Thursday, December 30, 2010

jwcurry's Messagio Galore Take VII;


an evening of sound poetry (& similar) focussing on extended works & miniatures
Sunday, January 23, 2011 ; Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery; 111 Laurier Avenue West

featuring the voices of
jwcurry, Lesley Marshall, Christine McNair, Alastair Larwill, Grant Wilkins

reading work by:
Antonin Artaud
Alastair Larwill
Robert Ashley
don sylvester houédard
Sam Loyd
Michèle Provost
Richard Truhlar
bob cobbing
Ernst Jandl
Franz Mon
Rob Read
Frank Zappa

Doors open at 7:00 pm, reading at 7:30 pm. $15 at the door

Interview on December 23, 2010 with jwcurry about the upcoming performance (CKCU Literary Landscapes with Christine McNair): literary-landscapes-jw-curry

Links to other Messagio Galore notices/reviews here;

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Kyle Schlesinger on Cuneiform Press

Kyle Schlesinger writes and lectures on poetry, visual communication and artists’ books. For nearly a decade, he has been the proprietor of Cuneiform Press, a nonprofit publisher specializing in poetry, artists’ books and typography. His most recent scholarly book is Poems & Pictures: A Renaissance in the Art of the Book, published in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name. Two books of poems are forthcoming in 2011: What You Will from NewLights Press in Colorado and Picture Day from Electio Editions in Australia. Schlesinger is an Assistant Professor of Communication Design and English at the University of Houston-Victoria.

1 – When did Cuneiform Press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
Historically, printing preceded publishing, and that’s true of my own involvement with both activities. I’m not sure if I think of myself as a publisher, and I’m sure I didn’t think of myself as one ten years ago. Jeremy James Thompson once usefully remarked that a publisher’s job is essentially to pay the bills, deliver a product, oversee sales, and other aspects of the day-to-day operation of a business. That’s a big part of it. A publisher is sometimes an editor and less-often-than-sometimes a printer or bookmaker. In the small press world, James Laughlin, John Martin, Steve Clay, and even Jonathan Williams are wonderful publishers, but they don’t actually print or design their books. Charles Alexander, Alastair Johnston, Asa Benveniste, and Harry Duncan have a slightly different orientation. My interest has always been in how language comes to mean, particularly, how poetry works as a material, visual, and textual form of art. This manifests in many ways, from the more conventional codex to artists’ books as concept, archetype, and form. In that way, advertising, mail art, and text & image collaborations share a vocabulary.

I began printing in the ’90s when I bought my first press, a George Prouty and Sons platen, along with a bit of type and other necessities from a couple in rural Vermont. Inspired by the work of one of my teachers at that time who had served as the campus printer at Black Mountain College, I decided to teach myself how to set type and operate the machine. He had studied with Joseph Albers (and this is long before Charles Olson’s time as rector) and his printing from that period reflected the Bauhaus aesthetic: sans serif type; red, black, and yellow ink; all lowercase. No full stops—straight from Weimar to North Carolina! Friends and I tinkered with the press and printed all kinds of sloppy stuff: Julia Kristeva bookmarks; stationery for Gertrude Stein; instructions for using a compost toilet; as well as playbills; and posters for the school lecture series.

It wasn’t until 2001 that I ‘published’ a chapbook for a friend, just for the fun of it. I say that because there was no manifesto, no sponsorship, no business model, no ambition to overthrow the establishment, etc. I just had a great poetry manuscript and enough Bembo type to get the job done (Bembo was Larry Fagin’s idea). The book had some flaws in its design (including an upside-down ‘s’ on the cover!), but I still like the poems. Now that Cuneiform is coming up on ten years, I’m fairly certain that having fun is still the first priority. Printing books and ephemera is just a small way of contributing to the community of writers that are doing the most import work today, and I’m very humbled and happy to be a part of it.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I read books. I write books. I design books. I print and bind books. I write about books. I edit books. I teach books. I buy books. I sell books. I donate books. I study books. I blog books. I review books. I recycle books. I read and write books-about-books and even read and write reviews about books-about-books. I deface and destroy books. I’m not alone. One of the things I like most about being a bibliophile is that it’s a surprising social occupation: everyone has an opinion about books. A favorite book, author or library. A favorite font. Pro or anti-kindle. What about Facebook? An uncle who was a linotype operator, a cousin who mimeographed the church newsletter, a friend who wrote a novel and never published it. All of this interests me, whereas, when I introduce myself as a ‘poet’ to the guy sitting next to me at the airport, the conversation usually doesn’t go very far. I’m quite committed to the idea that theory is never more than practice, that the tradition of printing, design and publishing is never more than a history of innovation. Engaging with that history is essential if one really wants to try to do something new. Seeing and reading books by Johanna Drucker, Ed Ruscha, Dick Higgins, Graham Mackintosh, Clifford Burke, Jack Stauffacher, Wallace Berman, Jan Tschichold, Gelett Burgess, William Morris, William Blake, William Caxton, Gutenberg’s bible, and so much in-between set me off: the book itself is a form of research, a way of finding one’s self in one’s time. It’s a totally exhilarating, physically satisfying, and yes, totally monotonous, trivial and tedious occupation at the same time.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
Contributing to the growth of a community of thoughtful, intellectual, and engaged writers and readers is central. You do this all the time on your blog, through your readings and writings, and I appreciate it. One falls into a lifestyle. Producing books that are challenging, beautiful, and interesting is also important. The poetry world is usefully small, which is virtuous in its own way, but it also puts a cap on what we can do politically. This may be part of the reason I think it is important for printers, publishers and designers to volunteer to support organizations that will reach a wider audience, whatever the cause. I’m less committed to advancing the work of esoteric poets whose work is overtly concerned with advancing a particular social or political cause than I am to doing a little pro bono work for an organization that will reach a wider audience. Ginsberg, Dylan, Waldman, and Baraka are among the few American poets I admire who really had the ability to mobilize the masses.

