Friday, April 30, 2021

Don McKay, All New Animal Acts: Essays, Stretchers, Poems

Poetry—any poetry—is always political and subversive because it uses language, our foremost technological tool, against its powers of mastery and control. In poetry, language discovers its eros. In poetry, language is always a singer as well as a thinker, a lover as well as an engineer. Language delights in its own being as though it were an otter or a raven and not just the vice president in charge of making sense. (“Why Poetry?”)

I’ve long appreciated the slow lyric across which Canadian poet (residing in St. John’s, Newfoundland) Don McKay contemplates, something I’m reminded of through his recent All New Animal Acts: Essays, Stretchers, Poems (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2020). Over the years, and across multiple books of poetry, essays and thinking, McKay has developed a meditative way of approaching and considering the physical world, which for him includes the written word, specifically poetry, as physical to his considerations as pebbles along a shore, the development of the Laurentian Plateau or an outcrop of trees. As he writes in the opening piece, “The Path Between Bewilderment & Wonder: Contemplating Lichens,” “Another way to put this: lichens are naturally occurring koans, puzzles placed in our path to shift our paradigms of thinking and help us into fresh spaces in the contemplation of life forms, natural systems, language, and ultimately the organ we are contemplating them with.”

Across six essay sections, two of which are broken up, further, into pairs, McKay contemplates the works of Joanne Page and Margaret Avison, linguistic study, the grotesque, geological time, confronting grief and the clarity of the lyric. What I appreciate about this collection is that, occasionally, McKay responds via a poem over the exposition of prose, and occasionally poems are included here to illustrate his thinking. Through both forms (and what are “stretchers,” exactly?), his meditations and lyric concerns remain, moving from birds to geology to geologic time, but through what prose might offer, as though his best thinking form has expanded from the seemingly almost-exclusive realm of the lyric poem and further into prose.

Everything he writes, one might suggest, revolve around connection, whether through and with language, family, literature, meaning or nature. Move through his prior collections of essays—Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (Gaspereau Press, 2001), Deactivated West 100 (Gaspereau Press, 2005) and The Shell of the Tortoise: Four Essays & an Assemblage (Gaspereau Press, 2011)—his concerns within are largely an extension of where his poetry has shifted over the same period, from Another Gravity (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2000), Camber: Selected Poems (McClelland and Stewart, 2004), Strike/Slip (McClelland and Stewart, 2006) and Paradoxides (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), as well as the collection Lurch (McClelland and Stewart, 2021), due out later this year. It would be interesting to hear from McKay about what prompted his evolution into the essay as an extension of his poetic, and how this may or may not impact the poems he’s been composing throughout. Is there a difference?

            When a person considers all the indexical and iconic messages being sent and received at every instant in the natural world, she/he/they risks being overwhelmed. How many communications within my endocrine, circulatory, digestive, immune, and neurological systems are going on as I inscribe these symbolic glyphs in my notebook? Last week I ventured to address my blessèd immune system, iconically, through my doctor and her hypodermic needle, presenting it with a small sample of this year’s flu virus, which I hope it will see fit to recognize when it arrives in greater numbers and, if it is all possible (“I realize you have a very busy schedule and many pressing obligations”) disable. Could it be that we embrace, endorse, and live by symbolic language not only out of our hubris as the symbolic language not only out of our hubris as the symbolic animal, but also as a defense against infinitosis—the disabling cognitive overload that could occur if we truly registered the iconic and indexical messages swirling around and within us? (“[     ] OR ICONOSTALGIA”)


Thursday, April 29, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Julia Webb

Julia Webb is a Norwich based poet, editor and collage artist. She has a BA (Hons) from Norwich University of the Arts and an MA in Poetry from the University of East Anglia. In 2011 she won The Poetry Society's Stanza competition and in 2018 she won the Battered Moons poetry competition. She runs online and real world poetry courses, mentors poets, is on the committee of Cafe Writers and is a poetry editor for Lighthouse (a journal for new writing). She has two poetry collections with Nine Arches: Bird Sisters (2016) and Threat (2019).

