Sunday, January 03, 2021

Michael Dennis (September 1, 1956-December 31, 2020)

Ottawa poet and reviewer Michael Dennis has died, following an extended illness.

Michael Dennis was one of the first published poets I encountered during my early explorations of Ottawa literature, circa 1990. I scoured bookstores and used bookstores and library shelves, discovering copies of his chapbook wayne gretzky in the house of the sleeping beauties (Lowlife Publishing, 1987), and poems for jessica-flynn (Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986). My copy of Fade to Blue (Pulp Press, 1988) still includes a receipt from Byward Market’s late-lamented Food for Thought Books (a long-established bookstore run by Michael’s friend, Paul King), dated February 26, 1991. By the time I met Michael back in early 1993 (at Food for Thought Books, no less), I’d been carrying poems for jessica-flynn around with me for months, reveling in these straight-shooting poems on his immediate local; poems on writing, reading, sex and visual art; poems about drinking Toby and The Royal Oak Pub, an activity I replicated in his honour, wondering if I might even catch a glimpse of the man. It was during these years, as well, that anyone might wander into a used bookstore in Ottawa and catch one of three names handwritten in the flyleaf of a small press publication: John Newlove, John Metcalf or Michael Dennis. He was known for going through an incredible amount of books, but managed to keep, I would think, far more than he unloaded.

As I wrote of as part of one of my 2018 Arc Walks [see the text of such here], poems for jessica-flynn was composed in the window of the long-shuttered Avenue Bookshop, a store that sat at 815 ½ Bank Street, from January 7 to February 7, 1986. The resulting collection of poems was published by the proprietor of the store, Rhys Knott, although by the time I saw copies, they held a whole shelf at Food for Thought Books. Michael’s month in the window was part of a much larger project that allowed artists to install whatever they wished for a month-long display, curated by Dennis himself, and the series also included Ottawa artists Richard Negro, Daniel Sharp, Bruce Deachman, Dennis Tourbin and Dana Wardrop. Michael’s month writing poems was the final of the twelve month series. Influenced by his project, I did my own version, sitting a month in the window of Octopus Books when it still lived at 798 Bank Street, writing banker’s hours throughout the month of June 1996. My own project was far less successful than his.

            1st in a series of poems from a bookstore window

            so, i'm finally here
sitting in a bookstore window
and trying to write

of all things, poetry

            you have to get everything right
you have to be sitting in the perfect position
with the typer at just such an angle

you have to be feeling a certain way
and then you can do it

            you can let go
of whatever it is that controls you
whatever it is that sets the rules

and you simply go the other way

            that's exactly what i'm doing
here in this bookstore window
in the middle of winter

When I first met Michael, he and Kirsty were living in an apartment on Vanier’s River Road, just south of Montreal Road. He had me over at least once to play scrabble, drink wine and talk about poetry. He enjoyed playing scrabble (he enjoyed winning, also). I think he even fed me. He seemed equally amused by my enthusiasms as much as he would shake his head, wondering at my foolishness. By 1994, he and Kirsty were living in the apartment above Wallack’s, at Bank and Lisgar Streets, an apartment he had shared with the painter Dan Sharp from 1985 to 1988, moving out when Dan married, and returning to replace the Sharps once they began having children. One can see the influence in poems such as “I SHARE AN APARTMENT WITH TWO ARTISTS,” from Fade to Blue; of the first-person narrator bathing in a bathtub emptied of photo-developing chemicals:

when i got out to dry myself off
my skin was its usual post-bath lobster red
i sprinkled myself liberally with baby powder

and got dressed to face the day

as i walked down the stairs and towards the street
i could feel the pictures beginning to develop
on my chest and thighs

By the time I met Michael, he was frustrated with the lack of response to his writing. Fade to Blue had done relatively well, with some positive reviews, but a subsequent manuscript to the same publisher had been rejected, and I’d the sense that his confidence had been shaken. After a decade or more of readings, journal publications, chapbooks and small books, he didn’t feel as though there were too many interested in helping get his work out. He had self-published a book in 1990, but (after some convincing) allowed me toinclude some of his work in the second above/ground press publication, an anthology we launched back on July 9th of that year. By the next year, I had included his exceptional “hockey night in canada” poem in the fourth issue of my long poem magazine STANZAS (October 1994), and soon produced two of his chapbooks: the on-going dilemma of small change (1995) and what we pass over in silence (1996). He was appreciative, but for years, his frustration would occasionally emerge, prompting waves of on-again/off-again interactions that existed between us for another decade or two. Eventually, we made our way through it and past it. At the tenth anniversary reading for above/ground press, held at 3 Kings Pub on Holland Avenue on August 23, 2003, Michael began his reading by announcing that it was also his tenth wedding anniversary that day.

