covering ottawa writing, writers, events and publications; curated by rob mclennan,
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Success for the Capital Poetry Collective
The recording debuted at Number One during the week ending November 28, 2006 and went to #10 the following week. On a chart dominated by indie musicians, having a spoken word CD at the top of the chart is quite an accomplishment.
CPC Co-Directors Danielle Gregoire and Elissa Molino lead a strong team of dedicated people who continue to put together a terrific show and a welcoming training ground for the next generation of performance poets. If you've never been to Capital Slam, you should come by and check it out.
Their next edition is Thursday, December 14 at 7 p.m. inside The Thirsty Scholar (126.5 York Street in the Market). Jill Binder, an Ottawa-raised spoken word artist now living in Toronto, is the featured artist. Next month, Ottawa superscribe rob mclennan will grace the Capital Slam stage. For more information, and to purchase your own copy of Live at Capital Slam 2006, visit the CPC website or come by the Scholar for the show!
Monday, December 11, 2006
1970s Octavo exhibition * anyone see it!?
By the way, Justin is working on a project in which he is photographing every structure on Somerset Street between Bank & Preston. There was an article about his Somerset Street plans in the City Journal a couple weeks ago. The relevance of this project to Ottawa poetry? There is an image of the house where 'The International Driving School' is located. Messagio Galore take II (september '05) & bill bissett's Rush: What Fuckan Theory - a study uv language (january '06) were both performed there as part of the Hit'n'Run Lecture Series. Look for 882 Somerset:
Thursday, November 16, 2006
a brief brief note on the poems of Karen Massey
Not a Sonnet
Where are they now, young bodies on the streetcar
heading out for food after hours and hours
building and unbuilding one another’s bodies,
glimpsing the soul’s secret sorrow and passion.
Good night, here comes the snow,
there’s no TV here, just a stereo and a cat or two
and a pile of blankets on what we’ve deemed a bed,
though we never sleep, we’re so young and our bodies feel
as if we’re running out of time and this timelessness
is all we’ve been made for. It’s always night here,
stars work just for us, seasons pull in and out of months;
spring outside now, kids noisy in the school playground,
pushing bodies through the air-- they don’t even know yet
what they’ve been brought here to do (Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets)
Massey's poems work themselves a lyrical and even formal stride through what should be straightforward, but her poems still manage to sidestep expectation, working themselves alternately in soft and subtle directions. Karen Massey is one of but a few poets I know in various parts of the country (including Vancouver's Brian Burke) who easily have the work for a collection or two, but have somehow never managed it. I know she's been building her way up to a collection for a number of years; will next year finally be that year?
For the Stones In her Pockets
This is death, death, death she noted in the margin
of her mind; when illusion fails.
— Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts
fragile words are the woman
delicate inside her body
holding its secret captive over fifty years
filling her head with the wet sand of madness
she cannot climb out of its night
will not turn down the thick blankets of grief
like thrush eggs smooth inside her dress pockets
she carries brown speckled stones
to counteract the water's buoyancy
the stones are growing
are swelling with her life's heaviness
soon they burst the pocket seams
of her underwater skin
Virginia drowning off-stage like Ophelia
the silent weight of stone
drawing her down to muddy death
through decades of brilliant testimony
caught fluttering in pages
giant stones deliver her (Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets)
Karen Massey will be reading on Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 7pm at the Ottawa Art Gallery as part of the launch of the anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2006). For more information, check out www.chaudierebooks.com or www.chaudierebooks.blogspot.com
Friday, November 10, 2006
Sunday, October 15, 2006
jwcurry read 'The Martyrology' in its entirety in Toronto between 29 September & 1 October 2006
I was at jwcurry's last night. He much informed me about his readings of all of bpNichol's 'The Martyrology' (each book) that occurred in Toronto on the dates noted above. This is one of those events that in retrospect one shd'v panhandled, hitchhiked, cancelled all previous commitments to attend. I'm not going to talk to about what he told me yet: there is the possibility of posting some notes to this blog regarding his Martyrology readings; perhaps I'll be able to relay some of his thoughts about the experience.
Gio (you know Gio dont you?) made a bunch of photographs & plans to post them to his new web site: http://shangorama.com/ *hopefully he'll do that soon
Daniel f. Bradley comments, includes a photo at: http://fhole.blogspot.com
Some notes & images:
As an aside, in the book 'See What You Think: Critical Essays for the Next Avant-Garde' David Rosenberg argues that bpNichol was actually a translator of Sumerian cuneiform & that this played a role in the writing of 'The Martyrology'. I've only glanced at the book which was first published in 2002. Now I'm very eager to read it.
Friday, October 13, 2006
The Hummingbirds Have Gone South
It was a most excellent Ottawa International Writers Festival. I'd go on about it but there's plenty below. Of note however was the combined launch for the CD 'Hail: Canadian Art Song' & Betty Warrington-Kearsley's book 'Red Lacquered Chopsticks'. I was extremely impressed by the musical performance accompanying the launch for 'Hail: Canadian Art Song'.
There is a spider crawling across my desk. Not sure yet if my grandmother will become the oldest living Canadian or human for that matter, she has a long way to go, she's only 95 you know.... we spent some excellent time together this September. She lives in downtown
The New Wolves on my silly blog at maxmiddle.blogspot.com
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Bywords Autumn Ex-Tra-Va-Gan-Za-Oct 15 @ 2pm
Chapters, 47 Rideau Street
Sunday, October 15, 2006, 2pm
The launch of the fall Bywords Quarterly Journal with the music of Mike Yates and the poetry of Terry Ann Carter, John Gilles, Kathryn Hunt, Heather McLeod, Sean Moreland, Chris Pitre, Stephen Rowntree, Rona Shaffran, Guy Simser, Chris Sorrenti and Luminita Suse
Contact Info:Amanda Earl
613 868 1364Amanda Earl
PO Box 937
ps: There will be a post reading and birthday (mine) libation at the Highlander pub around 4:00 pm after the reading.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Politics and Poetry Set to Music
I’m not going to spend much time talking about the Goldenberg event, except to say that the music was as smooth and well-rehearsed as any conductor of political symphonies could orchestrate. I would have liked to have heard more excerpts from the book rather than a description of what was in the book, and I would have liked to have heard a more hard hitting interview with Angelo Persichilli, a reporter from the Hill Times.
I wanted to go to Writing Life 2, especially to hear Michael Redhill, but I couldn’t be in two places at once. If festival organizers would be so kind as to invent a cloning machine, I would really appreciate it. It’s on my Christmas wish list.
My main reason for attending last night was to hear fellow Bywordian, Betty Warrington-Kearsley read from her first poetry collection, Red Lacquered Chopsticks (Tsar, 2006). Betty’s poems were spell binding and exotic. She has a magical way with words. The poems she read were chiefly narrative and there were quite a few autobiographical poems. I don’t have the book yet to see if this is the case throughout. One poem about learning to write her name in Chinese was especially enjoyable. Betty combines precision with a good sense of fun. I’ve known Betty for a few years. We both took a poetry workshop at Carleton with Armand Garnet Ruffo a year ago and both of us were students of Seymour Mayne’s Creative Writing workshop at Ottawa U. It’s quite satisfying to see a fellow classmate publishing her work and to hear a poem we workshopped in Armand’s class too.
Next up was Seymour Mayne who read a few of his word sonnets from Hail, but this was by means of introduction to the featured event: soprano Doreen Taylor Claxton’s performance of his word sonnets, with music composed by John Armstrong. I have to admit that I have no education about classical music and therefore am not really able to comment on the performance in any intelligent way; however, I am fascinated by the idea of music and poetry together. Such collaborations have been tried before, notably by Terry Ann Carter, who sometimes performs her haiku to the accompaniment of an ensemble or accompanies herself on autoharp, and by Susan McMaster, whose spoken word pieces are often accompanied by jazz (her husband is an excellent jazz musician!).
Moving on to the auditorium, we ended our evening with the music of Bryson, Miles and Ungerleider (Oh Susannah). This was the festival’s first songwriters’ circle, I believe, and I think it’s an excellent idea. I heard Lynn Miles two years’ ago at a similar circle at CBC. Singer-songwriters discussed their literary influences and sang a few songs. Lynn is very well read and enjoys Canadian poetry. This comes as no surprise, given that her lyrics are poetic and moving.
Last night, along with some beautiful music, Oh Susannah read a chilling poem by Carl Sandberg and a piece of her own prose from a journal. She’d transformed the prose into a beautiful ballad. Jim Bryson, who is good friends with poet Ken Babstock, merged two of Babstock’s poems and added a bridge to create a song.
These days the calls for submissions are all about cross genres or pushing the boundaries of genres such as poetry. The songs I heard last night were most definitely poems set to music.
