Friday, December 23, 2005

Souwesto Home, by James Reaney, 2005.

Brick Books, 80 pages. ISBN 1-894078-43-8 $17.00 CDN/ $13.00 US March, 2005.
Reviewed by Jesse P. Ferguson.

From the three-time Governor General’s Award winner comes Souwesto Home, Reaney’s first book of poetry published in over ten years. After so long an interval, this collection is highly anticipated. The book is surprisingly full of youthful exuberance and wonder, which reminds us why Reaney is a celebrated writer.

Souwesto Home is a pleasure to read because Reaney, even though twice a grandfather, has not lost his child-like sense of wonder at the world or his delight in the music of words. His poetry relies heavily upon unusual syntax, rhyme, neologisms and the compounding of words. Pieces like “The Ship” abound in playful lines like: “your sail-thoughts I was & your heart-rig, / your man-rudder.” Again, in “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan,” the language is simple yet sparkling:
I know a book that opens people
and reads them,
spreads them out pleat by pleat,
till they see as far up as up,
till they see farther far than down.
It makes so sharp their eyes
that East or West
they can spot nobody coming up the road.
Reaney reminds us that the true essence of poetry is its heightened attention to the sounds of words. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his poetry is rarely abstruse; it entertains with its music as opposed to confusing its readers with non-sequiturs and other gimmickry.

Reaney is most at home, and most successful, when he writes of the domestic and the rural. The book’s opening piece, “Domus,” builds a catalogue of domestic items in two adjacent columns. The items from each list belong with, or complement the items in the other. The sense of concord thereby established is taken up and further developed across the collection.

Sometimes Reaney’s linguistic virtuosity fails him, as in the poem “Ice Cream,” which is far too prosy. This piece in particular lacks Reaney’s distinctive wordplay, which at its best allows his poems to transcend their often banal subject matter.

Overall, Souwesto Home delivers an enjoyable read. Many young writers would do well to take note of Reaney’s style and learn from him that poetry can be accessible and fun, while at the same time it can speak to us at deeper levels.

This review first appeared in the December issue of the Dusty Owl Quarterly, Ottawa.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Norman Drive: A University of Ottawa Class Anthology

Norman Drive is the tenth in the series of University of Ottawa Department of English class anthologies began by Friday Circle in 1993, publishing the poetry of graduates of Seymour Mayne’s quasi annual poetry workshops (ENG 3264).

The anthology features the class of 2004/2005: Simon Bradshaw, Rhonda Douglas, Jesse Ferguson, Jeff Fry, Christine Hakim, Teresa Jewell, John Kelly, Nicholas Lea, Jennifer Leap, Seymour Mayne, Wanda O’Connor and Tree Renaud.

Simon Bradshaw’s metro platform is minimalist and invokes a single moment of travellers waiting for the train, through the use of sight and sound. From the ordinary, he constructs a bit of magic: “we are strange acrobats/about to leap.”

In Mom at 50, Bradshaw’s juxtapositions are original and unusual: “the suspicious marigold of stars” and “the snow globing in your brain.” The words are mostly Germanic with a bit of Latin thrown in, highly concrete, with some analysis on what it might be like to be fifty from a young person’s point of view: “the only rushes/at this age/are the dizzy spells.”

Rhonda Douglas uses metaphor in Oats, her mature poem about sowing wild oats and yearning for one’s youth. The poem is straight-forward narrative with fairly simple language.

Love in Late Summer is another in a series of poems Douglas has written about paintings. This one is about Christopher Pratt’s painting of the same name: The poem successfully renders the sights and sounds of late summer and tells a story about what the painting might evoke.

Jesse Fergusons saucy but unexpectedly deep Glengarry Highland Games is a narrative poem, which effectively conjures up the scene of the Games. He avoids cliché successfully by using the verb “to hold” in an original and metaphorical way. There’s an elegant simplicity to this poem, with its specific Scottish jargon mixed with every day language.

Whitetail is an image poem depicting the moment where a deer collides with a vehicle and the nightmares that follow. The language is stark white, mostly monosyllabic with the occasional multi syllable word to represent the deer’s faltering steps and the collision. This is a poem to be read aloud; it’s almost iambic. The ending opens up the poem to the reader’s imagination in a Heart of Darkness kind of way: “he can’t help hearing/the wilderness listen in.”

Nicholas Lea’s travel plans is a visual and minimalist piece that is also ironic: “smoking like it was a cure for cancer.” norman drive, the title track so to speak, is one small moment with crisp diction and strong visuals. at the lookout is also a spare and visually evocative poem.

Seymour Mayne’s word sonnets are minimal, disciplined and provocative pieces. Praise is a spiritual rendering in confined space. Overheard At The Barber is like a maxim, an amusing, yet wistful comment on the encroachment of old age. Reader is an intimate rhetorical question.

Wanda O’Connor’s After Femina is a clever and beautiful piece which adeptly combines the abstract and the concrete, much like Marlatt, in fact: “And the jar keeps you precisely, from wind and fire,/ the flexibilities of love, the comfort of an ocean//and the cleave of its longing.” There’s a well-schooled precision in the vocabulary of this poem.

Tree Renaud’s poems are powerful with strong cadence, diction and imagery. The Windows Were Bare is almost ballad-like in its structure, with an intensity that lingers well after the poem is done.

Norman Drive is well designed by classmate and fellow contributor, Jennifer Leap. I wonder if poet Peter Norman knows there’s a whole drive named after him.

The anthology is available through the on line store:
For other Friday Circle publications, you can visit the Friday Circle site:

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Role of Poets in Politics

In case you've been living under a rock, I'd like to inform you that the country is currently in the midst of a federal election campaign.

Before you stumble out of your armchair in shock, try to maintain a firm grip on your beverage and listen for a moment. I know that there's been not a whole lot said about the campaign so far. There was a great hullabaloo around the time the election was called, and since then things have been relatively quiet (at least as far as campaigns go). This is because you, wisely, are more concerned with office Christmas parties and picking up the latest Xbox for your kid that with whatever policy statement the Party Leader Of The Day is pronouncing from a podium at some rubber chicken luncheon in The Pas. However, be forewarned that shortly after New Year's Day you will be subjected to a steady onslaught of negative campaigning as well as furious attempts from the parties to secure your vote on Election Day.

By the way, that's January 23. Try not to break your neck on the ice that day and get to the polls.

As a poet, and more importantly as a keen student of history, election campaigns are fascinating to me. I know, that probably makes me That Weirdo you remember from high school, talking about policy in reverent terms (as if intimate knowledge of the Liberal position on climate change will help secure a date with the hottest woman in the class). But I'm stoked. Sorry if that makes you feel uncomfortable. I've had scorn heaped on me before. Fire away if you must.

But this is a seriously strange time in the country's political evolution. Minority government is the order of the decade as Parliament remains splintered, and no party appears strong enough to command the confidence of the House on their own. With the longest election period in years and a large dose of instability, just about anything could happen.

And I am about to find myself in the thick of it all. I will be working on the campaign of Alexa McDonough for the duration of the campaign. As an artist, this will provide me with an unbelievable amount of material for all kinds of poetry. As a citizen, it gives me a front-row seat on how the political process really works. And as a working person, it provides me with a new experience that will fundamentally alter the way I approach employment. I'm sure of all of this.

In the meantime, I encourage all of you to check in frequently on my Ruminations blog to keep up-to-date on what I'm doing. I'm also hopeful that my Halifax excursion will prove fruitful from a creative standpoint, and that much poetry will be available for you when I get back.

Hope you all enjoy the rest of your holidays ... read my blog ... and see you next year!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Peter F. Yacht Club Christmas Party

The Peter F. Yacht Club & span-o present:

The Peter F. Yacht Club Christmas Party

with (brief) readings of poetry
by Nicholas Lea, Jesse Ferguson, Jennifer Mulligan + Max Middle (if he shows up)
& a small little (new) publication of sorts
(but mostly just hanging around & drinking/yelling)

Saturday December 17, 2005
The Carleton Tavern (upstairs), Parkdale Market (at Armstrong)
from 7:30pm until forever /
hosted by your lovable captains, rob mclennan & Clare Latremouille

author bios:

Jesse Ferguson is a fourth year English Literature major at the University of Ottawa. His work has appeared in the University of Ottawa magazines Nexus, Innuendo and Yawp. He has also contributed to Canadian, American and UK publications, such as: Yalla, Redfez, Ygdrasil, Stridemagazine, Spire, High Altitude Poetry, The Big Tex[t] , Magazineshiver, Spillway Review and Word Riot. He selects for Yawp and Bywords, and has selected for Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine. There is a photograph of him looking thoughtful here.

