Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Gary Barwin and Gregory Betts, The Fabulous Op


O this is a
poem become
minded whole

a great white
washed shall

various radios

radiate variants
pliant plaints

record prophets
this wobbly planet

where poems
splint winds

I’ve been eager to explore titles from Beir Bua Press, an Irish publisher that appeared to emerge out of nowhere a short while back, and seemingly publishing stellar works of experimental writing from the get-go; the first of their titles I’ve managed to get my hands on is Hamilton writer Gary Barwin and St. Catharine’s, Ontario writer Gregory Betts’ collaborative The Fabulous Op (April 2022), a book of collaborative play, response and experiment through a bleed of text and image. “re new / re new grief / re language rising / re broken laugh / re always,” they write, mid-way through the collection, “recomposing / as what you / riot / you art [.]” Barwin’s collaborative explorations have become more prevalent over the past few years, although he’s been working in the form for some time, and this particular collection seems an extension of their previous collaborative effort, The Obvious Flap (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2011). As they offer as part of a preface:

The title of our book, The Fabulous Op has nothing whatsoever to do with its anagrams, “about hopefuls,” or “hub of foetal soup,” “Uh, upbeat fools,” “push taboo fuel,” or even, “Afoul pub ethos.” Rather, it is a collaborative poem which we—uh, upbeat fools—began by asking our social media contacts to post lines of poetry that they keep memorized, wanting the project to be grounded in the soil of the brain, the canon of the individual as sieved through their experience. We considered how the transmission of DNA is affected by the experiences of those who it both creates and describes through epigenetic processes. We imagined the canon (and our culture) to be a kind of genetic code who’s transmission is similarly affected by “the experiences of those who it both creates and describes” (unacknowledged source).

For the curious, other collaborative efforts by Gary Barwin include a forthcoming collaboration with Toronto poet Lillian NećakovDuck Eats Yeast, Quacks, Explodes; Man Loses Eye (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2023)—two recent full-length collections with London, Ontario poet Tom Prime—A CEMETERY FOR HOLES, poems by Tom Prime and Gary Barwin (Guelph ON: Gordon Hill Press, 2019) [see my review of such here] and Bird Arsonist (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2022) [see my review of such here]—Frogments from the Frag Pool (with derek beaulieu; Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), Franzlations: the Imaginary Kafka Parables (with Craig Conley and Hugh Thomas; New Star Books, 2011) [see my review of such here] and the collaborative novel The Mud Game (with Stuart Ross; The Mercury Press, 1995), as well as chapbook-length collaborations with Alice Burdick, Amanda Earl, Tom Prime and even myself. Ever since the publication of Barwin’s For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS, edited with an Introduction by Alessandro Porco (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2019) [see my review of such here], I’ve been curious at the possibility of editor Porco perhaps furthering his examination of Barwin’s ouvre with a volume of selected collaborations; it would be interesting to see the length and breadth of that particular and seemingly ongoing thread of his work. And one might argue, in certain ways, that everything Betts’ produces is in some way a “response,” from his collaborative efforts to his own solo projects, including The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009), a collection of poems carved out of William Shakespeare’s sonnet 150 [see my review of such here], collaborative works with Arnold McBay, as well as the ongoing “Mutter Sound” collaborative project with Barwin and Toronto dub poet Lillian Allen.

Through the pieces of The Fabulous Op, Barwin and Betts offer twists of anagrammatic text and puns, texts shaped and re-formed as image, and images recombined and reconstituted, blending shifts and structures and expectation. There are ways in which their explorations of visual and sound exist almost prior to any consideration of meaning, less tethered to the possibilities of how words and images form meaning than the sense that their collage-suites of visual and aural explorations might provide. While their medium might heavily include language, one might attempt to seek meaning from their explorations in the same way one might seek similar from the paintings of Roy Kiyooka, an album by Dave Brubeck or a recorded performance by either The Four Horsemen or the Nihilist Spasm Band. The expectations of how one reads becomes important. Flip through the collection, and catch what they are doing. Can you see what they’re doing?

I am
rose ellipse this
wendering nothing

in-sparkling nothing
onsettling in air



Monday, May 30, 2022

Charles Rafferty, A Cluster of Noisy Planets: Prose Poems



I counted the water towers, the active smokestacks. These were the breadcrumbs I thought would lead me back. Now I know it’s possible to drive so far we forget why we left, that the journey continues even after the car breaks down. I used to think I had no message, but the message is me—bloodshot and hungry, spilled coffee down the front of my shirt. People of the future, father round. I have traveled through ink to greet you.