With two more days left to go for the festival, I’m starting to wish it wouldn’t end. I always begin the festival wondering how my attention span will make it through the whole thing and then I end the festival wanting more.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Bywords John Newlove Award Reading- Winner & Honourable Mentions
Last year’s Newlove recipient, Melissa Upfold, came up from Sarnia to read from her chapbook, Welcome to Beautiful San Ria (Bywords, 2006). She also read four John Newlove poems, including her favourite, Driving, from the Night the Dog Smiled (ECW Press, 1986)
And now, since many of you who weren’t at the event might be interested in knowing the results…52 poems published on Bywords.ca from September 2005 to August 2006 were eligible for the award. The judge this year was Erin Moure, who chose four honourable mentions and one winning poem:
Honourable mentions were
One More Vanished by Kathryn Hunt, (July 2006)
Meredith Quartermain’s “I Canadian dream of English,” variation three, rob mclennan, (January, 2006)
look into, Heather McLeod (August, 2006)
Burnt forest, Rona Shaffran (August, 2006)
The winning poem was at the pizzeria 100% real juice written by Roland Prevost (May, 2006)
I was pleased that the readers all read with enthusiasm and held the audience’s attention. One of my favourite parts was when rob noted that it was great to not win a contest he didn’t even enter. Was also good to hear lots of Newlove poems. The reading and award is meant to honour and celebrate the poetry of John Newlove, to help, in a small way, to ensure that writers continue to have access to his words as their inspiration.
Roland won a signed copy of The Cave (McLelland and Stewart, 1970), and the opportunity to have a chapbook published by Bywords to be read at next year’s fall edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, if they let us come back!
The reading was truly a celebration, honouring Newlove’s work, the Writers Festival tenth anniversary and also the ninth anniversary of Dusty Owls Cathy and Steve Zytveld, not to mention celebrating the achievements and talents of the poets in Ottawa’s literary community.I wanted to stay for Writing Life 2, especially to hear Stephen Heighton, but I didn’t have the attention span, after all the organizing and planning for the Bywords reading finally ended without any of the bad stuff I dreamt about happening (all the writers and the performer showed, the Festival organizers didn’t forget we were holding an event, there wasn’t a fire or flood and no large apes left over from Stuart Ross’s performance of Ape Play the previous night got loose from their green garbage bag captivity.
All in all a great evening. Now to finish planning the October 15 launch of the fall Bywords Quarterly Journal and to start on next year’s Newlove award planning! The fun never stops…at Bywords. It was great seeing so many familiar and new faces at the reading.
Apes and a Treeful-Night Three
Hunkamooga’s Return: Coffee Stained Notes From The Underground was a delightfully expanded reading from the usual fifteen minutes allotted to festival authors. After entertaining us with his audience participation notes to Ape Play, a "broadway production", Ross read us a few lines from his first novel, “Father, the Cowboys are Ready to Come Down from the Attic,” written for Pulp Press’s 3-day novel contest in 1978, when Stuart was just 19 years-old. Anyone who is willing to let the audience hear something he's written when he was 19 and also to laugh at his own writing is someone who can win an audience over easily, as Stuart did.
We were also treated to one of Ross’s essays from Confessions of A Small Press Racketeer, new poems and old poems, an excerpt from his novel in progress, The Snowball.
One of my favourite moments from the reading was listening to Ross’s poem “Submission” about sending in poems to the “Unhappy Potato Quarterly” and having them accept the poem, showing up in his bedroom to let him know just how much they loved it. It’s a goofy poem, full of humour, but also a great comment on the ego, something I think Ross often satirizes and plays with in his writing.
Aside from the humour and imagination, there is much precision of language in Ross’s poems. In a poem called “the Church has a Church Beside It for instance,” I caught the line “the fierce bronze puddle of Olaf.”
I enjoyed the fact that Ross writes poems about writing. One poem “A Novel Punched Another Novel in the Head” was about working on several projects at once. In the poem the older novel the author has been working on is usurped by a skinny new novel with an attitude. It was funny but also gave the audience a glimpse of what it’s like to be a working writer.
Stephen Brockwell did a great job of hosting, as usual, offering a flattering and informative introduction to Ross and his work. I like it when a host really knows a writer’s work when he introduces him. I learned something about Ross from that intro and the ensuing Q&A with Brockwell at the end of the reading.
During the question and answer period, Brockwell asked about Ross’s workshops, which he’s been offering for years in many forms. One of the types he’s been doing most recently is the Poetry Boot Camp in which students spend the day writing lots and lots of poems based on exercises such as translating from a language they don’t know, exchanging each other’s words and a host of other techniques meant to inspire creativity and a bunch of rough drafts to work with.
Another question focussed on the writing process. Brockwell asked Ross what blocks him and what gets him excited. Ross likened writer’s block to depression. In much the same was as when someone is depressed, he thinks he’ll always be that way, the writer who has a block, thinks he’ll never write another poem, but then does so and the cycle repeats.
During the interview, Brockwell asked about Ross’s poetic tastes, which include poetry by David McFadden, Gil Adamson, and Ron Padgett. Ross likes poems that offer humour while also dealing with serious things. Ron Padgett, in particular, has been an inspiration to Ross since he was a teenager. Padgett is the second generation of the New York school of poets, such as Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and John Ashbery. Padgett believes that the role of poetry is to give pleasure in words and images, not necessarily to offer a meaning.
There were a few questions from the audience. rob mclennan wanted to discuss Ross’s founding of the Toronto Small Press Fair and the evolution of the small press scene. Ross talked about how the early days of the fair saw poets putting poems in cheese sandwiches or walnut shells and making chapbooks, whereas today he sees less of that. Ross mused that perhaps young, emerging poets are already publishing their first collections with publishers like Coach House, and are not involved so much in chapbook making, which he sees as a very instructive part of the process of writing poetry. mclennan likened this to today’s blogs, since many emerging poets are writing them.
Nicholas Lea asked Ross to comment on surrealism and the climate of surrealism in Canada. Ross admitted that when he was choosing a title for his anthology, “Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian poets under the influence,” many of the poets did not see themselves as surrealists per se. Surrealism has become a dirty word in contemporary writing circles, yet from it many other movements have sprung, such as magic realism, which is more popular today.
After a short break, involving wine and conversation, I moved to the foyer of the auditorium for the Tree Reading Series’ Form and Function reading, hosted by Rhonda Douglas. Mark Frutkin read from his latest novel Fabrizio's Return and also from a commedia dell ‘arte play. Paul Glennon read from his collection of twelve fiction pieces, The Dodecahedron. Daphne Marlatt read from her poetry collection, This Tremor Love Is and Seven Glass Bowls.
I enjoyed the cinematic writing style of Frutkin and the experimental play of Glennon, but here I will offer a few notes on what I retained from hearing Daphne Marlatt. I have been excited about Ms. Marlatt since I read a poem of hers on Wanda O’Connor’s blog last year sometime, I believe. I immediately got myself a copy of Readings from the Labyrinth, Marlatt's collection of essays. It was such an amazing thing to hear her read and for a change, just as I imagined it would be.
In This Tremor Love Is, Marlatt weaves the words of women writers throughout her poem. She read “crossing” which contained quotes from French poet Renée Vivien in French. The poem felt like a hymn with its beautiful chuchotements or whisperings throughout. In “crossings” Marlatt blends and weaves lyrical descriptions of nature and the body. The strong, repeated sound patterns and rhythm of the poem made it hypnotic and hushed and simply beautiful; here’s a dip into the poem:
“out of wind rush, transient, intransigent beating forward to reach
(you) bridge (that gap) your leaving left caressed skin baffled
Marlatt read from Seven Glass Bowls (Nomados Press, 2003) and said that she is interested in the way silence works as a kind of resonating membrane. To hear her translate these silences was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced at a reading. I didn’t see Seven Glass Bowls at the Nicholas Hoare Book table, but I plan on getting a hold of a copy very soon. It feels urgent to have it and read it while I can still hear her voice.
Marlatt referred to Seven Glass Bowls as a “fictmem:” part fiction, part memoir, part long poem in prose form. I captured a few lines from those floating in the air:
these small ceremonies ribbonned through the day we shape and shape
between sits of this and that
gap gape a word that is love and not love
Rhonda Douglas, Tree host, talked to all three writers about form and genre in their writing, and it was fascinating, which is a feat at nine pm.
Douglas asked when the writers knew what they were writing, whether it was a poem or piece of prose, a short story or novel. We learned that Marlatt often works in sequences. After two or three pieces, she notices a relationship and the shape becomes clearer and informs the piece about what it is. For Marlatt, poetry is a more intensive working of language, almost syllable by syllable.
Audience member Nadine McInnis asked about the rhythm patterns in Marlatt’s work. Marlatt explained that for her the rhythm drives the sentence and it comes from things like the seasons and the cycles of the day; she is not necessarily creating the rhythm consciously.
For Marlatt, when writing fiction, she is attempting to undermine the drive known as plot.
An audience member expressed a yearning for a return to poems that were easy to memorize. Marlatt said that there is a current movement toward a more formal, closed form of verse, easily memorizable with a definite metre and end rhyme, but said that contemporary poetry listens to the speaking voice and has rhythms which are more subtle.
