Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Heather Sweeney, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness

Interlude: I am not on the syllabus. I am not from the hills or the vast ocean. I am peeling birch. I had gymnastics lessons. For a time. I was not hungry. The sun paraded for three months. I cannot tell you how much I love or do not love. I am things you cannot measure. I am not domestic. I ran track and was average. I always knew I would move somewhere far away. If I feel hemmed in I will retaliate. This is something to depend on.

Dear Marshall,
I went to Target today to buy a black mini skirt and had a feeling someone was following me. I calmed myself down, accusing my imagination. As I was paying I turned around and the guy was right behind me. Buying air fresheners. I remembered those boxing moves you taught me. My thoughts pinned under there. This is my world now. I imagine the sun rising across your voice. Across the flavored air. Are you at home now? At least that is something we could share.

I’ve been going through San Diego poet Heather Sweeney’s new full-length poetry title, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness (Brooklyn NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2020), following a handful of chapbooks (including one from above/ground press) as well as the full-length Call Me California (Finishing Line Press, 2020), a book published almost simultaneously alongside this one (although I have yet to see a copy). Dear Marshall is constructed as a book-length lyric suite of prose poems that employ elements of the first-person journal entry against that of the letter-poem, offering observation, memory, introspection and an immediacy that brings one right into the action of her sentences. She writes of violence, love, family and loss, a childhood of rebellion and survival, a flurry of impulse, heartbreak and outcomes deeply-felt. “My feet are unusually narrow. I can run a long distance at a slow pace. I / have had past-life visions. In one I am hunting a boar in a dense jungle. / In another I am running with a baby in one arm wrapped in a brown / blanket. We are close to death. In a field of ice. In the long neck of a / dream.” The poems run from direct statement and stories retold into abstract, lyric layerings, and is structured as a curious kind of call-and-response, as every page an opening call paired with a response directly to “Marshall.” Who is Marshall? Given the rhetorical aspect of the letter-poem, it might not be as important who Marshall is or was, but what and how she writes to him.

Dear Marshall,
You were always my witness. You never stopped me from myself. What does survival mean? A hand hidden. Under my coat. Despite my effort. Being chased by your mom’s boyfriend with a broken beer bottle. Here, an abstraction. A hand that became a root piercing our shadow. When that fucker fell to the floor I swore I heard his tooth crack. And I laughed until I convulsed. When was the last time we. I invite you to touch my convulsion. My small empire of words. The bitch in me is this shattered frame. One day your eyes are blue and then another. Meet me in the hotel lobby tomorrow. I will be waiting. (Leopard coat, sunglasses.)

Sweeney’s poems are first-person declarations that attempt to place herself, to centre herself in a collage of experience, situations and potential chaos, shaping the chaos into a particular kind of order. “I am a sentence made of two icy twigs. Of splintered afterthought. I’m / at the airport again. The wall of windows, a stanza.” She weaves in a collage of pilfered lines, lived experiences, questions and observations into a coherent line, working a shape of the world in which she exists. This book-length poem, this book-length suite of poems, read as a journal of accumulated sentences shaped as a way to write one’s way into being, into becoming; to write through and beyond the unsettled past and present into a less uncertain future.

There is a bee on my wrist. I am drinking almond milk chai. I know almond consumption is contributing to the drought in California, but I always forget. A bird hit my window this morning. My wingspan is five feet. I am good in an emergency. I am at a literary festival listening to a panel about the Middle East. Sometimes I feel dumb when it comes to politics. American culture, unraveling, worry beads, migration, Armenia, minorities, U2, strands, the tribe, millet, secular. I am losing ground. My attention span. I like to think of myself as a container. I will always go for broke. A broken modernity. I like CBS Sunday morning. I don’t like to think about what progress means. I don’t want to know what a century feels like.

Dear Marshall,
In Venice I thought of you, then also in terrible Germany. I wish we could meet in San Francisco at the MOMA again and talk about the books that make us cry. I told you. What do I deserve at this point? Can we go to Chinatown and shut that shit down then go to a strip club talking about the life we wanted? I wish you were. I cannot settle. Can we go to a café like normal people? I do not want to hurt us further but we are too open, too much of a pause, to ignore.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jaime Fountaine

Jaime Fountaine was raised by “wolves.” She is the author of Manhunt (Mason Jar Press, 2019). She lives in Philadelphia

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

To date, I have only written one book. Finishing something feels way better than giving up and deleting it, but it also requires significantly more effort. 

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

I was a lonely, imaginative child, who spent most of her time reading.

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?

Most of the time, I’m writing despite myself, rather than as some well-thought out routine. I spend more time in my head than I do on paper. Sometimes that means that after a long time considering an idea, I can bang out a pretty solid draft in a day. Other times, that means I write four sentences a month and never finish a story.

4 - Where does a 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?

Usually, a concept or a line or a voice will make its way into my head, and I’ll sit with it for as long as it takes to build a story around it, or give up.

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

I’ve been running reading series on and off since I was 23 (I’m 35 now), and they’ve made me a better writer, a better community member, and I think a better friend. I’m perhaps too comfortable speaking in public, but using that impulse to support work I’m interested in, and to see how a voice or an idea actually lands has been invaluable to me.

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 like to say that, since it’s out in the hands of readers, it’s up to them to decide what my work means, which is both technically true, and a great way to let myself off the hook.