Nicholas Lea is a writer and a person who lives in Ottawa, but is not from Ottawa, so he will likely move away from Ottawa one day because he feels no deep-seated, spiritual connection to Ottawa (although, he likes it very much; better than, say, Montreal). He is disappointed with most coffee.

Max Middle is a freedom loving anarchist. He is also a broccoli consumer & founding member of the music, sound, poetry & performance experiment known as the Max Middle Sound Project. The latter has staged five feature performances since their debut at the 2004 Ottawa Fringe Festival, including one in spring 2005 at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, & his own work recently appeared in the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (The Mercury Press, 2005). More about him can be gleaned online, & an interview along with some poems appear in the first issue of ottawater .

Jennifer Mulligan does most of her living in the Ottawa area. From time to time, she also thinks she's a painter and a publisher. Her highly abstract and technical day job affords her the luxury of giving support to the Ottawa literary community, where she helped run The TREE Reading Series until very recently, and co-edited the twenty-fifth anniversary TREE anthology, Twenty-Five Years of Tree (BuschekBooks, 2005). She started writing in January 2005 while watching CBC Sunday. Previously, her poetry appeared in The Peter F. Yacht Club, and Yawp, and are forthcoming in the anthology Collected Sex (Chaudiere Books, 2007), as well as the second issue of ottawater, due out in January.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Clare Latremouille & the moon

Usually it takes forever to get work out of Ottawa writer Clare Latremouille, who, despite herself, has managed to appear in a number of journals throughout the 1990s (usually through me submitting her writing to journals who had asked, or simply including her in whatever project I was editing at the time), including Hostbox, graffito: the poetry poster, The Carleton Arts Review, The Backwater Review, Missing Jacket, Paperplates and STANZAS, as well as numerous above/ground press poem broadsides and the chapbook, I will write a poem for you. Now: (above/ground press, 1995). More recently, her poetry appeared in the first issue of ottawater, the ongoing Peter F. Yacht Club, and the anthologies Written in the Skin (1998), Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (2000) and Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (2003), as well as the forthcoming anthology decalogue: ten Ottawa fiction writers (Chaudiere Books, 2007). The first season of the new Chaudiere Books catalogue in fall 2006 will also feature her first novel, Desmond Road Book of the Dead, that she has been working on for over a decade.

There’s a poem I wrote recently, about the bridge near McCrimmon’s Corners in Glengarry County, and a memory I have of a night out with Clare Latremouille and others of our group, back when we all still lived there and went to high school in Alexandria. I don’t even remember what we were doing, or how we ended up there, well after midnight, at the north end of the county, as Clare swung from the bottom of the bridge. All of us laughing, and Kahlil Capuccino or Doug McPherson or someone else saying, “I want what she’s on,” or something else along those lines. I remember comments about the full moon, and the reflection in the water, what Clare was trying to catch as she hung from the bridge.

a brief history of the moon

as unreal as anything could be
green grass, hills, water down streaming
moonlight becomes
a practiced bulb of feeling under
bridges, clare a troll & climbing
over rock face, water face &
“i want what shes having”
mere months into our marvel
& a transition line, a lie

Not a piece on any large event but a fragment, a sliver of Glengarry life and my life too. Since writing the poem, researching the area for my McLennan / MacLennan / McLellan genealogy, I’ve discovered that the bridge at McCrimmon’s Corners was even called the “moon bridge” for the same reasons we saw back in the late 1980s. But Clare probably knew that; she might even have said it at the time. The reflection of the moon in the water. Writing of a period between 1845 and 1878, when the Bullfrog Tavern was active at Lot 26, Concession 9, Lochiel township, McCrimmon’s Corners, the book Lochinvar to Skye, 1794-1987 writes:

The Lochinvar Bridge

Not far from the Bullfrog Tavern, a bridge crossed the River de Grasse and during the time when the Bullfrog Tavern was serving the community, it made a good stopping place for nearby residents. One evening a well inebriated citizen was making his way home from the Tavern. When he came to the bridge at Lochinvar over the river, he stopped to rest. It was a beautiful clear moonlight night so the traveller looked down over the bridge railing and contemplated the scene below. Suddenly a yell of “Help! Help! I’m standing on top of the moon,” was heard.

(LOCHINVAR TO SKYE, 1794-1987 by Madeleine McCrimmon and Donaldson R. MacLeod, published 1978)

It’s amazing how little can change in one hundred and fifty years. Going through a file I keep in my computer of poems by Clare, I find one with a Glengarry reference or two. I haven’t opened this file in years, since I worked on her section of the anthology Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (2000). Clare, who appeared a year ahead of me in high school, suddenly in her last year with her five-year-old son Noah (dropping out three or four times previously), and one of two valedictorians in her final year. Clare, who I met as VanBerkom (what her son Noah is), returned to her family name Latremouille (which she writes under), and now, married as McDonnell. Her husband, Bryan, a descendant of one of the original St. Raphael’s settlers. Set on the same bridge, on the same river, her poem was written while we were still in high school, sometime before the end of 1988.

I stand on this car with you for the last time

more than skin
your bottomless brown bottle eyes demand
one more sip
one more whispered protest
(a thousand delights)
on your hood the light of my glorious mystery veiled in thin
music and endless oxygen
my bare dirty feet scratching the warm metal
the moon finds beauty in this smelly brown puddle full of Wonder
bread bags, scum, and the spent passion of Glengarry pioneers
here with music bouncing off the dry mud and strange birds winking in
bushes, surrounded by naked frogs, obscene cupids panting like heatwaves, here
we eat mosquitoes and run like snakes
through the grass, falling
like sugarsick kingdoms out of the air and into grins as big as all damnation,
rolling in billowing waves of grass and beer foam,
tumbling like weeds,
there is no reaper in these fields tonight tonight tonight will creep secretly
like a poisonout dream through every touch every word every lover
that is not now that is not this
and in the morning distant sons Glengarry pioneers will mount sturdy
John Deeres and plough across the earth left beside the Glengarry River
after the Apocalypse

Is it worth telling her there is no “Glengarry River?” The Nation, the South Branch, the Raisin. In the end, does it really matter? A poem over the River de Grasse. When we were still all in high school, it was Clare who exuded experience and living, who wrote poems on the side and helped the rest of us do that too, with some who went on to continue, and others, who moved in other directions: Terry MacDonald, who became a journalist; Patrick Leroux, a franco-ontarien playwrite, who started his own theatre company and has produced dozens of his own plays; Chris Page, formerly of the band The Stand, who now produces material under the name Glen Nervous, named after the hamlet he was from, the mis-heard Glen Nevis; Doug McPherson, also in The Stand, along with drummer Glen Wallace and the original bass player, Todd Gibbon, who afterward founded the band Crash 13, and now fronts the alt-country band, The Fiftymen. Through Paul Newmann, a year ahead of me, as Clare was, we all published poems and stories under false names in our high school ‘zine, originally called The U-Name-it ‘Zine (when we thought we would have a contest to name the thing), eventually shortening it to simply The Zine. I still have copies in a box somewhere. I like having them, even if I don’t want to have to look at them. Apparently Gary Geddes’ youngest daughter, Bronwen, even published pieces in The Zine, a few years after we left.

And Clare, who considers publishing but never gets around to it; who can lose herself for eight hours or more on her computer, tweaking one of her two novels or that short story she read from, "The Adventures of Jesus Drysdale" that she read from at the Peter F. Yacht Club reading / regatta at the Carleton Tavern in October. After she read at the ottawa international writers festival to help launch Groundswell in the fall of 2003, she gained a whole new group of admirers, who all said the same thing. "I can't believe she doesn't have a book of fiction out." It's good to finally say that soon she will.

related entry: Stephen Brockwell's Glengarry poems

(taken from a longer essay in progress, “writing and reading Glengarry county”)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Present Things: On Marianne Bluger

Passionate, generous, opinionated, fiercely intelligent, Marianne Bluger raged quietly against her cancer for more than a decade before it ended her life on October 29, 2005. Her undiminished output of poetry in her last years (one book published the day she died, another due next spring) is a tribute to many small battles against death waged in Marianne’s Ottawa home.

Her most recent volumes include zen-inspired tanka and haiku, a tribute to her holocaust-survivor father and, forthcoming, Nude with Scar, which promises poems that turn Marianne Bluger’s unblinking, unsentimental lyricism to the subject of her own illness and death.

The title of one of her poems, "Present Things," encapsulates Marianne Bluger’s poetic philosophy. Her elegantly spare poetry honours, by naming, each thing in existence, and in doing so often releases the emotional power those things and their images command. The following poem for her husband Larry, from her Archibald Lampman Award-winning book Summer Grass (Brick, 1992), shows how each physical detail contributes to a powerful emotional statement.

