Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recent Reads: Case Study: With by Jennifer Kronovet

Case Study: With by Jennifer Kronovet (above/ground press, 2015)

Parenthood isn’t often described as a rabbit hole but it’s arguably the most transformative, permanent adventure humans take. It’s also among the most fetishized, with multi-coloured and peer-pressured gadgets — geared towards each month of your newborn’s development, no less — obfuscating the raw joy and fear of having a newborn. Case Study: With digs to the root of parenthood, disregarding cultural and capitalist dogma, traditional expressions of preciousness and even the mother-baby dynamic. For Jennifer Kronovet, parenthood is an anthropological account of communication being forged from the unknown.

These prose poems ponder the actualization of a to b communication (as depicted on the cover) but delve further into the instinct and sustenance of what goes unspoken. There, at the purest state of humanity, language reveals itself as a corruption. 

Wrong made the grammar flesh. Grammar as the right of
the brain to wrong meaning into patterns. Grammar: The
smell of a fourth dimension. The verb form of 
proliferation. The second tallest hill. The fence that
became incorporated into the bark. It’s resilient as I bash it
against the stones. It fits us to the rules that rule what can
fit as we rule them.

This excerpt from the poem “Jean Berko Gleason” got me thinking about how a prescribed approach to communication imposes limitations on a child’s intuitive faculties. Well aware that lessons on syntax and grammar wait on the horizon, Kronovet makes it a parental duty to reinforce a bond that makes “words as milk so the mind survives on language”. The bulk of this chapbook analyzes small, expressive surprises between mother and son — e.g. instinctually pointing at birds before realizing it, imitating sounds — and yet Case Study: With is as much about stillness, the awareness that babies know and parents rediscover. 

With the Boy, with the Book

The man loves the boat.

I didn’t have to make that sentence up. It exists the way all 
transportation does. He says, more go more self, and I
translate that into the talking that’s always been: I, I, I.
Thoughts grown from thoughts are the weakest. Instead, I
want to see-talk, to un-I until it’s all more. I can’t turn the
boy into a lesson. But I teach him:

The man loves the boat.

With "thoughts grown from thoughts are the weakest" I reflect on the chief anxiety of adulthood, those cyclical worries about conforming to social norms. (Syntax laws are but a fraction of this challenge.) Ego hovers above the "I, I, I" in “With the Boy, with the Book” like an eventuality but also begs an origin story. What is this impulse to distort people, ideas and objects by their relationship to “I”, to wield language as a selfish means? Is ego inevitable, or conditioned?

In reading Case Study: With, there are moments I get overwhelmed by the measure of ideas I can feel but not effectively communicate. It’s utmost fitting. Themes of communication and comprehension take up the roles of chicken and egg as Kronovet juxtaposes linguistic, psychic, interpersonal and even geographical fields that begin to feel developmentally interdependent. Does it sound too complicated? Worry not. Case Study: With galvanizes the reader’s curiosity with tantalizing questions over technical proofs. And if you’re intrigued by child psychology, psycholinguistics or any subset of relativism, know that there are plenty of rabbit holes to dive into from here.

Recent Reads: november poems by Joe Blades

november poems by Joe Blades (dusie kollektiv, 2015)

Comprehension, interpretation and imagination get a lot of acreage to roam in poetry, where any one stanza or word placement can serve to send two readers into wildly different directions. As someone who reviews, I occasionally find myself preoccupied by my place in this spectrum  What am I missing? Is my impression anywhere near the author's goal? And does that even matter? That mostly subconscious process surfaced when first reading Joe Blades’ november poems, and actually had me peek, cover to cover, for an abstract on the text at hand. No luck, just a bio. And yet, on second reading Joe Blades’ biography subs in almost flawlessly, as these poems chronicle a few Novembers of Blades’ life in Fredericton. This might sound like an obvious summary, given the title, but the text isn't quite so plainspoken.