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 have no idea! I tend to avoid making sweeping, generalized statements that I will probably regret saying in twenty minutes. I shouldn’t be a spokesperson for anything but my friends and Tide Pens. I get a lot of use out of Tide Pens.

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

I had an incredible experience with my editors at Mason Jar. They paid an incredible amount of attention to my novella while working on two others simultaneously, and the book is so much better for it. I’d never worked so closely or extensively with editors before.

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

My friend Lorraine once told me that procrastination is basically a way to insulate yourself against perfectionism.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to an advice column)? What do you see as the appeal?

Most of my non-fiction writing (advice column, interviews, a couple of essays) are so much in my own, ridiculous voice that it’s technically easier than developing an authentic voice for a character and keeping it consistent over many pages. It’s not difficult to be a goofy, public version of myself, so doling out advice is much easier than being publicly honest about my feelings, which I don’t enjoy one bit. I’ve done it, and I’ll probably do it again, but it’s much harder for me than writing fiction is.

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 no set routine for writing. When I’m in the middle of a project, more of the work is done in my head than on the screen/paper. When I’m not writing, I’m just not writing. I hate journaling, I hate staring at a blank screen, I hate generative exercises. And unless I owe somebody something, I just let myself be a brat about it, because I always come back to writing on my own.

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

I’m much better at figuring out these kinds of problems with my passive brain, so I usually cook when I’m stuck on something writing related. The chopping and kneading soothe me, and give me a creative endeavor with a positive outcome (most of the time, at least) that I can focus on instead of thinking about the problems I’m having with a particular narrative.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


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 saw Twin Peaks in kindergarten, and it imprinted on me in a very big way. Watching it as an adult felt a lot like going home. I tend to think about my writing in terms of what things feel like for the characters, rather than how it should look for an audience, and finding a way to translate that has been very informed by the work of David Lynch.

There are a lot of songwriters who are very good at building entire worlds between words. Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and the late David Berman are particular favorites of mine.

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

I don’t think I could’ve written Manhunt if I hadn’t read Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat or if I didn’t read Bud Smith’s essays about writing on his phone at work.

I am almost always reading, and I don’t really know how to quantify the importance that has on my work. There are so many great stories and books and essays that have made me a better writer, and there’s also a bunch of mediocre shit that’s done the same. I’m terrible at making lists because I always leave something off.

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

I haven’t traveled much. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, unfortunately.

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 very much have a day job, as an administrative and outreach coordinator at a public health research institution. I send a lot of emails.

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

I wasn’t good at other stuff? I can’t paint or draw or play an instrument and I have very limited patience for crafts.

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

Recently, I’ve loved Little Eyes by Samanta Schweiblin, Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, and Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frasier. I’m also extremely into Samantha Irby’s “Who’s on Judge Mathis Today” newsletter, which gives me something to live for every day.

I’ve been terrible at watching movies or TV of any real substance. I was once a real asshole about film, but now I’m just a tired bitch who rewatched Hot Rod for the fifth time last week.

20 - What are you currently working on?


12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, October 26, 2020

above/ground press: 2021 subscriptions now available!

TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS! The race to the half-century continues! And with more than ONE THOUSAND TITLES produced to date through above/ground press, there’s been a ton of press activity over the past year, including some FORTY-TWO CHAPBOOKS (so far) produced in 2020 alone (including poetry chapbooks by Franco Cortese, Billy Mavreas, ryan fitzpatrick, Sarah Burgoyne and Susan Burgoyne, Paul Perry, Jérôme Melançon, Kemeny Babineau, Rose Maloukis, Sarah Burgoyne, Buck Downs, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Orchid Tierney, Derek Beaulieu, Julia Drescher (she’s had two this year!), Misha Solomon, Dani Spinosa, Andrew Cantrell, Mark Scroggins, Michael e. Casteels + Nick Papaxanthos, Ashley Yang-Thompson + Mikko Harvey, Ben Robinson, Khashayar Mohammadi, Melissa Eleftherion, Andrea Rexilius, Lance La Rocque, George Stanley, Rachel Kearney, J.R. Carpenter, Amanda Deutch, Stan Rogal, Guy Birchard, Razielle Aigen, rob mclennan, Anthony Etherin, Leesa Dean, Eric Baus, Ian McCulloch and Dale Tracy, all of which are still in print), as well as issues of the poetry journals Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal], G U E S T [a journal of guest editors] and The Peter F. Yacht Club. Obviously The Factory Reading Series is on hold for the time being (until I have the time and energy to begin to try to figure out something else, I suppose), but have you seen the virtual reading series over at periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics (with new monthly online content, by the way; the new pandemic-era extension of above/ground press).

Oh, and did you see that above/ground press has announced a new prose chapbook series? With new titles by Amanda Earl, Jane Eaton Hamilton and rob mclennan, and a forthcoming title by Keith Waldrop!

Just what else might happen? Forthcoming items also include works by Edward Smallfield, Joseph Mosconi, Brenda Iijima, Jamie Townsend, Franklin Bruno (two!), Ava Hofmann, Amish Trivedi, N.W. Lea, Alexander Joseph, Amish Trivedi (two!), David Miller, Sa’eed Tavana’ee Marvi (trans. Khashayar Mohammadi), katie o'brien, Nathanael O’Reilly, Amelia Does, Andrew Brenza, Genevieve Kaplan, Geoffrey Olsen, Franco Cortese (three more forthcoming!), Zane Koss, Dennis Cooley, Barry McKinnon and Cecilia Tamburri Stuart as well as a whole slew of publications that haven't even been decided on yet.

