Saturday, October 20, 2018

Christine McNair wins the Archibald Lampman Award for Charm (Book*hug, 2017)

In case you hadn't heard, my brilliant spouse Christine McNair won this year's Archibald Lampman Award for Best Book of Poetry in the Ottawa Region (an award administered by Arc Poetry Magazine) at Ottawa City Hall on Wednesday night for her second poetry collection, Charm (Book*hug). Congratulations! Amazing hoorays! And, as she has been pointing out, she is but only a small handful of women to win such an award, after the thirty-something year old prize has gone, repeatedly, even, to a small handful of men. So, further hoorays!

Further of the English-language Ottawa Book Awards (prizes are awarded in both French and English) included brand-new-father Shane Rhodes' Dead White Men (Coach House Books) [see my review of such here] winning the Ottawa Book Award (fiction category) and Roy MacGregor's Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada (Penguin Random House of Canada) winning the Ottawa Book Award (non-fiction category); MacGregor mentioned as part of his acceptance speech that they'd found out that day they needed a new furnace which, coincidentally, was going to cost exactly the amount he'd won as part of the prize, so he added relief to the surprise of his win. 

And yes, Christine was technically in Toronto on a course all last week; she actually flew home from Toronto just in time for the event, heading back out for another two days of course on some god-awful 7am Thursday morning flight. Could you blame her, not wanting to miss out on her first book award?

As fun as it was, though, it was "dry" this year for some reason, which actually made me miss the years' worth of needlessly-expensive wine offered at prior ceremonies...

Friday, October 19, 2018



The woman at the Native American Cultural Center wears her Indian proudly. The earrings are turquoise but she is Creek, a member of the Cherokee Nation. You are harder to recognize. One grandfather who headed west two years before the state of dispossessed Chippewa formed their own federally recognized tribe. He left everything of his heritage behind. You came later, at a time without tribe, family, your Native tongue. You withstand the genealogy exercise, smile, tell what you know, apologize for what you do not. She is kind, she will embrace you, but she wants to know what kind of Indian you are first. This is both old and new. Lineage is important: blood lines define clans, delineate tribal communities. But blood quantum is new. Established by the government in 1934, it is one of many gifts of the Indian Reorganization Act whose purpose is to define membership, restrict recognition, effect the eventual termination of federally recognized tribes. It is how you end up being a fraction of. The rules not withstanding, the Creek woman introduces you to the others as if you are one of them. But when you leave the Center, by virtue of blood law, you are already disappeared.

I’m admittedly late to the game on Bay Area poet Aja Couchois Duncan, a poet I discovered thanks to BAX 2018 [see my review of such here], quickly moving to pick up a copy of her debut collection, RESTLESS CONTINENT (Brooklyn NY: Litmus Press, 2016). In RESTLESS CONTINENT, Duncan utilizes the short and long-forms of the poetic line and prose structures to focus on the minutae of, and responsibilities inherent to, language, culture and human interaction. “No language considers itself part of another.” she writes, to open the poem “GRAMMAR :”: “It is not just the / eyes or lips or the fault line cleaving muscle from earth, its bone.” In her piece “What Story Will Love You Like I Do?,” included in the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004)—a book I’m a bit disappointed I missed her in (I know, I know: there were forty-eight contributors included, but still)—she wrote:

We know culture the same way we know the body; there are markers, symbols, rituals, events. And like the body, culture is multitudinous, discordant, beyond its disparate recordings.

The poems throughout this collection are exploratory, documenting the world from which she has emerged through pieces composed in a lyric sensibility both sensuous and rich. As she writes to open the poem “RECUSANT :”:

England has inspired many rebellions. Something about the dampness, the fog and stone. When the colonies threw off their master, the penchant for boiled potatoes remained. I do not worship in the Church of England, but I was baptized by the hands of its descendants. I can still name all of jesus’ disciples, describe every betrayal.

This is an absolutely remarkable book, debut or otherwise. Duncan’s poems are teeth and skin and gut and bone, writing desire and an alphabet cut with a sharp knife, taming what can’t be forced, writing out what shouldn’t become lost, and punching up into what can’t be reasoned with. Structured in ten sections of prose poems occasionally stretched into sequence, the book is focused into a series of stand-alone accumulations or broken down to the strength of each individual word. Duncan’s narrator feels very caught between the opposing sides of the legacies of colonialism against the North American aboriginal peoples, both of whom she can claim descent from, a binary she attempts to write her way through to at least comprehend, if not entirely achieve comfort in. As the poem “BAGIJIGAN :” writes:

Offering. I have only this. A life without footprints.

From the rooftop anything is possible. Free of ground and its gravities, there is no track of your departure. I found a book of two tongues from which I describe twilight. I too am this in-between thing.

