Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Poetry Read in Silence

At the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter you naturally read a lot about poetry readings, slams and performances: those subterranean gatherings that make up a vital part of the city's literary culture. Great stuff, some of them. But their social atmosphere is hardly likely to recapture that life-changing sense of discovery we experienced, most of us as teenagers, when poetry first lifted us out of the world of everyday and gave us a glimpse of that mythic space where life is tragic and lyrical.

To let poetry move us that deeply, at the very least we need to be able to give it our full concentration. That means hearing every word without being distracted by a waiter clinking glasses or a barman tapping a new keg; by doubts about the fire exit; or by audience members too nervous to listen, too busy rehearsing or (worse) scribbling down the poems they are about to read in the open set.

Poetry is sustained as much by the private transports of thousands of people reading in silence as by all the schools and festivals and gimmicks that attract media attention. As Donald Hall wrote last spring in the American Poetry Review: "Poetry out loud is never quite as beautiful as poetry read in silence." Yes, there may be other things poetry can do, besides being beautiful, but it won't do anything as well as it might unless it has the reader's full attention.

The ideal spot to find the silence conducive to reading poetry is of course at home, stretched out on a sofa for the long night of insomnia James Joyce required of his ideal reader. But poetry's comforts are just as important to the homeless as to the comfortable. So here are some suggestions in case you find yourself in Ottawa between flights, or between flats, and in need of poetry's lift.

If you happened to read Donald Hall's comments when they first came out in APR, you might have been standing in front of the litmag stand at Mags & Fags on Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, a source of the latest poetry journals and tabloids. Or you might have been in the periodicals reading room of Ottawa U.'s Morissette Library, or across town at Carleton U. These are the only institutions that can afford to subscribe to even a decent sampling of the books and magazines where today's poetry subsists, and you don't need to be a student to go and look at them. Unfortunately, neither university provides a spacious, comfortable, scenic place to immerse yourself in your reading. But their shelves offer an ever-changing selection of new poetry that, at least at first, has to excite any genuine poetry enthusiast.

The Public Library's poetry collection is spotty, but at least you may borrow them and take them home to read in the bathtub. While at the central library, stop in at the Ottawa Room and let Brian Silcoff show you some of the burgeoning collection of poetry books and ephemera from the capital city.

Bookstores should be natural places to find and read poetry. As it is, Chapters is a convenient place to sip a $3 cup of coffee, or to browse the most often reprinted poetry titles, but you can't do both at the same time. The few remaining independent bookstores, like Collected Works and Mother Tongue, are more welcoming but almost as limited in the poetry inventory they can afford to carry on their shelves.

The used bookstores that dot Dalhousie and Bank streets provide a curious scattering of poetry, and most are around the corner from a coffee shop where, with concentration, caffeine and some really strong poetry, you may be able to create your own silence in the midst of a city of bureaucrats running scared. And if the poetry search has left you with a thirst for something stronger, you can find a quiet corner, and a few loaner books, at the Manx Pub on Elgin. You might even be able to discuss your latest finds with poet-host David O'Meara.

Poems, being relatively short, ought to be desirable companions for busy people on the go. Canada's former poet laureate, George Bowering, has explained that he reads poems during commercials between innings of televised baseball games. Some of my friends keep poetry magazines in the bathroom for just such occasions. Again this year, riders on OCTranspo are able to contemplate short poems posted on the advertising panels above the fellow-passengers' heads. But even a short poem can demand more of a reader than a temporary suspension of impatience. To get the real thrill of extreme poetry, you need time and space to yourself.

