Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On Writing #58 : Peter Richardson

Cellar Posting
Peter Richardson

            Every morning before breakfast, I descend two half-flights of stairs to one of those venerable pine secretaries with a folding top which you sometimes see at auctions.
There, on a rickety cane-seated chair, I jot in a spiral notebook, using blue pencils with smudge-proof erasers. A stylus and clay tablet would do as well. I write on one side of a page because I like to return to old notebooks and cull through them. When I go back to them many months later, I want those tomes legible.

The desk is a hand-me-down. My mother used it as the platform for her letter-writing campaigns of the Fifties and Sixties. Often coming home from school, I would hear her Smith-Corona clacking away in the study off her bedroom. The fact that we lived on a decommissioned farmstead six miles from the nearest town may have nourished her need to write to The New York Times or Commonweal on issues of utmost importance. Yet I think if we had stayed in southern Connecticut rather than decamp to northern Vermont in 1960, she would still have found time to correspond with a grab-bag of different people.

            Sitting at the same desk, I record thoughts about a book I’ve been reading, scraps of dreams, or observations of clouds, and by that, I mean, what weather front is sweeping towards me across the spine of Gatineau Park. Living on a ridge above the Alonzo Wright Bridge not far from Cantley, Quebec, I find we get our share of blustery hill country days. With snow whipping against two transom windows to my left, I suppose that I hope to find myself riffing on a subject I won’t know I’m writing about till I’m about three sentences into it.

This business of moving into unknown subject matter doesn’t happen till I’ve exhausted the more obvious journaling subjects. Once the dream is recorded, the cold snap mentioned, the passing of yet another poet I’ve revered for thirty years—Galway Kinnell comes to mind—I may veer off into a persona. How else to try on the orotund style of an old coot issuing biblical-sounding warnings?

            Writing even for a couple of paragraphs within a persona—let’s call him Herbert Knopscotch—makes for a surprising break from the conscious filtering voice that kicks in when I start my day. Seeing things from Herbert’s point of view—okay, he’s a bit of a finger-waving milksop who wears argyle socks and sweater vests over button-down shirts but nonetheless—his perspective breaks the monotony of talking about my poor night’s sleep. Why? Well, beyond the obvious fact that I don’t have to be responsible for everything he says, there’s the latitude of exploring a curious personality. It turns out Herb is more complex than the advice-giving Rotarian boob I had pegged him to be.
He sometimes does little variations on Lear’s Fool, tossing up admonitory gems of introspection I wouldn’t otherwise hear.


My efforts to get out of the way of myself may lead to a decent sentence or two after three pages of writing. This is enough to cheer me. (I ought to emphasize here the physical act of writing longhand which I don’t do enough of. It’s a base-touching thing with the small muscles of the hand and lower arm, a tonic before returning to a keyboard at a separate desk in the same room after breakfast.)

Twenty minutes later, I’m upstairs washing dishes, starting a load of laundry, and driving my daughter to school. By ten o’clock, I’m back down cellar looking at whatever drafts are under review. A rich writing period is something I have to build up to over weeks and months. I am always starting from scratch as a complete ignoramus.

If I find myself with three or four poems on the go, pieces that I can leapfrog back and forth between while revising some old sow’s ear of a poem I had thought worthless, then I consider myself lucky. That is not the usual drill. The quotidian is stumbling, cleaning gutters, cording wood, and reading favorite authors, which I suppose are all metaphors for having nothing “hot” on the go.

            A routine that amounts to twenty minutes in the morning, then three hours during the day, appears to be enough. And some of that three-hour block may be put into a book review, or culling through old drafts, or looking at someone else’s work. Peeks at another author’s poems-in-progress are a privilege. They are what I’d call fruitful procrastination.

Back in the days when I used to unload airplanes, it would not have occurred to me to author a piece about writing. I wrote between flights at a card table in the locker room, or I would write at the car dealership when my ancient Datsun was being patched together, which was far too much of the time, or in the comfortable shack I rented for ten years above the North river in Piedmont, Quebec. It was an odd life, socially speaking, in that I was one of a handful of Anglos in an all-francophone workforce. I learned French quickly in order to understand the jokes. In addition to being an outsider, I had almost no weekends off, so it was difficult to nurture friendships with people beyond the airport world. However my afternoon shift at Mirabel Airport meant that I had my morning clear-headedness to devote to writing.

            With hindsight, I see that I’ve been lucky in this and other respects. My day job didn’t grind me down to the point where I could only write on days off, and since taking early retirement in 2003, I’ve had eleven years to pursue this crazy involvement with seeing just where a sentence may lead me. The cellar is really not a bad place for a writer. Nobody expects anything from you in the way that nobody expects anything from a woodchuck during the winter months but to lend his or her body heat to the burrow. And if you are in a quiet period, or experiencing a series of bottlenecks with your work, as I often do, then life in its varied richness can be counted on to jerk you around in such a way as to make things interesting way again.

