitehead (p 28)

Is there anything C.D. Wright can't do? I kept hoping to get a copy of that long poem she wrote sometime back on women prisoners, taken from photographs by Luster, but I haven't seen a copy of it yet. Apparently Whitehead (at least at the point of publication of this anthology) is the author of the collections Domains (Louisiana State University Press, 1966), Joiner (Knopf, 1971; University of Arkansas Press, reprint, 1991), Local Men (University of Illinois Press, 1979) & Near at Hand (University of Missouri Press, 1993). I don't know anything else about him (& I wouldn't let Graham take this anthology home with her, much to her disappointment… maybe someone out there wants to get her one for her birthday? Maybe someone wants to get that newer Wright/Luster book for mine?).

Holding the Pose by Sharon Thesen. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1983. There is something wonderfully & utterly charming about the earlier poems & collections of British Columbia poet (she's somewhere in the interior now, after years in Vancouver, but I can't for the life of me recall where) Sharon Thesen. In this, a poem from her second collection (watch for her new one out this spring), watch for the sly link to her first collection, Artemis Hates Romance (another book worth finding, if you can). I've written about Thesen recently here & there, so when this was under a pile of things & then another things, I quickly put it on the top of another pile, somewhere on my little desk.

< >

On Saturday mornings we meet to talk
women and poetry in the heated air
the charming song of the chanteuse mocks
unwilling our heavy coats and voices bare
that wish to say the things we daren't say –
draped in fur but not in Paris, no rouged lips
or horny sailors nor poets freshly off the ships
o'erwhelmed by this our beauty that will slay
them suddenly – oh no, this place is snowy
where gray days break through paler gray
and yonder waitress moves quite slowly
encumbered by necessity. O sanctuary brave
wherein we think our little hymns to Artemis
no unencumbered song, no earthly heaven this. (p 45)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

American poet Lea Graham & I spent most of yesterday at my local, Pubwell's (96 Preston Street), writing various collaborations. Here are some of the ones I think worked best...


eight car hours border,
border some

lets go to
in the meantime, baby

cry nashville,
& a paper twang

drawling pen,
& finger inflections

where few & fewer
great white hopes

or memphis heated

letter to cooley

drifters we are

a range of foreign points
to estevan menace

mooning words zip over lines
spent spiraled west

& further, coulee hill
& drift

from the america of olsons kingfisher
& a capital of trees

duncans fields—
to dance a game of creation

the clutter of it all

an open field would manitoba dust

letter to allegrezza

a confluence of chicago words work out
cultural, a factory sense

of you, buona serra, buona notte
& sun at lake edge, your face another language

write away, the length & breadth of her conclusions,
out sweetly, utterably

into this south—a thursday blue of trains,
the scent of strawberry sun

the poem in which
you told me alternate histories of elvis, america

in water & name,

into paper fact

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Notes without notes: Lea Graham + Nicholas Lea

Ottawa interviewer Nigel Beale, blogger + literary starlet John W. MacDonald, Dusty Owlers Steve Zydfeld + his lovely wife Cathy MacDonald-Zydfeld, French theatre-lad Inouk Touzin + writers Clare Latremouille, John Lavery, Monty Reid, Jennifer Mulligan, Stephen Brockwell, Max Middle, Kate Bryden, Anita Dolman + James Moran & piles of others were all at my birthday party on March 18th; why weren’t you? There were a number of things from that night I can't tell you about; there is photographic evidence, but I won't tell you who has it, or where to find it. I got to bed well after 5am (alone, thank you very much), once the "after party" at Mike's house died down, where various of us including Brockwell & Reid played various musical instruments well into the wee hours.

No matter what you thought Ottawa's own Tom Green might have accomplished earlier, you can't deny he's immortal now for being a reference on a new episode of The Simpsons that aired March 19, 2006; we're proud of you, lad (did I ever tell you I was a guest on his show in March 1995, when he was still on Rogers Cable 22?). Did you know that American poet Lisa Samuels (teaching at the University of Milwaukee-Michigan) is moving to New Zealand? I just found out, & was pointed to this; it led me, too, to this, the neatest thing by Canadian ex-pat (teaching in New York) poet Sina Queyras, writing on Lisa Robertson's The Weather (New Star Books). One thing leads to another thing leads to another thing. Be aware that the League of Canadian poets AGM is happening in Ottawa the second weekend of June (same weekend as Westfest, unfortunately); it will include a lecture by Ottawa-born Margaret Atwood, which should be interesting (I've actually been finding her critical/non-fiction work over the past few years to be her most interesting). & did I tell you that Lea Graham is arriving tomorrow, to do a reading? I've been cleaning my apartment for weeks (& finding the neatest things). She'll be here until Sunday (even hosting a party for her on Saturday night, a "Lea Graham Appreciation Party," much like the "Monty Reid Appreciation Party" we held last year; shouldn't folk be appreciated every so often?); hoping to get some collaborative writing in while she's here.

I just published a first chapbook by Moose Creek, Ontario poet (currently living in Ottawa) Nicholas Lea (no, not that Nicholas Lea), his light years. He came out of a creative writing class at the University of Ottawa (but don't hold that against him) & is one of the irregular contributors to the ottawa poetry newsletter. You know the drill: send me $5 (CDN; outside Canada, $5 US) c/o 858 Somerset Street West, main floor, Ottawa Ontario Canada K1R 6R7 to get a copy; same if you want anything (mostly) in the backlist…). Here's a piece from it:

after Don McKay

Smooth light falters
after one solemn thought
you’re ready for the trees’
natural flattery to take
from your own internal yearning:
the process of seeing and processing
scene things. Once, we were a model
for filled-out, full-form dualistic dawning

on ideas, or more-than-foreign thoughts; a
fox in the distant field; a sworn-in
spec mystery of mythical, fable-found
meaning. It looked (sexless), tried
to sniff the airs’ potentials, but failed and
I think, sighed (maybe not).