Zeroing in on context is part of the challenge here, but it’s also part of adapting to Blades’ style. Interesting aside: You won’t find the word “the” in any of these poems, and its absence gives his voice a sort-of primitive immediacy. More impactful though is his hesitation to commit to “I”, which combined with his rocky maneuvering of diction, disguises just how many of these pieces are from a subjective standpoint. With “poem 16 (not counting haiku)” I had to ask myself whether ashes paper & beans is a radio show Blades hosts. With “november again” and the stanza “shaved bald men may be hiding / something with their removed / head hair — see them in cafes / and stores — am decidedly not one”, I felt slightly pressured to google photos of Blades’ mane. Such research may sound arbitrary to the point of distraction but I found it compulsory to understanding the author’s intent.

“november poems” hinges on the assumption that whoever is reading Joe Blades probably knows a bit about Joe Blades. Otherwise, it gives the reader an opportunity to get to know a bit about Joe Blades. Neither of these outcomes is off-putting — I mean, I’m totally going to check out his radio show — but that clause often becomes the key to feeling out Blades’ poetic space. And sometimes it still isn’t enough; “pressed glass bowls wrapped in newspaper” coalesces two journeys (to a hospice and, perhaps, a museum attraction?) where the contrast of bustling crowds and a static nursing home provides an almost philosophical sentiment: “my exit makes / room for you”. The poem is already loaded with dislocated imagery when this third stanza drops:

two kids glom onto legs
one lifts gun-long arm
reaches out to stop and
pull close like a hostage
taker to take back
gun and holster
while saying you
cannot kill dead sheep
smiles and walks away

Blades’ ability to blur a clinical space with a prop museum is masterful but the above excerpt represents a coup de grâce each time I attempt it. Is the "gun-long arm" a crutch, or an actual replica? Is “you cannot kill dead sheep” a reference both Google and I cannot recall, or straight-up autobiography from a moment? I’m being withheld some crucial detail.

Though occasionally cryptic and fragmentary, Blades keeps the November motif fresh by marking its domestic and academic trespasses (in “broken granite cross on green” and “body ache blues”, respectively). “corner chang(es/ing)”, which is featured in full below, illustrates another type of slow crystallization, wherein the scene we find ourselves becomes rooted, geographically and personally. Call it scenery around the elusive “I” or a vast focal parenthesis grouping various November trials, but the poems I enjoy most are those that offer a guide along with the acreage.

corner chang(es/ing)

not just rhubarb path — come out!
come out! from under big poisonous leaves —
maple tree and cedar overgrown
with wild grapevine and grass — open
space between parsonage (or whatever
free-will baptists called their minister’s
residence) with gingerbread eaves and
what little remained after 2 july 2009
teardown and cleanup/removal
of their ex-church at 200 york
street fredericton new brunswick:
completed in 1861 before con/
federation (dominion of canada);
converted to apartments in 1970
(with rainbows painted on
original church mouldings
and bird skeleton on wire
in attic’s mechanical space);
burnt   from top floor down
in cold rainy night fire early
morning tuesday 2 april 2009
twenty-two tenants forced
on to street then into temporary
shelter — some taken by red
cross to fredericton inn
check-in before dawn — all
of that and a little basement
rubble removed and replaced
by fresh-crushed rock with survey
stakes to plot new building
to situate it within where 
home of almost eleven years
stood almost one hundred fifty
years (witness streetside elm trees)
and that corner is achanging
like it hasn't changed since
long   long ago …

Monday, August 24, 2015

On Writing #70 : Susannah M. Smith

On Writing
Susannah M. Smith

I. Reading

Wonder and joy.

Two years old, memorizing The Night Before Christmas.

Having poetry read to me.
Reading poetry myself.

The Illustrated Treasury of Poetry for Children.
A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Time’s Delights: Poems for All Seasons.
A Child’s Book of Poems.

Treasure chests of cadence, language, imagination.
Illustrations lofting the text.
Always delighting and transporting.

