Friday, May 30, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Jen Currin

Jen Currin has published two book of poems, The Sleep of Four Cities (Anvil Press) and Hagiography (Coach House Books). She lives in Vancouver, B.C., where she teaches creative writing at Langara College and Vancouver Film School. When she’s not riding her bike, she’s walking.

1- How did your first book change your life?

I started to think of myself as a bird-headed woman. Just kidding! I’m not sure it did change my life all that much, honestly. I mean, publishing a small-time poetry book…? But it is nice to have the poems in print, bound, in a nice little package you can give to a friend or stranger…

2 - How long have you lived in Vancouver, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

Race, gender, and geography all in one question! Yikes! Not sure I can do any one of them justice but will try to say a bit about each one.

I’ve lived in Vancouver for six years. Its streets, trees, cafes, people, etc. definitely inform my writing. The weather too--I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which has similar weather patterns, and so am very comfortable in the rain and gloom. When writing, I also pull from other landscapes/cityscapes, some imaginary, some imagined, and some that I’ve actually lived in.

I’m still figuring out how to write about race. I don’t think I approach it very often in my work, at least, not in an obvious way, although I think about it quite a bit. I’ve just been reading Juliana’s Spahr’s Transformations [see her 12 or 20 questions here], and appreciating the complexity with which she writes about race as a white woman who is living on a colonized island (Hawaii).

Gender I do write about quite a bit, especially in my newer poems. I think gender is a construct and am interested in writing about it as such.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I fall into the earlier category—a single poem poet first, a book-writer second. I’ve jotted down ideas for book-length projects, and have written a few poems that seemed part of a larger work, but usually I write from poem to poem. When I have a group of poems, I start to think about how they could work together as a book. This is what happened with Hagiography—after I wrote the title poem, I knew I would name the book this, and so started to think about how I could structure it, and how the poems fit together thematically, which ones to include, etc.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

When I was younger, I was pretty shy about reading, but these days I like it. It’s nice to give a voice to the poems. It’s always an honor to read to even one other person, let alone a crowd. I’m not sure whether readings assist the “creative process”—but they are important to the life of a poem/book after it is completed. I also read lines/poems out loud as I am drafting. I like to get a sense of how the words chime against one another, and the breath of each line.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Hard question! I would say my questions are more spiritual than theoretical. Right now—for some time, actually—I’ve been very preoccupied with the question of how we humans are going to survive, and if we are going to.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

My first editors are usually readers—the vertigo west poets, my partner Christine Leclerc (a writer herself), and other poet-friends whose opinions I trust. So before a poem or manuscript is even looked at by an editor, it has undergone an editorial process. I definitely appreciate and use the feedback I receive from readers/editors. It is difficult at times—disagreements!—but also essential in that, it’s necessary to hear what readers have to say about one’s work.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I’m not making a book right now, so I can’t say, really. Like writing a poem, book-making is always a new project, even if you’ve done it before.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Months, sadly. Maybe in February? It was delicious, golden. I think I ate it on a green salad with walnuts.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Most recently, reading Max Jacob’s Advice to a Young Poet: “Love a word. Repeat it. Gargle with it.”

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? Where is your favourite place to write?

I don’t have—have never really had—a writing routine. It seems like a luxury. Recently, I was on a residency, and it was the first time in my life I was able to write every day. I go through long “dry” spells and then have bursts of creative energy where I’ll write several poems in a few days or weeks. I like to write at home on my couch or at the kitchen table, or at a café with good coffee and lots of windows.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I look around me. I find the world to be a pretty inspiring place. I read a lot—poetry, short stories, novels, plays, some journalism and essays. Reading is another world, as busy as this “real one,” and also quite inspiring.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Hagiography and The Sleep of Four Cities are similar in terms of the movement of the poems, the packed stanzas. In both books, the poems are less fragmented than my current work. The older poems use space differently, and use conventional punctuation. Thematically, I can’t tell yet how different the older work is from my current work. Like most writers, I’m obsessed by just a few themes. These themes could change as I age, but I’m not sure that they have yet.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Yes, I’m influenced by all of these things—the natural world, visual art and film, music, dance. It’s all poetry to me.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are so many writers who are important to me. The New York Poets continue to influence—early on, Ashbery and O’Hara were big influences, more recently Alice Notley. In my late teens and early 20s I read a lot of Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin and W.H. Auden. I love the work of Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson, Jane Miller, Olga Broumas, Max Jacob, Russell Edson, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Rilke, Lorca, Rumi, Hafiz, Robin Blaser

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Learn equanimity.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer? What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I’m also a teacher, and I love teaching. It’s my other calling. If I wasn’t a writer/teacher, I’d try to be a musician.

I’ve always had a love of language. Writing is more of a joy than an effort, although of course it is both. I know I have a choice whether or not to write—but it feels more like a necessity than a choice. I can’t imagine not writing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just started writing again after a four month dry spell. I did some beginnings of collage poems a class I was teaching, and then I was reading Rita Wong’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] latest book, Forage, and was inspired to start re-working the collages to make them into poems. I have a stack of poems from the last year or two that haven’t yet been organized as a manuscript. I can’t see yet how this new work needs to be put together, or if I even do have a book on my hands. I’m just thankful to be writing again!

12 or 20 questions archive

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Ottawa International Writers Festival and The A B Series present legendary Dutch sound poet: JAAP BLONK

with an introductory performance by: The MAX MIDDLE SOUND PROJECT (John Lavery and Max Middle)

6 June 2008 St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts
314 St. Patrick Street (at Cumberland)

Presented with the assistance of The Royal Netherlands Embassy
Tickets, $15 / $12 for students & seniors, available at Nicholas Hoare Books, 419 Sussex Drive in Ottawa and from the Writers Festival Box Office: (613) 562-1243.

Reception with cash bar
FOR MORE INFORMATION: TELEPHONE: Max Middle, Artistic Director, The A B Series, (613) 859-8423

** JAAP BLONK is a Dutch composer, performer and poet. In the late 1970s he took up saxophone and started to compose music. A few years later he discovered his potential as a vocal performer, at first in reciting poetry and later on in improvisations and his own compositions. For almost two decades the voice was his main means for the discovery and development of new sounds. From around the year 2000 on Blonk started work with electronics, at first using samples of his own voice, then extending the field to include pure sound synthesis as well. Recently he has been researching algorithmic composition of music, visual animation and poetry.

As a vocalist, Jaap Blonk is unique for his powerful stage presence and almost childlike freedom in improvisation, combined witha keen grasp of structure. He performed in many European countries, as well as in the U.S. and Canada, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa and Latin America. With the use of live electronics the scope and range of his concerts has acquired a considerable extension.

Besides working as a soloist, he has collaborated with many musicians and ensembles in the field of contemporary and improvised music, like Maja Ratkje, Mats Gustafsson, Nicolas Collins, Joan La Barbara, The Ex, the Netherlands Wind Ensemble and the Ebony Band. He premiered several compositions by the German composer CarolaBauckholt, including a piece for voice and orchestra. A solo voicepiece was commissioned by the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2002. Onseveral occasions he collaborated with visual computer artist Golan Levin.

Blonk's work for radio and television includes several commissioned radio plays. He also makes larger-scale drawings of his scores, which have been exhibited.