Peter Richardson has published four collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Bit Parts for Fools, was a finalist for the 2014 Archibald Lampman Award. An earlier collection, Sympathyfor the Couriers, won the 2008 QWF’s A.M. Klein Award. His poems have appeared in The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Poetry Magazine (Chicago) and Poetry Ireland Review among others. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recent Reads: Poem About The Train by Ben Ladouceur

Poem About The Train - Ben Ladouceur (Apt. 9 Press, 2014)

“A train ride is a childhood. You fall asleep
               somewhere. Then wake,
and someone has placed your body elsewhere.” (I)

Before I’ve opened to those immersive first lines, Ben Ladouceur’s latest chapbook is beguiling just to handle: a sheath of high quality card-stock that unfolds from the bottom, like a door of the Delorean, and reveals Poem About The Train in seven unbound sheets. Had they been interlocked with perforations, they might’ve resembled the transfer tickets Ladouceur held during his four-day train voyage to the west coast, where this long poem was conceived. 

Composed in six-line stanzas, the poem takes on a rigidity not unlike the clunky rhythm of steel on rails, oscillating the patient anticipation of a train ride and the outdoor vistas observed in passing blur. Each one of these stanzas offers a self-contained digression evaluating the condition of insects, vegetation and other sights: are they lush and fornicating or greying, in decay? Beyond mere zone-out speculation, the author’s often morose assessments on everyday wildlife, whizzing by track-side, fill blind spots with tantalizing guesswork over Ladouceur’s motives.

“This, a province of abandonments. Which is no
               put-down: I hold
too much dear, these days, watching lodgings shrink,
by distance or decrepitude; I long.
               Amongst the upturned things,
we leave the waters be. All we take is pause.” (III)

I sense an escape afoot. Moments of note during the trip, such as an attendant’s rehearsed romanticism of the eastern prairies, ruffles our protagonist, who disowns whole regions as populated by diseased rabbits and delusional astrology. But while these instances of windowsill bug powder and train rust provide glimpses into causality and the (dis)comforts of a relationship, they’re also shared with a fellow passenger, who offsets Ladouceur’s train of thought (sorry, had to…) with startling scenes of life, reawakening. Couched between the natural world’s grime and tenderness is an onboard love interest, which shakes Poem About the Train out of its mental cloud and activates Ladouceur, exploring his agency both in carriage and lust.

“The ground wakes as slowly as we do, stretches
               into summits,
the limbs at sublime angles. Suddenly
a wild building, made of leaves and hidden
               fauna. It’s bright. It’s near.
It goes: body, body, window, fog, mountain.” (VI)

The poem’s last page clarifies Ladouceur's relationship but not his shadow, which lengthens the further his one-way ticket stretches. “When I approach you, a treason comes with me,” he writes, but those intentions remain murky. Will Vancouver alleviate his burden and cynicism? Does it really matter to the text? His narrative arc is attentively paced but secondary to the incisive drama of each stanza. That’s where the real voyage is — in fresh, often surreal, imagery that Ladouceur carves out of hulking landscapes and bestows with tricky intimacy. Jumping from nihilism to eroticism and then wayfaring introspective states in-between, Ladouceur’s aesthetic distance plays constant hide-and-seek. 

To test just how tightly constructed Poem About The Train is, try reordering its loose pages and reading the chapbook anew. (Such a recommendation sounds like sacrilege, I know.) On account of its stand-alone stanzas and well scattered themes, my various reshuffling of pages managed to ruffle the chronology but not in any way that impeded Ladouceur’s tone or volition. It should go without saying that the author’s order is best, but I cannot think of another long poem that a) can be re-assembled without losing its pace and b) is actually designed to facilitate that re-assembling. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

On Writing #57 : Catherine Owen

“Bright realms of violence”: ON THE POETIC
Catherine Owen

It’s been my privilege and joy to work with a superb editor (and literary hero of mine), Stuart Ross. And thanks to that process, I developed what’s become my current focus while self-editing: weeding out the overtly poetic. Sometimes Stuart will flag a passage and say something like, “This isn’t working—it looks like you made this word choice because it ‘sounds poetic’” Not only is he right, but—to my horror—that mannered turn of phrase has been invisible to me! A blind spot, revealed. I’ve internalized some of the clichés of contemporary poetry to the point that they simply spew out of me, much as a lifelong executive might spout phrases like “core values” and “going forward” without realizing how corporate she sounds. So I’ve been trying to identify my go-to “poeticisms” and excise them. Like writing to a set form, this can be a fruitful restriction.”