When You Were Gone to the Gulf

Because our bedroom window was open
spring wind
smelling of grass and humus and flowering trees
came stirring your shirt
where it hung on the doorknob

it was late morning sunny
the radio played in the kitchen
a rock-and-roll song I remember we danced to
in our socks one winter night
all by ourselves in the living room
just because we felt like it

on the dresser lie your shoehorn and bankbook
and on the shelf beside my wrinkle cream
the jar of Chinese linament
I rub your back with when it hurts

and in the cupboard there sit
several pair of your big old shoes
which I sometimes go and look at
because they are so beautiful

Despite her long illness, Marianne Bluger was an inspiring presence for many Ottawa writers, and for devotees of haiku and tanka around the world. She will be missed. But the clear, intense voice of her poetry remains to help us draw back from the frenetic pace of everyday life and contemplate more enduring truths. Her poems are still there for us to look at, whenever we need them.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

an interview with Amatoritsero Ede

This interview was conducted over email from October to November 2005

Amatoritsero Ede is an ex-Hindu Monk with the Hare Krishna Movement, born in Nigeria. He worked as a Book Editor with a major Nigerian publisher, Spectrum Books, before starting his studies in 1991. He has published in the past in Nigerian literary newspapers and more recently in Olongo (Ibadan Journal of the Arts, Nigeria); in international journals like Versal (Amsterdam), and in various anthologies, including Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry ed. Harry Garuba (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1987), The Faith of Vultures: BBC Prize-Winning Poetry eds. Peter Porter et al (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1989), Und auf den Strassen eine Pest ed. Uche Nduka (Bad Honnef, Germany: Horelmann Verlag, 1996) and May Ayim Award Anthology eds. Peggy Piesche et al. (Berlin, Germany: Orlanda Verlag, 2004). In 1993 he won the runner-up prize of the Association of Nigerian Authors' (ANA) Poetry Competition with the manuscript of "A Writer's Pains." In 1998, he won the ANA All Africa Christopher Okigbo Prize for Literature (endowed by Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate) with his first collection of poems, Collected Poems: A writer's Pains & Carribian Blues (Bremen, Germany: Yeti Press, 1998) and in 2004, he won second prize in the first May Ayim Award: International Black Germany Literary Prize. He is currently writer-in-residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada under the auspices of PEN Canada's Writer-in-Exile Network. He is currently working on a novel, two collections of poems, and a play. He has had readings all over Europe, including the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German PEN Centre in Berlin and the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam. In 2002, Amatoritsero Ede received a combined Honours Masters degree in German Language & Linguistics and Literature in English & Cultural Studies from the University of Hannover in Germany, for which he had a scholarship grant from the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. He is a trained book editor and has a certificate in Print Production from the Graphic Media Development Centre, The Hague. He currently edits the online poetry journal Sentinel Poetry at

rob mclennan: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Amatoritsero Ede: Well, my background. I am Nigerian from the Niger-Delta area of Nigeria, that rich and accursed patch of earth where Shell and other multi-national oil corporations spoil and despoil, polluting air and water. I grew up to the hot orange glow of gas flaring on the horizon. I grew up in a small coastal town called Sapele. I spent most of my adult years in Ibadan, where I also started studies in 1991, ten years after high school, after a job in book publishing with a major trade publisher and, after a romance with the muse. I began writing in high school and had my first book publication in 1988. Before that of course there were countless readings and literary journal appearances. In the Nigerian case we had literary newspapers, like the Nigerian Guardian. Soyinka, Achebe and Pepper-Clark -- three of Nigeria's biggest writers, all studied at the Ibadan University. I started studying there in 1991. Since I was in the department of Modern European Languages, I had to go to Germany (I studied German) for an immersion in the culture and the language. I ended up staying there for eight bitter-sweet years. There is still too much racism in Germany. I must always emphasize that there are very great humanists who are Germans … but the political structure allows some individuals and groups to propagate xenophobia and murder, murder in a literal sense. So I looked for a peaceful corner of the earth and hit upon Canada. The best country in the world! I was not sure returning to Nigeria was wise, even though the government seemed to have changed, my political anti-Nigerian government activities in Germany could still be in a cold-case file! So I came to Canada for the PhD, which I dropped because the department was too poisoned for any serious academic work.

rm: How would you describe your writing? Are you working strictly within Nigerian forms, or have other influences, whether German or Canadian, began to seep in? How difficult is it to write poetry on an international scale?

AE: In Nigeria, education- especially at the university level- exposes one to the western canon. Even in high school Shakespeare is a regular diet. At the university if you study English (as I did alongside German), you have to read the English classics. The difference these days, since oral literature has given way more and more to the written literature of Africa, is that we also have Modern African writers as part of the curriculum. So, in a sense, you have the best of English Literature- especially British and American and then postcolonial literatures. Again the British educational system- a colonial inheritance- ensures that there are inter-departmental elective courses; so one could take electives in classics or philosophy or any other area of the humanities. At the Modern Languages Department of the University of Ibadan, where I did my undergraduate work, they make sure we were steeped in the classical 'Greek' tradition as a map of the literary pedigree of the poetics of modern European Languages. And in the English department there is something similar in literary criticism, where you always start out with Aristotle's Poetics. So we were well schooled in the literatures of other places, and consequently were influenced by these. I had read T.S. Eliot before I ever left Nigeria -- and Neruda, Derek Walcott, Pound, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Longfellow and so on. So actually coming from the periphery, with the weight of an inherited colonial educational curriculum made our reading list truly Global. And one was of course influenced by what one read, willy-nilly. I started out reading Gerald Manley Hopkins, Alexander Pope and John Dryden- just for fun! I would go into a bookshop and just pick these off the shelves. And we did have very good bookshops and library systems. I don't know their state right now, though, in the wake of bad governance and treasury looting by brigand governments. I am sure the reading culture is still strong due to the activities of the association of Nigerian Authors in cooperation with the British Council, which is still very much active and strong in Nigeria. There are literary outreaches in high schools and literary activity is still very rich, with each province having a very active chapter of the Writers' Association. The Ford Foundation funds literary activities there too just like the British Council. The 'book' is very much celebrated. I grew up in that kind of ferment. And most books published elsewhere in the world are readily available in Nigeria due to the presence of local subsidiaries of multi-national publishers like Heinemann and Longman, for example. So I have been influenced by international English Literature even before leaving Nigeria and, by the educational curriculum, which steeped us in the 'Great Tradition' of Britain. I was amused that my recent poetry is influenced by a book I read here in Canada, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Though I don't note myself being influenced by him directly, there is also one young Canadian poet, who I think might get the Nobel Prize one day- Adam Dickinson, Edmonton poet, originally from New Brunswick. His first collection Cartography and Walking is a joy to read. If he continues on that part, I have great expectations from him. So as you can begin to understand, my influences are not only local but global as well due to a cultural globalism where cultural borders are more and more fluid. And of course I have been a traveler, gathering the dust of other places on my shoes. I have lived in Africa (Nigeria), Europe and I am in North America. What we have is a situation where the world's literature is more and more hybrid, with influences from the most unexpected places criss-crossing its surface. Now to take a related example -- think of Picasso and Modern art; his cubism was essentially a result of an encounter with African sculpture. And it revolutionized the way art was perceived in the West. There is inter-textuality for you, to use a rather literary term, which can be applied to art as well. There is one other influence, which is almost unconscious but natural due to the first language I spoke or the first culture I lived and grew up in- the Yoruba language and culture. It is a very poetic language and very tonal. This can well account for my lyrical predilection. The strongly oral and lyrical background of Yoruba orature also informs that lyrical sway; the pull and tug of the Yoruba voice is discernable in my own deployment of English rhythm. I think I have managed to marry both such that I take a middle ground. But I am still hybrid. Hybridity is the only constant in world literature today. Just take any postcolonial text and read- even Walcott. Language- the English language begins to take on colours unto itself and parades a rainbow tongue. Though I make use Standard English, but to paraphrase Achebe, eminent Nigerian writer, I make English 'carry the weight of my experiences.' I was not really influenced by German literature as such. I concentrated in my studies more on linguistics. I did write some poems in German though, which I refuse to publish because of German racist political structure even in the 21st century. Just a little protest on my side! I am a bit conversant with the German poet Holderlin and more with Maria Rilke. But I won't say I have been influenced by German poetics. I would more likely be influenced- if at all- by Brechtian theatre. These forms are not as alien to each other as we might think when one comes to think of it. Well, I am still discovering Canadian literature. The reason I did not know more about it in school and at university in Nigeria can be attributed to the fact that it is a relatively young literature. So I would describe my writing- especially poetry- as cosmopolitan, hybrid and open to influences from all directions. I still have to explore aboriginal Canadian literature. That should be interesting. So I do not think, given my experience, that it is difficult to write poetry that can compete on an international scale.

rm: How did you come to be writer-in-residence at Carleton University in Ottawa?

