Friday, November 30, 2018

Ongoing notes: Meet the Presses (part four,

Further to my recent participation in Toronto’s Meet the Presses’ annual Indie Literary Market [see part three of my notes here; and you see I’ve been posting on our more recent ottawa small press book fair as well, yes?], here are another few items I collected there:

London ON: From Karen Schindler’s Baseline Press comes Shelly Harder’s impressive debut, remnants (2018), a sequence of short, tight lyric prose poems writing first-person narratives around travel, trauma and history. The understatedness of her writing is quite striking, allowing for a powerful display of the as-yet-unfulfilled possibilities of what was once referred to as “travel writing,” working to allow and explore, instead of designate. Harder, who has lived in a couple of locations around the world, writes out a series and sequence of unexpected connections, allowing, again, her experiences to inform in lovely ways. Just listen to her poem “AVIGNON,” that begins: “I have little to say about the south of France. That there must have been an intricate cathedral. That I went to a barber, pointed at the side of my head and said ‘court,’ pointed at the top at said ‘pas très court,’ and in this way acquired a grim hack job. That it was nice to see the papal palace, to be buttered slick in sun above the Rhone, to eat fresh greens with vinegar, oil, and Dijon.”


A man has spliced photos of the Berlin Wall into a panorama. A tree. Campsites of the indigent and adventurous nestled up to the death zone. A Shell gas station beside the campers. A pale king with golden crown graffitied to the wall. Two pigeons, bipedal, though of such lineage as to wing borders without peril, lounging on the wire. You are leaving the American Sector.

In the entry to the exhibition, a photo display documents everyday experiences. In one a family leans against flowerboxes before the Brandenburg Gate. “If you climb over these flowerboxes, you will be shot.” The woman whose memory this is says that as children they had “found the whole thing quite funny rather than threatening.”

There are continuities in hominoid curiosity across these decades. The panorama features a platform perched against the wall. Armed with cameras, people are lined up to peek into the death zone. In the room, a 3D past extending from within the wall, stands a girl. Before her stands a man with a camera on a selfie-stick. He points it at her. As though to line up the perfect shot.

Toronto ON: The third chapbook by Toronto (and former Ottawa) poet JM Francheteau is Heart & Mouth & Deed & Life (Anstruther Press, 2018), an assemblage of tight, first-person lyric accumulations, a number of which are composed as dedications to friends (Ottawa poet Jeff Blackman and his family, former Ottawa poet Matt Jones, etcetera). These are poems on thinking, reading and being, as author Francheteau exists in the world and responds to that world rather directly through poems: a world that exists with friends, pop culture and curious distractions. The poem “Sorry/’Sorry’,” for example, opens: “Elvis Presley is 72 years old / today. Elvis Presley / topped out at 43. / Soon, Justin Bieber’s Purpose / will be 12 years old, and 112, / and with it, ‘Sorry’ too. / Justin Bieber will be ‘Sorry’ / foever, till the bridges rust / into rivers that dab / their beams without sympathy, / till the servers slag into one / solid, sclerotic heart, / and no one feels anything anymore.”


Have you ever seen an abominable snowman on fire?
The rare lichen on their fur
turns the flame hot pink,
like a kid wilding out with a highlighter
over the filmstrip of reality.
Imagine igniting your uncle’s Frank Zappa records
over green wood. That smell, exactly,
incense and loneliness and tires.
Well, I don’t know how to tell you this,
but that smell is me.
I’m an abominable snowman
and I’m on fire,
seeking someone like me to engulf,
to stumble toward and collapse upon,
its paws falling on my shoulders
as my paws fall on its shoulders,
my rare lichen mating its rare lichen,
a pink star forming
where our foreheads touch,
in whose triangular blaze troops
of onlooking Boy Scouts learn the secret
of building a tepee to kindle a flame,
and Brownies divine the heat
inside playing house,
turning snow foxes red,
turning grey foxes black,
waving foxtails in the crowns
of the crackling trees,
all those unimportant parts between us
starting to sizzle and spit,
nipples and mossflowers and skin,
more smoke to beard the bachelor mountain.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Catherine Pikula

Catherine Pikula [photo credit: Olympia Shannon] is a secretary, writer, thinker, and educator. She holds a BA in literature and philosophy from Bennington College and an MFA in poetry from New York University where she was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow.