That said, the small press is the only way the face of literature has, or will ever change. As the larger presses (and I mean digital too) continue to consolidate and become more homogenous the small presses continue to diversify and represent cultures and aesthetics that are underserved. Now that anyone with access to a laptop computer can technically become a ‘publisher’ using free, user-friendly online publishing software like Blogger or print-on-demand technologies, one has to wonder what, if any specialization is required of a publisher? What place does the publisher have in the world today? I guess I’m asking the same question as you.
4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Mimeo Mimeo is a periodical published by Cuneiform that I co-edit with Jed Birmingham. The focus is on artists’ books, typography, and the mimeo revolution. We wanted to create a space where Fine Print, Journal of Artists Books, and any number of poetry magazines of the latter-half of the twentieth century (Floating Bear, Fuck You, Adventures in Poetry, Big Sky, etc.) might intersect. We’re about to publish our 4th issue with a focus on the British Poetry Revival. So far as I know, no one’s ever done anything quite like this before, tho we’re totally indebted to Steve Clay and Rodney’ Phillips’s A Secret Location on the Lower East Side book and exhibition at the New York Public Library. We handle most of the distribution ourselves, so we’re always kind of shocked when we get an order from Iceland or Romania or a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. Mimeo Mimeo is very much a part of our own research and collecting, while I also see it tied to the larger agenda of Cuneiform’s devotion to the intersection of poetry, typography, and artists’ books.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
Simon Cutts has written magnificently on the complicated subject of distribution in his book Some Forms of Availability and elsewhere. It’s an imperfect system, one that is always active, always changing. Look at any library and try to explain how it was assembled. Fascinating. I recently sent out at least 1,000 postcards for a new Charles Olson book to be published by Cuneiform, and Amiri Baraka was the only one who actually wrote a check for twenty bucks and put it in the mailbox. The postal system doesn’t work for advertising, but everyone loves getting goodies in the mail. Checkbooks are obsolete. FaceBook is an addiction, a good way to get information moving around, but it doesn’t serve as a medium for productive discussion. You ‘like’ it or you move on. The Poetics Listserv was a great source of conversation and information for some time, then attention began to move towards blogs, but of course a lot of people say the blog is obsolete. So is the Tweet. It’s all in flux now, as the ever-present debate whether or not to do away with analog entirely makes the question of buying a particular book an arbitrary decision at best. Sales of romance novels are booming on the e-book market because they can be bought, sold, and read in private—no boobs or biceps on the cover to distract strangers on the train! But poetry, as we’ve seen in the recent e-book version of Ginsberg’s Howl, has a long way to go before it’s legible online. That bugs me, so I may well take the press in that direction.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I give a manuscript my unconditional support or I don’t bother to comment on it at all. I never make editorial suggestions outside of basic proofreading or typographical inquiries. That said, I do ask a lot of questions of authors and try to learn as much about the manuscript as possible. I should also mention that I have a policy that I read everything (or as close to everything as possible) that an author has written and about that author before I publish one of their books. In addition to providing me with a better understanding of their oeuvre, it also gives me a sense of how their other books were designed. I line all of their books up on the shelf and consider how their Cuneiform title will sit with all the others in terms of the spine’s height, width, color, etc.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
People can buy our books from Small Press Distribution or through our website. They are also available from a dozen very cool, very personal, independent bookstores in the US, Canada, and Europe. Vamp & Tramp sells for us, along with a handful of other dealers whose sales are primarily online or by appointment only. Most runs are between 250 and 1,000, tho if something is produced in my workshop by hand there might only be a couple copies. Do it and move on. Those go directly to friends, patrons of the press and a handful of special collections libraries.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
Informally, there have always been a lot of people involved with Cuneiform. I’ve taught dozens of letterpress workshops, seminars on the history of the book, guest-lectures, etc. and many of my friends and former students have gone on to set up their own presses. That’s not part of the nuts-and-bolts of the editing and production, but I consider quality dialogue and community to be at the core of Cuneiform’s mission beyond making books. Or better yet, that dialogue is an essential part of the making books. There’s a whole lot of conversation and correspondence always happening, so I don’t think I’ve really ever done anything alone, but at the end of the day, it’s just me. No board-of-directors, no staff, no hired hands aside from the folks in Michigan who print our trade editions. As I mentioned earlier, Jed and I edit Mimeo Mimeo together, where we both pitch in on ideas, editing, and design. My friends are always sending me books in the mail, links to new poems online, curating readings, attending conferences, circulating research, magazines, videos, and audio recordings. All of this helps to inform my decisions about what, when, and how to read.

In addition to running the press, I’m heading up a new graduate program specializing in publishing in Victoria, Texas. As part of the curriculum, students work with me on the Cuneiform books, which is a relatively new, but welcome change. I believe that consensus is the gateway drug to mediocrity, so we never design that way; but having a forum for discussion, research, and presentation is a wonderful opportunity to hash out our ideas. It certainly takes some of the isolation out of certain projects, and for the students, I think it’s a golden opportunity to move beyond the realm of dormant ‘exercises’ and an excuse to contribute to an actual publication.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
It’s hard to say, since I’ve basically been an editor/publisher for as long as I’ve been a writer. I would imagine that if I wasn’t constantly looking at poetry and criticism from the inside out as an editor (books from the inside out as a printer), I might view it from the outside in as a reader. Nothing is ever finished. The book is never done. No work is complete. An old friend of mine, a painter, once told me that he can’t walk into a museum and not feel an urge to get back to the studio to paint, or the desire to take a brush to the work hanging before him on the wall. I can appreciate that.

10 – How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
When Johanna Drucker sent me the manuscript From Now (Cuneiform Press, 2005), she explained that she produces her artists’ books independently, while she sends her texts to publishers. By drawing this distinction between ‘texts’ and ‘artists books,’ I think she meant that when she has an idea for a book where the form and the content are irrevocably intertwined, or somehow contingent upon the process of composing and/or writing, she pursues it on her own as an artist’s book under the Druckwerk imprint. Whereas, if there’s basically a text, a sequence of letters, words, sentences, etc. that don’t require a specific format or treatment, she turns it over to a publisher. That would certainly be true of the scholarly books of hers that have been published by academic presses. I tend to think similarly about my own work. Her statement clarified something important that I had been trying to articulate at the time. I’ve produced and distributed a number of artists’ books through Cuneiform that contain my own writing, images, design, etc. but I send my ‘texts’ out to publishers I respect. In those cases, I really don’t have a very strong opinion about the presentation of the work. Actually, my next book is called What You Will and it will be brought out by NewLights Press in 2011. Knowing that the manuscript was going to a printer and artist I like very much, ‘do what you will’ was my only thought on the design, and seemed like an appropriate title. I’ve seen some of the proofs, which are out of this world. Aaron Cohick is as good as they come. I certainly don’t think there’s anything ‘wrong’ with self-publishing, in fact, many of my favorite books were self-published or published with the help of a friend, etc. Often, this is where the most ambitious and creative thinking gets done, so I’m all for it. Coleman and Nichol were doing the kind of ‘self-publishing’ I admire. My greater concern is the centralization of the mainstream news, major publishing houses, radio, film, and television. That kind of monopoly over our essential information that comes closer to the kind of ‘self-publishing’ I condemn.
11 – How do you see Cuneiform Press evolving?
We used to publish chapbooks by emerging poets, but we’re doing less of that these days. They cost as much as, if not more than trade editions to produce, but they rarely get reviewed. Nobody buys them, even if there’s only a few hundred copies produced from the outset. I’m not sure if there’s really even any reason to sit around sewing or stapling photocopies now that the first fully-computer literate generation of writers are well-established in and outside the academy. A lot of young writers have half a dozen books out by the time they’re thirty! I’m not opposed to that, I just don’t know if I have a place in it, aside from championing the work of the individuals I admire. Cuneiform has never been associated with any particular school or movement, and I think that must reflect the eclectic nature of my own reading as well as the small press at large. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to teach a class where we read the books of a certain press, rather than an author, movement or period. Could you imagine anything more disruptive and various? It could be wonderful.

