Monday, February 29, 2016

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Sophie Essex on Salò Press

Salò Press is an independent publishing company based in the UK with a focus on experimental / surreal poetry collections & anthologies.

Sophie Essex doesn't consider herself a poet though others do; her work having previously been published in Black & BLUE, The Belleville Park Pages, & Lighthouse Literary Journal. Her first tiny pamphlet Objects of Desire was recently published by PYRAMID Editions.
You’ll mostly find her at poetry nights rambling awkwardly about sex and surrealism. At other times she edits the experimental print-only magazine Fur-Lined Ghettos, and has recently set up her own publishing house, Salò Press.

1 – When did Salò 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?
After much humming-n-hawing Salò Press became a reality in early 2015. It's been an intense yet rewarding twelve months or so in which I've learnt a huge amount; from the boring business stuff like paper weights / colours to dealing with the postal service to convincing Paypal that I'm not money laundering. & the better things: that beautiful sunbeams exist who are just as weird, awkward, passionate as myself.

I don't think my goals have shifted as yet though I imagine they will.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I started a print-only experimental / surreal poetry magazine in 2012 birthed out of frustration. I had been writing these "things" that I struggled to define or find a home for, thinking back  perhaps I was looking in the wrong place but from that came Fur-Lined Ghettos, which is now on its 8th issue. Natural progression led to single-author poetry collections. Through The Fur I had discovered an obscurity of poets I related to, wanted to collaborate with, wanted to read more of.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
I think the role is quite a simple one: to publish the works you love regardless of whether you think they might be commercially successful.

As for responsibilities, I think you have to aim to do your best by your writers & your readers. To always be honest & remain passionate. I say this too often but we're all in this together, if you can do something positive why wouldn't you? Even if it is something as simple as a tweet.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
I think this question may be better answered by an outsider, any one other than me. I really don't know. I'm here publishing collections I would love to own, promoting the writers I admire. I'm doing a very small thing. Though, of course, I would hope that there is a "something" about Salò, that there is an overwhelming arc to what we're publishing.

Andrew, as an outsider (he has little involvement with the poetry "scene"), says: I see us as a bridge between a poet moving from chapbooks to major publishing. To get in at the beginning with these writers, to take the chance and publish their first full-length collections, that’s the cutting edge I want us to be at.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
My focus is full-length collections so chapbooks aren't something I've worked with - does a magazine count? Either way, a lot of presses & writers are publishing chapbooks and quite successfully. I think, currently, it helps to have a positive online presence, to communicate regularly with your peers, to be active.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I definitely prefer a subtle approach. I'll make suggestions, respond to queries, offer my advice & opinion. Ultimately I trust the writers, they know their work better than anyone. It's a learning curve, mind. Fluid.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
At the moment distribution is 99% me. I've found that to be given a helping hand you must already be in a position to not need it. It's an incredibly frustrating situation though there are positives: any profit goes direct to the poets, I'm not losing money storing stock or printing books that may, eventually, not sell.

With digital printing I'm in control of stock. Whether I need to print 50 copies or 500 it's easy to do & my preferred way. There's no getting in over-my-head, no paying out for books that I may be holding on to for a long while.

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?
The only other person involved is my partner, Andrew, who has previously run an award-winning press. Having him around is a huge benefit: he knows about printers, distribution, type-setting, working with artists etc. The drawback is that often I want to do everything myself, to learn more of the technical side of things, but you can’t hit the ground running and these are things I’ll develop the longer we get into the process.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
Whether conscious or not I'm definitely taking something away from this. I'm reading submissions almost daily so it's impossible to not be influenced by others.

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?
I realise some folk frown upon self-publishing for reasons I understand, and I do think there has to be quality control - how likely are you to judge your own writing fairly? - It's important for your work to spend time with others, for someone else to dedicate time & money to your writing. To have input from someone who doesn't know you so well.

On the other hand, some of my favourite poets self-publish. It can be & is a fantastic way to get your work read immediately / to receive feedback / to improve yourself. I'm not sure it's something I would choose to do, though in considering compiling my own collection I have wondered who could be entrusted to do the best by it. My answer is me. That’s the problem with working in the industry, you remove the mystification of publishing and become hyper-critical to everything from cost to typeface.

11– How do you see Salò Press evolving?

Salò is very much in its infancy so at this point I simply hope to continue publishing these beautiful voltaic voices. There are a few ideas floating around of 'where next', I'm excited for that. I'm also hopeful that I'll be working with a few more of my favourite writers, and of course that I'll discover new ones.  I think the important thing is to build a customer base, where readers are buying books because of confidence in the Salò ‘brand’ and know what to expect. It’s also important not to be too ambitious – plenty of small presses have gone under trying to do too much too soon.

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?
That these beautiful collections exist and are out there to be experienced. With our first title - Dalton Day's Actual Cloud - I panicked for weeks that something would go wrong, either the print quality wouldn't be up to standard or that I'd missed something in proofing or there would  be missing pages (I'm told nightmares are standard fare in publishing). Once Actual Cloud arrived I realized I held a perfect thing in my hands; I screamed a lot. It was the best feeling.