When I read this piece in the ottawa poetry newsletter, it immediately irked. All for excising “go-to” clichés, tired phrasings, stereotypes, idiom and pat laxness (As Donald Hall recalls in The Weather for Poetry: “The manifestoes of the Imagist Movement praised the particular over the abstract, the local over the infinite; and we were enjoined not to speak of ‘dim lands of peace’”), I wondered why these essential eradications were all falling under the umbrella of the “poetic.” Such a use of the term seems imprecise, possibly even dangerous. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of the poetic:

of, relating to, or used in poetry.
"the muse is a poetic convention"
poetical, versemetricallyricallyricelegiac
"poetic compositions"
written in verse rather than prose.
"a poetic drama"
having an imaginative or sensitively emotional style of expression.

Verse not prose. CHECK. Imagination. Sensitivity. CHECK. I am a poet. I write poetically. To me this has always meant that my way of using the language can be marked by simile, metaphor, image, lexical texture and resonance and certain quirky ways of combining all of the above so that what emerges may sound, indeed, poetic, ie. not perhaps the common mode in which one speaks in everyday transactions, in journalistic prose or in other typified engines of discourse. When I revise my poems, if I find that some symbolic or aural turn stands out in a “sore-thumbed” kind of way, sticks out non-organically, as if I had pressured it too much to rear into existence instead of allowing the flow of the poem to determine what emerged, then I will axe it. But this is not because such an error was too “poetic” – no it was too “me.”
          Obviously, the word “poetic” has been tainted. It has the aura of something precious, contrived, frilly. Or it’s just plain confusing to most what it means at all.


Gloria to Edith: Ma, that’s very poetic
Archie: What the hell’s poetic about it, I didn’t hear nothing rhyme!

The funny thing is, I actually have a poem by Peter Norman on my fridge. I cut it out of one of the LRC’s I subscribe to precisely because of its poetic values. It’s called “Growth” and not only does it contain such poeticisms as the use of the pathetic fallacy in the notion that “Flora violates nourishing soil” or that a root can be “rogue” or a “solo blossom” buck a “fragile plan” but it’s extremely poetic in its uses of sound (the reason why I clipped it out). Roots extrude, or “blunder deeper”. Boots imprint and most deliciously, hover “on pockets of nil.” As far as I’m concerned, though of course there are always bad poets who make the poetic icky for us, a good poet can ride the poetic right into its aural and lexical stable, containing it in the ear and blood for the reader in a way that a writer afraid of or determinedly eschewing the poetic, never will.

Catherine Owen lives in New Westminster, BC. She is the author of ten collections of poetry, among them Trobairitz (Anvil Press 2012), Seeing Lessons (Wolsak & Wynn 2010) and Frenzy (Anvil Press 2009). Her poems are included in several recent anthologies such as Forcefield: 77 Women Poets of BC (Mothertongue Press, 2013). Her collection of memoirs and essays is called Catalysts: confrontations with the muse (W & W, 2012).

Frenzy won the Alberta Book Prize and other collections have been nominated for the BC Book Prize, the Re-lit, the CBC Prize, & the George Ryga Award. Owen edits, tutors, plays metal bass, works on the TV show, Arrow, collaborates on multi-media exhibits and co-runs Above & Beyond chapbook productions. Her book of elegies, Designated Mourner has just been released by ECW Press (2014) and a chapbook called Rivulets is out from Alfred Gustav Press. In 2015, Wolsak & Wynn will publish her compendium on the practices of writing called The Other 23 and a Half Hours Or Everything You Wanted to Know That Your MFA Didn’t Teach You.

Photo credit: Gabor Gastonyi

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Recent Reads: Garden by Monty Reid

Garden by Monty Reid (Chaudiere Books, 2014)

I first read Garden in late October, about an hour or so before news broke that a soldier had been shot in front of the War Memorial, that Parliament Hill was under siege. Besides my concern for innocent folks living in Ottawa — among them, Monty Reid and the Chaudiere Books team — the timing of my reading felt noteworthy because of social media’s responses to the unfolding tragedy. As citizens and pundits began probing how such an event could manifest at the government’s front door, their questions were framed by cultivation and lawlessness, peace and war, order and disorder, good and evil — binaries and impulses I’d just been studying in Monty Reid’s plot of space. 

Comprised of twelve “units”, each named after a month and previously published by a variety of presses, Garden predominantly investigates bounty and decay as gleaned in the backyard. The stanzas inside each monthly unit are also ordered sequentially by month. Taken literally or linearly, all of Garden’s Januarys, Februarys, etc. would span twelve years. And while that extensive timeframe would fit the author’s methodical approach, it’s Reid’s themes that dictate one unit from the next, backing the more likely hypothesis that his raw notes were gathered over one or two years and then parsed as each chapbook narrowed its particular sights.