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 Bird Sisters took about ten years to write. I had written poetry all my life - but that was ten years of taking it seriously, learning and honing my craft. A great poet once said in a talk that it takes ten years to become a mediocre writer and I think that's probably true. When the collection was accepted by Nine Arches Press it finally allowed me to start taking myself seriously as a writer. It was exciting and also a little scary. I am really proud of that collection but to me it feels a little safe now. I think my second collection 'Threat' was more risky, more exciting and more playful. I think what I am writing now is more playful still - it tackles serious issues but with an undercurrent of playfulness and sometimes humour. I think I am more confident in myself as a writer so I allow myself to take more risks.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have always written both poetry and short stories - in fact in my twenties I wrote a short story collection that never got published. Poetry back then was my private passion, I had always written it and I had several poetry books that I read and re read as a child. At some point I decided that I was never going to live up to my dad's expectations career wise and I quit my job and enrolled on a creative writing degree. I thought I was going to be a fiction writer, but I came out a poet.
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 write quite a lot (long hand initially) and a collection emerges very slowly. Writing poems can be a lot like making a sculpture. I tend to splurge onto the page and the editing process is generally about shaping the poem and paring it back. Occasionally a poem arrives almost complete but that is rare. Usually a poem needs a lot of extraneous stuff chipped away.

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?
After my last collection was published I just wrote when I was driven to for quite a while. When I set myself themes I often find myself writing about something completely different. I start with individual poems and when I have a lot I print them all out and look at what themes are emerging and how or if poems work together - then I go away and write some more.

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

I enjoy public readings - although I have got more nervous about them as time has gone on. Positive feedback from an audience is lovely - especially if a poem particularly touches someone personally. Readings are also pretty essential for poets to sell books. I have particularly warned to Zoom readings (especially now I have finally worked out how to look presentable on them). There is an intimacy between the poet and the reader on Zoom that you don't get in real life. Zoom readings also mean you don't have the anxiety of whether your train will arrive on time or if you can find the venue.
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 think I am mostly trying to work out something about the human condition - what it is, what makes us tick. I am interested in the dynamics of human relationships and also in how place effects us, especially in our formative years. I am also interested in our (human) relationships with our bodies and the outside environment. I think I am always looking for some truth about being human and what it means - our complexity and our contrariness. How often we know what the right thing to do is but don't do it, how we sabotage ourselves.

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

The role of the writer is various I think. To make us see the world anew or to feel understood on some level. There can be a truth in writing that can make a reader feel like they are not alone. Writing can help us to make sense of the world and our relationship to it - that sounds a bit grandiose but it's not really. As a writer I like writing that inspires me, writing that makes me think differently about the world, but I also like to read as a form of escapism from the real world. There are examples (especially in fiction) of books that do all three - T.C. Boyle's When the Killing's Done for example or a novel I read recently called Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth about a group of activists who set out to liberate millions of factory farmed chickens.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it a really useful and rewarding process. With both my books I had editorial input both from a mentor and Jane Commane my editor at Nine Arches Press. The mentor helped me to be braver about my own work and how I ordered and presented it. My editor suggested tweaks to individual poems and also took poems out of the collection - which made me write better ones to fill the gaps.

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

Jump straight into the action of the poem and step off lightly at the end. (George Szirtes)

“Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing.” Salvador Dali

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 try and do morning pages most days - three A4 pages of free writing about anything that pops into my head. The idea comes from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. I am not sure why it works but it does - if I find I am not writing, it is usually either because I am not doing morning pages or that I am not reading enough poetry. Other than that I tend to write when I am inspired to. Sometimes I will set myself goals - for example most years I try and do NaPoWriMo (a poem a day for a month during April). I tend not to use the prompts though. If I have five half decent poems out of the thirty at the end of the month I feel very pleased.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Morning pages generally help and also reading poetry. If I feel really stuck I read some poets that I find inspiring - C.D. Wright, Matthew Dickman, Kim Hyesoon. I teach a weekly poetry class too and that helps. I set them tasks and I do them too. Teaching also makes me read really widely. I try to go to workshops with other poets when I can afford it. I liked to be pushed out of my comfort zone as it is easy to get in a rut with your own writing. I find the exercises I am most resistant to are often the ones that bear the best fruit.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Baking bread - my mum used to make bread for a wholefood shop.  