I think with any press' publications the passion & commitment  is overlooked - it's easy to not give thought to how much time has been spent on a collection - from the writing of / to hours spent collating / to submitting / typesetting / cover design / marketing etc. Someone, many someone’s, have to believe in the work, have to be dedicated & passionate  to see it through.

Frustrations? Myself. I often describe myself as an insecure anxiety-ridden furled armadillo. I suffer with crippling shyness to the point where I struggle to communicate - even online. My other big frustration is getting the book into people’s hands, getting them to try a writer they don’t know, breaking people’s habits of being cautious in their reading, getting them to read in the first place. Because when you have a thing of beauty, you expect everyone to love it.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
I wouldn’t say there were models as such, but I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was chapbooks. There are plenty of poets who start this way but I wanted to provide a bridge between chapbook publishing and major publishing for poets & their first collection.

I also knew that quality was an issue. Whilst Salò is an independent press, from cover design to layout to final production, I wanted books which would hold their own in bookstores against those from established presses.

Andrew is also a writer so we attend a few SF/F/H conventions here in the UK where small presses are thriving. A few years back I began to notice a press whose design & ethics engrossed me, their covers were definitely my "thing", (check out Chômu Press & the cover for Rhys Hughes' Link Arms with Toads!). I would say Chômu had a small influence. 

14– How does Salò Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Salò Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
I live in a celebrated unesco city of literature, which is fantastic (I love it here), but it is very much dominated by the literary spectre of the university, and those connected with it or promoting it do not seem prepared and/or able to think outside that box. Anything with a hint of genre appears shunned and undervalued, and there is a stifling preoccupation with success through major mainstream publishing. We’ve put out feelers to various organizations and there is no interest without those university connections. It could be a skewed viewpoint, but it certainly feels that way, and I’ve had numerous conversations with folk (insiders, too) whose experience has been the same. It’s quite tragic that in a situation where we could embrace each other and create a universal love of literature those in ‘power’ are blinkered to the indie scene.

Having said that, I attend quite a number of local poetry events, and am making myself known as a publisher and poet. Locally, I've had support from George Szirtes (who happily provided a quote for Scherezade Siobhan's collection),  Julia Webb (poet, & editor at Lighthouse Literary Journal), Owen Vince (PYRAMID Editions), Freddie Irvin & Jodie Santer (Norwich Poetry Collective), Peter Pegnall (poet), Catherine Woodward (poet, event organizer), and Helen Ivory & Martin Figura (poets). There are some good people out there.

The other, vital, community is the online one. I'm constantly engaging with writers & publishers & readers where important dialogues are happening, where ideas are shared, where the love is.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I wish. Those we've published are not living in the UK therefore making it almost impossible to organize a reading. I would definitely love to host a night, maybe that'll be something in Salò's future. I think public readings / poetry events are vital positive things. One of my favourite pastimes is listening to others read. Readings provide a different way to connect. I like them.

Dalton actually held a launch for Actual Cloud at Malvern Books in Texas, which was filmed & is available to watch here ( Having never heard Dalton read seeing him up there was a delight. & who knew fog was a type of cloud?!

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

Without the internet there would probably be no Salò Press. It’s essential as a marketing tool, to have a website, to receive submissions, to have an online store, to make folk aware of us. We’re active on tumblr (where we found quite a lot of our poets), twitter, and facebook. You cannot not have an online presence in today’s world, not if you have any plans to be successful. But it’s hard work: you have to perpetually remind folk of your existence in a world where we all have seven second memories.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

Salò Press is definitely open to submissions. Poetry Collections / work for various anthologies / and for Fur-Lined Ghettos. I always find it difficult to explain what I am / am not looking for. I'm open to reading everything that is sent in though Salò Press definitely leans towards experimental writing / writing of a surreal nature.

My advice for anyone taking an interest is connect with us online, say hello, read some of our titles.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
A Galaxy of Starfish: An Anthology of Modern Surrealism - Our first anthology is my version of modern surrealism - filled with writings from old favourites, and the new. Eclectic, experimental, rewarding.

During the submission process I had the founding member of a surrealist group ask for my "theoretical statement", which led to a few cross words on his part. Anything that gets folk riled up has to be a good thing, right?
There is no problem in your not being surrealists, but to produce an anthology of surrealism without consulting the surrealists - I have seen this so many times before. There is no official surrealist position to uphold by diktat, but there are principles, and if you do not agree with those principles and do not regard them as essential to an anthology, then it simply will not be surrealist and I can't have anything to do with it.

            from the email / mouth of

Actual Cloud - Dalton Day. Dalton has this soft surreal charm that often leads to me crying &/or breathing a little quicker. I am very much in love with everything he writes. These poems, these structures, these wild animals are a way of being, a constant quivering inside, a gorgeousness of. Dalton's poems can appear, at times, to be childlike in their simplicity, at others layered in movement, yet always they are holding so much weight. His poems are something I find myself returning to, as though a saltlick for my furled-ness.
I didn't answer the