He was the founder and leader of the long-standing bands Splinks (modern jazz, 1983-1999) and BRAAXTAAL (avant-rock, 1987-2005). He also has his own record label, Kontrans, featuring a total of 15releases so far. Blonk's recordings have appeared on Staalplaat, Bastaand VICTO.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Stephanie Bolster

Stephanie Bolster’s first book, White Stone: The Alice Poems (Signal/Vehicule), won the Governor General's Award and the Gerald Lampert Award in 1998 and recently appeared in French with Les Éditions du Noroît. She has published two other collections of poetry, Two Bowls of Milk and Pavilion (both with McClelland & Stewart), and edited The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems (McGill-Queen's) by the late Ottawa poet Diana Brebner. She is guest editor of the inaugural The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 anthology (Tightrope) and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, Penned: Animals in Zoos in Poems (Signal/Vehicule). She's currently completing a collection of zoo-inspired poems. Raised in Burnaby, B.C., she has lived in Quebec, Ottawa, and (since 2000) Montreal, where she teaches creative writing at Concordia University.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I don't think any moment marks a poet's "arrival" as prominently -- to that poet and to others -- as the publication of a first book. First, and most importantly, the publication of White Stone made tangible the work that I'd been doing over the years; I had something to show for myself. Because I began a cross-country reading tour with my friend, the poet Barbara Nickel [see her 12 or 20 questions here], a day after picking up the first box of copies of White Stone at the Ottawa bus station, the arrival was made more public than it would otherwise have been, and that was very gratifying; not only did I have a book out but I was reading from it and selling copies regularly for that first month. That the book went on to win the Governor General's Award and receive other recognition amplified the feelings of arrival that I experienced when I first held the book in my hands. I was a poet before I published that book, but I didn't really feel like I could claim the title until that point. (Not that I claim it regularly. I still think of "poet" as a term that's applied by others, not one that one claims oneself.) And, of course, in professional terms, the book was a prerequisite for teaching, an occupation that I knew from early on that I wanted to pursue.

2 - How long have you lived in Montreal, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived here for nearly eight years now, since the summer of 2000. Before that, I spent four years in Ottawa, and before that, a year in Quebec City. Otherwise, my life took place in Vancouver -- well, Burnaby, to be more precise, and the difference does matter -- and that city and its surroundings will always remain home to me, even though I now feel at home in Montreal (and in Pointe-Claire, where I actually live) as well. The move from B.C. meant that displacement became an integral preoccupation in my writing, and it remains so, though more subtly; these days I'm as apt to write about missing Europe (where I've never spent more than six weeks at a time) as about missing Vancouver, though the displacement from that first home will always be at the core of the other longings. A friend pointed out to me a number of years ago that after I moved away from B.C., I began writing about art rather than nature, about indoors rather than outdoors. That is, though a simplification (as he knew it to be), true, and he was perceptive to point it out because he helped me to delineate one of the central tensions in my work. The landscape here feels more tamed, more benign, than that which I grew up within; not that it's been inhabited for longer, but its earlier inhabitants have left more obvious traces -- i.e. buildings, agricultural transformations -- than is the case around Vancouver. Okay: it's been inhabited by those of European origin for longer. Where I live and how I feel about that place matters enormously to my writing even if I'm writing about something apparently unrelated to landscape or notions of home.

As for race and gender, those are implicit in my writing -- I'm aware of the privileged position from which I write and aware that race, certainly, plays a role in that -- but not concerns I explore overtly at this point. Though I've written about Alice Liddell, and identified with her as a woman (and, certainly, wanted to draw attention to the limitations that she faced as a Victorian girl and woman), I also identified with Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll, the male writer who both transformed and objectified her. So, yes, there is an impact, but it's not a simple or an overt one.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I do work on "projects" but although my projects tend to be subject-driven (Alice, Vermeer, zoos), individual poems begin with a line or an image or a mood rather than with an idea. I may think, "I need to write a poem about the zoo in St. Petersburg" but that poem may begin in the middle of my writing about something else -- a meal at a restaurant or a squirrel in the backyard or an armoire. When working on a book, I try (sometimes, struggle) to keep a balance between keeping the subject in my line of sight and allowing myself to roam freely. Richard Hugo writes, in one of his essays in The Triggering Town, about a poet needing to have the audacity (he may call it arrogance) to believe that the next thing in a poem belongs "because you put it there." So at times I need to remind myself that poems written concurrently with project-driven poems may nevertheless belong in that project even if their subject appears, initially, very different.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Attending readings can be part of my creative process; I know it's been a good reading if I want to rush home to write. Giving readings takes another part of my psyche and feels only loosely connected to the writing self. Though I'm sometimes prompted to revise (or ditch) a poem after reading it aloud (rarely because of someone's comments; more often because, reading it publicly, I recognize its failings), that process doesn't feel creative. They really are two worlds, the public and the private.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The theoretical concerns come after the fact for me. Well, of course they're there when I'm writing, but they're not conscious; when they become so, or even threaten to, the poetry withers. I'm interested in framing -- in the ways that we frame the world through our perspective and, more obviously, through the frames that we place around objects: cages around animals, borders around plants, gold-leafed frames around paintings. What do we include and what do we exclude, and why? Like most poets, I'm preoccupied with the passage of time, with the attempt to preserve (or mourn the impossibility of preservation) through writing. Another kind of framing, of course. And with the simultaneous power and impotence of art. How do I, as a human being, allow myself to simply live the moment, when some part of me is already transforming an experience (by photographing it, taking notes, trying to commit it to memory) into "art"? Related to this is the relationship between word and thing -- my (and the human) desire to lay claim by naming. I don't know what "the current questions" are. I think that most writers are concerned with things that have always concerned writers. There are current questions in a political or moral sense -- certainly what we're doing to the environment preoccupies me -- but those are not the questions that I set out to explore in my writing. They arise, but they're not the motivation to write.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. The manuscript for White Stone went through many "editors"; I use the quotes because although my book had a single editor, Michael Harris, I worked on those poems with George McWhirter at UBC, with Don Coles and Rhea Tregebov at Banff, with Diana Brebner in Ottawa, and with many workshop-mates and friends over a number of years. At that time, I relied heavily on outside critiques. Since then, increasingly, I keep the poems to myself until I feel they're "done" or close to it -- which means, of course, that when the few people to whom I show them tell me otherwise, it can be discouraging, frustrating, just generally painful, to go back in and revise. But ultimately it's exhilirating, as often the advice I receive echoes the assessment I'd been avoiding telling myself all along. I do need that feedback, those other voices, but it's always hard to be reminded of how difficult writing is and remains. As I tell my students, if you think that writing a poem has been too easy, you're probably right. Not always the case, happily, but often.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Each book is a new beginning. The public side of things is easier, in that, when I complete a manuscript, I feel fairly confident that I will find a publisher for it (though never utterly confident, and that's probably a healthy anxiety). But the writing of the poems -- the main struggle -- is as challenging as it ever was. I suppose the fact that I share my writing less early in the process makes elements of that process easier, as I'm free (and forced) to listen to myself rather than attempting to reconcile differing perspectives on a poem. Were I to workshop poems regularly as I once did, I suspect I'd find the process even more painful than it once was. I often marvel at the (apparent) resilience of my students.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