Grant Wilkins asked about the role of the visual in each of the writers’ work. This is definitely part of Marlatt’s writing and she tries to translate it acoustically when she reads. For his book, the Dodecahedron, Glennon actually created a dodechahedron. Frutkin’s novels are very cinematic and visual.
Kevin Dooley asked about point of view and voice. Marlatt pointed out that lyric poems use first person while dramatic poems use third. Some contemporary writers try to make their writing neutral, taking language from other sources and having no particular speaker except language, allowing language to tell the reader about class and the power dynamic.
Marlatt finds the interchange between first and third very interesting, commenting that we are surrounded by third person voice yet we have our own internal first person voice. Glennon mentioned that the second person is also being used in fiction, referring to “If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller” by Italo Calvino.
We could have gone on easily for another hour, with such an interesting topic, but it was time to wrap up. I have to commend Tree for this well-constructed event and the writers they chose. It made a lot of sense to have writers who wrote in more than one genre or who addressed the issue of genre in their writing. As usual the Writers Festival opens up horizons of possibility and inspiration for those of us who are learning how to write.
Don’t forget to come to Bywords’ John Newlove Poetry Award presentation and reading tonight (October 4) at 7pm in the auditorium foyer of the National Library. It will be a moment to celebrate John Newlove’s poetry and the influence he continues to have on Canadian poetry, to toast the award winner and honourable mentions and to savour the music of Andrea Simms-Karp, who has the voice of an angel.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Sunday Night's Poetry Cabaret
Ronnie’s poems about dreams continued a theme that she’s been writing about in many of her collections. She mentioned that writers write until they get something out of their system. It turns out that the title of her latest book comes from a poem in States of Matter called Summer Haze, which includes the words “night echoes.”
Ronnie’s reading was serious at times but also quite playful with poems like “Going Down,” based on a song by Aerosmith. Turns out Ronnie is a big Aerosmith fan.
The cover of Night Echoes has a picture of a motel sign with no vacancy in front perhaps to suggest the final poem of the book, the Epilogue, a long poem which documents the dreams of various guests at the Holiday Inn. Ronnie’s poems make you feel like you are seeing inside the minds of all kinds of different people. Her characters are the people we all run in to in daily life. She says she tries to use colloquial expressions that we can all relate to. She does this, but she also is skilled at sound play and metaphor. In the poem Summer Haze (States of Matter) there’s a “soft slurp of suction” that is onomatopoeic for summer. The poem Predator (Night Echoes) clearly shows the big cast iron pan called a spider by the grandmother, the one used to beat the boy in the poem. These are the images of dreams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up in my own dreams tonight.
The next reader, Afua Cooper, had already given a talk earlier today on Slavery in Canada, and was worried her voice might give out; however her voice was strong and powerful, even allowing her to sing some of the words, turning them into refrains and the poems into hymns. There were times when I wished I had the hymn book, so I could join in. Her words were full of power and movement. In the poem “Dub for Lisa,” she describes Lisa Carter as a “woman whose words blazed a hundred fires/beneath a blue black sky” (Copper Woman). Bird of Paradise gives us a strong woman: “I have peopled the world with the numerous men/ and women that my body has birthed…./Now it’s time for me to birth other things” In the poem Richard Pierpont, Revolutionary Soldier, Cooper presents three voices at the same time: the internal monologue of Pierpont, the formal voice of the letter writer who is petitioning to return home to Africa after fighting in the War of 1812, and the poet “who knows everything.” The poem that stayed with me the most was one called “Negro Cemeteries,” in which Cooper evokes dead slaves whose graves have been discovered in Ontario, in various towns, such as Priceville. It’s an amazing poem full of word play and accumulation of all these graves being discovered. Here’s a short excerpt:
Like Osiris ancestors burst from the earth
in green resurrection
African skeletons shaking the dust from their bones
skulls with rattling teeth
reciting litanies of ancient woes
(Negro Cemeteries, Copper Woman)
Jon Paul Fiorentino or beta male, as he referred to himself, read from his book, Theory of the Loser Class, a work inspired by The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Star Wars and other more mundane contemporary bits and pieces, such as Photoshop. I enjoyed the playfulness of his language, and as always, had a hard time keeping a straight face as he talked about things like The Republican Party of Canadian Poetry, a group who likes poems to be read in a British accent with a formal and conservative style. Fiorentino is witty and skilled at word play and thought play. The sarcasm is sometimes so thick you can cut it with a plastic knife, for instance in “Right In The Spine”: “Crooning Gertrude Stein songs/but sounding shallow, somehow.” If he’d brought them, he could have shaken the maracas as good as bill bisset ever could in poems like STET with its few words but three syllable chachacha rhythm. I was sad to miss his sonnet of R2D2. He did read some of his Winnipeg Angst poems, otherwise referred to as “Wangst.” There’s so much wit in JPF’s poems and so much kinship as we recognize a bit of all of us in these poems.
I think that was the thing that linked all of these poets together, that feeling of relating to the experiences and personalities in their poems: the connection we all had, sitting in that small room and escaping into the worlds of three very different, yet somehow the same, poets.
Exile Editions 30th Anniversary Celebration
I enjoyed both the fiction (James Bacque and Seán Virgo), and poetry, but here I’ll concentrate on the poetry. The first reader, former Ottawa resident Priscila Uppal, read from Exile Editions 300th book published. I don’t have the title of her publication. Can’t find it anywhere on Exile’s site or elsewhere, that’s how recent it is, I guess. Her poems were like mini stories and juxtaposed entertaining and absurd fantasy with day-to-day reality. One of her poems, Cleaning the Piano talked about how a woman found her orgasm in a song.
Poet Janice Kulyk Keefer read from a special limited edition chapbook (signed and numbered in 50 copies, of which I snagged # 37) called Jasmine from the Balcony, which is a suite of poems from her soon-to-be-released poetry collection, Midnight Stroll. The poems were mesmerizing glimpses into the life of Amsterdam writer Etty Hillesum, who kept diaries and journals on her experiences in World War II, volunteered at a concentration camp and perished in Auschwitz at the young age of 29. The book also features the drawings of Claire Weissman Wilks, the photography of Goran Petkovsky. The cover and additional artwork was done by Natalka Hussar.
There were lines of such beauty in Ms. Kulyk Keefer’s reading that I wanted to just have the whole room stop and pause on just one line. “And when/I can no longer write,/I’ll have this one thing left://to simply lie down and try/to be a prayer.” Packing for Transit.
As a special treat Barry Callaghan read also from Raise You Ten: Essays and Encounters 1964-2004 (either Volume one or volume two, I’m not quite sure which). Like Kulyk-Keefer and novelist, James Bacque, Callaghan’s writing contained a reference to World War II, the tattoo with numbers on it, encountered by a man’s lover, a mermaid, or was she? I liked the sensuousness of Callaghan’s words and his description of the scent of the ocean from the woman’s body and smoke from the man’s. Callaghan is the type of man you need to listen to while sipping a few glasses of single malt, the fire burning down your throat, his words filling your mind and sating you, right along with the whisky.
I can’t resist quoting Barry Callaghan, thanks to the kind audience member who asked him to repeat his quote on maturity which he first gave when discussing the idea of starting a publishing house.
“Maturity is the ready acceptance of the inevitability of the defeat of your dreams.”
Aren’t we glad that Mr. Callaghan resisted maturity. Exile Editions sounds like it will be around for another 30 years. And perhaps this gives hope to up and coming young presses like Chaudiere Books!
poetry by Nichita Stanescu
translated by Oana Avasilichioaei
a Romanian/English bilingual edition
with a reading by Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Moure
date: Friday, October 27, 2006
location: The National Library of Canada
395 Wellington Street, Ottawa
for further information, contact BuschekBooks at (613) 744 2589 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Bywords Presents The John Newlove Poetry Award
Ottawa International Writers Festival
Library and Archives of Canada,
395 Wellington Street
Launch of 20005 winner, Melissa Upfold's chapbook, "Welcome to Beautiful San Ria"
Readings by honourable mentions and award recipient (to be announced at the reading)
Music by Andrea Simms-Karp of the Vanity Press
Contact Info: Amanda Earl
PO Box 937
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Retrospecticus for the Rest of Us
I suppose it's a truism that the appraisals of any city's literary scene are as numerous as its literati, but if my experience is indicative, then Ottawa has boasting rights. I have found the scene vibrant and diverse, with nary a shortage of high-quality readings and other events. Perhaps more importantly, I've found a complete absence of snobbishness. The people are welcoming to newcomers like myself, which is the way it should be.
