Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recent Reads: Poem About The Train by Ben Ladouceur

Poem About The Train - Ben Ladouceur (Apt. 9 Press, 2014)

“A train ride is a childhood. You fall asleep
               somewhere. Then wake,
and someone has placed your body elsewhere.” (I)

Before I’ve opened to those immersive first lines, Ben Ladouceur’s latest chapbook is beguiling just to handle: a sheath of high quality card-stock that unfolds from the bottom, like a door of the Delorean, and reveals Poem About The Train in seven unbound sheets. Had they been interlocked with perforations, they might’ve resembled the transfer tickets Ladouceur held during his four-day train voyage to the west coast, where this long poem was conceived. 

Composed in six-line stanzas, the poem takes on a rigidity not unlike the clunky rhythm of steel on rails, oscillating the patient anticipation of a train ride and the outdoor vistas observed in passing blur. Each one of these stanzas offers a self-contained digression evaluating the condition of insects, vegetation and other sights: are they lush and fornicating or greying, in decay? Beyond mere zone-out speculation, the author’s often morose assessments on everyday wildlife, whizzing by track-side, fill blind spots with tantalizing guesswork over Ladouceur’s motives.

“This, a province of abandonments. Which is no
               put-down: I hold
too much dear, these days, watching lodgings shrink,
by distance or decrepitude; I long.
               Amongst the upturned things,
we leave the waters be. All we take is pause.” (III)

I sense an escape afoot. Moments of note during the trip, such as an attendant’s rehearsed romanticism of the eastern prairies, ruffles our protagonist, who disowns whole regions as populated by diseased rabbits and delusional astrology. But while these instances of windowsill bug powder and train rust provide glimpses into causality and the (dis)comforts of a relationship, they’re also shared with a fellow passenger, who offsets Ladouceur’s train of thought (sorry, had to…) with startling scenes of life, reawakening. Couched between the natural world’s grime and tenderness is an onboard love interest, which shakes Poem About the Train out of its mental cloud and activates Ladouceur, exploring his agency both in carriage and lust.

“The ground wakes as slowly as we do, stretches
               into summits,
the limbs at sublime angles. Suddenly
a wild building, made of leaves and hidden
               fauna. It’s bright. It’s near.
It goes: body, body, window, fog, mountain.” (VI)

The poem’s last page clarifies Ladouceur's relationship but not his shadow, which lengthens the further his one-way ticket stretches. “When I approach you, a treason comes with me,” he writes, but those intentions remain murky. Will Vancouver alleviate his burden and cynicism? Does it really matter to the text? His narrative arc is attentively paced but secondary to the incisive drama of each stanza. That’s where the real voyage is — in fresh, often surreal, imagery that Ladouceur carves out of hulking landscapes and bestows with tricky intimacy. Jumping from nihilism to eroticism and then wayfaring introspective states in-between, Ladouceur’s aesthetic distance plays constant hide-and-seek. 

To test just how tightly constructed Poem About The Train is, try reordering its loose pages and reading the chapbook anew. (Such a recommendation sounds like sacrilege, I know.) On account of its stand-alone stanzas and well scattered themes, my various reshuffling of pages managed to ruffle the chronology but not in any way that impeded Ladouceur’s tone or volition. It should go without saying that the author’s order is best, but I cannot think of another long poem that a) can be re-assembled without losing its pace and b) is actually designed to facilitate that re-assembling. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

On Writing #57 : Catherine Owen

“Bright realms of violence”: ON THE POETIC
Catherine Owen

It’s been my privilege and joy to work with a superb editor (and literary hero of mine), Stuart Ross. And thanks to that process, I developed what’s become my current focus while self-editing: weeding out the overtly poetic. Sometimes Stuart will flag a passage and say something like, “This isn’t working—it looks like you made this word choice because it ‘sounds poetic’” Not only is he right, but—to my horror—that mannered turn of phrase has been invisible to me! A blind spot, revealed. I’ve internalized some of the clichés of contemporary poetry to the point that they simply spew out of me, much as a lifelong executive might spout phrases like “core values” and “going forward” without realizing how corporate she sounds. So I’ve been trying to identify my go-to “poeticisms” and excise them. Like writing to a set form, this can be a fruitful restriction.”