At least a month ago, which is unfortunate as I love pears. (Even though I tire of their associations with poetry.) But I have four Packhams ripening on the sill at the moment.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I'm fond of Goethe's "Do not hurry, do not rest"; I just wish that he weren't so right. And I suppose I still believe in Joseph Campbell's "Follow your bliss," if only because that advice convinced me to apply to UBC's creative writing program as an undergrad.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I'm often drawn to writing in other genres, and certainly I read a lot of work in other genres (probably more prose than poetry, to be honest), but each time I attempt to write fiction or non-fiction I realize that I approach these genres as a poet. Ondaatje's one of the few novelists who makes me feel that I could one day write a novel, as, for him, mood, language, setting, and concept precede character and plot. (At least, this is what I understand from accounts of his process.) I wrote a lot of short fiction as a student and have "been working on" a novel for several years but I haven't found that teaching (and, now, mothering) gives me the time that I'd require to fully dive into an extended prose project. I keep being drawn back into poetry. If at some point I feel the need to write a project that cannot be achieved in poetry, then I'll write it in prose. Until then, I see poetry as a capacious enough genre that I can, within it, do what I want. Though at times it distresses me that simply setting something as prose -- as, say, a collection of essays rather than musings in poetry or prose poetry -- has the potential to reach at least ten times as many readers as the same project written in poetry. I imagine that at some point I'll write a book of "creative non-fiction" but, again, the oblique and associative way I approach writing lends itself more readily to poetry. When I wrote an essay for Maisonneuve magazine a few years ago, I was frustrated at constantly being called back (by the editor, himself a poet!) to the subject at hand. It's the same frustration I experienced as a student, with thesis statements and topic sentences. I would rather draw together a group of apparently disparate ideas/images/memories and let their association speak for itself.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

For the past year or so, my writing time has been during the afternoons, while my daughter naps. Prior to that, I was a morning writer; if I could get a few hours of writing done on non-teaching days before checking e-mail and letting all the rest of my working life take over, I felt it had been a good day. And before that -- when I was a student or living on grants and had few other obligations -- I wrote all the time, though best, I think, at night.

It's been limiting to confine my writing to a brief period -- and incredibly frustrating when the nap doesn't happen -- but I'm also more focussed, better able to get to work immediately. I should add that at this point I'm still on sabbatical, after a year of maternity leave, so I've been fortunate, given that I have a young child who's not in daycare, to have been able to write at all. I'm not expecting this to be the case during the academic year, come September. Still, until then, a typical day begins when Madeleine wakes us up, at around 7. The morning's spent on household tasks, errands, visits to the park. After lunch and dishes, I read to her, put her in her crib, go to my desk, and hope for the best -- both in terms of her actually sleeping and in terms of my productivity. I usually put her down at around 2 and wake her up, if she's not already awake, at 5. In the evening, after she goes to bed, I return to the computer, but almost never for writing itself, more for the business side of things or personal correspondence.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Often I'll pick up a book of poetry, particularly one by Robert Hass, whose work is the most reliable inspiration for me. His work appears effortless, and that confidence, that ease, encourages me, opens my mind. On other occasions, a book about the subject I'm exploring -- zoos, Vermeer, Victorian collectibles -- will do the trick, giving me an idea that excites me into writing, or a quote with which I can begin a poem. These days, I have so little writing time that it's unlikely that I'd simply give up and leave the desk, but back when I had more extended writing periods, I'd often find that if I simply accepted, after an hour or so of effort, that this particular day was not going to be a good writing day, and I did something else -- washing dishes, pulling up dandelions -- the inspiration would come." A watched pot never boils," I guess.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It's better, of course! If I didn't think so, I would be very frustrated. My current work is more open, associative, and disjunctive than my past work -- certainly than my first book -- and less narrative, though many elements in the poems allude to narratives outside the text. The poems are more likely to be centred on mood than imagery, and, technically, more on syntax and less on word choice. The usual suspects are still there (frames of various kinds, nostalgia) but the speakers are less explicit. I've avoided the first person as much as possible. Though the poems are connected, they are not as obviously part of a series as in much of my past work. That is, just as individual poems are associative and expansive, so, too, is my sense of the manuscript as a whole. I've always been interested in the leaving out of things -- my poems shrink, sometimes alarmingly, as I revise -- but here the omissions are more blatant. I suppose that the poems are less accessible to a mass audience although I've had people tell me that they found poems I imagined to be difficult very easy to enter. And of course there is no such thing as a mass audience when it comes to poetry.

I should add that I've interprested "most recent book" to refer to the manuscript I've nearly finished, not to my most recent published book; as that one came out in 2002, it feels, very much of the time, like old news to me.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

The visual arts are my most frequent inspiration in that respect, particularly painting. As I said earlier, my move away from Vancouver in 1995 coincided with a move towards drawing inspiration from art rather than nature. I still appreciate nature as much as I ever did -- which is, a great deal -- but at the moment there's not enough tension in my response to it for poems of any real interest to arise. Music, of the alternative pop and rather adolescent kind, has been important to me since my teen years but I've not yet found a satisfying way of writing about it. The novel-in-fragments draws on this material but, as I said, unsatisfyingly so far. And in poetry, even when I've attempted to use lyrics as epigraphs, they've ended up as cuts. I do use one line from an R.E.M. song in a poem in my new manuscript, and that felt like quite a coup.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

As I mentioned, Robert Hass. Don Coles. In prose, W.G. Sebald is my god. He's the writer I most wish I could be/could have been, as his allusive, elusive fashioning of his works, his play with genre -- he makes the question of genre moot, really -- and his concern with absence and loss excite and teach me. (And he's been very well translated, though I wish I could read his books in the original German.) I would say, these days, that otherwise I don't have any particular stars in my literary universe, thoughI am dependent on the existence of constellations and galaxies. I read a poem by Jorie Graham, or one by Cole Swensen [see her 12 or 20 questions here] (whose work I've been discovering over the past few years, and who is a bit of a dangerous muse for me as our pet subjects are alarmingly similar and our proclivity for research risks making our work cold), or one by Jeramy Dodds or Susan Gillis and I feel nurtured by a universe that includes me and will sustain me yet that also exists beyond me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Visit Japan. Make a pilgrimage on foot. (I'm not sure where. It's the notion of the pilgrimage, the walking, the commitment to the destination, that appeals.) Live abroad for at least a year. Meet Nick Rhodes, of Duran Duran, my most beloved adolescent idol. Go to a chocolate buffet. Clearly, we're getting ridiculous here.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would love to have been a painter. I have no talent at it, so I write about images instead, but I admire painters more than I admire writers. Had I not been a writer, I would likely have become a counselling psychologist or a teacher or librarian; some inward-looking occupation involving books and/or individuals.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is how I think. I disagree with Rilke's advice that one shouldn't be a poet unless one would die if not writing -- I've become increasingly aware during the past fifteen years of how endurable and even sustaining not writing can be -- but I've always written, always wanted to publish. When I was twelve, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be an author. I made a distinction between author and writer, saying that I was already a writer. I wanted my works to become public, to be read and legitimized. But to come back to my first point, most of my insights into myself and the world come through writing. I don't tend to talk things out, I write them out.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

"Great" is a loaded word. I've seen some very good, and/or interesting films recently: I'm Not There (a poet's film, I think; I was willing to see everything as a metaphor until those who knew more about Dylan than I did told me that much of the material stuck quite close to biographical truth), Juno, No Country for Old Men. I wouldn't call any of them great, but what would I call great? Tarkovsky's The Mirror, I guess. Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Woody Allen's Manhattan. Actually, I think that David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a great film, though I know that 99.9% of the population would beg to differ.