2021 annual subscriptions (and resubscriptions) are now available: $75 (CAN; American subscribers, $75 US; $100 international) for everything above/ground press makes from the moment you subscribe through to the end of 2021, including chapbooks, broadsheets, The Peter F. Yacht Club and G U E S T and quarterly poetry journal Touch the Donkey (have you been keeping track of the dozens of interviews posted to the Touch the Donkey site?). Honestly: if I’m making this many chapbooks per calendar year, wouldn’t you call that a good deal? I mean, it all does seem ridiculous.

Anyone who subscribes on or by November 1st will also receive the last above/ground press package (or two or three) of 2020, including those exciting new titles by all of those folk listed above, plus whatever else the press happens to produce before the turn of the new year, as well as Touch the Donkey #27 (scheduled to release on October 15), a journal that turned seven years old in 2021!

Why wait? You can either send a cheque (payable to rob mclennan) to 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1H 7M9, or send money via PayPal or e-transfer to rob_mclennan (at) (or through the PayPal button at

Stay safe! Stay home! Wear a mask! Wash your damned hands!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

RM Vaughan (1965-2020)

I don’t know what to do with this. Nearly two weeks after he had been reported missing in Fredericton, Canadian poet, writer, critic and artist RM (Richard Murray) Vaughan was found dead on Friday. At the time of this writing, there haven’t been any further details, apart from the fact that police do not suspect foul play, a piece of information that is simultaneously better and worse. I don’t even know. He had been in Fredericton as writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick as part of the 2019-20 academic year, but remained in the city due, I suspect, in large part, to Covid, and living with writers Nathaniel G. Moore and Amber McMillan [see Nathaniel G. Moore's piece today in The Toronto Star]. As he wrote me in an email on September 22nd of this year: “I’m waiting out the pandemic in NB. It’s sweet, quiet, cheap. Montreal can live without me for a bit.”

I first heard of Richard and his work somewhere around 1994-5 through Joe Blades [see my obituary for Joe here, who also died this year], back when Richard (originally from Saint John, New Brunswick) was still living in Halifax. Richard was writing poetry and plays, and making small films, if my recollections are correct. Or was he in Toronto by then, having relocated from Halifax? I know I caught his work in the anthologies Plush, ed. Michael Holmes and Lynn Crosbie (Coach House Press, 1995) and The Last Word, ed. Michael Holmes (Insomniac Press, 1995). It was around that time that I began to visit Toronto a couple of times a year, hanging out with Michael O’Connor (publisher of Insomniac) and Michael Holmes, among others, and Richard was just around. He was a couple of years my elder, and he seemed to be everywhere. I saw him at readings, social gatherings and on the street; I saw his work in journals and anthologies, and heard him read. We spoke of his poetry manuscript-in-progress, the book that became his full-length debut, a selection of dazzling scarves (ECW Press, 1996). I might have been the only one who preferred his prior title, “the sand that is everywhere,” and I even tried to use the title myself, given he wasn’t. I couldn’t quite manage to write anything that properly fit (perhaps he had the same issue; perhaps this was the issue all along). My poem for Richard, utilizing his title, appeared in my own first ECW title a couple of years later.

This was back in the Toronto days of Blood & Aphorisms magazine, of Tortoiseshell & Black, of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, of Insomniac Press’ monthly reading series at Tower Records, all of which Richard seemed to be around for, whenever I floated through town. There was Richard alongside contemporaries such as Mike O’Connor, Phlip Arima, Stan Rogal, Stephen Cain, Nancy Dembowski, Jay MillAr, Natalee Caple, Stuart Ross, Death Waits (now known as Jacob Wren) and John Barlow, etcetera. During those days, Richard was actively working on poetry, plays, fiction and film, which eventually moved into writing on visual art, all of which he seemed enthusiastic about, even if he did also produce the occasional (often witty) caustic remark. It was part of the package of Richard, to comment at some disappointment or foolishness, that it could all be done better. Why isn’t it being done better?

Richard had such great titles. I included his poem “HOW TO SPEND MOST OF YOUR TIME ALONE AND STILL WRITE CONVINCINGLY ABOUT SEX” in an issue of STANZAS (#8, May 1996) alongside “The Big Fuck,” by Judith Fitzgerald [see my obituary for her here], a gesture that seemed ridiculously appropriate, and even perfect. How could I ever have been so lucky? I included some of his work in an issue of Missing Jacket (#5, April 1997). I published his poem “the seven good reasons why The Boys In The Band could be a musical     or, I am the dollar in the dolorosa” asn an above/ground press broadside (#44, 1997), most likely timed for some event I knew I would see him at. See what I mean? His titles were magnificent. Not long after that, I published his single-poem chapbook 14 Reasons Not To Eat Potato Chips On Church Street (April, 1999), composed as a list poem, and as a love poem (with snarky comments and critiques) for Toronto’s Gay Village. As the poem reads:

3.         If you have to drop by The 519, the tight-faced lesbian at the front counter will remind you, correctly, that queer youth of colour are being physically and verbally absued in Third World sport shoe factories owned by the parent company of Frito Lay.
How could you?

4.         And what are you gonna do with the bag? It can’t be recycled (see #3).

He would mail me items occasionally, and randomly. Small notes, occasionally on print-outs of images not fit for all audience. All sent mischievously, and with a positive note and a great deal of love. The piece Alana Wilcox posted yesterday over at Coach House reminded me of such.