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?
Julia Cameron says that it is important for an artist or writer to fill their creative well and I agree with this. I find I write much less if I am not reading poetry. I tend to read very widely. I particularly love American poets as I find their work less constrained and more expansive than British poets, but there are lots of British poets I love too. I also read fiction and love short stories. Looking at visual art is important too and listening to music. I am a collage artist  and am really inspired by abstract art and collage art. Visual art can also inspire writing - I particularly love the work of Dutch artist Juul Kraijer. Some of her surreal paintings and drawings have inspired me to write poems.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I can trace my style of writing right back to things I read as a child. I grew up reading Dr. Seuss and Enid Blyton and was infatuated with Blyton's book The Enchanted Wood. I also really loved my mother's rather battered copy of Perrault's Fairy Tales and had a macabre fascination with the Bluebeard story. I was a voracious reader as a child (and still am) and I read pretty much everything in the house as well as in our local library. I had several poetry books as a child, of which my favourite was The Golden Treasury of Poetry edited by Louis Untermayer. I still get a thrill when I read 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes.

I am a huge fan of the short story and some of my favourite short story writers are Raymond Carver, George Saunders (like a futuristic Raymond Carver) and Shawn Vestal.

In fiction I love a book that combines intellectual writing and a gripping plot. I am also a sucker for a bit of gritty realism in a novel. Authors I admire are Siri Hustvedt, Paul Auster, Louise Erdrich, J.M. Coetzee and Ellen Gilchrist.

There are too many poets I love to list them all - current favourites are Caroline Bird and Wayne Holloway-Smith.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Vist Ireland and Venice.

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?
If I could go back and start over I would come to studying and art and writing sooner - although life experience does set one in good stead as a writer I think. If I could try anything perhaps I would train as an astronaut.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have already had several incarnations in my work life. When I first left home I lived in a commune and did a lot of menial jobs - barmaid, cleaning, farm work etc. Then I qualified as a nursery teacher and did that for ten years as well as training to be a reflexologist. I wrote on and off during that time but I came to writing seriously around the age of forty. Writing is a compulsion, like a scratch that needs to be itched.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I have read a few good books this year -recent ones that spring to mind are Love Minus Love by Wayne Holloway-Smith and Instructions for My Imposter by Kathleen McGookey.

The last great film I watched was The Disaster Artist - about a couple of would be actors who make a (really terrible) film. I initially resisted watching it as I always think I don't like comedy - but it was REALLY good.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my third collection - its working title is 'Panic'. I have written a few poems this year exploring the idea of parents and exploring the relationships between parents and their (grown up) children. Some of these poems are slightly surreal - a teenager becomes a pigeon for example or a father is a budget supermarket.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Ken Norris, South China Sea



I got stuck in a small town
and learned to employ the unprofitable.
The small things everybody sees

and doesn’t care about.

Out on Saltspring,
up in North Hatley,
in the margins of the dance

you’ll find some insight,
clear seeing.

Canadian poet Ken Norris is the author of a few dozen poetry titles (including two different volumes of selected poems) since the publication of his debut, Vegetables (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1975). His latest poetry title is South China Sea (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2021), a collection that, many ways, circles back to the travel-framing of his Islands (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1981). Whereas Islands focused more on the beginnings of his jaunts to foreign locales, the title of South China Sea instead offers poems on the journey itself, one that moves out into the world and back again across the length and breadth of his life. “And so the poet’s work / is never done.” he writes, to open the poem “INSTRUCTION.” In the same poem, further on, adding: “It’s all present, / often in the same moment.”