I'd like to say thank you to you everyone who has befriended and supported me, and especially to Seymour Mayne and rob mclennan, who have published, encouraged and given advice to me. If I have grown during my time in Ottawa, it is in no small measure due to the friendship and inspiration I received from these and other great writers, readers and publishers.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
A special invitation to Poet's Hill
Beechwood is the resting place of many writers of national significance,including the poets Archibald Lampman and John Newlove. The dedication of Poet's Hill fulfills a vision first expressed by an Ottawa writer in 1896: "Itis about time that we in Canada should consider keeping alive the memories ofthe many men and women who, by their literary or other gifts, have added in somedegree to the development of our culture and intelligence. Should there not besome place in the Dominion--and what more fit place than Ottawa--where memorialsof them might be preserved?"
To confirm your attendance please call 613-741-9530. We look forward to seeing you at Poet's Hill.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
a brief note on the poetry of Michael Dennis
michael dennis' poems are rough & sexual & sometimes brutally sweet & honest, & have an integrity to them, much as he does. The line between dennis & his poetry is very thin, & follows the working class traditions of Charles Bukowski & Al Purdy, of hard living, & sometimes hard drinking. There are poems about Catherine the Great's sexual appetites, & about Fellini (that makes my skin crawl, still). There are poems about working, & hanging artwork, about Thor, god of fuck, & about michael being in love with his wife.Part of a group of Peterborough poets in the early 1980s with Dennis Tourbin, Riley Tench, Richard Harrison and Maggie Helwig (all but Harrison and Helwig eventually ended up in Ottawa), Dennis was a force during the years that he was reading and performing in Ottawa alongside Louis Cabri, Kate Van Dusen, Ronnie Brown, Deborah McMullen, George Young, Luba Szkambara, Paul Couillard, Louis Fagan, John Barton, Nadine McInnis, Susan McMaster, Colin Morton and plenty of others. As Maggie Helwig once wrote of Dennis' poetry in a review in Kingston's Quarry magazine (Volume 35, No. 4, fall 1986):
It was in michael dennis' poems that I first found reference to The Royal Oak Pub at Bank & MacLaren Streets, poems that mention drinking pints of toby. When I was twenty years old I took great comfort there, & did the same myself, making the bar my own, for years' worth of writing, knowing that a real writer whose work I admired had done it before me.
Consider "first you take her by the hand", from his third book, no saviour and no special grace. It is, basically, the story of a slightly bungled first kiss, which in the end is neither disastrous nor wonderful. The poem concludes:One of the frustrating aspects of Dennis' particular grouping of poets (he also spent time with a number of visual artists in and around Gallery 101, where Tourbin started hosting readings throughout his tenure in the 1980s) is that it somehow wasn’t strong enough or organized enough to publish it's own anthology of Ottawa poets, considering that Dennis wasn’t included in any of the collections at the time, including Colin Morton's Capital Poets (Ottawa ON: Oroborus, 1988), Heather Ferguson's Open Set: A TREE Anthology (Ottawa ON: Agawa Press, 1990), or Seymour Mayne's Six Ottawa Poets (ON: Mosaic, 1990), and far too roughneck to be part of Christopher Levenson's rather exclusive "Ottawa Poetry Group." Dennis' poetry is part of a plainer speech, almost part of an extended urban folk song, writing earthy and working class poems of going to work, being in love with his wife, and existing in the world on a day to day basis, and are important and even essential to hear read out loud by the author.
you still end up thinking
about how wonderful it should be
and how hard it might be
it is so strange how we long for the touch of skin
and how it frightens us
That is possibly banal. Or else it is quietly, profoundly telling us something about who we really are. After several readings, I think it is the latter. The curious phrase "how hard it might be" is easily misread; we are all expecting something like "how hard it is." That is not what the poem is talking about at all.
Dennis never explicitly speaks of the terrible human reflex that rejects the possibility of love, but it is one of the themes that runs through his work. The craving for love is present, the potential joy, as well as the tragedy of love's loss. These are familiar. But its not so common to write a poem entitled "it bothers me that skin can be so inviting," which calls our attention to the pain and even the anger we feel at "the invitations of skin." Perhaps only a strongly compassionate man can admit -- on behalf of us all -- how much he can wish to run away from love.
"There were never any books in the house when I was growing up," Dennis says. "Even if somebody somehow managed to bring a book in, it would disappear. It was like a black hole for print." The first books he read outside of school were novels by Harold Robbins. In eighth grade he went, for the first time, to a school that had a library. "It was like, where's all this stuff been? I was taking out four, five books a day." In twelfth grade, he heard a tape of Earle Birney reading "David." After that, he never wanted to do anything but be a poet.
It was about this time, too, that he met a teacher named Don Quarry. "When he found out I wanted to be a poet, every week he'd load me with these stacks of books -- Layton, Purdy, Atwood, Phyllis Webb, Margaret Avison; the basics, the core work -- and tell me to come back when I'd read them; and then we'd talk about them. I just wasn't aware that all this poetry was out there."
Poetry, then, is not something Dennis has ever been able to take for granted. There is an urgency in his attitude towards it that extends even to how a manuscript draft looks -- "Handwriting should be nice." In "how the poet thinks," from his fourth book, poems for jessica-flynn, he speaks of himself
not making sense of the thing
but just pounding
to make sure i'm alive
poem for Jessica-Flynn
the name Jessica-Flynn
came to me in a dream
it was to be the name
of our first born child
when I was living
with an actress of subtle
and magnificent beauty
when we finally broke up
it was not a question of love
our dreams no longer mattered
in the confusion and anger
that barely concealed our fear
the scariest part of the entire affair
was the knowing
that love hadn’t failed
that we still felt deeply and sincerely
about each other
but that it wasn’t enough
and that there was no way to share
what we had thought
would be an ideal life
there was no hope of ever having a child together
and with that loss no hope of ever having children
it would become a gamble too great to chance
a gamble I would never be brave enough to take
when we separated Jessica-Flynn died
as if she had been torn
from the womb (poems for jessica-flynn)
Recently, Dennis launched two collections with Toronto publisher LyricalMyrical (Dennis is their only non-Toronto author), a small publisher of poetry collections produced in part with covers from recycled hardcovers, the collection All Those Miles Yet To Go (2005), and Poems For Another Poetry Reading (2006). Both were launched during individual events at the video store / art gallery speace Invisible Cinema (appropriately enough, the location of Gallery 101 during the late 1980s and through the 1990s). Much less active in performing and publishing his work than he was twenty years ago, Dennis' poems are quieter than they used to be (as is Dennis, I'm sure), but still retain that ethereal quality of Southwestern Ontario folk he grew up in, working his roughneck past into his current and even future.
the waitress's English
is much better
than my French
between the two of us
I get my deux oeufs
and over easy as well
it all comes
the way I want
they have no
Coca-Cola, only Pepsi
during that part
of the conversation
the entire room
so as to better hear
what the crazy Englishman
might say next (Poems For Another Poetry Reading)
Monday, August 07, 2006
“poem for a sad november” from aubade by rob mclennan: some notes
mclennan excels in the long poem and the series. He’s often said that when he writes, he thinks in terms of longer poems rather than in terms of one moment, one poem.
There is something so intensely beautiful about this poem, that I keep coming back to it. Here are my thoughts on the poem, bearing in mind that all is up for grabs, that interpretation is subjective.
“poem for a sad november” is a love poem, a lament, which opens with a quote by American poet and blogger Ron Silliman: “The sky grows lighter before it starts to rain.” The quote informs the tone of the poem with tentative hope and the pessimism associated with the month of November and with a love unblossomed.
Kudos to Joe Blades of Broken Jaw Press for the design and layout of “aubade.” In the case of this particular poem, there is enough space for the spaces between, which is an important element of mclennan’s poetry. Any publisher who tries to crowd the words of this poet is doing the work a disservice.
The opening is two lines at the bottom of a page, with space between each line:
“the impedimentia of grey white on the street below
breath like ghosts, float white affront the mouth”
As always mclennan is a clever word player. Here he blends “impediment,” a hindrance or obstruction with “dementia,” deterioration of mental faculties.
The opening lines act as a preamble to the poem. Throughout the poem, the images of white, of breath, air and floating recur.
Each section is separated by asterices (aster ices), which, for me, given the white, evoke snowflakes. In a mclennan poem, every element, including the visual, is deliberate.
“how many winters will i sit thru
before the ease begins, hearts aplomb
& sacrifice of days thru heart / she speaks
/ she says & then she just wont say / says
i dont know / i dont know
abt this / she says / wont speak / & now
no messages in days / watch ice form
on the trees outside the window
each drop pools the alabaster window frame”
The question form in line one of this stanza evokes the lament. Think Scottish bagpipes, a dirge which starts slowly, has themes and variations and returns to the melody or refrain.
mclennan breaks apart the stanza at the beginning and at the end, interrupting November’s freezing rain with thoughts of “she.” The interruption is in the form of internal thought, a realistic rather than traditionally poetic representation, which is classic mclennan.
Once again we have the reference to the colour white: “alabaster,” a dense translucent, white gypsum or variety of hard calcite. He could have said “pooling in the frame,” which would have been more expected, but “pooling the frame” makes the reader question the image, and gives the idea of the drops of ice melting and pooling, as if softening the hard window frame.