AE: I came to be PEN Canada's Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University under the Writers-in-Exile-Network Program of PEN International, of which the Canadian chapter is a very vibrant branch. What the exile network does is to rehabilitate and integrate writers exiled due to persecution or political and extra-political reasons, in order to protect and promote freedom of expression, which is necessary as a form of checks and balances on the political terrain. It would allow the writer to continue functioning as the conscience of his society and of the world at large. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) insisted that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Indeed writers should be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. How do you tackle imaginative practice and political engagement without upsetting the status quo? Impossible. Therefore writers need a 'human rights arm of authors' bodies. This is the function of PEN International. And if the writer is displaced, as is too often common, then wherever he finds himself he has a home in PEN, which is represented in at least 130 countries right now. Salman Rushdie believes that "writers are citizens of many countries: the finite and frontiered country of observable reality and everyday life, the boundless kingdom of the imagination, the half-lost land of memory, the federations of the heart which are both hot and cold, the united states of the mind (calm and turbulent, broad and narrow, ordered and deranged), the celestial and infernal nations of desire, and- perhaps the most important of all our habitations- the unfettered republic of the tongue…" The writers-in-Exile Network started out under the auspices of The International Parliament of Writers, set up at the instance of the assassination of Algerian writer Tahar Djaout. An appeal was launched in July, 1993 from Strasbourg, at the initiative of Carrefour des literatures. "The organization declared that it was necessary to create a structure that could provide tangible support for writers victimized by persecution. Within a few days, a petition was signed by 300 writers throughout the entire world. This marked the birth of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW). Its goals included creating a network of Cities of Asylum and protecting the freedom of intellectual creation wherever it is threatened, by carrying out investigations on cases of censure and researching new forms of the phenomenon. On February 14, 1994, the fifth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the organization established an executive branch made up of seven members: Adonis, Breyten Breytenbach, Jacques Derrida, Edouard Glissant, Salman Rushdie, Christian Salmon and Pierre Bourdieu. Elected first president of the IPW, Salman Rushdie drafted a Declaration of Independence, which served as the Parliament's charter." The Cities of Asylum, is what has blossomed into the 'Writer-in-Exile Network,' vibrant in North America and Europa and the Americas. It is made up of Universities and cities, who are willing to take up or take in a displaced writer for a year or two in helping to facilitate the production of literature in freedom and safety. In short as Percy Shelley would have it there is a government of writers; it is a symbolic government, with its International Parliament of writers consisting of Nobel Laureates and important writers as its head of government, and with PEN international and its branches all over the world as its organs, and the committee within PEN International (writers-in-exile, writers-in-prison, readers-and-writers and so on) as its enabling tributaries. As a member of PEN Nigeria I am automatically a member of PEN Canada or USA or UK by association. And so are you rob, if you ever find yourself in Nigeria, you approach PEN at once or they approach you. Again, according to Rushdie, "our Parliament of Writers exists to fight for oppressed writers and against all those who persecute them and their work, and to renew continually the declaration of independence without which writing is impossible; and not only writing, but dreaming; and not only dreaming, but thought; and not only thought, but liberty itself."

In 1944 as World War II raged and explosions went off close-by, a great symposium was organized where notable thinkers gathered in London to discuss "The place of Spiritual and Economic Values in the Future of Mankind." English PEN sought to pay tribute to the idea that "the human mind, if it is to develop to the full measure of its potentialities, must be free: free to grow, free to express itself, free to blunder, to make mistakes, and try again. That freedom of expression is needed more urgently in today's world with the threat of human destruction of the world by nuclear annihilation always thick in the air. Look at the Middle East, Europe (with its rabid racism and increasing right wing activity), Africa (with its endless wars and greedy dictators) and the USA's erosion of the whole idea of freedom- Guantanamo Bay is a good example.

rm: What sorts of activities have you been involved in since arriving at Carleton University? I understand, for example, that you've been involved with much more than simply the English department.

AE: As Writer-in-Residence in any university one is primarily expected to cater to mentoring creative writing students in the English department. But this is just only part of the duties. I am a general resource person for the department. I give guest lectures in the English department and in other departments. Since the inception of this residency on September the 1st I have appeared as a guest at a creative writing class led by Armand Ruffo, I have lead the creative writing workshop of the English literary society, gave a guest lecture in the English department on the question of language in African literature, gave a talk on Writing and Human Rights at the Law department and I have given a two-hour reading from my poetry at the English department. It is only just the tip of the iceberg. There will be more activities. For example, I have a public lecture at the History department in January, 2006. But I also have to make sure I am writing, which is the main part of the residency. At the end, in about a year, I should have finished manuscripts on projects I have set for myself. The Canada Council also expects this; so does PEN and so do I!

rm: What plans do you have for when you leave Carleton?

AE: Plans for the future will depend of the outcome of the residency itself. To quote Walter Savage Landor, “the Present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come; same thing with the future, since time is linear. I will play that part of the orchestra when the Conductor, Time, confuses his baton in my direction.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Marianne Bluger, Ottawa poet, 1945-2005

a sad note from E. Russell Smith:

"It is with deep sadness that I pass on the news that Marianne Bluger died this Saturday, October, 29 th, ( 11:00 a.m. ) at home with her husband Larry Neily and her good friend, Ronnie R. Brown, near her. There will be no funeral. At her request, there will be a small ceremony of the Burial of the Dead for close family only.

She requests no flowers. She'd say lets use that money to help the poor. Please make any donations to one of her special causes: the Tabitha Foundation (Canada), Box 65057, Merivale Postal Outlet, Ottawa, ON K2G 5Y3 or to the Canadian Writers' Foundation Inc., Box 13281, Succ. Kanata Stn., Ottawa, ON K2K 1X4."

A beloved Ottawa poet, she was a member of the Writers Union and the League of Canadian Poets, and had a page up at the University of Toronto site.

An obituary can be found at her website.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Capital Slam's 1st Anniversary - Tomorrow at Gap of Dunloe

Capital Slam Celebrates One Year of Performance Poetry!

The Capital Poetry Collective (CPC) presents Capital Slam: The 1st Anniversary Edition on Friday, October 21 at the Gap of Dunloe, 263 Bank Street.

Fresh from a third-place finish in the team competition at the 2005 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, the Capital Slam Team is back and ready for a great show celebrating this important milestone in the history of Ottawa spoken word!

Here to share the moment with us are two of Canada’s best performers:

Katherine Blenkinsop a.k.a. Lady Katalyst is a multidisciplinary street artist with a rich creative background that includes poetry, street dance, radio production and historical journalism. She performs a cappella, with DJs, live musicians, beat boxers and other vocalists. For the last two years she’s been a featured poet with Coco Café and Kalmunity Vibe Collective.

Brendan McLeod is a spoken word artist and musician based out of Vancouver. He is the winner of the National Individual Final at the 2004 Canadian Spoken Wordlympics and the 2005 Vancouver Grand Slam Champion. He has toured extensively in North America and Europe as both a solo performer and member of the spoken word/music troupe The Fugitives. He finished second in the world at Holland's Word Slampionship in June 2005.

Capital Slam: 1st Anniversary Edition
riday, October 21 – Doors open @ 8 p.m., show starts @ 8:30 p.m.
Featuring Katalyst and Brendan McLeod
Gap of Dunloe (263 Bank Street at Cooper)
$7 at the door
*Prizes awarded to the top poets on the night*

Only one person can leave as the Monthly Champion ... who will it be?

Capital Slam is held at the Gap of Dunloe on the second Friday of every month.

For more information, contact us at or visit our website at

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Peter F. Yacht Club, reading/regatta

span-o (the small press action network - ottawa)

The Peter F. Yacht Club

first ever
reading / regatta

with readings of poetry & prose by Stephen Brockwell, Anita Dolman, Clare Latremouille, rob mclennan, Max Middle, James Moran, Jennifer Mulligan, Sandra Ridley, Wanda O'Connor and Vivian Vavassis.

Thursday, November 3, 2005
The Carleton Tavern (upstairs), Parkdale Market (at Armstrong)
doors open at 7:30pm / readings start at 8pm
hosted by your lovable captain, rob mclennan

biographical information:

Stephen Brockwell spent the first half of his life in Montreal and the second half in Ottawa. Where he will spend the third half of his life is uncertain. He recently published Fruitfly Geographic (ECW Press, 2004), which won the Archibald Lampman Award, and, with Peter Norman, Wild Clover Honey and the Beehive (Rideau River Press, 2004).

Anita Dolman is an Ottawa poet and freelance writer and editor, and was the founding managing editor of Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Grain Magazine, Geist, Utne, The Fiddlehead, Prism International,, Yawp and The Antigonish Review. Her first chapbook, Scalpel, tea and shot glass, was published by above/ground press in fall 2004.