He was plainspoken, composing poems of direct experience and thought, which was different than where my interests eventually moved, but he was a great example of someone simply writing and publishing, and without affiliations, whether to publishing or the university system, where so many other poets appeared to be. His work had an element of plain-speak, writing first person narrations of his day or his reading, but one that also allowed for an incredible openness and vulnerability, perhaps moreso than he appeared himself, behind an often-gruff and grumbly exterior. Over the years, his poetry has been compared to that of Charles Bukowski and Al Purdy for its use of plain speech, as well as for his working-class ethos (and references to bars and drinking beer), yet when I asked him about such for an Open Book article in 2014, he claimed Auden one of his touchstones.

For my early twentysomething self, Michael was also an example of a poet, and one both contemporary and local, living and writing at the ground level, unadorned and unassisted by anything more than a network of friends. And his friends included as many visual artists and writers as it did those who worked government jobs, in restaurants or even hung artwork for a living, as he himself did, for quite some time. And as part of that engagement with visual artists, Michael and Kirsty slowly developed one of the largest collections of visual art in thecity, most of which included work by local artists—Dennis Tourbin, Adrian Göllner, Dan Sharp, Richard Negro, Christopher Lea Dunning, Eric Walker, Marc Adornato, David Cation, Eliza Griffiths, Jonathan Brownz, Angela McFall, Valerie Roos, Diane Woodward and Mark Marsters, among many, many others (I’m sure my version of this list is horribly incomplete). Even though Michael spent years scrambling for money. Lots of artwork purchased, for the longest time, on layaway plans. He supported just about everyone in Ottawa doing interesting work.

During those days that they lived above Wallacks, the artist-run centre Gallery 101 sat in the same building, and I know he took great pleasure in being able to enter the gallery during openings through the back door, not even needing to step outside to attend (he did the same later on, once the space became the gallery/rental space Invisible Cinema). I apartment-sat for them back in fall 1994, spending a week or so moving through Michael’s extensive poetry library (I only know the date because I published a chapbook-length poem on the experience) as the two of them cycled to Quebec City. I wrote terrible poems from their small apartment, enjoying the view from their Bank Street-facing front window, which he reminded to keep closed, for the sake of encroaching dust, via the “Bank Street wind tunnel.” Michael and Kirsty remained there until 2002, when they ended up in a house back in Vanier. I suspect the move was as much to do with their expansive art collection as it was anything else.

Michael originally hailed from London, Ontario, but ended up in Peterborough, where he spent the late 1970s and early 80s engaged with a whole range of writers and artists, many of whom he developed lifelong relationships with, including poets Maggie Helwig, Ward Maxwell, Richard Harrison and Riley Tench, writer and visual artist Dennis Tourbin, and writer Catherine Jenkins. Apparently Yann Martel was even around during those days, working at the university bookstore. Michael was part of an explosion of Peterborough activity in poetry and visual art, much of which eventually filtered out into nearby Toronto, or Ottawa, where Michael landed in 1984 for the sake of classes at Carleton University. Once here, he quickly established himself as an active writer and a powerful reader, alongside friends and contemporaries such as Louis Cabri, Kate Van Dusen, Dennis Tourbin, Ronnie Brown, Deborah McMullen, George Young, Luba Szkambara, George Johnston, Paul Couillard, Riley Tench, Mark Frutkin, Louis Fagan, John Barton, Nadine McInnis, Susan McMaster and Colin Morton. For many years, he was part of a strain of poets that ran counterpoint to the “official” Ottawa poets, themselves centred around the relatively-new poetry magazine Arc, run out of Carleton University by Christopher Levenson, Michael Gnarowski and Tom Henighan. The results of this division are clearest when one considers the number of anthologies of Ottawa poets produced between, say, the early 80s and the early 1990s — including Colin Morton’s Capital Poets (Oroborus, 1988), Heather Ferguson’s Open Set: A TREE Anthology (Agawa Press, 1990) and Seymour Mayne’s Six Ottawa Poets (Mosaic, 1990) — and how the extremely active and productive Michael Dennis (as well as a number of his immediate contemporaries) weren’t included in any of them. The writers he seemed to hang out with were much like him—not involved in publishing, but around the visual artists and artist-run centres. Despite this, by the end of the decade, Michael had published numerous chapbooks, a couple of books and had managed some two hundred journal publications, culminating in Fade to Blue.

In my introduction to his This Day Full of Promise: Poems Selected and New (Broken Jaw Press, 2001), I referenced how the stories of some of those early publications were as interesting as the poems themselves, such as the story of his mid-1980s self-published how to keep a poet out of jail (or: ship of fools, car of idiots), a chapbook produced for friends who had donated money to pay for a driving violation. As he claimed, it was the only book of his he ever made money from.