And of course I can’t find my copy of his second poetry collection, Invisible to Predators (ECW Press, 1999), to verify how much or how little of that material might have appeared there. I really don’t know. If not, that would presume that these pieces never made it into print beyond these small bits of ephemera. During this same period (most likely in 1997, possibly as a tour for his poetry debut), he read for my reading series, The Factory Reading Series at Gallery 101, when the series was still called “poetry 101,” and held in the gallery space above Wallacks, at Bank and Lisgar Streets. He was reading with British Columbia poet Joe Rosenblatt, who had returned to town to read from a volume of selected poems and visual art that had been refused by the original printer (a whole other story), thus missing the event that had already passed by, the opening of Rosenblatt’s gallery show at the Carleton University Gallery. I think the week that fit into their schedule was one that had held a number of other literary events, which meant our audience was but two people. Rosenblatt didn’t seem to expect much (the empty liquor bottle underneath his chair after he had left provided some answers to Joe's casual indifference to the small crowd), thanks to the printer of the book, and Richard just seemed amused by it. Richard read first, and one of the audience, most likely not prepared for Richard’s openly gay content, walked out during his reading. Richard seemed delighted by this, and said after that he was going to tell people that “half of his audience walked out” at the Ottawa launch. And in hindsight, Richard's response to this one lone audience member underscores the realities of his approach to life and to art, having come out as a gay man during a period of time that wasn't necessarily safe or welcoming; and the fact that he was an openly, and seemingly comfortable, gay man exploring some of this content in his work, makes it that much more remarkable. He wasn't the first, not even of his generation, to be writing out gay themes and issues, but from the time I first became aware of him, he was consistently producing work, writing and publishing and exploring, in a way that might have provided him enormous difficulty, or even harm. Simply by being himself; his own delightful, funny and scathingly-witty self.

9.         Drop one chip, just one, and you’re increasing the typhus-carrying microbe population by about 2 billion. Thanks a lot.

10.        One publically-consumed bag of chips is sexually counter equal to: one flattering new haircut, 3 subtle yet penetrating colognes, any favourite, loose-fitting flannel shirt, plus a whole week’s worth of consciously sucking in your stomach at 30 seccond intervals. Double the ratios for Ketchup flavour.
Math never lies.

I remember having conversations about him about adoption, as he too was adopted. I had always been interested, and been looking; he was less interested, and published a lengthy article on Parent Finders as being useless and a big scam, basically. The title of a 2018 opinion piece he wrote for The Globe and Mail offered much of what his thoughts on the matter seemed to be: “As a person who was adopted, I'm not lost, I’m lucky.” In March 2014, Richard was in Ottawa (for an arts jury, we think; most likely with the Canada Council) and came over to visit. We spent an evening—Christine, Richard and myself (with four month old Rose)—in our sunroom, talking about everything and anything, and drinking wine. We talked for hours, as though there hadn't been years since I'd seen him. Why didn’t we take any photographs while he was here? He took a cab here, and we hung out for hours in the sunroom, before he wandered off again in another cab. He was charming and witty and delightful, and I most likely loaded him down with chapbooks.

Later on, he responded via email to my journal G U E S T with enthusiasm as well, asking if he could edit an issue as well, not realizing it was a journal for current or former editors of small presses. Earlier this year, when I suggested he could do with what he wished for periodicities, he became immediately enthused, and worked on editing a folio of Queer poets from New Brunswick. After we had posted it, Shane Neilson of Frog Hollow Press had requested Richard expand the project, for the sake of a chapbook, which Richard was very excited about, and actively working on. Might that book still be possible? I had been looking forward to seeing it. The folio also meant that we’d been corresponding over email quite a lot since March (and the essay I posted of his in April, as part of the “Talking Poetics” series), with multiple back-and-forths, including photographs he’d send along, including one of the dog he said he was living with, of whom Richard seemed quite fond. He was excited on my behalf for the half-sibling and birth mother updates and photos I’d been sending him. On March 4th, he responded with: “Your new found siblings are adorable! As, of course, are you. And I'm glad to hear things are better for your dad and Christine. You've been through quite a bit the last few years. Can you go on strike? Tried that once, didn't really work for me, but hey?”

He was warm, generous, energetic, cranky and enthusiastic. He was a champion for those who needed it, and very much attentive to the kinds of assistance he could provide to younger writers. He even wrote on above/ground press's 25th anniversary, when no one else would. How would he have felt about trending on Twitter, I wonder? I know he would have absolutely hated that the original notification from the Fredericton police was his driver's licence photo (both photographs here of Richard were provided by Richard himself, earlier this year). And oh, that wicked wit. I liked him very much and I will miss him a great deal.

And now I’ve been more than two hours seeking out his Invisible to Predators on my bookshelves. Unsuccessfully, I might add, although I did find my copy of his third poetry book, ruined stars (2004), a book that writes about, among other subjects, trauma, visual art, pop culture and queer identity, including this, from a collaboration with the painter William Forrestall, “Conversations with Will”:

(I don’t know about you) But
I’m tired of running around, spending my days
absorbing, absorbing, absorbing

being smart and unhappy at the same time

It’s too much, it makes my hair gray it keeps me up at night it makes me eat
more than I want to
it drowns out the me in things

simple things, the stink of an apple   the weight of a full mug
the heartlessness of the cold air when I walk
home or –

Yes, that Me, that conceit     is just Desire
Sure, but      who doesn’t want the world?