Alan Loney’s The Books to Come was the first in our new series on typography. It was a huge success, the culmination of years of writing on the art of the book by one of the greatest contemporary authorities on the subject we have. This will be followed by Alastair Johnston’s collection of interviews with poets, typographers and publishers entitled Hanging Quotes, due out this spring. I will continue to publish at least one trade book of poems and one artist’s book a year. I had always scoffed at systems, but began using ISBN numbers and barcodes for the first time this year, obtained non-profit status, etc. so after ten years of more or less spontaneous production on a break-even-quick budget, a bit of regularity has taken shape.

I’m also really happy to have acquired Michael Waltuch’s Vandercook. This is the one he used to print Whale Cloth books. All letterpress, gorgeous early works by Kit Robinson, Alan Bernheimer, Bob Grenier, and others. Dan Morris at the Arm in Brooklyn helped me pick it up in Massachusetts, polished it up, and shipped it to me in Austin. Dan is the best. I’ve got new rollers, fixed the motor, fixed the trip, and have been staying up late this week sorting type while I wait for the guides and packing to come from NA Graphics via UPS. The new pressroom is almost ready—the first time I’ve had a private workshop.

12 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
I couldn’t have done, or do anything without great manuscripts and great books to guide me. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished much, but I have been fortunate to access incredible people and resources. I don’t think there’s ever been a more interesting time to get into publishing.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Aldus, Aldus, and Aldus. That’s true, to some degree, but more to the point, it was a lot of trial and error. I sent the books, and continue to send the books, to the writers and publishers I like. Paul Romaine, now the president of the American Printing History Association, would send me detailed critiques of the books. His interest in poetry stopped at Milton or Pope, so he always had a completely fresh take on things. Terry Belanger at Rare Books School was also a great proponent of tough love. Same goes for Walter Hamady. I don’t know if these were models, but I was very moved by their work and words.

14 – How does Cuneiform Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Cuneiform Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. But a good one. Today is December 13, 2010. On the Mimeo Mimeo blog I wrote about a new Kate Greenstreet poetcard with art by Cherie Weaver published by Cindy St. John’s Headlamp Press. I also wrote about the second issue of Ben Tripp’s side-stapled, letter-size, mimeo-ish mag called Gerry Mulligan, as well as a new broadside printed letterpress by Jon Beacham of The Brother in Elysium. Plus a beautiful book printed by Friedrich Kerksieck at the Small Fires Press by Emily Kendal Grey. It’s called Feelings Using Wolves. Scott Pierce of Effing Press came over for a bit to say hello and to check out the new paper cutter I bought last week. I emailed a bit with: Geoffrey Gatza at BlazeVox about Bill Berkson’s new book; Ryan Murphy (a letterpress printer who publishes under many different imprints); the Perdika Press out of the UK about Berkson’s new chapbook Lady Air; Michael Waltuch of Whale Cloth Press about an interview; and Michael Klausman, a poet of the highest order and record dealer who will be curating an exhibition of poets’ lps for the next issue of Mimeo Mimeo. At the post office, I sent some broadsides to David Abel in Portland, Anne Waldman in NYC, and Deborah Poe at Pace University. Postcards thanking Edric Mesmer for the most recent issue of Yellow Field and Les Figures Press for Mathew Timmons’s new The New Poetics were also sent. That’s a day, or an example.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
In New York, I worked at the Poetry Project as a curator. I enjoyed it, but since I moved to Austin, I haven’t gotten involved in planning readings, tho my family did host a house reading by David Abel on a whim when he came to town and it turned out to be a lot of fun. I’m attracted to the live reading in the same way that I’m attracted to the bookstore; I can listen to many of my favorite contemporary writers on PennSound or Ubu but I still enjoy a live reading, much in the way that I prefer the movie theatre to a DVD, a concert to the MP3. It’s really about the experience, and in terms of live entertainment, poetry is just about the cheapest date you can get.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Boy, what doesn’t happened online? In one way or another? Eventually? I’m doing more research on e-books and interactive design these days, so there’s a good chance that we’ll be distributing in analog and digital formats soon.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
No, no submissions. Most of the work is commissioned or casually solicited. I like Rich Owens’ claim that the word ‘submission’ suggests that the writer is inferior, lesser-than the editor or publisher. Contributor, on the other hand, suggests something of a symbiotic relationship between writer and publisher. Stone soup. I’ve never wanted to get involved with the world of prizes and awards, the business of creating false visions of affirmation that pray on writers’ insecurities. I can’t think of anything more damaging to the face of literature. A lot of small presses go that route to make a few bucks but I don’t think there’s much to be gained. Writing (and receiving) ‘rejection letters’ is a huge waste of everyone’s time. If you’re a good editor you’re paying attention, constantly asking writers you like what they’re reading, buying the new little magazines, supporting other small presses, going out to readings, taking it all in. I’d much rather go out looking for the work than stay in the office waiting for ‘something to publish’ to show up at the door.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Cuneiform’s three most recent books are Kit Robinson’s Determination, Michael Cross’ Haecceities and Alan Loney’s The Books to Come. The latter gathers together, for the first time, Loney’s radical essays that eloquently speak to the relationships between philosophy, poetry, and the art of the book. His tone is calm and meditative, while on a formal level, the book resembles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Haecceities is also the culmination of many years of work by one of the most energetic, yet slowest, poets I know. Cross is a serious OED junkie, a poet who works with the syllable rather than the line or strophe as his primary unit of thought, or sound. The poems push against the edge of another language, reflecting the complex rhythms of Peter Brotzmann, metronome of Grandmaster Flash, and philosophical preoccupations of Badiou. Robinson’s book came in yesterday’s mail. It’s a juicy collection of poems from the last ten years or so, the first trade edition since The Messianic Trees. Robinson is among the writers I respect most these days. Perhaps it has something to do with my own age, but I have a growing respect for writers who have put out a dozen books or more with consistent integrity. There’s so much overproduction, so much misguided ambition in publishing today that it’s really satisfying to sit down with something that sticks. 35 years of publishing, and Kit keeps getting better. I could say the same of Michael Gizzi, who died too soon, writing his very best work.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

our first post-mother christmas,

This is what we looked like on Christmas Eve, just after lunch; my daughter, Kate (who turns 20 on January 4), with my sister Kathy (holding her middle, Rory), Emma (eldest) on the floor, our white-haired father (why won't he look at the camera?), and Duncan on the floor, ignoring everything. This was the best picture I could manage of the bunch (like herding cats, I swear to god).