When I read this piece in the ottawa poetry newsletter, it immediately irked. All for excising “go-to” clichés, tired phrasings, stereotypes, idiom and pat laxness (As Donald Hall recalls in The Weather for Poetry: “The manifestoes of the Imagist Movement praised the particular over the abstract, the local over the infinite; and we were enjoined not to speak of ‘dim lands of peace’”), I wondered why these essential eradications were all falling under the umbrella of the “poetic.” Such a use of the term seems imprecise, possibly even dangerous. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of the poetic:

of, relating to, or used in poetry.
"the muse is a poetic convention"
poetical, versemetricallyricallyricelegiac
"poetic compositions"
written in verse rather than prose.
"a poetic drama"
having an imaginative or sensitively emotional style of expression.

Verse not prose. CHECK. Imagination. Sensitivity. CHECK. I am a poet. I write poetically. To me this has always meant that my way of using the language can be marked by simile, metaphor, image, lexical texture and resonance and certain quirky ways of combining all of the above so that what emerges may sound, indeed, poetic, ie. not perhaps the common mode in which one speaks in everyday transactions, in journalistic prose or in other typified engines of discourse. When I revise my poems, if I find that some symbolic or aural turn stands out in a “sore-thumbed” kind of way, sticks out non-organically, as if I had pressured it too much to rear into existence instead of allowing the flow of the poem to determine what emerged, then I will axe it. But this is not because such an error was too “poetic” – no it was too “me.”
          Obviously, the word “poetic” has been tainted. It has the aura of something precious, contrived, frilly. Or it’s just plain confusing to most what it means at all.


Gloria to Edith: Ma, that’s very poetic
Archie: What the hell’s poetic about it, I didn’t hear nothing rhyme!

The funny thing is, I actually have a poem by Peter Norman on my fridge. I cut it out of one of the LRC’s I subscribe to precisely because of its poetic values. It’s called “Growth” and not only does it contain such poeticisms as the use of the pathetic fallacy in the notion that “Flora violates nourishing soil” or that a root can be “rogue” or a “solo blossom” buck a “fragile plan” but it’s extremely poetic in its uses of sound (the reason why I clipped it out). Roots extrude, or “blunder deeper”. Boots imprint and most deliciously, hover “on pockets of nil.” As far as I’m concerned, though of course there are always bad poets who make the poetic icky for us, a good poet can ride the poetic right into its aural and lexical stable, containing it in the ear and blood for the reader in a way that a writer afraid of or determinedly eschewing the poetic, never will.

Catherine Owen lives in New Westminster, BC. She is the author of ten collections of poetry, among them Trobairitz (Anvil Press 2012), Seeing Lessons (Wolsak & Wynn 2010) and Frenzy (Anvil Press 2009). Her poems are included in several recent anthologies such as Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC (Mothertongue Press, 2013). Her collection of memoirs and essays is called Catalysts: confrontations with the muse (W & W, 2012).

Frenzy won the Alberta Book Prize and other collections have been nominated for the BC Book Prize, the Re-lit, the CBC Prize, & the George Ryga Award. Owen edits, tutors, plays metal bass, works on the TV show, Arrow, collaborates on multi-media exhibits and co-runs Above & Beyond chapbook productions. Her book of elegies, Designated Mourner has just been released by ECW Press (2014) and a chapbook called Rivulets is out from Alfred Gustav Press. In 2015, Wolsak & Wynn will publish her compendium on the practices of writing called The Other 23 and a Half Hours Or Everything You Wanted to Know That Your MFA Didn’t Teach You.

