Wednesday, December 31, 2008

my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, eds. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian


So the heart breaks
Into small shadows
Almost so random
They are meaningless
Like a diamond
Has at the center of it a
Or a rock
Being afraid
Love asks its bare question—
I can no more remember
What brought me here
Than bone answers bone in the arm
Or shadow sees shadow—
Deathward we ride in the boat
Like someone canoeing

In a small lake
Where at either end
There are nothing but pine-branches—
Deathward we ride in the boat
Broken-hearted or broken-bodied
The choice is real. The diamond.
I Ask it. (Billy the Kid)

One of the Berkeley Renaissance of the 1940s and further, along with poets Robin Blaser and the late Robert Duncan was Jack Spicer (1925-1965), a poet whose reputation can only be strengthened through the publication of my vocabulary did this to me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, eds. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008). In the preface to The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2006), Robert Creeley talked about Blaser’s relationship with Spicer, and quoted Spicer’s last words, spoken to Blaser on his alcohol-induced deathbed, that give Spicer’s current volume its title:

Robin Blaser became a source for poetry's authority beyond any simplifying place or time. It is not at all that his work is transcendent or beyond the obvious limits of common life. Quite the contrary. In this still shifting edge of that West which is his first place of origin, he enters upon his own power without distraction or compromise, and comes to the substantiating community of his own need and recognition. In this respect only Robert Duncan finds a place of similar order, while their peers, such as Spicer and Olson, too often are battered by increasing isolation and overt rejection. So the last words said by Jack Spicer to his old friend echo with poignant emphasis: "My vocabulary did this to me. Your love with let you go on."
What makes this collection essential is that it works to collect as much of Jack Spicer’s published work as possible in one volume (a “collected,” not a “complete”), and the editors even suggest that there is certainly more than enough unpublished work to fill an entire other volume, separate from this. Will this be something coming down the road over the next couple of years through Wesleyan as well?

A Postscript for Charles Olson

If nothing happens it is possible
To make things happen.
Human history shows this
And an ape
Is likely (presently) to be an angel.
If you dream anything
You are marked
With a blue tattoo on your arm.
Rx: Methadrine
To be taken at 52 miles an hour. (Admonisions)
Over the years, Spicer has managed to become essential reading for generations of writers from his immediate contemporaries to subsequent generations, and for the longest time, the definitive edition of Spicer’s work remained The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited with an afterword by Blaser (Los Angeles CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1975). Other posthumous works followed, including from his days in Vancouver in the early 1960s, giving informal lectures in professor Warren Tallman’s house to many of the writers who ended up founding the influential poetry newsletter, Tish, collecting his pieces as The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, edited with an afterword by Peter Gizzi (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), the same year that a biography appeared, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the Berkeley Renaissance, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).

A Red Wheelbarrow

Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance.
For their significance. For being human
The signs escape you. You, who aren’t very bright
Are a signal for them. Not,
I mean, the dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
Their significance. (A Red Wheelbarrow)
Spicer holds an interesting place in contemporary literature, despite not generally known for too much of his writing at the time, and was someone who managed to exist outside of the boundaries of what was happening with the New York School, the informal Black Mountain group, or any of the west coast poetics. Still part of the artistic life of San Francisco throughout the late 50s until his death, Spicer managed on his own, publishing only a half dozen or so small books during his own lifetime with local regional presses, before he died in 1965 at the age of 40. It wasn’t until Spicer’s appearance in the seminal anthology The New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen (New York NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1960; London UK: Evergreen Books Ltd., 1960; Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1999), that word of his work started getting attention, the same collection where he wrote, as his “biographical note,” that he “does not like his life written down.” As editors Gizzi and Killian write in their introduction:

In the last nine years of his short life, Jack Spicer saw to press seven books of poetry (and left behind at least ten more), establishing a poetic tradition on the West Coast that ran parallel, yet counter, to the contemporaneous Beat movement—parallel, yet counter, to the poetry of the New York School poets as well. His anarchist convictions led him to refuse copyright on his poetry since he believed that he was in no sense its owner, and its creator in only the most tenuous sense. Spicer’s own students came to include many of the finest poets, both gay and straight, working in San Francisco. He founded the magazine, J, in 1959, to publish their writing, alongside his own, and in 1964 oversaw another monthly journal, Stan Persky’s Open Space. What he had learned from the internal struggles of the Mattachine was to gain control of the means of production, so the presses that issued his work were all local and, insofar as possible, under his thumb. For Spicer the local became paramount, a seedbed of honest and vital work.
With his work in the “serial poem,” Spicer managed to work a series of ongoing collages, leaping from line to line, stanza to stanza in a way that open the form in breathtaking ways, being an early proponent for the same ideas forwarded by bpNichol through his long poem The Martyrology, saying that the poem only connect sometimes through being written by the same hand, or editor Michael Ondaatje quoting Spicer in his introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), that poems can no better live by themselves than we can. Talking about his book Baseball, A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1967; Coach House Books, 2004) and its Jack Spicer influence in the interview “A Conversation with George Bowering” from Canadian Literature: A Guide (Calgary AB: Educational Communications Corporation (Access Network), 1986), Vancouver writer George Bowering says:
The genesis of Baseball, according to the beginning of the poem, is that, in the beginning, God made baseball. The poem was written during the baseball season of 1965. It’s dedicated to the great American poet Jack Spicer, who told us how to write a serial poem and who was also interested in baseball. He was a San Francisco Giants fan. Some of my critic friends like the poem because it’s the first long poem in sections that I published. Jack Spicer died about halfway through that summer, or two-thirds of the way through that summer, in Berkeley, at the age of thirty-nine, and his death begins to enter into the last part of the poem as part of the subject. It’s an important poem to me because it’s a long poem that is not continuous in a narrative sense … doesn’t have a set of characters, doesn’t have a climax and all that business. All that holds it together is the fact that what’s being written about is baseball. It’s written in nine sections, i.e., nine innings, and it deals with my childhood memories of baseball being played in Oliver, and big-league baseball, and baseball as a metaphor, and baseball as something cosmic. But really, the subject of the book
is poetry. It reflects on itself. It has a lot to say about how one makes poetry. So the love for baseball is a disguised way of talking about a love for poetry.
What I’ve always appreciated about Spicer’s “serial poems” is how they connect through their sheer disconnect, letting the umbrella of concept/title cover everything that falls under it, connecting the poem, sometimes, simply because it is part of the same single piece. When Spicer wrote serially, everything fell into the poem, and the tangent, as well as serial repetition, became the point, as opposed to working against the point. Talking about Spicer’s serial poem in the introduction, the editors write:
Spicer conceived of and developed the “serial poem”: a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement. In his lectures, Spicer quoted Blaser’s description of the serial poem as akin to being in a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on. This movement from room to room in an architectural structure makes sense if you think of “stanza” as coming from the Italian for “small room.” As his poetry moves from dark room to dark room, each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poems become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces.
In one of the lectures, “Vancouver Lecture 2” (June 15, 1965), Spicer himself said that:

