Tuesday, January 30, 2007

a note on Canadian poetry anthologies

This piece was originally commissioned by Manuel Brito for an issue of the Spanish magazine Nerter (Canary Islands, 2006), and was published in translation in Nerter #10.

At the pivot, I say continuance, an artistic optimism as simple as it is powerful; for the next years I will have something to do, as many poems to write as I have just (is it really almost twenty years worth?) written. No emptiness—do I fear emptiness? Is this why the project was begun? At least. And death? Well, now you've got a secret that everyone shares. So at the pivot, I say I will not stop. Yet I have stopped; I have stopped to note this moment. For it is a terrible moment, a fearsome moment in which poetry must question itself […].
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
The original question Manuel Brito posed was simple enough: how have avant-garde poetry anthologies helped to understand a whole range of interests intersecting various disciplines, and allowed for a more fine-grained analysis of the transition from challenge to acceptance of new forms? A simple question, but one that becomes extremely difficult to answer. Canadian literature, historically and currently, has always been small enough, that almost anyone inside of it can, with some effort, easily be aware of most if not all of the main players. The lines between genre by those playing competitive games quickly drawn, as various anthologies and reviews of the same quickly attest. The acceptance of new forms has been a difficult one in many respects, with more formal writing considerations still prevalent in Canadian mainstream, and heavy-handed reviewing tactics by various formalist-friendly writers of non-formal works. Obviously the more any particular new or fringe idea exists in the world, the more it moves through into the centre, whether more formally-innovative poetic strains in issues of The Fiddlehead, or urban culture into the lives of suburban white kids.

Some have over-simplified the history of the so-called postmodern avant in Canada from origins in the early 1960s; the story is told that very little happened north of the 49th parallel before two separate but related events: the arrival of Donald Allan’s The New American Poetry anthology, and the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, including readings, talks and workshops by Allan Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and other American poets who, suddenly, were getting more appreciation and notoriety north of the border than they usually did at home. Not only did these events directly or indirectly influence the work of many west coast locals at the beginning or near-beginning of their careers, such as George Bowering, Fred Wah, Frank Davey, Phyllis Webb, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Red Lane (Patrick’s older brother), Judith Copithorne, John Newlove, Jamie Reid, Gladys Hindmarch, Roy Kiyooka, but two boys from Ottawa, Roy MacSkimming and William Hawkins, even drove out to B.C. to participate. Out of these events came a flurry of activity, including small and smaller publications such as the west coast poetry newsletter TISH, bill bissett's blewointment, talon magazine (later becoming Talonbooks), and, eventually, various of bpNichol's publications, gronk and ganglia, among so many others. Through The New American Poetry, they tell us, among other large and small beginnings, a poetry of change, language and whatever else called "avant" began to evolve. By the end of the 1960s, centres of such work were focused around houses such as Vancouver's Talonbooks and Toronto's Coach House Press, as well as around individuals such as Barry McKinnon in Prince George, British Columbia and William Hawkins in Ottawa, and, by the 1970s, Ken Norris and the Vehicule Poets in Montreal, and Dennis Cooley and Turnstone Press in Winnipeg.

From these beginnings, the anthologies of the same came and went, with varying degrees of success and awareness, highlighting the shifts occurring in this "new writing," in the 60s small press explosion. One of the earlier presses that gravitated toward some of these authors, much to his credit, was Raymond Souster's Contact Press (a publishing house owned by Souster, Louis Dudek and Irving Layton), a house that published important early collections by Frank Davey, Al Purdy, John Newlove, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering and Gwendolyn MacEwen, as well as the anthology edited by Souster himself (with editorial help by Victor Coleman, who would be one of the first editors of the newly formed Coach House Press), New Wave Canada (1966). An important anthology, it published the work of a number of the younger poets across Canada, and for many of them, it was their first appearance in book form: Daphne Buckle (later known as Daphne Marlatt) (b. 1942), Victor Coleman (b. 1944), David Cull (b. 1942), Scott Davis (b. 1938), David Dawson (b. 1942), Gerry Gilbert (b. 1936), E. Lakshmi Gill (b. 1943), William Hawkins (b. 1940), Robert Hogg (b. 1942), George Jonas (b. 1935), Barry Lord (b. 1939), Roy MacSkimming (b. 1944), David McFadden (b. 1940), bp Nichol (b. 1944), Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943), Jamie Reid (b. 1941) and Fred Wah (b. 1939).

Other anthologies came in their own succession, from those that bridged stylistic gaps, to those who made no pretense as to their own specific interests and biases. From the argued and arbitrary beginnings of New Wave Canada came Eli Mandel's Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1971), Al Purdy's Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets (1971) and Storm Warning 2: The New Canadian Poets (1976), George Bowering's The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology (1984), Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (1979) and Sharon Thesen's follow-ups, The New Long Poem Anthology (1992) and The New Long Poem Anthology, 2nd Edition (2001), and Dennis Lee's follow-up to Mandel's anthology, The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985 (1985), with more recent anthologies including Michael Holmes' The Last Word Anthology (1985), Jill Battson and Ken Norris' Word Up: Spoken Word Poetry in Print (1995), Jon Paul Fiorentino and Robert Kroetsch's Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry (2005), not to mention my own editorial work with YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (co-edited with Andy Brown, 2001) or side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (2002). More radical works of Canadian visual and concrete have appeared in anthologies such as bpNichol's own anthology The Concrete Chef (1970), jwcurry and Michael Dean's HEADS & H&Z (1985) that reprinted years of curry's own small publications, or even derek beaulieu's COURIER (1999). On the other side, were the anthologies publishing more formal considerations (some of which made claims of being more open to stylistic gestures, ultimately tainting whatever strength of overall content contradicting this claim each book held), including Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier's Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets (1996) and Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets (2004), and Starnino's unfortunately-titled The New Canon (2005). Fiorentino and Jay MillAr even published a chapbook response to the rumours around who had been accepted and turned down for Breathing Fire 2, publishing more innovative work in their chapbook anthology Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets (2004). As editor George Bowering wrote in this introduction to The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology:
The poets of contemporary Canada are many & varied. Some are stubborn, & some are even stupid. Some join large groups not on the basis of what they believe about poetry but because they have published some. Some even think that language is a tool used by a poet to get a job done. But the poets in this anthology are agreed that the poet must not fancy himself so much as to abrogate a power over language, language their elder & better. Like children again, they know enough to be seen & not heard, to let language, which knows so much more than they do, speak. Language, in this case English, is not spoken. It speaks.
Some of the concerns and considerations Bowering brought up were echoed by Ondaatje, as he wrote in the introduction to The Long Poem Anthology:

There are numerous ways to select poems for an anthology. One approach might have been chronological or historical. In the end, though, I decided to be governed by curiosity. Any long project for me has to be generated by a sense of discovery, of learning about something I'm not sure of, don't fully understand. The same motive lies behind this book. I wanted to explore the poets who surprise me with their step, their process. That is what draws these nine together. These poems are not parading down main street. Some leer anonymously from the stands, some are written in such frail faint pencil that one can barely hold them, they shift like mercury off the hand. The stories within the poems don’t matter, the grand themes don’t matter. The movement of the mind and language is what's important […].
In his review of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry in a recent issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, Montreal poet and critic Carmine Starnino brought up a number of interesting points, as well as his own particular slant favouring more formalist works, "the well-wrought poem," to more open forms. His slants and dismissive stances may be forefront in his lengthy review, but still he asked the essential question of the collection: what is the purpose of this specific anthology, and therefore, what is the responsibility of the avant-garde? As he suggests, to work along a particular path and frame such a path in something as an anthology, the editors, if not the writers themselves, have to be able to explain themselves. To support and justify the framing. Why are these books built? Referencing the three introductions to the book by each of the editors, he writes in his lengthy review:

After letting Beaulieu whet our appetite, Christie quits the kitchen. Thus he insists in his introduction that "We offer no apologies because we are not attempting to suggest our anthology establishes boundaries, exhausts possibilities or captures an entire future literature in the gestational state of its potential." The claim is preposterous, as anybody who has edited an anthology knows. Anthologies arbitrate. The genre, by definition, is about making a statement through selection."
Knowing the prevalence of more formally conservative works in Canadian poetry, beaulieu's introduction makes one of the most important arguments at all, arguing for a dialogue of multitudes, as opposed to a series of single voices. "An alternative must be offered."

