Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jan Allen, Personal Peripherals 1-30, Stanzas, Volume 1, No 42, above/ground press

Jan Allen’s poetry juxtaposes technical and psychological jargon with original language and metaphoric abstractions. Much of her imagery is geometric and abstract, full of shapes and patterns. There are colours, there is motion and understated emotion in her work.

This chapbook is part of Stanzas, an occasional magazine for long poem/sequences put out by above/ground press. Jan Allen is a writer, visual artist and curator in Kingston, Ontario. The poems published in this series tend to be unconventional, breaking with tradition, breaking rules. Allen’s is no exception. Does she use clichés? Yes. Does she end lines with function words? Yes. And it works. Stanzas and Allen’s own poetry is part of publisher/poet rob mclennan’s on-going mission to expose readers to poetry that'll "blow yr colon" (and your semi-colon too).

It’s hard not to just quote most of the poems line by line as I find just taking out excerpts really minimizes the power and beauty of her poems, but here goes:

PP01 aesthetic alignment unit

Allen presents a snapshot of geometric images coming together: “a sudden rectangle/behind tangerine curtains”. She accurately and creatively reproduces the sounds and sights of a summer’s day in a pool by blending senses: “pounding ears brim/with light filled/densities”

PP02 anger management module

There’s lots of colour in Allen’s poems, but the colour does not feel arbitrary.

green core/gray lines/ white plastic plunger

The movement “long needles slide under the skin” is an image that stays with you; it’s haunting, sad.

PP03 anticipation modulator

more blending of senses: “I hear the tilt/in your voice.”
original language: “unexpected oranges/roll and scatter/with the logic of fruit.” This is exactly right. It’s one of those observations that just makes sense, but no one thinks of fruit as being logical.
metaphoric abstraction: “the jagged stammer of living/gives way/to the fragile/metronome of hope.”

PP04 antiprocrastination switching system (which my spell checker wants to change to ant procrastination)

Poem is strong due to its understatement; she’s talking about bombs dropping and yet the whole thing is subdued. The image of spiraling down is threaded through the poem. She has a new spin on mortality: “riding/the white shuffling/calculus of time.” It feels like your high school math teacher took art and then wrote poems. Allen’s stuff is such a mixture of art and science; logic and heart. Often when people write issue poems, they hammer it heavy into us, but not Allen. She has something to say, but she does it through understatement and imagery and this abstract language. While the titles depersonalize in some way, the content of the poems makes this very personal: “we know too much/ and too little/and still/sleek improbable jets/are dropping bombs/on distant towns.” There’s no lecturing here, which makes it all the more potent.

PP07 arousal modulator

Allen exhibits a facility with scientific language: “an infinite regression,” but places it within the context of humanity, of feeling. In this poem we have both the physical and the metaphysical. There’s beauty in her words, in the act she describes; here's the whole poem because it's my favourite:

I am close enough to see it now
the wide black pool in each eye
an infinite regression
shining back at me

I never miss the involuntary
flare of nostrils or the trace of
moisture across your brow as
flesh gathers itself
into itself
like an arsenal of angels
too long deprived of flight

PP08 bonding capacitator A [1-3]

Allen often uses repetition as a device in her poems. In this poem, the repetition works as a form of meditation: “of time alone/our time together/flows together.”

PP09 bonding capacitator B [group applications]

“some quiet/parking lot future.” You know what she means. It’s short and to the point, very little is described, yet it works.

PP010 charisma chip

Once more there is movement: circling and return, a voice’s vibrations into the “listening earth.” In many of the poems, it feels like the speaker senses something the rest of us are missing and is trying to describe it in terms we humans can understand. “don’t kid/yourself that it’s/ just physical/a charged presence/radiant/we warm ourselves/before it.”

PP011 commitment regulator

A simple description; this is another example of the juxtaposition of cold, laboratory titles juxtaposed with warm human activity, in this case the nursing of a baby. Allen uses some stock imagery: rosebud lips, tiny fists, but then gives us “the tingling release of/the white circuit of milk.” The stock images act like a lullaby of the familiar and then we are awoken by her unusual descriptions that seem so fitting to the circumstance.

PP013 credulity suppressor

A gentle lament about poets “the fibrous network/that is the act of beauty/grows brittle with misuse.” And this is what Allen is doing in her work, she’s making sure that this network does not grow brittle; she’s incorporating fresh ways of seeing the world into the old and tired, the technical and the abstract, the cold and brittle.