A serial poem, in its essence, has to be chronological. In other words, the book, which is a unit like a poem is, has to be absolutely chronological. It has to be chronological in the writing of the poems. You can’t just say, “well, I wrote a lot about birds and I wrote a lot about animals and I wrote a lot about flowers, so all my poems for the last five years which I’d like to get published, some of which have been published in magazines, I’ll distinguish in three parts.” That’s not the kind of thing.
Just as some have said that the measure of a person’s life is who comes to the funeral, it can also be said that the measure of a writer is the influence that they leave behind, and some of the trajectories a reader could follow after the writing of Jack Spicer would be, for example, his Billy The Kid (1959) to Toronto poet bpNichol’s the true eventual story of billy the kid (Weed/Flower Press, 1970; reprinted as part of Craft Dinner: Stories and Texts, Aya Press, 1978) and Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Anansi, 1970), moving even beyond, to Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley’s wild and expansive Bloody Jack (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1984; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002). One could follow Spicer’s “A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud” (as part of The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, 1962), to Toronto writer arthur craven’s “A Short Fake Novel about Spicer,” or even Spicer’s After Lorca (1957) to Mark Goldstein’s recent After Rilke: To Forget You Sang (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2008), that even has a photograph of Spicer on its cover, not to mention Spicer references sprinkled through various other writers over the years, from the late Richard Brautigan to Toronto writer Stan Rogal to the late Montreal poet Artie Gold, who wrote his own poem after Jack Spicer, collected in his own The Beautiful Chemical Waltz: Selected Gold (Dorion QC: The Muses’ Company, 1992), that writes:

‘The trouble with comparing’ yr life to a ballgame
is that a dead fool will have no obituary, but a ball
even when lobbed shows a token
amount of revolution. The trouble
is the hotdogs and whatnots we treat ourselves to
extemporaneously. The trouble is one of

demonstrating suitable analogy; we
endure only once. The trouble is the tragedy
that even well chosen, our analogy will not delay a game
The trouble is popcorn vendors
and game officials. The question becomes one
of recourse, and here, even heroes
show unimpressive scores.

The trouble with contesting
is that in life we are constantly outcontested
constantly unaware of our being outcontested. The trouble
with belief in this and in experience is that it comes
as intellectual sentiment, and is never useful to us
when a shut-out has already decided th game. Baseball
is still interesting carried past
the second inning.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lea Graham, Jennifer Mulligan & rob mclennan reading

A reading by American poet Lea Graham, with opening readings by Ottawa writers Jennifer Mulligan & rob mclennan;

Friday, January 9, 2009

doors 7pm, reading 7:30pm

The Carleton Tavern (upstairs)
223 Armstrong Street (at Parkdale)

lovingly hosted by above/ground press

Lea Graham’s poems [photo of Lea + rob at Pubwells, April 2006, the day they wrote their collaborations], reviews, and articles, have been published in or are forthcoming in journals such as Sentence, Notre Dame Review, and American Letters & Commentary. Her collaborations with the poet, rob mclennan, were published in The Capilano Review in the spring of 2008. Her work was included in two recent anthologies, The City Visible: Chicago Poetry in the 21st Century, and The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor. Calendar Girls, her chapbook, was published in 2006 by above/ground press. Recently, she and the visual artist, Kristina Dziedzic Wright, created a site-specific installation, Behind Your Velvet Elvis, which has shown in West Chicago and Poughkeepsie, NY ( She has a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is currently Assistant Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Jennifer Mulligan lives in Gatineau (Hull). She makes stuff up and works in IT. Her poetry has been published in above/ground press broadsheets, (, ottawater (, and in YAWP. Her first chapbook “like nailing jello to a tree” was published by above/ground press in January 2007.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of over a dozen trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections a compact of words (Salmon Publishing, 2009) and Gifts (Talonbooks, 2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), (with Stephen Brockwell, and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Monday, December 29, 2008

Asher Ghaffar’s Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music

Ever since he was a child, he knew he was meant to learn how to ride the tiger, like Durga. He is not a Hindu – much less a shaman. In deep sleep, there was insentient bliss. From this he discerned that the self has no fixed boundary. It could wander into other countries, into disparate yarns. It was unmarked in dreams. It didn’t belong to race or class. It was borderless. (“On the Question of a Borderless Body”)
Anyone who wants to see a poetry collection working a more complex construction than usual should be going through Toronto writer Asher Ghaffar’s first collection, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2008). Writing the body and the land, Ghaffar writes locations into dislocations, where one has neither completely left one place or completely entered the next, exploring the body through space and a body of poems organized into five sections, writing “Induction,” “Deduction,” “Conduction,” “Production” and “Disruption.” Ghaffar’s Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music is a narrative that threads through immigration and the dream of immigration, writing such wonderful dreams that sometimes fall in on themselves. This is Ghaffar writing between Canada and Pakistan, and exploring the space where language and cultures meet, clash, overlap and even begin to blend, whether writing “O Canada of hinge narratives. O Canada of opening and closing doors.” as the last line to the first poem of the final section, “Predictably, the House Was Not There” (pp 81-86), or writing:

Ears become eyes. Eyes become touch. The senses become a recipe
From a house torn down, a distraught man-as-child drinking curdled
Milk in Amristar where he met two Canadians
And gave them his Atwood. (“Dog Days”)
With final poem “Pre face” and penultimate poem titled “Chapter One,” it is as though Ghaffar has managed a poetry collection that wraps the end up into the beginning, that ends at its own point of origin, deliberately disrupting whatever narrative threads have existed up to this point. Are endings, still, what one expects in a collection of poems?
The name of ours caught almost,
almost terrible. We will not hear it
turned inside out, frozen for a moment
at a threshold. We will not hear absence
upon fossilized absence, the last footsteps
to leave the room, the strum of blood
through vessel upon vessel.
How the body persists,
building itself on the tomb of labour. (“Meanwhile, A Continent Away”)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Counterfeit by Christine Leclerc

Love like flash light in a subway tunnel
where the train ain’t gonna go no more.

One of the first books published by Vancouver’s CUE Books (Capilano University Editions) is Vancouver poet Christine Leclerc’s first trade collection, Counterfeit (2008). A compelling collection with some very interesting moments, Counterfeit works elements of theatre-script dabbled through the text, between poems of (deceptively) straight statements. LeClerc’s poems move in so many directions while managing to stand still, and seem to move so quickly that they remain fixed in place, but shimmer.

The Swimmer’s Office

The shivers run like train tracks
into your—

Metal fillings were used to build this—

A toy poodle pretends to urinate as it calculates
The perimeter of your office.

Your mother had a real dog.
Another note on the windowsill…


Your theory is that someone
put it there.

Sometimes the note says:
copper confuses.

At others: You seem coherent.

Or: Are you reading this upside down?

You’re pretty sure it was the same note. And the same mother all along.
The same town and summer. You swam front crawl,
better and better. But swam it slow.

It is raining at the pool now,
above and below.
I don’t know which I hate more,
words or water

Her Counterfeit might feel less like a book-length entity than a collection made out of a range of disparate pieces, but one that has a number of strong individual pieces that shine through, and I very much like how she manages to work the line of direct statement into something about as indirect as one can manage. If these straightforward lines are simply that, then there is no such thing. If contemporary writing works its way to filter the world into, through or even against meaning, Leclerc’s Counterfeit manages in its sly way to present an argument for the range of all three. These are good poems that are good and sometimes even great, sly in their approach, humble in their expectation and formidable in their quest for and between meaning.

When I Left

When I left, the house was quiet.

No more talking or cutting strips
of paper into strip malls
or factory direct liquidation centers.

When I left, the body had a ponytail, and a pony-tail-making mother.

I left, but there were still teeth to brush, pages to turn, curlers to set, and
photos to pose for. There was much blood to pump, and many years for a
body to move through.

Sometimes the body sat looking out onto the desert, alley, snowdrift;
on a chair, blanket, bed, stoop, couch, bike, curb, boat, back,

Thoughts rarely came.