While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads…

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

Closeness of damp air on my face
sound of foghorns in the bay
misty halos around streetlights at dusk.
Carl Sandburg, baby.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave a luster of midday to objects below.

Since I slipped through the wardrobe into Narnia, things have never been the same.


II. Writing

Eleven years old, tucked up in bed scribbling in notebooks.
I didn’t like going to sleep.
Writing eased the path.

During the day, I sat on the floor with scissors and glue
surrounded with words and pictures
collecting and arranging
cutting and pasting
playing and making.
This is what I did and this is what I still do.

Writing is collage.

And the notebooks.
The smell and feel of the paper.
The smooth glide of the pen.
Carrying around a world that belongs to you.
Knowing that you are the shaper, the magic maker.

Lately, writing is not publishing.
Manuscripts tumble and grow fat.
Secret compartments cascade.
Towers upon towers.

Writing is a pleasure palace.

III. Rising

Frances Glass.
In my early twenties, when I introduced myself to strangers as Franny.
J.D. Salinger and his crazy mysticism, baby.

There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.

I like. I like. I like.

The story. The story. The story.

This is a thought experiment.
This is the joy of receiving.
This is the story told, the story growing old, the story told fresh.

Writing is architectural.
It is a practice of vaulting
of rising up and out into the world and beyond.
There is no staying small.


I like.
The story.
Writing is.

So much about living.

Susannah M. Smith is the author of How the Blessed Live. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

Photos by Susannah M. Smith. Author photo by Paul Sinclair.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Alchemy of Fiction: A Weekend Writing Workshop with Mark Frutkin

September 25-27, at the Venosta Writers Retreat, Venosta, Quebec

A writing workshop is a great way to hone that short story or polish that first chapter of your novel. This weekend will be a delightful and fun exploration of creative writing, as the group, under the direction of Mark Frutkin (author of fifteen books), will examine your earlier submitted short stories and discuss writing in general, including inspiration, plot, character, the writing and editing process, and publishing.

The workshop will include writing exercises to help get those creative juices flowing, much conversation about good writing, and personal meetings to discuss your work with the author-in-residence.

The workshop is open to writers at all levels.

The retreat is located in a quiet valley at the base of the Laurentian hills, with lake and trails, 50 minutes north of Ottawa Hull.

To get more info and photos on accommodation, facilities, location, or to register, please go online at: or phone: 613-203-4412.

Web site:


Friday, August 14, 2015

On Writing #69 : Natalie Simpson

On Writing
Natalie Simpson

I don’t know how to write at home anymore. My home is so unpeopled – it’s a place of busy work and distraction, of cooking and tidying, of immersion into books and blogs and shows. Home is for the steady work of editing and formatting, the after-writing.

Writing for me takes place in a buzz of public enactment, through claiming quiet space amid cacophony. Writing is learning how to block out other people’s conversations, to hew to the page. I write only at tables, in coffee shops, pubs, occasionally airports or food courts. I write where the social conventions of staking out an interest in a chair and table or countertop prohibit wandering. To be in public is to be rooted and employed – if not in eating or speaking, then in reading and writing. I need to be bound in to write. I need blinkers.

Writing for me is also communal. I write with other writers (‘with’ as in near, not in a collaborative sense). Together we claim public space and we write. We pile our books and laptops and notebooks and pens between us, and we are undeniable. We bring our artistic practices into places meant for drinks, dates, and networking. The spaces of asserting social identity, of being seen and signalling. The gathering spaces. Here we flaunt our otherness, we insert our aesthetic concerns.

I write best where other writers are. They create space for writing between them. I find space to write among them. I find permission there, or, more accurately, I find myself able to give myself permission there. Writing becomes possible, and likely. But why do I need permission? Some confusion of values keeps me apart from this best thing I do. Some conflict of values draws me into doubt.

Writing is beginning again, another and another new attempt. Writing despite the demands of my remunerative career, my priorities of security and financial independence. Writing to chip away at this model of adulthood. Writing into (against) tenuousness and uncertainty. Writing without clear rewards, often without outcome. No correlation between time and result. Accepting the difficult vulnerability of this desire.

