Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Ongoing notes: TIFA’s Small Press Market (part one: Dale Martin Smith + Chris Johnson,

[see my four posts from the debut fair back in 2019 here and here and here and here] What a delightful fair this was! I was unable to make last year’s event due to my host falling sick with covid last minute, but managed to drive down for the sake of this small curated small press fair at Toronto’s Harbourfront, as hosted by Kate Siklosi/Gap Riot Press. Here are a couple of the items I collected as part of this year’s event:

Toronto ON: Some of the most intriguing small publishing work right now is being produced by Kirby’s Knife|Fork|Book; I’ve really been admiring the way that Kirby manages to find remarkable work by an array of writers that might not have been able to find homes for their work, at least easily. One of the titles I picked up at the fair was by Dale Martin Smith [see my review of his 2021 Talonbook title, Flying Red Horse, here], the chapbook Blur (2022). Dedicated to his partner, the poet Hoa Nguyen, the poems in Blur are an assemblage of short lyrics composed with such a light and even delicate touch. “What you know of me / is duration,” he writes, to open “Circles,” “movement / along the path between / our home and the neighbors’.” Smith’s work has long held an element of the personal in his work, but there is an intimacy here that focuses very deeply on the small that is stunningly, staggeringly moving and beautiful. Here is Dale Martin Smith composing poems with the density and brevity of poets such as Mark Truscott or Cameron Anstee, but set with the entirety of his whole heart.


You step out of the house
with trash and rain
comes down cold, intimately
known across the time you imagine
is your life.

Jim Johnstone, Anstruther Press

oronto ON: It was interesting to catch Ottawa poet Chris Johnson’s latest title, 320 lines of poetry (counting blank lines) (2023) from Jim Johnstone’s Anstruther Press, apparently in my hands before even the author got to see copies (this has happened the rare time before over the years with other publishers). There is something about Johnson’s poetry that is intriguing for the way he is so overtly exploring the lyric through experimentations with form and influence, seeking out a form through which to finally land. His poems are so clearly exploratory, seeking and reaching out to see what might strike, from his prior explorations through the haibun to these explorations through elegy, prose poems and extended lines, with individual poems composed “after” specific works by Jessie Jones, Kim Mannix, John Newlove, Artie Gold (his entire prior chapbook was a riff of a specific title by Artie Gold) and Christian Wiman.

Other pieces in the collection reference specific friends, many of whom also happen to be contemporary writers. “the rain has stopped,” Johnson writes, to open “some days are harder than others,” “but Monty says / there is always something / with bigger holes in it.” There are moments that the poems do fall too deeply into the self-referential, such as the opening poem, “elegy for chris johnson,” offering “today I ate a turkey sandwich and / thought about stephanie roberts’ turkey sandwich.” Throughout this piece he cites and he references, but doesn’t seem to offer really anything more than that, so the poem is intriguing, but doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. There are times that his line breaks do offer some nicely sharp turns, moments and corners, such as the opening of “when does the hunger begin?”: “the last days of February were honeyed, / snowy, and enlightened by whisky and weed.” That’s some fine precision, there. As well, there are moments within his prose poems where the music in his lyric shows itself quite nicely, whether the poem “asleep” (after “Awake” by Kim Mannix) or “a regular person” (after “Better Manifesto” by Jessie Jones). All in all, it feels (in an interesting and positive way) as though Johnson is still searching, still experimenting; I look forward to seeing what occurs when he finally lands.

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