PP014 crisis compiler

Yet Allen is not all about the abstract, she is adept at describing the physical: “pavements sticky/with ancient circles/of chewing gum…” In this poem there is some fairly traditional sound play: sticky/brick/fix/conviction/quickly—to give this poem its sticky staccato crisis feel. She also uses the occasional simile and hers are original and fitting: “stale piss days and nights/pass into one another/like playing cards dealt/too quickly/in a tired place/where every kindness/feels like failure.”

PP015 didactic intake amplifier

More simile here and a very tight rhythm and strict diction: “sensory funnels suck/information sheaves like/layers of pressed grass/that compost quickly/in the humid convolutions/of cranial space.”

PP020 full reverse trigger

In this poem, the speaker addresses the reader directly with a command, a kind of philosophical plea: “eliminate/the bridal path/circuitry of present pursuits.” Once more we have the image of a circle, which crops up often in Allen’s poems.

I found Allen’s strongest poems to be at the beginning. There are so many poems here, with lots of original language and odd juxtapositions, ways of looking at things. In PP025 induction device for conflict resolution, Allen continues to play with sound and resorts to a play on Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month": “winter is the kindest season.” There’s lots of attention to sound in this very short poem: “kindest/kindling/culled” “flames/flicking/fingers.

PP026 inhibition override unit

This is the most surrealistic poem with strong imagery: “the yawning cries of trains” and “the blister packs/of unspent intuition.” Once more we have motion, this time it is rising: “hydrogen bubbles/rise glorious/and luminous fractals/release the white barking/elegance of thought.” Much of the poems seem to be encouraging readers to let go, to live in the moment, to override convention.

Again in PP027 lapse reducer, Allen sounds a warning: “planetary wars/are going unnoticed.” There’s another strong image “alphabet teething rings/in landfill sites/…spell out a…lament/for the supine drift/of inattention.” All the way through these poems, not paying attention, not living in the moment, letting things happen unawares, seems to be the biggest danger.

PP029 miasma lifting device

There’s hope: “the judges are growing impatient/they take their daughters/out of school and/teach them how to sing/you can hear them now/…swaying and swinging their feet/in the sloping light of afternoon.”

In the final poem, PP030 misdirected passion terminator, Allen ends with “I am considering the wisdom/of border planting/and taking/long overdue/measures against/invasive perennials.” This poem is sharp and to the point. None of Allen’s poems are long, and none of them ramble. There’s clear imagery, the carving out of concrete image from abstract metaphor and a heart that shows itself sympathetic and gently impatient with mankind. These are not sappy poems, but they are the poems of someone who cares.

I feel dissatisfied with what I’ve written here; it’s such a superficial treatment of some excellent poetry that one needs to return to again and again. My own pale purple copy is dog eared and mangled. The best thing to do is read for yourself:

rob mclennan, e-mail or above/ground press c/o rr#1 maxville ontario Canada k9x 1t0 $20 for 5 issues or sample $4 (or large s.a.s.e) payable to rob mclennan. you can also pay $30 and get the chapbooks and little mags rob publishes that year in small brown envelopes discreetly passed to you at readings or mailed to you. I find this is a wonderful way to be exposed to the new, the now of poetry.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

a brief note on the poetry of Max Middle

Historically, so much of the poetry that has come out of the City of Ottawa has moved through the mode of the confessional lyric, in a city where modernism overstayed its welcome; moved to the point of nearly falling flat. Throughout the one hundred and fifty year history of English-language poetry in Ottawa, there have always been two predominant threads of any creative writing pursuit ― the official thread, and the nebulous other. Given the large amount of government and university employment in the city, the official thread is nearly a given, with more formally conservative forms and subject matter being almost the norm after the time of the Confederation Poets, writing another poem about the Chaudiére Rapids or Falls, with echoes of Archibald Lampman; while the other, holding to more formally experimental and/or radical poetries and poetics ― with our lack of factory space and other lower-class structures, making an entire social class nearly non-existent ― has never been large enough to group, let alone (much of the time) get further known. Think of William Hawkins in the 1960s and into the '70s, or Michael Dennis and Dennis Tourbin, and later on, Rob Manery and Louis Cabri. Think currently of jwcurry, called the best concrete and visual poet in the country, who moved here from Toronto in 1996. Not one of the official anthologies of Ottawa poetry published over the past four decades has included any of their works. Can you even name a single other member of their groups (it doesn't help, that for all they accomplished in Ottawa and beyond, both Manery and Cabri have so far only produced a single trade collection each)? It's quite a difference from Christopher Levenson's Ottawa Poetry Group, which recently put out an anthology of their thirty years in 2005, with Ottawa's Buschek Books; Levenson was one of the three founders of Arc magazine in 1978. The only alternate from that same 80s-90s period could be Colin Morton, who moved here from Alberta earlier on in the decade, who grouped himself around the poets in his Capital Poets (Ottawa ON: Oroborus, 1989), as well as the smaller group that made up the poetry performance group, First Draft, in the 1980s and beyond, starting as "radical" and moving slowly more lyric mainstream (while still working in concrete and sound); perhaps one of the few Ottawa writers that overlapped that invisible line.