It wasn't ringing
& so my search

of forgiveness goes on

        from Every Button At Least

Father, Husband - Scherezade Siobhan - Scherezade is fiercely intelligent and so far beyond most of us. I am consistently in awe of her & her writing; laden with the history of a person, intense, bound in experience, is a thing I learn from & become with every line. Father, Husband is a breathtaking collection. An uneasy read.
this is how you become / a dexterous anagrammatist / if you rearrange rape, you get pare / to peel, trim, carve / you drag the knife across the stomach / of a syrian pear. you let your fingers cauterize / with the syrup of fruit, you let / the ruptured flesh flee in baby bell curls / you are not eight anymore /

        from anagrammatist

You can find us at, @FurLinedGhettos, @salopress

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

Saturday, February 27, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Doyali Islam

Doyali Islam is the winner of CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35, as well as the winner of CV2’s Thirty-fifth Anniversary Contest. Poems from her second (current) poetry manuscript have been featured in Kenyon Review Online and Arc as well as published in CV2, Grain, and Split Rock Review. Her debut poetry book, Yusuf and the Lotus Flower, was published by Ottawa small press BuschekBooks in 2011. She has work forthcoming in The Manifesto Project (University of Akron Press), which is a collection of short statements by contemporary poets. Islam will share some of her poems on March 17th as part of Ottawa’s VERSeFest 2016. Presently, she is in Toronto where she is living out her dreams through a 2015 Chalmers Arts Fellowship for poetry: though only 5’, you will find her at The Monkey Vault parkour-training facility swinging from bars, drilling her balance, running at tall(ish) structures, and learning how to fall gracefully.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Driven by formal experimentation, my most recent work – a completed full-length poetry manuscript – is very different from my first book, which consisted of free-verse poems. While still lyrical, this current manuscript is much more grounded, more physical, and more engaged with both the turmoil and the spirit of the everyday. In a way, I think it is more human, more accessible. I feel like I’m coming into my own with this current work.

My first book, Yusuf and the Lotus Flower, allowed me to connect with and learn about people who I would otherwise never have had the pleasure of encountering: whole communities and wonderful individuals from Toronto, Saskatoon, Fort Langley, North Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. My first book also made me hyper-aware of ‘audience’ – an awareness that can inhibit the creative process if one is not careful!

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry is capacious. Poems are small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I, too, am small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I feel reflected in poetry.

I like the intensity, musicality, clarity, ambiguity, and flexibility of poetry. I was drawn to these elements – or, at least, the first three – from the beginning, but I couldn’t name them or pin them down.

I can work on one poem for hours at a time without stopping for a break or thinking about food – which is shocking, as I love to eat! (Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term, “flow state,” resonates with me.) Yet, I don’t have the patience to write a novel. The notion of ‘plot’ is daunting and depressing, and characters don’t seek me out the way I have heard some novelists describe their experiences. No one’s appeared to me on a stalled train.

I don’t know how I came to poetry first, but I started writing it at the age of seven or eight, in Grade Three. Instead of going outside for recess, I wrote a poem in AABB quatrains – “A Poem About Birds” – on the school computer. Huge early-‘90s sans-serif typeface. Printout on continuous-form paper. I still have that poem! Then, at some point after that, I started keeping an exercise-book of poetry forms – haiku, tanka, cinquain (remember those?!), couplet, limerick, sonnet – that I would challenge myself to write. I still have that exercise-book, too.

In Grade Four, I wrote several short stories and poetry collections for which I would create elaborate front covers, back covers, and copyright pages. My teacher, Mr. Alderson, was good enough to have each one spiral-bound for me. I realized only last year that my juvenilia – both short fiction and poetry – is very humorous. I would like to reclaim this literary sensibility somehow. Short fiction has again been calling to me, but I don’t know if the call is urgent enough.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the poem, but I usually have many drafts – all of which I save, and a few of which I print out and work on by hand when I feel instinctively that it will help the process. (Always in pen, with blue ink, not black.) The only poem from my current manuscript that I remember as feeling ‘quick’ to write, with the first draft looking close to its final shape, is “she.” Sylvia Legris published it in Grain. This poem deals with my short time WWOOFing in the French Pyrenees at the age of 20. Interestingly, I had always wanted to write another poem about that experience, but it took ten years to do so. Last autumn, my poem “two burials” finally came together – and it recently won CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize! So I think some poems just need time to percolate before they arrive.

I never take copious notes, but I’ll jot down scraps of verse – phrases, words, or slant rhymes – that I feel have the potential to develop further. I prefer Peter Pauper Press journals for this purpose, but if I don’t have my journal with me, I’ll scribble on used envelopes, post-its, or any other paper that’s on hand. Once home, I’ll transfer the thoughts into my journal.

More and more, I find that poems are difficult and slow to write. With my poem “susiya,” written in 2014 and published in KROnline in May 2015, I went through several full days of poorly-executed and uninteresting drafts. I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to what the poem needed. I had been trying to talk about the people in that poem without first having mentioned the land – and those people are tied intimately and inextricably to the land. After that realization, the opening two-and-something lines emerged: “in the south hebron hills the slanted hills / recall old songs, and the women collect / them like rain.” I painted a landscape with words, and then the Nawaje clan was able to walk into it! The ending of that poem – “knocking / upon a fence, asking it for a dance” – also came to me as a welcome surprise. Who knows exactly how or from where poetry arises? It remains a mystery to me.