Foster the cause that saddens our shadow
—we’ve just the time too.
But what (kind) weight put us in our place
the day you said you’d donate your soul to
this signed space? I’ve (still) sat and traced
every possible log-wrought thought, found that.

Remember, we're launching Nick's first chapbook Thursday night at The Mercury Lounge, 56 Byward Street. Also launching Lea Graham's Calendar Girls (above/ground press), with an opening by local poet Stephen Brockwell. You should come too. 8pm. free. (& Steve Evans just told me Vancouver poet Fred Wah reading at the University of Maine this week; makes me very jealous. Why can't Wah read here too?) Meeting with Fredericton NB poet & publisher Joe Blades later on today to talk about my fall poetry collection, aubade. What is he doing in town again?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ongoing notes: mid-March 2006

I only just got copies of my new poetry collection [name , an errant, just appeared from England's Stride; its lovely] but already it's seen it's first review. If anyone is interested, you can either get copies directly from him, or send me $20 + $2 for postage (outside Canada, $22 US; outside US, its easier to get directly from the publisher…) and I'll send you one (signed if you want, even). My eleventh poetry collection, it's also the first publication of mine (ever) that includes blurbs (quotes from reviews and/or articles are a whole other matter); the whole "blurb" business is a strange one. I remember interviewing fiction writer Barbara Gowdy a few years ago for her novel Mr. Sandman; she said she found the whole idea of blurbs on books suspect, and there are folk who seem to blurb almost every second book. Far more worthwhile are those who rarely blurb; think of Patrick Lane's Winter (Saskatoon SK: Coteau, 1986), blurbed by John Newlove; think of The Last Word Anthology (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1995), blurbed by Michael Ondaatje. How often have they said anything? Still, was quite something to have folk such as Douglas Barbour + Sheila Murphy say nice things about the collection. Thanks. The next book, aubade, includes a variation that Harold Rhenisch was nice enough to rework of a quote taken out of a review he did in Arc magazine of my collection red earth; thanks, too. But I will still admit it feels odd…

in other news, did you know that Edmonton fiction writer Thomas Wharton now has a blog? Then there's the community blog started by Wayde Compton and others for their Hogan's Alley historical project in Vancouver. I've added a number of other new ones on my sidebar over the past little bit, including Kate Sutherland (Toronto) and Ariel Gordon (Winnipeg), being ones I actually read regularly. At some point I'd like to add the list of writers with blogs section on my own website as more of a "catch-all," once I have the time (ah, time); otherwise, Maine writer Steve Evans has an interesting list of (mainly American) poetry links here on his page. If there are any blogs out there I might be unaware of, please shoot me an email and I'll be sure to (eventually) check it out. Here's a magazine I'm apparently in any day now; apparently I've been "tagged" by Joe Blades; an interview with Swedish poet and translator Lars Palm (what's he doing in Spain?) that says nice things about ottawater; did you know about ross priddle's five million copies project? Does anyone know about this small press exchange? After the piece I wrote on late Montreal poet Ruth Taylor recently, I've since seen two more pieces on her here & here; & then a sad note from Chris Sorrenti on Ottawa poet, editor & Sasquatch reading series founder Juan O'Neil who died a few days ago. & now March break is over; I want nothing else bad to happen.

Prince George BC: I like that I can always count on transplanted Winnipeg writer Rob Budde to remind me about so much happening up there in Prince George, British Columbia [see also the piece on him in the March/April issue of Word], whether through his blog or through the publication of his chapbook series, wink books (check out, too, his new book flicker out from Signature Editions in Winnipeg). The fifth in the series that includes (mostly) titles by Budde and one by Jeremy Stewart, is Budde's Finding Ft. George (2006). Located half-way up the province, and the home of the Carrier Sekani people for thousands of years, the City of Prince George rests on the site of a river junction discovered by Europeans in 1807 when explorer Simon Fraser passed through where the Nechako River joins the Fraser (the story goes, had Alexander MacKenzie found the join during his canoe trip of 1793, the town would probably have been named after him). Fraser went on to build a tiny outpost on the site he called Fort George, after King George III. Budde's new chapbook, Finding Ft. George, is a collection of a number of small pieces, including the seven part poem "Finding Ft. George," that talks almost as Budde writing his introduction to the city that has become his home, writing of the place itself, the people he found there, and mundane elements such as looking for a home, and working to place his own future through, among other things, the past of a northern logging town.

dear pg/4

purdy's cariboo horses aren't
here, really
he is, the beer and gruff
grasp on what it means
to have balls (barry says
he pulled that one)
or more

foley's cache, stewart names
the past, ft. george
the traces of settlement sediment
piling up to the big
boxes in college heights and
the moonscape subdivisions
gargoyles of vinyl siding

it's about leaving the cities. fully.

back and forth history slides i
swing hearing fawcett and thesen
creeley and the lines
highway and rail intersecting
river taking us all away

pg is writing, worrying
over the line, what it is taking us for.

For those who might not know, Budde is pulling on obvious histories of writers either from Prince George and long left (Brian Fawcett and Sharon Thesen; even though she was born in Saskatchewan, she was raised in Prince George), or who came through to do readings (with small publications) through Barry McKinnon over the years in his position as events organizer / Gorse Press publisher, including Robert Creeley and Al Purdy. Thanks in many ways to McKinnon moving up there for teaching work in 1969, there is a lot of literary history up there in that old logging town of Prince George.

dear pg/7

i dreamt of this place six years
before i saw it for the first time;
cutbanks and evergreens, the draws
and eskers pliant to the lull of river sleep

i dreamt prince george before it was

fish flash, a brown hand, a willow basket

prince george like an ice dam, flotsam
caught against the jam of bush

you see them, deriding the cops, imbibing and
disdainful—the bush people, from outside yet
land and spirits are not so separable—
the undergrowth grows over, back
out beyond what we blue-printed

the tallest building in prince george
unlivable, watches smoke, the churning
of products through machines and mouths

nostalgia is the thoughts we have when nothing
else works

There is something about Budde's writing that has really opened up since he moved west and then north, some, to teach at the University of Northern British Columbia a few years ago; immersed for some time in considerations of the long poem and the open form, there is something more that has opened up there, making me wonder just what it is that Prince George has that the rest of us don't. There almost seem echoes through the small collection of McKinnon's own chapbook Death of a Lyric Poet (Prince George BC: Caledonia Writing Series, 1975), referencing not only his move north from Vancouver to Prince George, but the difference he felt it made in himself as person and writer [the series was later included in his Governor General's Award nominated collection The the. (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), and finally in his collected/selected The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2004)].

