Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Jacqueline Turner, Flourish

What’s the matter with you

I remember my back pressed hot into the sandbar one second before my brothers pour water from red buckets onto my tanned belly and I jump up screaming. Exactly one second later I downplay my reaction to not give them the satisfaction. It’s a game of pretend I continue for a lifetime. Elif Batuman in The Idiot writes, “It can be really exasperating to look back at your past. What’s the matter with you? I want to ask her, my younger self, shaking her shoulder. If I did that, he would probably cry. Maybe I would cry, too.” We regulate our responses to be likeable thereby rendering ourselves weak and undesirable. Only to ourselves, though, only ourselves.

Flourish (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019) is Vancouver poet Jacqueline Turner’s fifth poetry collection, after Into the Fold (2000), Careful (2003), Seven Into Even (2006) and The Ends of the Earth (2013), all of which have been published by ECW Press through editor Michael Holmes. Some of the poems in Flourish are reminiscent of certain works by Margaret Christakos, Rachel Zucker or Anne Carson for their own lyric explorations, composing poems as small studies, and allowing different levels of the personal and interpersonal into the body of their poems. The poems of Turner’s Flourish, predominantly a book of prose poems, utilize an exploration of language as its base, and the materials of her life as the means through which she makes those explorations. We might even compare the idea to similar structures of language exploration Vancouver writer George Bowering utilized in his Autobiology (Vancouver BC: Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, 1972), but Turner’s, while writing out a number of remembrance single-stanza prose poems, is more conscious of reading and writing, source materials and the composition of the poem-essay. Turner writes out memories around her children and of them growing into adulthood, memories of her own childhood and siblings, and the low expectations put upon her (as a girl growing up in the 1980s, and into the 1990s), and of her experiences moving into and through emerging author, of “a desire constructed for me by books and also television.” (“New York Intellectuals”). As part of a 2013 interview, Turner spoke of the beginnings of the manuscript:

I’m working on a new manuscript called Flourish because I’ve spent quite a lot of time on dealing with the ends of things so I thought it would be good to explore how language operates when things are going well. I like the idea of an exuberant text so I’m experimenting with letting the writing break open and burst forth. The rush is an element I’ve used formally in my writing — the rush of the long line prose poem — as well as the mode of compression where language is put under pressure in short imagistic stanzas, so I guess I want to see what’s between the extremes of concision and excess.

Set in five sections—Flourish: Studies,” “New Nostalgia” “Flourish: Poems” and “Flourish: Declarative Sentences”—the title of her first section suggest writing as a field of study, and her prose poems do come through in a rush; one that appears highly considered, each word and phrase weighed before set on the page, but with such an ease of flow akin to a sudden release of water. What becomes curious is in the title of her third section, highlighting and specifying “poems” in a section where the pieces included aren’t prose poems or prose sections, but shaped in the more traditional structure of lyric poems. As the poem “‘Texts against images and vise versa’” opens:

it was meant to be simple
like teaching the alphabet to a plant

we repeated our favourite lines over
and over until they divided and multiplied

a clipping, a letter is all there is
at the start of things

a lush touch a rush of fingers entwined
we know it means love in the raw sense
but we reach for the poetic anyway still

Flourish is a collection that works to take stock, looking forward, back and at the present moment, attempting a sense of placement, of movement, striking out with every source of information she can muster, from the source materials of her own memories to that of her own reading. Flourish is a celebration of the present, even as she works to take it apart, so that she might better understand it. “The parts of a whole are indicated in partial modes of remembrances.” she writes, to open the poem “Putting the World in a Box”: “Loss is a continual gesture of nostalgia.”

Speaking in Paragraphs

I don’t but I know people who do. Fully formed ideas fall out of their mouths with captivating hooks, building action, and a clever return back to the beginning just as they are winding down. People who verbally process their experiences do not like to be interrupted. They are likely to barrel over interjections unless I’m so uncharacteristically forceful that I can’t be reasonably ignored. Their resulting exasperation is palpable enough that I almost feel bad for trying to take up space with my fragmentary hesitative speech parts. bpNichol wrote, “The mouth remembers what the brain can’t quite wrap its tongue around & that’s what my life’s become. My life’s become my mouth’s remembering, telling stories with the brain’s tongue” and I also feel beholden to “the brain’s tongue” – trying to find language for what continually slips from memory, yet insists on its messy present moment anyway. Internal reverie strangles but slides. The momentary um “what my life’s become.”