Saturday, October 24, 2020

essays in the face of uncertainties

One element I’ve appreciated is how well our two young ladies play together, making up games and stories and songs. We knew of this prior, but our appreciation deepens. Once we wrestle them off the tablets, our first couple of weeks included the television on in the basement, which quickly became background to their attentions. After a while, they stopped even bothering going downstairs at all, unless they were wrapped up in some complicated game involving forts or babies or Cinderella. How many times has our dining room table become centre-stage for one of their structures, or where they’ve self-determined a Lego city, a mound of drawings or some other invention? Today, self-slathered in sunscreen, they navigate the hose and their wading pool out in the backyard, occupying themselves for hours. I grew up on a farm, after all, so I very early on learned the benefit of managing my own time, wandering the fields and collecting stones. The last thing I want to do is micromanage the young ladies, although I do attempt to get Rose to draw daily in one of her notebooks, and report on her drawing. We’ve only managed this once, but I keep trying her. I check in on them, regularly. Or they come inside, seeking freezies. Little wet footprints on the floor of my office that run down the hall.

Another element is the array of stories that have drifted up, out of the ether, of comparable stories from days-gone-past. This is not the first time in memory that those in the world have lived through such a situation, even if some of the details might be slightly different. Public television offers a small tale of a centenarian who is living through the current pandemic, born during the lock-down of the Spanish Flu, her mother somehow managing solo throughout birth and her newborn daughter’s first few months. You can do this, the piece offers. You can get through this. In the June issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Emily Moon writes “How the U.S. Fought the 1957 Flu Pandemic.” Her short article begins:

In April 1957, a new strain of a lethal respiratory virus emerged in East Asia, caught local health authorities by surprise and eventually killed masses of people worldwide. Today, in the age of Covid-19, that scenario sounds frighteningly familiar—with one key difference. Maurice Hilleman, an American microbiologist then running influenza monitoring efforts at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, saw the problem coming and prepared the United States ahead of time. “This is the pandemic,” he recalled saying. “It’s here.”

This is not historically abstract in the way the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic might appear to us, but something, for numerous people, that occurred within living memory. To remember the 1957 pandemic, one might say, would put you disproportionally right in the path of Covid-19. Back then, there was notice, notification and response, and 116,000 Americans succumbed to the disease, although far more could have been killed. Over email, Bay Area poet Susanne Dyckman offers her own:

When I was a baby I had scarlet fever, and the Chicago Board of Health tacked a quarantine notice on our basement apartment door.  My mother’s not alive (gone too early) but I so wish I could talk to her about it, how she managed with an infant and a five year old, even something as basic as how she got groceries. All she ever told me was that we, as a family, were under quarantine (of course, somehow my doing?)  Later, still being a kid when she told me the story, I didn’t think to ask questions.  Now I’m beginning to see what it takes to manage.

According to family lore, my mother caught scarlet fever while babysitting, although I’ve no clue if there were any quarantines for her, still living at home with her parents, and four of six siblings. It was this that, according to family lore, affected her health and began the eventual loss of her kidneys, and her inability to have children of her own. Isolated incidents are never that, and there are lessons to learn from any situation. And yet, we can watch in real time as segments of the population refuse the lessons and warnings of history.

It is hard to look at those numbers and see, on the other side, individuals holding up hand-made signs with “I want a haircut!” With fear comes desperation. And there is little logic to, or argument against, desperation. Someone on Twitter suggests that of course there are those who consider haircuts, the casino and other short-term pleasures worth the risk. Because they’ve no hope for anything else.

essays in the face of uncertainties

Friday, October 23, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Norm Boucher

Norm Boucher’s memoir Horseplay is due to be released in November 2020 and is an account of his time spent as an RCMP undercover officer working with heroin addicts on Vancouver’s Granville Strip. He retired after a successful and rewarding career in the RCMP, and now resides in Ottawa.

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 is coming out in a few weeks. Initially, it gave me personal pride just to know that I had finished what I had set out to do. Then, when my publisher (Newest Press) called, a new dimension was added to my life. My feelings went from pride to being thankful. I am still adjusting to the public side of writing.

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

The story dictated what would come first. I knew that my time spent on the Granville Strip, in Vancouver was a story I wanted to tell, so I committed to it before everything else. Meanwhile, I kept writing and studying all forms of writing, for which I still keep an interest.

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 begin writing only when I have a picture in my mind of what I want to say. Then I think of the structure and write the main elements down. After that it’s a slow process. I do multiple drafts and am constantly revising. It took me close to ten years to write “Horseplay”.

4 - Where does a 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 like to start with an image and build from there, finding the elements that makes the story  worth telling.  An image brings along all the questions a writer needs to answer: how did I get here? What does it mean?  I don’t think too much about the length of the piece. When writing “Horseplay” I remembered driving away for the last time from Granville Street and thinking of the people I had met and what had happened. I had strong feelings about it and I knew that had become a different person than at the time the undercover operation started. That image carried me through the story.

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

I haven’t done public readings yet and I hope to enjoy it. Maybe it will make me look at my own writing in a different light. I don’t feel comfortable reading what I have written in the past unless it is to re-write or edit, so this is a new experience for me.

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?

Finding the basic human traits we all have, even if they lay deeper in some of us due to circumstances, is what interests me. On a lighter note, I just like a good story, and knowing that someone will find a welcome escape in my writing would be enough for me to keep writing.