Budde produces absolutely lovely chapbooks; I only wish he would do more (he probably will, but he just had another child recently…). Check out his blog to find out how to get copies, and find out more about his work.

Vancouver BC: Wherever they are, I'm glad that Nancy Shaw and Catriona Strang are still producing work, such as their collaborative chapbook Cold Trip (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2006), five years after their previous collaboration, the collection Busted (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2001). It's been a while since either of them had individual trade books, whether Shaw's Scoptocratic (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1992), or Strang's Low Fancy (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1993) and Sleep: A Performance Notebook (Seeing Eye, 1997) (she also had some work in Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology, published by New Star Books in 1999). As much as I enjoy their collaborative efforts, will either of them ever have individual collections again? (I'm certainly hoping so) Like any good collaboration between two writers (see Sheila E. Murphy and Douglas Barbour's Continuations, out this spring, or Jay MillAr and Stephen Cain's Double Helix, this fall with The Mercury Press), there are actually three involved: the two involved, and the invisible third, containing elements of the works of the collaborators, but somehow different, made up of the meeting between them.


Everyday I count
Here I go again
What have I been missing
I come home at night
It must be night

This is not the question
Be fair not simple
I must look
Not in spite
Poised or

This is not a description
Of my feelings about
The trope
The torrent
The forged address

Crushing vial
Blew me back
A long way back

I should have been listening
To every word you sang
Rapt pious chant (p 5)

I have to admit, there is something that feels strange about writing on poems that reference winter, in these first few days of spring. I do like the feel of these poems, the way the lines and phrases bounce off each other in unexpected ways. I like the way these pieces resonate against the allusions of snow.


If you were irascible
I could not guarantee
If I could collect fidelity
Wherein I skipped a phrase
With debt, fever and despair
More beautiful
Than your rejected heir

I regret
I envy convention
I collect devotion
I am of a size
Absorbed in your step
A step still clipped
Between honey and remains

We are not your allies
We must complain.

I cover thinly
More deeply
To become
In a fashion
In this gap
I strike discrepancy
With favour

The facts in each hand
Where I advance anew
A fear to regulate
On the scale of your forecast (pp 13-4)

Mount Pleasant, ON: Mt. Pleasant (near Brantford) poet and Laurel Reed Books publisher (and Andrew Suknaski enthusiast) Kemeny Babineau was in Ottawa recently, and gave me a copy of John Barlow's -MINUS 45, SOME DAYS IN WINTER (Laurel Reed Books, 2006). Toronto's master of automatic writing, Barlow has produced innumerable works over the years, mostly self-published, whether his range of ephemera, chapbooks, magazines and small anthologies, to publication in other venues, including Rampike and side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002), the trade books (almost completely unseen but for Barlow), ASHINEoVSUN and Safe Telepathy (Exile Editions), and the CD/booklet The UFO's Of South Toronto (Balmer Press). In his work, he writes the kind of automatic poetic that could be compared perhaps to Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, but more expansive, condensed and surreal than, in comparison, Gilbert's excess. As Barlow wrote in his statement for side/lines, "In Canada everything open minded one says is presumed to be false. The level of dogmatic robot faith in making such assessments of others' intents lacks all power of the skeptical in my opinion. It's a strange phenomenon. Being male my lengthy arms often suggest themselves as a means to correct this glitch. But maybe bodies are just meant to be good poetry and it's hard to work violence in. I am only a pacifist by result. Everything functions better without cruelty. Many of my closest friends are poisonously cruel, compulsively oppressive. I am very careful to study the necessity out of which they operate as such. Often it takes many years to adequately assess the precise nature of their cruelty, of the mistake that they are making. Often then it is only by this I refer to as witchcraft anything can be done. i.e., what of primitivism anyway and, what of nonprimitive primitivism?" (p 15)

massively crowded bus
most of whom had waited 40 minutes
as too full buses arrived a nasty wind ripped away

i was sheltering from the wind behind a post
hoping to see the bus
and the borgs in their heated cars
were wondering why i was hiding
behind a post

it was a warm day this morning, sprint biked to the station

massive temperature plunge through the day
with insane bitter vengeful winds noise in the shipping doors

sudden deep freeze is spontaneously harmful all over the place
thanx to my whale dna it's rarely a concern
but it's alarming for everyone else

and if my fingers freeze and brea koff
i'll need a whole new art form

Part of what the format of such a reproduction doesn’t allow, is the fact that his small press texts usually include handwritten notes, artwork and, in the case of a number of his publishing projects, text overlapping text, making the illegibility part of the text itself. Barlow is one of those folk in Toronto who have been involved in small and strange publishing for so long, that any conversation about the Toronto small press scene is incomplete without him; if you ever see him anywhere, you should just automatically give him money for whatever little production he has on his person. A lovely little booklet produced in a numbered run of eighty copies, you can find out about getting a copy through emailing Babineau c/o, or writing him at 206 Ellis Avenue, Mt. Pleasant, Ontario N0E 1K0

Atlanta GA: I've been going through various publications by )ohn Lowther's 3rdness lately, a little press out of Atlanta that sent me a package of various chapbooks. One that caught my eye was dāna lisa peterson's essential core (2005). A collection of small moments, of small poems, I like the way she packs her small pieces, like a row of tiny seeds.

an atlas of maps

or spread out between fingertips,
an hour is an inch but can be added. if you
say so decision making proceeds along the
flow line. an outstretched hand is a similar
runner where dislocations can be produced
from pressure difference like aids to an
obstruction but at the end we can look back.