Monday, August 19, 2019

Chris Banks, Midlife Action Figure

New World

A ship arrives in the middle of a downtown city
intersection. Although there is no port, people
depart the wooden ship with family belongings
stuffed into suitcases, saying, “So this is the New
World. Who knew it would take this long to arrive?”
Men and women walk past them on sidewalks,
staring into phones, cursing some inner lack.
The newly disembarked hold hands, begin to sing
a hymn forbidden in the land of their ancestry.
All around them, skyscrapers reflect clouds, loom
above them to move along, or he will ticket them
for an unlawful assembly. Where are your permits?
Children hide in the long skirts of young mothers
caressing their golden hair. Was this the land they left
the old country to find? Their leaders urge caution.
Maybe they should reboard the ship for the night?
but the captain has pulled up the gangplank. The ship
is sailing away without them. Evening draws its veil
as a kettle of people tightens around the newcomers.
They begin to chant. Assimilate! Assimilate!

I’m fascinated by the poems in Waterloo, Ontario poet Chris Banks’ fourth full-length poetry collection, Midlife Action Figure (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019), a book that follows his Bonfires (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions/Junction Books, 2003), Winter Cranes (ECW Press, 2011) and The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press, 2017). The poems are densely thick and incredibly rich, akin, somewhat, to a lyric molasses in which a reader is caught up in an unexpected lyric flow. Perhaps molasses isn’t the right word, but the comparison suggests a thickness, and a poetry in which one can’t easily pull away from. Set in three numbered sections, his poems are big poems (although each averaging a page in length) wrestling with big ideas and big questions, including, as he writes in “Big Questions”: “Twenty years on, why keep / making art?”

As the title suggests, the collection explores that nebulous idea of “midlife,” although one that isn’t necessarily one fraught with anxiety or even resignation (although both are present, as threads, through), but more as a curiosity around and exploration of mortality. Consider, also, that (according to an interview Rob Taylor conducted with Banks for PRISM International, posted October 12, 2017) the original title for the manuscript was “The Book Of The Dead For Dummies.” In numerous poems, he offers a variety of specific questions and statements on writing and poetics, something he has done in previous works, opening the poem as much as a poetic as a sequence of expositions, from “Most days / writing a poem is like watching a pot waiting / to be filled.” and “This is an honest / poem, and even it is on the grift.” from “Honesty,” or “Someone’s handwritten / notes in the margins: Love this one! Huzzah!” from “Reading So-and-So’s Selected Poems in a Used Bookstore,” to “I wish I could tell / you I am the only one in this poem” from “Kintsugi.” Banks’ poems are a kind of lyric collage, each poem set as an accumulation of queries, statements and observations on writing, pop culture, family, society, the human disconnects that media and the internet furthers, the crisis of climate change, mortality and just about everything. Banks offers his thoughts and observations from the intimate to the spiritual to the quietly mundane, all of which wraps itself around the question of survival, and how we might navigate and exist in the world as responsible and healthy humans. How did we get here, and where are we going? How is it even possible to exist during these times? His poems offer an optimism, but one that has been battered around for some time, and one that begins to question itself. “Beauty rewrites its own code.” he writes, to open the poem “Simulation”: “The authentic / is another souvenir most people throw away.”


No one wants the good china. Meet me
at the safe house. Pry up a few floorboards
and you are sure to find an old beer bottle.
Who wants my head on a platter? Pencil in
time for friends and enemies. The billet-doux
was lost in the move. Life is not packed
in Styrofoam. I’ll take a riot over the ho-hum.
Devastation over racketball. I will sign
your petition if you will sign mine. Change
should not require forms. My resentments
come in transcripts. Joy in hot pink neon.
Do you want the egg-salad or the gospel?
Own up to your hurts. My style is foreign
so the heart suffers. Obligations possess me
until I feel like a rolled-up tube of glue.
How did I get stuck in this meat locker?
At least, I have Dante and Beyoncé to keep
me company. Careers are scams. I am waiting
for the next great crusade. Let it be sharing
our inner lives. Tapestries of secrets. The
past declassified, and still parts omitted.
Who needs to be a prisoner of blue skies?
Ante up on hope, and I will double down
on happiness. Fly your banners. I give you
my assurance of a promised march over lands
full of payday loans, corporate retreats. Let me
put my armour on. This takes several years.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Nelson Ball (1942-August 16, 2019)

Sad news from Stuart Ross: that Paris, Ontario poet, editor and former publisher and bookseller Nelson Ball died yesterday afternoon in Brantford after an extended illness.