Now in midwinter, I am looking forward to reading outdoors again. I especially seek out riverbanks, where the white noise of rushing water cancels out traffic sounds and the poetry can have its say. Come spring, I'll put a poetry book in my pocket and go looking for a bench or a sun-warmed stone on the banks of the Rideau near Hog's Back, or above the Chaudière on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. If you see me there reading, please don't interrupt.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Michael Dennis: All Those Miles Yet To Go (LyricalMyrical, 2005)

First a warning, this collection of poems was published in a limited edition of 50 copies and is no doubt sold out by now. When I was at the launch last summer at the Invisible Cinema, the books were selling like Beaver Tails on the Canal during Winterlude. So why bother to write about it? Because it’s the most recent of a local poet’s work and also because the poet deserves recognition for this refreshing no bullshit collection of poems. If we are very lucky, cross our fingers and hold our breath till we turn blue, perhaps a second print run will occur. The book is beautifully hand made using recycled covers.

In All Those Miles Yet To Go, Michael Dennis mingles hard, straight-forward observation of nitty gritty life with metaphor. The speaker of these poems is the observer, the outsider looking through window, the worker who has taken on many bottom-of-the-barrel jobs, the documenter of nightmarish memories from childhood, the dope smoker, the wine drinker, and above all the “almost lonely” man who struggles and gets by.

The imagery of Dennis’ poems is concrete, at times lyrical, always surprising and memorable. “you can hear the soft hum of sugar/beating through the pure energy of flight” (if this is beauty). In stars on the ceiling, poems are sirens “coming and going/in the distance/but none close enough/to see. In driving a road is a “black snake.” In Miles to go before I sleep, the night is described as “shadowy…rustling around inside the car.” You have to smile at the corny and playful double entendre here: Miles Davis and miles of distance.

Some poems muse philosophical on the state of the world. Dennis portrays the world with both reverence and irreverence at the same time. In this is how I see the world 2, a man is attacked by a vicious pit bull and the three teenage girls who try to control their pet have nothing more to say than “bad dog.” In if there is beauty, the birds in their purity “suggest lessons/that we stumble upon/ in spite of ourselves”. In another history lesson, Dennis describes the delicacy and respect devoted to wrapping up the dress of a woman who’d been a prisoner of war. The tasks described are straightforward and caring. All we can do is remember, respect and move on.

The vocabulary of these poems is unpretentious with adjectives like long, short, dark, shiny, yet Dennis manages to create believable and memorable portraits of his world. There are no references to obscure mythology in these poems. This isn’t a myth; this is real life. It is a world populated by idiots, wife abusers, overdosing drug addicts, dogs smarter than their owners and strangers who “pollute the news and the newspapers” (my own bed).

There is a surprising yet understated precision to Dennis’ language that it is important to note. In the days are running and then some, the speaker “shoveled the frozen dust of a foreman’s whim/out of a Northern Ontario winter and a Falconbridge mine.” The imagery is startling and unforgettable.

Like poets such as Charles Bukowski, Michael Dennis describes poverty, getting by, drinking, the seedy side of things; yet somehow there is hope and there is always irony: Neighbourhood Services delivers furniture quickly (those first few weeks).

And then there is the pain of childhood memory: having experience with belligerent drunks (Mr Silvers), the description of rape by an uncle (where memories are made). This poem is particularly potent. Dennis piles up a description of ordinary memories and then flashes to an incident of sexual abuse, accurately depicting the blankness that the abused returns to when something jars the memory: “a white light harsh jolt” as involuntary and unexpected as a sneeze, but it “hangs around like a virus.” Here Dennis is reminiscent of T. Anders Carson who also writes about abuse. It’s an ugly subject and needs to be tackled in the open.

There’s humility in the poems of this collection at times: “I want more than my share/and I apologize for that.” But at the same time there’s that underlying recognition of mortality: “I’ll want less soon/I’m sure of it” (my want list). Many of Dennis’ poems are concerned with mortality and the desire to live: “I want to sleep through the night/and wake up in the morning.” Yet at the same time, there is a reassurance that despite all the pain and struggle, one can survive: “I’ve…always sort of trusted fate/ to feed me” (check up).