You can find out more about the press by writing Lowther c/o 2805-D Clairmont Road NE, Atlanta GA 30329 or by emailing j(dot)lo(at)earthlink(dot)net. He says he's willing to trade, perhaps, chaps for chaps.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Freedom to Read, 2006
this originally commissioned by the Ottawa United Unitarian Fellowship, & was read to them as a lecture on Sunday February 26, 2006

In January of this year, self-professed prophet and Montreal poet Irving Layton died, reminding admirers and journalists alike of his influence, including part of a poem he wrote in the 1950s since quoted ad nauseum, that begins:

Whatever else poetry is freedom.
Forget the rhetoric, the trick of lying
All poets pick up sooner or later. From the river,
Rising like the thin voice of grey castratos—the mist;
Poplars and pines grow straight but oaks are gnarled;
Old codgers must speak of death, boys break windows;
Women lie honestly by their men at last.

Given the amount of writing happening in Canadian literature since, it seems a long way back to look for a reference to freedom.

"Always treat language like a dangerous tool," wrote the American poet Anselm Hollo.

We all remember that scene from the movie Braveheart, where the historically-inaccurate William Wallace played by Mel Gibson calls for freedom, even as his insides are torn out.

I saw an interview recently with a documentary film-maker who had produced a film about the recent war in Irac; the crew wandered around the United States asking those who agreed with the war what exactly they thought the war was about, and almost everyone said "freedom." With their follow-up question, they discovered that almost no one agreed as to what that word actually meant. Has it become so large, so all-encompassing, that the concept of "freedom" has lost its nuance, becoming hard and heavy-handed?

Coming back to Canadian writing, and the separations between Irving Layton and many of the writers that have followed him, the main difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism, in my mind, is that Modernist artists created materials separated from the world, that they thought could directly influence, and even improve, the world around them, as Post-Modernism existed to break the fourth wall, and include the eye of the watcher, the listener, and reader as a direct part of the creation of a particular work; art not separated from the world, and fused with self-awareness and irony. What is this freedom you speak of. The freedom to read seems almost outdated; the issue now, making sure that people have the freedom to read more interesting things.

In her essay "Thinking and Poetry," American poet Alice Notley wrote:

I thought we all wanted to think and speak for ourselves; I didn't think we should be in agreement. But now I believe that the world is full of subscription to the thought of others, and that originality and quality of thought and expression do not win and worse will not necessarily win in the future, which used to be the "real time" of the best poetry being written presently. The world, both the big orthodox world and the small avant-gardeish world, desires conformity of thought and style. And whatever mechanism preserved much of the best for use in the future is breaking down under the pressure of the existence of so much stuff, text, "thought," "communication"; whatever is different or presently unappreciated may be smothered. Who will find it? Who at this point "knows" anything, reading so much? I see a world of literary and poetic hacks, become that under increasing careerist and businesslike pressure to "sound right." We shouldn’t all use the same kinds of words in our poems and our thinking, shouldn’t produce quite so much, we should be puzzling a little more over each conclusion or line that we write. But the buzz of the dialogues already in process, the terms and styles, are so seductive it's tempting to replicate: everybody will like you and what else counts but a group of like-"minded" people, what else does reality consist of except such a group and its enemies? (pp 158-9)

More recently, in a review of Vancouver poet Jeff Derksen's Transnational Muscle Cars, Vancouver poet and critic Donato Mancini wrote:

Traditionally, lyric poets have drawn on the rhetorical concept of "freedom," while formally radical poets are more likely to think in terms of empowerment and to consider how ideology shapes language and users. As Bruce Andrews states,

Ideology & Discourse form a Machinery, an Apparatus with regular rules; a collective reference system made up of social practices which form a body or social structure of meaning, an empowered configuration of forces with its own impositions. Pointing outward, poetry can work or serve as an explanation inside this body of constraints & directives: by deviating from constraints by refashioning the directives.

We all have freedom to read the same things. There is freedom, and then there is freedom. The freedom to do nothing.

PEN is famous around the world for promoting cultural freedom, and protecting both writers and writings, as PEN Canada hosts writers from other countries in danger for what they have said or published. According to their website, the mission statement for PEN Canada reads "PEN Canada is an independent, non-profit organization that is committed to defending freedom of opinion and the peaceable expression of such opinion, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It campaigns on behalf of writers around the world persecuted for their thoughts. In Canada, it supports the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in Section 2 (b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

The most famous example of a writer in exile in recent memory has to be Salman Rushdie, as the publication of his novel The Satantic Verses in September 1988 caused almost immediate controversy in the Islamic world, due to its irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Within weeks, the book had been banned in India, South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a public book burning held in England the following January. A month later, a fatwa requiring Rushdie's execution was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, calling the book "blasphemous against Islam," causing the author to go into hiding, even as he was held up as a paragon of free speech by PEN International, various governments, and the rock band U2. The whole notion of free speech allows anyone with an alternate or dissenting opinion to voice it without fear of reprisal. After a long campaign through PEN, the British Parliament in February of this year passed an amendment to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, to quote Rushdie in The British Independent (February 12, 2006), "to strengthen its protection of free expression and to remove the offences of insult, abuse and recklessness, [and] represented a triumph of democratic freedoms over political opportunism." "[I]n a country without a written constitution," Rushdie continues, "the amended Racial and Religious Hatred Act now provides a legally binding expression of British freedom of speech that is extremely broad and deep. Unless an intent to provoke hatred can be proved, British citizens now have the statutory right to express their views, no matter how offensive those views may be to others. The so-called 'right not to be offended', which never really existed, has been abolished by law. Britain may, half-accidentally, have acquired something very like a First Amendment of its own: an unlooked-for development that may yet prove to [be] the most valuable single thing to emerge from this long and at times bitter struggle."