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

I'm Fine. How Are You? is unique in my writing experience because it is prose that I wrote while studying poetry in Graduate School, so it exists as a kind of hybrid. Before, I wrote "poems" more strictly with lineation that we are used to seeing poetry have. My poetry has a stronger performative element than my prose -- I think because it favors music and emotion. My prose is more about philosophizing and stringing together evidence for an argument or some kind.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poetry in the 6th grade. A lot was happening (my grandmother who lived in my family's home passed, my father was hospitalized, and puberty was in full swing) that I didn't know how to deal with. I needed an outlet that was more expressive than the sports I was playing. I think I gravitated toward poetry as a form of prayer as influenced by church hymnals and Catholic school. I didn't write creative non-fiction until a high-school English class.

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 always have a journal going in which I take notes. Sometimes I email myself fragments or will use the notes on my iPhone. A first draft is very rarely the final shape. Since I work with fragments, there is a lot of filling in of details I have to do. As I do this, sometimes what I thought I was writing toward changes and the structure changes as it becomes clearer to me what details are important to fill in and which ones are not important, can be cut, or not mentioned in the first place.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I definitely work with smaller pieces and fragments first. Then, I try to combine them into a longer piece or pieces. Often times, I have the title first, and organize fragments into "title" categories before major editing and reworking.

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

I love doing readings. I think performing is fun, playful, and it can be a really powerful experience. Reading one's work offers a chance to expand the tone and tweak the delivery in a way that an audience or reader might not get or hear when seeing a work on the page.

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'm very interested in moral relativism and social constructionist theory. I'm usually trying to answer the question, "How can and should one live?" The most current question, I think is, "What the fuck has happened in American politics and media?"

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?
The role of the writer is many things. It is part entertainer, part cultural critic, part educator.

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

My editor at Newfound, Levis Keltner, is amazing. Working with him was easy. He didn't pressure me to change things toward a certain end, but made comments, queries and suggestions that very much left decisions to me. This gentler touch naturally lead to more than minor edits, a tightened structure, arc, and deeper clarity on some concepts. I think a successful editing collaboration is one in which trust and respect is facilitated on both sides and the dialogue is open.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"You can't suffer in silence."

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

It's not always easy, but it depends on the purpose. I don't think I can say what I need to say in the form of poetry right now. I want to formulate arguments which is certainly possible in poems, a Shakespearian sonnet is very much like an argument with a concluding couplet, but the effect is different. The audience is a little different too.

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 am always journaling. My writing routine for work I intend to public right now, is whenever I can, which is not as often as I would like. Working 9-6 with an hour commute both ways is exhausting. I can barely find energy to cook for myself let alone get into the writing headspace, not to mention I have been trying to fit exercising into my routine for three years now.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I am stalled mid-piece or mid-sentence, I take walks or cook to mull things over. If I'm stalled between projects, I will read a lot in a wide range of topics and take very informal notes.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I don't know how to pick one: Simmering tomato sauce, Ralph Lauren's "Romance," and that rubbery overworked vacuum cleaner on the verge of burning out smell.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I was a liberal arts student: all of the subjects are and can be connected! In general I am influenced by philosophy, visual art, and the natural sciences. It also depends on the project. What I'm working on now has some roots in political science.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This list is much more extensive in my head and fluctuates based on time and mood.

Books: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics; Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; Juliana Spahr's Fuck-You-Aloha-I-Love-You.

Writers in general: Virginia Woolf, Roxane Gay, Proust, Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit, Donald Barthelme.

Writing teachers to which I am indebted: Greg R. Trimmer, Mark Wunderlich, Rebecca Godwin, Michael Dumanis, Matthew Rohrer, Meghan O'Rourke, Brenda Shaughnessy, Eileen Myles, Deborah Landau, Rachel Zucker.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Traveling to Japan is high on that list, but I want to be better at Japanese; skydiving; learn how to pickle vegetables; backpacking hiking trip--- to name a few.

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?

This is a funny question because I don't consider writing my occupation. It is a passion, but it unfortunately doesn't pay the bills or come with health benefits. So, it'd be cool if writing were my occupation. I know what you mean though, I think I would have been an earth scientist, urban planner, or interior designer.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The blank page is the only space where I can be my most complete self.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Chloe Caldwell's Women.  Last great film: Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a collection of essays on a range of topics from catholicism to cyborgs, sex education, privilege, healthcare, and more.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ongoing notes: the ottawa small press book fair (part one,

You might have noticed I’ve been sketching out short reviews of a variety of items gathered at Toronto’s Meet the Presses [see my most recent post on such here], but a week later, we had our own fair as well, the twenty-fourth anniversary of the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair (and, given it wasn’t actually semi-annual until the third event, it means I’ve now organized forty-seven of these events, forty-six of them solo). What the? If you wish to keep informed on the next fair, most likely in later June, I would recommend joining the Facebook group.