When I left, I saw myself seldom and longing
became longing with nothing to long for.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Another Christmas in Old Glengarry

Kate and I came down to my parent's farm in eastern Ontario on December 23rd for our big get-together on the afternoon of the following day, with my sister and her husband and three children, my parents, and my sister's best friend Julie with boyfriend and his two daughters. A furious amount of activity. My sister's three children, all five and under, scurrying around the house, doing whatever small and adorable children do, and my own daughter, a week and a bit away from eighteen, quietly stepping aside to let them. It seems to be, these days, that after all the children leave, it just seems to get quieter and quieter in my parent's old farmhouse, somewhere between 120 and 140 years old now (the house, not my parents). After Kate and I spent a few hours with my sister and her brood the previous night, I spent much of yesterday hanging out quietly, myself, with my little namesake, Duncan, who is just six months old. My sister's youngest (obviously), third and final child, he shares my birth name, and also my paternal grandfather's middle name, my grandfather called "John Duncan," so he wouldn't be confused with his older brother, John (ah, the Scots). John Duncan was also the first in many generations of our McLennans to not name his firstborn son John, calling my father (an only child), instead, Douglas Ian (Ian being a John derivative).

I always enjoy these visits, but this one was a little more stressful than usual. I keep hoping that in 2009, I can fix all the things I did wrong in 2008. So far, I think it just might work out, but today I'm exhausted.

This morning I took Kate back to Ottawa to her mother's house, and I spent the afternoon digging through old photographs, scanning them into the computer for various nefarious reasons. Why did it take me an hour to figure out the equipment? My mother is asleep in her chair in the living room, my father asleep upstairs. I go back to Ottawa tomorrow. The past few days have really taken their toll on me; where will I be in a year from now? Why do I feel so much older?

Dusty in my parent's house, this is the old piano that becomes mine, once I have a residence big and somewhat permanent enough to keep it to Ottawa (you really aren't supposed to move pianos at all). It's been sitting for years in the front porch, despite whatever efforts on my part to get them to move it to another part of the house. Why must they keep it there? The board is probably wrecked by now, and it hasn't been tuned since the late 1980s. My maternal grandmother's parents bought it new for my grandmother in the 1920s or 1930s, so she could take lessons as a kid. This is the same piano that moved from my great-grandparents house in Kemptville to ours in 1976, so I could begin what turned into thirteen years of lessons (my sister, I think, took two before she managed to convince our mother that she didn't want to do it anymore; she was always better at arguing than I was). The old piano has sat years, unused and untuned, but I am working to get a place, and restore it to good health again.

Today I am going through photographs, and wondering what other things I have to do here before I head back to the city, and the article I should be writing, the novel I'm supposed to be finishing, the creative non-fiction book I think nearly complete. What else is there? And why does this break somehow not feel like break?

[my Aunt Pat, mother, grandmother, sister, myself, 1977]

related posts: what was going on last year; the year before; the year before that;

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Robert Kroetsch's Excerpts from the Real World

Lately I've been rereading Robert Kroetsch, wondering how to get back to that point I once was, writing notes for a sad phoenician. What is it about Robert Kroetsch that I keep returning to, to save my own life? I returned to him repeatedly during my stay in Alberta, but haven't dipped too much into him since I arrived home in June. Where does the time go? The last day or two, rereading his Excerpts from the Real World (Lantzville BC: Oolichan Books, 1986), something that was also included in his Completed Field Notes (1989; 2002). I've always liked the idea of the poetic diary, despite not yet having managed to work my own versions of the form. Will it save my life? Will that even matter in the end? Do I want to be left with poem and nothing more?


I should not have sought the unicorn beside the sea.
Your long hair spills down your back, before we
make love, like seaweed in the Bay of Fundy.
When you make love. Like the Bay of Fundy. (Robert Kroetsch)

Going back through old files, I wonder if there is anything salvageable in an old project I attempted in June, before everything shifted; an old project that perhaps could be resurrected, 'notes for a sad phoenician.' Will it make her less sad? Will anything I do or say bring this back again? Is this nothing more than my own attempts at repeating Kroetsch through my own language, instead of working my way out into my own?

postcards, the moon

Consider submission. Forget desire.
Robert Kroetsch, Competed Field Notes

June 1

I feel unground, foreign, strange. Is this what novelist Elizabeth Smart felt when returning to Canada after decades of England? Can you simply never go home?

jwcurry tells me about his new choral project, Alexander's Dark Band. It's named from the dark line in the sky between a first and second rainbow, holding colour away from the black.

June 2

It was even, when I talked to you, raining on television.

I am remembering you in the observation deck of the Edmonton airport, hand on the glass.

June 15

I am sitting in the Second Cup, directly after checking email, discovering a phone message from you, which seems to (lovingly) respond to the phone message I left you last night, after you had gone to bed.

A heavy, heavy Ottawa rain, pipe on the side of an empty building at Bank and Somerset, windowpipe pushing water a spout over the sidewalk a spray.

I do not know what this separation means, or what it will bring.

We are missing a fine warm rain. I am writing notes for poems that might never get written. I carry the manuscript of my novel around with me, an albatross unread. To even open it would be to untie the cord.

Would that be untied, or unbound? Today, I am having difficulty figuring out the difference.

June 17

Today a small postcard from you, that you
waited to mail. Push-pin hole

at the end, children on bicycles
and a pure dream of flying.

I miss you. At the window,
the strangest feeling. A horizon,

nothing more than
a false end.

June 18

Sometimes the trees forget themselves.
Sometimes they are like stars.

Or back to Kroetsch again, writing:


I hadn't noticed the margin. Eli Mandel was lectur-
ing on the myth of the frontier, this on the banks of
the Oldman River, to a band of Blackfoot warriors. I
fell off the page. The sun, unthinkingly (or so we
assume), bruised itself red on the flat horizon.

I do not wish to be left with poems, and only poems. There are miles, still, I have yet to travel. How can I get there?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Worth repeating: Ben Okri, “Of Poets and Their Antagonists”

I recently picked up a copy of New writing, eds. Malcolm Bradbury and Judy Cooke (London England: Minerva, 1992) at a thrift store for all of two dollars, for the sake of an essay by Michael Ignatieff (I was amazed by the two 1980s-era pieces I found in Granta), and instead, was blown away by a piece by Nigerian writer Ben Okri. If anyone asks, “Why poetry?” this is what you can tell them; if one ever worries that the risks might be too great (in writing, or anything else), or the complaints of “difficult work” too much, simply return to this essay and listen. As it says at the back of the collection, his piece “was inspired by the deaths of three poets: Christopher Okigbo, in 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War; Michael Smith, who was stoned to death in Jamaica; and Dambudzo Marechera, in Zimbabwe. It was first read in 1988 at the P.E.N. International English Centre.” Here are two paragraphs among many that are worth repeating, worth keeping in the back of the head as a reminder during tough times:
Our lives have become narrow enough as they are. Our dreams strain to widen them, to bring to our waking consciousness the sense of greater discoveries that lie just beyond the limits of our sights. We must not force our poets to limit the world any further. That is a crime against life itself. If the poet begins to speak only of narrow things, of things that we can effortlessly digest and recognize, of things that do not disturb, frighten, stir, or annoy us, or make us restless for more, make us cry for greater justice, make us want to set sail and explore inklings murdered in our youths, if the poet sings only of our restricted angles and in restricted terms and exclusively with restricted language, then what hope is there for any of us on this or any other