Anyone paying attention to any part of the reaction to Rushdie's infamous novel shouldn’t have been surprised with the violent reactions to the Danish cartoon lampooning Mohammad as a terrorist; the only difference is, more people are likely to look at a cartoon than to read a book, making the public response larger, and that much more deadly. It seems interesting that more Christian countries in the west, initially, have been more willing to forgive, or even ignore, the implications of mocking the prophet of Islam then they were for Irish singer/songwriter Sinead O'Connor, when she famously performed on Saturday Night Live and tore a photograph of Pope John Paul II, for what she considered his crimes against women. Now, when NBC repeats the episode, the offending tear has simply been edited out, moving the footage straight from the end of her song to the singer standing on stage, post-tear, to added applause, instead of shocked silence. On the other side, when televangelist Pat Robertson publicly called for the assassination of a world leader a few months ago during his regular broadcast, he didn’t appear to suffer any real repercussions. It's one thing to allow freedom of speech for dialogue, and even mockery, but it seems astounding that Robertson wasn't censured for his remarks.

In the late 1990s, Toronto poet Steve McCaffery started working on translations of Matsuo Basho's famous seventeenth-century haiku:

Kawaku tobi-komu

As McCaffery wrote in the notes at the back of book two of his selected poems:

A minor tradition of translating this poem (by Dick Higgins, bpNichol and Derek Beaulieu among others) was inaugurated by Dom Sylvester Houédard's notorious rendition as:

plop (p 375)

Following that, McCaffery's translation included in the collection (which I, as a lapsed member of the Presbyterian Free Church, very much appreciate) is as follows:

The Presbyterian Basho

Not a frog nor a poet
nor a stone if of simpleness, yea I say

thrown into the pond of sin's round circle
but rather the complex martyrdom

of wounds by words
and the smoothing of the skin thereof into a bufic form.

Yea, and the webbed toes of satan
fanneth out to him into the bullfrog of our vanities

which jumpeth horizontally
then up then down across that very way thereof
into the sin of literature.

And a simple frog it was we crucified
i say unto you that day
in the province of Basho yea and verily.

And the stone it fell into the lake of wrath
and the lake it fell into the stone of redemption

and it came to pass that the frog reappeareth
and round about it grew to show
how that the circumference hath disappeared

like to a stone astonished
and the frog inside its pond.
And the Lord counteth of the circles
once and all and saw that they were good.

Here endeth the haiku. (p 192)

Shortly after Toronto writer Lynn Crosbie published her novel Paul's Case in 1998, based on convicted sex-killer Paul Bernardo, she was invited to participate as part of a PEN Canada fundraiser. During the performance of her text, half the audience left in disgust; is this how a PEN Canada audience supports freedom of speech? In so many ways, Crosbie was the perfect choice for the event; is promoting and securing freedom to read only something worth supporting if it's writing that makes someone else uncomfortable? Crosbie's works since have included a novel about Dorothy Stratten, the Vancouver-born Playmate killed by her jealous boyfriend, and a poetry collection called Missing Children; on first glance, Crosbie's work might appear otherwise, but her writing has never come across as any sort of gloss or glorification, but instead a thoughtful dialogue with darker subject matter usually not covered in other more polite parts of Canadian literature and culture. As Doug Saunders wrote about the PEN Canada incident in The Globe and Mail (Monday, May 3, 1999):

And this seems a vital test to our commitment. It is easy to express support for freedom of expression when you're talking about faraway communities and distant events. But the real test occurs when the writer's tools cause offence closer to home. Disturbing works based on real-life events can be treated as serious literature when viewed from afar — the way Canadians view Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and how foreigners will view Crosbie's book. But to people who live in the communities they portray, such books can evoke the alarming whiff of burial plots being desecrated.

That was precisely the point behind the reading. It offended us — much as the Iranain officials who tortured Sarkoohi and censured Rushdie felt offended. Much as Saro-Wiwa's Nigerian killers felt offended. That is the mandate of PEN: To support authors who deeply offend people. PEN argues that the people who are offended should not interfere with those writers.(np)

I would argue that such considerations of "freedom of expression" aren't as simple as that, and I certainly can't imagine asking someone to read or perform at any event unless the work itself had merit, which is something often overlooked when it comes to Crosbie's novel; it was an extremely good piece of writing. Given all the controversy that came up around it, that is often the first thing to be ignored. And Crosbie's PEN Canada experience seems particularly relevant recently, given the lawsuits and protests that tried to prevent the Canadian release of the film Karla. I've read reviews that claim that it isn't a great film, but it isn't a bad film either; I've heard the same said of House of Wax starring Paris Hilton, but I don't feel the need to see that either.

I used to joke that Freedom to Read Week in Canada could easily be called Freedom Not to Read Week, since so much of the promotion of Canadian Literature throughout the 1980s and 90s gave that "but its good for you" feeling, which is usually only given to cod liver oil and immunization shots. We have the benefit of living in one of the few western countries that didn't live through a civil war, didn’t annex a neighbour for more land (but for the natives, of course), hasn't lined up any of our political leaders or artists to be shot, and freedom of expression actually means something most of the time. The freedom that most poets have in Canada is the freedom that comes from a certain degree of lack of attention, which is quite freeing; I've always imagined that I could do whatever I wanted to, simply because no one was really paying that close attention. It even helps helps to live in a the capital, where local books are almost completely ignored by the media, and the City of Ottawa is responsible for some of the lowest arts funding in the country.

No one is looking, no one is watching.

By itself the word "freedom" has become so large that it no longer means anything; what does it mean? The freedom to do what we please, or the freedom to be protected from others doing as they please to us? Is the word itself part of an outdated mode of thinking, even a modernist holdover in a world increasingly post-modern?

In her book, The New Poetics In Canada and Quebec: From Concretism to Post-Modernism, author and academic Carline Bayard quotes, as she calls, "Yuri Lotman's thoughtful comments on the function of rejection from the social and cultural fabric: 'The elements that a culture rejects from its own description as extra-systematic will be seen to be essential to that culture as the source of its future development.'" (p 113). The inference is that she quoted the passage to refer to more radical forms of writing, but can this quote be applied more generally?