In my review of his Chewing Water (Mansfield Press, 2016) [see that here] I mentioned how Cameron Anstee has referred to Ball as “Canada’s greatest practicing minimalist poet.” Ball emerged in the 1960s in Toronto as part of an enormous wave of poets and small press editors and publishers, and his Weed/Flower magazine, which quickly flourished into Weed/Flower Press, was one of the more memorable operations throughout the period, and one that published books and chapbooks by a growing generation of exciting poets from both sides of the Canadian/American border (and occasionally beyond). Some of the authors he published included John Newlove, bpNichol, Anselm Hollo, William Hawkins and Rosemary Eckert (and if you dig through his Weed/Flower magazine, you can even find an early poem or two by Bruce Cockburn). His books and his poems and his letters and his editing were all given equal weight, and Nelson employed such a quiet and deceptive simplicity that could only emerge from a lengthy and detailed attention.

For those familiar with Ball’s work—produced over the years through numerous small press books, chapbooks, pamphlets and leaflets—his precision and timing is unmistakable, composing sublime poems that are infamous for their capacity to hold both volume and breath in such small spaces. However quiet and unassuming both he and his work might have appeared (Nelson was notoriously both deeply humble and generous), Ball’s work went on to influence multiple generations of Canadian poets, including jwcurry, Gary Barwin, Stuart Ross, Mark Truscott, Kemeny Babineau, Michael e. Casteels and Cameron Anstee, among so many, many others.

Seemingly retiring from poetry during the 1980s for the sake of bookselling (as a collector/antiquarian bookseller of literary ephemera), he reemerged to enjoy a second chapter as a poet with the publication of With Issa: Poems 1964-1971 (ECW Press, 1991), a book followed by Bird Tracks on Hard Snow (ECW Press, 1994), The Concrete Air (The Mercury Press, 1996), Almost Spring (The Mercury Press, 1999), At The Edge Of The Frog Pond (The Mercury Press, 2004) and In This Thin Rain (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2012), as well as a large array of smaller publications through Apt. 9 Press, BookThug, Curvd H&z, MindWare, fingerprinting inkoperated, Letters, Rubblestone Press, above/ground press and Laurel Reed Books.

With the publication of his selected poems, Certain Details: The Poetry of Nelson Ball, selected with an introduction by Stuart Ross (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017) [see my review of such here], Ball was almost in the midst of a third chapter, one that included new levels of attention (as well as the bpNichol Chapbook Award). He continued to quietly write and publish (in 2015, Niagara This Week even referred to Ball’s prior two year period as “prolific”), and even self-publish, from a new volume with Mansfield Press to small chapbooks to a volume of poems for children, each put together with careful detail. It was a chapter that coincided, as well, with his official retirement from bookselling, allowing his attention to focus, again, on the page and to the quiet spaces between so much noise that distracted, it would seem, just about everyone but him.

He was always quite kind, and he was more than kind and generous to me, having long been a supporter of and subscriber to above/ground press (he even allowed me to produce his chapbook Scrub Cedar back in March 2003). I’m sure a list of those he was generous to in similar ways would most likely be a rather comprehensive history of small poetry publishing in Canada. To reach out to him was to have him reach back.

I was only able to spend time with him once, during a visit years ago to Toronto. I had gone to see a show by his wife, Barbara, and saw a quiet man standing on one side of the room. I introduced myself, and he seemed both surprised and pleased to be recognized. He seemed like a quieter version of jwcurry, somehow; same beard, same lanky figure at the side of the room, attempting to be present but somehow invisible, taking in as much as he could.

His most recent publication appeared this past year through Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press, A Letter to Amanda Bernstein and a Checklist of Weed/Flower Press (Apt. 9 Press, 2019), something I wrote briefly about here. And, given I’m away for the weekend (caregiving my father, who has ALS), I haven’t my library around me, so I offer this poem of Nelson’s, pilfered from a review I did moons back of Stuart Ross’ Hardscrabble:



in the air

the strong wind


Nelson is predeceased by his wife, the artist Barbara Caruso, who died on December 30, 2009 [see my obituary for her here].

Friday, August 16, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Caroline Knox

Caroline Knox's [photo credit: Juliana Knox] tenth book of poetry, Hear Trains, has just appeared from Wave Books in Seattle.  Her  previous books are The House Party (1984) and To Newfoundland (1989), both from Georgia, followed by Flemish, Nine Worthies, Quaker Guns, and He Paves the Road with Iron Bars (Winner of the Maurice English Award). She has received grants and awards from The Fund for Poetry, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Poetry magazine.