Influenced by the language-centred and formally-experimental writings and performances by various members of Vancouver's Kootenay School of Writing, the late Toronto poet bpNichol and poet and Nichol bibliographer jwcurry, Ottawa poet Max Middle is one of the exceptions that makes the current rule. Born in 1970, Middle kept quiet for years, but since he started writing and performing a few years ago in Edmonton (at the Olive Reading Series), just before he returned to Ottawa, he has slowly been making himself one of the most interesting poets to come out of the city in some time. His musical and poetry performance experiment the Max Middle Sound Project, founded in 2004, has predominantly included readings and sound performances by Middle of his own works, but has also included collaborations with fiction writer Melanie Little, poet Wanda O'Connor, and poet and fiction writer Peter Norman, who performed with the group on a number of occasions, including numerous shows at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2004, and at the ottawa international writers festival in April 2005. It has been interesting to watch Middle evolve through his association with (for example) jwcurry over the past couple of years, from his own publishing and performances in sound through the Max Middle Sound Project (including a Max Middle Sound Project sound score published in an issue of Grant Wilkins' Murderous Signs; audio files are also available through the Max Middle Sound Project website at, or his own print work, from his chapbooks A Creation Song (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2004; out of print, reprinted in the first issue of ottawater) and smthg (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005), part of the latter being reprinted in the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), as well as other publications such as jwcurry's 1cent, Wanda O'Connor's Impress, and as various above/ground press productions such as four broadsides, the chapbook anthology two-by-two on that oversized lifeboat, A Peter F. Yacht Club special (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005), and various issues of the ongoing Peter F. Yacht Club (various editors/publishers).

b being still

beauty can be found
b being still
stood outside the gate
ages did was too shandy
meant much from the high place
wants mountain makes tea
mould can be lurching
ice ovr a little told
tells skimming in a float plane
slicks picked unsanguineous
safe to raise that arm again
the one with the pen in it
a tattooist decrees left to right
countermand stuff of crime
graphemes extracted simmering
man while manshie d d flew

faced me the reflection floats
in here this side of mirror
said i heard stood what was stolen
poondle basha full trash na go
alright i said fistula
genria janria chip kelta
stiff off the surface stick
stooshing mouth off walk
smooth schnorkel pipe smoker
strokes the shimmering water
a face stoking through the gate
pillows a sail on a rise futuring (smthg)

In his solo performances, the piece "run scrummee" has almost become a signature piece, making whole groups of us want to put "run scrummee" on t-shirts or banners, merging through this poem a sense both visual and vocal. One of the strengths of Middle throughout the City of Ottawa is that he not only manages to bring people to poetry readings that don't normally go to readings at all, but manages to make admirers out of them, and of reading regulars as well. There is something about hearing Max Middle, in his supreme awkwardness, that somehow completely works through a performance.

run scrummee

j U swh s y b Y
jj U so see holey
j uscrew seem only
U uscr seem Oh Y Y
U R su scu e em me
R U sum scuem meanie
run scrummee tell tell (smthg)

An Ottawa native, Middle did interact with a number of writers in town before heading to places further west, back in the mid-1990s, and was a regular at the readings Rob Manery and Louis Cabri hosted through their Experimental Writers Group (publishers of hole magazine and hole books), such as the Transparency Machine at Gallery 101, and later on, the N400 Series at the Manx Pub. In an interview published in the first issue of ottawater , Middle talked about the cultural life of Ottawa in the early 1990s, and where I ended up first encountering him, the quiet fellow that sat somewhere behind Manery and Cabri at the Manx Pub on Elgin Street:

"By ‘94, I was well into an extended period of travel, which brought me in and out of Ottawa and kept me distracted from matters relating to writing. I had attended their [Louis and Rob’s] readings starting in the spring of ‘91. At that time, the readings were being held in the old Gallery 101 space on Lisgar St near Bank St. They called them ‘The Transparency Machine’ because the poets would give an informal lecture using overheads on a transparency machine. That would form the first half of the event. The second half would be comprised of a conventional reading. One of the first ‘Transparency Machine’ talk/readings I saw at Gallery 101 was given by Jed Rasula. I seem to recall that not all of the readings incorporated a talk. I attended a two reader reading in June ‘91 given by Jeff Derksen and Deanna Ferguson. I’m not sure if they gave a talk before reading. By the autumn of ‘91 or winter of ‘92, Rob and Louis were holding readings at Arts Court in Ottawa. In that venue, there were readings given by Charles Bernstein and Erin Mouré amongst others. For the readings at Arts Court, there were critical and other texts employed. I recall a Steve McCaffery reading at Gallery 101 given under their auspices around that time again without the transparency machine.

The ‘Transparency Machine’ readings were an excellent opportunity to learn first hand from some very engaged writers about the writing process. The writers they were bringing in were generally of the sort that was attempting to innovate. They tended to have an association with language poetry. At that time, being a young feller, having to that point limited exposure to innovative poetics, I was fascinated. Here were poets expanding the parameters of what I understood as poetic form and talking about how they were approaching their work to boot!"

Over the past few performances, obviously developing his approach through conversations and performances with jwcurry, Middle has explored not only his intonation, qualifying the tones of his voice, but reading individual letters throughout a text as text themselves, such as in this poem, originally published as an above/ground press broadside. When performing it, it become as interesting to hear Middle over-pronounce the individual letters as it is to watch him physically mouth the words, in a style that almost seems related to poet Hugo Ball:

an MMSP C poem

the MMSP soundsters C
munchie pff dhaA C c
rye hymes what u wish U C
in a bag a gag C
all along aClang
C we laugh (smthg)

On Saturday, September 24th, 2005, Middle performed as part of a rare and important reading by Ottawa poet and publisher jwcurry, the first in curry's Hit'N'Run Lecture Series, called "MESSAGIO GALORE take II." Framed as "a performance by jwcurry of sound & related textu(r)al materials with additional vocal aid by Max Middle," it was held in the then-vacated bookstore space underneath curry's Chinatown apartment on Somerset Street West. Practicing daily for a week before the event for individual stretches that lasted as long as eight to ten hours, it must have been something to go over and through the material with jwcurry, considered meticulous to the extreme, and called one of the best concrete and visual poets in the country, and perhaps one of the finest sound poets as well; it could easily have been the kind of vocal training that some performers would pay good currency for. curry and Middle later performed a couple of the pieces from the reading as one-offs, in the late night hospitality suite of the fall 2005 edition of the ottawa international writers festival, including a performance of the Four Horseman piece "Hare Pronounced Hair" with the assistance of Carmel Purkis, seasonal staff of the festival bookstore, Nicholas Hoare, taking the place of the third voice from the original event, Jennifer Books. In the same interview from ottawater, Middle talked about curry's influence on his writing:

"I have learned a lot from curry: about sound poetries, visual poetries, Canadian literary history, small press in Canada, bpNichol, printing, small press publishing. Being able to see some of the works in his collection has been a real privilege. Talking to him and seeing some of the visual poetry in his collection has expanded my understanding of visual poetry. Viewing visual poetry by Shaunt Basmajian, David UU and bpNichol has given me a sense of the different ways in which visual poetry has been and can be approached. The visual sequences in curry’s book Objectionable Perspectives have been enlightening.

It was a rare and edifying experience to see/hear curry read with Maria Erskine last February [2004] as part of the Poetry 101 series. The reading strategies, like reading above the audience on a staircase, reading into water, wrapping himself up in a sheet, which I found theatrical but which curry denied having any theatrical import were highly inventive and brilliantly executed. It was the first time I heard curry read sound poetry. His method of reading visual poetry, taking a text superficially ‘unreadable’ and interpreting it in speech and sound is one that yields fascinating results. The essay that he read was highly informative. Dorothy Howard, editor of Raw Nervz, sent me a copy of the issue of Raw Nervz in which that essay was published."