In Canada, what does writing have to do with freedom? The whole point of freedom to read is to allow an alternate point of view, ranging from open dialogue to outright dissent. There are things said by David Letterman about the current American president that one hundred years ago, would have been considered outright treason; the emperor has no clothes. In a recent interview on Bravo with Toronto novelist and critic Ray Robertson, he said that fiction writers spend their days turning the chaos of the world into order, and suggested that in a world increasingly nonsensical and chaotic, writing fiction becomes the only sane response.

When Chapters bookstore first entered the market, many writers of poetry and fiction were hesitant to point out the problems, afraid of bookstore censure; when you consider that Chapters/Indigo is perhaps the largest distributor of books in the country, you can probably see why, and for all that the box store mentality has done for books in general, it has done serious damage not only to Canadian publishers, but to Canadian authors as well. Chapters may order three copies of any poetry collection in their system per store country-wide, providing a wider distribution of books, but they rarely re-order, something that was an essential part of the local independent bookseller that the chain has worked so hard to remove; it's one thing to kill the bookstores willing to carry and promote the books that don’t necessary sell, but another thing entirely to not then take up that mantle, instead selling housewares, coffee and candles. Art doesn’t survive well in any consideration of "sales figures" and "marketing," or the stories I've heard of publishers asked to pay five thousand dollars for their share of marketing after one of their titles is chosen as one of "Heather's Picks." It shouldn't have to cost money to get your book face out at the end of an aisle, or on a table. Literacy they may have helped considerably, but not necessarily any kind of "freedom." In the days following 9-11, the notion of freedom reigned in the matters of any comments not 100% pro-American, including bans on the Dixie Chicks; Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher lost his job for questioning American innocence in foreign policy. Freedom, I suppose, but only if you tow the party line; when old Henry Ford told consumers that they could have the Model A in any colour they wished, as long as it was black. Like the Roman Peace, the Pax Romani.

During an episode of Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, when a Church leader told musician Marilyn Manson that rock music was responsible for the self-destructive actions of misguided teens, Manson responded by saying it would be the equivalent of blaming Hootie & the Blowfish for his life being boring.

A more open dialogue forces us to think more critically, and can often give power systems less power over our lives, as when King James commissioned some of the first English translations of the Bible from Latin, so the general public could have access to the material. Imagine the power lost by the Catholic Church when it could no longer proclaim from the pulpit that "the Bible says do this, and do that; but I can't show you where."

The underlying consideration of Freedom to Read seems that, in the end, we all have to be responsible for our own lives, and sometimes that can be the most terrifying censure of all.

Works Cited:
Andrews, Bruce. "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Practice." The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York NY: Roof Books.
Bayard, Caroline. The New Poetics In Canada and Quebec: From Concretism to Post-Modernism. Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press, 1989.
Hollo, Anselm. "At Evenfall," Corvus. Minneapolis MN: Coffee House Press, 1995.
Layton, Irving. The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1971.
Mancini, Donato. "We Were Signifying like Crazy! Jeff Derksen's Relational Poetics and Hyper-referencial Humour." West Coast Line 46 (Volume 39, No. 1). Vancouver BC: West Coast Line, 2005.
McCaffery, Steve. Seven Pages Missing Volume Two: Previously Uncollected Texts 1968-2000. Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2002.
Notley, Alice. "Thinking and Poetry," Coming After: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

today is my 36th birthday

At 8:15am this morning, I turned thirty-six years old, for whatever else that means (and just what was I on about last year?). Do you remember that birthday song from Weird Al (his first single)? And I share a birthday, apparently, with Judd Hirsch (b. 1935) + Fabio (b. 1961), David Cronenberg (b. 1943) + dead president Andrew Jackson (b. 1767). Today I take my ex-wife and lovely daughter for dinner; Kate and I usually wander to the farm for the March break, but she's taking a filmmaking workshop all this week at IFCO (I haven't told her yet that I was in one of their first short films, when she was still in diapers). My party is this Saturday at the Carleton Tavern, if you're around (or, even if you’re not). Presence, not presents, required.

Here's a poem I wrote a few years ago at the (long gone) art gallery Gamma Ray on Somerset Street West, as I was sitting my second annual art exhibit there. I think I was hung over (probably). Every year for years, I've been writing a poem on/about my birthday (how utterly selfish, you say; it reads like yr obsessed…). This one is part of a manuscript (unpublished), ruins (a book of absenses, third in the "paper hotel" trilogy.

poem for a like occasion
(after a line by Robert Creeley

today, i have three
business cards in my wallet
belonging to dead people. the phone numbers
are changed.

as of today, i have been
thirty-one years
on this fraction of poor earth, mere miles away
from where i was born.

would that i, for a like occasion,
not make an issue of it, as issues
are made, & made,
nonetheless. there are usually clouds.

or, there are often. i wake up old,
& even older, unaware. bones
& organs ache, & every door,
unlocked. would that i be so,
would that i be so,

lucky. unchanged,
& all that. a reverie,
of what things really are.

march 15.01
gamma ray, ottawa

Another (written roughly during the same season) appears in my Broken Jaw Press collection this fall, aubade:

ides of march

what the hell, & half
of sixty-two

terrifies the blood, &

pretending nothing
of the past, goes
back again

& every year

beyond imagining,

pushing me
into the arms of

Does anyone else remember the Julius Caesar sketch from the old Wayne & Shuster? A classic.

