Saturday, November 30, 2019

the ottawa small press book fair (part one,

It seems strange to have actually attended three small press fairs this season [see my most recent post on the Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market here; my posts on the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ Small Press Market here], with the third of the trio being the 25th anniversary of the ottawa small press book fair! I really am quite baffled at how we managed to make it to a whole quarter-century (I mean, really). And you saw my recent post on who came to our first fair way back in October, 1994, yes?

Ottawa ON: From Ottawa’s Coven Editions comes Grimoire (October 2019), a collection edited by Coven co-publishers Mia Morgan and Stephanie Meloche [see their '12 or 20 (small press) questions' interview here] in an edition of sixty copies, and offer an assemblage of work that one might suspect, given both publisher moniker and chapbook title. The small collection features the work of a number of familiar names, including Ariel Dawn, Allison Armstrong, Ellen Chang-Richardson, Erin Emily Ann Vance, Nisa Malli, nina jane drystek, Emily Coppella, Samantha Godwin, Manahil Bandukwala, Vivian Wagner and Helen Robertson. Victoria poet Ariel Dawn, for example, is a name I’ve seen increasingly over the past few months (two different editors, for example, included works of hers in my journal G U E S T [a journal of guest editors]), and I’ve been quite taken with many of the prose poems I’ve seen of hers so far.


Mark the gates with feather, wand, salt-water, stones, and in the centre, chair and table with books, pen and cauldron burning bay laurel and cinnamon. Turn to the East, Air, and call: sylph, Mercury, primrose, mind, bless me with the power to know. Turn to the South, Fire, and call: salamander, Jupiter, red poppy, spirit, bless me with the power to will. Turn to the West, Water, and call: undine, Moon, rain, moss, soul, bless me with the power to dare. Turn to the North, Earth, and call: gnome, Venus, rose, crystal, body, bless me with the power to be silent. Turn to the Centre, everywhere, nowhere, and call: sphinx, flowering almond, God and Goddess, bless me with the power to go. Open the old dairy in air, let leaves and flowers fall, then open the new and write beyond lines into this land of grey-green hills and starry root matter.

For her part, Ottawa poet Manahil Bandukwala’s work has been gathering a steady momentum for some time now, collecting publishing credits and even the occasional prize [see her 2018 “Spotlight” appearance here], all of which make me curious to see each new step as it reveals itself. Erin Emily Ann Vance, also, a poet with a chapbook produced through Coven, as well as a newly-published novel, has a piece inside the new issue, a piece that slowly unfolds as both direction, offering of hope, and potential warning:


Steal the pews from the church that refused to baptize you.
Build a large box
and a smaller box
and then a box the size of a twin bed.
Place them together like matryoshka dolls.
Line the largest box with parish newsletters,
the smaller box with alter boy entrails
and the smallest, line with the blanket of your great aunt
crocheted upon hearing of your birth.

Here, you are safe.

Although one of the most interesting poems in the collection has to be “IN A CANDLELIT ROOM, a spell for when you don’t know who to call,” by Ottawa poet nina jane drystek, that includes, at the end:

choose a vowel sound
make it low
let it grow
let it fill the room

hold the cup tight and drink

recite seventeen times:
            for this i am this

Coven, it would seem, is very much aware of emerging poets (with an editorial preference to the first-person narrative lyric) and offering support, providing an opportunity to learn the names and the works of young writers on their ways to doing some very worth things; so, doesn’t this mean, in turn, you should be paying attention?