The latest from Connecticut poet and fiction writer Charles Rafferty, following eight chapbooks and six full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Smoke of Horses (Rochester NY: BOA Editions, 2017) [see my review of such here], is A Cluster of Noisy Planets: Prose Poems by Charles Rafferty (BOA Editions, 2021). As I mentioned in my review of that prior collection, there are elements of his prose poems that lean up against an arbitrary and very fluid boundary between poetry and prose into the work of short story writers such as Lydia Davis, composing as much in the realm of postcard story as lyric prose poem. “The moon shows up like a cigarette hole,” he writes, to close the poem “Less Buoyant,” “and the weather keeps milling our mountains into sand.” He composes narratives, but one with a compelling music across his lines as important as the words and his placement of them. I’m also reminded of American writer J. Robert Lennon’s remarkable short story collection Pieces for the Left Hand (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2005) through the way that Rafferty paints such miniature portraits of scenes, moments and occurrences of action and/or thought. Across sixty short, individual and single-stanza prose poems, Rafferty composes short narratives and musings on beauty, attention and meaning, history and memory, and what sits beyond his front step.


The ice used to be a mile thick above your house, and every now and then the river uncovers a shard of Colonial flatware, an arrowhead, a piece of beer bottle incapable of cutting anything. The fragments add up. They tell us the story of how nothing can stay the same. I no longer worry that caterpillars are destroying my only oak. I don’t care if the Planning and Zoning Board approves another nail salon. Whenever you say that you’ll never leave your husband, I remind myself that whales used to live on land, that they weren’t much bigger than dogs.

It might be fair, as well, to refer to this particular collection as a kind of commonplace or sketchbook, composed of short pieces attending to the daily moments across his immediate scope of vision. If I had blurbed this collection, I might have offered: “Charles Rafferty strolls around his landscape, both internal and external, and takes pictures using only words.” There is something in the way Rafferty captures the essence of an idea or a moment across the short span of a sentence, or a collection of sentences; the way he encapsulates it, offering it up for a far broader and wider spectrum of readings. In certain poems, the distances he manages to cover from one end of the stanza to the other is quite stunning, and I find myself rereading almost in disbelief at what his narratives have accomplished, as though some of the most important elements of each poem is set not in the words he chooses or how he chooses them, but in what he sets amid and even beneath them. One marvels at what reads so easily, and yet, so utterly beautiful, wrenching and complex.


On the map I have, the topographic lines of this hill look like God forgot to wipe away his fingerprint before he got into his Bible and fled. I knew one of the murdered boys. I had handed him a tissue once, to wipe his nose, as my daughter played piano at her recital. The apologists are full of mysterious ways, but I know evil when I see it. I can feel the thumb above me now, pressing down, fitting the grooves of this hillside.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Robert Hough

Robert Hough has been published to rave reviews in fifteen territories around the world. He is the author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Vintage Canada, 2002), shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book and the Trillium Book Award; The Stowaway (Vintage Canada, 2004), one of the Boston Globe’s top ten fiction titles of 2004; The Culprits (Vintage Canada, 2008); Dr. Brinkley’s Tower (House of Anansi, 2012), shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction and longlisted for the Giller Prize; The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan (House of Anansi, 2015), a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; and Diego’s Crossing (Annick Press, 2015), shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. Hough lives in Toronto, ON.

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

My first book, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, was a hit! It sold all over the world, and Sam Mendes bought the film rights, with his wife Kate Winslet slated to play Mabel. I figure this is the reason I’m still writing twenty years later – I’m like a gambler who wins his first time out. When that happens, you’re almost sure to become addicted.

The Marriage of Rose Camilleri, meanwhile, is my seventh novel. Yet it’s the first since The Final Confession of Mabel Stark to be voiced by a female narrator. What does this mean? Mmmmm ... I’m not sure, actually. Maybe I finally decided that if it worked once, it can work again.

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

Before becoming a novelist, I was a full-time magazine journalist for a dozen years or so. The thing is, I never had that much interest in current events, which, it turns out, is a liability for reporters.

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’m not one of those writers who does a lot of thinking, or make a lot of notes, or writes down ideas for scenes and tapes them to his office walls. Unfortunately, I can’t really come up with anything unless my fingers are moving. So I do lots of drafts. Lots and lots of drafts.