Dennis is refreshingly honest in his willingness to portray the struggle to get by, writing poems about failure and being a “world class fuck up,” of sitting on the toilet wrong and having piss leak onto one’s pants. “my failures aren’t usually/quite so obvious/but/perhaps I’m finally/mastering and discovering/my true calling” (it’s on a Wednesday morning that he realizes his life work…). In motor line, Dennis describes a job on the assembly line: “in ten minutes/I was on the line/one engine every seventeen seconds/all the centuries lined up/before and after me/as I used up every/part/of my first chance/and then my second.”

Despite the struggle portrayed, there’s optimism in Michael Dennis’ poems: “this evening/like most others//better than he had hoped for” (dinner with red wine).

The good news is that much of Michael Dennis’ poetry can be found here:

You can stop holding your breath now.

Monday, January 16, 2006

notes on geography: Meredith Quartermain, John Newlove, William Hawkins & The Ottawa City Project

a private life

I want to build houses in the dusk
of a late century

mud pits smudged with human feet

shapely cusps

sawdust grain cupped in my eyes
soft drywall smooth on beams and posts

prism, window
gather inside

For years I’ve been interested in how various poets across Canada, through individual poems or collections, write their own geography, and increasingly over the past decade or two, writing their cities as opposed to bare country; even writing their suburbs (not just ryan fitzpatrick's Ogden or Jon Paul Fiorentino's Transcona; does anybody remember John McAuley's most brilliant Nothing Ever Happens in Pointe-Claire? (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1977)). To write of any location enters that place into myth, the myth of the city. There is the city, and then there is the dream of the city. And aren't these definitions of self always self-definitions? Where does a book or a writer hold their boundaries? As Monty Reid wrote in his essay "Small Town, Small World" from the anthology Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1986):

"Small towns, with their knowledge that they do not control everything, admit the tensions and thus re-create a place for the subject, perhaps articulate the subject in a new way, rifted by tensions it cannot control but dreaming nonetheless of meanings. Or they may provide a model for the subject as some other social context, marginalized but neither cynical nor indifferent. The subject's place must necessarily be created before the reader can again be engaged, can find a place for identification."

In Vancouver, it includes Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems (Toronto ON: Ryerson Press, 1972), George Bowering rewriting Rilke’s Duino Elegies into his Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986), or his time at Sir George Williams at the tail end of the 1960s in his collection The Concrete Island: Montreal Poems (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1977), and more recently, Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005). bpNichol wrote Toronto streets more obviously throughout The Martyrology Book V (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1982); and then there’s Stephen Cain’s Torontology (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2002), Joe Blades’ own song to the St. John River (the river that runs through the city of Fredericton) in the collection River Suite (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1998), and Leonard Cohen, through almost every collection, who worked his own magic around Montreal streets, cafés and back alleys. Even more recently, Calgary poet Julia Williams, a few months before her collection The Sink House (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004) published MY CITY IS ANCIENT AND FAMOUS (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2004). In his essay "Mapping Raymond Souster's Toronto" in The Canadian Modernists Meet (Ottawa ON: The University of Ottawa Press, 2005), Stephen Cain writes "That the city is an essential component of literary modernism–as image, as cite, as trope–has long been accepted in modernist studies. As Michel de Certeau most succinctly notes, the city 'is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity.'" He goes on to say:

"For much of the modernist period, this city appears absent from Canadian poetry, and it is not until the rise of postmodernism, post-colonialism, and feminism that sustained and concrete examinations of Toronto and its districts begin to appear: Joe Rosenblatt's Kensington Market, the Annex environs of bpNichol's The Martyrology Book 5, the punk bars and Queen Street watering holes of Lynn Crosbie's "Alphabet City," and the city centre of Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies.

Yet, long before Lee was officially made the poet laureate of Toronto, Raymond Souster was the acknowledged poetic chronicler of Toronto. Indeed, Souster has been represented, in both the popular media and in academic criticism, as the poet of Toronto for much of the twentieth century. While certain other modernist writers have occasionally used Toronto as a subject for their poetry–such as Miriam Waddington, and Dorothy Livesay in her "Queen City" suite–it is only Souster who has consistently returned to Toronto as subject and inspiration for his verse over a lengthy poetic career of nearly half a century. In doing so, Souster has created a significant body of work that explores the site of urban modernism, and an investigation of his work raises questions about aesthetic representations of the city and its functions in the context of Canadian literary modernism."