My weakest poems are the ones I’ve forced in a certain direction. I’m stern with myself and scrap these poems. My strongest poems – the ones that I think might last, if all of the forces of the universe align! – have more surprise, ambiguity, questioning, tension, irresolution.

Also, I experience gaps – periods of silence – between large projects during which I accumulate new experiences and have nothing to say and no preoccupations other than living/suffering.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
With Yusuf, I wrote many poems before looking back at them and realizing that they all worked together as a cohesive whole. I put that manuscript together before building a so-called ‘publication history,’ so I was very fortunate that it appealed to BuschekBooks.

With my recently-completed (current) poetry manuscript, the process was different. The formal experimentation that I used in the poem “– 35th parallel –” – which won CV2’s Thirty-fifth Anniversary Contest in 2010 – led me to other ideas: “What if I wrote a whole suite of these self-termed ‘parallel poems’?” “What if I explored this visual and figurative ‘split’ in other ways and applied it to and innovated on other forms – particularly, the sonnet?” So, with this recently-completed manuscript, I knew early on the main preoccupations and themes that were driving the work. The manuscript took five years. By about the fourth year, all of those thematic and formal certainties/drivers started to take over and constrict the work too much. My thinking became limited. Saying, “I’m writing a poetry book, and it’s about x, y, and z,” or “I’m experimenting with x,” led me to discard certain poems – and keep others – purely based on whether or not I perceived them to fit within the imagined collection. Thoughts like, “Oh, I can’t include this poem, or even write this poem, because it won’t fit with the rest of the manuscript.” That’s when I realized the danger of working towards a ‘book’: putting the horse before the cart, so to speak. After this terrifying and freeing realization, my manuscript opened up: it became more flexible, inviting, and dynamic. It was living again. So now I think I should always work on individual poems. Go back to the poem as poem. Go back to it at the level of language and internal music. Then – only then – figure out if a poem is worthy of manuscript inclusion.

Now, looking beyond this recently-completed manuscript, I have no idea what I’ll do next. It’s exciting! My current Chalmers Arts Fellowship is a huge blessing. It came at just the right time in my personal life, and it’s gratifying, terrifying, reinvigorating, and humbling all at the same time. I feel like I’m living out a pivotal moment.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not one to share work in progress, but I love doing public readings of finished material. (I’m really looking forward to participating in VERSeFest 2016!) Together, the attendees/listeners and poet create a space that will never exist or happen exactly the same way again. Also, the aural/oral aspects of poetry are important to me. I have always revised by ear, and I recite my favourite poems from memory when I’m walking to the bus stop, to the grocery store, et cetera: Czeslaw Milosz’s “Encounter;” Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love;” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It;” Geffrey Davis’ “King County Metro;” Adonis’ “Love;” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Red Brocade.” Sometimes I even recite poems of my own that I need to hear again. (I pause when people walk by!) I don’t know why, but I feel that the wind or air carries these recited words. And I will always love Etheridge Knight’s saying: “The words from my mouth are beating on the drum of your ear, so don’t take this as casual.”

Even though I never share poems in progress, I cut two finished poems from my current manuscript because I recited them at Conspiracy of 3 – a literary reading series I curated for just over two years, out of North Bay – and noticed that they didn’t elicit much of a response. I did volunteer training in North Bay with a high-school girl who told me that she returned a dress to Target (before its swift demise in Canada!) because she wore it once and didn’t receive any compliments from her friends. I wouldn’t say my decision to cut the poems was exactly the same, but the audience’s unresponsiveness made me return to those pieces and take a good second look. In the end, I decided they weren’t up to par, and that there was nothing I wanted to salvage from them.

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?
I hope that my poems use commonplace items or tangible subject matter in such a way that when readers come across said things – for example, ‘ants’ or ‘fishermen’ –  in real life, they remember the respective poem and have a broader, richer, or more complex experience. And of course it works the other way, too. Everyone brings their own experiences, perceptions, and sense of history/ies to bear on images, on language itself. I think that’s what Yusef Komunyakaa meant when he said that images are not static – that they’re “more than their static component” (Blue Notes, 78).

Also, more and more, my work seems to be about locating questions or expressing tensions rather than finding answers or resolutions. I’m also wondering if I’ve written even one authentic poem, or if this question should be of concern.

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?
I can imagine as many ‘roles’ as there are poets – or poems! However, as a poet, I hope to never merely reproduce culture. A good poem is an intervention. A good poem makes some kind of trespass.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The ear is an outside editor, of sorts. From the age of seven or eight, I have always revised my poems by ear. I don’t know why or how this process arose for me, but I suspect it had something to do with being read to, by my mother, as a young child, as well as something to do with the children’s television series Ghostwriter! The character Lenni always revised her song lyrics by ear. (That show, by the way, was wonderful for encouraging literacy and thinking about issues of equity. I don’t know if children’s programming has that quality today.)