A little bit stressful, our first Christmas since mum died in August. I suggested to Kathy that we take turns yelling at each other, randomly, for no reason, but she didn't like that so much. Apparently she has her children for that.

Not what I expected 40 to be, certainly. I am hoping this next year far better, on the whole lot of us.

Been on the farm a few days, second trip in less than two weeks, various things happening, various stresses that require assistance. Last week, it allowed me to catch the Christmas show at Maxville Public School, with Kathy's two girls performing -- Emma was a tree, and Rory a star. What fine performances they both gave. Haven't been in that building since I left grade six, "class of 1982." Duncan wanted to participate too, but isn't in school yet (Kathy had to catch him before he climbed, for reasons unknown, underneath the stage). And then Emma's 7th birthday, which involved a household of three children inviting in seven more, including two for a sleep-over; what was my sister even thinking? Heh; at least she had wine.

Arrived back here the morning of the 23rd (thanks to a ride from Stephen Brockwell), returned to pick up Kate the following morning. Christmas eve was dinner at my sister's house, and presents. Kathy been going through stress, so after returning Kate home Christmas morning, we went to Cornwall to see a movie (The Tourist, much better than we'd expected, despite the first third all over the place, not making sense). Boxing Day means Kathy in Ottawa at the sales with our cousin Lori Anne and Aunt Bette (widow of our mother's youngest sibling, Bob), before Dad and I take Kathy's children up to Orleans to meet up for another dinner. Family, etc.

Back to Ottawa tomorrow, I think. Not entirely sure, yet.

Home now means scanning, also. Since mum went, found some hundreds of photos from her family, including a steamer trunk belonging to her own mother, who went a decade earlier. It means photos going back another couple of generations on all sides, including an old tin type image of my great-great-grandmother (one of six tin images I've found, and the only one, apparently, labelled). This is an image of Sarah Jane Carroll (June 5, 1852, Kemptville -- March 14, 1903, Kemptville), who married William Patrick Swain (May 8, 1847 -- April 22, 1907), later parents of my mother's mother's father, Joseph Joe Swain, WWI veteran, and later, who retired to be a school crossing guard in Kemptville for generations of schoolchildren.

Scanning pictures and emailing out to various family members, depending on which shots. Uncle Bob baby photos to his widow and children, pics they haven't seen either. Their second post-Bob holiday.

Going through my father's family photos too, since so few left to know who anyone is. Why are so few of these labelled? Many my father doesn't even know, potentially making them entirely lost to us. Working through all of it the past four months into a creative non-fiction manuscript of some sort that keeps getting larger. Not entirely sure where it might end up, all go. At this point, I don't think I should even be thinking of such; I should just be researching, scanning, organizing, and writing. Let it naturally grow.

I've found images of my mother's mother at six months, my mother's father and uncle as children, of their own parents as younger adults, of another one or two generation back; photos of my mother's first birthday, and even her first steps. My mother in Ottawa in 1956, looking dangerous and sixteen, alluring in ways I've never seen and even admire. Before we were even imaginary.

Strange the things we discover, once someone has actually gone. To fill the absences, I suppose.

Listening to Momus today; and another one; god knows why.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

the peter f yacht club regatta & christmas party

span-o (the small press action network - ottawa) presents:
the peter f yacht club reading/regatta/christmas party
at the carleton tavern
lovingly hosted by rob mclennan

with readings by yacht club regulars & irregulars,
including Monty Reid, rob mclennan, Pearl Pirie, Amanda Earl, Cameron Anstee, & plenty of others;

Thursday, December 30, 2010;
doors 7pm; reading 7:30pm
The Carleton Tavern, 223 Armstrong Street (at Parkdale; upstairs)

information on the peter f. yacht club with links to issues here:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ongoing notes: mid-December, 2010

[Gregory Betts, post-purchase at jwcurry's Room 302 Books] I’ve been distracted lately, by many things. Where are all the review copies of chapbooks I used to get in the mail? I get so few, it seems, now. Are there simply fewer being produced? Are they all and only coming out of Toronto? Don’t forget our Peter F. Yacht Club reading/Christmas Party, December 30, 7pm at the Carleton Tavern; I mean, you’re coming, right?

And recently, I’ve been sending out further review copies of Chaudiere Books titles; let me know if anyone is interested in receiving a copy of any of our titles for review, or wish to interview a particular author. Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley was nice enough to recommend Pearl Pirie's been shed bore (Chaudiere) on the Advent Books Blog recently.

Toronto ON: It’s good to see something new from Beth Follett, author of a novel produced by Coach House so long ago we can barely remember. Where have you been, Beth Follett, writer? Her new collection of ten poems, Bone Hinged (Toronto ON: espresso, 2010) is produced by an imprint of another lost-name, Bernard Kelly’s Paperplates, that “magazine for fifty readers.” Might this be, two-fold, the beginning of something new? Follett’s poems have the narrative element of a finely-tuned short story, carved down to its sharpest essence.
Dark Harbour

Geese haphazardly assembling
fall down through dark
and wild swans neck and neck
fly low
in the early morning parabola of this broken bowl.

Cargo straining in the harbour
and the thing that thumps lifts the bloodhound’s head.

If morning were written under duress
would human beings utter words like
trippy’ and ‘untie me’
as the world awakes in dénouement?

Not that I cannot wade out
over my head
or wander far beyond
these losses you cannot see.

Not that I cannot shoulder wonder
or this fine swanny light.
Produced in an edition of 150 copies, you can order through or c/o paperplates books, 19 Kenwood Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M6C 2R8 or email

Toronto ON: I’m intrigued by the deliberate misspellings, alterations, runs and spaces in Frederick Farryl Goodwin’s Buber’s Bag Man (Toronto ON: The Gig, 2010), produced in April 2010 “on the occasion of the post_moot conference, Miami University of Ohio.” Do you remember when The Gig used to exist as a journal? Alongside Queen Street Quarterly, perhaps the least-known and most-missed of all the small journals in Canada over the past twenty years.
I was running into a problem in the with the Heat. The awful energy of the counterweights in the form of like the sky. There was “a primitive in a blue serge suit” [said by a critic of Imamura/the eel], a bizarre litrary gorilla [the bosoton globe ideas section long piece about literary scholars Sunday 5/12/08]. indeed to eat in the tinfush diner which soshi kamikaze ran in his spare time after work. I flew the ccop of the once-overs the voiceovers inside of me I cooked for spare parts. Then the tumor grew big as a yew so my mother and brothers used it for stew. i mikd the barley at midnight to hear the cricket s calling to the crum bums in cadillacs. At 2 in the morning I ate flapjacks & played craps between wall w/ in the wallpaper flypapered over my knuckles. Bolts of unusable cloth beating wet song with bird song. Then the dawning of [what see m ,ed& I hoped were] the final days.
In Goodwin’s mix of right margined and centred poems, its as though he constructs his pieces precisely to keep the reader’s perceptions off-balance, from cohering into something narratively false, through the connections that words can’t help but make. His poems are made of the shifts language make, and the spaces between, as opposed to poems constructed from accumulated or combined meanings, whether his poem “Iraq,” ending with the couplet, “Olde Catullus w/ his off the cuff riffs & one liners / Gaius Valerius Catullus w/ his off the cuff riffs & one liners,” or the poem “Gloucester,” that reads:


Three sirens, peacock landlubbers in blue chiffon, all poor dancers with carnival pitchforks,
entice him [to] by the razor of the river’s edge / their ragged reedy

cacophonies soaking jasmine roots to determine if his ancestors had a space for him in
their cemetery. in the end so what was the point of stuffing my mouth with

sugar ants. Even my eyes haunted me when I put them out with lye. For a while, I survived
as a preacher, then tried my hand at emotional extortion along with my

sidekick Sirk. But in the end something callous and calamitous would happen to everyone I
knew. But, never having been, I would not be one of them.

Toronto ON: After a silence of some time, comes Toronto poet Stephen Cain with the small chapbook Stanzas (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010). Where might this poem fit inside his eventual larger ouvre? For a poet who builds collections (often) of tens, is this one of a sequence of nine further pieces? The poem begins:
Perform without a spotlight.
Fat belt tightening.
A mix for the masters.
Starve the saccharine smiths.
Apparent apartheid.

Attired for the execution.
A speaking sacrifice.
In chancery.

Minimal music, rapid repetition.
Soft fidelity circular saw query accepted.
Cain’s is a poem of short, clipped phrases, something his poems have been increasingly made of, these past few years, and constructed as “an allusive referential reduction of ‘Rooms’ by Gertrude Stein.” I’m intrigued at how Stephen Cain’s writing repeatedly returns to Stein. But where do his accumulations take us? Is this simply a poem of short, sharp stanzas, writing out a piece of staccato musicality, or is there something else, there, inside Cain’s essence of Stein’s compact lines?

Monday, December 20, 2010

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Yasmin Ladha

Yasmin Ladha is a Canadian fiction writer, currently working in Muscat, Oman. She completed her BA and MA in English at the University of Calgary. Her published works include the collection of short stories, Lion’s Granddaughter and Other Stories (NeWest Press, 1992); the chapbook Bridal Hands on the Maple (Second Wednesday Press, 1992); and Women Dancing on Rooftops: Bring your Belly Close, a book of short stories, documentary-fiction, personal essays and poetry (TSAR, 1997). Her story “Coca-Cola and Cowboys” was awarded first prize in a CBC Radio short story competition in 2005. Her new book is the novel Blue Sunlight Startle, published by Freehand Books in 2010.

1)  How did your first book change your life?  How does your most recent work compare to your previous?  How does it feel different?

A)  With the first book, Lion’s Granddaughter and Other Stories, my name became familiar to the university communities in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.  There were no big changes but tweakings: for example, invitations to submit work for anthologies came at my doorstep.  After Lion’s Granddaughter, I wrote Women Dancing on Rooftops: Bring your belly close, a mixed-genre book of short stories, documentary-fictions and poetry, more language than a plot book.  My most recent work, Blue Sunflower Startle (Freehand Books, 2010), a novel, has made me better-crafted, less Rococo.  I focused on trajectory.  This is what I am continuing to work on, even with my current work: prose-poems. I focus on muscle and contours of trajectory (plot).

2)  How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

A)  I started with poetry, not fiction.  My poetry appeared in literary journals.  Then I took creative writing workshops at The University of Calgary, both poetry and fiction.  I never gave thought to when I moved from poetry to fiction within a single piece of writing.  Workshops imposed discipline and curtailment: submitting work on time, editing others’ work and redrafts.  Workshops were also an indulgent space where a writer could experiment.  This comfortable, slightly stagey place, is where a writer could burgeon, a tad heady, a tad crazy.  In workshops, this ability of mine to swing poetry with fiction, was not cut off at the knees.  I have always written this way.  I continue to move between genres, like moving from one room to another, but within the same house, the same piece of writing.  For me, the boundaries between the genres are cozily fuzzy (poetry into fiction into essay writing into documentary fiction into memoirs) with the exception of playwriting.

3)  How long does it take to do any writing project?  Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?  So first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A)  Blue Sunflower Startle took me eleven years!  I just was not getting it right.  The content was roughly the same but it was a sprawling mass.  I worked hard on trajectory (with the firm hand of Robyn Read, my editor). A fair chunk was chucked out.  No, I do not rush.  I like to rewrite, overwrite and indulge myself. Then slowly, writing “this”, I discover “that”.  A mellow process, the space I need.   Once the novel is in the hands of an editor, then it is deadlines and speedy work, but the period before: the startle of words, the flow of content, the many starts and the many middles, the meanderings and copious redrafts for that cold burning startle that comes in spurts and bouts, is strictly my time.  No, I do not rush.

4)  Where does 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?
A)  For me, the former is true. I work from short pieces to create a big one.  More collage than an undisturbed book.  When I write a continual book with a brawny plotline and characters distinct from my reality, that would be a step up.

5)  Are public readings part of or counter to your activities process?  Are you the fort of writer who enjoys doing a reading?
A)  Readings do not hinder my writing process, but no, I do not enjoy them.  I am tense the whole week before a reading(s).  After the reading, it takes me a few days to settle in.  I do not like to perform.  I do not like to make small talk. This time, with Blue Sunflower Startle, the experience was wonderful!  I think when your publisher is behind you, looking out for your concerns and comfort, a writer is protected.  (I have not always had it.)  Also, there were no question-answer sessions this summer.  I cannot think on my feet.  I resent stupid questions.  I resent an interviewer who has not read my book and come to interview me (about what!).  I resent tedious explanations.  I resent having it thrust upon me to be a master of diverse subjects or allotted to be someone else’s mover and shaker.  Readers suddenly become experts telling me how to write my book!  I loathe having to market my book at a reading or in an interview.  Back to readings: this summer at home, I was watching, I think it was Writers and Company, where a writer suggested it is best to enjoy the experience.  I took the advice, along with copious glasses of wine, and since my people from Freehand Books were right there, I had a rosy and happy time at the podium.  The other point I wish to make is that I prepare hard for a reading. I am not sloppy.  Since my details, images and stories are from many cultures, I invest a lot in delivery, so that what is foreign becomes familiarly foreign in this physical meeting between the reader and writer.  I also do not explain.  Most of it is through voice: the reading itself.