As for books, I've been dipping into various ones these days, mostly collections of essays (Don Coles' A Dropped Glove on Regent's Street; the recent Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood) and anthologies, and reading journals of course, but I've found it hard to find much reading time with a young child around. The last complete novel I read may have been Helen Humphreys' The Lost Garden, which I liked very much: beautifully conceived, sparingly written. Though "great"? I honestly don't know. Probably the last great book I read would be whichever of Sebald's books I read most recently, The Rings of Saturn I think.

And, come to think of it, I've been rediscovering a lot of wonderful children's lit. The Winnie the Pooh books truly are great, and I've been amazed at how compelling those characters are for Madeleine (who fell in love with them at the tender age of fourteen months) and how much there is in those stories for adults. Of course, Benjamin Hoff knew that long before I did.

20 - What are you currently working on?

This interview! Seriously, lately I've been feeling that the extra curricular stuff -- interviews, submissions, editorial work, juries, administrative tasks -- has taken over from writing. This was always the case, but the less time I have to write, the greater a percentage of my "writing time" is spent not writing. Or, writing, but not writing creatively. These other things are essential, but I do long for a week, even a day, in which there is nothing else to do. When I am writing, I'm fiddling with the new manuscript and writing new poems here and there, though not yet on any particular subject. I do have another project developing, barely on the page yet, and it's too early to know if it will sustain my interest or prove workable, so I won't say more here. This interview captures me at an in-between stage: between sabbatical and return to teaching, full-time and part-time mothering, one manuscript and another. No wonder that the little things are taking over. But I know from experience that this time is productive, too. At one point in my life, I wrote and revised poetry at least five hours a day, most days. I produced some poems that I still feel are among my best, but I was not especially happy generally at that time. I'm still trying to find the right balance -- how much do I need to write to keep sane; how little should I write to avoid perfectionism and utter self-absorption. A lifelong balancing act, I realize.

12 or 20 questions archive

Monday, May 26, 2008

ANTIPHONIES: Essays on Women's Experimental Poetries in Canada, edited by Nate Dorward

A couple of years in the making, from Nate Dorward, editor/publisher of The Gig (an experimental journal out of one of Toronto’s many suburbs) comes ANTIOPHONIES: Essays on Women’s Experimental Poetries in Canada (2008), publishing essays and interviews with and by writers such as Karen Mac Cormack, Catriona Strang, Lise Downe, Nancy Shaw, a. rawlings, Lissa Wolsak, Christine Stewart [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Marie Annharte Baker, Deanna Ferguson, Lisa Roberton, Erin Mouré, Caroline Bergvall and Susan Clark. For such an important book, it seems odd that Dorward would step so far back as editor, publishing this collection without his name on the cover or an introduction, possibly letting the work speak for itself. Still, some kind of introduction would have been good to read, just to get a sense of structure and framing. Stepping out of his own way, I suppose. The closest he comes is the back cover text, that reads:
Antiphonies is a primer on some of the most exciting work in contemporary Canadian poetry. These essays discuss a wide range of work, from book already acclaimed as modern classics – such as Erin Mouré’s O Cidadán, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, and Karen Mac Cormack’s Implexures – to the equally remarkable work of Susan Clark, Catriona Strang, Lissa Wolsak, Christine Stewart, Deanna Ferguson, Lise Downe, Nancy Shaw, a. rawlings, Marie Annharte Baker and others. These essays are complimented by brief selections of poems and poetics statements.
The problem with much of this work is in just how much most critics, certainly mainstream Canadian critics but also many interested in the so-called “fringe,” have simply passed over or outright ignored so much of this kind of writing and writer, with the possible exceptions of Mouré (partly, perhaps, for her earlier Governor General’s Award win, coming into more “difficult” writing after already establishing herself as a “work poet” earlier in her career) and Robertson (her own Governor General’s Award nomination certainly didn’t hurt, but she still gets more attention outside of Canada than she does in). In the opening to “’What Lies Beneath my Copy of Eternity?’: A Religious Reading of Lissa Wolsak’s Poetry” by Peter O’Leary, he responds to some of these silences, writing:
North American poetry of the past fifteen years, especially experimental work, has been characterized by a preoccupation with clarities or obscurities of legibility. Such work seems to be a response to the question, “Can this be read?” In this respect, poetry has begun to mimic a kind of academic discourse in which meaning is questioned, usually suspiciously, as a way of generation theories about knowledge (or art, or political philosophy, for instance). Ben Friedlander has recently suggested a spectrum on which poetry might be understood to operate, with “intelligibility” standing on one end of a continuum, and the “registration and production of sense impressions” on the other (66). I find this span useful for thinking about poetry and meaning: whether merely “intelligible” or the abstract, allusive, or surreal product of sense impressions (among which is the associative play of language itself), poetry means something, if only that it seeks to communicate something intelligible, or to record sense impressions. Readers ask, “What is this I am reading? What is this supposed to mean? How best to read this poem?” Because of our familiarity with writing built on asyntaxis, parataxis and anacoluthia, for instance, most readers, when confronted with work that is difficult to understand – work where legibility or intelligibility is called into question – feel comfortable enough registering the sense impressions of such work as its difficulties slide over them, normalizing them as a stylistic feature rather than as a challenge to sense-making. This sliding-over disengages the reader from recognizing either intelligibility or legibility in a poem. The work becomes understood, somewhat simplistically but acceptably, as “difficult.” In a further simplification, such difficult work becomes “language poetry” or “avant-garde,” both labels which have been used in the past pejoratives to mark the scorn of so-called mainstream critics. Nowadays, stripped of most of their specificity, these labels typically signify a familiar mode available to a creative writer, neither better nor worse than, say, “love poetry” or “confessional poetry.”
British poet Alan Halsey, who wrote the collaborative book Fit to Print with Karen Mac Cormack, even wrote a series of “Responses To & For Karen Mac Cormack,” writing that “These pieces were composed in response to four book by Karen Mac Cormack; the responses are direct in that they were written during the first readings of the books at the time of publication. […] They are views and not reviews; records of the act of reading, the pleasures of new acquaintance and the unfolding of unexpected relations and unforeseen alignments in a reader’s mind.”