For me, the need for an editor depends on the type of work – book review? interview? manifesto? poetry? – and even more on the needs of a particular piece. It’s circumstantial. An editor who understands a writer’s vision can definitely have a place, at the right time.

To date, I have never found it difficult to work with an editor. I’ve come to realize that the most important thing is the work itself – not my own ego. I have had productive experiences working with Manifesto Project editors Rebecca Hazelton and Alan Michael Parker, and more recently with Puritan reviews editor André Forget. With Yusuf, Sylvia Legris offered to read the manuscript. Her offer was hugely generous and surprising: a complete stranger who had only read two poems I had submitted to Grain believed in my potential and my work enough to make time for me. I was 26. Even though the manuscript was already under contract with Buschek, I was still honing my craft – a lifelong process – and she offered critical thoughts and gems of advice that I continue to find valuable today. Good editors are extremely generous. They try to understand the vision behind the work. They don’t assume control, but they show where one’s thinking isn’t clear, or where one might want to take another look.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Young-adult fiction writer Jennifer Rouse Barbeau once reminded Conspiracy of 3 attendees that it’s not the writer’s job to reject herself/himself. I relay her advice to anyone who expresses anxiety about submitting work. And I think it applies to all other areas of life: romance, career, et cetera.

Also on the subject of advice: when my first book came out, Sylvia Legris sent me two pink pocket-sized Moleskin notebooks. Since I’m very picky with my journals, I didn’t know what to use them for, and they lay blank for four years. Last summer I finally started filling one with advice and encouragement given to me by poets I respect and admire. (I read somewhere that Emma Watson keeps notebooks for the same purpose, and I thought it was a good idea.) I didn’t want to lose any of those fragments or encouraging messages, as they’re medicine in hard times.

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?
I usually struggle to emerge from bed. I’m not a morning person, and I don’t drink caffeinated beverages or eat refined/processed sugars. In the words of Rory Gilmore, “I find nothing exciting before eleven.”

I don’t have a writing routine, but I most often work on drafts at my beautiful and expansive desk, which was given to me by a friend during my time in North Bay. It takes two strong people to move it anywhere.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t rush about seeking to un-stall.

Things sometimes come to me when I’m doing the dishes or other physical/mundane/rhythmic tasks.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
None. One day I hope to have a better answer.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Right now, my nascent practice of parkour/freerunning, after seven years of admiring the discipline. See my bio above!

Other ‘forms’? Attentiveness. Suffering. Poncho the cat was my muse, until the divorce.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Perhaps more than certain writers, I’d say that certain poems are important to me. I’ve mentioned some above. These poems refresh my spirit and/or hold places in my heart and mind. These poems I memorize. In general, though, I find I am drawn to black and mixed-heritage American poets, Middle-Eastern poets, peripatetic poets, poets of ‘witness,’ and intense lyrical poets. Let me tell you some of the poetry books that are literally on my top shelf: Geffrey Davis’ Revising the Storm; Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light; Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us; and half a dozen titles published by Copper Canyon Press. I also try to make room for works that I’m not comfortable with, which Pearl Pirie in an e-mail to me once called “stretch poems.” Thinking back, Rumi’s poems – in translation – were a significant influence from the age of 17 to 26, and especially for the manuscript of Yusuf.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write and deliver a TEDx talk. (Perhaps) live for a time in Arizona, or somewhere else with red rocks, blue skies, and a dry climate. Find a stable and permanent job that affords me nutritional supplements, Kathak and bellydance classes, an annual Monkey Vault membership, and jars of almond-hazelnut butter. Take boxing classes – for the discipline, drills, and technique, rather than for the sparring. Learn tai chi. Continue the assessment of all of my material possessions to decide whether they are adding value to my life. (Perhaps) live with a cat of my own. 

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Hearing, reading, and writing poetry has helped me to survive and thrive. It is my most powerful and immediate medicine. I wouldn’t be here without it, so it’s more than an ‘occupation.’ However, my royalty cheques are not that of Billy Collins, so I think I must go the way of T. S. Eliot, Ted Kooser, and virtually every other poet I can think of, to make a living. I’m considering going back to school for a Master’s in Clinical Audiology. I like working with people one-on-one, and the ear is fascinating. (Did you know the cochlea has over 32,000 hair cells on it?) The ear is such a small sensory organ, yet so crucial for balance. Anyway, perhaps, in a few years, I might be a hearing expert – audiologist – by day, and a listening expert – poet – by night!

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Most of all, it’s because I love hearing, reading, and writing poetry more than doing anything else. Other advantages: it’s relatively inexpensive and can be practiced anywhere. Also, I could never afford dance classes in the long-run.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Geffrey Davis’ Revising the Storm. It is currently my favourite poetry book in the universe.

I don’t watch many films, but perhaps it was The Hurricane or The Fellowship of the Ring. As for documentaries, People in Motion (Dir. Cedric Dahl).

19 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m living out my Chalmers Arts Fellowship (see bio above) and working on being human.