Next stanza is one line separated by an asterix:
“new for me still then becomes”
This method of separating one line from other lines by isolating it into its own stanza, breaking phrases and reordering words is disorienting, a way of interrupting the flow, of forcing a careful read.
ask which ocean the wind shows / the storm
backs off to the sound of its name
west windows out into the point-of-yard / check
back only thru the eastern front door
/ where one is another / which way
nearly bought a snow shovel in calgary october
to put my lips out, mine out there
to hers in the warehouse mall
film & letter drop / break
& yellow circles navigate white spread”
More evocation of air and breath, this time a wind going from west to east. The very interesting notion of the storm backing off to the sound of its name makes one think of the power of naming things, naming love perhaps, a new love becomes a tempest. Here nature is interrupted by the description of a romantic tableau, but a twenty first century view of romanticism, a kiss in a warehouse mall.
Once more the image of white, this time broken by yellow circles, an image of light on the snow, echoing the opening quotation.
“so much of this the way of remembering
trickles and fragments / goes thru
aversion, in that / what had happened, or
plows push thru the street / melts
wet footprints clear the earth / visibly
streams of white pour over government smokestacks
/the bridge to hull / past bytown / by”
We’ve moved now back to Ottawa, with mentions of Hull and Bytown. Mclennan is an admirer of regional poetry, poetry of place and this is clear in his own work. He often makes mention of Ottawa, the city of his birth. If others are known for the prairie long poem, McLennan is becoming the Ottawa long poem specialist, or do we have to say the Central Canada long poem specialist?
This section is dreamlike, smoky, the image of white still prevalent. mclennan has included a lot of liquid imagery in this poem, and most particularly in this stanza, we have the trickle of memory, the melt of wet footprints. Once more there is a clearing, an attempt to plow away all this yearning. Mclennan is emotional without being sappy. He uses the force of language and imagery to convey emotion.
“make out where we beseech the world
& long for beautiful days
the treacheries of the day-to-day / & green earth
peat moss bog beneath the understep
& swallows, whole / sentimentality
& pale descriptions / airplanes
circle the earth like stars / satellite
& rocket fuel commence / small parcels
& arrive in even smaller positions
the one chair where my mother sits / & wont
The mention here of “treacheries” in reference to the day-to-day is an effective juxtaposition. Day-to-day is usually just ordinary stuff, how can it betray, how it is unfaithful? The feel of green earth under one’s feet is a lie in November. The longing is here once more, for “beautiful days.” Yet descriptions are pale, sentimentality is swallowed whole. Still mclennan pens a lyric of hope where airplanes circle like stars.
This technique of going from the wide circle of an airplane’s swatch to the small movement of a mother in a chair who won’t be moved is brilliant. Somehow the non-movement of the mother seems harder to understand, harder to accept, given that airplanes can circle the earth like stars. The poem feels very personal and the reader develops an intimate sense of the narrator as the poem moves forward. This is something that is difficult to accomplish in a short poem.
“look at me now, o mother, what have
if you dont have it, you dont
need it / requiem
for sour grapes / to justify
five spaces left”
Interesting mention of a requiem here, a mass for someone who has died, or a music composition for the deceased, a hymn. This works well with the whole idea of this poem as a lament. The use of the interjection “O” is very much part of a lament, but not something one typically finds in a mclennan poem. O can be an interjection and it can also appear as a zero in print.
“corona down the macrolevel of a
novel spent overwritten on the trees / crack
ice or air she culls it, glass en français,
glace / not wrong but one language overlay
beautiful & binary, irregular and dangerous”
Binary is the idea of something consisting of two parts. There’s the mention of ice once more, and the connection between glass and ice. The poem is covered with a layer of glass. The structure of the poem is binary also, beneath the weather layer, is a personal layer where lost love and family are lamented, in a twenty first century version of the pathetic fallacy.
There’s some delicious sound play here: the repetition of hard c in corona, crack culls, a hardening of the layers, but also a fracture, a crack of ice and glass.
“this lyrical twoness—breaks apart
distinction of the heart & beauty myth,
binary / yang / ying that completes the
hidden circle / i miss you
like alberta moisture, dry snow
so wet & cold & damp
sung deep in the bones”
With an abstract start to this section through references once again to the binary and to the philosophical yin/yang, the sudden “I miss you” packs an emotional wallup, touches the reader, then it goes on with an unusual simile, a bit of dry wit “alberta moisture, dry snow” and then back to another emotional punch “so wet & cold & damp / sung deep in the bones.” This is another example of the ability of the writer to juxtapose nature with the personal, abstraction with emotion. This ability is what gives mclennan’s poems their memorability. You don’t forget lines like these and the emotions they conjure up.
“presents a reasoning for this cold november
more than seasonal heat & lack thereof
prevents a making of
stone cold soup / hydraulic sage
& microwave blaze / old
radiation-king / & roommate
argues with her boyfriend, screams
thru the wall a desire that has not been spent”
The precision of the details here, the attention to sound in the long a of sage and blaze, and the close observations of the narrator make this section very poignant. You know what he means when he talks about a woman who screams a desire not spent. The idea of the doubling is still here, perhaps the doubling of the narrator and the woman with unspent desire.
“characterizing all spring rhythm—beat march
rapids & tripping, almost
liquid food / falls the gait
of desperation breathing thru
quiet anxieties / of snow
& liquid turnd to ice/ persistent chill
& heartbeats collapsing from the wait
/ the disappearance marks itself
/from beneath itself / an imprint”
Just stop here and admire the lovely imagery: “quiet anxieties / of snow” and the double entendre: “heartbeats collapsing from the wait.” Once again the imagery of snow, air and breath, liquid and disappearance. The repetition of these images throughout the poem reinforces this poem as a lament, provides a structure for the poem. In the previous section, mclennan has linked the ongoing winter to the “I miss you,” so that now all he needs mention is the persistent chill and there’s a metonymic representation of absence through the reference to snow.
“the dissolute warmth the body recalls
from seasons past / grasping arms / long
fingers pull closer
defensive moves/ turns strength
an open letter purporting / to be”
Here we have the sensuousness of warmth after the cold lament of snow, but its much more abstract than the previous sections, almost blank in its starkness with references to the body, grasping arms and fingers that pull closer. There’s a kind of depersonalization of the memory here.
“dont make much out of a spiritual crisis
/it happens all the time, to enter
the mind of the speaker
amid speech / & warm
that sort of piety / a theory
of absolutes doesnt wash
take out of the rain / dissolves”
There’s a feeling of washing clean in this section as if the narrator tries to talk himself out of the emotions through intellectualization. Rain washes everything away. There are occasional religious references in the poem. Here we have the notion of piety and absolutes.
“no one knows what other accumulations exist
lie beside the phone / pretending
to flip channels / space heat red
glow out into presumptiveness & pro
:creation myths and syllabus / to know
the name, look up the number / twelve
hours pass by fruitlessly / an orange”
This section has the feel of time stretched out waiting. Colours are no longer white but red and orange, but the heat isn’t real, it’s artificial. mclennan plays with words once more here, breaks up the word procreation, in order to have a doubling once more: procreation and creation myths, the sophistry of having to know a number to find a name. All these details add up to the absurdity of waiting for the cold November to pass, for the love to come to fruition.
“to act, air
of days pass
& stealing breath”
This short section repeats the motif of air. Ghazals are created out of blood, out of stealing breath. What is created from raw emotion.
“the first poem to synchronize swim
lake winnipeg &
the ottawa river
what saint gregory
called angels, angles
Here is an example of mclennan’s playing with conventional concepts to turn them on their heads. Be wary of swimming too deeply in literal waters with a mclennan poem. Just enjoy this, think of the concept of doubling. There’s another doubling in this poem highlighted by the mention of Lake Winnipeg and the Ottawa River, and that’s the references to both the Prairies and to Ottawa.
Angels are a theme that runs throughout the poems of “aubade” starting from the front and back cover paintings to direct references in the poems. There’s also word play of angels with angles, the whole reference an allusion to the story of Pope Gregory.
“spills coffee across the sheets of this page
& eighty-eight keys, piano forte
a life lived solely for 80s new wave”
There’s such a surrealistic feel to this poem. It meanders. In this section, we see once again the self-referentiality of the speaker to the poem being written. Throughout the poem there are references to the process of writing poetry.
mclennan’s poems often contain references to pop culture, to the era he’s living in. In this case a reference to 80s new wave music is a common feature of a mclennan poem. While some think it’s not a good idea to include popular culture in a literary work, mclennan has never shied away from referencing it as a deliberate force that informs his writing.
“this innocent movement, what stylistic body incarnates
the dimension of the poem? the self-consciously
constructed on the heavenly number seven,
conventional ingredient of the perfect rhythm,
first syllabic, of the fact always in
the only significant pause. oh, there
little aesthetic shocks. gets between
the blanket & her warm thighs.”
