Friday, May 23, 2014

Recent Reads: "ARRHYTHMIA" by Janice Tokar

ARRHYTHMIA by Janice Tokar

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Much like the cover image’s interweaving mountain peaks, ARRHYTHMIA finds Janice Tokar communicating the elemental shifts of our landscape while drawing our eye toward a blurring point. With “Debris from the marshes/ bobs on the waves” and “The forest breathes north/ for a thousand miles”, her commentary seems more interested in how a region creates space and buffers time than any ecological or geographical concerns. It soon becomes clear that this almost sterile view of nature is burdened by its association to a familial tragedy.


what’s left
or can’t be left behind

The arrhythmia carried

not fatal

but a permanent flaw

In my dreams
she cuts through the waves

with Olympian sureness and strength

I stumble along the shore

If Tokar’s voyage comes across as a conflicted homecoming, the “she” being revived and the arrhythmia passed down make up the sedimentary layers this text aims to plumb. Who is she? What happened to her? As a reader I’d rather have information withheld than offered up too freely, and the secrets of this long poem are addressed with genuine apprehension. As “last year’s calendar/ still mounts the wall” and “This year’s is hung/ loosely on top”, Tokar papers over a black anniversary. When a patch of seaweed looks “like tangles of gold-brown hair”, the poem inexplicably trails off. These clues deepen Tokar’s surroundings with an apparitional presence but too often return to surface details that mind ARRHYTHMIA's delicate atmosphere. The parallels relating distance as a physical expanse and as a proximity to aftermath work fluently; moreover, a mood-piece such as this doesn’t require a central arc or epiphany to welcome a closer reading. But whether the text rewards that closer reading is another mystery. 


When she left

             hard choices made

             histories deanchored

             gold bands
             tossed in the Falls

I imagine
she imagined
we’d sail free

But the beginning rides in
on an ending’s wake

The above excerpt is rare in that it gives us plenty of back-story but scenery aside, none of these tidbits converse with Tokar’s surveying in a revelatory way. The same can be said for ARRHYTHMIA’s eleventh passage, which despite probing tough issues of abandonment and reconciliation appears completely removed from the pilgrimage that carries the poem.

Is it different with love
or, like crime,
does lack of intent
negate the offence?

Res ipsa loquitur

the facts may speak for themselves

but reveal so little
of what we recognize
as true

The eloquence of this passage floors me, as Tokar meets an impasse between documented and remembered trauma with empathy. But these truths pop up devoid of the surrounding forest and its “patient resuscitation”, reducing some of ARRHYTHMIA’s misty descriptions to pleasant but unnecessary fog. Perhaps the sparseness is intended to stand in for the crux of the mystery, or at least reflect the distance that makes it so inscrutable. (The strong impression that “she” is a mother figure understandably skews the case’s objectivity.) Even if the reader’s appetite for discovery goes a bit underfed, ARRHYTHMIA is an off-kilter study that attributes loss and perseverance to the realm of nature – human or otherwise.

Recent Reads: "Lime Kiln Quay Road" by Ben Ladouceur

Lime Kiln Quay Road by Ben Ladouceur

Published by above/ground press, 2014. The first edition of Lime Kiln Quay Road was published in 2011.

According to Louise Gluck (who appears in quotes on the title page), reactions to “the open” begin with longing and end with joy, leaving “in the middle, tedium”. Whether that trajectory of spirit appears saddle-shaped or as a steady rise depends on how character building you consider tedium, but there’s no question it’s the most pliable force in Ben Ladouceur’s Lime Kiln Quay Road. The first of twenty entries, numbered as such, expands on a stasis – the “letdown” of a rock rumoured to grow an inch per year – and Ladouceur’s shaky tolerance for it. I can see why the author describes this as one long poem; although every page ultimately tackles a new day or activity, there’s a plodding lack of concern throughout. “We don’t grow a great deal”, he relates early on, and it’s a confession he returns to, unfazed, near the chapbook’s close:

If growth occurs in the countryside
I am not convinced it occurs
for any good reason.

There’s a malaise being conveyed rather successfully, a flat horizon line visible whenever Ladouceur steals an object away from near focus. Behind the upturned wheelbarrow in the garden; without the snails on the door; or after a flock of birds has occasioned the property, these poems linger, trying to measure a lacking.


A cast of birds took flight from the shrubs
when I shut my giant book.

Birds aren’t fighters

all they do
is put miles between themselves and you

leaving the garden vacant

nothing but insects
nothing to eat them.

Direct language and sparse punctuation lend these poems an immediate impact but their day-to-day trivialities invite a more curious tension: that of the bucolic setting and its two restless live-ins. The ennui between all three parties feels self-imposed but primed to expire; the “we” of Ladouceur and his housemate but also the wild inhabitants of Blaxhall, whose harsh realities increasingly come knocking. From “16.”, in which the couple strikes a rabbit with their car:

For all I know
the grassy hard shoulders of Suffolk
hide hundreds of nuggets of feces and fur

for all I know their ghosts
have clamped their teeth
into the bumper of your car

and one of us feels the additional
weight and one doesn’t.