Those of us who want this are cowards, in flesh and in spirit. We fear heroic heights. We dread the recombining of the world, dread a greater harvest of being. We sit lazily and demand that our poets draw the horizon closer. Water bursting suddenly into multicoloured spray represents for us something vaguely frightening. We no longer recognize who we are, and have forgotten what we used to be, what states we sometimes inhabited during phases of an extended moment of awareness. It is those who are scared of reality, of their own truths, of their own histories, those who are secretly sickened by what they have become, who are alarmed by the strange mask-like faces that peer back at them from the mirrors of time, it is they who resist the poetic. They resist the poetic with all their hidden might because if they don’t, the power of words speaking in their own heads would burst open their inner doors, and all the monsters breeding within would come bounding out and crashing on the floors of their consciousness. What would hold their inner frames together then? They have to suppress the poetic, or accept it only on blurred terms, or promote its cruder imitations, for the simple reason that they have long ago begun suppressing eruptive life and all its irreconcilable shadings, its natural paradoxes.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ongoing notes: late December, 2008

[jwcurry and b stephen harding at Pubwells during recent drinks] Will we see you at The Peter F. Yacht Club Christmas party/reading? Did you see this amazing interview with our own literary photographer, John W. MacDonald? Apparently a few people noticed my open letter to that Ottawa mayor; and then this interview with me I forgot to mention, before the last small press book fair. Does anyone know who wrote this anonymous poem for our own John Newlove? Did you see Sina Queyras' review of Amanda Earl's Eleanor (above/ground press)? And apparently Carleton University students have nothing better to do than discuss whether or not I use capital letters in my name, not even bothering to ask themselves why...

Edmonton AB: In early November, I was able to attend the most recent issue launch of Edmonton’s Other Voices: Journal of the Literary and Visual Arts. Considering the journal has made it to Volume 21, No. 1, I find it strange that I haven’t actually seen a copy of the journal for at least half a decade before this (including the nine months I actually lived in Edmonton). Why is the journal so invisible? For years, it has seemed as though Calgary has had all the journal and chapbook publishers, and Edmonton has had all the book publishers, and never the twain shall meet, so to speak, but for this semi-annual publication.


coyote’s rain-
bow collar. pear
& saffron, i-

ris: light re-
laying what? st-
rategic target: rain-

bow bridge. log-
ical fit: the sun
in the wind-

ow. the moment-
ary truth. the lost
count… the in-

undated mind.
blue sky: bl-
ack rain-

bow (Sean Howard, “sandpaper (caught light, for judy pratt)”)

An odd mix of quality, the journal publishes poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction (this issue highlights the winners of a recent contest they held in such), as well as some visual art and a book review, with some of the highlights from the current issue including Edmonton poet glenN robsoN with two poems (the formatting of which make both of them impossible to replicate; lately, he’s apparently been doing some extremely interesting sound poetry with Edmonton poet Jeff Carpenter), a suite of poems by Sean Howard, and new pieces by Toronto poet Amy Dennis; how is it she seems to be in every second journal I’ve been looking at lately?

Still, I like what this journal is doing, and what it’s trying to do; but why can’t they tell more people?

Vancouver BC: New from Peter and Meredith Quartermain’s Nomados comes L’Aviva by Nicole Brossard, translated by Anne-Marie Wheeler (Nomados, 2008). Part of what appeals about this small collection (a Nomados chapbook with perfect binding, by the by) is how the sections are separated, as to be two different texts, as opposed to the merged text. One belongs to Brossard exclusively, to be sure (as much as any text “belongs” to any author), and the first, in English, a kind of merged text through translation.


aviva a face and the relaying
of complexity, ample images
leaning toward the lure, her mouth
now the looks there are normally words
on the edge of emotion a phrase related
hidden and unknowingly caressed
while running the length of her arms in excitation
applied, the idea tenable tenacious
for linking

Brossard has been a favourite of English-language readers for decades, and numerous of her works of poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been translated into English by various translators, and this new series of texts is absolutely lovely. Is this part of a larger project that might see book-length publication at some point? And at the same time, are there other French language poets in Canada that we, in English, should be looking at? Someone emailed me recently and even asked if there was a French equivalent to the new Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 anthology. Who even is out there?

Edmonton AB: One of the things I’ve been waiting for a few years now is that book by Vancouver poet Fred Wah that would include further of his “music at the heart of thinking” poems and “artknot” pieces that have been appearing here and there the past decade or so in journals and other places (a few appear as part of Wah’s contribution to Louis Cabri’s Phillytalks). Over the past decade or so, Wah’s publishing has certainly slowed, with a rare chapbook here or there, a series of reissues, and a new publication with Talon this past spring, his Sentenced to Light (Talonbooks, 2008). On December 2nd, he appeared in Edmonton to read at the Olive Reading Series and launched the small publication Dark Matter & Other Radicals (Edmonton AB: Extra-Virgin Press, 2008) as part of the reading series (now in its ninth season) including a couple new pieces from that same series of poems that began with his Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1987).

Music at the Heart of Thinking 134

The plateau of the poem
pulling a story from a fire
smouldering under foot
on a periphery of words
as things while sentenced
to a periphery of counting
so nearly uncontained (it)
documents no geography
nor memory the windmill
street and all that walks
or reminds crankshaft, smoke
sits at the corner cheering
past the end of telling you
can smell the stones burning

For years I’ve been wondering, when do we get to see the collection that includes these scattered pieces, written as a series of “responses”? According to the bio at the back of the small publication, he has a new poetry collection out next spring, again with Talonbooks, called Splice. Is this what we’ve been waiting for all this time?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What kind of city would you like to live in?

After seeing Amanda Earl’s post on same yesterday, I have decided to respond to city editorial editor Ken Gray’s piece in The Ottawa Citizen yesterday (“What Kind of Ottawa Do You Want?” p F4, Friday, December 19). For years, I’ve been an advocate of Ottawa’s self-respect as both a world-class city and a city made out of locals, even to the point of producing a book on some of what we have to offer, both currently and historically—Ottawa: The Unknown City.

What kind of city would I like to live in? I would like to live in a city where we have a mayor who doesn’t create divisions; it is a poor system we live in when city councillors that have been around for years, not necessarily agreeing to many of the same things, have to band together to pass a city budget against the wishes of the mayor. It is a poor system when that same mayor ends up making public comments responding to the city’s finances and OC Transpo that give us, within days, a major transit strike, hitting retailers, university students writing exams, and others exactly where they hurt most.

I would like to live in a city that doesn’t suffer the kind of lack of vision that would arbitrarily cut cultural funding, saving short-term money against every financial argument against, let alone any cultural arguments. I would like to live in a city that doesn’t attempt to re-gift Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal swans, or talk of closing hospitals, reducing police services, and cutting community hockey rinks. Why does no-one in the suburbs realize that to cut after-school programs leads, far too often, to needing more police in those same areas down the road?

Since Gray mentioned same in his article, I would certainly give credit to a space such as Scotiabank Place, and the return of the Ottawa Senators in the early 1990s as something that has given the city a sense of pride, hope and financial return. It was a great thing for Mayor Larry O’Brien to open up Elgin Street during the Senator’s time in the Stanley Cup playoffs (one of the first Stanley Cup games was played in Ottawa, where a laundromat now stands at Gladstone and Percy Streets). More of this kind of local pride needs to happen. I am glad O’Brien enjoys hockey and supports it, but the nation’s capital is a city made up of far more than the NHL. The function of a Mayor is to work for the sake of the people within the city, and not simply for the sake of his own personal interest (it didn’t help that our same mayor was photographed last week embracing the Stanley Cup as it travelled through town). As Gray writes, we need to be participants in our city, and not merely self-absorbed observers.