Photo credit: Gabor Gastonyi

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Recent Reads: Garden by Monty Reid

Garden by Monty Reid (Chaudiere Books, 2014)

I first read Garden in late October, about an hour or so before news broke that a soldier had been shot in front of the War Memorial, that Parliament Hill was under siege. Besides my concern for innocent folks living in Ottawa — among them, Monty Reid and the Chaudiere Books team — the timing of my reading felt noteworthy because of social media’s responses to the unfolding tragedy. As citizens and pundits began probing how such an event could manifest at the government’s front door, their questions were framed by cultivation and lawlessness, peace and war, order and disorder, good and evil — binaries and impulses I’d just been studying in Monty Reid’s plot of space. 

Comprised of twelve “units”, each named after a month and previously published by a variety of presses, Garden predominantly investigates bounty and decay as gleaned in the backyard. The stanzas inside each monthly unit are also ordered sequentially by month. Taken literally or linearly, all of Garden’s Januarys, Februarys, etc. would span twelve years. And while that extensive timeframe would fit the author’s methodical approach, it’s Reid’s themes that dictate one unit from the next, backing the more likely hypothesis that his raw notes were gathered over one or two years and then parsed as each chapbook narrowed its particular sights.

Perhaps because Reid lays out the project’s rigid timetable in advance, Garden quickly slides into a laissez-faire rhythm befitting its muse. The book feels like a natural marriage of concept and author — the pleasure principle of gardening matched with Reid’s steady, simplified verse.

The old black walnut stump in the corner of the garden
nurses its lichen, its beetles, its ants.

Someone cut the tree down
long before I was here.

The subjects of interest are long gone.

I don’t know who.
Just someone. (“sept unit, August”)

Clear language outlines the landscape as a domain for bit (or bite-sized) players. His tone is conversational but precise. At its most affecting, Reid’s concision creates an echo stanza — space to reflect upon some gently grazed, existential notion. That lucidity, something of a trademark in Reid’s recent work, allows heady concepts to flourish around the consciousness of plant-life — which is best defined here by what it outwardly lacks, a sense of humanity — and how that entangled community functions. Reid invokes the pitfalls of dualistic thinking, distorting the boundaries between domestic and exotic, inhabited and wild, confined and sprawling, etc., as a means of indulging political and personal commentary. 

The systems theorists prefer the system
to be people-free

so it’s good to have a friend, here in the garden.
Language has gotten restless, it’s true

but that doesn’t mean it wants you to stop
pulling at its edges.

The dirt doesn’t need a memory
but it has one anyway. (“nov unit, June”)

Well beyond the sensory perks of appearance or taste, Reid’s garden is presented as a self-regulating system and compared as such to market economics and bureaucracy. Strong roots strangle weaker vegetables, predatory bugs and birds feed on the living and yet there’s a palpable sense of order in disorder, a blameless understanding that what happens in the natural world just happens. By the way, that “friend” Reid mentions in the above excerpt is “Jack the pumpkin”, whose decomposition is recorded over November unit’s lifespan. Jack is but one of many characters Reid personifies, both for creative speculation and dry, self-deprecating reflection. Whether he’s getting reports from the sunflowers about neighbours suntanning topless over the fence or merely internalizing Jack’s hollowed out grin, Reid’s good humour offsets the precariousness of life.

Again, I come to the garden
and find no one

except the pumpkin
still weighted with snow and its face caved in.

It has nothing to say
yet its laughter continues

in whatever I still think I might be. (“nov unit, March”)

A book so attuned to the passing seasons requires a writer who’s sensitive to aging, and Reid carries that weight with grace. The garden communicates with its groomer in playful stanzas but also harsh glances, as if asking its creator: why are you still at this?

My garden is there to be eaten.

Not Eden.

All writing is about something. (“feb unit, January”)

Month by month, that “something” finds new vantage points of addressing cultivation and conservation — in the home and mind, as much as in the garden. The steps between these temples often feels illusory, in part because the garden’s agency allows Reid to watch from an unspecified distance. But January unit maps out these emotional ties, laying bare the expectations Reid's green-space was intended to fulfill. Here the garden, already a substandard Eden, takes on the metaphor of parenthood, with Reid and his partner acting as guardians jaded by the promise of inner salvation. The effects of assigning self-worth onto nature — trying to make it something other than what is — creates suffering, not to mention a welcome tension in the text.