Clare Latremouille lives secretly in Ottawa, about a half block away from the Carleton Tavern. Her work has been published in numerous places, including the anthologies Written in the Skin (Insomniac Press, 1998), Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (Broken Jaw Press, 2000) and Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (Broken Jaw Press, 2003), and her poetry chapbook I will write a poem for you. Now: appeared a long time ago with above/ground press. Her first novel is scheduled to appear in fall 2006 as part of the first season of titles from Ottawa's Chaudiere Books.

rob mclennan is the author of ten trade poetry collections, with two more forthcoming: name , an errant (Stride, UK, 2006) & The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, 2007). He is currently editing collections of essays on George Bowering, John Newlove & Andrew Suknaski for Guernica's "Essays on Their Works" series, & has been contracted by Arsenal Pulp Press to write the non-fiction Ottawa: The Unknown City. Working desperately to finish a novel, he often says things on his clever blog.

Max Middle is a freedom loving anarchist. He is also a broccoli consumer & founding member of the music, sound, poetry & performance experiment known as the Max Middle Sound Project. The latter has staged five feature performances since their debut at the 2004 Ottawa Fringe Festival, including one in spring 2005 at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. More about him can be gleaned online at & an interview along with some poems appear in ottawater.

James Moran promises that none of the "Sentences Not to Include in Your First Novel" will actually appear in his horror novel. Moran's fiction and poetry have appeared in Algonquin Roundtable Review, The Peter F. Yacht Club, the Bywords Quarterly Journal, Spire Poetry Poster, Another Toronto Quarterly, dig and Blue Moon. James Moran directs Ottawa's TREE Reading Series, one of Canada's longest-running literary series, which has earned him fame and fortune. Along with Jennifer Mulligan, Moran edited 25 Years of Tree, an anthology which BuschekBooks published in fall 2005.

Jennifer Mulligan does most of her living in the Ottawa area. She has been involved with the Ottawa writing community for over five years, helping to run The TREE Reading Series since early 2000, and has recently co-edited the twenty-fifth anniversary TREE anthology, 25 Years of Tree (BuschekBooks), with James Moran, Director of The TREE Reading Series. Her highly abstract and technical day job affords her the luxury of sharing a studio space. When not working, she is also trying to bring a publishing company to life. She began writing in January, while watching CBC News Sunday. Her previous work has appeared in YAWP, the University of Ottawa Undergrad Poetry Journal.

Short-listed in 2004 for Lichen's 'Tracking A Serial Poet' competition, Sandra Ridley's recent publications include Bywords, Yawp, Jalapeno Diamond, and as a Leaf Press Monday's Poem. Forthcoming work will also be included in the anthology, Poetry Night in Muskoka. Always a wheat-farm girl, this writer currently lives in Ottawa.

Originally from New Brunswick, Wanda O'Connor recently moved to Montreal from Ottawa, where she had spent ten years (we hope she will return to us one day), to participate in the creative writing program at Concordia. Recent publications include the chapbooks If the skin is CRISP: eat it (2005) and So you’re thinking of reproducing (2005), both published by Impress; in the chapbook anthology winter (2005, above/ground press), and in the journals papertiger (AUS), Yawp and Shampoo; and as a couple of above/ground press broadsides. She likes to play the horses.

Vivian Vavassis has published in Arc and a couple of other mags, and recently took over the managing editor position of She grew up in Montreal.

The Peter F. Yacht Club; irregular writers group publication, with each issue produced by different members of the group. The fifth issue was produced & edited by rob mclennan as a larger issue, September 2005, to coincide with the ottawa international writers festival, with a third of it the group, a third readers at the festival itself, and the other third poets around Ottawa I thought were doing interesting things (note: The Peter F. Yacht Club does not take unsolicited submissions).

Previous issues still available (possibly) at $5 each. Issue #1, August 2003, edited by rob mclennan; Issue #2, April 2004, edited by Anita Dolman (out of print); Issue #3, September 2004, edited by Peter Norman and Melanie Little. Write rob mclennan, c/o 858 Somerset Street West, main floor, Ottawa Ontario Canada K1R 6R7, or email az421 (at) freenet (dot) carleton (dot) ca

Next issue: "a Calgary issue" -- to be lovingly edited by Laurie Fuhr

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Allan Briesmaster and Colin Morton at Collected Works, Oct. 21

Allan Briesmaster and Colin Morton read at Collected Works Bookstore, 1242 Wellington St. West, Ottawa
7:30 p.m. Friday, October 21

A few years ago I conducted a poll on a listserve of poets to see what the current best-sellers were in Canadian poetry. Topping the list by a wide margin was Allan Briesmaster’s book Unleaving (2001). Of course, in this unscientific poll, having just held a large book launch in Toronto, where for a decade he organized the popular Art Bar reading series, gave Briesmaster an unbeatable advantage. But on reading the book I understood why so many poets shelled out to have Unleaving.

In poems of wide reference and meticulous observation, Briesmaster combines elegant, sometimes elaborate syntax with an attention to line breaks that sets up a contrapuntal tension, releasing sparks of language that survive briefly in the mind as fragments of meaning before submerging again in the surge of language. Now, these are matters of sound, rhythm, tone and diction that concern poets a great deal and other readers hardly at all; so there is some reason to think of Briesmaster as a "poet’s poet."

He is a poet’s poet, also, in that a number of his poems, especially in the "Voice-After" section of Unleaving, take their impetus or inspiration from poems by Rilke, Pound, Neruda, Paz and others. Briesmaster domesticates the poems to Canadian landscapes, though, and follows Pound’s call to "make it new."

Nature is always new; the nature poet is never short of subjects to write about, and Briesmaster is above all a nature poet. The landscapes of suburban Toronto can be as stimulating to this poet of nuance and detail as are dramatic ocean or wilderness scenes. At the Collected Works reading, he will be reading from a new book (one of two for him this year), Galactic Music (2005), in which the nature he examines is truly out of this world.

Astronomy and astrophysics have given poets some mind-blowing new images, concepts and language to explore. It’s a challenge, of course, to reconcile the scientific with the poetic notion of "measure," and to bring along readers for whom the latest scientific discoveries aren’t yet part of the fund of common knowledge poets like to riff on. Ottawa audiences familiar with Stephen Brockwell’s Cometology, however, will have no difficulty following the interplanetary imagery of Briesmaster poems like "Terraformers" and "Methane Rain." As with all poetry, readers and listeners will learn more about themselves than about the facts and hypotheses of science.

In addition to his writing, Allan Briesmaster is a poetry editor; in fact, he edited my most recent book, Dance, Misery (2003) for Seraphim Editions. He is an attentive and respectful editor and, best of all for the author he is working with, he communicates. In my part of the Collected Works reading, I will read a brief excerpt or two from that book, as well as prose-poems from my forthcoming book, The Local Cluster.

- Colin Morton

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Betsy Struthers and Ronnie R. Brown launch books Oct. 15

Book launch by Black Moss poets Betsy Struthers and Ronnie R. Brown
2 - 4 p.m., Saturday, October 15, National Library, 395 Wellington, Ottawa
(Brown and Struthers will also read from their new books at:
Sasquatch, Royal Oak, 161 Laurier E., 2 p.m., November 13, and at
Sunnyside Library, 1049 Bank Street, 7 p.m., December 15.)

Most of Ottawa's poetry audience is familiar with Ronnie R. Brown, who has been practising her characteristic poetic exhibitionism in Ottawa for over twenty years now. Listeners who have liked her performances will want to check out her new book States of Matter.

Ronnie Brown never flinches from the seamier or the messier side of everyday life, and neither does Peterborough poet Betsy Struthers, who is briefly living in Ottawa this fall.

Struthers’s first book, Censored Letters, (1984) documents an ancestral archetype: the tentative long-distance love affair of two people separated by World War I, conducted through letters subject to the military censor’s eye. Since then (with three mystery novels on the side), Struthers has produced a series of frank, personal books in the post-confessional mode, including her previous books from Windsor's Black Moss Press, Driven (2000) and Still (2003), winner of the Pat Lowther Award last year. Struthers brings her readers revelations of the poetry to be found in the minutiae of daily life, the lived details of love, family, home, as well as the ominous threats that lie, most of the time, just beneath the surface of existence.

Homes, gardens, nature at its most fertile, the lineaments of gratified desire: these are familiar scenes in the poems of Betsy Struthers. If I’m using the word correctly, the post-confessional poet mines these rich seams, less concerned with the narrative of trauma and recovery than with epiphanies that affirm our common humanity, our shared passions and fears.