So many of the writers published in these anthologies are considered mainstream Canadian poets now, whether Ondaatje, Thesen, Bowering or Nichol; how avant are these anthologies still? How is the movement of new forms and the relationships between these and older forms managed? Is it still possible, arguably, to be particularly "avant" in Canadian literature? And what kind of relationship can anyone working in non-traditional forms expect to have with those who exist in the mainstream? I'm reminded of the review in The Globe and Mail (called "Canada's National Newspaper") that their resident poetry reviewer, Fraser Sutherland, obviously didn’t want to do of the three poetry collections by Erin Mouré, Sylvia Legris and Phil Hall that made up the Canadian shortlist of the $50,000 annual Griffin Poetry Prize. Through his struggling praise he made his feelings known: Sutherland considered these works too strange to be in such an important shortlist. In Michael Barnholden's lengthy and comprehensive introduction to Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (1999), he writes:

Given such an ambiguous identity, the Kootenay School of Writing seems hardly the best place to orient oneself with respect to Canadian writing. Located in Vancouver in the extreme south-west corner of British Columbia, some six hundred kilometers from the actual Kootenays, KSW continues to find itself "misplaced" as far as mainstream Canadian literature is concerned. If one wants to learn special arts administration skills or leverage their cultural power and influence, the School would not be a wise choice for an apprenticeship. Its offices have always been small, the furniture used and in constant need of repair. Every address it has held has been low-rent and at a considerable distance from the city's better neighbourhoods, the last ten years on the 100 block of West Hastings, a street known across Canada for prostitution, pawn shops and drug use. In short, as an educational institution, KSW continues to be somewhat deficient in the day to day management of its operations. Yet for most of the writers and readers passing through its doors, it is precisely the school's deliberate failure as an institution that constitutes its unique cultural and literary value.

Throughout its existence, KSW's relationship with other writing institutions, especially those of high cultural repute and academic authority, has been one of mutual suspicion. Many of KSW's founding members, including Jeff Derksen, Gary Whitehead, Calvin Wharton and Colin Browne, sought not to establish a new professional elite, but instead denounced the very practice of canonising or somehow collecting certain writings or art pieces to form an exemplary aesthetic. KSW believed that cultural institutions that took pride in offering as well-organized administration centre usually forfeited concerns about art for an interest in management.
Part of what has happened increasingly over the past decade or so is that the Canadian avant-garde has made essential links with international communities, linking with writers in the United States, England, Australia, South America and other countries, moving into a far-flung and further conversation of what it means to be writing, and writing with open considerations of working to push the language further. Far more than the TISH poets corresponding with Creeley and Olson in the early 1960s, or Ontario poet/publisher Nelson Ball publishing books in the late 1960s and early 70s by American poets Anselm Hollo and Clayton Eshleman alongside Canadian contemporaries such as bill bissett, Nichol, David UU, Coleman and John Newlove, the notion of arbitrary lines across borders is something that exists still for books (borders don’t seem to care for them), but not for writers, and certainly not for writing. Take, for example, the fact that Lisa Robertson, a Vancouver poet currently living in France, was featured in a 2006 issue of The Chicago Review, when a Canadian journal has yet to do such a thing, or that Canadian poets Christian Bök, Darren Wershler-Henry and Nicole Brossard all have author home pages at the SUNY-Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center website.

She might not be Canadian, but American poet Jessica Smith cites Canadian examples in the essay included in her first trade poetry collection Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 - 2004 (2006), writing the essay that explores her own reasons for the art she makes, writing Nichol and Steve McCaffery alongside Charles Bernstein, the combined works of Japanese architect Arakawa and poet Madeline Gins among others. As she writes in her preface:
To understand what a "virtual" reading space is we must further analyze my proposed analogy between the plastic arts and plastic poetry. Avant-garde works of plastic art call attention to the way we use space every day. We see and remember our physical surroundings in order to recall them for future occupation. Arakawa's and Gins' projects remind us of this diurnal activity by disrupting it. Plastic poetry works in a similar, albeit more complex, way, by reinforcing elementary conditions of reading. When we read any text, the interplay of words, letters, fonts, ink, and paper already requires work: real physical and mental effort to make meaning. Furthermore, this process of making meaning is already virtual, in the sense that meaning is never actual but requires memory and expectation in order to be formed in the first place. The gears of memory and expectation are already at work in syntax and thus operate quietly beneath our understanding of "meaning." For example, we read the newspaper without thinking about the process of gathering sense from printed language. In contrast, the plastic poetry of Organic Furniture Cellar calls attention to this process in two ways. First, since plastic poetry usually has a fragmentary visual component, it calls attention to the physicality of reading. This forces the reader to recognize that there is more than one level at work in reading. Reading is not an immediate or transparent process, but a physical effort. Second, plastic poetry interferes with syntactical continuity by disrupting what the reader expects to find, or by suspending her memory of a word by breaking the word into unrecognizable fragments. By thus disrupting the reading process, plastic poetry calls attention to the way a reader uses the virtual space of memory to syntactically organize fragments of language into meaning. Like experimental architecture, the poetry I designate as "plastic" calls attention to the syntactical organization of space and time (in terms of the physicality of the page and the virtuality of the reader's memory) that already underlies every moment of action and thought.
In his own trade collection of visuals, beaulieu himself includes his essay "an afterward after words: notes toward a concrete poetic," a piece that also appeared (slightly altered) on Brian Kim Stefans' ubuweb, allowing the casual or less informed reader a context to enter into the work. As interesting and informative as this piece is, why couldn’t he provide the same detail of framework for his Shift & Switch? How did such a question get evaded, and even overlooked?

Concrete poetry has expanded beyond the tightly modernist "clean concrete" poems of the 1950s—typified by Eugen Gomringer and Mary Ellen Solt. Gomringer and Solt sought simplicity and clarity in their materialist use of semantic particles (Gomringer's "Silencio" and Solt's "Flowers in Concrete" are examples). Gomringer argues that concrete poetry is an essentially modernist gesture that "realize[s] the idea of a universal poetry" and can "unite the view of the world expressed in the mother tongue with physical reality" ("Concrete Poetry" np). Created by a dictatorial author-function, the modernist concrete poem limits and sanctions the role of the reader according to strict formulations; the reading space is "ordered by the poet … [h]e determines the play-area, the field or force and suggests its possibilities" (Gomringer, "From Line to Constellation" np).
Writing of the need for acknowledging new poetics in old geographies, editor Jon Paul Fiorentino includes an interview between himself and co-editor Robert Kroetsch as the introduction to their Post-Prairie anthology, prefacing with:

Robert Kroetsch and I wanted to document and celebrate the poetry of the prairie as it is being written now, in the new century. We soon discovered that the prairie was missing, or perhaps the prairie had become in many ways unrecognizably present in this new work. The poets we have gathered here (both poets of the prairie and poets of the prairie diaspora) are speaking in new voices, and their "home place" of the prairie has become less unified, more urban, technologically adept, and theoretically informed. To put it another way, the "home place" is where it's not: there are elements of a vernacular inclusion project in this anthology. The inability of many readers and literary scholars to see an emerging poetics of a new prairie, the post-prairie, should not be surprising—there is a reason the prairie is thought of as the domain of the rural, the wheat field and the grain elevator. This most obviously had something to do with cultural capital—that is, there is a marketplace-based reason many people continue to think of the prairie as a fixed notion of "traditional" landscape. Perhaps it's easier to sell the prairie as such a simple place, located in some past golden page of a "simpler" life. In order to desimplify this notion, to figure out what we were getting at by gathering the elements of this anthology, where we were getting to, we, the editors, needed to dialogue.
In the end, what anthologies do provide is that dialogue, through a multitude of voices speaking in a shape presented to us through the work of concrete editorial visions and decisions. It becomes the job of the editor to understand the voices, and therefore conduct them in a way that their presentation compliments, and makes sense, as opposed to mere cacophony. The best way to invigorate any kind of art form is to bring in aspects of something else, whether bringing the language of the weather to writing, or postmodernism to architecture; what these anthologies provide is not only that pre-existing dialogue, but opens up further, to the reader and subsequent anthologies. As Robert Kroetsch has suggested, literature is a conversation, and it is important for the art to have as many conversations as possible.

Works Cited:
Allan, Donald M. Ed. The New American Poetry. New York NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1960; London UK: Evergreen Books Ltd., 1960; Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1999.
Battson, Jill and Ken Norris. Eds. Word Up: Spoken Word Poetry in Print. Toronto ON: Key Porter Books Limited, 1995.
Barnholden, Michael and Andrew Klobucar, Eds. Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology. Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1999.
beaulieu, derek, Ed. COURIER. Calgary AB: housepress, 1999.
________. Fractal Economies. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006.
________, Jason Christie and a. rawlings, Eds. Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry. Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005.
Bowering, George, Ed. "Unexpected Objects," The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984.
Crozier, Lorna and Patrick Lane. Eds. Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1996.
________. Eds. Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.
Dean, Michael and jwcurry, Eds. HEADS & H&Z. Toronto ON: Underwhich Editions, 1985.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "Inside the Middle of a Long Poem," Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa AB: The University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Fiorentino, Jon Paul and Robert Kroetsch, Eds. Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2005.
Holmes, Michael. Ed. The Last Word Anthology. Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1995.
Lee, Dennis. Ed. The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1985.
mclennan, rob, Ed. side/lines: a new Canadian poetics. Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002.
________ and Andy Brown, Eds. YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING. Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2001.
MillAr, Jay and Jon Paul Fiorentino. Eds. Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets. Toronto ON: BookThug, 2004.
Nicol, bp, Ed. The Concrete Chef. Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1970.
Ondaatje, Michael, Ed. The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979.
Purdy, Al. Ed. Storm Warning: The New Canadian Poets. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1971.
________. Ed. Storm Warning 2: The New Canadian Poets. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1976.
Smith, Jessica. Organic Furniture Cellar: Works on Paper 2002 - 2004. Charlottesville VA: Outside Voices, 2006.
Souster, Raymond, Ed. New Wave Canada. Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966.
Starnino, Carmine. "Bait and Switch," Canadian Notes and Queries.
Thesen, Sharon, Ed. The New Long Poem Anthology. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1992.
________, Ed. The New Long Poem Anthology, 2nd Edition. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2001.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Montreal poet & pal Jon Paul Fiorentino pointed out this review of aubade that appeared recently in the Winnipeg Free Press (along with reviews of new Matthew Holmes, Carla Funk & Dennis Cooley titles) by League of Canadian Poets president Maurice Mierau:
Ottawa writer Rob Mclennan, in his 11th book, aubade (Broken Jaw, 156 pages, $22) writes poems that look very unconventional on the page.

Lines might begin with a colon or a comma, and abbreviations like "thot," "thru," and "w/" dot the pages. These short poems look extremely informal, and often veer into deliberate obscurity.

The book's epigraph is from George Bowering, whose delight in seemingly arbitrary form and content obviously serves as inspiration for the much younger Mclennan.

At 37, Mclennan has a 12th book coming out later this year, and even with that furious pace, he can write funny, expressive work like this: "would i compare thee to a summers fray,/ or a red martini, artificially coloured/ in an island heat, w/ a grain of sand/ scraping clothes & skin."

Mclennan at his best makes many other poets look like joyless self-censors. For an example on the newsstand, read his fine ghazal in the February issue of The Walrus magazine.

I quite like "joyless self-censors." Heh. But still. Is it worth telling him that aubade is my 12th trade poetry collection? Is it worth telling him I'm still only thirty-six? As the first actual review of the collection (apart from Amanda Earl's blog notes), am I even allowed to complain?

Today answering questions for Haas Bianchi for an upcoming profile on Chicago Postmodern Poetry...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Cole Swensen’s the book of a hundred hands

American poet Cole Swensen is a writer focused on long projects, such as her most recent poetry collection the book of a hundred hands (University of Iowa Press, 2005). Her tenth poetry collection, she is also the author of Such Rich Hour (University of Iowa Press, 2001), Oh (Apogee Press, 2002) and Goest (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2004). Taking influence from other forums and forms, including classical history and illustration, the poems in the book of a hundred hands takes the idea of the hands as subject and completely pulls the idea of the subject apart, in nine sections including "The History of the Hand," "Professions of the Hand," "Representations of the Hand" and "American Sign Language."


Raked sun.
Or there did it lodge. Or rock. Or did it stone? It to stone. The scarred just
that yet insists:
follow this
who still believes
the architecture of a ship
is derived from that of the human body or perhaps only the hand
caught, and the whole body stopped. It's a shame. (Professions of the Hand)

This isn’t the first time Swensen has taken an idea and stretched it, breaking it down into a book-length series of poems that continue to explore the small moments and divisions. In Such Rich Hour, Swensen wrote poems that were based on a fifteenth-century book of hours, the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. As she wrote in her “Introduction” to that collection:
The poems that follow begin as a response to this manuscript, and specifically to the calendar section that opens this and all traditional books of hours. The calendar lists the principal saints’ days and other important religious holidays of the medieval year in a given region. In keeping with the cyclical rhythm of a calendar, the poems follow the sequence of days and months and not necessarily that of years.

Poems titled the first of a given month bear a relation to the Trés Riches Heures calendar illustration for that month, though they are not dependent upon it. Rather, they – like all the pieces here – soon diverge from their source and simply wander the century. And finally, they are simply collections of words, each of which begins and ends on the page itself.
The most ambitious of her works to that point, Such Rich Hour was built in sections of twelve months, from January to December, and in a structure timeless but timed; placed with a beginning and an end, starting the sequence before the “Introduction” has even begun, with both a “Preface” and a “Forward,” writing musings amid poems working themselves through considerations based somewhere between the original text and the author herself, writing, “numbers, which Saint Augustine considered / God thinks / if he am is therefore there” (Preface), or “and what / a strange shape for paradise. I thought it would be more round.” (February 2: The Benediction of the Candles). The poems in the book of a hundred hands, on the other hand (so to speak), work from much the same point of the poems in Such Rich Hour, writing themselves not out of the original text of a book of hours, but the original texts of hands themselves, writing poems that somehow managed to write themselves.


Chart it on a staff, both the shape of the note and that of the hand
of the music therein. Marinetti wrote a play
composed entirely of hands
that waved above a sheet when the lights came on.

In another (whose?) a mime stood alone on stage
and when the lights went down, all that remained were his hands gloved
in something that glows in the dark. Such as will not spread in the dark

such as five years. Arrange them as you like. (Professions of the Hand)

There is a precision to her poems that I have always liked [see my previous note on her here], writing poems that work very nicely between that tension arising amid pure precision and an essential loss of control that allows the poems to move off into their own magnificent directions, resonating in both ear and the eye.