Since I returned to the city of my birth in 1989, I have seen the downtown core lose banks, stores, movie theatres and many other services. I shouldn’t have to travel from Centretown to South Keys or Gloucester Centre to see a film. My Royal Bank branch at Bank and Somerset Streets no longer exists, replaced by a cash machine, unprotected by the elements in what is one of the coldest world capitals. Every half decade or so, I’ve seen attempts to revitalize stretches of Bank Street, the Sparks Street Mall and Rideau Street, little of which has managed to stick. I’ve seen heritage buildings torn down, fall down in disrepair and otherwise threatened, and seen much of the city’s population, whether artists, high tech employees or others, feeling forced out, and have to finally leave for greener pastures.

I want to live in an Ottawa that has respect for itself, that doesn’t dump on our next versions of Alanis or Tom Green for staying, dump on them for finally leaving, and then fall all over itself in praising them once they start getting the acknowledgement, respect and support they deserved all along by someone outside the city’s boundaries. I want an Ottawa that stops acting like Canada in the 1960s, refusing to see what anyone has accomplished until some external acknowledgment happens that we can then latch ourselves on to. I want an Ottawa that is confident about its own mind, and its own choices.

I want a city that grants self-respect and self-awareness for what we already are, through funding, media (much of which I see currently lacking, and who often seem blinkered and dismissive) and population. I would like to see a books section of The Ottawa Citizen that stops pretending to be a national paper and treats local authors with respect. Local weeklies in cities such as Montreal and Edmonton are far more aware of promoting and discussing their writers than our local daily in the national capital (not to mention other media, with CBC Radio being a notable exception).

Lester B. (“Uncle Mike”) Pearson knew the importance of needing a national theatre in Ottawa, and, despite years of unnecessary battles against the idea, he was finally able to give us the National Arts Centre in 1967, on the same site of the former Russell Theatre, burnt in the 1920s, and, against the wishes of the population by a small-minded city government, wasn’t rebuilt, but paved over for the War Memorial.

I want a city of Ottawa with vision, one that could have turned the old Duke of Somerset and surrounding building into a version of Toronto’s Drake Hotel at Bank and Somerset. If hotel space in Ottawa is at such a premium, and conference space is booked a year or so in advance, why not an Ottawa hotel combining inexpensive and not-inexpensive with a martini bar on the main level and cultural space for readings, musical performances and theatre, in the basement. It would take time, but it would return any investment, and add vigor to an important corner of Centretown.

I find it interesting that, in Gray’s editorial, he cites the 1950s as one of the last impressive periods of Ottawa’s development. Originally, it was Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King who had commissioned city planner Jacques Gréber in the 1940s to create Ottawa’s first official “city plan,” thus creating what became the horseshoe of deliberate greenspace around what was then the City of Ottawa. Is this what Gray talks about? Hindsight is always a funny thing, and those who were involved in the city at the time weren’t terribly impressed with the idea, and even developers at the time railed on against perfectly good land not allowed for their own projects, giving Gréber the nickname Jacques Grabber. Certainly Gréber was an innovator who changed the face of the city, removing rail from the city’s downtown core, creating the Queensway and other traffic-reducing problems, but he wasn’t hailed as being any kind of problem solver at the time.

I will simply presume that Gray’s 1950s dream didn’t include LeBreton Flats, originally a thriving neighbourhood torn down for a development that never quite happened. I want to live in a city that at least sees the second half of any plan where the first half involves tearing stuff down. Why don’t we have more of those? Remember the Daly Building, and how long that space was empty?

Vision comes at a cost, and the cost involves not everyone understanding the benefits until sometimes much later. True vision involves risk, and character, and I want to live in a City of Ottawa where that vision exists, because any true vision hasn’t existed here in quite a long time.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke, ed. Jon Paul Fiorentino

I’ve always been partial to the Laurier Poetry Series, produced by Wilfred Laurier University Press, a series of critical selecteds, somewhat like the “essential poets” series that The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc. has been doing more recently, with a critical introduction, roughly fifty pages worth of poetry over the writer’s career, and a new essay by the author as well. After previous publications on the work of Don McKay, Christopher Dewdney, Dennis Cooley and others, the most recent is Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke (2008), selected with an introduction by Montreal writer Jon Paul Fiorentino. As Fiorentino begins his introduction:
The blues singer, the preacher, the cultural critic, the exile, the Africadian, the high modernist, the spoken word artist; the Canadian poet. These are some of the voices and identities of George Elliott Clarke. His influences are many. Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and many others are intertextually linked to his practice. He is a poet who seems at times haunted by the anxiety of influence, but a closer reading of his texts reveals that the multiple voices of George Elliott Clarke are the result of his poetic fluency and scholarly acuity.

Clarke’s poetics negotiate cultural space through adherence to and revision of tradition. A collection like Whylah Falls establishes a voice for the Africadian community—a voice that employs diverse poetic strategies such as iambic pentameter, the Mississippi Delta Blues, and modernist vers libre. A collection like Blue establishes equally multivocal poetic voices, but its various strategies are deployed to a more polemical/performative end.
Part of what makes this collection interesting is showing the range of what Clarke has been up to over the past twenty years, including work from such collections as Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems (Pottersfield Press, 1994), Beatrice Chancy (Polestar, 1999), the Governor General’s Award-winning Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of “George and Rue” (Gaspereau Press, 2001), Blue (Raincoast, 2001) and Black (Raincoast, 2006), as well as highlighting the fact that such an author hasn’t yet had a selected poems published. How has he gone so long without one?

April 1, 19—

Air smells purely of wine
where I have fallen—
an allegro Negro—

sueing brunette paleness.
unused to beauty, I
catch the blush of stars,

run my brain along
a line’s razor edge,
Basho being sharpest—

or her arrogant thinness!I draft wrecked words, gulp
draughts of wrecking wine.

To hold her is to hold
perfume—whitest breath
of lilies, or fathom

Gold-dark eyes, fierce as Sade.
A brief kiss—one brief kiss—
And I’ll breathe the future.

One missing feature that would have been interesting would have been a list of Clarke’s publications over the years. The biography mentions that Clarke has published “nine poetry texts (including this one), three chapbooks, four plays in verse (and three opera libretti), a novel, a scholarly essay collection, and edited two anthologies” but doesn’t list any of them, but for the titles the included work is selected from. Still, one of the highlights of the series is the essay by the author (usually a new piece, written specifically for the selected) at the end of the collection. Apart from a wonderful mix of influence, from blues to politics to Shakespeare, one of the essential elements of Clarke’s poetry over the years has been how closely attuned his ear has always been to the music of it. In the piece “Let Us Now Attain Polyphonous Epiphanies,” included as the afterword, Clarke talks about how it was music that initially brought him to poetry, writing:
On a sunny Saturday Halifax, Nova Scotia, afternoon in April 1972, my father gathered up his three sons and a few of our friends, crowded us all into a station wagon, and just went driving. I sat up front, near the car radio, and listened intently as Bobby Vinton sang “Sealed with a Kiss” (from sometime back in the 1950s), but I also concentrated on the hits of the day, such as those by the Jackson 5 (“ABC”) and by the Osmonds (“One Bad Apple”). This attentiveness was memorably strange, for I knew it was separating me irrevocably from my childhood. Indeed, one chum riding with us was a girl I had a crush on, and the radio songs were suddenly communicating my inarticulate angst and exposing my secret desire. Later that day, I borrowed the portable radio, laid down in my bed, in my room, and tuned the set to the Top 40 songs that had just begun to speak to—and for—me. I laid there with my eyes closed, fantasizing about that girl, while letting song after song alert me to the promise of the kiss, the embrace, the dance, and even everlasting love.