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 believe that giving someone an opportunity to explore and live a situation that is foreign to them is the main role of a writer. It helps us understand each other and reflect on our own place in life. But for that to happen, the work also has to be interesting and entertaining.

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

It is essential and should not be more difficult than the writing itself. An outside editor is an extension of what a writer does every day. It should be looked at in the same light. Disagreements should be welcomed and the writer should not be afraid of making hard decisions. Decisions are a part of every sentence, and every word you put down.

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

When you’re done writing, leave something for the next day. Sometimes this means writing the first sentence of the next chapter or paragraph before closing the laptop. I believe Hemingway said it (not the laptop part…). It is so much easier to sit at the table and have something in mind before you start. It also gives you something to think about while you are not writing.

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 like writing in the morning, if I can. Or after having been outside doing something physical. Otherwise, I don’t really have a schedule and I blend my writing time into my life. This is something I learned to do while holding a full time job and raising a family with my wife.

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

I leave it and go jogging or ride my bike. When I find myself writing the story in my mind as I run or bike, or watch a movie, I know that it is time to go back to it and write.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The hoppy smell of a brewing plant, mixed with a food factory, and a distillery. I am from a factory town and I remember smelling it coming home from camping trips with the family. I knew then that I was home. I still like it.

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?

Paintings, movies, and music all work for me. I often feel like writing after visiting an art gallery.  It all seems to work off the same muscles.

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

I love fiction that is true to its characters and places. This is something I appreciate more in Canadian fiction than in anywhere else. I also love to return to the classics, some of which I can open anywhere on a page and enjoy reading a paragraph or two. I like how some books can capture a time and place as Hemingway and Steinbeck did in the 30’s, the Beat Generation’s On the Road and Naked Lunch in the fifties, and Updike’s in the sixties. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Cela, and James Joyce, among others, also had an impact on me.

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

My life so far has been very fulfilling and my goal is to keep writing.

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 am fascinated by scientists who travel to remote places, such as New Guinea and the Amazon to study an insect, a lost civilization, or a type of rock formation. It seems that we still have a lot to figure out about this planet and it would be exciting to be a part of that.

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

I remember having an picture in my mind as a kid and writing the story behind it so that the picture became alive on the page. I felt good believing that I had done it and I have been writing ever since.

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

Book: The Innocents: A novel by Michael Crummey

Film: Double Jeopardy a film noir set in LA about an insurance salesman who gets involved in a murder.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I spent the last ten years dedicating my writing to “Horseplay” and am eager to explore and undertake new writing challenges. I have also started to put some words down on a new project, but it is too early for me to really talk about it.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Pearl Pirie, footlights



the guest cabin’s dimensions
are those of Thoreau’s, the boards
and logs, rough hewn.

there is a sink with a tube
to a bucket, plastic keg of water
which forms a modern luck of birth.

spring blossoms white. the diva cup
is full, squatting to pinch it out
it spills into the thirsty floor.

a sin, a repenting. I have made
a blood sacrifice yet feel guilty
more keenly than before.

I scrub but it’s absorbed. I pour
water: the water stains, worse,
watermarks a ripple in the grain.

the tree still feels the season—
spring bursts a bead of sap
from cut limbs, immortal pine.

Composed from the wilds of her rural Quebec home, poet, editor and publisher Pearl Pirie’s fourth full-length poetry title is footlights (Regina SK: Radiant Press, 2020), following on the heels of been shed bore (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2010), Thirsts (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2011), which won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and the pet radish, shrunken (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2015), which won the Archibald Lampman Award (Radiant Press is the publishing house formerly known as Hagios Press, in case you were unaware). There is something I’ve only been realizing recently, with the publication of Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s latest poetry title, NIAGARA & GOVERNMENT (St. John’s, Newfoundland: Pedlar Press, 2020) [see my review of such here]: the extent to which Pirie’s writing has been influenced by Hall’s rhythms, cadences and lyrical impulses. Knowing full well that Hall came first, I could hear numerous examples of overlap when reading Hall’s latest, an idea that is simply reinforced through my reading of Pirie’s footlights. “no cattle were harmed / in the making of these statements.” she writes, to close out the poem “what used to work with me,” a notion and notation that could easily have emerged from one of Hall’s own poems. Not that there’s anything wrong with influence, whether through Hall or anyone else, and Hall’s attentions to and pauses around the small, even within such large, complex and often emotionally difficult realms, is worthy of larger and repeated influence [full disclosure: I worked my own Hall variations for a few years, circa 2004-7, around the time I was deeply immersed in his writing for the first time].

Whereas Hall works the full-length poetry book as his unit of composition, composing poems as extensions of each other into a singular, collaged purpose, Pirie’s book-length constructions are more attentive to the self-contained poem. It is as though Pirie’s attention doesn’t emerge through the impulse of the book-length sequence via Hall’s (where my own attentions leaned into his work). Instead, her poems cohere together differently; grouping as gatherings that are then themselves gathered, to form book manuscripts. Her poems are less sequential than an impulse of cohering molecules, that assemble for the sake of a larger, singular shape and structure.

Still, one should also note that, much like her Ottawa contemporary, Amanda Earl, Pirie is constantly experimenting with form, and the structural elements of her poems appear to shift between projects: while one particular chapbook or book-length work might lean toward longer, more extended poems within the larger structure, this particular work favours (although not exclusively) either the couplet or three-line stanza, extending her individual lyrics no further than a page. And increasingly across her published work, hers is a deep attention in a short space, in a density composed with quick turns and snap. “is it stoicism to be prepared,” she writes, to end “the door of birdsong,” “to dig the darling’s grave // or depression’s eye-slits / in feathered masquerade? // as if leaving a movie, blink to / these hundreds of greens.”