Not all units leave such ponderous impact craters and, in those cases, I suspect Reid’s subtle nuances either drifted by me undetected or failed to meet his allusion halfway. After so many calendar months spent toiling in soil and grubs, Reid’s theory-based whimsy becomes the chute upon which chapbook-length stretches depend; when it doesn’t develop, the whole unit tends to putter about, awaiting for another to bud. July unit reads this way, obsessed with the man-hours put in and restless to discover new limits. What comes after the garden?

There is an idea in the hollow of the garden.
Is just a theory the garden generates on the other side
of the garden.

All ideas are the same idea.
There is always another one that explains it better.

How then will one explain another garden? (“july unit, April”)

There’s some juicy potential in the theorizing reprinted above but it’s better demonstrated in earlier portions of Garden than written out as such. There are signs of fatigue too, symptomatic of any hobby that tries to manipulate the cycles of nature. One cannot garden forever; there’ll always be more work to do. And maybe Garden’s homestretch is hijacked by the habit of keeping minutes; measuring that pervasive now that keeps neighbours on edge and cities bandied in perpetual bustle. At times disillusioned, often clairvoyant and clocking his share of months in-between, Reid turns his backyard into a microcosm for the collective dysfunction of our hopes and denials, through which all of Ottawa, Canada and the world manages to persevere, together even when we feel apart. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

On Writing #56 : Sarah Burgoyne

a series of permissions-givings
Sarah Burgoyne

i am a schooled poet. schooled by other poets.

in my schooling, i was given a set of plates. they were rules about what one could or could not do in a poem. you could eat off them (for your whole life if you wanted to). please oh please oh please, do not use clichés, was one. please do not start your poem with “i remember,” another. always and forevermore: show, don’t tell, please. please stop ogling the blackbirds. please make astute enjambments. please stop making enjambments. please avoid the words love, heart and—for frost’s sake—the moon. scratch thou and thee. and ye. and malagrugrous… these were helpful rules. i hung them on the walls. i admired them.

once, as a newborn writer, i came across a poet whose work i'd never felt stronger about. at the same time, i had never been at a greater loss as to how to talk or write about poetry before. it seemed this writer had pestled the rules. consequently, i couldn’t tell you the “theme” of the poems. i couldn’t tell you the “meaning.” i couldn’t tell you what a "hundred-tongued perjury poem" or a "noem" was. but somehow these poems deeply moved me in my house of rattly plates. so i wrote a thesis about it. and some plates fell off the wall.

years later in new york, i attended a poetry reading; the poet reading told us she was sad, and had written her latest book of poems during a four-year sadness-bout. this made me sad and reminded me of lots of other poets and their relationships to poetry (including myself, des fois). and i realized i was bored with gloom. so i broke a plate i didn’t realize i had, and decided to try and write happy poems. praise poems. psalms. poems with love and hearts and golden bones in them. and blueberries. (this is where my workshop drew the line).

since then, it’s been a series of permissions-givings. a plate-smashing jamboree. i was careful at first though, and didn’t wreck them all at once. soon, i abandoned syntax, punctuation, line breaks, but not always. in that way, i guess, i’m lying: i didn’t really smash the rules. the rules just transformed. it was like they became cats—the way vegetables become convincingly stately chariots sometimes—that float in and out as they please, depending on how they feel. and of course, like most cats, they like to stay in a lot and i never regret them.

i guess i've started making some of my own rules since, like never be boring. or stop writing poems that are supposed to be interpreted, and write poems that read the reader, instead. i try to keep these in-house, but, like all cat-summonings, it’s often a struggle.

i wasn’t raised in a bar, like many good poets of earlier times. whiskey hasn’t been my only teacher. sadness hasn’t been my only room. toronto has never been my home. i grew up in the suburbs and was told that school was a good place to learn things, so i went to school, and i was lucky enough to learn some things about writing. looking back, no poet ever taught me to stick to the rules. but they named them for me, and i arranged them how i thought best at the time. it just took me a while to learn about shape-shifting. and magic. and winged cats.  