I think I became a poet then, though I did not begin to write what I called “songs” for another three years. I became a songwriter—a lyricist—before I became, indelibly, a poet, so I learned to state my yearnings and my fears in a heart-felt, three-minute formula—a sincere orature, straight from the gut, and straight to an auditing girl’s ear. (Some of us young “bloods” loved to sing, late night, strategically, beneath the window of neighbours’ daughters.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, eds. Jennifer Firestone & Dana Teen Lomax

So now we are writing letters. The question on my mind this morning has to do with how we negotiate this task of lettering. (Patrick Pritchett to Kathleen Fraser, December 22, 2006)
One of the most interesting collections of interviews I’ve seen in a long time has to be Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, eds. Jennifer Firestone & Dana Teen Lomax (Philadelphia PA: Saturnalia Books, 2008). The idea was simple enough: over the space of a couple of years, the editors solicited various poets across the United States for the sake of a conversation with another poet they wanted to talk to. As the editors begin their introduction:

Letters to Poets developed from an interest in how we could redefine, renegotiate, and extend the concept of collaboration. For this project, fourteen poet-pairs from various regions, races, class backgrounds, sexual preferences, and aesthetics came together and wrote letters during approximately a one-year period. From the start, the Letters to Poets project has been experimental in nature. Having provided no strict formal or thematic guidelines, we had little idea what the poets in this collection would choose to write about. We thought that if poets had the opportunity to correspond with each other over the course of a year, important and intriguing conversations would emerge, prompting further discourse among poets and people in other disciplines. Letters have proven powerful texts. (Consider the correspondences between Dickinson and Higginson, Hughes and Bontemps, Zukofsky and Niedecker, Levertov and Duncan, Celan and Sachs, Silko and Wright, and so on.) We believed the epistolary format would create a sense of intimacy, allowing readers to feel privy to “inside” information about poets’ ideas and experiences.
As stated, there are fourteen pairs of poets, including Anselm Berrigan and John Yau, Brenda Coultas and Victor Hernández Cruz, Truong Tran and Wanda Coleman, Patrick Pritchett and Kathleen Fraser, Hajera Ghori and Alfred Arteaga, Jennifer Firestone and Eileen Myles, Karen Weiser and Anne Waldman, Jill Magi and Cecilia Vicuna, Rosamond S. King and Jayne Cortez, Judith Goldsmith and Leslie Scalapino, Traci Gourdine and Quincy Troupe, Brena Iljima and Joan Retallack, Dana Teen Lomax and Claire Braz-Valentine, and Albert Flynn DeSilver and Paul Hoover. I know I’ve repeated it numerous times, but Alberta writer Robert Kroetsch has always called literature a conversation, so how could such a project not seem obvious and almost basic, in just how appealing it might be for the sake of both readers and participants, and something that Stephanie Bolster and I were very aware of when we did a version of the same about a decade ago, interviewing each other over the space of months, and published online as a single (albeit long) document. But I wonder: is this the sort of project that might be worth a journal taking on as a kind of ongoing project, whether in print or online? Just because the book is finished, does that mean that the idea has to end as well?

Am I wrong to observe that the language of critical discourse has tended—in the last three or so decades—to over-drench our thinking re the making of poems, by smuggling its own list of au courant abstract urgencies into poetry’s more visceral territory? It would appear that many of the current choices pre/scribed from the sleeve of academic authority—patina’d with a certain allure—may have become, at the same time, too revered and yet too familiar, that is, once removed from the actual physical precipice that marks the uneasy edge of writing’s activity. Is it possible that competing concerns (languages) of analysis theory vs. the poet’s invented syntactical/physical arrangements are capable of creating an impasse, even impairing one’s working contract with the imagination? (Kathleen Fraser to Patrick Pritchett, June 25, 2005)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Interview with Roger Farr, CUE Books (Capilano University Editions)

This interview was conducted from November to December 2008

Roger Farr is the author of SURPLUS (Line Books, 2006), a co-author (with Reg Johanson and Aaron Vidaver) of the collaborative research project N 49 19. 47 - W 123 8.11 (Recomposition, 2008), and editor of the sporadically published journal PARSER: New Poetry and Poetics. A former member of the Kootenay School of Writing collective, his critical writing on avant-garde poetics and autonomous social movements appears or is forthcoming in Anarchist Studies, The Encyclopedia of Protest and Revolution, Fifth Estate, Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, The Poetic Front, The Rain Review, W, West Coast Line, and XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics. Recent publications include an interview with Louis Cabri in the Fall 2008 issue of The Capilano Review, and selections from IKMQ, a collection of micro-fiction, and Means, a book of poems about the relationship between forms of expression and political composition. Currently he is on leave from his post at Capilano University, where he is Convener of the Creative Writing Program and editor of CUE Books (Capilano University Editions). [photo credit: Glen Lowry]

rob mclennan: How did you first get involved w/ the Capilano Press Society and TCR?

Roger Farr: My first involvement with the journal was as a reader in the early 90’s, then much later as a contributor. In 2001, while Ryan Knighton was editor, Jason LeHeup edited two volumes on the small press in Canada that included the last issue of estrus, a ‘zine I had worked on with Aaron Vidaver, Steve Ward, and Carolyn Doucette. Later that year I was hired as a sessional at Cap and was stationed in the TCR office with then Managing Editor Carol Hamshaw, so I was hard to ignore. I read poetry submissions for TCR periodically when Sharon Thesen was editor, but didn’t officially join the Capilano Press Society until 2003. In 2006 Jenny Penberthy, the current editor, invited me to edit the “Six Cities” issue.

rm: How did the idea of book publishing come about? I know other Canadian journals have done versions of the same, with Snare Books coming out of Matrix magazine in Montreal, and West Coast Line more recently starting up their own series of trade books (finally giving a home to the Tsunami Editions backlist). Why did The Capilano Review, after so many years, finally decide on the same?

RF: CUE is somewhat distinct from TCR. Both are published by the Capilano Press Society, and they obviously share concerns and resources, but under our current arrangements they have different editors; so let’s say they have what Poulantzas calls “relative autonomy.” But all these publications you mention became models/inspirations for us, especially Line Books. Mike Barnholden was very helpful and gave us lots of good advice and tips.

That said, Pierre Coupey, founder of the Capilano Press Society and of TCR, has always wanted to publish books. In fact, TCR has been publishing books for some time. There was Pacific Windows, the Kiyooka issue edited by Pierre in 1990 which was by all estimations a book (though I think it has an ISSN); and under Sharon Thesen’s editorship in 2003 we did Gerry Shikatani’s book Three Gardens of Andalucia, which has an ISBN but was released as a special issue of TCR. And there have been others.

But CUE really begins – fittingly, I think, given our ties to the avant-garde poetry and arts communities in Canada – with the publication of George Bowering’s According to Brueghel (one of his 12 chapbooks of 2006) in early 2008. If I remember correctly, Jenny was going to run the piece in the journal, but it came in at around 40 pages, so she came up with the idea of doing it as a chapbook, and George agreed. Pierre and Jenny then decided to look at doing a Billy Little Selected, edited by Jamie Reid and George Stanley, which eventually became our first “trade” title – also very fitting. Jenny then persuaded the Dean at Capilano to give us seed funding to get three more books to press. Somehow she accomplished all this in about four or five months! This Fall she turned the reins over to me in order to focus on the journal.

rm: What do you see CUE accomplishing (or hoping to accomplish) that you see publishing otherwise lacking, and what has been the response so far? Do you see CUE as having a parallel mandate to what TCR has been doing over the years, or are you wanting to take it in a different direction?