[Doyali Islam reads in Ottawa on March 17 as part of VERSeFest 2016]

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, February 26, 2016

U of Alberta writers-in-residence interviews: Sandra Birdsell (1991)

For the sake of the fortieth anniversary of the writer-in-residence program (the longest lasting of its kind in Canada) at the University of Alberta, I have taken it upon myself to interview as many former University of Alberta writers-in-residence as possible [see the ongoing list of writers, as well as information on the upcoming anniversary event, here]. See the link to the entire series of interviews (updating weekly) here.

Sandra Birdsell [photo credit: Don Hall] is a writer and editor of fiction. Among her books are the bestselling novel The Russländer, nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Chrome Suite, Waiting for Joe and her short stories, The Two-Headed Calf were nominated for the Governor General Award. She is the recipient of the Marion Engel Award, several Saskatchewan Book Awards, City of Regina, and the WHSmith/Books in Canada Books First Novel. Her books and stories have been published in Italy, Poland, Germany and Brazil. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.

She was writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta during the spring 1991 term.

Q: When you began your residency, you’d published a small handful of books over the previous decade. Where did you feel you were in your writing? What did the opportunity mean to you?

A: I had finished writing stories and my first novel, three books written in a mad rush to at last get them down. I thought I was likely done mining the landscape of those first works and welcomed the opportunity of the residency to put some distance between them to see what, if anything, I would write next. 

Q: Were you working on anything specific while there, or was it more of an opportunity to expand your repertoire?

A: Yes, I was working on a second novel at that time—The Chrome Suite.

Q: Given the fact that you aren’t an Alberta writer, were you influenced at all by the landscape, or the writing or writers you interacted with while in Edmonton? What was your sense of the literary community?

A: Quite often I am quoted as having said “The further west I go, the better I feel in my skin.” I think it’s true, Alberta suited me fine, the foothills especially. And I found the winter light in Edmonton was different than in Manitoba, whiter, and the sky seemed higher. When I wasn’t at work or writing I went walking on the frozen river. As for the writing community, Manitoba had Robert Kroetsch at its centre and Alberta had Rudy Wiebe who I came to think of as being a favourite cousin. I can’t say the landscape influenced my writing, but it’s easy on the eye in the way it draws the eye out to the spaces and at the same time inward where the story is at work.

Q: Looking back on the experience now, how do you think it impacted upon your work?

A: My residency in Edmonton was the first time I’d lived “away” for any amount of time, or written while away. I convinced myself it was a good thing as it “put space” between myself and the place I wrote about. I thought the distance would give me a stronger or more creative “take” on it. And it think it did and continued to do as I went on to several other residencies and lived for a time in almost every province, except for Quebec.

I think I grew up a bit while in Edmonton, especially grew out of my roles of parent and grandparent. I was married very young and for the first time in my adult life I had my own living space and for the most part, time that was entirely my own. It made me quite aware of the astonishing fact that I had somehow become a “writer.”

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Matrix #103 : Prose poetry

The Invoking

Careful not to reveal the words that confess what she is, busy twisting her ring thinking of the scattered half-cocked passions of her teens. In the cleave of a myth her forgetting opens the muscled sky.

It swells to release a banshee wail and draw a sword against the sea. Strange literacies emerge from the well of its throat. Here it is, she was empty for something and now it is here. (Ashley-Elizabeth Best)

On the heels of their Ottawa issue, Montreal’s Matrix magazine’s latest issue features a healthy section of prose poetry, guest-edited by Sarah Burgoyne, Nick Papaxanthos and William Vallieres, and includes new work by Paige Cooper, Mary Ruefle, Gabe Foreman, Hilary Bergen, Jaime Forsythe, Marie-Ève Comtois (trans. Stuart Ross and Michelle Winters), Kyl Chhatwal and Andrélise Gosselin, Alma Talbot, Sue Sinclair, Madeleine Maillet, Jim Smith, Lillian Necakov, Gary Barwin, Nick Thran, Mark Laba, Lee Hannigan, Melissa Bull, Harold Hoefle and Anna-Maria Trudel. In terms of form, the mix is quite intriguing, especially given the range of emerging (I’d not heard of a couple of these writers) to established (Forsythe, Sinclair, Smith, Necakov and Barwin) to very established (Mary Ruefle) writers, as well as the inclusion of translated material (although I’m sure there might be some curious to see the work in the original).