Miziwekamig is not earth. It is adverb; it is strewn about and across. Aki is the name by which the earth is called in secret, what I would have whispered into the soft yield of your belly if you had remained. Now, alone, I could call the world akiiwan, this celestial body. To be gravity and mass, to cling to what you know. I would have given you this, my slippery tongue, but you were walking backward toward the edge of the rooftop. Beyond you was the emptieness of horizon, asphalt, another inamiate future self.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

David Helwig : April 5, 1938 – October 16, 2018

Sad to hear that Canadian writer David Helwig died this past Tuesday, after a brief stay in palliative care. It was good to know, at least, that he was able to see and appreciate Ingrid Ruthig’s work editing David Helwig: Essays on His Works, a book that managed to appear mere weeks before his death. My own small contribution to such, solicited by the editor, was the “12 or 20 questions” interview I did with him, way back in December, 2009.

I moved through a number of Helwig works during my twenties, and he was even good enough to read for me at one point, somewhere in the early 1990s, when I was running poetry events as benefits for the Ottawa Food Bank. The collections of essays he edited, The Human Elements (two volumes), were important books for my young self. And he was always both kind and attentive those few times we did interact. During a trip to London with Stephen Brockwell back in 2006, I actually brought his then-new memoir with me to read [see my review of such here], and sat afternoons in a park by Westminster Abbey, moving slowly through his adventures in Kingston, in both writing and theatre circles.

Condolences to his friends and family.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

five (very short) stories : talking about strawberries all of the time,

I have five very short and very untitled short stories (part of a manuscript-in-progress) now up at the new journal, talking about strawberries all of the time. Other contributors to the debut issue include Gary Barwin, Julia Polyck-O'Neill, Rebecca Rustin, Catherine Vidler, Anthony Etherin, Sean Braune, Ruth Daniell, Amy LeBlanc, Karl Jirgens, Molly Cross-Blanchard, Frances Boyle, Erin Emily Ann Vance, Adam Thomlison and others! To see further of my fiction posted online, check out the links on my clever author site.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jo Burns

Born in Northern Ireland in 1976, Jo Burns lives in Germany. Jo's poetry has been published widely in journals such as Oxford Poetry, Southword, Popshots, The Tangerine and Magma. Jo won the McClure Poetry Prize at the Irish Writers Festival in Los Gatos, CA and the Magma Judges Prize Poetry Competition 2018. Her debut pamphlet Circling for Gods was published by Eyewear Publishing. Her first collection White Horses will be published by Turas Press in November 2018.

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

I think that my first pamphlet Circling for Gods (Eyewear, 2018) helped me to finally have the confidence to drop the word “writer“ into conversations when introducing myself. Beforehand, without a published body of work, using that word felt slightly presumptuous as writing has always been an intensely private thing for me. It felt almost like a coming out. Many people in my daily life had no idea that I wrote poetry at all.

My forthcoming collection White Horses by Turas Press was written in a 3-4 year timeframe. For the past few years, in particular since 2016, the topics of patriarchy, intermingled with how we express faith (or not!) have been the themes that keep pulling me in.

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

As a child, I recited poetry at local poetry festivals. As a teenager I wrote bits and pieces of rhyming iambic tetrameter for the school magazine. Poetry has always been my preferred form. However for a long time I left it, to study medical sciences for almost 7 years and raise three children. On the cusp of middle age, poetry found me again. I am an avid fiction reader, but I can’t write it. I’ve tried but always end up condensing...

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 differs. Very, very, occasionally a poem writes itself. One example being when my son was having an MRI in a German Helios clinic. The name Helios, the circular form of the machine, the unknown ahead, with images of Phaethon, gave themselves to a poem which was scribbled down in about 10 minutes. However, the majority of the time my poems develop over years of notes, retitling and multiple drafts. If a poem is just not working, I do try to put it away and come at it again from a different angle. Quite often I end up with a completely different poem.

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?

Generally with an image that fixes itself in my brain and won’t let loose. Then I start exploring ideas around that image. Quite often my final lines in a poem were the initial images or ideas for the poem. I rarely write with a book in mind. It just so happens that I get stuck on certain themes, so that many of my poems speak to each other or revolve around the same idea. But a lot of sifting and reordering and culling takes place when I try to put all my poems together into one body of work.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy public readings and make every effort to do them. I get nervous, and am not always sure that my delivery does the poems justice. However, I enjoy meeting fellow poets, who tend to be (in my experience) 95% of most poetry reading audiences.

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 often ask myself if my poem somehow contributes something important to an existing body of thought. Is it worth a readers time or is it purely self involved? I have a hard time with those thoughts and second guess my poems before I send them anywhere. Possibly too much.

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’t speak for all writers, only myself. I try to catch moments of thought. What is happening in the world? What are the issues that are, in my eyes, important? When my kids are grown up and their kids ask “what were people concerned with in 2018“, I would hope that some of my poems shed some light on that. My poems are probably my own personal time capsules, waiting to be dug up.