Her new book, In Her Fifties, offers a new selection of poems from the middle of a domestic life. The themes will resonate for many readers: aging, menopause, grief for lost parents, care for aging ones, worries about children’s safety, the consolations of friendship, the courage at the heart of a lifelong marriage. The new poems are preceded, though, by a substantial collection of prose vignettes, recollections of childhood, called In the 50s. Though written in lapidary prose, these two and three page stories read less like prose poems than novella chapters. Together, they make up a fictionalized memoir of a lost age, recapturing the sensations, the fears and confusions of childhood with the feel of direct memory, though mixed, as the author acknowledges with an equal part "fabulation."

In the poem "The Jungles of Borneo: Just So" Struthers reflects on her approach to writing and on the importance of storytelling in the shaping of human communities.

"We all want a story, to be
told, to be part of, to be taken into, shared
language bringing us together."

For Betsy Struthers, as for Ronnie R. Brown, poetry is direct speech, fully engaged with everything life places in the way. Their accessible poems lead us readers to reflect more deeply on the familiar surrounding of our own lives. Not bad for a Saturday afternoon outing. And you can catch the launch at the National Library on the way to or from the Small Press Book Fair.

- Colin Morton

Monday, September 19, 2005

Observations of an Ottawa spoken word artist

I have read Max Middle's posting with increasing interest several times. He makes some very provocative statements about the state, purpose and effectiveness of spoken word poetry. I'm going to share some of my reflections here as a practitioner of the form. Hopefully my words will stand as a stimulating counter-point to Max's comments.

First of all, I think it necessary to make the strong distinction between spoken word as a full genre of literary art and poetry slam as a subset of spoken word. The things that many people dislike about slam -- their competitive nature, the prize money often associated with "winning" the slams, the strictures of time limits, the unwritten conventions that often prize performance over literary merit of the work being recited -- all these are valid criticisms. However, not all spoken word is presented in this way, and not all spoken word artists participate in slams.

This may seem like a relatively straightforward thing to say. However, there are many who do not understand that most spoken word does not rely on rhythm, message, story, regular metre, etc. to get its message across. No, let me restate that -- most spoken word does not rely on rhythm, message, story, regular metre, etc. any more than "traditional" page poetry does. To criticize the false dichotomy between 'page' and 'stage' poetry without then accepting that the conventions of both forms are actually similar is to reinforce as fact what is ostensibly being dismissed as fiction.

There is no substantive division between poetry meant for aural enjoyment and writings meant to be consumed by your eyes. However, there are very different ways for presenting such information.

What makes slam poetry so compelling is that the energy expelled by artists and audiences alike delivers the outcome people want at a slam -- to be entertained. Many people want to think about what is being said as well, but the slam poet's primary objective is to entertain through the clever (and sometimes formulaic) use of words. This is no different than other art forms that primarily seek entertainment as the means of sustaining themselves (such as theatre, radio, movies, television -- even books). Slam poetry uses a particular methodology to entertain that does not appeal to everyone, in the same way that boxing is disgusting bloodsport to one observer but a lifelong passion for another.

There is a powerful diversity of voices, styles and content in Ottawa spoken word that is reflected at poetry slams. Those who choose to slam take on a variety of topics in ways that are both familiar to slam observers everywhere and also unique to our community's poetic culture. Many of our best slam poets locally would not do well at an international slam precisely because we do not, as a group, subscribe to the broader conventions of slam. There is a worldwide movement that includes Ottawa slam poetry but the way we do it would not be considered "mainstream" in most places.

I do not feel sadness at this fact. Indeed, I wear it as a badge of pride. Ottawa spoken word artists provide a breath of fresh air when others who have been bombarded with conventional slam poetry hear our artists recite their work. It is interesting that in the aftermath of this year's Toronto International Poetry Slam (on Labour Day weekend) that people were not only talking about the winner (Jamal St. John from New Jersey, an unconventional performer reciting about conventional topics) , but also about Kevin Matthews, an Ottawa poet whose poem "Love Song of Roy G. Biv" is a literary tour de force that received lousy scores from the judges. Stepping outside the norm has consequences with the judges but still leaves an indelible mark on the listeners.

Ultimately, that is the purpose of slam -- to affect the audience. The judges are just five people randomly selected from that grouping and may not reflect the overall view of the crowd. The feedback received by people who are moved by your work usurps any negativity you receive from your scores. A poet participating with the real purpose of slam in their hearts will always seek this outcome.

But money corrupts, and just like with actors, singers, athletes and others who require a public stage to utilize talents that ultimately pay their bills, there are some arrogant, greedy, gluttonous vultures who feed on the system for purely selfish purposes. But people will always be people. There are unpleasant authors who write books of poetry, too. That should not be permitted to detract from the overall beauty of the expression.

Spoken word is a big tent. I personally prefer to participate in events that allow for the free flow of my work, which usually means a featured set rather than slam performances. In those moments I use my methods and personal conventions of writing and performance to move the people in the crowd, to have them think about issues I believe matter in this world. People leave inspired or with the desire to let off steam in much the same way as the slam. But I don't believe the release of such positive energies is ever a negative thing, whether that energy is directed towards an identifiable goal or not.

Spoken word is more than slam. Slam cannot be more than spoken word. And poetry lives in your ears, your eyes, your heart and your mind -- no matter how it is delivered.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

“ottawa” by Judith Fitzgerald


he descended the fire escape
with the coffee in my hand
and a guitar in his
was running down
my white wrist

you are sleeping
in ottawa
it’s another hot night
after the fashion
of steam and tendrils

the humidity and stains
hamper the delight
you take in your fingers
the audience has claims
on these hands

paul chartier
was on the steps
of the commons
while i was thirteen
in a gallery chair

his face was red
it was april and the washroom
was the high note
in his history
for that split second

stains and humidity
hang in this air
resembling war wreaths
the dried blood
angles its journey

down the porcelain wall
the body was changed
by its explosion
he jacked off with a bomb
the prime minister went white

the arm was holding
the back of the head splinter style
in perfect vertical symmetry
you are sleeping in ottawa
were sweating in fine hair

it gets god-awful hot
sometimes in those bars
and directly above
the spick and span urinals
paul chartier’s body comes violently to rest

I’ve always liked the kind of poetry that shoves itself into you and tears your heart out, and for that, Judith Fitzgerald is easily one of the best poets of the bunch, Canadian or otherwise. Writing a highly literate, emotional and musical lyric for years, she has been influenced heavily by both poetry and song, and by authors such as George Bowering and Leonard Cohen. The author of over a dozen collections of poetry, including The River (ECW Press, 1995), which was up for the Trillium Award, and the more recent collections Adagios: Iphigenia’s Song (Oberon Press, 2003) and Adagios: Orestes’ Lament (Oberon Press, 2004), the poem “ottawa” is from my favourite of her collections, lacerating heartwood (Coach House Press, 1977).

It was through this piece that I first heard the story of Paul Chartier, called “the mad bomber of Parliament,” and the focus of a brand new book on the subject, The Mad Bomber of Parliament, by Ottawa author James Fontana (Borealis Books, 2005). There are suggestions that had the story of Paul Chartier been American, there would have been five books and a movie out by now, instead of the first book on the event appearing only a few short months ago. Canada’s Guy Fawkes, but without the whole “burning in effigy” thing. The story is simple: he went in to the Parliament Buildings to blow up the House of Commons as it was sitting, and, as he went into the women’s washroom to fiddle with it, he succeeded only in blowing himself up. Why do they never discuss these things on the tours? Why is it these are the stories that almost never get told?

Editor Frank Davey wrote about the poem in the introduction to her Given Names: New and Selected Poems 1972-1985 (Black Moss Press, 1985):

Hidden subversively in the lyric collection Lacerating Heartwood is the poem “Ottawa,” which re-tells Paul Chartier’s self-destruction in his attempt to bomb the House of Commons. Fitzgerald depicts Chartier as a guitarist, the lyric performer, who takes “delight” in his “fingers,” and as the Narcissus who, oblivious to women, destroys himself with self-love.
[. . . ]
For Fitzgerald this story seems to inscribe the death of the lyric poem, the focussed song of unhappy male delight. In her work after this book, “poetry,” a discrete product of phallocentric male creativity, yields to “writing,” a process that transcends genre in the writer’s attempt to constitute or fictionalize her self (“First Persona Regular,” “First Persona the Second”) in words.

Always glossed over for being the Capital City, in the poem “ottawa,” Fitzgerald writes the things that Ottawa has always had but has never been known for, including bohemian tendencies and immutable heat, writing the “steam & tendrils” of any part of July or August, with her own personal mix of sex and violence. From her first book, Victory (Coach House Press, 1975), a long poem on a stripper in the Victory strip club, to her Edith Piaf in Beneath the Skin of Paradise (1984) and her more recent versions of Iphigenia and Orestes, Judith Fitzgerald has written through a deep sense of loss, and those that have been lost, from that dark underbelly of the heart. Through her poem from the capital, she works around and through that, from a place not known widely for its dark side; Fitzgerald’s “ottawa” encapsulates a real, and human, part of the city in quick succession, writing a brief moment that includes the whole world of the heart.