At Sixes and Sevens

Re: Vanity Release (2003)

I knew spring would be late
when December went missing
and now I can’t sit still
for favour minutes. Did you
see that rhyme fly right past
my head? Rapidly as figures
fingers may write so time
me sometime – draw a map of
any city with your
eyes tight shut or else sleep by
proxy. Some valuable
things are available
but not all available
things are etc.
A blind man taps in past
tense spat. Disc loss may follow
disclosure but not in
any Peking order
discolours. Did you see
that rhyme, a real cutter, hit
the spread-sheet? It knocked the
bottle over the beetle
was in now the beetle’s out. (Alan Halsey)

As Mac Cormack writes herself, in her interview conducted by Stephen Cain:
KMC: My early work was an exploration of altering the way we perceive the day-to-day, while allowing “language” to be shown as an entity itself (rather than a transparent vastness through which to “see” our world). This led to an investigation of “sentence effects,” particularly the integration of poetic like with prose period. (This was not to enact a conciliatory synthesis of the two genres, but to delineate their radical sympathies and contradictions, i.e., not to write a prose poem, but to reclaim an exploratory usefulness from the sentence, in order to extend the poetic form to more challenging/rewarding modes of readership.)
Obviously, the question (and politic) of form and structure is one that comes up repeatedly in the collection, as Peter Larkin talks about in his essay “Lisa Robertson: How Pastoral is More and More Possible,” writing:
In her manifesto “How Pastoral” Robertson confronts the question of how to negotiate with a complicitous but would-be disingenuous genre head-on: “I wanted a form as obsolete yet necessary as the weather. I begin with the premise that pastoral, as a literary genre, is obsolete – originally obsolete” (22). That the weather can be timed out by the urban is both a pathos, an irony and a lived cultural actuality, but new necessities immediately flood in to fill that space of cultural self-arbitration which is so persistently less than autonomous (i.e., culture, which gives frame and history to human judgment, cannot “re-give” what is provided to it, which is what also posits horizons which cannot be contained. Robertson can claim with justification that the pastoral genre is obsolete ab origo, though that gives little indication of what to do with its traces and residues, or with what might be read as “anoriginal” (i.e., primordially plural) or as rediscoverable and still-to-be-encountered horizons of the “provincial.”
With the length and the breath of writing and writers covered in this collection, I would easily call this a collection and an attention long overdue, and presents essays on many writers that haven’t really been dealt with critically. Certainly there is far more ground that needs to be covered (this is the kind of thing that Open Letter used to do, and do rather well), but through this and journals such as Parser and recent issues of West Coast Line, this new book is certainly a step in the right direction.

The Influence of Complete Darkness

In the dusk of a November evening
somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century
nothing is concealed or conveyed.
There is, simply
a concentration of sunflowers.

As the world turns, they turn
from pathos to persuasion
guided by the radiant light.

Two fresh puddles insert themselves
and are read as a dark ellipse.
Nothing hinders them from soaking through.

Perhaps a fish detects them before disappearing
its far-off murmur a mutter now
sounding something like the inscription
on a Japanese fan by Totki Baigai:

Outside the city walls there’s an odd fish.
I don’t know its name
.” (Lise Downe)

related links: my entry on Deanna Ferguson; my entry on Parser; my entry that mentions Lise Downe;

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections, edited by Arielle Greenberg & Rachel Zucker

Lately I’ve been reading the extremely compelling collection Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections (Iowa City IA; University of Iowa Press, 2008), edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker [see her 12 or 20 questions here]. Made up of non-fiction pieces by various American women poets on older American women poets, what really impresses, apart from the pieces themselves, is how both mentor and mentee, after each essay, have space for a short selection of poems each, relating to the essay/relationship. Responding to a particular dynamic of women writers in the United States, the editors write in their introduction:

In order to document and celebrate the clamor and community of contemporary women’s poetry and, in particular, the relationships between these two generations, we invited American women poets born in the 1960s and 1970s, in the middle of the second wave of feminism, to write essay s about their living mentors or role models. We asked each to identify the poet she most wanted to write about and were pleased to find almost no overlap, which further proved the wealth of existing mentors. Some of the women our contributors wrote about here were chosen for their aesthetic contributions to poetry, having caused readers to radically change their own way of writing or thinking. Some were chosen for their personal generosity and kindness or because they were brilliant scholars or great lecturers. There are stories of admiration, jealousy, friendship, loneliness, ambition, vanity, and independence. There are funny essays about eccentric personalities and lighthearted encounters, serious pieces about religious doubt and the work of art-making, and exuberant essays about charismatic teachers and performers. The essays describe how older poets make younger poets feel acknowledged, powerful, eager to keep working.

These essays shed light on how our contributors became poets, where they find inspiration, and how they came to make important poetic and life choices: the essays also describe a new kind of influence, one less hierarchical and less patriarchal than the traditional model.

While this is extremely interesting, and makes for a magnificent book of pieces, why do the divide have to be one simply of gender? There are so many important ways in which writers are influenced by other writers (and not necessarily the writing; I could talk, myself, of Michael Dennis [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Henry Beissel and Diana Brebner).

(i’veneverbeenthisfuckedup). in a well sought dream remember pop
song proclamations, Nicole’s big shoes and how she tipped them,
flirty, Clementine, third grade flat rug, your leotard itch—committing
with mastodon eyes the masturbations of Marilyn Munroe—or, mass-
produce doodles of perfect ballerinas

the decoration of the senses
the pornographic mailbox
widow to the investigation

go home & eat bowls of cereal. the kitchen circa 1903 w/ new cabinets

Elizabeth Treadwell, “distomap for the coded mountains, pale frontier, or the devotions”

Still, one of the pieces that really stuck with me was Kirsten Kaschock’s “on Being Nonmentored,” providing an interesting counterpoint to the premise of the collection. How does one exist without a specific mentor? As she writes in her piece,
Books sit still as you dismember them. Books get naked with little embarrassment. Once you find out the machine inside them, it becomes evident that the stuff you hated is inextricable from the stuff you loved, and you begin to understand them. Aside from family, few real people hang out long enough to go through this process. This makes my finding a mentor unlikely—since, as far as I can tell, a mentor is someone initially drawn to you because of your positioning of self as disciple. I like to position myself as coroner. I cut up work, and it’s best to do so coldly, without becoming entrenched in consideration of the victim’s family.
This is a beautiful and compelling collection, and perhaps someone might even do a follow-up, furthering the conversation.

I Do Not sleep for Sleep Is Like the Wing and Trees Amazed

I do not sleep for sleep is like the wind and trees amazed
by sleep’s persuasive gaze

and self’s insistence
signals in a speechless insect’s cochlea:

I do not sleep, I do not sleep, but is itself this seed
consumed unseen.

In glistening jelly themes and hollower than Appalachian minds
among pines,

my praise, applause, my anathemes, my subtle worms combine

when moon a world-dividing language sings,
above the hook-and-ladder’s dipthonged, crystal, ruby fountain sounds.

Such is my state, my stateless mind
a widowed turtle or green mother in some shady grove,

lost in her native tongue.
Miranda Field

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Greenboathouse Books: 1999-2008

Ten Years of Chapbooks

This summer marks 10 years of chapbooks from Greenboathouse Books, and we're pleased to announce the release of our latest and LAST title: Jay Millar's Woods Pages, a meditative exploration of language and the natural world.

Jay's book marks our 23rd title, and with production now complete, we're excited to let it loose into the world as the final Greenboathouse Books project. Over the next month or two, all things Greenboathouse Books will be sorted and cleaned up, loose ends tied, and the boathouse boarded up. It's been exciting, and challenging, and rewarding, and the feedback from writers and readers alike has always made Greenboathouse Books a pleasure to produce, but it's time for new and different challenges.

If this is a surprise, or if you're curious to hear more (oh yes, there will be more), please visit the website, which will be live for another couple of months. There you'll find not only info on future plans (exciting, big plans), but you'll also be able to order your copy of Jay's book, which we're expecting to sell out quickly (advance orders have already nabbed 30% of the print run).