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 don’t really read many short stories – the occasional one in The New Yorker and that’s about it. Oh no, I’m a novel guy, and that’s what I’m gunning for from the word go.

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

It’s a bit of a moot question, since the vast majority of event organizers have figured out that people stay away in droves from readings. What people do like, however, is hearing writers talk. So most of the live gigs involve talking to an audience for twenty minutes about whatever you want to talk about. (Most writers blab away about the new book, with a bit of their process thrown in for good measure.) I get very nervous before hand, but as soon as I get my first laugh I really do enjoy addressing an audience. 

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 was about to leave this question blank when it occurred to me that I do have this little trick. While it’s true that you have to understand your protagonist’s motivation, I think it really helps if you divide that chore into two: at a certain point, I try to understand what my character wants, and what my character subconsciously wants. And I gotta say: if those two desires are the same, then you have yourself a pretty dull character.

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?

If by a ‘writer’ you mean ‘novelist’ well ... I hate to say it but I don’t think we hold a lot of sway, these days. A case in point: often, at parties or social events, I’ll be asked what I do for a living. When I answer that I’m a novelist, the follow-up question, more often than not, is: “Really? So do you write fiction or non-fiction?” However, if you’re referring to TV writers, it’s the show runners who really have a grip on the world’s imagination. Think of Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), David Chase (Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), or Alec Berg (Silicon Valley and Barry): they’re as influential as film directors were in the 70s.

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

I welcome the point in which I’m assigned an editor, as it means I don’t have to work alone, any longer, in my lonely little writer’s abyss. I’d say that working with an editor is only difficult when the editor is an idiot, which has never happened with me on a book. But back in my magazine days, it did happen a few times, and I tell you -- when it does you just don’t want to get out of bed.

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

Early on, an editor read a failed, quasi-autobiographical first novel of mine and said, “If you can’t describe your novel in a single sentence, then you haven’t found your story.” And you know what? It’s true. With The Marriage of Rose Camilleri, that sentence is the following: “An exuberant Maltese woman learns to love her ex-criminal husband during a turbulent, 23-year marriage.”

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

Mmmmm ... I wrote one young adult novel, but only because a publisher approached me with a commissioned idea, and I was like, “wait a minute ... whoa ... hold the phone .... you’ll give me money before I start writing?”

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?

There’s something quite self-flagellating about novel writing. I work every morning, and I don’t let myself leave my office until I’ve written a thousand words. I write a lot more than that if I’m having a good day, but on those terrible days, when the ideas just aren’t coming, I still don’t let myself quit until I have a thousand words. Why? There’s so much writing to do with novels – all of those drafts and false starts -- that if you only write when the muse is with you then you will never finish.

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

I appeal to my pig-headed nature. Even when blocked, I force out those thousand words. Even if I go weeks without writing anything worthwhile, I keep typing. And then, one day, it comes back ....

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?

A good question! Despite how I answered question #12, it just occurred to me that, when confronted by a large writing question or obstacle, I’ll go down to the Art Gallery of Ontario and look around. I don’t know why, but something about looking at all those paintings helps me see around corners.

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

In no particular order, these are my five favourite novels, based solely on the number of times I’ve read them:

The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer

Memoir from Ant-Proof Case by Mark Helprin

Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

A Fraction of a Whole by Steve Toltz

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi.

The question is: have these novels influenced me? All of these writers are a lot more talented than I am, and I’m smart enough to realize that I could never pull off what they pull off, so I don’t even try. So I feel like they haven’t influenced me, though on some level maybe they must have, right?

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

You mean as a writer? I’d like to write a really great horror novel. But in general? I’d like to see a live volcano.

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’ve never not been a writer. I have a good imagination, but not good enough to imagine what else I could’ve been.

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

When I was ten, I started writing a detective novel. I can still remember the title: “A Pipeline to Diamonds.” I finished about a page and a half, and then I went outside to play road hockey. I remember being good in net.

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

During the lock-down, I discovered three great novels: Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim, Wittgenstein Jr. by Lars Iyer, and London Fields by Martin Amis. My favourite covid film, meanwhile, wasn’t a film at all; it was a scabrously funny television series entitled The Great, which chronicles Catherine the Great’s efforts to rid the Russian court of savagery, idiocy and bad government. The chances that show takes with its humour....

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel in which one of the characters is the anarchist Emma Goldman. I’m far along, actually, as the publication of The Marriage of Rose Camilleri was delayed by about a year due to a combination of covid and supply chain disruptions. I’m pleased with it. No, really, I am.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;