In tandem with its domesticated arrangement, Lime Kiln Quay Road stubbornly refuses to break silences. Any travelogue opportunities that might’ve distinguished the cities for which these poems were dedicated – all English boroughs – are likewise dashed. These omissions are brave, reinforcing Ladouceur’s careful tone and paving the way for a last page confessional, an epilogue where shades of Gluck’s longing and joy meet in aftermath. As averse to excitement as this chapbook seems to be, there’s a ramshackle appeal to the way Ladouceur whittles away a season or so of this formative period. Plus, when you consider that Ladouceur first published Lime Kiln Quay Road in 2011, it’s exciting to wonder how a few intermittent formative years might shape his upcoming projects. Good on above/ground press for giving this a deserved – and probably necessary – second printing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

On Writing #30 : Michael Bryson

On Writing
Michael Bryson

When I first had an inkling I was a writer, I was less than ten. I loved books! I loved to read! I made my first magazine about that time, a couple sheets of paper folded over and stapled. I loved Farley Mowat! I loved Alligator Pie! I loved Narnia! Then about grade seven I decided that I loved visual art even more. For five years, I all but stopped reading. The image! The image is everything!

In grade twelve I found Marshall McLuhan's COUNTERBLAST in the East York Collegiate library. I was flipping through it in my physics class (it's not really a book one READS), when my teacher expressed dismay -- and admiration -- at my choice of reading material. Thankfully, he didn't point me to a bunsen burner.

It was John Lennon, Bob Dylan and an infatuation with the Sixties that brought me to McLuhan, and it was McLuhan who convinced me that literature wasn't just about seeking "significance" and learning to employ words like "juxtaposition." What he wasn't, however, was much use as an introduction to a career as an undergraduate in English, which was my chosen fate.

Chomsky on linguistics seemed more like math to me. My cousin gave me Kerouac, and I reignited with earnest the independent studies I'd abandoned so many years before. Eventually I would complete an MA in literature as well, and never once in nearly two decades of education did I ever take a course dedicated to Canadian literature.

But it was in the air, wasn't it? Atwood, Munro, Findley, Ondattje, Richler, Davies, Lawrence. Canlit superstars were celebrated everywhere. The ground had been broken, the path cleared. A new generation was sure to follow. I wanted to be a part of it. I had no idea what I had to do, except write. Wasn't that the goal? Scribble. I dabbled in journalism. I wrote notebooks full of poetry. I had a black turtleneck. After years "away" I returned to my parents basement. I bought an Apple.

By the late 1990s I developed something of a style. Short, sharp, shocked. Raymond Carver's SHORTCUTS had ignited my brain. I had started writing poetry as little lyric bursts of emotion, but the lyrics soon turned into narratives, and the narratives into prose, but as stories, nothing happened. Reading Carver I realized nothing needed to happen. Story could be stasis, story could be situation. Stories could make meaning the way poems make meaning. I wrote a bunch of stories like this, a couple of hundred words each. Some of them got published in "little magazines" (where we all begin, said Norman Levine).

Needing a job I decided to study this internet thing. How much different my life would have been if as a youngster I'd been interested in "zeros and ones." But the browser! I loved the browser! The image and word, married! Surely Nirvana was around the corner! One thing led to another and I found myself employed as a writer ("content creator") in a public sector IT branch. I also started my own online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, with the simple premise of proving that "literature" and "online" were not incompatible. Imagine. Such were the days.

Fifteen years later I am still editing said magazine. I have published three trade books of short stories, one self-published book of short stories, dabbled with e-books, and written dozens of book reviews, a handful of essays, and more blog posts and social media updates than I can count. I have a YouTube channel. I had a Twitter account, I killed my Twitter account, I opened a new (mostly dormant) Twitter account. Total revenue generated has been in the hundreds of dollars.

I have met a lot of interesting people. I have read a lot of interesting books. Margaret Lawrence called writers a "tribe." That is not a word I would use, but I feel at home among them. These are my people. I like the poets best. What I feel, when I feel it, when the impulse to write is upon me, is a fragment of the big bang inspiration from so long ago, when I was less than ten, and felt a rocketing certainty that writing was my thing.

Personality test after personality test have reinforced this certainty. Writing is not just what I do, it's how I think. It's how I feel. ("Religion is deep entertainment," Leonard Cohen said. I liked that.) Writing is my primary tool for engaging with this mess of a universe and crazy big things like life, and love, death. I once thought that writing led to capital "T" Truth. I blame Kerouac for that. And English 201, the Romantic Movement. Lately I have been writing a memoir (online, episodic) of grief. Two years ago my wife died of breast cancer. The experience of marriage, cancer, death, at mid-life (mine, hers) has shattered whatever existential dread I felt previously into a thousand points of light.

The day of her funeral I said to a friend, "Without literature, I don't know what I would do." I meant, only reading something like Kafka's THE CASTLE could have prepared me to face and endure the absurdity of disease and death (and healthcare bureaucracy). Literature is not "real," but then I'm not sure what is (except online databases; they resist everything, including death. Amazon wanted to know why I wanted to delete my wife's account. "If you delete it, you won't be able to purchase anything"). Literature is hyper-real. Thank you Uberto Eco. Literature takes the ordinary, the boring, and gives it sheen.