You might be interested in our special offer of our last two titles together at a 10% discount, or the one-shot only Super-Bundle: a collection of rare copies plucked from the Greenboathouse archive which have been unavailable, in some cases, for years. There's only one of these bundles, so if you're at all interested, grab it quickly.

It's a beautiful day here in the Okanagan, and once this press release is sent off, I'm heading out to the boathouse to spend the afternoon reading, building a new book shelf, and tidying up the beach as the lake level begins to rise. That's where all this book business started, and that's where I'm heading today.

Thank you so much to everyone who's supported our efforts over the years, and we'll look forward to crossing paths again down the road...

Jason Dewinetz
Publisher, Editor, Designer, etc.
Greenboathouse Books

3303 - 25th Street
Vernon, BC
V1T 4R4

Friday, May 23, 2008

Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine invites entries to its International Poem of the Year Contest.

1st Prize: $1500
2nd Prize: $1000
3rd Prize: $750
Contest Entry: Entry fee is $23, in Canadian funds, which entitles you to a one-year subscription of Arc mailed to a Canadian address, beginning with the Winter 2007 issue. (If you already have a subscription, you can give your new one-year subscription to a friend. Please include their mailing address.) Alternately, you can choose to have one issue sent to a U.S. or overseas address.
You can pay your contest entry fee through the online poetry stand where we accept Visa, Mastercard, paypal, and e-cheques. Alternately, you can send a cheque or money order with your mailed contest submission.
Contest Rules:
All contest submissions must be submitted by post mail.
All cheques or money orders should be in Canadian funds and made out to the Arc Poetry Society.
Arc welcomes Poem of the Year entries from Canada, the United States, and around the world, but if you live outside Canada we still need to receive your entry fee in Canadian funds. It is easiest if you use the Poetry Stand to submit your contest entry payment. Otherwise, you should be able to obtain a money order in Canadian funds from your post office, if you are not able to write a cheque in Canadian funds.
Entrants may submit up to two unpublished poems with your $23 fee. To include extra poems, add $5 per poem.
No e-mail submissions accepted.
Length of each poem must not exceed 100 lines.
Entrant's name, address, e-mail and phone number must not appear on the poems, but instead on a separate sheet that also lists the titles of the poems entered. Judging is blind.
No entrants (including winners, honourable mentions, or authors of Editor's Choice poems) may substitute, before, during, or after judging, a revision of any poem already submitted to the contest.
No poems will be returned.

Judge: to be announced
Next Deadline: Entries must be postmarked no later than June 30, 2008. Only winners will be notified by the end of September 2008.
Privacy Notice: Unless you indicate otherwise, Arc may share addresses of entrants to the 2008 Poem of the Year Contest with similar literary magazines or related organizations for promotional purposes. If you would like your address information kept private, write "Please don't share my address" near your address information on the sheet you include with your submission. Your request will be honoured.
Publication: Winning poems will be published in Arc's Winter 2008 issue (published by November 30, 2008).
Send entries to:
Poem of the Year Contest

Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine
P.O. Box 81060
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada, K1P 1B1

Thursday, May 22, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Ted Bishop

Ted Bishop’s literary nonfiction has appeared in Cycle Canada, Enroute, Prairie Fire, Rider, Word Carving: The Craft of Literary Journalism, and What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men. His Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (Penguin 2005 /Norton 2006), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Writers’ Trust Award, won the City of Edmonton Book Prize and the MAX Award (Motorcycle Awards of Excellence), and has been translated into Korean; it was also named a Best Book by the Globe and Mail, CBC’s Talking Books, and Playboy magazine, where he appeared (in textual contiguity) with Pamela Anderson. He is at work on a new book for Penguin, “The Social Life of Ink.”

(Edward Bishop, Professor, Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, has published articles in Joyce Studies Annual, Woolf Studies Annual, Modern Fiction Studies, and other periodicals, and has produced five books in the field of modernism: the Shakespeare Head critical edition of Jacob’s Room (2004), Virginia Woolf’s JACOB’S ROOM: The Holograph Draft (Pace, 1998), The Bloomsbury Group (Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1992), Virginia Woolf (Macmillan, 1991), and A Virginia Woolf Chronology (Macmillan, 1989).

1 - How did your first book change your life?
I’ve had two first books: my first academic book was a hired project, a chronology of Virginia Woolf’s working life; my first book for a general audience was Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books.

The former got me a job, the latter got me a GG nomination, a mention in Playboy magazine, and the use of a Ducati to ride to Texas – but the real thrill with Riding with Rilke was finding a readership among bikers and book people, when I’d wondered if it would be scorned by both camps.

2 - How long have you lived in Edmonton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I was born in Edmonton and lived here most of my life except for six years in Kingston, Ontario, which made me realize I had taken space for granted. It’s something I’d still like to figure out in writing, not how to describe a landscape but how to capture the feel of space.

I don’t think race or gender have an impact on my work, except for Hsing, my Chinese girlfriend.
3 - Where does a piece of non-fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I am actually working on a “book” from the beginning but that’s too daunting to admit so I fool myself by doing shorter pieces and telling myself I’m content with that.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
I think of the contact with real live readers as completing the process, but until that point, no.
Having written that I realize I lied, reading short pieces along the way to a bigger project gives me a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and often gives me the confidence to go on.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
No theoretical concerns and no big questions. I like Bruce Chatwin’s books because it seems to me he starts not with a theory or a question but a notion, and then follows it where it takes him, both into the library and across the landscape. I want there to be at least one point where my reader laughs out loud, at least one point where his or her pulse quickens – in short to get a response that is positive but visceral and involuntary.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I’ve had good, bad, and indifferent editors. The good ones are golden, and you have to find one because as you head into publication there will be the Pre-Partum Panic where you want to thrash around and change all sorts of things, and you have to deny your own instincts and trust, really trust, your editor.

I once had a copy editor that I didn’t get along with at all, but we divorced by mutual consent early in the project.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Easier, in a sense. You never manage to circumvent the Slough of Despond, the point at which the project seems complete crap, yourself a fraud and a moron, and the only honorable thing to do is drown yourself. But now at least I know it’s coming.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
In a salad, in Shangri-La Hut, in Jasper on a back-country ski tour in March.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“You think you’ll die, but you won’t” – this can apply to everything from bad reviews to bad relationships to bungee jumping (though in fact I thought I would, so didn’t jump).

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (creative non-fiction to more academic works)? What do you see as the appeal?
At first it was hugely difficult to write creative non-fiction – not the narrative scenes but the sections in which I was weaving in research material or trying to make a point: I kept wanting to explain, and I realized I had to trust the reader more. Writing without footnotes was like working without a safety net.

Then once I got used to it, it seemed impossible to adopt the more formal academic voice. Now I think I can move more easily between the voices and the work cross-pollinates. We’ll see how it works in my ink project.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
There’s a wonderful passage in Amy Tan’s Bonesetter’s Daughter where the grandmother says,
“Good ink cannot be the quick kind, ready to pour out of a bottle.… You simply write what is swimming on top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart.”