As if the sun had hit

the glazing

as if

there are days it all goes right

for instance:
There's a greenhouse just out of sight.
All I can see is a greenhouse, the glass in the sun, the green
is somewhere else. The hand arches over
the head of the child and floats down. The hand is planned
as a perfect inversion of the head. Child and mine, a building of eyes. You can see
through the hand or think you can
to the flower of the brain, but all along it's the hand
that's blooming, and the child is incidental, or at least not central to the scene. (Representations of the Hand)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

the third issue of ottawater (www.ottawater.com/), an Ottawa poetry pdf annual, edited by rob mclennan, is now online.

The third issue features work by various residents current and former, including: Michael Blouin, Terry Ann Carter, Anita Dolman, Amanda Earl, William Hawkins, Elisabeth Harvor, Clare Latremouille, K.L. McKay, rob mclennan, Nadine McInnis, Max Middle, Cath Morris, John Newlove, Wanda O'Connor, Kim Minkus, Roland Prevost and Kate Van Dusen; interviews with poets K.I.Press, Stephen Brockwell and Shane Rhodes, and reviews of work by Laura Farina, Anita Lahey, Matthew Holmes, Monty Reid, Max Middle, Stephanie Bolster, Nicholas Lea and Jesse Ferguson as well as artwork by various Ottawa artists.

The launch party for the third issue will be happening Friday, 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 Lance Baptiste!

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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hugh P. MacMillan's Adventures of a Paper Sleuth

Lately I've been reading Hugh P. MacMillan's Adventures of a Paper Sleuth (Manotick ON: Penumbra Press, 2004), telling the story of MacMillan's adventures over the years while searching out treasures for the Archives of Ontario from 1964 to 1989. Now well into his eighties and retired in Laggan, Glengarrian Hugh P. MacMillan has done a number of things over the space of his career, include help form the Glengarry Historical Society, the Nor'Westers Museum in Williamstown, Ontario (where much of the North-West Company ended up retiring, including Simon Fraser and David Thompson) and the Pioneer Museum in Dunvegan, Ontario, as well as scour historical records, attics and various descendants to seek out various papers and other items for the sake of not only historical preservation, but to discover and recount a number of long-forgotten stories. Even the cover flap tells some of the tales, including discovering the papers of Sir John Graves Simcoe with "a farmer from New Zealand," as well as finding a piece of

presumed human skin in a small tin box, with a note announcing "This is a piece of skin taken from the neck of Cut Nose, Sioux Indian chief hanged at Mankato, Minnesota Territory in 1866."
The archivist, whether professional or amateur working genealogy, has a thankless and seemingly endless task: to find those essential items that their current owners might not even be aware of owning, or even care about, that might otherwise become lost or destroyed, and through the process of discovery, MacMillan has been able to expand or even simply shed light on numerous stories, including those of Simon Fraser, the Red River settlement, or even the last fatal duel in Canada that happened in Perth, Ontario in 1833. But like any quest, there are the successes and the failures, and the long disappointments, and he even includes a chapter on "the ones that got away," writing:

One donor I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy was the woman with complete files of two early Ontario newspapers, which she had obtained when the papers stopped publishing. She kept these in her home, most of them in the basement, and was not interested in giving them to the Archives. She had reservations about even allowing us to microfilm them until she finished copying local news from each volume. In March 1970, I asked her if we could purchase the newspapers and she suggested I keep in touch. A month later when I stopped in to see her again, she hadn’t yet finished copying what she wanted out of the papers. A year later, March 1971, she let me take two volumes of the papers for purchase. The other volumes, approximately 26 in number, would be available soon, she said. On 31 August 1971, I drove out to see her again. She had had a radical change of heart since I was last there, and she now wanted to sell. Her basement had been completely flooded, and the papers were in a very bad state. I took the papers back to Toronto to have them dried out and microfilmed. They took months to separate and dry out, and it took an extra two months to remove the odour of the dozens of cats that had enjoyed those papers in the woman's basement. (p 144)
One of the most exciting stories he includes are the ones around the late 1960s, when they founded the Nor'Westers Museum in Williamstown as a Centennial project, and organized a series of canoe brigades to help promote the museum, recreating routes taken by various of the voyageurs and original settlers, and manned by a number of descendants of the original North West Company recruits. With their new 26 foot Chestnut replicas of the fur trade "North canoe," he writes of the first trip:

By the summer of 1967, I had recruited several other descendants of North West Company Partners to help paddle two canoes from Grand Portage, Minnesota, the old mid-continent headquarters of the North West Company, to Williamstown.
On this Canadian Centennial venture, the American crew in the 36 foot Montreal canoe was experienced and dressed in authentic voyageur costumes. Recruited because they had a connection to someone in the original North West Company, our own crews of six to a canoe were mostly inexperienced. One was Richard Hubert, about 60, of Greenwhich, Connecticut, a descendent of Hugh McGillis from Glengarry, who had been a North West Company Partner. Richard had been a CPR agent in Tokyo at the start of World War II, and helped introduce ice hockey to the Japanese. Another of our crew was Donald MacDonell, 20, a direct descendant of John "le Prêtre" McDonell, a North West Company Partner and brother to Miles McDonell, one of Lord Selkirk's agents. Grant Campbell, great-great-grandson of John Duncan Campbell, a North West Company Partner, was also part of our crew. (pp 47-8)
Glengarry County, being the oldest county in the province, is filled with amateur historians of all sorts, so it seems perfectly obvious that someone like MacMillan would come out of the county to end up doing the sort of work he eventually did. Unfortunately, even as MacMillan was in the rare position of creating his own job for the Archives of Ontario, wandering newspapers and the countryside in search of lost treasures, his position was erased as soon as he left it, leaving innumerable papers and other items to possibly be lost to the ravages of time and inattention. Still, this is a wonderfully entertaining book, I would highly recommend this to anyone interested either in Canadian and/or Ontario history, or anyone fool enough to consider themselves an archivist.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

living the arts in ottawa: an open letter

An email I sent around at the end of last week, wondering whatever happened to the transpoetry second round that was launched in February, 2006, got me thinking again about what it actually means to live in the City of Ottawa and be involved with the arts. It seems only strange timing that The Ottawa Citizen has managed to propel the thought, through an article by staff writer Patrick Langston, and another, provoked by my own question. In the original email I asked, has anyone else noticed that the poems have long disappeared? Is anyone else actually bothered by that? The original question spawned some interesting responses, and even prompted a call by Ottawa Citizen reporter Tony Lofaro, who ended up writing a small article on such in the January 17, 2007 edition, hidden in the city section, with the heading "City nips Transpo poets in the bud," and sub-heading "No plans to repeat poetry on the bus campaign." The empty ad space I see on every single bus I get on around the city makes it even more offensive that the poetry has all but disappeared. Other bus systems in Canada, whether Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton or BC Transit can sustain their poetry, and some have for over a decade or more, so why can't we? It was interesting to see what a little email could do, but it highlights yet again a number of problems that those of us who are involved with any kind of artistic consideration in the city are faced with.