Friday, August 26, 2005

John Barton reads at Collected Works, September 8

Victoria poet John Barton will give a reading from his work at Ottawa’s Collected Works bookstore, on Wellington street at Holland, on Thursday, September 8, at 7:30 pm. The evening’s readings will pair Barton, former editor of Arc magazine, with poet Anita Lahey, who has edited Arc since Barton’s departure from Ottawa nearly two years ago.

Born and raised in Alberta, John studied with Robin Skelton at the University of Victoria and recently returned to the West Coast as editor of The Malahat Review. Employment with some of the top national museums kept him in Ottawa for two decades, though, and in that time he contributed enormously to the capital’s literary culture: helping to organize Tree readings and the Wilde about Sappho festival; co-editing Arc with Rita Donovan: keeping alive the Archibald Lampman Award for the best book each year by an Ottawa poet.

Residence in Ottawa was also a time of personal growth for Barton, who arrived in the city shortly after publication of his first book (The Poor Photographer, Sono Nis, 1981), followed by his his celebrated poetic portrait of Emily Carr, West of Darkness (Penumbra, 1985). In Ottawa, his writing tackled the issues of sexual identity ambiguously hinted at in his 1984 chapbook Hidden Structure (Ekstasis Editions). With Great Men (Quarry, 1990) Barton emerged as a writer who celebrates gay sexuality while delving with ever greater maturity into the emotions of love, loss, abandonment and anger, universal feelings, whether one is male or female, straight or gay. In the poem "Patriarchy" (Designs from the Interior, Anansi, 1994), for example, the poet finds in his own capacity for violence and cruelty "the patriarchy that I thought/ in loving men, I would escape."

Ambiguity; complexity; fluent, even beautiful verses; that’s plenty to merit a visit to Collected Works for a poetry reading on September 8. There’s more. In recent years, Barton has extended the scope and scale of his work, as if adding to the verbal artistry he learned from American poets like Louise Glück some of the structural experimentalism associated with fellow Albertan Erin Mouré.

There’s also a trickster side to John Barton, evidenced in his adding the subtitle to Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine. It’s a parody of the Globe and Mail’s claim of being a national newspaper. The ironic humour tends to be lost on most readers, but then, there isn’t much anyone could do to make Canadians see Ottawa as a poetry capital rather than a depository for taxes and resentment. Under John Barton’s leadership, Arc reached its 25th year as an established magazine of reliable quality and attractive design, one of the few sites in print for serious reviewing of Canadian poetry.

After editing a special issue featuring Ottawa Poetry Now, perhaps he felt it was time to skip town. About the only promotion available to him, among Canadian literary magazines, was the editorship of The Malahat Review, which he assumed last year. The half-time job has allowed him to return to the West Coast, where he says he feels most at home, and leaves him time to write. Since returning to the West, he has continued his prolific record of publication and solidified his national reputation with the publication of two new books from Frog Hollow Press, In the House of the Present and The Strata.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

a boy's first poetry slam

“If it hadn’t been for the traffic lights, I would’ve taken a different route.” T.J. Whalebotham

went to my first slam & read in it too. it was strangely exhilarating. not believing that poetry is a competitive sport & knowing that what i do isnt 'spoken word' (despite the verisimilitude of me speaks to me utters), i took the stage in the Ottawa Fringe Festival tent & performed an abbreviated performance poetry piece. the slam was hosted by the most graceful of hosts, Oni the Haitian Sensation. i spoke some words & read some letters off a page. the others had their pieces memorized. the intented crowd seemed to appreciate my performance despite its difference to the other presentations. & i enjoyed the heedy word filled tent atmosphere that was Oni's slam. there was a lot energy contained in that tent the night of June 22nd, 2005.

it's that frenetic energy that the spoken word form restrains with its undeclared structures/strictures. what i've learnt from reading & talking to the involved is that many spoken word poets hope to return poetry to its long abandoned roots in orality. accordingly, the relatively recent corruption of poetry is the result of the printing press & its progeny, photocopiers & computers etc. i've also noticed in talking to well minded, literate humans that some perceive a division between the performance & the page. does one require a text to observe a reading‑performance? usually not: altho one might be curious to see the printed page, one wdnt walk away feeling as tho one had been deprived. with spoken word, the live performance is fundamental & resulting textual sediment is derivative. since, spoken word practitioners envisage such centrality for the spoken word, writing is insignificant. this artificial division between literature & its reading (or performance & its literature) has led to a rendering of the text & its composition as insufficient.

an attitude has emerged in which the literary text is viewed as incomplete if it is deemed a basis for performance. seems that it has seeped into consciousness that there is something essential in the performance of a literary work that cannot be represented on the page. this may be a truism? is the literary merit of a text abnegated if performance/reading takes ink on page as a point of departure? this is a very recent shift in thinking about poetic practice: that there is a poetry of the page & a poetry of performance.

returning poetry to its fundamentals strikes me as a futile exercise. rather than reforming poetry according to its essence, spoken word poetry has developed into a subgenre with its own conventions, codes and criteria for production/exposition. as a literary practice that claims preeminence for the spoken word, spoken word deepens an illusory division between the poetry of the page & the poetry of performance.

is there something irreconcilable between the orality of spoken word performance & printed literature? there doesnt seem to be anything intrinsically in conflict between the printed page & the spoken word poetry pieces that i've heard/seen performed. seems that many of the spoken word pieces i’ve heard, wd be well suited to presentation on the printed page; some works better suited to the page than others. it is possible to consider any text an invitation to oralization. a text neednt appear score‑like as a prerequisite for performance. a cooking recipe (score‑like in a sense) wd be ideal raw material for a performance reading. on the page, a text designed for spoken word performance wdnt necessarily distinguish itself as such.

most spoken word pieces that i've seen performed (at this slam & at readings) message a politic or moral that often has to do with a witnessed form of injustice by which the performer & by extension the listeners have been repelled. the spoken word form with its unwritten code of convention that relies on techniques such as rhyme, message, story & a regular meter bridles the energy incited by outrage. repulsion with the horror of late capitalist existence is channeled into a form that functions concomitantly as discharge & restraint. it seems that if the anger at injustice werent suppressed by the straightjacket of the form that the energy directed at those injustices might just be directed somewhere instead of being circulated around, acknowledged & ritually dismissed. everyone goes home relieved of a degree of discontentedness & nothing changes. this is to say that what you speak isnt of much consequence; it's what you do that matters. an art work that identifies an injustice & stands still, safe within its form is just that safe within its form. seems that's why the winner of the aforementioned poetry slam, a visitor from California, won. cuz he satirized the form by presenting a piece comprised of a series of self‑reflexive propositions each one starting with ‘this is MY spoken word piece...' the form, tho unofficial, is so well understood by its audience and practitioners that sarcastic, self-satirization yields highly entertaining results.

the spoken word art form, as an unofficially code bound form assimilates its resistances & naturally ossifies under the weight of its popular conventions. clearly, it is by countering formulaic approaches that innovation in consciousness, culture & art can be achieved. perhaps the popularity of the spoken word form is due to its quotation & imitation of more popular forms of culture? furthermore, rather than confronting the represented injustice, poetry slam competitions reinforce the ‘merit’ based hierarchies & competitive ethos of social life under late capitalism.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

random notes

Toronto writer and fhole publisher Daniel f. Bradley has been finding a bunch of references online to Ottawa poet and publisher jwcurry lately, even though curry doesn’t want to be on the internet.

The fifth issue of is finally up, including the introduction that Roy MacSkimming wrote to Ottawa poet William Hawkins’ selected poems, Dancing Alone. Outgoing managing editor Anita Dolman will soon be replaced by Vivian Vavassis, and web designer Paul Dechene also leaves for parts unknown.

Former Arc editor and current editor of The Malahat Review John Barton returns to Ottawa on September 8th to read at Collected Works Bookstore (sponsored by the small press action network – ottawa). Opening will be current Arc editor Anita Lahey. The reading is free and starts at 7:30pm.

Melanie Little and Peter Norman leave this weekend for ten months of Calgary, where she will be Writer-in-Residence for the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme at the University of Calgary, replacing last year’s Writer-in-Residence, Toronto writer Natalee Caple. We wish them well! Little also recently won the 2004 PRISM International Short Fiction Contest, with her winning entry “Wrestling” in the summer issue of the magazine, along with some poems by myself.

There's a new chapbook press apparently looking for full-length poetry manuscripts. Check out littlefishcartpress.

