Friday, November 21, 2014

On Writing #45 : Asher Ghaffar

The Pen:
Asher Ghaffar

I am not myself yet. This is the first phrase and last phrase of the autobiography that proceeds negatively by subtracting subjective attributes, roles and functions of the individual in order to be left with subjectivity’s afterglow. What I am trying to write is always what just escapes me. The page is a tunneling and what seems to be is not. To seek the name is to unname. The tablet speaks before my intentions and I am in search for its nebulous roots. The concepts emerge out of the material and the relation between the concepts is beyond me in the future.  The only phrase worth examining is the one that lies beyond me. Circumambulating the stray phrase that escapes me, I write to capture a voice that is not my own. The movement through the darkness doesn't lead to light but to darkness without shadow. I await the clock to strike its clarifying din. For the pen to trace its own corpse.

Asher Ghaffar is a writer living in Ajax, Ontario. His first collection of poetry, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hums a Strange Music, was published with ECW Press in 2008. His next collection, "Homegrown" is forthcoming. Ghaffar is also working on a collection of critical essays on writers such as Zulfikar Ghose and Hanif Kureishi.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Recent Reads: Touch the Donkey (Issues 3, 2 & 1)

(Also available with an above/ground press subscription)

For years I’d been planning to “get into” experimental poetry. Perhaps this sounds familiar. I had not circled a date on the calendar, nor browsed excerpts from celebrated masters of the avant-garde. Truth be told, I hadn’t moved an inch on the subject until Touch the Donkey’s third issue appeared, as plainly and mysteriously as the previous two. (For 90s inclined music fans, we can just as well refer to these as we do Weezer albums; the "blue issue", the "green", etc.) I recall feeling deflated in April when flipping through the debut, quietly bemoaning my indifference. But with July’s follow-up I found some energetic pockets, and then October’s release clicked more often than not. Let's rewind, re-assess.

Has each Touch the Donkey issue improved by leaps and bounds? Possibly, although it’s just as reasonable to suggest that I’m now jumping with the text, instead of panting against each abstract hurdle. If we opt to credit any learning curve, we’re obliged to discuss above/ground press’ subscription service, the caravan by which many a Touch the Donkey issues have found readers. Inserted with bundles of chapbooks, the literary magazine’s kinship goes beyond the aesthetic, featuring many familiar above/ground alumni. But its platform for experimental poetics, which also includes writers brand new to me, is paving a left-field expanse for publisher rob mclennan and company to explore unfettered.

third issue,
Since the issues haven’t relied on theme or more than eight contributors a piece, it’s no surprise that much of the reader’s enjoyment will rest on each writer’s style and subject matter. The third issue has so much going for it precisely because the roster feels stacked and in a generous mood. derek beaulieu's conceptual piece “one week”, which collates violence in the middle east, unfurls with the grace of a pillow-case full of hammers descending the stairs. Emily Ursuliak’s “Tourists”, presumably taken from the same project as Braking and Blather, finesses themes of otherness and sexism into the minutia of a roadside stop. But the real surprises come from authors I haven't read before. The lack of punctuation and twitchy enjambments in Susan Briante’s “THE PHYSICISTS SAY CONSCIOUSNESS” make for a deep reflection that halts as much as it flows. Two poems by D.G. Jones are also powerful, in particular the way “goldfinchen” feeds us tightly wound tangibles that piece together a small moment.


greedy guts, again and again, stack
the feeder
the snow-rain-snow end
of May with
                       their flashy

some of it
mint fresh

                   silly coin – the cardinal
interrupts them like
  a sin

second issue,
If some hidden comprehension key helped me enjoy Issue Three so, it must’ve started turning in Issue Two. Susanne Dyckman’s “Across the Street” and David Peter Clark’s “On the Way to the Tranzac on March 7, 2013” peer out from under streetlights with different surrealist takes; Dyckman reconstructs the spatial relationship of architecture and the moods that weather it, while Clark trips over an intentional blurring of memes, alley cats and distractions as digressions. Both held my imagination, though as Dyckman brought me closer via her whimsical logic, Clark’s self-satisfied cleverness kept me at a distance. His scattered line-breaks and narrative inconsistencies fashion a convincing stumble but Clark’s checking-in on the reader – whether we’re following along, whether we looked up how to pronounce a particular word – reaches into the obnoxious side of inebriation, making me sort of wish he’d stayed at home.

In acknowledging a distaste for this tongue-in-cheek breakdown of the fourth wall, I’ve likely tapped a vein in my own subconscious bias against the focus of some experimental writing. I sense a similar disconnect with Catherine Wagner’s “Notice”, which in a dry third person tone, reads like a pamphlet on who does and doesn’t pay for her poetry. Still I cannot criticize “Notice” for the specialized audience it seeks (namely, other writers), nor pinpoint weak spots in clarity or form (it’s quite readable). The versatility of voices arguably works more to Touch the Donkey's advantage than its audience's, aiming at a brave readership while exposing the casually curious to new forms. In other words, it comes with the territory that less adventurous readers should expect peaks and valleys, throughways and dead-ends.

first issue,
Does my learning curve in reverse cast a more generous light on Issue One (the “beige issue”…)? Actually, yeah: Pattie McCarthy’s “from wifthing” (which some totally academic, online research defines as “an affair connected with a woman or wife”) gets by on envious layers of mystique that wrestle new love, post-family. Alternately I’m reminded that the first batch of Gil McElroy’s project Some Doxologies, which gains new traction after enjoying Issue Three’s helping, and rob mclennan’s “Acceptance Speech” were noteworthy the first time around. An excerpt from “wifthing”:

keep the wolf from
the door her lips
numb   bored like
every drag of a cigarette
after the headrush
practically deranged with need
congratulates herself for not
devouring you in front of all
assembled       patience
figure in a taxicab crossing
& now I’m lying in it

As someone who enjoys going into a text blind, I've delayed mentioning Touch the Donkey's digital side, which compared to the sleek, minimal design of the card-stock journal, is crammed with supplemental interviews. Despite the technological divide, the process is fluid: each poem acts as the foundation for an interview discussing the poet's approach while also linking to other recent work. It's like speed-dating for new titles and authors.