I only write in the morning, and I always begin writing with a fountain pen, because if I start on the computer I only get pond scum and mosquito eggs. After about 20 minutes my brain is up to speed and I can shift to the computer. I am a slow writer – 500 words is a decent day, 1,000 words a fabulous day. By noon I’m done; my brain is useless between 1 and 4 in the afternoon.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Seamus Heaney, for the way he gives words heft, solidity. If I’m stalled it’s usually because I’m drifting into the abstract.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Riding with Rilke looks like a complete departure from my academic work, but such things as the wild ride up through Harlem in an Alfa Romeo grew out of a conference paper for a Virginia Woolf conference, so there was some continuity. It allowed me to make central the things that were pushed to the margins or written out of my other work, both in the motorcycle articles and the academic articles, each of which had their own conventions and audience expectations.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’ve decided that the unsung genre is trade manuals. Sometimes you come across passages as spare and lucid as William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, because the writing has to put the thing there solidly before the reader. When Cennino Cennini writes about how to mix pigments or how to apply gold leaf to a painting the writing leaps across six centuries to make you feel the motions and the textures.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Orhan Pamuk, Italo Calvino.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike the Annapurna Circuit, go back to Herat in Afghanistan, learn to play a Charlie Christian guitar solo.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I already picked the alternative; I’m still hoping to be a writer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I can’t draw and I’m a terrible dancer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve read Pamuk’s My Name is Red 4 or 5 times now, and I always get impatient in the middle and at the end am always glad I hung on. Even in translation it’s a book that can envelope you.
I don’t know if it’s ‘great’ but the film that made a strong impression on me recently is the 10-minute “Submission” (available on youtube) that got director Theo Van Gogh murdered.

20 - What are you currently working on?
The Social Life of Ink,” from Chinese ink sticks to the ballpoint to tattoos, with stops along the way at printers’ ink, the rise of the indigo trade, ink and Islam, and an investigation of whether the story that farmers in West Bengal force-fed mangoes to their oxen in order to get the bright urine necessary for the yellow pigment favoured by British painters is in fact true.

12 or 20 questions archive

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pop Montreal and Matrix Magazine have teamed up to establish an innovative and exciting new literary competition.

We are looking for the most unique and original voices in literary voices in Canada. So if you're an emerging poet or short story writer or fancy yourself so, isn't it time you take your work out for a night on the town, maybe spend a bit of money on it? You could wind up as Canada's newest literary darling, have your work published in Matrix, and come to Pop '08 for a night in your honour.

Just send your work in for consideration this spring. Both poetry and prose winners will receive a round-trip ticket to Pop Montreal from October 1-5, 2008, a VIP pass to the Pop Montreal Festival, free accommodation at a bed and breakfast, fall publication in Matrix Magazine with full honorarium, and presentation at a special Matrix Litpop event during the festival.

The deadline for all submissions is July 1st, 2008. Winners will be notified in August. Poets are asked to send no more than 5 poems; fiction writers should send stories of no more than 5000 words. Each entry is 25$ and should include a SASE. Multiple entries are welcome. Full contest rules and regulations can be found here <

Poetry entries will be judged by Christian Bok and fiction entries by Zoe Whittall.

Christian Bok is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a 'pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award for Best Poetic Debut, and 'Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern University Press, 2001). His book Eunoia won the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and is the best-selling Canadian poetry book of all time. Bok has created artificial languages for Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley's Amazon. His conceptual artwork has appeared at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibit Poetry Plastique. He currently teaches at the University of Calgary.

Zoe Whittall: originally from Montreal, where she attended Concordia, now lives in Toronto. She is the author of Bottle Rocket Hearts, a novel. Her previous books include The Emily Valentine Poems and The Ten Best Minutes of Your Life, both volumes of poetry. She edited the anthology Geeks, Misfits & Outlaws. She has written for *The Globe and Mail, the National Post, and NOW Magazine. Visit Zoe's blog at

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Méira Cook

Biography: Méira Cook has had numerous books published including: Slovenly Love published by Brick Books in 2003, Toward a Catalogue of Falling published by Brick Books in 1996 and A Fine Grammar of Bones published by Turnstone Press in 1993. She has also published a book of critical essays, Writing Lovers: Reading Canadian Love Poetry by Women published by McGill-Queen's University Press in 2005, and edited an anthology of Don McKay's poetry, Field Marks, in 2006. In 2007 she won the CBC enRoute Literary Award for poetry.

1) Writing poetry changed my life — the process rather than the product. Although it was a delight and a pleasure to see my poems collected between the covers of a book the joy I felt when I wrote them eclipsed anything that came after. True story!

2) I came to Winnipeg in 1993 and except for four years in Vancouver have lived here since. Because I am an immigrant to this city I have always felt un-placed, aslant, wayward. This is a very lucky posture for a writer to assume.

And Winnipeg, which is — I think — an exaggerated, histrionic yet oddly ironic place refuses the easy cliché. Guy Madden has famously called our city the domain of sleep walkers, back alleys, and the repressed subconscious. Nice.

5) My theoretical concerns are fairly concrete and are usually tied to a particular project. In my last book, Slovenly Love, I explored the narrative line within longer poems — I was interested in the clash between lyricism and drama.

At the moment I’m interested in experimenting with rhythm, half-rhyme, tonality. I’m working on a series of “walking poems” and want to find a writing gait that mimes that of the flâneur as she ambles and strides through the city.

6) Wonderful people, editors. Essential, I’d say. I love their new pencil smell.

8) Don’t like pears much, though. Taste too pear-y, look too female nudish.

But I love Roy Kiyooka’s beautiful Pear Tree Pomes.

9) Fred Wah once told me (always) to end a poem (many) lines earlier than I was inclined to.

He also told me to kill the thing I love most.

I believe he was referring to poetry. Hope so.

10) The appeal has been the difficulty of stretching myself in ways that are not entirely comfortable. Attempting to write laconic fiction, creative non-fiction, styptic poetry. Resisting my fiercest temptation — the lyric mode.

11) Turn up, sit down (at a window). Begin.

15) My latest “for instance” is Gerard Manley Hopkins who I am rereading as I do periodically to remember the first time I really bit into a poem and tasted the gush of language. Aspens dear and brindled cows and skies of couple colour and so on.

When I read Hopkins aloud I feel as if my soft palate has turned into a trampoline.

16) I would like to visit the sites of some of the really great poems of our time. Machu Picchu as a salute to Pablo Neruda, Key West for Wallace Stevens. And Paradise, of course, for that guy who kept losing and regaining it.

17) I would like to do something wholesome and orderly. Writing descriptions of movies for the back of Blockbuster DVDs springs to mind. I would be very precise about the sorts of obscenities and cigarette-related scenes that should be avoided. I would be making the world a safer, more G-rated place and watching lots of movies in the bargain. I would be indulging my passions for order and bossiness.

18) No other talents, no endurance, no appetite for hard work, I’m afraid.

19) Have just finished Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss which is a wonderful mixture of devastating narrative, plunging event, and beautiful language which buoys the reader above the — well — loss.

I recently watched The Princess Bride again and loved it as much as I did when I saw it the first time and held my breath at the spectacle of the fire swamp, rodents of unusual size, and true love’s triumph.

12 or 20 questions archive

Monday, May 19, 2008

ongoing notes: late May, 2008

By the time I do another one of these, I’ll be back in that Ottawa, arriving May 31st; will we see you at the ottawa small press book fair on June 21st? I’m doing a reading as part of a big chapbook launch in Edmonton before I leave, hosted by Trisia Eddy & her Red Nettle Press (come see me off! it will be your last Edmonton opportunity to see me…) on Thursday, May 29th, just a week before I do my first post-Edmonton Ottawa reading at Dusty Owl. Try to come to one, or even both!