Ottawa ON: The afternoon immediately following our small fair, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis did a house reading with Cobourg, Ontario poet, writer, editor and publisher Stuart Ross, and their host, Alexander Monker, even produced a small item for the occasion: 8 Poems (Sunday Afternoon Poems), “Published on the occasion of a reading held in Ottawa on November 24, 2019.” I’ve always liked the idea of a small item produced in a limited quantity for the sake of such occasions (Ross has been producing single-poem leaflets for similar occasions, through his Proper Tales Press, for a very long time), and this small and charming chapbook allows for the intimacy of a house reading in published form. The collection, wisely, opens with the recent tribute Ross wrote to the late poet Nelson Ball, composed “for, after, and with Nelson”:

Willow Street

Nelson and I
sit facing
each other
in silence

I get up
put a kettle
on the

sit back down
our silence

the kettle
I pour myself a tea

sit back down
our silence

we cover
a lot
of ground

With this small collection of two well-published poets and long-time friends, four poems each, the overlap between their writing becoming more obvious, more pronounced: the observational commentaries, and the unexpected twists (something, obviously, less overt in Dennis’ work than in Ross’, but still there). I’m disappointed to not have made the event, and had we not the sixth birthday party for our Rose on the same afternoon, I would certainly have been at this reading.


the lightning staggered across the sky
the sky carved its initials into itself
into itself the glass of water poured
water poured into my basement, destroying my books
my books are all about emotions
emotions are often sold by the pound
Pound turned to skywriting antisemitic slogans
antisemitic slogans can win you free pizza
you free pizza from rusting cages
rusting cages hold your most tender thoughts
most tender thoughts are insincere
insincere is the dolphin that buries the coffin
the coffin contains a banjo and a banjo-playing duck
playing duck is a worthwhile occupation

Friday, November 29, 2019

Danielle LaFrance, JUST LIKE I LIKE IT

Instead, this tongue gathers in the expectation of a meal

Small-talk mastication. Never finally deciding

On where or what to eat

Stop pretending it’s not there. The moon’s cuticle

Oh at least bad metaphors cannot be ignored

I’m tired of loving it. It is actually cheaper than cocaine

Desperation is a valuable commodity. It waters and feeds me

And I keep seeding it. I keep binging it (“POWER BOTTOM’S DREAM”)

Vancouver writer Danielle LaFrance’s latest, JUST LIKE I LIKE IT (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2019), is a book that revels in failure, whether around writing, power or ambition, and exploring ideas of obsession, anxiety and resignation even against a foundation of a fiery ‘kicking against the pricks.’ As the poem “VII” from the opening section “IT MAKES ME ILIAD” (a poem-section that reworks the ancient text), “JUST LIKE I LIKE WHEN BOTH / SIDES AGREE,” writes: “Depression  is the  natural  state in  times like  these. & the / fault, of course,  is not  in the  stars, but in  ourselves.” JUST LIKE I LIKE IT is LaFrance’s third trade poetry title, after Friendly + Fire (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2016) [see my review of such here] and Species Branding (Vancouver BC: CUE, 2010), and there is an emotional rawness and vulnerability reminiscent of another recent Talonbooks title, Calgary poet Nikki Reimer’s My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan (Talonbooks, 2019) [see my review of such here], but one that also revels in guttural sound and image, and a swagger that refuses to slow or tone down even when off-balance. Her book’s title seems to offer itself both as a challenge and admission, set in all caps. Is this shouting, or simply holding firm? Perhaps both; perhaps tired of being asked or corrected, repeatedly. What appeals here is in the rawness of the material, and the ways in which LaFrance opens up the possibilities of what poetry can or should be doing, and could become, such as this section of the poem-section “IT SOUNDS LIKE A SMALL SCUM,” that reads:














Thursday, November 28, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Henry Israeli

Henry Israeli is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughters. His latest book is Our Age of Anxiety, is the winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. His previous books are god’s breath hovering across the waters (Four Way Books: 2016), Praying to the Black Cat (Del Sol: 2010), and New Messiahs (Four Way Books: 2002). He is also the translator of three books by Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, and the founder and publisher of Saturnalia Books.

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 one’s first book published is a great vote of confidence. But other than that, nothing changes. In fact, it becomes more difficult. I’ve seen hundreds of brilliant first books. The real question is, can you follow it up with a second? A third? Can your vision sustain more than one book?

Every book I’ve ever written has been a work of full dedication and self-torture. It never gets easier.