A Strange Thing

Maybe I read this, or dreamt it, for my mind wanders as I age, but I have always believed Odysseus, when he heard the sirens, was hearing the Odyssey being sung, and in fear of being seduced by his own story he had himself bound. And he was in even greater fear of hearing the end, for he could not bear the possibility he might become someone other than who he was now, a war hero of great courage and unexcelled strategy, trembling against the cords of his own mast. Or he might become an even greater man, one without a single fear in the world, one who would balk at a man having to tie himself up in fear of anything, and then it would be revealed that the man he was now was actually a coward. Either way, he felt doomed as he sailed past his own story. He sailed past the island, he sailed past the sirens just as they were coming to the end, and once out of earshot he did a strange thing, of which there is no record, the story having ended in some far away sound which was no more distinguishable than an eye dropped of sweetness in the vast and salty sea. (Mary Ruefle)

I find Burgoyne’s introduction to the feature, which is itself impressive, rather curious, as she writes an introduction that does little but really say “here are some prose poems,” instead of pushing to answer some questions on the form (which, I suppose, is more of my issue than hers) [see my own piece on the Canadian prose poem up at Jacket2 here]. As her introduction opens: “One thing I love about the dubiously titled word cage that is ‘prose poetry’ is the dubi-titley-ness of it. By definition, it’s already divided against itself. is it poemly prose, or prosely poems? Can any old poemaster pull one off? These are questions one old poem ghost Mr. Eliot asked himself in a very difficult-to-find essay he published in The New Statesman in 1917. His conclusion: obscure. He knew at least bad prose poems came from those who thought the form was somehow a mash act between two genres. A magic mix. Cookies and dough. (No).” While Eliot’s response is interesting, has there really been no progress in the intervening century? I very much like the examples she presents from earlier on in the previous century, perhaps it is more a criticism on the lack of scholarship/attention on the prose poem generally that she has barely an example between Charles Baudelaire and Claudia Rankine [her book really is remarkable; see my review of such here] to present (American writer Sarah Manguso, for example, has quite a lovely essay responding to the T.S. Eliot essay Burgoyne references). Given so much has been done in the form in the decades between (there was even a decade-plus worth of journals produced in the United States, exclusively exploring the form, and the questions of form, of the prose poem), where are all the other examples? Lisa Robertson, Sarah Mangold, Sina Queyras, Meredith Quartermain and Nicole Markotić, just off the top of my head. What are the current questions on the form that the prose poem presents? Her introduction presents the suggestion that this section is presented more of an opening salvo into those kinds of questions, rather than an exploration of those questions themselves. And yet, the selection of works does far more than that, presenting such an array of work that, if not seriously challenging the form, certainly presents a questioning, and a variety of examples, of what the form of prose poetry is capable of. Burgoyne continues:

Over the years, prose poetry has housed kooks like Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Charles Baudelaire. What connects these poets is perhaps (too simply) possedoffèdness. Was it just a matter of linebreakennui? Were they saving paper? What did the prose poem once mean? (Especially today when it’s actually hard to find a poet who hasn’t dabbled in the chunky realm). Well, once upon a time, the prose poem was actually a political statement. (Not to say it can’t be now. One need look no further than Rankine’s 2014 publication Citizen). But in a day when reading poetry was a popular pastime (let me be clearer: among the upper class), Baudelaire hurling his unrhymey bricks of prose (discussing donkeys slouching down the mucky streets of Paris and the hardworking-workingclass) was hardly a welcome blow for a fine fellow to receive.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

University of Alberta writers-in-residence: a reading/conference and new chapbook of short fiction,

In 2015-16 the Writer-in-Residence Program at the University of Alberta celebrates its 40th year of existence. This is the longest lasting program of its kind in Canada, and to honour that achievement in March this year, they are holding a three-day gathering of former writers-in-residence from across Canada (including me!).

March 3-5, 2016
Edmonton AB
University of Alberta

Of course, I've produced a chapbook for the event (naturally), which is now available:

Four Stories
rob mclennan

Character sketch” appeared online in Atlas Review (Brooklyn NY). “A short film about my father” appeared online in Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq (New York State). “Silence” appeared online in Control Lit Mag (US). “The City is Uneven” appeared in PRISM International (Vancouver BC).

If you are interested in a copy, let me know!

Canadian orders ($5 Canadian)

US orders ($5 US)

International orders ($7 US)

You can see the schedule of events for the 40th anniversary Writer-in-Residence Celebration at:

Writers Attending:
Gary Geddes, Tom Wayman, Daphne Marlatt, Leona Gom, Fred Wah, Kristjana Gunnars (see her chapbook I've produced for such here), Di Brandt, Marilyn Dumont, Caterina Edwards, Curtis Gillespie, Merna Summers, Trevor Ferguson, Thomas Wharton, Catherine Bush, Tim Bowling, Tim Liburn, rob mclennan, Richard van Camp, Marina Endicott, Erin Moure (see her chapbook I've produced for such here) and Fred Stenson.

Also, you can find the ongoing series of interviews I've been doing with a number of the other writers-in-residence at:

Monday, February 22, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah Mian

Sarah Mian’s debut novel, When the Saints, was published by HarperCollins in 2015. Her award-winning fiction and poetry have appeared in journals such as The New Quarterly, The Antigonish Review and The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction. Her non-fiction has been featured in Flare Magazine and on CBC Radio’s ‘Definitely Not the Opera’ and ‘How To Be.’ Sarah is from Dartmouth, NS and now lives on Nova Scotia’s south shore.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Having my first novel published by HarperCollins was a dream come true. Walking into a Chapters and finding my book on the shelf gives me a profound sense of accomplishment. A few days after the book was a published, a three-quarter page review appeared in the Toronto Star endorsing it as a contender for Canada Reads.