RF: Mayakovsky says there are certain problems in society which only poetry can solve. To answer your question I will recast that to say that there are certain problems in poetry today which only publishers can solve.

One of these problems would be the old chestnut about the lack of space for socially and critically engaged avant-garde writing, which is true enough (you hint at this in your recent review of Best Canadian Poetry of 2008, and I mention it in my introduction to the Open Text anthology, which was in part an attempt to correct this problem). That said, I don’t think inclusion of avant-garde poetry in anthologies is necessarily the best way to refuse our anesthetization by official verse culture; in fact, it may even prolong it. What we really need are more presses working to alter the way avant-garde writing is received and how it is used, which, in addition to “the works themselves,” requires books of interviews, critical writing, theory, and the like, to help create new readerships. Usually this kind of publishing is (unfortunately) left to the academic presses, which CUE both is and isn’t, and to a handful of journals like West Coast Line, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, Open Letter, etc.

So I’d like to see CUE become such a press, offering several “series” of books, including avant-garde poetry, poetics and fiction, as well as graphic narratives, creative non-fiction, and critical work in communications theory, cultural studies, and the visual arts. In most respects this is a parallel mandate to TCR, but with more critical writing. Capilano as an institution is known for its strong programs in what for lack of a better term I’ll call “the cultural industries” (ie, Creative Writing, Culture and Technology, Film, Jazz, Studio Arts, Theatre, Textiles, etc.), and we have considerable faculty expertise in these areas, which is a huge resource we intend to draw on.

As for the response, we released the first set of books in late October, so they’re just starting to make the rounds. The launch was very successful. And we’ve been warmly received locally.

rm: Didn’t you worry about the difficulties in starting a small press now, considering the state of literary publishing? Who currently distributes your books?

RF: I don’t worry about it. I don’t think Jenny did. We just wanted to do it. Maybe it was a bad idea! At any rate, we’re working on distribution arrangements right now.

rm: What comes next for CUE?

RF: In addition to some new books of poetry, I’m developing what I hope will be the first of a series of monographs, written by poets and artists, defining key concepts and problems in aesthetic theory. I’m also in discussions with a local curator and editor about collaborating on a book, or series of books, of critical writing about contemporary art in Vancouver. The second installment of the Open Text anthology is underway, as is an ancillary webpage with links to materials by and about the contributors. And keep an eye open for Ted Byrne and Christine Leclerc, who will be “out east” reading from their books this Spring.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ongoing notes: some magazines

New York NY: I recently got a copy of the twentieth issue of Fence Magazine in the mail, with a cover image of President-elect Barack Obama on the cover by artist Aaron Sinift (“Glitter Obama,” 2008). What would the journal, sent to the printer before the election, have done had Obama not won? As Rebecca Wolff writes in her “Editor’s Note”:
Nothing much to say but: Hie thee to the polls. This issue, with its glittery visage, goes forth in hopefulness and I hope beyond hope that it lingers in celebration.
After hearing Sina Queyras read a number of these prose pieces while she was in Alberta last year, it’s interesting to read four sections of her work-in-progress in this issue, published as “The Four Anxieties”:
A Story About Breezing Through

Impatient he had been with his brother, a kid who could reproduce nothing, a kid who doggedly opined and responded in earnest. Relax, he said, you’ll give yourself acne, which of course he did, and then the oily hair, and the pants always a little too short, just a tad too much air between his north stars and Lees, just a tad too much tooth, a wee bit smelly by the 3 o clock bell. He himself got by recounting the movements of Steve Martin, waltzed through the halls a star, absolutely necessary at all parties, off the hook for acquiring drugs or alcohol he leaned against kitchen counters, hair refusing to be tucked behind his ears, jeans rumpled just so around the crotch and knee, shoes perfectly scuffed, face buffed, a Steve Martin grin, a line from Men in Plaid, an elbow up, a girl or two on his arm … Flow, baby, he winked to himself as they groomed at the long mirror, enjoy the rewards.
Another highlight is from American poet Brian Kim Stefans, after all the talk in Canada lately about sonnets, interesting to see others still pursuing the form in different ways:


Can I deny—
a little bleed in the brain span—
deny my username—
hardly moving out into continents—

the span
where my body hides,
and the history of changes,
and the language I’ve used to get used to it—

we love, in love, so
love is love, thus

pregnant with acid logic,
the mucus and sperm sail over flimsy tempests,

in a poem, no less,
photographing its issuance.

Vancouver BC: I’ve very much enjoyed the interviews that have appeared in The Capilano Review over the past few years, and this new issue (3.6, Fall 2008) starts off with Roger Farr’s “Intervox: Three Questions for Louis Cabri,” an interview that begins as a continuation of a further conversation, as Farr writes:
In November 2007, Louis Cabri visited Vancouver for three days, reading at Capilano University and Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and leading a talk/seminar on “the social” at the Kootenay School of Writing. Although the KSW session ran for four hours, the conversation showed no signs of ebbing, so I invited Louis to discuss some of his material further via email.

In this exchange, Cabri responds generously to three questions addressing some key issues in contemporary poetry and poetics: the relationship between language and ommodification; the efficacy of avant-garde poetry as a mode of social critique; and the use of search engines as part of the process of composition. In answering these uestions, Cabri discusses his own work, Flarf, Language Writing, and a number of ther writers, such as Rob Fitterman, Roy Miki, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Rob Manery, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Clint Burnham, and many others. The text is followed by a selection of some of Cabri’s recent writing, some of which is referred to in the interview.
Cabri has managed to create some interesting conversations over the past twenty years or so, through his work as a writer, organizer, and editor/publisher, from his days in Ottawa in the late 1980s and early 90s with Rob Manery running the Experimental Writers Group and hole magazine/hole books, his days in Philadelphia involved with PhillyTalks, later on moving to Calgary and now Windsor, Ontario, where, as far as contemporary writing is concerned, he is currently involved in one of the most interesting and active English department in Ontario (alongside fellow writers Nicole Markotic, Karl Jirgens and Susan Holbrook), much like York University once was back in the 1980s and into the 90s. In this extremely engaging and dense interview, Cabri talks about commodity, capital and critique, writing:
I’m reminded of a brief response-essay by Michael Davidson to a set of questions posed by editors Phillip Foss and Charles Bernstein of Tyuonyi 6/7: Patterns / Contexts / Time: A Symposium of Contemporary Poetry. Davidson asks: “Is it possible to write within the news while creating perspectives on it?” That’s, in a nutshell, a problem for the role of critique in poetry, and not only of the Flarf kind of imitation. And it’s culture-wide. I’ve wondered why the premise of Stephen Colbert’s TV personality on Comedy Central is so “successful” in the sense that it’s on TV. Is it that, at the level of television media these days, a culture of resistance is not even ontologically imaginable or conceivable—imaginable or conceivable enough, anyway, to be parodied with a stereotype? All Colbert can do, it would seem, is imitate the object itself of his critique. He has to defer critique in order to first establish a credible imitation of the object. He has to hope, in doing so, that imitation in itself will be enough to communicate as critique to his viewers. But when Bill O’Reilly genuinely identifies with Colbert and thinks of the Colbert show as a clone of his own show—in other words takes Colbert imitating a rightwing position at face value as emulating The O’Reilly Factor—I’m stockt n all aw…! at the power of neocon ideology to condition and relentlessly reproduce perception. Same with neocons and fundals with The Simpsons—ratings suggest they love it… If the imitation is done well, superficially it will seem to ideologues and censors to contain nothing objectionable. But so much for critique… That’s what I mean by a text that does not reflexively address the social.
For years now, The Capilano Review has consistently published writing that questions the notions of writing itself, with this issue featuring work by, among others, S.C. Pinney, Sina Queyras, Cabri, Lissa Wolsak, Andrea Actis and Scott Inniss.