I’d like to think that my new work is more thoughtful and mature, but that’s not a determination I can make myself.

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

When I was young I wrote in all the major genres: poetry, fiction (short and long), drama, and essays. But poetry, I found, was the most fulfilling. When you get a poem right, it’s like snapping in that last puzzle piece. It just feels gratifying.

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?

A collection of poetry takes me several years to complete. I start by writing individual poems and when I have enough of them, I look carefully for patterns and recurring concerns, things that will give me a clue about what I’m digging for and how to organize the poems into a manuscript that is, hopefully, greater than the sum of its parts. Then there’s the endless editing, culling bad poems, and sending poems out to journals.

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?

Oh, I think I just answered that. I start with individual poems and once I figure out what the hell I’m getting at I start thinking of new poems as contributions to an already established theme.

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

I do readings to promote new books, but I don’t enjoy doing them. I’m an introvert and standing in front of a crowd, or worse yet, a near empty room, is intimidating for me. Still I realize, as a publisher myself, the importance of getting out there to sell books. So I put on my best face, pretend I’m charming, and just do 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?

As a child of immigrants and as an immigrant myself, my work is always concerned with Otherness. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am also concerned with heredity, persecution, and existential fear and anxiety. However, I’m not trying to answer any questions. I don’t think poetry is very good at that. I’m more interested in asking them.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Writing and reading poetry in a world that is hostile, resentful, or simply oblivious of poetry is a political act in itself. I love the thought that I am part of a counterculture that resists oppression by committing itself to an ancient artform. The poets are the canaries in a coal mine when it comes to dictatorships. However, I do not delude myself into thinking that “my precious words” can enact change or affect our larger culture in any significant way. But who knows? Occasionally a poet breaks through the cultural barrier and has an impact, but that’s a rare event.

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

I think it is essential that poets share their work and take advice from other poets. It’s all too common not to clearly see what’s directly in front of us.

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

I’m not sure if someone gave this to me when I was young, or if I made it up for my students. “Let the poem take you where it wants to go.”

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

Translation is a form of editing. You are editing someone’s foreign words for an audience that you are familiar with. Translating certainly helped me sharpen my editing skills.

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 wish! Unfortunately, because I teach at a university full time, and my university is on a quarter system, and my schedule and the amount of work I have changes, sometimes radically, every three months. Ideally though I would write for two to three hours every morning.

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

I have a bookshelf stocked with poetry books and I’ll randomly pull one out and read. A line, a word, a turn of phrase, anything really, can stimulate my writing.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Chicken soup. Hey, I’m Jewish.

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 have written ekphrastic poems and poems based science. I am, of course, influenced by nature, and by simple things I experience or see day to day. I am also greatly influenced by history and sometimes by philosophy.

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

Of the classics, Keats, Donne, Eliot, Stevens, Celan, Plath, Creeley, and others. When I was in grad school in the early 90’s, we all considered Ashbery to be the closest thing to a poetry God on Earth. Now I read widely and can take something away from nearly every poet I read, young or old. Of contemporary poets, I greatly admire Peter Gizzi, Mary Ruefle, Forrest Gander, Tracy K. Smith, Terrance Hayes, Ocean Vuong, and so many more. Of course, I love all the poets that my press, Saturnalia Books, publishes but it would be unfair of me to pick favorites.

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

Hike Machu Picchu.

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 would have discovered the cure for cancer. Sorry, world.

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

Stupidity. What the hell was I thinking?

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

Fiction: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Part nightmare, part fantasy, part political satire, one hundred percent insane.

Poetry: Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi. So many wonderful surprises and linguistic leaps.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a film in ages. But I am a big fan of TV: The Americans, Fargo, Chernobyl, When They See Us, and anything by David Simon come to mind.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m finishing up a poetry manuscript, Night of the Murdered Poets, that combines the story of Stalin’s last purge with memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I’m also working on another collection that focusses on the current cultural and political disconnect through short ineffable lyrics with the working title, Deep Fake.