Perhaps because Reid lays out the project’s rigid timetable in advance, Garden quickly slides into a laissez-faire rhythm befitting its muse. The book feels like a natural marriage of concept and author — the pleasure principle of gardening matched with Reid’s steady, simplified verse.

The old black walnut stump in the corner of the garden
nurses its lichen, its beetles, its ants.

Someone cut the tree down
long before I was here.

The subjects of interest are long gone.

I don’t know who.
Just someone. (“sept unit, August”)

Clear language outlines the landscape as a domain for bit (or bite-sized) players. His tone is conversational but precise. At its most affecting, Reid’s concision creates an echo stanza — space to reflect upon some gently grazed, existential notion. That lucidity, something of a trademark in Reid’s recent work, allows heady concepts to flourish around the consciousness of plant-life — which is best defined here by what it outwardly lacks, a sense of humanity — and how that entangled community functions. Reid invokes the pitfalls of dualistic thinking, distorting the boundaries between domestic and exotic, inhabited and wild, confined and sprawling, etc., as a means of indulging political and personal commentary. 

The systems theorists prefer the system
to be people-free

so it’s good to have a friend, here in the garden.
Language has gotten restless, it’s true

but that doesn’t mean it wants you to stop
pulling at its edges.

The dirt doesn’t need a memory
but it has one anyway. (“nov unit, June”)

Well beyond the sensory perks of appearance or taste, Reid’s garden is presented as a self-regulating system and compared as such to market economics and bureaucracy. Strong roots strangle weaker vegetables, predatory bugs and birds feed on the living and yet there’s a palpable sense of order in disorder, a blameless understanding that what happens in the natural world just happens. By the way, that “friend” Reid mentions in the above excerpt is “Jack the pumpkin”, whose decomposition is recorded over November unit’s lifespan. Jack is but one of many characters Reid personifies, both for creative speculation and dry, self-deprecating reflection. Whether he’s getting reports from the sunflowers about neighbours suntanning topless over the fence or merely internalizing Jack’s hollowed out grin, Reid’s good humour offsets the precariousness of life.

Again, I come to the garden
and find no one

except the pumpkin
still weighted with snow and its face caved in.

It has nothing to say
yet its laughter continues

in whatever I still think I might be. (“nov unit, March”)

A book so attuned to the passing seasons requires a writer who’s sensitive to aging, and Reid carries that weight with grace. The garden communicates with its groomer in playful stanzas but also harsh glances, as if asking its creator: why are you still at this?

My garden is there to be eaten.

Not Eden.

All writing is about something. (“feb unit, January”)

Month by month, that “something” finds new vantage points of addressing cultivation and conservation — in the home and mind, as much as in the garden. The steps between these temples often feels illusory, in part because the garden’s agency allows Reid to watch from an unspecified distance. But January unit maps out these emotional ties, laying bare the expectations Reid's green-space was intended to fulfill. Here the garden, already a substandard Eden, takes on the metaphor of parenthood, with Reid and his partner acting as guardians jaded by the promise of inner salvation. The effects of assigning self-worth onto nature — trying to make it something other than what is — creates suffering, not to mention a welcome tension in the text.

Not all units leave such ponderous impact craters and, in those cases, I suspect Reid’s subtle nuances either drifted by me undetected or failed to meet his allusion halfway. After so many calendar months spent toiling in soil and grubs, Reid’s theory-based whimsy becomes the chute upon which chapbook-length stretches depend; when it doesn’t develop, the whole unit tends to putter about, awaiting for another to bud. July unit reads this way, obsessed with the man-hours put in and restless to discover new limits. What comes after the garden?

There is an idea in the hollow of the garden.
Is just a theory the garden generates on the other side
of the garden.

All ideas are the same idea.
There is always another one that explains it better.

How then will one explain another garden? (“july unit, April”)

There’s some juicy potential in the theorizing reprinted above but it’s better demonstrated in earlier portions of Garden than written out as such. There are signs of fatigue too, symptomatic of any hobby that tries to manipulate the cycles of nature. One cannot garden forever; there’ll always be more work to do. And maybe Garden’s homestretch is hijacked by the habit of keeping minutes; measuring that pervasive now that keeps neighbours on edge and cities bandied in perpetual bustle. At times disillusioned, often clairvoyant and clocking his share of months in-between, Reid turns his backyard into a microcosm for the collective dysfunction of our hopes and denials, through which all of Ottawa, Canada and the world manages to persevere, together even when we feel apart.