And while there are certainly elements of Hall’s halts, breaks and pauses in her work, Pirie is more magpie than killdeer, picking up elements to incorporate into the structures of her simultaneously sketched and crafted moments of accident, interaction, meditation, observation and description. Her poems seem composed as ways in which one might not just work to articulate the world, but through speaking, better comprehend. “there’s something that isn’t / intention.” she writes, to open “in the room grown dark,” the first poem in the collection. Much like Hall, her narratives are thoughtful, carefully casual, intimate and provide the sheen of disjointed, bouncing across sound and language while covering a much larger and connected ethic. “grey is not the season for eyes,” she writes, to open the poem “as the tops die,” “but for hands, tongues. / under overcast skies / cup from the frost-wet earth / potatoes.”

Her poems seek and search, and work to gather and absorb as much as possible. “what if the universe isn’t moral?” she asks, to open “homogenized script,” “what if most people are not, in fact, lost?” We three might all have emerged from different corners of rural Ontario, but there is an articulation, a hint, of violence that exist within the work of both Hall and Pirie; external forces beyond their control that they have endured, attempting since to process, and potentially move beyond. There is something just under the surface of these poems that she both teases and tears at, working to move through and move past, as though her poems have finally become mature enough to allow her to wrestle with it in a slightly more overt form. And yet, at the same time, one could argue that Hall’s entire work-to-date is made up of a single, life-long poem if you set his books end-to-end; Pirie’s might be as well, although with less linear a trajectory between concurrently-produced projects, books and poems, composed more as an assemblage of fractals from the central point of Pirie herself, writing within the hub of a lyric trajectory of exhuberent chaos and carefully composed poem-thoughts.


for years I would inherit the earth
but I’m no longer meek enough

to nod, receive the destruction,
the stripped & the desecrated.

oaks continue to drop acorns.
pupating in cotton & predawn light

dubbing his dick move a teapot
does nothing towards a cup of tea.

so he brags about being a bastard…
what right have I to override

his sense of self? acorns drop.
those who consume them will.

footlights is organized into five sections—“even electricity wants to continue,” “footlights,” “for the purposes of night,” “ample misadventures” and “pretending there are distinctions”—foregoing her occasional interest in sequences for groupings, or even suites, of short lyrics. In an interview posted July 14, 2019 as part of the Wombwell Rainbows Interviews series, she refers to the poems in this collection as “more zany and offbeat poems,” and there are pieces here that reference overly confident young poets who read in open sets (but leave prior to the featured reader), staff at chain bookstores, birdsong, gardening centres and food shopping. In short self-contained bursts, Pirie’s poems in footlights include anything and everything you might imagine, whether a New Year’s Eve party where the narrator wishes everyone would leave, already, at 2am, or grocery shopping, as the distance of commentary provide an immediacy to these poems, one that also provides the impression of the notebook quick-sketch. The poems sparkle for that immediacy, one that only really emerges through the craft.

lost in a very small maze

my resolve is to solve her public
smile. stemmed from his shoulder clap
her pat has a thumb dug in as a warning.

much is in the spin. my axle is mercy,
dizzying mercy. feeling a drop run
down my leg I think blood. Sweat, I think.

my unconscious has been leaking again.

even when he doesn’t look
the looking away is as much of a telltale.
yet he would blindfold her too.

if looks could melt steel, a molten river:
her claim staked. her beefcake.
who I could nourish, protect behind my gates?

from herself, or him from her?


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

ottawater #16.0 [the final issue]: Ottawa's annual poetry pdf journal

Ottawa’s annual pdf poetry journal
edited by rob mclennan

It might be ten months late (oh, what a year), but the sixteenth and FINAL ISSUE of ottawater is now online, featuring new writing by a plethora of current and former Ottawa-based poets, including Susan J. Atkinson, John Barton, Dessa Bayrock, Frances Boyle, Ronnie R. Brown, Mike Caesar, Anita Dolman, Amanda Earl, Doris Fiszer, Mark Frutkin, Shoshannah Ganz, Bob Hogg, Jenna Jarvis, Kathleen Klassen, a.m. kozak, Mary Elizabeth Long, IAN MARTIN, Karen Massey, Robin McLachlen, rob mclennan, Colin Morton, Pearl Pirie, Sarah Priscus, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Monty Reid, Sonia Saikaley, Ronald Seatter, Rachel Small, Lesley Strutt, Lauren Turner, Tomasz W. Wiszniewski, Jean Van Loon and Yuan Changming.

Founded to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa, Canada's glorious capital city, "ottawater," and its chemical formula/logo "O2(H2O)," is a poetry annual produced exclusively on-line, in both readable and printable pdf formats, and found at An anthology focusing on Ottawa poets and poetics, its first issue appeared in January 2005, 150 years after old Bytown became the City of Ottawa.

As well, all previous issues remain archived on the site. Thanks to: designer Tanya Sprowl, for her stunning design work and excellent visual art curation; the ottawa international writers festival, one of the finest organizations our town has; and Randy Woods at non-linear creations (I owe you much for this, sir) for their continuing support on this project. I really couldn't have done any of it without you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

P-QUEUE 17 : Movement


today the news
won’t you?