Subtitled “A Poet’s Autobiography,” South China Sea is structured in eight sections—“NOW AND THEN,” “THE UNWRITTEN,” “SINNERS IN A HOLY CITY,” “THE VANISHED WORLD,” “SOUTH CHINA SEA,” “THANK YOU FOR SMILING,” “ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT” and “TAO”—with an array of multiple poems on each page running in sequence, something Norris has repeatedly done, as though seeking to get as much on each page as possible. Given the memoir of the collection, it holds echoes to Robert Creeley’s infamous A Day Book (1972), a book composed as a daily journal or diary in the form of poetry. Norris utilizes his lyric in similar ways, allowing one step and another step of short lyric bursts to unfold a sequence of recollections on his New York upbringing, his days in Montreal as one of the Vehicule Poets (along with Artie Gold, Tom Konyves, Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, Stephen Morrissey and Endre Farkas), a teaching career spent in Orono, Maine and numerous escapades involving travel, love, heartbreak and literature before returning, freshly retired, to Toronto, where he currently lives. “It wasn’t work,” he writes, to open the poem “WORK,” one of the early poems in the collection, “the writing of poems. / The work was everything else / that intruded.”

The poems of South China Sea are composed with a directness that even offer him as a tourist in his very skin; small moments, gestures and reminiscences lived and recalled at a slight distance. Norris isn’t a poet composing self-contained carved-diamond lyrics of exposition or wisdom, but one seeking the wisdom across a broader spectrum. To understand the nuance of his poems, one must read across a wider swath of his work, and a collection such as this is very much constructed as a singular project. “Nothing heroic in any of it,” he writes, to open the poem “LIFE,” “and yet it was life. / It was all that we had.” The wisdom of Norris’ lyrics emerge through the less obvious, the slow gradient of his lyric, using poetry as a way through which to articulate the moments of his own experience and connections. And, being a memoir-in-verse, certain poems in South China Sea harken back to certain other, smaller projects and collections. His references to “Isabella,” for example, can find tracings to the chapbook Songs for Isabella (above/ground press, 2000), a project he described a few years ago in a short essay on the press:

Songs For Isabella is written over the top of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems And A Song Of Despair the same way that Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies is written over the top of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Why Neruda? A big influence on my poetry since I was twenty, Neruda had taken part of his “pen name” from Jan Neruda, a Czech writer. I liked the undersong of the poetry of a Chilean poet with a half- Czech pen name for a sequence of poems about a Canadian poet who had fallen in love with a Czech woman in Prague.

“All the greed stands behind the lines.” he writes, as part of the poem “TED, RUTH, SYLVIA,” a poem that, presumably, references Ted Hughes, Ruth Fainlight and Sylvia Plath. “But in the beginning the love is so pure.” References exist throughout to the other members of the informal grouping of Vehicule Poets, as well as echoes from numerous of Norris’ influences over the years, from the “I did this, I did that” of New York poet Frank O’Hara, the Modernist exposition of Montreal poet Louis Dudek, the love poems and metaphysical abstract of Pablo Neruda and the passages of longing of Montreal poet Leonard Cohen. Lines such as “I came to each of them like a pilgrim. / They were the shrines of the pilgrimage.” from “READING THEIR NAMES,” for example, are pure Cohen.


I asked of everything
if it had a little more in it,
something more than structure,

and thus learned that nothing is empty,
that everything is a box, or a train, or a cargo boat,

that every footstep that took a stroll
left a message written on the earth,

that clothes had been washed
let some aspect of their existence

fall to the ground in droplets as they dried.

The things of the world
just go on being, and they are right to do so.
and I made an unspoken pledge to myself
that people would find their voices in my song.

                        after Neruda

In the end, South China Sea is a collection of travel and experience, but one that continually seeks to return, as much as The Odyssey or The Wizard of Oz, are both journeys about returning, even to the final poem in the collection, “FORTY YEARS GONE—THE ROAD HOME,” that ends:

That a heart, once opened,
can never be closed again.