6) 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?
A)  Whenever the word “theoretical” is mentioned, I get sleepy.  I did my MA when any I had to carry my deconstruction pliers in my study bag along with the novel to be read.   “Theory,” “frame within a frame,” these ways of reading is fascinating, but up to a point. In my own writing, I have no desire to answer questions.  This is how I write: I have already shared that I write “this” to discover “that”. I have also been influenced by what Iris Murdoch once wrote: that what is contained in the pages of a book or a painting can be imbibed more easily, then say, if the same story or painting were real life.  I am messily paraphrasing, but this is the essence.  Things that happen in real life may be things we may not be able to bear, but within the pages of a book, they ready us for sorrow.  Stories are my teachers for a brief season, so are contours of a piece of sculpture, so is a political thought, a film, a snippet from a ghazal, a tawdry Hindi song.  Suddenly I am a lapidist with who lovely stones in my hand.  Now, how to arrange them?

7)  What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?  Does s/he even have one?  What do you think the role of the writer should be?
A)  When I write, I do not start with the intention to change things up on the top the mountain, an epic whooshing down to the people.  In this, I do not write for the benefit of others.  I start from a hollow place, a private place that I enter with washed feet.  I write because something touches me, an observation quick as spit, or, slow as treacle, and I get frisky, ready to take off.   To add to this:  I do not create out of a vacuum. Art, music, writing, films have always contributed to the larger culture.  However, I also think our ability to reflect has taken a back seat (our biggest gift and hardest work).  I think we are also aware of this, but right now, we are happy hippos – it is that kind of season- bathing in tremendous information, gadgetry, instant connections and fame, all at the press of a button.

8)    Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both).

A) I have had editors all along my writing career.  At workshops, others critiqued my work.  This exposure made me a better writer and editor.  A good editor follows a writer’s sensibility.  This is where she situates herself.  She critiques from this place.  She does not impose.  To be a bit vulgar: (ideally) they shit from the same pot.  Strong communication between the two sharpens the writing at hand.  And it does not matter if the editor is in Calgary and the writer in Timbuktu!  I feel privileged when I work with editors, but then the writer has to be canny enough to know what to pull out of the editor (his/her strengths) and work from there.  My readers are not from a homogenous background, so at times, I blithely write away (an omelet of multi-worlds, a garish garnish of new words, or dropping words, or making them up.  A fauvish style: personal snippet-to poetry-to fiction-to a lover’s balcony [not Juliet’s for once, thank you very much]) until an editor reins me in with a stern, “Unpack!” in red. I return to my writing desk, back to the particular paragraph, word, or image, and work and work on it until we are both satisfied.  Normally, in making something clearer, I am adamant that the nuance remains raw (like when it came to be in a spurt).  In other words, the reader may still see something as foreign, but now, it is familiarly foreign.  Editors have been my catalyst for clearer, crisper writing.

9)  What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A)  Real writing occurs in rewriting.

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?
My work as a teacher takes most of my time.  I write mostly on the weekends and during the holidays.  If I have a deadline to meet, then sure, writing will be given precedence.  I find, especially as I get older, I am tired of juggling work and writing, and wish for a three month writing break.  I do keep connected with writing almost everyday, like jotting down a quote, writing down a detail, an insight, a corky phrase, clipping a picture or writing from a paper, thoughts.  Nothing has to be connected to my current writing.  In this, I am footloose.  I write this to discover that.   If I do not connect with my journal on a regular basis, I am discombobulated.  These connections are my ancillaries.  They support my writing process.  When I am actually writing, it is early, 4 am, and can go on until late in the morning. 

11)  When your writing gets stalled what do you turn or return to for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

A)  I have not got stalled.  I am a modicum writer as well as a disparate one. Perhaps I do not get stalled because I am constantly returning to the pages to smooth things out! Even whilst thinking, I clear my head on paper, so I have not as yet faced “The Block”.  Is it because I am constantly jotting down things, my subconscious is involved?  Is it because my writing process flushed, healthy?  (I admit most of it will not be published, but I am nicely warmed up like before a jog.)  I am not in a state of panic.  I panic when I have forgotten to think about writing or jot down something.  Then I am discombobulated.  I make mistakes at work and in my daily life.

12)  What fragrances remind you of home?

A)   I became aware of harnessing fragrances in workshops!  What stays with me when leaving home, what I will not let go off are The Globe and Mail pages that I am carrying on the airplane.  In Muscat, which is generally 40 degrees, I miss not being able to pad around the house in thick socks.  I miss winter clothes.  Honestly, I miss flannel shirts and pulling the end of sleeves to cover my cold fingers or wipe my runny nose! 

13)  David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but there are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual arts?
A)  Yes to McFadden’s comment.  As well, my response is covered in question 7).  I am a sponge.  I will imbibe anything that startles or jostles me.  It can be a hymn or a tear-jerker commercial (particularly syrupy, insurance commercials, then I have a lachrymose disposition.)

14)  What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A)  I learn from writers.  Even as I am reading, I pay attention to detail, the way historical and cultural facts are woven in (Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna).  In the end, however, I am floored by language, be it an article in The Guardian Weekly, or a novel, or fine writing in Walrus.

15)  What would you like to do that you haven’t done?
A)  Write a play.

16)  If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?  Or, alternatively, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A)  I would like to be a gardener, a potter, or drive big trucks (I do not even have a driving license)!  I have not a clue how to plant seeds, but yes, if I could daydream, those would be the jobs.  Had I not been a writer, I would have ended up doing some kind of office work.

17)  What made you want to write as opposed to doing something else?

A)  Stories have always placated me.  Somewhere in my teens, I started writing poems.  And then at university, I joined writing workshops, but without much thinking, rather, I bobbed towards writing.

18)  What was the last great book that you ever read?  What was a great film?

A)  May I ignore the adjective “great”?  Books, music, films affect you differently, depending on the state of mind you are in at the time.  The last book I very much enjoyed was Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. I relish Margaret Forster’s work.  A film where I walked about in a daze the next day and had gin for breakfast to stop the hurt was Yojiro Takita’s film, Departures.

19)  What are you currently working on?