More specific reference to poem process, to perfection. There’s a link between the rhythm of poetry and the eroticism of “her warm thighs.” This small tableau is highly sensual. Even the interruption and the punctuation reflect the sensuality of the moment.
“from these intrepid movements where we contradict
get ephemeral / say one thing & say another
/you dont say / rain washes frozen boots
awash in verbatim / phone rings
in triplicate: forms an office cubicle & es
cape / ism / fear
forms out of popsicle sticks / kids craft
from glue & hot summer mornings, long gone”
More word play here, more seemingly free associations. There’s a “we” here suddenly, a reiteration of the cold weather still in existence juxtaposed with thoughts of summer.
Quite a few of the sections have a specific structure with a single opening line, two stanzas and a final closing line. There are some lovely images here: frozen boots/awash in verbatim, fear forming out of popsicle sticks. The treacheries of the day-to-day once more evoked. Word play once more, taking a cliché phrase and playing with it: say one thing and say another. mclennan has fun in this poem, plays with language, with concepts and with images, leading to images that resonate beautifully. There’s a poetry to letting go.
“& second vision of a staid perplexity
hunkers in: waits for slow fattening & sleep
disappears from view, we disappear from those
/ there i go again
plant body firm into bedsheets & slow mercy
of eventual snowfall / where
the heat includes / wont leave
: goes back off like a threat
made up in a dust storm”
We’re back to the artificial heat again, not quite real yet. Dust storms, dust when the heater hasn’t been used in a long time. Heat where there hasn’t been any in a long time. He says so much. You know what he means when he refers to the “slow mercy of eventual snowfall.” November is an in-between month. The poem reflects this so well.
“interplay of movement, love
final decision, “suicide is a last resort”,
pathologists, etc / the funeral
on the day he would be twelve / news photos
of him in a cub scout uniform / promoting
strange brotherhood / or the eight-year old
who shoots a neighbour / birthing
a generation of potential killers
waits for me to turn my back before leaving”
More doubling here, talk of love interrupted by mention of the suicide of a child on the verge of adolescence, an eight-year old who murders. All of this heartbreaking stuff we hear on the news, read in the papers. Perhaps once again a part of the treacheries of the day-to-day.
“were it only so
its own positioning
of the end result
& seeks out valuables
not something that can be
turned off / or
decided against / my mother
puts the soup on / says
turn the radio off”
I like the juxtapostion here of on / off and soup on / radio off.
“sets out into division of labour
lovers lost, dont know where it
got away / puts up periscope / looks
for unknown shores but comes back short
/ i dont know when this all began
The idea of the periscope is interesting here, of being below, in some kind of submerged space, finally looking out, but submerging once more. The writing of poems can be an attempt to emerge from a small space.
Wither is to dry up, to lose moisture. This evokes the earlier “i miss you / like alberta moisture” for me.
“into this shadow of doubt, where it
two pigeons feed on bank street / symphonies
stolen from under our noses / kate refuses
board games for cd-roms, doesnt know
a single game of cards / holed up
despite everything i still mailed the package
/ those letters
television introduces divorce court: new season”
More mention of Ottawa locations, personal references and popular culture and the lament continues: “despite everything I still mailed the package / those letters.”
The idea of a couple is conveyed: not one or three pigeons feeding, but two, divorce court. Symphonies, something beautiful, is stolen.” Once more the idea of being holed up returns.
“when will love come home / or was
Short section in form of question on love is reminiscent of the opening “how many winters will I sit thru / before the ease begins.”
“tongue licks lips to whistle”
Another short one line section, poignant in its simplicity and sound play.
“the days are supposed to get better, not worse
hold off any decisions until next week
someone is waiting patient for your call
possible words explode in the matter
the big bang had to release from something else
gateway is not a word i understand
not all in the universe divisible by tens”
Sad despair is the overriding tone of this long poem and it’s expressed with clarity and straight-forwardness here. At times mclennan is a master of ambiguity. Here there is no mistaking the words, no word play, just a straight statement of despair, making it all the more effective and emotional.
“love is no longer a plausible standard,
_______________gets in the way of our selves”
A nifty way of including everything, the ___________. The unknown of love can also relate back to the big bang of the previous section, it has to come from somewhere.
“not so much artful as
inevitable. a sequence
of diminishing numbers. & days
the roof falls in on . dogs
bark at trees . squirrels
collide . stay away from
//// a burning building, love love
beams collapse and bury the basement”
The images go from every day nature to conflict to disaster. There’s a fatalism in these words. Love is inevitable, but the beams of the house collapse, and bury the basement, another reference to something below.
& day of the dark sun, arrived
just before rain & snow, a little bit
A reworking of the Silliman quote used at the beginning of the poem, the juxtaposition of light with darkness: the dark sun.
“as deliberate as greek or latin
melts, back with time, tho
what can be done with the line”
The whole poem deals in some way or another with the inevitability of time and mortality. We’re starting to see a return to mentions of melting and winter again, as the poem draws to a close.
“how many times
do i have to say
before you believe it
before it starts to matter
persephone assails the
welcome mat / & locks
the door to the cave / behind her”
Another reference to the underground, this one a mythological one, but a fresh look, a cave with a welcome mat and a door the seduced woman can lock to keep her lover in or out or to keep others out?
“love is a strange thing / it eats
away the mind /demented
cache of despondency & hurt
in a time of / take & wake”
This packs a powerful emotional punch, the sadness of love. “Take and wake” is a rather brilliant way of describing the casual affair.
“cold air breathing thru the house”
Final section of the poem, one line, back to the beginning, the cold air that never really goes away, the perpetual feeling of absence.
I like this poem. I like the reiteration of imagery and theme throughout, the jumble of every day influences, the raw emotion of it, the clever word play, the humour and occasional biting wit. It builds up in intensity, yet at the same time conjures up the feeling of being emprisoned by November, a sad month of in between.
It is my understanding that the launch for “aubade” will take place in October. The book is available through Broken Jaw Press and if you happen to see him, you might be able to acquire a copy through rob.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
a brief note on Rhonda Douglas
Rhonda has been around for a few years, although most of the time she's kept her head down, quietly getting work done. In 2004/5, she was part of Seymour Mayne's creative writing (poetry) workshop at the University of Ottawa, along with Jesse Ferguson, Nicholas Lea and Wanda O'Connor, among others [see Amanda Earl's review of the resulting class chapbook here], as well as The Banff Centre Writing Studio in 2005. What's interesting to note is that she took the same workshop at the University of Ottawa years ago with Mark Frutkin (the year Mayne took sabbatical) in 1991/2, the same time I happened to be there (it feels like millions of years ago, now). What was she doing in the years between? Working, and raising her daughter, and honing her craft, it seems.
Her re-emergence on the Ottawa scene happened at the same time she also started more aggressively submitting works to magazines, and is part of a whole slew of poets around town that have become far more interesting over the past year or two, including Mike Blouin, Gwendolyn Guth, Amanda Earl, Una McDonnell, Ferguson, Lea and O'Connor, so expect to see her name here and there with increasing regularity in various Canadian journals over the next few years. It simply seems a matter of time. And too, with James Moran and Jennifer Mulligan stepping down from running The TREE Reading Series last fall, it was Douglas who stepped up to the plate to take over, on January first of this year. Now its official: we have to watch for her name now. We wait for great things to happen.
Here is a poem of hers that appeared in the second issue of ottawater:
Cassandra and the Fifth Grade Essay
Miss? I don’t understand why
I got an ‘F’. Didn’t I have all
the right grammar: past, present,
You said write a page about your family
and all I said was:
This is me and my house, my mom
and my dad and my forty-nine brothers.
My dad carries the weight of authority
and the inability to say no to women:
this will be our downfall, all of us,
these things that run in the family.
Once upon a time there was a city
and the people were happy. Mostly happy,
only sometimes sad in daily ways,
small griefs given perspective.
In the city, a family; around the family, walls.
What happened next was like a fire
made by Boy Scouts who are still learning –
many sparks, at first no hope and then
one catches and we are all
That is all past tense now.
Future tense; my favourite
and the one we all fear.
Flashes of something normal: it’s just your sister-in-law Helen
in a pretty dress, the gold on her neck like the warning rays
of the sun at noon in July – go inside, protect yourselves.
I tell this to my mother, she says “no, Cassandra,
today it’s raining”, takes me firmly to the roof
of our house, makes me hold my hand out
to feel the warm wetness slide
across the centre of my palm.
I know enough not to say
it feels like tears, the temperature of blood.
She holds my hand out in the rain
as if I’m blind but I can see
and this is the problem.
Is guilt easier to handle if you can’t see it coming?
Nothing you can do, Miss? Same grade?
By the way, Miss, did you know you will die alone?
