Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Matrix 76: Robert Allen Tribute (and Sina Queyras)

Most people know the story of Robert Allen Zimmerman, who nearly called himself "Robert Allen" once he left home ("It sounded like a Scottish king and I liked it," he said), but changed his mind once he discovered a saxophonist called David Allyn, and even further, when he discovered the work of writer Dylan Thomas. What would have happened if young Zimmerman could have travelled into the future and met the Montreal writer Robert Allen? The new issue of Montreal's Matrix magazine (note new website) is built as a tribute to their late friend, publisher, editor, mentor, Concordia University creative writing teacher and writer Robert Allen [see my obit note here], who succumbed to cancer last November. An essential part of the Montreal literary scene, the new issue holds tributes by Jon Paul Fiorentino, Anne Stone [see her blog entry on same here], Jason Camlot, Mary Williamson, Todd Swift, Angela Hibbs, Andy Brown, David McGimpsey, lydia eugene, Steve Luxton, Angela Carr, Mikhail Iossel, Oana Avasilichioaei, Luc Paradis, Melissa A. Thompson, Mary di Michele, Catherine Kidd, Golda Fried, David Solway, Bryan Sentes and Rob's sister, Vivienne Allen. As Fiorentino writes in his introduction,
Robert Allen died in Fall of 2006 at the age of sixty. The last three weeks of his life were spent in the Eastern Townships with family and friends, sharing stories.

He was the author of nine collections of poetry, three novels, and one collection of short fiction. His most recent book was the brilliant long poem, The Encantadas, published just this spring. Without a doubt, The Encantadas is one of the best Canadian poetry books ever published. Rob was one of Canada's best writers. His work was a rigorous negotiation of tradition and experiment. He wasn’t a household name but I know that his work will only increase in profile and importance. I have faith that Canadian literature has the ability to catch up to Rob and his work. Rob was not particularly interested in social status or award culture. Instead he delighted in the numerous achievements of his students and protégés.

The number of writers who have been influenced by Rob is astonishing. Rob taught
emerging writers to use their curiosity, irreverence, and defiance to their advantage and to follow their own literary interests without apology. And most unique, he always treated his students and protégés as fellow writers. If you were one of Rob Allen's writers, you were driven to make him proud and prove him right.

As a friend, Rob was always patient, thoughtful, and generous. He loved to share a bottle of good scotch, or bad scotch, a cigarette, a story, a road trip. He would always provide counsel. His wisdom was an invaluable gift to those who loved him. On a personal note, throughout the seven years I knew Rob, he never stopped helping me and never stopped laughing with me. He showed his faith in me by letting me help him run Matrix and giving me the opportunity to edit books and work with authors. Rob helped me become a better writer and a better person. I will always be grateful for his friendship and I miss him more than I can express.
Allen was the author of a number of previous books of poetry and fiction, including Standing Wave (Véhicule), Ricky Ricardo Suites (DC Books) [see my review of it here], Napoleon's Retreat (DC Books), A June Night in the Late Cenozoic (Oolichan), Magellan's Clouds, New and Selected Poems (Véhicule), The Indigo Hotel (Cormorant), The Lyric Paragraph (ed., DC Books), Wintergarden (Quadrant), Late Romantics (w/ Mark Teicher and Stephen Luxton, Moosehead Press), The Hawryliw Process, Volumes One and Two (Porcupine's Quill), The Assumption of Private Lives (New Delta), Blues and Ballads (Ithica House) and Valhalla at the OK (Ithica House). In 2006, Andy Brown's Conundrum Press published the complete poem The Encantadas, which had been appearing intermittently throughout Allen's poetry collections for years.


has someone to see it, and say how it is, and bring the lyric
through to it, as if I was all here and all the moment, and could
make a poem on it.) Like and unlike our sky; shadows

on the east ridge; a long trail that once might have led
to water, crooked as memory. If a voice comes as it comes
sometimes, it is all I can do to not pick up

the phone, to hear a voice breathing in some other place, unstained
by this. Hello? Another body in my arms, relaying the voice. Her breath
goes sleepy, then near wakefulness, then slow

The issue even features some "New Sonnets" by Robert Allen, six small pieces that hadn’t been previously seen.

Sonnet of Nothing

And given nothing, the order ramifies. It includes
autumn, a damning and thinning, and hiding
in the cruel winter months. And given nothing,

my job, fifty hours a week, becomes what I think
is a governing love for all the people I work with.
The people I teach, they are so fragile and trusting,

that education will lift them out of everything,
when it will not even lift them out of the north wind.
They and I are teetering on the brink, but bring

a grace and creativity, and maybe most important
a denial of the end of everything. The metred instants
in sweeping storms, the moments when you trust

your life means something: that is when the moon
comes around in its swing, to shine on our ruin.

With the focus on Allen throughout the issue, it's hard to then pay attention to the other poetry and fiction in the issue, but alternately, the interview that Angela Carr did with Canadian ex-pat poet Sina Queyras is perhaps one of the most compelling interviews I've read in some time (I've gone through it about half a dozen times so far). The author of three poetry collections, most recently Lemon Hound [see my review of such here], she has been teaching in the United States for a number of years, and is currently preparing to move to Calgary for her writer-in-residence tenure this coming school year (the same time I'm in Edmonton doing the same). Moving through a lengthy interview that talks about Anne Carson, Sappho, Bat Barbie, Maya Deren, Gertrude Stein, Nicole Brossard, Virginia Woolf and others, Queyras talks about her influences, and her process of writing and reading.
SQ: People think that writing is an isolated act. They see poets (and some poets view themselves) as mad / sad / depressed geniuses who are "too good" for the world. That isn’t how I see poetry. It's way more social than that, and I think the better for it. There's a great essay in Poetry and Pedagogy edited by Juliana Spahr and Joan Retallack about the centrifugal classroom. I love the simple idea in this particular essay about the outward vs. inward approach to teaching / writing and completely agree. Poetry classrooms that focus on "I" driven poetry, spontaneous overflow of emotion if you will, to a disservice. You can have a poetic that radiates out, that is the self-reflected in others if you like, you can find ways to provide structures, or frames that the student can use to investigate those emotions or feelings in a variety of ways. You can take that energy and harness it. There's rich territory between wanting to get at that dynamic feeling, which after all IS a vital aspect of poetry, and directing that impulse in innovative ways.

Retreats get at this in a physical way: pragmatic but also conceptual. For instance, they show what a writer needs to do to be professional, but they also expose the fruitful tension between solitude and community. The need for a writer to be good alone, to have self-discipline, to be a good thinker, yes these are essential to creative work, but there is also the need for interaction with other artists, to hear new ideas, to have your own ideas challenged, to be inspired, pissed off, a little competitive, to respond to, or be distracted by, to be socialized really. To be a healthy person.

I think too, that the pleasure of "breaking bread" for all of its clichés is a great thing. I was unbelievably shy prior to going to Banff and then wham, first day you're sitting at a breakfast table with Ken Babstock, Don McKay, Mavis Gallant and a few artists who make your head spin. Then moving to NY, forget about it, no shy, no time for shy. I mean I still am very shy, painfully shy, but I do it anyhow. My students laugh when I tell them this because they think I'm this big out-there personality, but no. It's always tough. You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf, so the saying goes.

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