Here is this year's version, something I've been tinkering with for almost a week.

thirty-six (birthday letters)

the dirt road is a muscle; chicken force-fed

inside the flower, impermeable & we make, waves

even black dogs age; hair thickens gray around the mouth

I am bored by bad behavior; would rather
further, or reduce

I am halfway still to where I will end

dirt road a mandible, ends begins eventual

joe frazier, who knocked mohammad ali down

as a gray dog older, numeric hairs whiten

do you remember rock & roll ratio

my daughter says maybe you should take the hint

I am the sky waiting to fall now in the spring beware the ides

what else my mother taught me; father, through example

silence, & a deeper; black dog in the fore

this is a lesson in history, personified

in an email, elmslie writes shine on, you crazy diamond

stainless, a theft; my heart a maze built out of composure
& such grief

steel will; too late in the game for melodrama

readers everywhere should be reading

old enough now

the whole point of this disjuncture; in this there can be
no straighter lines

Monday, March 13, 2006

the poetics of failure & geography in "spare moments: seventeen (failed) ottawa ghazals"

quick ghazal while waiting for the boys
at bethel house, frank street,
february 27, 2006

as paul says, the weekend
where he lives

a significant streak
of white light windows

& last considered fall

shattered, a recovered sense
; of white-hot rooms

token through, violet; drizzling
outside snow, turned sideways

on its monday ear; a film
morning recovers

blue in the sock-drawer face
; diary entries shorthand

to the limpid shore

I am every day reveling more
in the adolescent past

like a latchkey dial,

descendant of needles & crumbs,
an underground claim

a track of maritime laughter

cowled, & caught on

each moment further, a sap
snap loss of natural light

a day progresses

While working on my essay on Jon Paul Fiorentino's "Transcona and poetics of failure," I became quite interested in the poetics of failure as presented not only by him, but by other poets such as Phyllis Webb, as approached through her "Poems of Failure" in Wilson's Bowl, and in her Sunday Morning: Thirteen Anti-Ghazals (some of which were reprinted in her collection The Vision Tree, Selected Poems). I had always been interested in her writing, but struck by the ghazals she worked (she was but one of many who wrote ghazals almost immediately after the appearance of John Thompson's posthumous collection Stilt Jack, but author of the few memorable ones). Still, there was something constraining about her ghazals, writing five tight sets of couplets; was that her consideration of failure?

Ten white blooms on the sundeck.
The bees have almost all left. It's September.

The woman writers, their heads bent under the light,
work late at their kitchen tables.

Winter breathes in the wings of the last hummingbird.
I have lost my passion. I am Ms. Prufrock.

So. So. So. Ah—to have a name like Wah
when the deep purple falls.

And you have sent me a card
with a white peacock spreading its tail. (p 146, The Vision Tree)

Part of what appealed to me about the ghazals of John Thompson was that his sense of the couplet wasn’t absolute, and his version of the ghazal more a guideline than a rule, making his form far more open and appealing; how to write something that makes sense to the language and cadence of the poem if it varies from the form? Is the failure that Webb and Douglas Barbour portray (anti-) in the fact that their poems are more strict, or is it something more?

I have always been partial to the Persian carpet idea, working a variation of the poetics of imperfection and rough work; only God, it is said, can make something that is Perfect, so a deliberate error is included in every rug (although notions of precision and perfection are noticeably different considerations). Perfection and control are all but fallacies, and can only lead, in many ways, to purposeless frustration; the arrogance of building something that could be Perfect, to the Persian carpet-makers, fell into the same trappings of ego as did Mary Shelley's Doctor Frankenstein, who created his monster, or the Jewish Rabbi in Prague, constructing his Golem of such legend. What is that notion of Perfection in a poem; on the other side, why are so many working to embrace failure? Is it simply a hold-over from Modernism? Can or should a poem always be Perfect, or is there simply a point in the process that the author just stops reworking a piece. Poets such as Earle Birney and Irving Layton apparently tinkered with poems even well after they were originally published, and in books, no less, leaving multiple versions as the "authoritative," and a bibliographical mess. In an interview I did with Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley (published in Rampike), he talked about this same revision process, in reworking a second edition of his Bloody Jack:

I remember many years ago Dorothy Livesay's inveighing against Earle Birney's reworking of some of his early poetry. This would have been about 1975 or so. It was misrepresenting the poetry, she said, it was seeking to alter the record. It was lying about history. I never found it easy to disagree (though I often did) with dorothy, who was strong-willed and tough, but I summoned a modest demurral. why would you think so? I said. The record is there, the poems as they earlier appeared enjoy their continued lives, as they were then published. (As they were then, are now, and ever shall be. Word without and.) Why can't Birney have another go at them, they're his poems?

I still believe this. The poems are there in their stages and they are available to anyone who would wish to find them. To argue against that move is to deny a writer any chance of 'improving' texts or of bringing them into new possibilities. Even if you left the texts 'as they are,' they still in crucial ways are not 'what they are [or were].' Even 'fixed' words come unfixed in reading-from person to person, from time to time. Why not accept that unfixing in the rewriting as well as the rereading? In any case, I had a lot of material laying around from the first go at Bloody Jack, and had written a few things since. I jumped at the chance to get the book back into print, but also to revisit it, re-imagine it. I was really pleased to have that chance. What else could become of this? What potential is there to be followed, what energies and soundings to be let loose? What tunings to made? Who would want to foreclose on that? I am so given to molestation of language I couldn't keep my hands off the poems, wouldn't leave them alone. (p 41)

To revisit a text isn’t the same as a consideration of failure or imperfection, but it goes toward the idea of poetic craft as not always that of a diamond cutter; the one perfect shape is not always the goal. The poems that make up the work-in-progress "spare moments: seventeen (failed) ottawa ghazals" (a section of The Ottawa City Project) are those of a hastily-written work through that process of perfection and failure, just as they work through and against the disconnect of the John Thompson ghazal. Unlike Thompson, there is no specific over-arcing narrative, as his thirty-eight ghazals seemed to have; the pessimistic turn of his thirty-eight years against his final output; instead, these ghazals inhabit an arbitrarily (seemingly) chosen temporal placement, written geographically as a daily log, without real beginning or end. Still, the idea of "quickness" in the poems works toward those imperfections, and those immediate lines that could not have been captured in slower moves, as another variation on Fred Wah's "drunken tai chi" from his Music at the Heart of Thinking.