Kingston ON: From Puddles of Sky Press comes the wee chapbook To My Beloved Puppy (2018), by Brady Kumpf, described in the author biography at the back of the collection as “a 14 year old who loves his dog, living in Toronto, Ontario. He enjoys video games and wearing bow ties.” A very charming small collection, it is made up of eight short untitled poems that include “To my beloved puppy / You soon settled in / And went flippin’ insane / To this day / You are still on a leash [.]” The poems are brief, and relatively straightforward, but offer intriguing insight, striking lines and occasional wisdom, such as the short couplet that ends the collection, writing:

To my beloved puppy
You are a Daisy in a field of weeds

Ottawa ON: I was pleased to see the existence of the Sawdust Reading Series 4th Anniversary Collection 2017-2018 (2018) from natalie hanna’s battleaxe, an anthology celebrating an ongoing reading series organized by Jennifer Pederson, hanna and Liam Burke. The anthology features work (as one might suspect) by featured readers throughout that particular year’s worth of monthly readings, as well as their contest winners (submitted poems are entered into a contest, to read alongside the curated readers at the following month’s event; contests are judged by the prior feature)), and include a wealth of writers and spoken word performers, from emerging to established (most of whom are Ottawa situated): Apollo the Child, Barâa Arar, Manahil Bandukwala, Mike Blouin, Frances Boyle, Ayesha Chatterjee, Conyer Clayton, Anita Dolman, Allie Duff, Sanita Fejzić, Avonlea Fotheringham, Sarah Kabamba, Margo Lapierre, Nathanaël Larochette, Alastair Larwill, Namitha Rathinapillai, Shane Rhodes, Sandra Ridley, Jean Van Loon and Fatima Zahra.

The day after

Too much sky. Too much. A few
leaves in a corner, insouciant
as a painting. Be careful
what you wish for. There is
always a price. No grief can turn it
back now, the careless lust
that caused this gentle,
ungendered thing,
dead, yet still greenly,
evenly breathing. (Ayesha Chatterjee)

One element that Sawdust has been attentive to, along with engaging with numerous emerging authors, is their ability to engage with a far more diverse group of writers than most, part of a larger and really interesting shift across Ottawa’s literature (it’s about damned time, really). Some of the highlights in this short anthology include the poems by Ridley, Boyle, Kabamba, Lapierre and Chatterjee as well as this striking piece by Ottawa community organizer, writer and The Watering Hole podcast co-host Barâa Arar:

in the sun

you know only how to hesitate how to fill blank spaces with ums and bad sports analogies how to pretend to fill suits how to be who you thought you would be at 27 I know only how to be head first how to be fast and too much how to be caught in the rain in this poetry in this love this is not something beautiful this is something else something that creeps up behind you out of left field keeps you on your toes we find ourselves at brunch in the sun or at parks in the sun eating gelato from waffle cones we paid too much for speaking of something and everything and nothing this is not something extraordinary this is boring this is routine this is too many almosts not enough curveballs to keep you on your toes so you hesitate and fill the blank spaces with ums and bad poetry you fell head first too fast and too slow all at once

this is not something beautiful but this this is something

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Norma Cole, Fate News


if or when one of the magical seals
gives way when does the first parade
of theories begin bracing myself
to outside worked up bright bands
beside normal a problem of tapes then
a record of events
overhauling nostalgic to long ago
pushing a flood of tears in its
slightly elliptical orbit
evidently referring to what I must have
ceased to be in order to be who I am
and the iron moon of Jupiter to imagine
the veins of grooves and ridges of ice
the night sidereal Io’s volcanoes
fit into a box, even where the sky
was my own, but every question
painted ultramarine