We are continually in the midst of an identity crisis: are we capital? Are we local? It's a conflict our media, such as The Ottawa Citizen, has struggled with as well. It's far more likely that an Ottawa writer, for example, unless they are a bigger name, such as Elizabeth Hay, Mark Frutkin or Francis Itani, will be mentioned in the City section or the Arts section of the newspaper than in the Books section. Somehow, since Books Editor Bert Heward left in the mid-1990s, the Books section has pretended to be national, and excluded most of anything that could have been called local. On the other hand, most literary writers in town will probably never even get mentioned in The Ottawa X-Press or The Ottawa Sun, if past experience is any indicator; what other options, exactly, are there? If we do not champion our own, who do we expect to do it for us? If our daily newspaper wants to be The Globe & Mail, then where do we find our Toronto Star to pick up what gets missed in our immediate area? Anyone who read the Citizen article on Saturday, January 13 in the Arts section by Patrick Langston (prompted by yet another City of Ottawa suggestion that we would lose our arts funding) knows the familiar refrain: Ottawa has, per capita, some of the worst city funding for the arts in the country, and every few years the city councilors threaten to cut our funding yet again (and why does the media seem so quick to move when something goes wrong, instead of working to talk about those who are getting it right? A small handful of articles in a matter of days on what isn’t happening, but after two months of lead time, The Ottawa Citizen couldn’t go any further than simply send a photographer for a caption when Jennifer Mulligan and I launched our new Ottawa-based literary press, Chaudiere Books…). It's become so tiresome that it's moved well past being offensive (I still have my "My Ottawa includes Culture" sign in my front window, from the threats in 2004 to cut funding). This isn’t an argument for whether or not the arts should be funded generally, although there are points to be made there too, but why can't a capital city somehow look past it's own stubborn sense of National to know that there are actual living and working people in the city itself that deserve to be treated with respect.

As Langston writes in his piece:
(In 2005, the last year for which comparable figures are available, per capita funding of the arts was $11.89 in Vancouver, $7.03 in Montreal and $4.87 in Edmonton; Ottawa was $3.64.)

Compounding the problem is a growing perception among artists elsewhere that Ottawa is the last place they should relocate to.

Public and official indifference to art, in other words, helps fuel support for a tax freeze which in turn further diminishes art's public profile and the number of artists.

"We talk about taxes like they're an evil thing," says [actress Alix] Sideris, "but that's how we support each other."

Lacklustre municipal support for the arts in Ottawa — which also fares poorly in provincial and Canada Council for the Arts funding — is rooted at least in part in the belief that we are taken care of culturally by large, federal government institutions (think, the NAC).
This is not a problem started by the current City of Ottawa administration, or even the previous one, or the one before that; this has been a problem for years. It's one thing for then-Prime Minister Lester B. "Mike" Pearson to get grief over wanting to create The National Arts Centre (which he finally succeeded in doing, thus bringing theatre in many ways back to Ottawa), but consider, too, that there haven’t really been any other buildings created since to house or help artistic function (the National Gallery of Canada being a notable exception). Closer still, there are those who remember a study conducted by the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (a precursor to the current amalgamated city) in the late 1980s that resulted in the realization that the funding was well below sustainable levels and was forcing Ottawa artists to move to other centres (something that any Ottawa artist could have told the city years before, at a much reduced rate). The official result? At the next round of budget considerations, the arts funding was actually reduced.

Remember: this is a city that, in the 1950s, refused funding to the Canadian Repertory Company to help them move to a larger building, forcing the whole company to move, lock, stock and barrel, to Stratford, Ontario, where they started the Stratford Festival. This is the city that has dragged on a proposal a few years back to turn the old Elgin Street Theatre into a space for the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, currently the largest Chamber Music Festival in the world, and housed in churches around the city. This is a city that keeps trying to cut the ottawa international writers festival, one of the few pieces of infrastructure around for literary writers living in the city. Forget the utter nonsense with the expansion of the O-Train between city and province; nothing will happen as long as we keep voting for candidates who are absolutely resistant to change. The problems they compound are the ones we haven’t given them any reason to fix.

The business argument against any lack or lessened arts funding just doesn’t wash, especially when, in the mid-1990s, Ottawa high tech companies were telling Carleton University not to cut its language programs. High tech firms (considered the pride of Ottawa business acumen in the 1990s) had to tell Carleton University (using the streamlining business/tech degree as their argument) that they didn’t want to hire automatons that came out of their programs, but graduates who could actually think inventively, and for themselves. The argument doesn’t wash when every study going keeps telling us that every dollar put into the arts comes back ten-fold, and goes directly back into the community, including bookstores, restaurants, hydro bills, art supply stores, galleries, phone bills, rent, theatre, etcetera.

It becomes less a business argument than a quality of life argument; you can have the finest high-tech firms or government jobs on the planet in the City of Ottawa, but if there is no reason for someone to actually want to spend their time living in Ottawa, then it becomes far harder to bring in new blood. Money is rarely only consideration when moving to a new town. Are there any stores? What are the schools like? Can we get an affordable house? Is there anything in the city to actually do? As Langston writes in his article:
[…] an Ottawa Tourism and Convention Authority study in 2003 revealed that the overall economic impact of Ottawa festivals that year was $94 million. The municipality's funding that same year was $438,000.

It helps make Ottawa a well-rounded, intellectually healthy place that people want to visit, move to and retire in.
Remember: when then-mayor Bob Chiarelli introduced his 20/20 program (which actually went nowhere) to help the private and public sectors fund the arts, he said that now the arts will begin in Ottawa. How dare you, sir; we have been here for at least one hundred and fifty years, and will continue to be here, long after the memory of your administration has faded. Bob Chiarelli, who said he wanted to turn Ottawa into a world-class city, not smart enough or aware enough to know that we already were, and had been for some time. The difference was that we had managed to get there not only on our own, but despite the shortsightedness of decades of diminishing funding. Do not insult us further by telling us we do not exist.

But what are we? Do we not put money into anything local because someone in some other part of the country will see it as Ottawa putting money into itself again? I've heard western and eastern Canadian members of the League of Canadian Poets complain whenever the Toronto head office does anything a little bit more for Ontario members, not realizing that we live in perhaps the only province without a provincial writers guild. Does that mean that anyone in Ontario outside of Toronto deserves less than someone living in, say, Saskatoon, Winnipeg or Montreal?

Again, if we will not champion our own, who will? Ottawa media seemed to revel in slamming Alanis until she moved away, and then they couldn’t say enough good about her. It's almost as though someone has to leave town before any of their success is ever taken seriously. Is Ottawa merely a 1960s Canadian problem on a smaller scale? I originally started the online Ottawa poetry pdf journal ottawater as something I thought would be merely the first in a series of responses and celebrations, whether official or otherwise, during 2005, the year that the City of Ottawa turned 150 years old. After nine months of soliciting, editing and other preparations, I launched the first issue in January, 2005, only to discover, over the weeks and months, that there was no official celebration or series of celebrations. Anything that I did see or hear about seemed last minute, and even cobbled together. What happened? Remember too, this was the same year the National Arts Centre celebrated a month of Alberta Scene at the NAC, National Library and Archives and other locations. Organized to celebrate Alberta's 100th anniversary, the Alberta Scene highlighted Alberta musicians, writers, actors, films and every other sort of artistic expression the province has produced. Turning one hundred the same year, both Alberta and Saskatchewan put out new books telling their histories; where was the book celebrating ours? Certainly, a city is not a province. Certainly, living in the capital city, Alberta Scene was certainly a highlight as an audience member, and the events were well documented and promoted in Ottawa media, but where was the Ottawa scene? If our own city mayor and councilors don’t see their functions in leadership, in part, as being cheerleaders, then why do we even bother? This is more than Canadian modesty; this is outright dismissal.

There are those of us, for whatever reason, that have chosen to either move to or remain in the City of Ottawa as workers in the arts, and simply for that reason, we refuse to be told, through sheer bloody-minded indifference from the city heads and media outlets, that our services are not required. There is nothing wrong with not accepting poor treatment simply for doing what it is we do, especially when we know how well we do it. Despite what they might tell you, we are an extremely strong city culturally (even considering the numbers that have left for other shores), filled with writers, poets, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, visual artists, actors, cartoonists and a whole slew of others who help make this city a living, breathing, thinking, reacting and vibrant entity. To build or keep a world class city it has to be maintained, and somehow, falling between the cracks of national vs. local, we get the worst consideration of all. Is this how any city, capital or not, is supposed to act? Is this the image we wish to project out into the world?