All is far
but love and war. Fair
call decides the science fair.
Drug maven scripts a fair
E tale. Fall fair
fair air fair
ground. No fair,
his wheel is round. Wheel fair.
It’s so noisy at the fair,
jusqu’ à ce que tous vos amis soient [fair].
Krásny. Slovak for fair.
“Losing isn’t fair,”
Maryland born and raised philosopher John Rawls syllogizes in Justice as Fair-
. “Ergo, life is not fair.”
Opinion of Fair-
port convention’s Farewell Farewell? Fair.
Queen B or a fair
rendering of an R.A.F. air
strip. Fair
to middling women fair
unnamable bucketts to build a fair
Vladimir, dig a fair
well to Eleutheria. Fair
Xanthippe says, “Old love is fair,
young love, a fair.”Zoo instead of fair. (Scott Inniss)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Katia Grubisic, What if red ran out

Baffled King Collage

What if the things we fear are
Leonard Cohen covers, or
coats made of chagrin,
well worn and inintentionally
the right size; what if
a peculiar scarcity
of bell tollers left
coppery gothic whistles stunning
the city; what if
red ran out; what if it ends up
you and me and another
hallelujah, not much godly
about it; and those slit cardboard eclipse thingies
are no good
and we are condemned
to suffer a dreadful fate,
ambling around half blind
in this coat we hadn’t anticipated.
Unwilling to toss it
casually as if we did this
all the time, over the lone, lonely tree,
in case its branches refuse
to bend as much as we want.

When I read in Montreal recently with Montreal poet Katia Grubisic, I was struck by the endings I was hearing to her poems, and immediately picked up a copy of her first collection, What if red ran out (Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2008). I’m intrigued by the thoughtful flow of Grubisic’s poems. I don’t usually care for such straight lines, full sentences and the like, and many of the poems make me wonder why she works in the poem instead of writing a kind of lyric fiction; what could she do with such fiction? In this first collection, she keeps repeating the image of red, as in the poem “The Audubon Guide to Self-Pity,” starting with the line “When I lost the taste / for robins, I began taking pictures / of red.” or the poem “Life Jacket,” writing:

your eyes seared and blue drinking in the sky while in mine
the sun never sets these days. I am nowhere
on this river, wish you were here, and not stranded
at the mailbox. I can’t tell if the red flag is up
but animals are going nuts all around you in your night garden –

Another reference is in the poem “Strawberry Jam,” another poem with an ending that ends the poem before the poem itself, letting the edges flow over, writing:

The lamp and my mother, at the end of the way,
silhouetted, two crazy women suddenly unsure

whether they’d been asked over. Yesterday morning I tilted
the end of one jam jar into the beginning of another, trying to tell

when empty is empty, though the deep red stickiness lines
each raised glass letter, as if the jar had been blown in the same

flames that make our summer kitchens untenable, in what stays
through we decide we are done pouring.

Just what is it about red? (And does anyone remember when Vancouver poet Earle Birney asked what was so big about green?) There is so much of it here, it could never run out. There are long stretches of lines I sometimes find myself tripping over, but Grubisic remains a poet who often manages endings far better than most, taking the road less traveled, and writing against expectation and even into surprise, writing a clear understanding into the way she wraps up each of her small poems. More often than not, her poems are made from enviable ends. Still, when she writes at the beginning of the same “Strawberry Jam” poem that “It trickles slowly, like a scowl […]” why can’t she instead write without the “like,” writing it directly “a scowl”? Why be like the thing instead of the thing itself? Why does she include such distance?


The trouble with deciding to kiss someone,
anyone, anywhere at all – the hand, or at the foot

of a canyon – is that the moment you lean
over, mean to displace the air

between mouth and mouth and hover
at the bottom of that canyon, so far

below sea level there is no question
that perception is screwed up

and we might as well be speaking
German for all the good the kiss is doing,

that instant as you linger for some display
of intention and get an inkling

it’s the pressure that holds it
together, the moment you give

in and the jig is up and the cat
is out happens precisely

when the beloved aspires
to be wholly other, spots the twin boomerangs

of swifts mating on the wing,
is when the river decides

to peruse the craggy landscape, embark
on its mid-afternoon drench, slaloming against the walls

even burros can’t scale and slams beneath
the nearly kissing, sweeping

them off their feet, to somewhere or

Katia Grubisic’s What if red ran out is a collection of poems writing birds, strawberry jam, travel and domestic affairs (as well as various other subject matter), writing poems that linger on small episodes and moments that are so often overlooked, holding to what is usually never seen, let alone considered. I am intrigued by what her small poems are doing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Maxine Chernoff’s The Turning

I’m fascinated by this collection of new poems by American poet Maxine Chernoff, The Turning (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2008). Built very much as a graceful whole made out of smaller pieces, her deceptively clear and straightforward style works its way in under the surfaces of the skin, even as it appears, like water, bouncing off even as it has already soaked through. In The Turning, Chernoff writes a number of poems that bounce off quotes by such as Hannah Arendt, Donald Rumsfeld, Roger Shattuck, CG Jung, Laura Riding and Hans Arp, building the first section of her collection as carved through history and the page.

Light and Clay
“Will the dust praise thee?”—PSALM 30:9

The page was a place
before morality
before Gilgamesh
before the second prophet
of revealed law

The page was a hybrid
of value and valuelessness
a hybrid of community
and selfishness
a foster child of devotion

The page was experience
in semantic terms
a folie à deux
a terminal location

Cowboys and princes
offered their lives
the cult of the dead
worshipped there too
lacking in value
it saw only faces

The page was a room,
a picnic, a heaven
the utopia of words
in a region of want

The page was a bride groom,
a bride and a lover,
the child of the union
of religion and anarchy

“I will reflect it,” the page
said on Sunday
“I will absorb it,”
the page meant to add

Between death and rebirth
the page stood waiting
words came to call
speechless at best

Chernoff, the author of over a dozen books of poetry and fiction (including a previous Apogee publication, Among the Names), works a poetry written as political both through how it talks about politics itself, as well as history, and how it works through the language. All writing is political, someone once wrote, and Chernoff’s is no different, but for the fact that it is deliberately so, but with such a light and knowing touch that its power comes through subtle means, instead of through direct force.

And Words For
“Our human logic and our language do not in
any way correspond to time.”—


The moment after the flashlight

The time we were not sorry

The woman who knew too little

Her assault upon community

The darkness of the hour

The black he never wore

Crime’s passion and passion’s crime

The quiet irony of place

His death in ‘74

Antecedent of the war’s eye-view

My failure to succumb

Candor of former confessions

Harbor beyond the harbor

The crowded field of action


Comedic lines replacing
lost histories of space

Affinity for landing
in sorrow’s heavy gift

The Stradavarian grace
of longitudinal signs

Until the celebration
replaces patient thought

When everything is art
and life may prove you wrong