From modernism to post-modernism, then, as cities are less the machinery that surrounds than a part of the environment itself, that includes the author and whoever else exists in the world. For Winnipeg-born Montreal author Jon Paul Fiorentino, writing the Winnipeg suburb of Transcona as a thread through all of his poetry collections. In a recent issue of dANDelion (Number 2, Volume 29, “the poetic project.” Calgary AB, 2004), Fiorentino writes specifically of the piece “Transcona lol” from Hello Serotonin (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004):

I officially began my obsession with my hometown of Transcona with the publication of Transcona Fragments (Winnipeg: Cyclops Press, 2002). My Transcona poems are nostalgic and digressive–heavily influenced by Seed Catalogue by Robert Kroetsch and Paterson by William Carlos Williams. Transcona lol uses the idiom of the internet chat room as its primary rhetorical strategy. It fits well into the larger Hello Serotonin project, which is immersed in the language of brain chemistry, pharmaceutical recreation, and geographical mythology. Transcona, a slowly dying railway town, persists in this collection–it is my Paterson.

In the capital, less known but no less important, was William Hawkins’ own Ottawa Poems (Kitchener ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1966), a small chapbook of twenty poems on the city he’s lived in his whole life.


What had she, Queen Victoria, in mind
naming this place, Ottawa, capital?

Ah coolness, he said,
who dug coolness.

This crazy river-abounding town
where people are quietly
following some hesitant
form of evolution
arranged on television
from Toronto.

where girls are all
possible fucks
in the long dull summernights

& Mounties more image
than reality.
– William Hawkins, Ottawa Poems

When I first entered Ottawa at nineteen, a young know-it-all buck wandering Bank Street and filling notebooks with reams of bad poems on city streets, the poems of Michael Dennis, for example, were extremely important to me. Here was a poet just a decade or two ahead of me, writing poems on the same Ottawa streets, giving me a sort of permission to do the same, whether in his wayne gretzky in the house of the sleeping beauties (Toronto ON: Lowlife Publishing, 1987), what we remember and what we forget (Hull QC: The Bobo Press, 1993), or bookstore window project, poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa ON: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986). I can still remember the stacks of jessica-flynn that sat on the shelf in the early 1990s, hidden in a corner of the second floor with all the other poetry, in the now-defunct Food for Thought Books on Clarence Street. Only three dollars each; I wanted to purchase the whole lot, and give them to friends.

They say, to understand a place, you have to know its stories. Other authors have taken geographic ownership of their cities, and in Ottawa, the fiction on the city nearly abounds, working from Elizabeth Hay to Elisabeth Harvor to André Alexis' two Ottawa books, the short story collection Despair, and Other Stories of Ottawa (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1994) and Childhood (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1998), and in Colin McAdam's novel of Ottawa's 1960s in Some Great Thing (Vancouver BC: Raincoast Books, 2004). In poetry, Ottawa for the longest time has only been claimed in the most subtle ways, existing more in occasional pieces by writers such as John Newlove, Judith Fitzgerald, John Barton and Eli Mandel. I wonder in part if this is because of the supposed transient nature of the City of Ottawa; how many writers can even claim Ottawa as home and birthplace? William Hawkins and Blaine Marchand were born here, but only Hawkins has produced a book lately, his first collection in thirty-one years (spending his days as a Blue Line cab driver since the early 1970s), the collection Dancing Alone: Selected Poems 1960-1990 (Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press / cauldron books, 2005). Other writers, such as Norman Levine, Elizabeth Smart, Nick Power, Gail Scott and Margaret Atwood were born and sometimes raised in the Capital, but more often than not left as soon as it was possible. I was born here, but almost immediately left (put up for adoption through Cornwall Children's Aid), and didn’t “return” until I had completed high school as yet another sheer accident of geography; but one grade thirteen credit short of getting into Concordia University in Montreal, I sat three hours in Henry Beissel's office, watching his frustration on the phone, as the administration repeated to him how they couldn't let me in the school to participate in the Creative Writing program. Where else but go to Ottawa; with the more open-door policy of Carleton University (I lasted three weeks), moving two hours west to follow a girl. There was no consideration of returning home. It could easily have been so very different.