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

My first book, The House Party (Georgia 1984) changed my life permanently, because its reality in my hands made me know that writing books of poetry was my chief job.

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

As the eldest of four children, I was read to a lot by relatives from two generations.  They read, so I read.  I'm sure end rhyme is entertaining to children!  Reading time was a wonderful game.  Sound was enchanting.  The poetry book needed no plot (as did fiction).

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?

Of course, it got easier to put together poems that felt like a real book, belonging together, as time went on.  I can't remember a time that I wasn't writing poems.  And I never wanted to write fiction!  Poetry was plenty of work. These days when I put together a book, I often take out a poem or two or three that seem weak. This could tighten the book up.

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?

I'm always working on a book, as well as on the poem in front of me.

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

I've done public readings from the beginning -- for decades.  In grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it was UNDERSTOOD that you shared your work; you got up in front of the class and read it, and there was discussion.  Almost always constructive.  We all got used to it.  Most of us enjoyed it.

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 don't think I have theoretical concerns beyond making each new poem as strong as I can.

I try always to put into my new work elements that I haven't used before:  surprising new words I've learned, unexpected elements like odd names for products, or new trends.  Where did Steampunk come from, for instance?

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?

Well, all writers are different, I hope!  And we should each try to sound like ourselves the best we can (unless we are intentionally writing in the voice of an animal or a bird).  I think it's often hard for a poet to write a good poem with a strong political message, or a poem that points out cruelty and describes it.  Often the message overpowers the poem.

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

I've always had an excellent and diligent editor, and I'm extremely grateful.

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

From James Hazard, my thesis director:  Put into your poems material that hasn't been there before.

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'm never not writing, even at the supermarket.  I make notes there.

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

I don't get stalled.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Late fall frost.

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?

Other people's conversation.  New slang.  What poem could it go into?

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

John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara

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

Nothing.  I would just like to keep writing in the mode or modes that I'm in.

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?

A professional alto singer in a chorus.

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

I couldn't stop, and i don't need to.  I had a husband and three children.  Whatever we all did, my poet life was easily practiced.

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

Not great, but VERY good:  Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov.  This is a study in obtuseness and laziness!

19 - What are you currently working on?


12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Jehanne Dubrow, American Samizdat

For a few days: frost
remakes the lawn as frozen spines.

I’m stepping on small bones.
In these outlying parts

streets are named Whispering or Leaf.
I’m leashed to a small companion

who leads me from one message to another,
squats in the grass, rubs

against a hydrant’s iron neck.
I’m bundled in feathers,

the downy air, to prove
what breed of animal I am.

The curious hesitations of the short lyrics in Jehanne Dubrow’s latest poetry collection, American Samizdat (Richmond VA: diode editions, 2019), a collection of untitled lyrics “written in conversation with Zbigniew Herbert’s character of Pan Cogito, Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, and Witold Gombrowics’s Diary,” among other influences. In a 2017 interview for American Literary Review, conducted by Sebastian Paramo, she responds:

I’ve been rereading Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind—a cautionary tale of the many ways an artist can betray his own art in a politically oppressive state. I spent seven years of my childhood in Poland. I was in Warsaw when Martial Law was declared. I was there for the birth of Solidarność. I turned fourteen a few days after the Wall came down in Berlin. And what I learned from those years is that art matters. It’s not, to use a Polish word, dekoracja. It’s hope. It’s resistance. Maybe it’s a reason to keep getting out of bed every morning.

Recently, I heard Rep. John Lewis say, “We must not be silent.” Could there be better advice for any writer? 

There are elements to her untitled lyrics that feel situated between two poles, between contemporary American poetry composed in English to European works in translation, setting a particular kind of lyric abstract set in a more concrete narrative (I’m thinking of works I’ve recently read in English translation from France, for example) that is also reminiscent, in certain ways, of the work of Canadian poet Phil Hall, who has worked from an influence by, among others, the French poet René Char. Hers is a politics that exists between silence and overwhelming noise, attempting to speak clearly and plainly of how one might be, and what has already begun. Between what is written, one might suggest, is the unwritten, and Dubrow articulates that particular space rather poignantly, composing a suite of poems that exist both individually and as a complete unit.

Was there really a world
before electronic birdsong

or the tome of visages we read
to learn if we’re adored.

A world before these sticks
of kindling—just rub

to find ardor within miles.
A world conveying us

on a river of belongings,
such wanting with our spiked

piranha teeth. Dear world,
is there nothing we won’t eat.