Monday, June 19, 2006
John Newlove’s “Ottawa poems”
Whom the gods do not intend to destroyIt's been said that John Newlove's The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), is one of the best books of poetry, if not the best, in Canada during the 1980s. Our finest lyricist, he was long considered to have been the best poet in Canada from 1962 to 1972. From someone who published poetry collections in the late 1960s and early 1970s in relatively quick succession, he had been showing signs of slowing down for some time, with his previous book, The Green Plain, in 1981, and a selected poems, The Fat Man: Selected Poems 1962-1972, in 1977. Not that the previous came in quick succession, but quick enough, from Elephants, Mothers & Others (1963), to Moving in Alone (1965; 1977), Black Night Window (1968), The Cave (1970), and Lies (1972), which won the Governor Generals Award for Poetry that year.
they first make mad with poetry.
— Irving Layton, "Birthday Poem for John Newlove"
With his stroke but days after his sixty-third birthday, and heart attack in spring 2003, just months before his death on the morning of December 23rd, 2003, to the dismay of readers such as myself, The Night the Dog Smiled remained his last trade collection of new poems to appear. But still, there have been a scattering of other poems, including the nine new poems at the end of his selected, Apology for Absence, as well as the eleven poems from the chapbook THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, and single above/ground press poem broadsheet, “THE DEATH OF THE HIRED MAN,” with the last twelve collected in the anthology Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. All in all, it makes twenty-one poems in roughly fifteen years; almost the entirety of his Ottawa stay. There are some other poems and versions that have cropped up there and here as well, including some in issues of Quarry and The Malahat Review1 from the time of The Night the Dog Smiled and beyond, as well as a piece written as part of his stint as Petro-Canada Poet Laureate at a Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament for Literacy in 1994 (the poem "Playing the Game," collected in the anthology Gorillas on the Dance Floor and Other Poems from the First 100 PGIs, published by ABC Canada in 1997), but for the sake of this piece, I will focus more on the poems he allowed a further life in print.
Predominantly, the poems that followed The Night the Dog Smiled – published the same year John and his wife Susan moved from Nelson, B.C. to Ottawa, so he could start his job as an editor at Official Languages – had him taking out more words than he was putting in. Even before he arrived, there did seem to be a break between his earlier work and what he had done in this collection. Although he was a strict lyricist, the poems that followed Lies were sparse, spare, and far between, reading more as occasional poems (with the exception, perhaps, of The Green Plain, which was later included in The Night the Dog Smiled) than any with a unified whole.
The poem "Progress," for example, the failed long poem he so desperately tried to write, appeared in multiple versions in various publications, including The Macmillan Anthology, before ending up in Apology for Absence. Working his lyric lines and phrases so tight (unlike the break he usually made for longer pieces, in a series of numbered sections), it was as though he couldn't leave the openings required for what he was writing, reading more like notes and phrases towards the long poem he longed to write than the poem itself.
As well, the collection The Night the Dog Smiled gave the reader a sense of another shift going on in John’s writing, as Douglas Barbour (who, along with his John Newlove and His Works from ECW Press, did more writing on Newlove than anyone else) wrote in his review of the collection in Essays on Canadian Writing:
But there is more here, which other reviewers have already pointed to: withoutIn the same issue, Susan Glickman, in her “Driving Home with John Newlove,” writes of The Night the Dog Smiled seeking to:
any diminishment of his sharp and accurate perception of human cruelty, frailty,
hypocrisy, and suffering, Newlove offers us a more positive vision in these new
poems than he has ever managed to before. Oh the savage, sardonic ironies will
abound, and in one piece at least he has achieved an inner vision of controlled
madness terrifying in its cool and analytical precision, but never before have
Newlove’s texts so obviously spoken of, and even proffered, love and compassion.
A further dimension is expressed, then, yet with its expression there is no loss
or dissipation of the unsentimental and utterly precise rendering of the things
redress the one-sidedness of Newlove’s earlier vision of the world by revealing
the bruised idealist one had always suspected of lurking under the nihilist’s
spiny armour. That this is the poet’s first full-length publication since Lies
(1972) suggests how difficult it has been for him to reorient himself; but the
relentlessness of Lies makes it doubtful that he could have proceeded any
further with his excoriation of man’s weakness and venality. At that point, it
seemed Newlove saw his task as a poet to be the generation of proofs for the
axiom of his favorite philosopher, Heraclitus, that “Whatever we see when awake
is death; when asleep, dreams.” But in The Green Plain Newlove allowed, for the
first time, that much of what we see is beautiful and to be cherished, and that
it is the vulnerability of this beauty – its very transience because of the fact
of death – that makes us cherish it the more.
I think it was very much a reorientation; that he didn't want the attention, and perhaps pulled away from it, spending years trying to figure out what he was doing, and what he was doing it for.
John had always been a reader before anything else, picking lines out of history books and putting them into poems, but by that time, he spent his days doing more reading than writing. Whenever I would see him on the street, he would tell me some clever line he'd read in a history text, like that the British militia during the War of 1812 were there to “add colour to an otherwise ugly brawl,” or tell a story of when the police beat him up in Vancouver, and discovering years later that he had broken his collar-bone. Alternately, when I saw his wife Susan, the conversations were on the fire that had happened down the street, or of the new grocery store. A recent visit by her son Jeremy, and his family.
In an essay on Matt Cohen, Margaret Atwood wrote that his collection Columbus and the Fat Lady, published in 1972 by House of Anansi Press and made up of fifteen stories
seeded almost all of what Cohen was subsequently to write. It’s a sort of
sampler: here’s the range, here are the styles, here are the interests, here are
the prototypes: all arrived at through fabulation, through the “adventure,” the
“freedom and play,” of the short-story form, all popping out of the unconscious
I would say the poems in John Newlove’s chapbook, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, and subsequent broadside, “THE DEATH OF THE HIRED MAN,” were written entirely the opposite: as a summing up of his long career as a poet, boiling the range of his interests throughout his life of poetry down into a sonnet of twelve short poems. Whether this was deliberate or not, it was certainly the result.
For John Newlove, the brevity became him; his terseness punctuated only by his clarity. It's not even a pessimism, necessarily, but a matter-of-fact, and ever with his sense of humour, dry as Regina bone. With pieces such as “AN OLD MAN, WAITING” or “AN EXAMINATION,” writing about a medical examination (“Take these pills with every meal, / take these for pain as needed (I don't need / pain) and these before you sleep.”), you can see it, the notion of stark inevitability. The range of subjects in these short pieces is far-reaching, but nothing new or unusual from the Newlove lexicon, albiet shorter than what he was publishing, say, in the 1970s. In the poem “HOME TOWN” there seems to be a great deal of summing up, writing “This country is so old that no one can remember / its history.” from a man who wrote poems of the prairie histories of indians, Louis Riel and other prairie landscapes, well before anyone else.
As his stepson Jeremy would tell me, John lived in Ottawa for seventeen years; longer than he managed to live anywhere else. For whatever reason: the city he finally chose not to leave. Through all of this, still, he considered himself above all, a Saskatchewan poet. The biography included in the literacy anthology, Gorillas on the Dance Floor and Other Poems from the First 100 PGIs, gives a sense of what he might have thought of these disparate geographies, in his usual wry humour, writing "John Newlove was born and raised in Saskatchewan, but, for his sins, he now lives in Ottawa." Perhaps the least known of his works, here are the last twelve published poems by John Newlove, all of which were subsequently reprinted in Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (2003). Here are some notes on a few of them:
LOVE AFFAIRIt’s the dark humour that comes out the most, even ahead of the pessimism. What does a hopeless man who’s lost his hopelessness do but feel the loss? After judging a poetry contest in the 1980s, this is what Newlove submitted as his "Judge's Comments," writing:
I’m not in love with anyone, not even myself.
It’s hard, living without hopelessness.
1. Poetry is the shortest distance between two points; prose, the longest.
2. Any form that functions fits.
3. Form and content are body and soul, and inseparable. When the first fails the second becomes a wisp; when the second fails the first is a husk.
4. Nothing to tell, nothing to sell.
5. This is the impossible self-set task of trying to tell the truth, of trying to be honest. It does not seem impossible. Better, sometimes, to lie. By our lies shall they know us. And you? You, who I think of as the truth: are you lying to me too? Surely not. If you are, lie to me, tell me you're telling the truth.
LIKE AN EEL
LIKE AN EELProbably the one line in the last poems that made the most effect, “The past / is a foreign country,” and the quote that Barry McKinnon used to open his selected / collected poems, The Centre, Poems 1970-2000 (2004). As the narrator in the poem wonders how you can know yourself through old poems, he could easily have been John reading from his Apology for Absence at the Fire Station on Elgin Street, hosted by John Metcalf. What year was that? 1997? During his reading, he spoke out loud of boiling his life down into a few, scant lines, editing and selecting as he went, down until there was almost nothing left. A few scant lies, and searching for himself through them, with an obvious reference to his award-winning collection from nearly three decades earlier. Is an author ever to be known? Does an author ever really know himself through his poems, let alone a past self, known for his lies? As he told Jon Pearce in an interview published in the collection Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets (1980):
Hunting after myself in slightly used poems
is a heartbreaking chore. The past
is a foreign country and the quarry
is sly and elusive, a liar twisting
and twisting about the words like an eel
on a spear, dying, never to be known.