John Newlove (d. 2003), Colin Morton, John Barton (who left for Victoria, British Columbia in 2004), Anita Dolman and Nadine McInnis all came from the prairies; Michael Dennis and Dennis Tourbin from London and Port Dalhousie, respectively (both by way of Peterborough); Stephen Brockwell came from Montreal; David O'Meara and his friend Ken Babstock grew up in Pembroke, just up the Ottawa Valley; Anita Lahey and Wanda O'Connor hail from the east coast. Is anyone else actually from here?

How different is this from, say, Montreal or Toronto? Read the biographies of the contributors to the annual Headlight Anthology published by the creative writing department at Concordia University, and see the range of the authors' points-of-origin. Is it simply easier to be absorbed into the dynamic of Montreal than it is in Ottawa?


The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.

There is a cold gel on my belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.

It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy.
– John Newlove, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999)

When I was contemplating my own collection of Ottawa pieces, I considered the anniversaries, including the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa in 2005, and the 150th anniversary of Queen Victoria naming us capital city to the Dominion of Canada coming up in 2007. It seemed the most obvious time to push anything Ottawa-related. As much as I consider myself a resident of Glengarry County, where I have not lived since 1989 and might never live again (until I perhaps retire), my personal geography feels split in two, as this the city where I was not only born, but where my adopted mother grew (the first of her family hospital born, in the same building I arrived, nearly thirty years later), and where I have remained since I left home, and feel no need to leave; the city my daughter helps keep me to.

The uncompleted manuscript of The Ottawa City Project works to write various thematic sections in different styles; I wanted the name to reflect the more conservative, even bureaucratic aspects of the city, and the myth of the city, while at the same time working the manuscript as a whole through sections that go completely against it. One section has already appeared as an issue of the long poem journal STANZAS, the 39-part piece "ottawa poems (blue notes)" (2005), and fragments of another section, "shipbuilding," to focus more on the Ottawa River, have started appearing in scattered journals.

shipbuilding (foundation

you were writing a paper on marriage
& wherein lies the question

, a question of lies

i was working on a poem
on the ottawa river

how you cant step into
the same truth twice

arriving too early for dinner, i read
an essay on homemade beer

by paul quarrington

you couldnt work with me in the room
i tried not to laugh out loud

at the essay, not at you,
half a glass of merlot

i could tell that you
were not impressed

i pictured a lemon, the shape
of an hour
The Ottawa City Project, "shipbuilding"

My goal with The Ottawa City Project is to reference different aspects of the city, not to attempt to represent the city as a whole. I might live in the city, but I can only be aware of a part; as much living as observing, and both are finite, after all. Compared to me, the city seems infinite, large and almost unknowable in any way but in parts. I am the city, of the city. I have still never stood at the corner of Baseline and Merivale (nor do I feel the need to). Call me, if you need to, a Centretown boy.

Not that the city has never been written of: a number of the Confederation Poets of the late 1800s and early 1900s lived and worked in the city for various government departments, and it held like a bad joke that, if you hadn’t written a poem on the Chaudiere Falls or Rapids, you weren’t really an Ottawa poet. One of the strongholds of poetry in the late 19th century, Ottawa modernism held strong and overstayed its welcome, writing too far into twentieth century. Some of the most interesting poems about the city over the past few decades have been written by non-residents, including Eli Mandel, Judith Fitzgerald and a breathtaking array of Ottawa poems by former resident George Elliott Clarke included in his collection Black (Vancouver BC: Polestar Press, 2006; poems that also appeared in the first issue of the online ottawater), a follow-up to his collection Blue (Vancouver BC: Polestar Press, 2001). John Bell even edited a whole collection of pieces about the City of Ottawa, from both locals and outsiders, the collection Ottawa, A Literary Portrait (Pottersfield NS: Pottersfield Press, 1992), published as a follow-up to a similar book he edited on Halifax (Pottersfield NS: Pottersfield Press, 1990), that included the work of such writers as Norman Levine, Al Purdy, Raymond Souster, Hugh MacLennan and Milton Acorn. As Bell wrote in his introduction:

"Not all the writers – be they short- or long term residents – who have played a role in the literary history of Ottawa have chosen to portray the city in their work. Some, like Robert Stead, George Elliott Clarke, and Benjamin Sulte – and the many other Western, Maritime, and Quebec writers identified with the capital over the years – were, in a sense, expatriates who often found that distance compelled them to write primarily about the communities they had left behind. (Similarly, some of the best writing about the capital has come from writers, such as Robert Fontaine, Norman Levine, and Joan Finnigan, who grew up in the city and then moved away.) Other authors associated with Ottawa, like Wilfred Campbell and Elizabeth Smart, seemed more concerned with the depiction of nature or interiority, and thus offer only muted cityscapes in their work."

Part of that, I think, comes from a general lack of push from residents to celebrate the city in the same way that other cities do. It is a romantic and edgy thing to be a Montreal poet, and quite an impressive career feat to be a Toronto poet. On the other hand, Vancouver was where myths were to be created, and then the prairies, where there exists more heaven above than earth. What does Ottawa have? A Victorian lumber town turned Capital, overrun by bureaucrats and bureaucracy, and the rise and fall of high tech. Where does that leave us? A small town grown only in population? A world-class city combined with provincial backwater? Does having too much Capital cause us to see little else, and give the City of Ottawa a (perceived) lack of local identity?

As Vancouver writer Meredith Quartermain says in an interview published on Alterran Poetry Assemblage:

"Further thoughts on place: Is Canada a place? or a word? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the Spectacle is language itself, that the very communicability which humans have can operate as an alienating totalitarianism. Human cultures live in words; words are the quintessential places. Agamben also argues that for the first time humans may now experience themselves as linguistic beings; they may stop looking through language at mirages of things beyond and instead recognize the way language empowers some and disempowers others – the way language controls masses of people without their consciousness.
[. . .]
Geography means writing the earth, or you might say writing the world. It seems to me that the act of writing the world is the act of creating it. As such I would hope that this writing keeps rewriting itself, or that writers, as geographers keep rewriting the world-space, and keep approaching it as an act which must unfold in the presence of a plurality of such actors (geographers), so that there is no definitive world or definitive geography, but rather an ongoing discussion or network of stories. I am at the moment deeply engrossed in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which sets out the ancient Greek notion of a public realm where such a discussion could take place, free of the preoccupations of the marketplace, and free of the necessity of subsistence. She argues that this public realm is now completely filled up with the society of jobholders, leaving no room for world-writing in the way I imagine might be possible as a political discussion. Currently our whole lives are taken up with the two aspects of subsistence and necessity: labour, and consumption, which really are entirely private matters. This is not so because it has to be, but rather because of the forces that have come to dominate our culture. I am indebted to Robin Blaser for leading me to Arendt’s work. Much of what has preoccupied Robin Blaser has been the recovery of such a public world, and of course Hannah Arendt’s work is seminal to his investigations.

As to whether geography can amount to self-definition, I think it’s completely impossible to define oneself in the kind of world-writing in the public realm I’ve described. The whole point of a public interaction between world-writer geographers is a story that must be told by someone else. Who the geographer is unfolds in the interaction. However, that said, I am constantly aware of the geography of language, the contours, rifts, subductions, tectonic plates of the medium in which we exist. A sculpturing of our land-base has already occurred over the millennia of linguistic evolution and we too can erode it, or upheave it, and we can also map it."