But working deliberately off is different than failure; what is it about the ghazal that provokes such feeling of deliberate imperfection? Why not just write "ghazals"? What is it that makes the author claim of their own work, set loose upon the world, with the tag line that tells you they feel their own works, while still released into the world, are "not enough"? Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour, a huge fan of the writing of Phyllis Webb, worked his own version as failure, as anti-, when he published his Breath Takes: anti-ghazals. What is it about the form that makes the author feel, that to succeed, they must also ultimately fail? As she wrote in her note for the poems at the end of her selected:

These poems, composed between November 27 and November 29, 1981, were written on unlined file cards (6"x4" and 3"x5"), beginning as an exercise in the Ghazal form and ending in a quiet storm of six on Sunday, November 29.

In the previous spring I had belatedly discovered the Ghazals of John Thompson in Stiltjack, published posthumously by Anansi in 1978. Knowing little more about this ancient Persian form than what Thompson had said in his preface, my plan was to write one a day, though I usually wrote more than one when I stayed with the discipline. The plan was to interrupt for most of October and November. But as I learnt more about Ghazals, I saw I was actually defying some of the traditional rules, constraints, and pleasures laid down so long ago.

"Drunken and amatory" with a "clandestine order," the subject of the traditional Ghazal was usually love, the Beloved representing not a particular woman but an idealized and universal image of Love. The couplets (usually a minimum of five) were totally unlike the conventional English couplet and were composed with an ear and an eye to music and song.

Mine tend toward the particular, the local, the dialectical and private. There are even a few little jokes. Hence "anti Ghazals." And yet in the end (though I hope to write more), Love returns to sit on her "throne of accidie," a mystical power intrudes, birds sing, a Sitar is plucked, and the Third Eye, opal, opens. (p 156-7)

Imperfection can be approached the same way as intuition, and can come with its own sense of surprise, much like what has been said about knowing and unknowing. In the opening paragraph to his essay "Writing as a General Economy," Steve McCaffery wrote:

I've chosen to approach writing and the written text as an economy rather than a structure. The latter tends to promote essence as relational, which has the clear advantage of avoiding all closed notions of the poem as "a well-wrought urn" but suffers from a presupposed stasis, a bracketed immobility among the parts under observation and specification. As an alternate to structure, economy is concerned with the distribution and circulation of the numerous forces and intensities that saturate a text. A textual economy would concern itself not with the order of forms and sites but with the order-disorder of circulations and distributions. A writing by way of economy will consequently tend to loosen the hold of structure and mark its limits in economy's own movement. (p 201)

Further into knowability, writer and critic Stan Dragland, in his introduction to the collection Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays & Interviews, wrote:

For the writers of Poetry and Knowing, the world is not text. They feel the world's priority to words, its uncorability by words. Their homage to language honors the limits of words. Most of them are, with Dennis Lee, "summoned to a knowing outside of language altogether." "The world is its names plus their cancellations," says Tim Lilburn, "what we call it and the undermining of our identifications by an ungraspable residue in objects. To see it otherwise, to imagine it caught in our phrases, is to know it without courtesy." [Don] McKay senses that a line can be drawn between the poststructuralists who find plenty of room inside the prison house of language with its infinite play of signification, and those who badly want out, and in to non-linguistic states. (p 12)

I'd worked my variations on ghazals before, in spotted poems here and there, including the Phil Hall influenced "52 flowers" (excerpted as the chapbook Perth Flowers), or the earlier, more focused effort of the collection a compact of words, which was as a direct result of discovering my own copy of John Thompson Collected Poems & Translations (ed. Peter Sanger), and the opening poem of Stilt Jack:

Now you have burned your books: you'll go
with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.

On the hook, big trout lie like stone:
terror, and they fiercely whip their heads, unmoved.

Kitchens, women and fire: can you
do without these, your blood in your mouth?

Rough wool, oil-tanned leather, prime northern goose down,
a hard, hard eye.

Think of your house: as you speak, it falls,
fond, foolish man. And your wife.

They call it the thing of things, essence
of essences: great northern snowy owl; whiteness. (p 107)

I've also worked my variations on time and place before, working poems that reference geography and place themselves very much where they are situated; some have argued that temporal/geographical hooks are all, in the end, I ever work. The only way around an idea that holds too often is to write fully through it, whether working the referencing other writers and their works in the ongoing books of the other side of the mouth, or by writing daily ghazals that reference a specific time and place, but only in the title. In many ways, much of the daily series (that lasted seventeen days, with little overlap of geographic location) could be interchangeable underneath the title; writing less the exploration than the inference or allusion of subject and moment. Where do the poems subsequently hold?

Works Cited:

Barbour, Douglas. Breath Takes: anti-ghazals. Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2001.
Cooley, Dennis. Bloody Jack. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1984; second edition, Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001.
Dragland, Stan. "Introduction: hunch and hunger," Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays & Interviews. Ed. Tim Lilburn. Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1995.
McCaffery, Steve. "Writing as a General Economy," North of Intention, Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York NY: Roof Books, 2000.
mclennan, rob. a compact of words. Ireland: Salmon Publishing, 2007.
_______. "interview with Dennis Cooley," Rampike. Volume 14, No. 1; Windsor ON: 2005.
_______. the other side of the mouth. Toronto ON: BookThug, 2001.
_______. The Ottawa City Project. Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2007.
_______. Perth Flowers. Vancouver BC: Nomados, forthcoming.
Thompson, John. Collected Poems & Translations. ed. Peter Sanger, Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1995.
_______. Stilt Jack. Toronto ON: Anansi, 1978.
Wah, Fred. Music at the Heart of Thinking. Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987.
Webb, Phyllis. Sunday Morning: Thirteen Anti-Ghazals. Lantzville BC: Island Writing Series, 1982.
_______. The Vision Tree, Selected Poems. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1982.
_______. Wilson's Bowl. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1980.