Playing off most commonly uttered phrase over the past few months is American poet and translator Norma Cole’s latest poetry title, Fate News (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2018), a collection constructed as a mélange: occasional poems composed with a variety of styles and purposes, from elegies, asides, memorials and memoir pieces. Writing out short lyrics, sequences, fragments, first-person narratives, poems on visual art, fractals and short scenes, the overall structure of Fate News is reminiscent of another senior poet’s recent work, Vancouver poet George Bowering’s The World, I Guess (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2015), both collections constructed in a way that really shows and showcases the range of each writer’s capability, as well as their ongoing curiosities and interests. The poems in Fate News are composed as responses, whether to music, artwork, friends or current events, and manage both a timelessness and an incredible relevance, all pattered and patterned with a lyric capacity that threads her own music throughout. As part of an interview conducted by publisher Rusty Morrison, and included with the press release, Cole responds:

Many of the poems are “occasional” poems, written for particular occasions, such as “you Sing and the Angels Smile,” commissioned for a book of etchings by Alex Katz, You Smile and the Angels Sing, or “Among Things Aubade for David Ireland,” for anew catalogue, David Ireland. There are elegies for people who died. And “topical” pieces, like that funny one. Poems written for excruciating times. I knew at one point that there would be this first section, “Local,” then “Ongoing,” none of which I’d written yet (more about that later), the “Stay Songs for Stanley Whitney,” and “Harmolodics.” Timing and timelessness, chronos, clock time and kairos, the opposite time, the propitious moment for action or decision. Up-to-the-minute writing and earlier writing. In fact all the writing passes outside of a timeframe into the timeless, read anew. “Harmolodics” comes from my lifelong experience with and love of jazz, from my hearing those sounds, pitches rhythms as a youngster in the middle of the night, in darkness, on a radio. I wrote the “Stay Songs” for a catalogue in 2001, and a couple of years ago I was in New York at Stanley’s studio and he told me he’s been making paintings called “Stay Songs.” And now the songs are in this book and one of Stanley’s “Stay Songs” is on the cover.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Ongoing notes: Meet the Presses (part three,

[the view from my table]

Further to my recent participation in Toronto’s Meet the Presses’ annual Indie Literary Market [see part one of my notes here; part two of my notes here], here are another few items I collected at said event.

Toronto ON: Toronto writer Kate Sutherland continues her exploration of animals real and imaged through her chapbook Beasts of the Sea (knife│fork│books, 2018), something the author biography references as well, presenting a bit more context for this current work: “She is currently at work on a new collection of poems on the theme of extinction.” Following her debut poetry title, How to Draw a Rhinoceros (Book*hug, 2016), the poems in Beasts of the Sea are similarly packed with an exploration based on both research and curiosity, moving through a sequence of dense lyric poems that point themselves toward magical beasts and pure scientific data. I am curious to see where this manuscript leads.


Red and white sea nettles, a large mass
of reed grass, various species of seaweed
adrift. Rock ducks and flocks of gulls
The frequent occurrence of animals
not commonly met in the open sea: sea otters
compelled by the structure of their hearts
to keep close to shore. We should have made it
in three or four days, ten at the most
had we taken advantage of the plainest signs
of nearness of land. We saw land as early as July 15th
but because I was first to announce it
and it was not so clear a picture could be made of it
the announcement was dismissed. Six wees
after leaving Avacha we reached land

Toronto ON: Another title from Desert Pets Press is Toronto poet Jacqueline Valencia’s chapbook LILITH (2018), a collection of short lyrics imbued with an undercurrent of soft anxiety attempting to seek out a sequence of calm. Sometimes the poems in LILITH achieve that calm, but the anxiety remains, ever-present, even if it remains muted, however hard the narrator and narration might attempt to push their way over and through, to what lies beyond. With the occasional light at the end of the tunnel, Valencia articulates some dark lyric stretches, domestic patters and rough patches; I am hoping both poems and narrators finally make it.


As you enter my living room, there is a black office desk in the far right corner. A black laptop with a broken screen sits beside a fingerprint-stained monitor above a crumb-infested keyboard. A grey scanner sits beside them, the top of it is cluttered with unfinished illustrations, my children’s drawings, old books needing to be put away. Two worn-down moleskine notebookskeep the papers in place. They are deep green, crammed with future waste paper and one possibility. A cracked mug adorned with a faded image of Stanley Kubrick waits by the keyboard with a cold layer of over-sugared coffee inside of it. A collection of dusty race medals hangs on the wall in front of the desk and below it resides a salvaged dollhouse. The dollhouse stores the overflow from the desk: papers, kids crayons, unread pamphlets/materials, and one vintage bowler hat that was used once in a community theatre production of Waiting for Godot.

There’s a soft tabby cat purring on my lap.
I’ve lost something.