I read Hamlet after my wife died. I know T.S. Eliot wasn't keen on it, but screw him; it's fantastic. Recently I read some of Primo Levi's holocaust memoirs. They are riveting, and I so admire his ability to look into the darkness and chaos and render it into a meaningful system of classification. Pattern. Which threatens to take us back to McLuhan. Pattern recognition, one definition of reading. Right now I also like a lot the work of J.G. Ballard, especially his ability to situate the unreal within the real. That is, to write the implausible in a way that makes it plausible. That's what living with cancer is like.

In interviews, Ballard talked about the invisible electronic media web that spans the globe and creates and reinforces an imaginary world that influences and even leads the shaping of our quotidian bread and butter existence. McLuhan again. The medium is the massage. Global village. Funny how it all comes back to the grade twelve physics class, innit?

I would like to get back to writing fiction. My adventures in real-time, real-life have been extremely painful. My wife liked a quotation from Emily Dickinson, "Hope is the thing with feathers." I put it on her grave marker. I have read interpretations of that poem that call hope a bird, but I resist that thought. Dickinson doesn't say it's a bird. If she had wanted to say bird, she could have said bird. The words she used, to my mind, imply something supernatural. Something that resists image. It has feathers and flies, but it's also just beyond knowledge. Words are really good at that, reminding us of the limit of what we know. Helping us marinate in mystery.

Michael Bryson ( started The Danforth Review ( in 1999, and 49 issues of original fiction later it is still a going concern. He has published four collections of short stories and writes occasional book reviews and posts there here (

Thursday, May 08, 2014

A B Series Presents

Join us for readings & conversation with
Sharon Harris and Christian Bök!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Daily Grind Café
601 Somerset Street West
Ottawa, Ont.

A hat will be passed.

More info:

Christian Bök is the author not only of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, but also of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry (particularly DieUrsonate by Kurt Schwitters). His conceptual artworks (which include books built out of Rubik’s cubes and Lego bricks) have appeared at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibit Poetry Plastique. The Utne Reader has recently included Bök in its list of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Bök teaches English at the University of Calgary.

Sharon Harris is a Toronto artist/writer whose poems have been anthologized in The Broadview Introduction to LiteratureThe Last Vispo, and Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry. She is the author of chapbooks from bookthug, In Case of Emergency Press, and above/ground, and her first full-length collection, Avatar, was published by The Mercury Press. She has written articles for GeistThe Globe & Mail, and Open Book Toronto; is a past contributor to Torontoist and Word Magazine; and her work has been published in The National Post, dANDelion, The Capilano Review, Drunken Boat, The Volta, broken pencil, and Vallum. I Love You Toronto, her exhibition of photographs, appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on radio and television across Canada.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

On Writing #29 : Sara Heinonen

On Writing
Sara Heinonen

Every time the concerns of my life shift, so does the focus of the novel I'm working on. With each draft I take my characters somewhere different because I need to be completely taken with what they are taken with. After eight years working on this novel, I have to believe that I've also taken each draft somewhere better. I've learned to accept that my writing process isn't efficient or predictable. It's not like my day job: it's art, or at least an attempt at it. It's a form of love too. I prefer writing to any other work, even though art is a difficult job and love can drive you crazy. I'm giving this novel my time, my heart, and my mind.

Or trying to. Writing with a busy mind in a busy world is an ongoing test of discipline. The temptation is always there to escape the isolation of writing and go out into that world and bite into it rather than sit in a room and try to describe the taste. I won't even mention the internet, that devilish world that has highjacked all of our brains. What I try to remember is that my days are richer and more vivid when my thoughts find a way into fiction. This is also true when I am immersed in reading: reading your excellent writing, dear fellow writer.

Writing makes me come alive. Other things do too, of course, but they aren't always accessible. Words always are. But words left as thoughts alone don't cut it: I need to make them more real by writing them down. Snippets of written thoughts on scraps of paper don't cut it either. They need to be connected to other thoughts and figured out and developed. And made so compelling that they must be read by at least somebody other than me and, in the best scenario, lots of somebodies.

Writing well is the most challenging mental work I've ever encountered. It has taken over a decade of serious commitment to fiction to get a handle on my written voice. And I still make beginner's mistakes, which pisses me off because I want more than anything to produce great work. There's a point in every writing project when I question its value. Doubt has tripped me up many times but hasn't stopped me yet. I don't want to write: I need to.

I write because I need to get life right through fiction. And what do I mean by "right"? Good question. Ask me again when I'm eighty. In the meantime, don't wish me luck, wish me perseverance. And good perseverance to you too, with whatever makes you come alive.

Sara Heinonen is the author of Dear Leaves, I Miss You All, a collection of short stories published by Mansfield Press in 2013. Her fiction has appeared in many Canadian literary magazines including Grain, Event, The Fiddlehead, and Taddle Creek. She lives in Toronto and also at