A)  A book of short story-poems.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Arms of the Infinite: Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, by Christopher Barker

Tilty Mill House was a solid, red-brick Victorian building with eight rooms and a Rayburn solid-fuel stove at its heart. There was no electricity. We were used to this from living in Ireland. By using candles, oil lamps and highly efficient “Tillies” (which burned methylated spirits vaporized through a cotton mantle) we had evening light. The house was girded with a peeling white fence that gave way at the front to a hardened mud yard. The house stood among black wooden byres and from their depths we heard cattle stamp and low. A dense wood reared up on one side of the farmyard and Tilty Church stood looking down behind us from across a cow pasture.
For Ottawa-born-and-raised author Elizabeth Smart, it seems as though there are more books on her than by her out in the world, but that doesn’t mean the appearance of a new title, The Arms of the Infinite: Elizabeth Smart and George Barker (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010) by the second of her four children, the photographer Christopher Barker, is any less stellar, or any less important. Originally published in England in 2006 and “whose article Life at Tilty Mill, featured in Granta (2002), formed the basis for this book,” Barker’s memoir is a heartbreaking and loving portrait of his parents and their stormy relationship which resulted in Smart raising four children on her own in Ireland and England, beginning in London during the Second World War. A lively and lovely memoir, it perhaps gains its best strength from distance, and works through not only what he knows of the years since his birth, interacting with both of his parents, but the stormy mess that originally became their relationship, her infamous novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept (1945), as well as their individual pasts and lineages (isn’t there someone working on a critical edition of that infamous first novel?). Its one thing to have a sense of how she came to be, and came to be where she was, but how did it actually affect her four children? Saddest of which is the story of how the fourth, her daughter Rose, eventually self-destructed, herself the single-mother of two young children. Its one thing to be the child of artists, or even eccentrics, but his parents were something else altogether, and this book seems to be the result of years of consideration, more willing to depict and describe than blame, even his own errant father, who fathered some dozen children with a number of women, and barely felt the need to actually look after any of them.
George would, through these years, make the occasional visit, and these were awaited with great excitement by us children and not a little longing by me. The trouble was, for me they always seemed to be visits. George never came back to claim us or be what my school friends had: a proper dad. Why wasn’t he like these fathers? I wanted to see him trudge out in the morning and navigate a Ferguson tractor through the Essex sludge. I wanted to regale my classmates with my father’s skill on a combine harvester or the number of bales of straw he could carry. To describe him to them as a “poet” would have been met with incredulity, and so I started my schooldays with a half-blank family background. When talking about Dad, I would try to ingratiate myself with a scanty knowledge of George’s cars. I knew the subject was close to his heart, but I never had quite the right information. A colorful tweak in the telling was often necessary.
What makes this book so lovely, too, is the way his own writing actively engages not only about his parent’s individual writings but with them as well. There are things a child can tell you that a biographer can’t, and this book provides an excellent counterpoint to Toronto writer Rosemary Sullivan’s biography, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life (1991), Kim Echlin’s lovely Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity (Toronto ON: Women’s Press, 2004), and Smart’s own writing, including “Xtopher’s book,” the scrapbook she made for her newborn Christopher that he refers to in his memoir, reprinted in Smart’s own Autobiographies (ed. Christina Burridge, Vancouver BC: William Hoffer/Tanks 1.5, 1987).
Mum and Wendy struggled to put a happy Christmas together that year of 1946. Mum insisted that in the absence of any money for presents everyone should make books of their own choice to put under the Christmas tree. Mum had a ham brought in from Galway on the weekly grocer’s van to add a little festivity to our meager table. But this goodwill did not go far. Much to Wendy’s embarrassment, George’s temper flashed often, fuelled by vain attempts to extract Benzedrine deposits from his lighter-fluid residue, and he wreaked havoc in the huddled household. His mood improved only when he was able at last, surprisingly, to source a supply of methedrine from the local doctor that his trip to London had failed to secure. He, for one, was able to ignore the cold and darkening twilight whose icy grip slowly turned into freezing candlelit nights, unrelieved by the comforts of electricity or running water. Mum even had to chop up the furniture to have a fire in the open grate.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The green-wood essay: a little autobiographical dictionary

When Crusoe landed on his island after the shipwreck, he was not yet Robinson. He would be Robinson from the moment that, finding neither pen nor pencil in the jetsam, he liberated a cutter and some books. from these found objects would be born the method that names him.
Emmanuel Hocquard, “Robinson Method,” ed./trans. Norma Cole, Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (2000)

The real knowledge of weather is indigenous.
Lisa Robertson, “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity,” The Chicago Review


I sometimes talk about my home, my point-of-origin, as though it isn’t there anymore. Less than an hour’s drive from where I’m sitting. The red-bricked house still stands, my parents live where they have always lived. On Saturdays, he still claims riding mower from the shed to cut the lawn around the house, up both sides of the laneway. Can you ever go home again? Why would you wish to? I don’t want to regress to some sentimental or imagined security from my nineteenth year, the summer I finally left; I want to be as I am, visiting that place I used to live, despite knowing that imaginary photo-still less intact with every visit. One has to reconcile differences, and the results of time’s inevitable passage. My parents enter their seventh decades and the barn abandoned now more than a dozen years. He uses the bulk of it as storage, the former milkhouse become a woodworking shop. The barnyard barren, overgrown. Whether I am home or not, an anchor, there. To live at all, one must get used to loss. One must also acknowledge gains.

I compare the current state of the barn to a corpse, a dead thing. What once a living, thriving creature. Empty of livestock, feral cats, component parts of milking equipment salvaged, sold. What’s left of the structure slowly rotting, more than a century old. The hewn beams in the haymow suggest it rebuilt from a previous structure, one we never knew.

My former partner in Toronto didn’t fully comprehend the weight, the security such connections bring; I’m not sure my late mother did, either, with her list of childhood residences including years in Brockville, Kemptville, Ottawa. My father, the same house since a year old, born across the dirt road in the little house my sister shares with husband, three kids; a log house said to be older than Dominion. The farm next door, where my grandfather, great-grandfather born as well, home as well to two generations further, going back on this stretch of Macdonald’s Grove to 1845. This, I know, remains.


Ralph Connor, penname of the Rev. Charles Gordon, considered Canada’s best-selling author at the turn of the century. Highly moral novels about the Glengarry Scots of the upper Ottawa Valley, when Gaelic probably still first language. Generations of McLennans raised in the church his father built, late 18th century red steeple held the morals of a community, dour Protestantism, with that silent, Calvinist streak. As Connor himself wrote in Postscript to Adventure, The Autobiography of Ralph Connor (1938): “Our Glengarry folk, as I have said, were mostly from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They were sturdy, industrious, patient, courageous.” How important his books were as an example, to realize it was possible to be from here, and write. Perhaps not temporally local but geographically, to realize there was such a thing as serious art amid this wooded glen where history preferred. The little one-room schoolhouse now at Upper Canada Village, where paternal grandmother studied, some four decades after Connor. Only later, my late teens into my early twenties, aware of the work of Dorothy Dumbrille, Don McKay. Gary Geddes, Henry Beissel, Stephen Brockwell. Glengarry books, and even authors.