[note: while I was posting this, I got an email from John W. MacDonald telling me that The Ottawa Citizen printed an editorial in today's paper agreeing with me that the transpoetry should continue. Not too damn bad, I must say...a good start?]

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ongoing notes: mid January 2007

Where does all the time actually go? This is usually when folk make their "New Year's Resolutions," I guess. I've never been the resolution type; I think any changes, alterations or improvements shouldn’t be time-specific but more ongoing. Yes yes yes, January is named for "Janus," the two-faced god who looked equally forward and back, but any real consideration of "taking stock" has to be a slow ongoing process, and not simply an arbitrary one begun with a hangover (I was out very very late this year…). I'm also terrible about birthdays; why limit thinking of someone to whatever day they happened to be born? But anyways

Nicholas Lea recently pointed out this interview with Bill Knott; Amanda Earl comments on my recent Capital Slam feature (mentioned also here in The Ottawa Citizen); birthdays are celebrated (with my name attached); and apparently my new chapbook (I don't have copies yet) is available from that nice Peter Ganick.

Apparently Melissa Upfold got the package I sent her (she never actually emailed or wrote back to tell me...); someone I don’t know commented on a fragment of a review I posted; and did you see this short piece that Ottawa poet Shane Rhodes wrote on a Robert Kroetsch "sonnet"? He also did one on Fred Wah... Apparently Amanda Earl got some visual pieces published online that she made for the poetry workshop she took with me last fall; apparently too, Max Middle is offering subscriptions for his Puddle leaflets. And did you see my poem in the new issue of The Walrus? Don’t forget, both the upcoming Factory Reading and ottawater launch happening in Ottawa, and Meghan Jackson reading happening at the IV Lounge Reading Series in Toronto, among other upcoming events

And apparently my question over email a few days ago, wondering what the hell happened to all the poems on Ottawa city buses attracted a bit of attention… check out today's Ottawa Citizen...

Calgary AB: Straight on the heels of his Canada Post (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2006) [see my review of such here] is Calgary editor & poet Jason Christie's second poetry collection, I, ROBOT (Calgary AB: Edge, 2006). It seems strange but entirely appropriate, somehow, that a collection of poems about "robots and animated appliances" would be coming out with a Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher. In many ways, I, ROBOT has the feeling of a short novel organized as a collage work, all working as a group to paint a larger picture, working a combination of short story and prose poetry to write a story of the human robot, including toasters, washing machines, VCRs and personal computers while referencing classic science fiction writers, books and film.


"What happens between one period and a
full stop?" The robot teacher asked his grade
four grammar teacher. The teacher replied:
"Nothing happens. They are the same thing."
"Then why are they called different things?"
The robot student asked again. The teacher
didn’t respond, merely drew a dotted line and
a straight line on the virtual board out of green
and orange with her photon-stick and gave the
little robot a detention.

As much as I very liked this, it didn’t grab me in the same way as Canada Post did. I very like the way he writes the book as unit of composition in ways that many people don’t, working and reworking echoes of the long poem as more than sequence and more than pastiche. But where is it all going? And where will Christie go next?

Vancouver BC: Since Erin Mouré did her madly-brilliant Pessoa traselation a few years ago, he seems to be all the rage these days (or I wasn’t noticing before that, which is entirely possible). Newly out from Peter and Meredith Quartermain's Nomados is Christine Stewart's Pessoa's July or the months of astonishments (Nomados, 2006). Written as a series of letters to Pessoa, the book also concludes with a note from the author:
Pessoa is Portugese for person. And Fernando Pessoa, a Portugese poet (1888-1935), consisted of persons. He was heteronymic and included Álvaro Campos, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Bernardo Soares, prolific poets with different birthdays, poetics, odours, and mothers. It is in his company, and others, that I consider.
The idea of pseudonyms and/or multiple voices is one that seems to confuse and even anger the public (including writers) most of the time, asking why another name has to be used, isn’t this fraudulent, etcetera, before considering the purpose and exploring the use of these multitudes (the story of reviewer Carmine Starnino, for example, exposing the poetry collection Vehicule Press published by a Greek poet as actually being David Solway, thus, in many ways dismissing not only the material of the collection, but the entire exercise).

Dear Pessoa,
this is my film
house where memory betrays her.
His kisses were
lenient and tactless. With soft
lucid parts. His neck was
secluded plus it was
named and luminous igniting Greek
extinguishers. To hell with it
I said no
to the
extinguishers, and walked misery.
You were foment, I figure
and found that many berries
even are bitter.

Flora, whose floss designs love? (pp 12-13)

Kentville NS: A book I've been going through lately is A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory (Gaspereau Press, 2006), with essays by Robert Finley, Patrick Friesen, Aislinn Hunter, Anne Simpson and Jan Zwicky. As Finley writes in the introduction, these pieces were "first presented on a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference held in Vancouver in the spring of 2005."

Eurydice Afterwards

She's underwater. It's spacious, dark;
the marble stairs spiral around
as they descend. Years ago, a boy floated
down, dying. It was not in her power
to change things. He'd thrown
himself off the bridge, despair
in his pockets. The least she could do
was stroke the pale skin, carry
the body to shore. Now she recalls

air. What it was like to breathe,
April wrapped around her
in a cloak of wings, hundreds,
stitched with iridescence. She drew
that mantle over a prince's shoulders,
put the crown of her hand in his hair.
Sometimes his lyre can be heard faintly,
or maybe it's just the last of the ice floes
striking the bridge as it passes.
Even here, a scattering of light
from above. Watery halls, spangled. (Anne Simpson)

Because of how the pieces held together and spoke to each other, they decided to produce a book of the pieces, and including poems and/or prose by the individual writers to go along with their conference pieces. It makes me wish the transcripts and such of more conferences were put into print, and makes me wonder if there were other pieces delivered at the same conference that would have worked together as well as this collection does. Wasn’t this the same conference that had, among others, the American poet Cole Swensen? I would love to know what she would have said at same… As the cover tells us, "a good memory is not as good as a ragged pen," and the pieces each work around the ideas of writing and recollection, as Friesen, in his "Memory River," writes:
There is no one approach to either poetry or memory, but one function of poetry is to be a song of longing for what is not there, nor ever was. Not longing for the memory itself, but for something outside of memory, the absence which is the context of memory; the state of longing in and of itself. We long for what can't be named; the unremembered. As Basho's poem suggests, even in the present we long for what is right before us because everything holds within it its own disappearance and loss, its own state of non-existence, and as we experience the present we experience it as loss. (p 33)
Victoria BC: Another new little publication is Toronto poet Souvankham Thammavongsa's chapbook residual (Victoria BC: Greenboathouse Books, 2006). A follow-up to her first trade collection small arguments (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2003) [see also the interview with her posted at Poetics.ca], this four poem chapbook might be the shortest chapbook that Jason Dewinetz and Aaron Peck have ever produced, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less beautiful than any other of their publications. In these four small poems, Thammavongsa writes out a series of hesitations and slow movements, that even as they pause manage to pause, still, and continue to cause themselves to perpetually reduce to a mere hair's breadth of movement.