Sarah Burgoyne lives and teaches in Montreal. Her latest chapbook Love the Sacred Raisin Cakes was published in November with Baseline Press. She has a forthcoming manuscript with Mansfield Press.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Writing #55 : Anne Fleming

Anne Fleming

There’s a point at which, when you’re funny, you think about stand-up. I mean, not me. Not seriously. Not for real.
This isn’t totally related, but there was a time in high school when the fourth or fifth person after antics or goofiness of mine said I should try out for the school play that I did. You had to sing. That was one thing. I had no imagination: all my troubles seemed so far away. Then you did a monologue. That was another. True, true, very nervous I have been and am. But why will you say I am mad?
The play that year was one of those school plays where the students make it up and it’s about, like, high school. So after I shrieked, Villains! Dissemble no more! ‘Tis the beating of his hideous heart! I had to improvise, Jesus Christ, improvise, a classroom scene. With me as the teacher. The students are acting up. What do I do? I don’t know how to improvise. I don’t know how to begin to improvise. Cheech and Chong is what I do. Cla-aass, through my nose.
I tanked. It scared me off the stage for years.
But a few years later, I had a friend who was funny, who wanted to do stand-up, who worked at the Olde Spaghetti Factory with some guys who performed at the open mic nights at Yuk-Yuks. We started work on a routine. “On a queer day, you can see forever.” That was the opening line. We liked Kate Clinton. We could recite all her routines. I thought the pope was on a catheter!
I forget my point.
Oh. I know.
To make my friends laugh. When I started writing it was to make my friends laugh.
I still think that’s a good reason.
It still pretty much is my reason, only now I hope to reach more people than just my friends, and I hope to make something happen that is more than just laughter. Although, “just laughter.” Why did I say that? See, that’s a problem. “Just laughter” is almost never “just laughter.” Because if you laugh at something because you recognize it, it’s about our common humanity, and if you laugh at something because it’s absurd, it’s a criticism or an observation about what we find meaningful or relevant, and if you laugh at it because you’re shocked and can’t believe a person would say that, it’s about what limits we set ourselves and why, and if you laugh because it’s clever, it’s about human ingenuity, and if you laugh and then can’t believe you just laughed, then it’s about how we use humour to deal with pain. And so on.
I struggle more and more with wondering if it matters, writing. Whether my writing matters. But I never question whether making people laugh matters. Weird, eh?
At the book launch for Gay Dwarves of America in Kelowna, I was lucky and happy to share the launch with Nancy Holmes, for her book, The Flicker Tree, which has its share of funny poems. So Nancy got the crowd laughing, and then it was my turn and they kept laughing. I stepped down from the mic and had that feeling: I killed.
Yeah. Those words: I killed. Comedy jargon. Stand-up jargon.
And then this little thought bubble. Hey. Maybe I could do stand-up. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it wrong all this time.  I thought you had to be funny, that that was the goal. But it’s not. The goal is something else. The goal is to tell a story. Make a point. Convey a character. Funniness is a side-effect.
We never finished that routine, my friend and I. We didn’t really know what we wanted to say. We didn’t have a point. We didn’t have a story. We didn’t have characters. We kept looking for good lines, for punchlines. We found some, sure, but they didn’t make up a routine. Not even five minutes. What we needed was a throughline.
I feel like I learn this same lesson over and over: don’t do it their way, do it your way.
Yesterday I heard a baby laugh. Kind of amazing when you think about it. It’s one of the first things babies do. They cry. And they laugh. And that’s pretty much it for the rest of our lives.
I don’t know.

Anne Fleming’s latest book is Gay Dwarves of America (Pedlar 2012), whose stories netted some nice awards and nominations. Rumours of a poetry book are afoot, plus two novels with goats in them, one for children and one for adults. She divides her time between Vancouver and Kelowna, where she teaches at UBC’s Okanagan campus.