Through the space of my lifetime, the Canadian population has gone from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban. Russell Smith’s deliberately urban novels, exploring a real space currently lived. I grew up on a dairy farm, five miles from a village. At the University of Alberta, an MA student who didn’t realize that writers also originated from farms, thought Canadian rural was an arbitrary literary construct. You have got to be kidding me. There are those of us still from farm country composing literary books, our individual poems. Karen Solie, Robert Kroetsch, Phil Hall, Sheri Benning, Dennis Cooley. The poets from small towns: Andy Weaver, Adam Dickinson, Don McKay, Monty Reid. I came from a long line of farmers. Is it really so rare? How many literary writers of my generation can say the same? How can that not impact upon my relationship with space itself, a relationship with the land? So different from the suburban spaces of Sheila Heti, Michael Holmes, Anne Stone, David McGimpsey or Jon Paul Fiorentino. Barbara Gowdy.


Pastoral. Don McKay talks about it, Lisa Robertson references it. More than just the weather. There have even been a few anthologies. What has this to do with writing? Not arbitrary and artificially writing about the natural world, but simply being aware of spaces. Listen.

What happens outside can’t help but impact upon our immediate. The corn won’t be ready for another few days. If it rains, we can’t cut the hay today. Wait for the sun to dry bales in the field. Wet bales of hay or straw in the haymow, wet heat trapped without air begins to boil, burst into flame. This is how you lose the barn, the entire herd of milking cows. How you can smell the rain in the air for miles, anticipate it through the way the wind blows through the leaves. A sudden drop in temperature, and pressure. My father, who knows the names of trees, the birds, the long wild grasses. Less deliberate than birding. More.

How we talk about the weather. How these natural systems directly impact how a growing season unfolds, and how the year does. All the way to the bank. Just how much you need to understand the earth, the weather, the way the wind blows, to be able to make any kind of living. It is a question of survival. The immediate becomes a seasonal cycle, more important than school, than birthdays, anniversaries. We mark our days by cycles of planting, harvest. Spring, when the soil dry enough to till, a whole new crop of stones to pick, and overflow front end loader, decorate fenceline. To harvest these before a proper till, before the corn was planted. Not stone hammer or stone maul but simple stone, scraped up by scar of plow.


Instead of recess, played my scales. Another lesson. A further step from bonding with peers, already shy, removed. Out on the farm, with barely a neighbour my age. Thirteen years of lessons, told to practice instead of wasting, wandering time. I wasted time. I put my head down. Played. I suppose, then, this was discipline. Certain things were put aside.

I absorbed books, consumed them. Wrote poems, small stories, painted pictures, drew, took photographs. Self-taught guitar. Studied the shadows of clouds as they eased their slow way across hayfields, after the second summer cut. The dust cloud of mail delivery down dirt road, giving something to do. Walk up the lane to harvest weekday mail and daily paper, dog running circles around. The days that once the mail had come, there was usually nothing else external that could interfere. Much the way I still live.

Solitary exploration, a matter of course. So many times, the dog in tow. Exploring the trails through the bush beside what now my sister’s house, once where my grandmother widowed, some fifteen years alone. The trail that opened up a mouth and mossy mound rose feet away the rotting decades of my grandfather’s maple sugar shack. To the left, far further down, the sandpit where we once dumped our early 1970s garbage. The sand, the garbage, long removed, the trail grown over. Other threads and other paths since opened, built. All wide enough to roll a tractor, dual ruts, hauling once-wood for the basement furnace. The unknown corners where he set late family pets to rest, unrecorded cats and dogs. Not met with oblivion but return; they are there, still.

The world outside the house a language that requires itself to be understood, if one is to depend on such for livelihood, direction. Inside the farmhouse, another sort of language existed, constructed out of singular, similar silences. Codes not taught or explained, and often defied comprehension. Learning another language by rote, by trial-and-error. We would not speak, thus.


Poet Phil Hall speaks of tokens, essential remnants, markers. The heart of history engages and emerges from our objects, often. A washboard from cobwebbed basement, my grandfather’s ancient film camera, his shaving travel case I carry. Who we are and where we’re from a thing constantly renegotiated, something carried within, no matter where we might end up. Foundations rarely change, no matter subsequent constructions.

My apartment is littered. Tokens, large and small. Hall’s fill up the barn behind his Perth-area cottage. What do these magpie tendencies, these impulses, mean? Where do they take us? Or do they stabilize. Not hold back, nor hold in place. Foundations.


Is it possible to be pastoral in a city? Does a city provide, not an automatic relationship with the land but with ideas? When you pave the bare earth over, does your relationship become distant, distracted, even artificial? Not so, I know. Still. Hot sun bounces off concrete back up, resonates further heat. Is not absorbed into the still-cool earth. In a big city, under a tree in the shadiest part of cool, of park. 

The predominant work of my twenties, learning to read the language of cities. The rumble of OC Transpo bus around the corner, felt before seen. Navigating sidesteps from the breath of exhaust, a patch of water splashed from passing cars. Identify the direction of smoke before the strawberry lights and wail of sirens locate. The reduced ice build-up on the north sidewalks of Centretown east-west streets that winter sun provides, the shade of cooler south for summer. The patterns of traffic lights.

Attention, even before any conversation concerning wilderness as subject. A city pastoral, the wilderness that lives in collaboration with our attempts, insistences, on domesticity. Control. Is still a wild animal. Trees live no differently than in the wild, and birds as well, adapting. When these adaptations take, wouldn’t our pastorals shift as well? A matter of attention, beyond eco-poetry, beyond green. Already there, part of a system larger than ourselves, one we simply should admit to being part of.

Seasons shift, the rain. The shifts in weather that tear down fragile barriers, monuments to our imagined, shallow attempts at dominance over nature. No matter how hard we try. New Orleans.

The rain still streams down Nanny Goat Hill, rolling west down Somerset West to Preston Street. The world exists, and here we are, a part.


What this, pastoral. So called. So often dismissed for how deeply it is misconstrued, needlessly reduced. Ignoring the boundaries for the oversimplifications. Why border such at all? Why forsake the wilderness entirely for only fields? Not merely metaphor-driven lyric narratives, but a matter of attention. Not as Anne Simpson alludes in her The Marram Grass: Poetry & Otherness (2009), a poetry, a pastoral, separate from the natural world, but a human consideration and experience already a component part; exploring relationships I would argue, instead, between the two. We already live in the world, why pretend to be apart? Include Monty Reid’s Flat Side (1998), Barry McKinnon’s Pulp/Log (1991), or Don McKay’s Long Sault (1975). Margaret Christakos’ Not Egypt (1989), Welling (2010). Karen Solie’s Pigeon (2009). Phil Hall’s The Little Seamstress (2010). Ken Belford. Peter Culley. For example.

This is about attention, not of stepping back into how poems once were, should be. This is an attempt to pay attention. Pay attention.