The human body
is marked

two points

The point
water boils

The point
water freezes

is where

it lives
and how

between two points

New England: Lately I've been reading American poet Fanny Howe's on the ground (Greywolf, 2004) [I found a stack of them remaindered at the Benjamin Books location at the Rideau Centre three weeks ago]. There isn't nearly enough good I can say about her poetry [see my note on her some time ago here], after going through various of her works including her Selected Poems (University of California Press, 2000), Gone (University of California Press, 2004), and her chapbook Tramp (Montreal QC: Vallum, 2005), as well as her more recent Radical Love: 5 novels (Beacon NY: Nightboat Books, 2006). Why do I think there's another poetry collection out this year?


The first person is an existentialist

like trash in the groin of the sand dunes
like a brown cardboard home beside a dam

like seeing like things the same
between Death Valley and the desert of Paran

An earthquake a turret with arms and legs
The second person is the beloved

like winners taking the hit
like looking down on Utah as if

it was Saudi Arabia or Pakistan
like war-planes out of Miramar

like a split cult a jolt of coke New York
like Mexico in its deep beige couplets

like this, like that…like Call us all It
Thou It. "Sky to Spirit! Call us all It!"

The third person is a materialist. (p 23)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Robert Bringhurst's The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks
Vocation means, of course, a call. Diplomas are written, vocations are spoken. To find a vocation means to be summoned: called to exceed your qualifications, whatever they may be; called to explore and to fulfill your capabilities. Those who have vocations inhabit a world where doing and being are one and the same because continuous learning unites them. I have learned, as a frequent visitor to universities, that the university itself is often such a world, for its students as much as for its faculty—and that one of the greater challenges of life in North America today is not so much to find as to maintain one's vocation after leaving university. ("The Vocation of Being," pp 47-48)
Much like the work of prairie poet Tim Lilburn, I find the essays by British Columbia poet and thinker Robert Bringhurst far more compelling than his work as a poet; not to say that he isn’t an accomplished poet, he has published numerous works as both poet and translator of poetry, including The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1987), Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music (1987), and a translation of Ghandl's Nine Visits to the Mythworld, which was nominated for the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001. As well, for years a book designer, including many McClelland & Stewart titles over the years, his book The Elements of Typographic Style is said to be one of the most influential texts on typographic design (I know for a fact that greenboathouse books editor/publisher Jason Dewinetz considers the book to be essential to the point of Biblical). I haven’t seen that book, but where I am completely taken with the words and ideas of Robert Bringhurst is in his most recent book, The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2006).

In a series of essays originally delivered as talks to various audiences throughout a decade of lecturing, Bringhurst talks through and about the history of languages and cultures and, in the first essay, presents the argument that if you are studying Native North American literature, you should, just as anyone would learn Latin or Greek in an equivalent class in the classics, have to learn a Native North American language. It's actually an argument so simple that it becomes completely overlooked otherwise, and completely brilliant. Bringhurst works his lectures from a point of not only respect and pure education, but from that place of passionate learning for its own sake, wanting to know more about the world around him because that is how the world responds to him. As he writes as part of that first essay:
I would like to go back now, for a moment, to the map of Canada.

A literary map of this country would be first of all a map of languages, several layers deep. On the base layers, there would be no sign at all of English and French. At least sixty-five, perhaps as many as eighty, different languages, of at least ten different major families, were spoken in this country when Jacques Cartier arrived. Each and every one of them had a history and a literature. It is with them, or what remains of them, that the study of Canadian literature must start. So the question is, what does remain?

I have been chided once or twice for using the phrase "the Haida holocaust." To me the term seems apt. The Haida lost more than ninety per cent of their population in less than a century. In Haida Gwaii the epidemics that brought this about are still, as they should be, a sensitive subject. Any suggestion that others have suffered as much – even comparisons to the experience of the Jews – can cause offense. But this is not at all an isolated case. In 1492, there were perhaps ten million people in the are we know now as the USA and Canada. By 1900, the census figures tell us, the total aboriginal population in this same vast stretch of country was much less than half a million. Decimated is too mild a word. While the colonial population has risen steeply in both countries, the total indigenous population has shrunk by a factor of twenty-five or thirty. Disease had a lot to do with it – smallpox, measles, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever. These were abetted, of course, by repeated eviction and forced relocation, and by deliberate diseducation, massive destruction of resources and, in consequence, outright starvation. Declared or not, a war was going on. And its most effective weapons, whether or not anyone ever intended to use them as such, were biological. ("The Polyphonic Mind," pp 24-25)
After spending many hours with this collection, I would very much like to find a copy of his previous collection of essays, The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing & Meaning (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2004). Anyone who is interested in the form of language and not only how we got there, but what we should be doing with it should read this book; and multiple readings are a must. Without preaching but with prodding, he tells us how we are supposed to learn to keep ourselves alive.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

some Cooley notes

Prairie Fire (Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1998); Winnipeg MB: Lately I've been going through the Dennis Cooley issue of Prairie Fire (edited by Robert Budde and Debbie Keahey) for the sake of an essay on Cooley I'm working my way toward, triggered in part by the second volume of his "love in a dry land" poem, The Bentley Poems (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006), following his previous collection, Country Music: New Poems (Vernon BC: Kalamalka Press, 2004) [see my note on the collection here] from the same 800-plus page manuscript. Amanda Earl is currently twigged on the same, after picking up the new collection of poems, discovering Cooley herself for the first time. Dennis Cooley is one of those post-1960s poets that never really got the attention that his work deserves; highly praised by writers in the prairies, he seems almost invisible in other corners, despite numerous poetry collections including his selected poems, Sunfall, from Anansi in 1996. Apparently there was a small book written on Cooley's work published by ECW Press at some point (I have yet to find a copy), as well as an unpublished folio by Winnipeg poet and critic Karen Clavelle; what I really look forward to is the critical selected, By Word of Mouth, edited by poet, critic and former Cooley student Nicole Markotić out in May of this year, published through Wilfred Laurier University Press' in their Laurier Poetry Series (apparently the press is holding a party/launch in May with various of the authors and editors from a number of the books…).

To go through Dennis Cooley's poems is to reconsider space, and reconsider the use of the vernacular, and his essay on line breaks in his collection of essays, The Vernacular Muse (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1987), is still considered the standard. As David Arnason writes in his piece, moving slowly through the published works of Dennis Cooley, up to the selected poems:
Section 2 of Sunfall contains poems from collections that were not yet published when Sunfall came out. Love in a dry land is a series of poems based on Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House, and written from the point of view of Mrs. Bentley. The collection was accepted for publication several years ago, though it has yet actually to appear. As such, the appearance of a selection of the poems here gives the other collection a kind of ghost-like quality, like the "true story" on which some works are said to be based. The collection, like Lorna Crozier's similar but later version, extends Ross's work in the western imagination.
Or this piece by prairie writer Robert Kroetsch:

Poet Tree Sonnet

for Dennis Cooley

He breaks words like twigs from branches, the poet
pruning towards new life. Consider: an old
cottonwood, there by the Souris, brought back
to green, hearing the staccato riffs, the wordpecker.

Or that time in Japan: I saw a bent woman raking
under pines, heaping twigs and cones onto a fire
there at the entrance to a ryokan, releasing poems.
Beware, I said, to Arnason (we had left our shoes

somewhere at a door), Cooley is fooling you and me
again, pretending he is in Winnipeg, making jokes
inside a burning bush, under the hanging tree.

Or consider that time in Portugal: I praised the burnt
colour of peeled cork oaks: he sawed off the limb
we were out on, suggesting that form and fire rhyme.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Shane Rhodes' Tengo Sed

Only in love is loss made up.
Only in religion do we ignore it.
– Unas Historias, tengo sed

An absolutely lovely chapbook produced by Jason Dewinetz’ greenboathouse books is Shane Rhodes’ thirty-eight page tengo sed, a collection of seventeen poems written while the author lived a year in Mexico. There is a fine tradition of Canadian writers in Mexico (but certainly not as many as have made pilgrimages to Greece), with George Bowering’s Sitting in Mexico (published as IMAGO #12, 1969), written after two summers spent there in 1964 and 1965, to William Hawkins, who went south with a Canada Council grant (when tequila was only eight cents a shot), to produce a number of the poems in his collection The Madman's War (published by SAW Gallery in 1974), and then of course, Malcolm Lowry (who was technically an American, but who’s counting).