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

For me, it’s absolutely essential. Having fiddled with some of my poems for years, it is hard to approach them with fresh eyes. I deeply value a kind but brutally honest editor. I don’t accept every suggestion but I do think very hard about them. I have been lucky to have worked with excellent editors over the years (Alexandra Payne, Eyewear and Liz McSkeane, Turas Press)

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

In general life, be kind, no matter what. In poetry, the same.

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 write in the mornings when my three children are at school. Generally I will write for about an hour, sometimes two and spend some time editing older work. Once that’s done I worry about admin, submissions, bills, emails etc. Some days I take a complete break from it. There are days when sometimes there is just nothing you want to write.

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

The forest. I live in Germany between the Spessart and Odenwald forests. A long walk always brings me the word or idea I was looking for.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Hay. I grew up in the Northern Irish countryside.

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?

Due to my scientific background, science does tend to inadvertently creep into some of my poems. I find there are a lot of correlations between poetry and scientific thought. Precision, for example.

Paintings also feature often, although it’s been a while now since I wrote an Ekphrastic poem. Current affairs move me to explore certain topics, although at times I have to stop reading the news to be able to mentally slow down and concentrate on a poem.

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

Seamus Heaney grew up in the same area as I did (Albeit years before me). When I read his poems I feel like I can reach out and touch home. The same applies to a lot of Nick Laird’s work and many other Northern Irish poets. In terms of international voices, there are far too many to mention. It feels like poetry is currently so alive and diverse that I have a hard time keeping up with my peers and new work.

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

I would like to see a few of my poems as film poems.

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?

I think I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. However, I do always have this niggle that I could have been a great detective. Something to do with searching, I guess!

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

I can’t paint and I’m rubbish at saxophone. Words come slightly easier.

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

I recently watched the Wim Wenders Docu-film on Pope Francis. I loved it’s message of hope and humility. The last book that hooked me to the very end was Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.  

19 - What are you currently working on?

Im currently working on the proofs of my first full collection “White Horses“ by Turas Press. It will be launched in November 2018. Also, I am starting to collect poems for what will hopefully be my second collection. However that’s a few years away, so I’m taking it slowly. I’m not quite sure in what direction my newer poems are going. I expect current affairs will continue to shape them.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Kathy Fish, Together We Can Bury It

The baby cries. A fax machine starts up, humming. The man with a lopsided walk comes into the room and reads. He leans over and touches the cold window glass. The baby pulls himself to standing in his crib. The man with his head down, lopes away. The baby twists and falls on his wet bottom.

A woman calls out. (“MOVEMENT”)

Having picked up a copy of American flash fiction writer Kathy Fish’s debut collection of stories, Together We Can Bury It (LitHub, 2013), I’m heartened to hear that she has a new one forthcoming. As she responds in an email: “It's a new edition of my Matter Press book, Wild Life. It has sort of morphed into a ‘best of’ collection, taking stories from my chapbook from Rose Metal Press, Together We Can Bury It and Rift and including some new work as well.” I first discovered her work after having my own appear in The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology. Given the strength of her work included in the anthology, I was immediately attracted to ordering her LitHub title for the sake of flights and otherwise UK travel (when else might I be able to read longer fiction, being home with two small children under five?). A writer of “flash fiction” (a term that I don’t hear as much north of the border), the forty stories collected here, collected from a decade’s worth of work, are short, sharp and move quickly. Rich in information, her stories pull you in immediately and hold you there for as long as she requires, getting right to the point, and then some.


It was like the time we broke icicles dripping from the low eaves and brandished them like swords, slashing and sparkling, and you cut my cheek and dropped your weapon. Or the time we got up early and hiked until we came to a cliff and looked down into the valley covered in dew and you made to push me over the edge, but grabbed me around my waist before I fell. The night you ran away, you stood under the barn light, tapping your fist on your palm while I called you names, saying I never liked you anyway, ugliestworstmosthorrible brother ever. You left, hitchhiked all the way to Houston, and one night, months later, we looked up and saw you at the table eating watermelon in the dark.

Kathy Fish’s stories might not have the impossible-density of the prose-poem/fictions of my own perpetual favourite shorter story writer, Lydia Davis (an unfair comparison, I know), but, instead, manage to exist in a space between Davis and a more traditional short story writer such as Lorrie Moore. Fish’s stories focus on the balance between quickness and long effect of human interactions and interpersonal moments, how one choice or action can have ripples that move far further than one might expect, and in very unexpected ways. Her stories have incredible wit and insight, and incredible compassion. While it might have taken some time for me to pick up on her work, I am extremely glad that I did, and even moreso that she has a new title forthcoming.