Toronto ON: I saw Toronto writer, editor, publisher and creative writing teacher Stuart Ross while he was in Edmonton recently, touring around for his new poetry collection Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books, 2008) as well as a collaborative cd of his poems turned into songs, both of which he’ll be selling copies of when he arrives in Ottawa for the small press book fair. One of the most active pamphleteers in the country for poetry, here’s his small poem “FRENCH FRIES,” from the most recent handout:
You are lying in the back seat
of the blue 1964 Valiant station wagon.
You are so small you fit between the doors
stretched to your full length.
Your mother is in the front seat.
She thinks you are sleeping.
But your eyes are open and
you are are peering up, out
the side window, watching
the stars whip by. In cottage country,
there are so many stars.
You feel the car slow down
and come to a stop, and your father
whispers something to your mother.
You hear the door open and close.
In the front seat, your mother coughs.
Soon the car door opens again.
You smell French fries. It is time
to pretend to wake up.
Ottawa ON: Vancouver writer, publisher and filmmaker Warren D. Fulton has been staying the month of May in my little apartment, and producing some of the finest looking chapbooks of Pooka Press’ near 15 year existence.

What? I got belligerent, petulant—
A low yield month makes a poet mouthy.

Think a peeled pretendasourus, I mean
it was raw. What I wallowed in, I got
drunk on. On a halo made of weight,
see the nick where the Higgs boson goes?

I find these moments insetting. I found
a moment in settling. I couldn’t suspend it.

An orbit altering self-serious boor
unable to amass enough sauce for an
addendum. But I’ll nose the desired tuneup
from the subjective nihilistic mechanics (Marcus McCann)

some assembly required (2008) was produced in an edition of fifty copies for a reading he did at the Dusty Owl Reading Series on April 6, 2008, and includes work by and photographs of Steven Zytveld, Warren Fulton, Jennifer Mulligan, jwcurry, Max Middle, Sean Moreland, Marcus McCann, John W. MacDonald, Alnoor All Dina, Pearl Pirie, Amanda Earl and a couple of others. It’s good to see new work out of Jennifer Mulligan again, knowing that she really hasn’t written or published many poems over the past year, but for inclusion in such things as The Peter F. Yacht Club.

rembrandt paints greta garbo

chemically, we’re already quite sympathetic.” – Greta Garbo

on canvas
one hundred selves
a writer
one thousand word portraits

silver screens
another hustle
in two dimensions

the world as x and y
geobeautiful co-ordinates
linear representation

definitive edges
could only be

stereo vision
cancer invaded mind (Jennifer Mulligan)

As well, after her chapbook The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman (2008) was published, Amanda Earl realized she had written the alphabetical work without (somehow) the letter “h” (ironically, an image of an “h” is on the cover), so she’s been writing a series of “h” poems to make up for such, one of which even appears in this little collection.

I already know he’s planning to make a few more of these little publications while staying in my apartment, where he’ll be until the first week of June. To find out more about Pooka Press or this little publication, email Warren Fulton at

New England: From New England poet Fanny Howe, author of over twenty books of poetry and prose, comes the poetry collection The Lyrics (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2007). For a while now, the idea of “lyric” or “lyrics” almost comes out as a tainted word, an antiquated idea in the realm of poetry (see Jon Paul Fiorentino’s forays into the “post-lyric,” for example).

Where, if I go far enough, will I find a sacred place? (“Forty Days”)

Part of this, certainly, comes from sheer overuse, as well as the fact that most poets who work within the realm have so little comprehension of it, and tend to simply re-cover the same old ground (this is true in so many poetic forms). Far too few actually know where the form has already been, how far you can go with it, and actually manage to push it beyond that boundary. For Fanny Howe, she is certainly one of those few who know how to work it, continually twisting and turning her lyric fragment into magnificent new stretches.


What is shorter than a step?
An indrawn breath.
Not remembered when done
Not when not done either.

It’s the animal soul.
The Great Spirit who lolls
As time and broods.

During cemetery strolls
Breath comes and goes
Unnoticed. Melancholy is
Disavowed, no time for tone.

Plum buds have bloomed
On lilac Sunday in early May.
City property is sanctified
By pedestrian traffic.

What is heavier than lead?
Cries that can’t be heard.
Brother Granite. (“Forty Days”)

In a poetry fused with song, Howe works in her usual sequencial fragments, extending her line throughout the entirety of her writing, writing as far ahead as she does behind, as though creating, as bpNichol called it, the “poem as long as a life.” The Lyrics is made out of six sequences, including the final, six-part “Sheet Music,” which is absolutely lovely.

Kelowna BC: I recently got a copy of the first issue of LAKE: a journal of arts and environment, edited by Nancy Holmes and Sharon Thesen [see her 12 or 20 questions here], and a list of “advisory board” that includes a number of familiar names, including John Lent, Laurie Ricou and Don McKay, as well as Jen Budney, who used to work at Ottawa’s own Gallery 101 many moons ago (back when I ran a reading series there, since moved to OAG). A charmingly produced trade magazine, it includes poetry, interviews and articles, including a piece on Ken Belford (a self-professed “eco-poet”) by Barry McKinnon, essays by Donna Kane and McKay (another “eco-poet,” one could easily argue), and a piece “Writing Lake Superior” by Jenny Penberthy, written as an essay on a poem by Lorine Niedecker, “Lake Superior,” which is also included, and opens:

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock
Produced through the Creative and Critical Studies Department at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, this is something that should be supported, so it can be allowed to continue.

Toronto ON: I recently got a copy of the new issue of EXISTERE: journal of arts and literature, produced through Vanier College, York University. Student journals always have the potential to be extremely interesting, but through the high turnover of student editors, don’t usually have any sort of uniformity that lasts more than a year or two (a few years ago, there was a spectacular run that included an interview with Toronto poet Stephen Cain), and this journal is a pretty good example of that, leaping and jumping into other territories. This issue, Vol. 27 No. 1, has some pretty interesting things in it, including an interview with Michael Redhill, fiction by Priscila Uppal and other fiction, artwork and poetry by a whole slew of folk, including David Groulx, Delia Byrnes, Christine Mika, John Unrau, Jim Johnstone, Binnie Brennan and Adrienne Gruber.



on the long stairs
jubilant diners fall
night shower

Repulse Bay

splashing ocean
the snores
of deities

Temple Street

mahjong afar –
the hawkers’ chorus
turns dissonant (Arthur Leung)

One of the pieces that really struck was Michael Spring’s non-fiction piece “From Belfast to Glory,” writing his own personal history listening to the songs of Warren Zevon and Zevon’s last song, “My Ride’s Here,” co-written with Irish poet Paul Muldoon.

One thing disturbing in the Redhill interview was the reference to him meeting “Barry Nichols” while he was a student at York University. Excuse me? It might entirely be another human being in the world being referenced, but I think I can safely presume that Redhill was talking about “Barrie Nichol,” otherwise known as bpNichol, who taught at York University for years in the creative writing department until he died in 1988. Shouldn’t someone who is a student at York University at least have been aware of Nichol’s name at all? Yipes.