When the Saints is raw and hard-edged, a drastic departure from the saccharine starter novel I penned in my twenties. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to it from across the country. Everyone tells me the fictional setting of Solace River is their hometown.

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

I have a compulsion to make up stories and I hate doing research, so fiction is the perfect medium.

I wrote poems for many years but ultimately decided that there are writers who are better at it than I am. Great poets don’t presume they can moonlight as fiction writers and I think fiction writers should give poets the same respect. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I usually start with the seed of an idea. Once I’ve gotten to know my characters, they take over and start gunning it down all sorts of back roads and alleys I didn’t know existed. That’s when I know the writing is good; when I’m in the bitch seat.

The first draft of When the Saints was a sprint to the end, almost like my character needed to spill her whole bugged-out story over one beer. Then I had to get her to start over and fill in the gaps. Six years later, I finally had all the pieces to the puzzle.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
When the Saints started as a piece of flash fiction that turned into a short story that turned into a novella that became the novel it was always meant to be.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love to perform, so I enjoy author readings, but it’s not a very interactive experience. Meeting with book clubs is more useful since I get to connect with individual readers and hear about what worked and didn’t work for them in an intimate setting.

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?
When the Saints asks why some people who grow up in dysfunctional families manage to transcend their circumstances while others are unable to break the cycle.

With my new novel I’m questioning, amongst other things, whether there is life after death.

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?
I’m borrowing from friend and fellow writing group member, Stephanie Domet, who said it brilliantly when she told me that people are asleep and the artist’s job is to go around poking everyone awake.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s absolutely essential to have other hearts and minds collaborate on a manuscript. I haven’t had the experience of dealing with a difficult editor, but I welcome the challenge of working with someone who has an incompatible set of values and assumptions.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
While I was at the Banff Centre working on When the Saints, esteemed author Greg Hollingshead told me not to rush it, that a writer’s first book has the potential to make or break their career. I spent about four years heeding his advice which means that, in total, it took me seven years to write my novel (minus bathroom breaks.)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have written poems, plays, songs and screenplays, performed in radio and acted in community theatre. All of these mediums have strengthened my creative muscles and made me a better storyteller.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have a day job, so I perform a very delicate dance all day in which I minimize the file on my computer screen every time someone walks by so no one can see what I’m actually doing.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I notice that I often have epiphanies about plot while I’m performing a repetitive physical activity like jogging or swimming. I think it’s because my mind is quiet and I can listen to my intuition.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The fresh salty ocean air. I live a stone’s throw from the beach.

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

My fiancé and I have over 600 vinyl records and I recently made the discovery that we experience music very differently. He’s primarily focused on instrumentation while I’m lost in the lyrics. I once wrote an entire short story collection in which each tale was based on a Canadian folk song.  

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
These works (amongst others) have changed my life:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Henry David Thoreau), “anyone lived in a pretty how town” (E.E. Cummings), “Desiderata” (Max Ehrmann), On the Road (Jack Kerouac), Night (Elie Wiesel), Franny and Zooey (J.D. Salinger), “The Swimmer” (John Cheever), Lives of Girls and Women (Alice Munro), “The Lesson” (Toni Cade Bambara) and any song ever written by Bruce Springsteen or Gillian Welch.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to try my hand at motherhood. I’ll put stars on all my kids’ bedroom doors and refer to them as “the talent.”

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I want to be a truck driver. I’d get on the CB radio and say things like, “Greensleeves, this is the Queen of Sheba. We got a bear in the woods at 6 o’clock. Do you copy?” I love driving and dingy motels and the idea of picking up random hitchhikers and teasing out their life stories. In high school, I used to go to the Irving Big Stop for breakfast so I could check out the rigs parked out front.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve been writing stories since I learned to hold a pencil. It chose me and I chose it, and that’s all there is to it.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
My measure for evaluating the merit of a book or film is if I’m still thinking about the story or subject matter a month later. The last great book I read was The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Film-wise, recent favourites are Boyhood and a documentary called the Wolfpack.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve started a new novel. It’s a ghost story set in an old church at the onset of winter. Starting next month, I’ll be home writing full-time in front of the woodstove and scaring myself senseless. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Lake fill (poem)


Schooner, vessel. Unwrap
decades of accumulation: wet clay,

rhyme, diversion.

Long crossed-out: this airless tomb
of tempered wood. Exhumed,

bare-skin and bone,
a glossary, exposed claw-damp

begins to oxidize.



of layers, waterfront. A catalogued
dementia: two

centuries of sleep. Padded earth
they set for salvage, restitution,

new foundations: rail
of Grand Trunk.


Repurposed, raised

, what hastens speed: invention.
Intact beams are sharpened, shift

to upkeep Historic Fort York.

of equal vintage, timber,

tender. Walks upon, erodes. The faintest tinge
of slow.


Erasure: drowning, dry land. Double-masted,
fifty foot of sail-set; driven,

run aground. Had weathered

every storm. So purposeful:
mid-century, stone-sunk, reshaped

as scaffolding

for Queens Wharf. Set
your body down.


Oh how she scoons,

they would have said.

The lake shrinks slowly,