To tell the truth, another reason for calling it Lies was to deny this crud
about being as a poet an honest human being, because no human being is any more
honest than another. But I mouse-trapped myself for calling it Lies – people
would come up and say, “Look how honest he is; he admits that he lies.”
Sometimes I think what happens is that the first serious critic who says
something about your stuff that sounds reasonable gets followed by everybody
else. I could sit, I think, and write cheerful, optimistic things for the rest
of my life, and the one gloomy thing that I wrote would be emphasized in all the
reviews. What can you do? You become yourself, and you can’t get away from it. I
thought by having a slightly ridiculous cover on the book Lies, too, that it
would help but it didn’t do any good. Suddenly the rather funny raven became a
It seems far less dark a take than the one Frank Davey took, in his collection From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960 (1974):
By looking mercilessly within himself, Newlove has managed, through seven booksStephen Brockwell, in a review of The Night the Dog Smiled, argues for the pessimism of the language itself, as opposed specifically to the writing or the author, ending with:
of poetry, to discover most of the sicknesses and stupidities of his contemporary man. His work displays a self-loathing only slightly less strong than his loathing of the human race and its wretched and treacherous planet. Particularly does he detest the inability of man to recognize or admit the truth about himself and his world. Newlove's poetry has been a relentless quest for truth, attacking in poem after poem the deceits of our politicians, mythmakers, historians, and theologians. The title of his collection Lies (1972) insists that even his own searchings for truth become, because of man's innate incompetence, merely fumbling examples of the human capacity for self-deceit.
A major theme of this book seems to me to be that language has played a part in
the corruption of the world. Language is a powerful device. Of what might we not
be convinced by carefully chosen words?
IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA
IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWAHis poem, “IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA” appeared earlier as “LEONARD, IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA” in a fetschcrift for Leonard Cohen edited by Ken Norris and Michael Fournier, published by The Muses’ Company, and was, admittedly, the main reason I spent my last seventeen or eighteen dollars on the collection, for that, and his poem “THE CAT.” It was mainly for the first. The second poem was good, but not nearly as good as the other. And I thought, the least poem of the later chapbook.
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.
Again, Newlove acts as apologist for the pessimism that too many have seen in his work, to the exclusion of so much else, including the dry humour of “the machine / in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.”
HOME TOWNAs Susan Glickman called him, the “perennial hitch-hiker.” This poem could almost read as one of what John wrote, starting in the 1960s, as a hitchhiking poem, or one of his letter poems. He’s taken out the external references of “Dear Al:” or "Letter Two" or walking down the highway west out of Regina, but the feel of the poem is much the same; removing the external buildup to leave only the core.
This country is so old that no one can remember
its history. The sky blooms and the rocks flower.
Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, Prairie. The oceans
surround us, blue, grey, white, green, the land
goes on forever.
Canada is my home town. Trees fill the mind
and people look at me sideways and smile.
just a hurried note to try to reach you before you're off to cubaThe need for exploration, to understand his country. In the end, he understood it well enough that he no longer had to leave the house. The hitch-hiking poem without the hitch-hiker.
spreading semen & treason
& red red wine
all over latin Americas ("Dear Al:," Black Night Window)
On that black highway,
where are you going?--
it is in Alberta
among the trees
where the road sweeps
left and right
in great concrete arcs
at the famous resort ("The Hitchhiker," Black Night Window)
It's almost as though he's merged a number of the poems together from Black Night Window into a single piece, taking out all the extraneous; obviously Newlove had become far more optimistic in the years between the poems. Listen to what he has to say in the poem "Like a Canadian" from the same collection, or what he says at the end of the poem "Canada," writing:
CBC producers own creativity. AllAN INSCRIPTION TO RICHARD JEFFRIES
they don't know is what to do with it. Did
you expect a conclusion? Signed off. I quit
honesty in favour of another drink.
I would like to point out that you
ON A SARSEN AT BARBURY
AN INSCRIPTION TO RICHARD JEFFRIESJohn Newlove had always written poems as shorthand, over the years more often cribbing from books he was reading (see the poem "Quotations" from Lies, riffing off borrowed lines, or the poem "Speech about a Blackfoot Woman / with Travois, Photo by R.H. Trueman // ca. 1890" from The Night the Dog Smiled); John, the sort of reader who finished a book a day. A few years before he died, he spent a whole summer reading nothing but Greek history, as he told me, simply to get an overall sense of it in his head. His collection The Green Plain was said to be his reaction to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. He had a collection of file cards he had written single lines on for years, taken from books to include later on in poems.
ON A SARSEN AT BARBURY
It is Eternity now.
I am in the midst of it.
It is about me
in the sunshine.
But what about this piece? Taking the poem as a direct transcript, outright theft, did he really see nothing new to add? Was it simply perfect the way it was? Why write in anything else, when in the end, he would have only been removing. It was something that Newlove had referenced earlier, he who kept found lines on organized stacks of blue file cards, for him to later include in his own poems, writing on the theft between stolen lines in the poem “White Philharmonic Novels” from his collection The Night the Dog Smiled:
Look, nobody gets wise writingIn an email after John died, Saskatoon poet and Thistledown Press publisher Glen Sorestad told the story of a poem of Newlove’s left after a visit John and Susan made to the Sorestad house that afterward, John had no recollection of, and had to be sent a copy. As he writes:
Now I must be making
It’s necessary to realize that all these phrases
are stolen. The arrangement is all.
Once John and Susan stayed with us for a few days in Saskatoon. At that time
we had a turtle aquarium (small) in our main bathroom. Some time much later
Newlove sent me a poem about the turtles in Sorestad’s bathroom, a brief cryptic
poem that I duly filed away somewhere. Years later, I happen to mention this
poem to John and he looked quite puzzled, then asked me to send him a copy of it
because he obviously had sent me the only copy he had. The poem shortly
appeared, somewhat revised in The Night the Dog Smiled. So god only knows
how many similar, original Newlove poems are out there floating around to be
gathered up like fallen maple leaves. (email, dated December 28, 2003)
A later version then appeared as “Dried-Out Insects” in The Night the Dog Smiled:
The turtles in the Sorestad’s bathroom
have beautiful markings
but look vicious.
I sit here shitting
and they sit there sitting
and acting mean.
I’m just trying to be clean,
but afraid to move. Can turtles fly?
I know they can’t.
But they might try.
Meanwhile, like wives,
they waver in the water,
beautiful and vicious. (The Night the Dog Smiled)
Does this allow for the hope of other work, hidden among his files in the house he shared with Susan? So far, unfortunately, Susan says not. Still, the hopes are that another poem or two might pop up as a new larger selected poems is built by prairie filmmaker Robert McTavish, for publication through Ottawa's own Chaudiere Books in fall 2007. McTavish just sold his documentary on Newlove, ten years in the making, to Bravo / Book Television, to be aired this fall, with the world premiere of the documentary to happen in a couple of weeks at this years' Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw.
Atwood, Margaret. “The Wrong Box: Matt Cohen, Fabulism, and Critical Taxonomy,” Moving Targets, Writing with Intent, 1982-2004. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.
Barbour, Douglas. “Weather Report: ‘Stars, rain, forests,’” Essays on Canadian Writing 36. Toronto, spring 1988.
Brockwell, Stephen. Review of The Night the Dog Smiled, The Rideau Review 2. Ottawa ON: The Rideau Review Press, June 1987.
Davey, Frank. "John Newlove," From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960. Erin ON: Press Porcepic, 1974.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land.
Glickman, Susan. “Driving Home with John Newlove,” Essays on Canadian Writing 36. Toronto, spring 1988.
Layton, Irving. "Birthday Poem for John Newlove," The Third MacMillan Anthology. Eds. John Metcalf and Kent Thompson. Toronto ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1990.
McKinnon, Barry. The Centre, Poems 1970-2000. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2004.
mclennan, rob. Ed., Groundswell: best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. Fredericton: cauldron books / Broken Jaw Press, 2003.
Morton, Colin. Ed., Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology. Ottawa: Oroboros Press, 1990.
Newlove, John. Apology for Absence, Selected Poems 1962-1992. Erin, ON: The Porcupines’ Quill, Inc. 1993.
________. Black Night Window. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1968.
________. Lies. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1972.
1 The poem "Progress" that appeared, finally, in Apology for Absence appeared (the first half) as "Bugdancing (a work-in-progress)" in The Mahalat Review, Volume 77, December 1986, and (the second half) as "In Progress" in The Malahat Review, Volume 82, March 1988. The collected version appears as "In Progress" in Colin Morton, ed., Capital Poets: An Ottawa Anthology (Oroboros, 1989).