Originally from the west, Shane Rhodes was one of the original editors of QWERTY magazine (along with Steve McOrmond, Andy Weaver, Paul Dechene, Darryl Whetter and Eric Hill) during the time he was schooling at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, eventually moving back to Calgary, where he was an editor for filling Station magazine. It was some time after that, after publishing his first collection, The Wireless Room (2000), the first poetry collection that NeWest had published in years, that he went down to Mexico. Around the time of his second collection, Holding Pattern (2002), he had returned to Canada, and very soon afterward moved to Ottawa, where he currently lives in the Capital’s Little Italy.

As Rhodes’ writes in the acknowledgments of tengo sed:
Why travel? It is more than a question on a form from Immigration, but can I realistically answer it while sitting down? Perhaps it’s for the stories we tell upon our return so that we can sit (as Odysseus in the court of Alcinous) recounting our adventures? Or is it to replace the boredom Pascal notes of sitting quietly in an empty room with the boredom of sitting quietly in an empty bus? Perhaps, in the end, it becomes the same question as “Why write?” I have no answer to this yet, but I’m working on it.

There is a figurative phrase in Spanish (I’m unsure if it is particular to Mexican Spanish) which is used to describe something that brings pleasure: me late – which would translate as it makes my heart beat.

Much of this book was written during a year long stay and travels throughout Mexico."
Recently, while in Ottawa driving from one bar to another, Rhodes mentioned an essay he saw reference to, online. Written by a student at the University of Alberta and presented as a paper at a conference in Scotland [I have since learned it was written by Olive Reading Series member T.L. Cowan], on Rhodes’ first collection against Robert Kroetsch’s first, Stone Hammer Poems, the piece wrote Shane Rhodes as “Robert Kroetsch’s gay son.” There is a lot to compare between the two as poets, and one can even make comparisons between tengo sed and Kroetsch’s chapbook, Lines Written in the John Snow House (2002), later included in his trade collection, The Snowbird Poems (2004) [see my note on Kroetsch here]. Rhodes is able to write a lush lyric while still writing in a plain, spoken line, a mixture of statement and lyric flow. Listen to this, the first half of the poem “Cuentas,” that reads:

They agreed, hiking the mountain which overlooked the city
spires and silver mines, that their lives were already arthritic
with worry.

On the mountaintop, they removed their t-shirts, jeans and
underwear to suntan – interrupted only by the goat herds
eating brown grass dried tough by summer drought.

And they meant by “worry” an anxiety that fed from its own
imprecision and so became an italicised sadness – as in a life
corroded by work, the lack of money, the loss of time – filling a
lower case (times new roman) hole.

After an afternoon storm, they dried themselves and descended,
stopping only to pick cactus fruit – its cool skin and warm,
lucent centre full of pits.

“This is how the middle-aged would live,” she would say at times.
“A life of pattern and routine with very little conscious waste.”

And it makes me want a quick end to it: “They returned to their
pension (the one with the beaten tile in every room), made
dinner and turned out the lights” or “The grey-green pigeons,
startled by the evening bells, flew from the gutters to the
church spires.”

Kroetsch’s small chapbook was written during a similar trip, another Alberta writer placed but nearly placeless (he has been based in Winnipeg for a number of years), while in Calgary during a writer-in-residence stint; both collections written as familiar and foreign, a self-contained group of poems. Is there a difference?

Before his first collection appeared, what I saw of Rhodes’ work was made up of “great lines in good poems,” and, with each new publication, has steadily improved. Rhodes has always managed to maintain a loosely-restrained lyric, pulling between that and the underlying (barely contained) energy that runs through his lines, but the pieces in tengo sed are far more refined, and fuse the two far better than anything he has accomplished previously.


In a Mexico City market, stalls sell tacos made from the meat
of cooked goat heads. Beside the grill are piles of eyeless sockets
and obstinate looking jaws still with their full array of stained
teeth. You eat the meat from the head, a man tells me pointing
at the skulls while pushing a taco deep into his mouth, because
then at least you know it’s not rat meat.

There does seem a difference between this and the work of his two trade collections; it’s good to watch any writer move outside of themselves and their own histories. There are some pieces in Holding Pattern written during his time in Mexico, but in tengo sed, it’s exclusively what the poems are from, written both from Mexico and the idea of Mexico (whatever that means), as Rhodes works to place the pieces inside the imagination of where he is. As he writes at the beginning of “El Mercado En Merida” (p 26):

a shop sells nothing but coconuts beside men who turn old tires
into sandals

or the short piece “Los Pescadores Y Los Rancheros” (p 21):

The rancher ranches so every two months
he can drive to town and eat shrimp
with beer and batter and cocktail sauce.

The fisherman fishes
for the occasional meal
of chicken and veal.

One of the most interesting pieces in the collection has to be “To Elizabeth Bishop,” a long list of a piece that includes lines such as:

Here is a trade. Here is a woman in labour.
Here is trade. Here is a woman’s labour.
Here is a border zone. Here is a pay phone.
Here is free trade. Here is a man getting paid.
Here is a market place. Here is a church.
[. . .]
Here is a tourista. Here is an assembly line.
Here is an assembled line. Here is the blazing divine.
Here is a smokestack. Here is a wire rack.

And ending with:

Here is the beautiful song. Here is the beautiful song.
Here is a room. Here is a man sitting.
Here is his hammock. Here is his beach sand.
Here is his harbour. Here is his coast.

The pieces in tengo sed work through Rhodes’ meditative spread, both specifically working and surrounding the Mexican space as an insider who knows he is still a traveler. From the first poem to the last, Rhodes writes himself in, as in the brief opener, “On Imitation,” that writes:

In the night,
the cat-in-heat sang.
In the morning,
the mocking bird sang
of the cat-in-heat.
In the afternoon,
I wrote of the mocking bird.

The ten part poem “Otono” that ends the collection is quite lovely, a flow that connects each fragment but still holds to the disassociation:


In the 1400s, 20,000 human hearts

cut from their chest with obsidian blades


commemorated the new temple nearby –

only stopped when the priests fell
from exhaustion. Now

everything I touch –


feldspar, a pen

to write this down –
beats in my hand.
There is nothing
we would not do to keep it

The continuity between breaks flows nicely, adding weight and depth to the lyric flow, giving the reader the chance to read between the lines, between the line breaks and the line continuity. As the poem ends, with the two line part “10,” writing:

They will burn
as long as we need them to.

And it does. It does.

Works Cited:

Bowering, George. Sitting in Mexico. Montreal QC: IMAGO #12, 1969.
Hawkins, William. The Madman's War. Ottawa ON: S.A.W. Publications, 1974.
Kroetsch, Robert. Lines Written in the John Snow House. Calgary AB: housepress, 2002.
________. Stone Hammer Poems. Victoria BC: Oolichan Books, 1975.
________. The Snowbird Poems. Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2004.
Rhodes, Shane. Holding Pattern. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2002.
________. tengo sed. Victoria BC: greenboathouse books, 2004.
________. The Wireless Room. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000.

This review originally appeared in ottawater; Shane Rhodes' Tengo Sed was reprinted in the anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets (Chaudiere Books, 2006) & appears in his third poetry collection, The Bindery, out in April with NeWest Press. An interview with Shane Rhodes appears in the third issue of ottawater, launching at The Mercury Lounge on Friday, January 26, 2006.