I’m again doing poetry workshops at Collected Works Bookstore this fall, 8 weeks of Wednesday nights (over more than 8 weeks from September to November), $200. Email me at az421 (at) freenet (dot) ca to find out about specific dates and spaces.

Here are some poems of mine online.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Hello Serotonin, by Jon Paul Fiorentino

Hello Serotonin, by Jon Paul Fiorentino, 2004. Coach House Books. ISBN: 1-55245-136-4 Price: CDN $ 16.95

From the author of transcona fragments and resume drowning, comes Hello Serotonin. This is Jon Paul Fiorentino’s most recent book of poems, and his M.A. thesis from Concordia University.

This collection is a bottle of poetic stimulants amidst a sea of Canpoetry barbiturates. Here, Fiorentino has crafted a witty, often delightfully sardonic collection.

Hello Serotonin is distinctive in its reclaiming of the language of science for poetry. This move is not without its precedents (think Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”) but Fiorentino takes the move into the twenty-first century, grappling with it, making it his own. Terse pieces, like “Dopamine Song,” speak to the surrealism of even the mundane when we experience life on medication:

… snap.
Let every neuron
fire and misfire.

Underdress with a tourniquet.
Slam your way into sleep.

Many of the most memorable pieces in this collection succeed in bringing the reader into the claustrophobic world of the heavily medicated, into the emotional fluctuations of those whom medicine labels “unbalanced.”

Some poems, however, particularly in the section subtitled “Neurotransmissions,” take the scientific language too far for the average reader to follow. Poems, like “Let’s Hear it for Hydroxythryptamine!” choke on an overabundance of medical jargon, such as: “serotonergic agents,” “cholinergic neurons,” “parysympathomimesis” and “platonic agonists.” Diction like this is difficult enough even to pronounce, let alone comprehend, and for the average reader these mammoth terms serve only to frustrate. Much more successful (and numerous) are Fiorentino’s poems in which the scientific terminology is less ostentatious.

The other sections of the book deal less in the scientific language and more in the conventions of the personal lyric, but nearly all the poems allude to the paranoia and surrealism of an over-medicated culture. Even those readers who have never taken mood altering drugs (prescription or illicit) will recognize in Fiorentino’s vacillation between sardonic wit and paralysis a senitivity to the tonic chord of our age.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Sky Gilbert at the TREE Reading Series

On Tuesday, June 14th, Hamilton resident Sky Gilbert did a featured reading at the TREE Reading Series in Ottawa. Why can’t writers learn from theatre folk how to read? One of the most entertaining readings I’ve been to in a long time, it’s always the playwrights who really know how to perform anything, even if they’re just reading from a basement chair in a pub (I remember how good Jason Sherman was after he won the Governor General’s Award a number of years ago; the theatre folk always blew the others out of the water at those readings).

Reading from his fourth novel, An English Gentleman, published by Cormorant, he also read a number of poems, including this one that we requested, from his first poetry collection:

Why Kathie Lee Gifford Is Just
Like The United States Of America

She’s mean
She’s greedy
She’s very very pretty
And of course she’s a lying hypocrite
And of course she’s on TV every morning
And just like America, Kathie Lee Gifford is a drag queen
And what’s a drag queen?
Well, someone who just can’t stop drawing attention to
how pretty they are – I mean Kathie Lee, every time she
moves her legs or bats an eye or touches her hair, she
reminds you, in that subtle way she has, of how beautiful
she is and yes okay so she is beautiful but more than that
each gesture says I’m beautiful, so beautiful. And that I’m
barely, just barely, conscious of it. And on top of that I’m
intelligent (questionable) and vicious. I can be vicious. If
I have to, I can defend myself against anything and I’ll
still be beautiful: oooh I’m just stamping my little high
heels right now and removing a stray lock of hair with
my long long dangerous fingernails. Yes I can stand up
for what I believe and be glamourous too
And I believe in America (which means myself)
Kathie Lee Gifford
And I believe in fidelity and marriage and love (and all
the other lies)
And even when you find my husband’s fat hairy wrinkly
old dick up some forty-five-year-old Exercise Queen in a
hotel I can pull my life back together and lie
Like drag queens and the United States of America
I can lie
I can exploit Latina women in sweat shops and then I can
appear with President Clinton and I can lie
And you will love me, Kathie Lee Gifford
You will
But most of all, you will watch me on TV
Because that’s the way mornings are
Inescapable, the beginning of all that treachery and
drudgery and then there’s me, being more beautiful than
you’ll ever be
Look at me
I’m Kathie Lee
I’m some kind of an achievement

from Digressions of a Naked Party Girl (1998, ECW Press)

There is something quite brilliant about a Sky Gilbert poem; a dry, furious wit that tears through whatever he sets his eye on, from Kathie Lee Gifford to more recent poems about Winnipeg in his second collection.

All over theatre for a number of years, Gilbert helped found Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto, the first gay-only theatre company, and was artistic director for its first seventeen years. More recently, he’s not only published a number of plays, but four novels, and a couple of poetry collections.

Apparently there’s some review that appears in The Danforth Review about how Sky Gilbert isn’t a real poet because there isn’t any wordplay? Oh, get over yourself already.

Recently celebrating 25 years of operation, the TREE Reading Series is supposedly one of the oldest continuing reading series in Canada (with Harbourfront in Toronto & another in Montreal supposedly being older). The organizers, James Moran and Jennifer Mulligan, are currently putting together an anniversary anthology to be launched this fall to celebrate the series’ first quarter century.

The next TREE features Edmonton poet Andy "Mustang" Weaver launching his first solo collection, Were the Bees (NeWest Press), and Montreal fiction writer Nairne Holtz. One of my favourite humans, this will be Weaver’s first Ottawa reading in some time, and a long time after his first reading here, when he was mixed up with QWERTY magazine out of the University of New Brunswick and read at the National Archives in 1997 (a span-o event, even way back then). Apparently they have videotape of some of the activities at the time. Ask Andy or even Paul Dechene about that sometime.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Uncredited interview with William Hawkins (1978)

An uncredited interview with Ottawa poet William Hawkins from the long-defunct Ottawa literary magazine Sparks: Poetry Newsmagazine (January 1978, Volume 1, No. 11):

When you think of William Hawkins, you think of many things. Mordant wit. A presence in the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. Ottawa. Some would add a certain madness.

The poet is tallish, solidly built, with a vague air of being ready for anything. (A fight? A revelation?). He wears a Fu-Manchu moustache and a Depression Era cap with a silver Maple Leaf stuck into it. Present occupation: Taxi driver. A man who works ten hours a day, and more.

There is a certain grimness there. Times are hard.

Hawkins was often in the public eye during the Sixties and early Seventies. Books of poetry. Rock and roll records. Sojourn with Ginsberg on the West Coast. Canada Council grant.

Surrealistic year in Mexico. Lately, he has not been heard from too often. Mention this to him and be the victim of a carefully-selected Hawkins grin (suggestions of the shark in Jaws and a character in a Dostoyevsky novel).

"I am retired."


"I am 37, but I have been retired since I was 33."



"Thirty-three, eh? The age of Christ . . ."

"I am anything if not a good Christian . . ."

Hawkins’ verbal thrust into Christian symbolism is not pressed further. He is not a mystic, but a flower child a dozen years older. Somewhat bitter. Almost never unfunny. The sardonic humor of the Irish is always a hovering presence. Hawkins will not deny the ethnic connection, one of the two sides of that divided, eloquent nation: the Protestant side. He is named after King Billy. (There is an English connection, too. Hawkins’ middle name is Alfred, for Alfred the Great, a fact revealed by Sparks, possibly for the first time. . .).

Hawkins is an Ontarian to the core, the dark, surprising other side of the province’s bland coin. His present literary project is to write a history of the Lebreton Flats, drawing from newspaper clippings, remembered tough guys, pool hall lore, etc. Part of his childhood and youth were spent in the area and he has an affinity for it, or at least its memory. But Hawkins’ reach as a writer and musician is at least federal. A long poem about Louis Riel is in his arsenal of poems-to-be. (Of course his reach is universal. How un-Canadian can you get than King Kong in Saudi Arabia?).

The presence in Ottawa of the man who went to Vancouver so long ago and then on to points south, may seem surprising.

Hawkins chuckles. "I told everybody that I went west, but I stayed right here." Recently, he has been acting definitely un-retired, having given readings in the Ottawa area that have convulsed audiences with laughter, often laughter with pain, a la Lenny Bruce.

Supporting himself in these non-boom times is a struggle and Hawkins does not skim lightly over it. But poetry is always easy. "I have never had to work at these things. When I wanted to write a song or a poem, it was just there."

So Hawkins stays, for now, at the center of Canadian federalism (or of folklore). He is not a weeping prophet. "I am not all that enthused by the state of the world," he admits. "Maybe I am a comic realist."