I have been possible
and for all

I who can’t fight
feel it
  even name it


that’s how it has to feel

or I have thought so
I have thought

out of the light
comes what I think

and what I think
is I

love you (Rachelle Toarmino, “What Kind of Love is That”)

Anyone who has been paying attention to my reviewing over the years already knows that I’m an admirer of the annual journal P-QUEUE out of SUNY-Buffalo, having reviewed most of the volumes-to-date (see reviews of sixteen, fifteen, fourteen, ten to thirteen, seven and eight, and five; and I’m still hoping that copies of the first few volumes might be possible to find at some point). Edited by incoming editors Dana Venerable and Zack Brown, P-QUEUE has always provided a high quality of experimental writing by an interesting mix of emerging and established writers, in no small part, I’m sure, due to the strong writing program that exists at the university (and issues deliberately don’t repeat authors). For similar reasons, I used to be a big admirer of the annual Headlight anthology as well, produced through Montreal’s Concordia University, another university with a strong creative writing program, but I haven’t seen an issue there for about two years [see my review of the last ones I saw,here]. This issue of P-QUEUE includes work by Nathan Alexander Moore, Aimée Lê, Julianne Neely, Tracie Morris, Claire Tranchino, Will Alexander, Edwin Torres, Rachelle Toarmino, Amy Catanzano, Julie Patton and Jiwon Ohm, most of whom I had been previously unfamiliar with. For their introduction, editors Venerable and Brown include an exchange between them on their thoughts on approaching the issue, and on the work they’ve chosen to include. The conversations reads as a bit long and meandering, but provides an interesting overview of what they’re working towards as editors, writers and simply creative humans living in the world (all of which becomes even further relevant when one considers that most editors of the journal-to-date are involved in editing multiple issues, suggesting an attention and aesthetic towards not only what we are currently reading, but what is to come). As Venerable writes as part of their exchange:

[…] The movements of judgement, of racism, are too urgent, too forceful, too violent. Dare I/we go on? Ohm shares that we must. Lastly, in “Apologies…” Ohm’s list of revisions / revised thoughts—emphasis on #11 and #12—inspired by T.S. Eliot moves through a constant state of stability within instability, something that I think about a lot within my own life and writing. “The rock which forms in your throat when you look at one’s back.” Is this “love,” always in flux?  I agree with Ohm’s notes that I may also never grasp what poetry is, but it is that searching for meaning, that processing, that allows for poetic conversations, musical dialogues of care, very much present in this volume. The task at hand, or at body, is to put as much work into our actions, our ethics, our lifestyles as we do in our artistic creations.

Z [Zack Brown]: Agreed! The pieces in this volume, each in their own way, work at the fulcrum between language and body, which shows (to circle back to the beginning of our discussion) that political life and poetic life are perhaps not the same, but nonetheless forcibly entangled. What we do with our bodies is guided by our language. […]

One of the first pieces in the journal to jump out at me was the  ten-part sequence “An Elegy for Unsaid Things,” by Nathan Alexander Moore, a recent SUNY-Buffalo graduate currently pursuing a doctoral degree from the University of Texas. The fourth poem in the sequence reads:

What does it mean to be moved?

To run from the present?

To move toward uncharted geography?

To pack your life into parts,

                        Leaving behind big & small moments,

                        Dumping all your desires & detritus into boxes

                        Affixed with the promise of packing tape?

To remember to not say goodbye?

To know you will fade into a barely realized recollection?

To get into a car & refuse to hold (back) your tears?

To wonder if the future even exists

                        As you watch the present crumble

                        Into a fine point in the rearview mirror?

To ponder how you will get to the other side of the horizon?

I am also very taken with (and amused by) Vietnamese American writer and artist Aimée Lê’s selection of prose poems, such as the piece “WHY AM I ALWAYS FALLING OFF A CLIFF?” that opens: “Why did I think if you missed a meal, you might die? I asked, ‘When you’re diabetic and you miss a meal, do you, like, die?’ Notice I only said that after the banana was secured in your jaw. I am very brave. I don’t like to be a cause of panic. I walk very calmly out the door and then break into a run. I didn’t used to run during the day because I was scared that the drivers of cars would see me trying too hard. Why do all these insects, flower petals and ash keep sticking to me? Do they think I am an altar?” I clearly need to read more work by both of these authors. Award-winning poet Julianne Nealy, author of chapbooks through Slope Editions and Garden Door Press, includes this note at the end of her poem “Miracle”: “After learning of the theme—MOVEMENT—I was interested in learning about what it takes in our bodies to actually make a movement occur. What I quickly learned through an overwhelming amount of dense and abstract scientific language, that is a miracle our bodies move at all. This is the meditation on that, that follows.” Her poem includes:

Side of muscles acting on either biaxial
Or without bending of

Articulation allows for rotation causes
The ulna into contact with a

Type of a circle it laterally away from
Circumduction is suddenly

Movement that take place within the
Contraction or thigh either the

That help to stick out the limb laterally
Away from side

Produced by the limb superior rotation
Causes the opposing movement such

Synovial joint returning the neck or elbow
Allow the elbow knee

Joint gives the ball and involves a joint
Allows the coronal

Determined by combination of inversion
Than eversion of inversion is extension

Structural type while adduction and gives
The summation of movements identify

And so on, moving at quite a pace for a number of pages. While it would be entirely possible to move through the whole issue, suffice it to say that this is worth picking up. You should probably pick up a copy. Why haven’t you picked up a copy?