Into the new millennium, Michael discovered a renewed energy toward writing and publishing, producing chapbooks through various small and micro presses around Ottawa and beyond. Part of that burst of energy was the result of his return to attending classes at Carleton University, to finally finish that long-abandoned degree, and meeting some of the younger writers that were involved with In/Words Magazine and Press, such as Cameron Anstee, Bardia Sinaee and Justin Million. These interactions allowed him some fresh energy and perspective, and allowed him the position of mentor, able to meet with younger writers in a fresh exchange of ideas and stories. Not long after this, Michael also began releasing books edited by Stuart Ross, allowing the best of Michael’s work to shine through. Ross, who met Michael some forty years earlier while selling books on the streets of Toronto, began not only editing Michael’s work (resulting in not only chapbooks and a couple of trade collections, but an expansive and new selected poems), but convinced him to attempt some collaborations, some of which appeared in Ross’ Our Days in Vaudeville (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2013) [see my review of such here], culminating in their full-length collaborative effort, 70 Kippers: The Dagmar Poems (Cobourg ON: Proper Tales Press, 2020) [see my review of such here], composed at Michael’s kitchen table in Vanier.

Michael also started his infamous blog, “Today’s Book of Poetry,” with the prompting of Christian McPherson [something he wrote about here, as part of the “On Writing”series]; whatever might have sparked his interest in reviewing, it allowed his love of writing to expand exponentially. He reviewed eight hundred books over the seven year stretch he blogged, until his health forced him to retire the site. Over the past decade or so, it was good to see his frustrations abate, which in turn might have actually, directly, allowed his work to thrive (although I’m sure much of this was truly due to his relationship with his wife, Kirsty, to whom he was utterly devoted).

And despite his frustrations over the years, one could see he was constantly publishing, spread out across some forty years of continuous activity. A list of his chapbooks include: quarter on it’s edge (Peterborough: Fast Eddie Press, 1979), sometimes passion, sometimes pain (Peterborough: Ordinary Press, 1982), no saviour and no special grace (London: South Western Ontario Poetry, 1983), so you think you might be judas (Charlottetown: Privately Published, 1987), wayne gretzky in the house of the sleeping beauties (Toronto: Lowlife Publishing, 1988), Portrait (Brandon, MB: Dollarpoems, Brandon University, 1988), the on-going dilemma of small change (above/ground press, 1995), what we pass over in silence (above/ground press, 1996), no gravy, no garlands, no bright lights (Ottawa: Privately Printed, 1999), All Those Miles Yet To Go (Toronto: LyricalMyrical Press, 2005), Poems For Another Poetry Reading (LyricalMyrical Press, 2006), forgiveness, my new sideline (Proper Tales Press, 2009), Smile (Ottawa: Burnt Wine Press, 2009), Watching the Late Night Russian News in the Nude (Burnt Wine Press, 2009), on being a dodo (Burnt Wine Press, 2009), how are you she innocently asked (Ottawa: Apt. 9 Press, 2010), The Uncertainty of Everything (Burnt Wine Press, 2011), talking giraffes (phafours press, 2015), Caterwaul: Nine Poems (shreeking violet press, 2019), Sad Balloon (Monk Press, 2019), 8 Poems (Sunday Afternoon Poems) (with Stuart Ross, 2019), DIVINING: The Margaret Lawrence Poems (Proper Tales Press, 2019) and The President of the United States (above/ground press, 2019). His books would include: poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986), Fade to Blue (Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1988), what we remember and what we forget (Hull: Bobo Press, 1993), missing the kisses of eloquence (Burnstown ON: General Store Publishing House, 1994), This Day Full of Promise: Poems Selected and New (Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press (Cauldron Books 2), 2002), Arrows of Desire (Renfrew: General Store Publishing House, 2006), Coming Ashore On Fire (Ottawa: Burnt Wine Press, 2009), Bad Engine: New and Selected Poems (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2017) [see my review of such here] and Low Centre of Gravity (Anvil Press, 2020) [see my review of such here].

From the moment I encountered Michael Dennis’ work thirty years ago, his work and his writing life was an influence, and he quickly became a mentor, peer and a great friend to me, as he did for a great many others. He meant a great deal to me. I am going to miss him very much.


Allison Vivian Fine said...

Thank you for sharing this sensitive piece. My heart goes out to his family and to our world but I am glad he left behind such wonderful poetry.

Steve Venright said...

Well done, rob. Beautiful tribute.

allison said...

Miigwetch, rob. I can see how richly you (and others) feel at losing him. Take care.

Harold Hoefle said...

Loving and thorough, Rob. You're reminding all your readers about how giving Michael was--to writers, but not just writers.

Harold Hoefle

woody265 said...

Thank you for this loving tribute.

Mark Foss said...

Thank you for this loving tribute.

Penn Kemp said...

Thank you for such a beautiful tribute, Rob.

Jay H. said...

Thank you, Rob, for this lovely tribute to Michael Dennis.

Unknown said...

very good history of the wirehead thanx.

Jean Van Loon said...

Thank you, Rob, for this thorough commentary on MIchael’s work and generosity. I only met him within the past few years but already feel I owe him so much for his books, his review of mine, and a wonderful evening we shared reading in a private home.