In stripping back my expectations of what Touch the Donkey should be, I’ve uncovered a better idea of what it is: a margin, fortified and flipped horizontally, gloaming the trespasses of expression I was too intimidated to venture into alone. Three books in, Touch the Donkey has graduated from perk-status to a mercurial entity all its own. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

On Writing #44 : Emily Ursurliak

Writing on Transit
Emily Ursuliak

I have a confession to make: I’m a public transit writer. There are far more glamorous places I could take my notebook out to. I fantasize about going to Vendome, a cafĂ© over in the Sunnyside area of Calgary where a lot of local poets can be found, but instead I find myself scribbling while riding a bus or the c-train. There’s nothing sexy about writing on transit. If I was sitting in Vendome I’d have a cappuccino in front of me, I could admire the carefully contrived “rustic charm” of the place, there would be erudite conversations hovering in the air. Instead, the seat next to me has what appears to be gum fused to it, and the drug-addict couple two seats over are screaming about why one of them spent their rent money on getting a fix.

When I’ve told other writer friends about writing on transit they find it odd, or even vaguely impressive. “How do you do it without getting motion-sickness?” they ask. I blame my cast-iron stomach on the years of conditioning I went through as a rural kid in central Alberta. Every morning I rode a yellow school bus for an hour through winding gravel roads in the countryside where I grew up, and there was very rarely a moment that I wasn’t reading a book for that whole trip. It’s not like I don’t get motion-sickness, but I think this rigorous conditioning as a child is what makes me less susceptible to it. It’s like a way more mundane version of the physical training that astronauts go through.

So why write on transit if it’s not glamorous, and if there’s a risk of motion-sickness? Because I spend a hell of a lot time on it. I didn’t have a car when I moved to Calgary, and didn’t really see the point of getting one when I had my university-enforced transit pass. I had to spend long stretches of time sitting in a confined area. I’m a writer. Why wouldn’t I use that time for writing?

Soon I began associating my time on transit with writing. It became the easiest place where I could escape from the distractions of the internet on my computer at home. Writing on transit helped me get out of a lot of slumps when I was working on my master’s thesis. If I was having a bad writing day I’d force myself to get on the c-train and I’d sit there writing from one end of the line to the other until I’d worked out the problem I was having.

Riding on transit gives you a different perspective of the city you live in. In a car you’re shut off from people, you don’t have to confront the narratives of others. You can attempt to block people out on the train, or the bus, but it’s a lot more difficult. What interests me about writing in these spaces is that I’ve learned to embrace interruptions. Occasionally a passenger nearby will pull me out of whatever I’m working on. In the past I used to be annoyed by this, but now I embrace it in my writing. I take a break from the work at hand and write a portrait of that person. Characters I’ve encountered riding transit have begun to find their way into pieces of short fiction I’ve started recently, so their impact on my writing is undeniable.

Now that I’ve completed my studies at the University of Calgary I’m considering buying a car next fall. There’s a lot of ways in which it would make my life simpler, but I worry about how this will affect my writing. Will it be as easy for me to find the right space in my life to set aside for my work? When I started my master’s degree I had this lofty goal of developing a writing schedule: a certain number of hours I’d have to spend writing each day. I’ve learned to accept that I don’t work that way. I’m terribly sporadic, and what might work for me for a certain period of my life might change again just as quickly. What remains constant is the addiction I have to writing, the notion that my sense of well-being is very closely intertwined with how much time I dedicate to scribbling in my notebook. This is what I place my trust in.

Emily Ursuliak is the current fiction editor, and a member of the board, for filling Station magazine and an executive producer for the literary radio show Writer’s Block. This spring she was given the Volunteer of the Year Award by the Alberta Magazine and Publishers Association for her work with filling Station. She recently completed an MA in English at the University of Calgary where she worked on her first novel and collection of poems. You can find her work in Warpaint, Blue Skies Poetry, FreeFall, No Press and the anthology The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual. Her chapbook Braking and Blather (2014) appeared recently from above/ground press.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Rice & Rosnau in A B Series @ OAG

More info:

A B Series Presents

Waubgeshig Rice
Laisha Rosnau

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ottawa Art Gallery
Arts Court, Main Floor
2 Daly Ave.
Ottawa, Ont.

Copies of Rice's new novel, Legacy and Rosnau's latest poetry collection, Pluck, available for sale and signature. 

Free - donations accepted.

Laisha Rosnau is the author of three poetry collections, PluckLousy Explorers and Notes on Leaving and the best-selling novel The Sudden Weight of Snow. Her work has been published internationally and nominated for several awards, including the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award, three times for the CBC Literary Award, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her first collection won the Acorn-Plantos People's Poetry Award. Rosnau is working on a second novel and a collection of essays. She lives in Coldstream, BC, where she and her family are resident caretakers of Bishop Wild Bird Sanctuary.

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. He developed a strong passion for storytelling as a child while learning about being Anishinaabe. The stories his elders shared and his unique experiences growing up in his community inspired him to write creatively. Some of the stories he wrote as a teenager eventually became Midnight Sweatlodge, his first collection of fiction published by Theytus Books in 2011. His debut novel, Legacy, was published by Theytus in the summer of 2014.