My best writing is ludic and wanders. To write I need room to experiment, freedom to fail, and forgiveness. I need to kill time. I need poetry accreting out of lost time, slate space. Blank and opened and filling.

Writing in public can spark an alchemy for me. It can allow a rush of synaptic peculiarity, which comes perhaps from drifting away from self, or sinking deeper into self. I find a generative tension between private thought and public being.

I write best companioned and alone. Aesthetically solitary, but socially flanked. Here I can allow myself primarily creative existence, I can melt into my ulterior motive, I can finally focus.

- Written by hand at the Kensington Pub in the company of nine other writers; transcribed and revised at Higher Ground in the company of one other; edited at home.

Natalie Simpson is the author of accrete or crumble (LINEbooks 2006) and Thrum (Talonbooks 2014). Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2013. She practices pro bono law in Calgary, Alberta and curates filling Station magazine’s flywheel Reading Series.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

On Writing #68 : Jennifer Kronovet

Fighting and Writing
Jennifer Kronovet

            Last week, when I got into a taxi to take me to the Guangzhou Train Station (I live in Guangzhou, China), the taxi driver took one look at me and then put his playlist of American pop songs on the stereo. The car was flooded with English words, and for at least a full minute, I luxuriated in them. It felt decadent to not have to struggle to understand, and I slipped into the way hearing a familiar song in a car can make you feel like you’re listening to the soundtrack of the movie of your life—the box-office hit version. I felt a swell of affection for the driver of the cab, for his kindness in making his car a moving island of a culture that, for a moment, matched me. It was so gracious of him, and I wondered if he too had ever felt worn down by the effort it takes to be always foreign.
            But then I started to listen to the words of one of the songs. Idiom stacked on idiom. Cliché. Cliché. Of course. I mean, no one looks to American pop music for terrific language, and by all accounts these are great songs. But the pleasure I had originally felt in hearing what I could easily understand faded fast. I remembered myself—how hard it is for me to find beauty in what is familiar. The easily understood, for me, often feels like a lie—not because I appreciate difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but why? Why does a linear, earnest description of love—like in the song I heard as I passed by the half-built high-rises intermixed with older Communist style buildings—make me feel like a robot.
            I like to fight. I mean this literally. I have trained in martial arts on and off for years, and my favorite part of training is when things get loose, and we start to spar. I love trying to hit someone who is trying to hit me and we are both trying not to get hit, but I only love this when the fight is devoid of any context other than training: no anger, no feelings. Many people have asked me why I like to fight: the risks are obvious, and I do get hurt. I have many answers that I give, but they all feel like weakened versions of the truth, if not outright lies. Some things I’ve said: Sparring requires the most intense and active form of seeing, which is exhilarating. Fighting has allowed me to stop seeing myself, a small woman, as a potential victim. Once I met an old man who ran a convenience store at a strip mall in the Midwest who had been a former Kung Fu champion in Hong Kong, and when he asked why I train I said “because I like hitting people.” He replied, “that’s the only right answer.”
            But none of those are the right answer. None of those feel close to being adequate answers, because they don’t take into account the terrible underside of violence, the violence that takes place out of the studio. The pleasure I feel in fighting is always shaded by the horror I find in violence when it happens to others. The dread I feel at the threat of it affecting those I love, and strangers I can imagine, and those, even, I can never imagine facing violence I don’t understand. I am often proud of my bruises yet wince feeling momentarily gutted when I see photographs of anyone with bruises. In fighting, I get close to something that holds a complexity beyond words, something primal and social, beautiful and terrible. These fights are lies because of their context and true in that blows are exchanged. Inside them, violence becomes more familiar and more foreign. I answer the questions I have about my relationship to violence with more, getting as far inside of it as I can, not explaining it away.
           That is also why I write poetry. Just as in sparring, poetry offers a place to reach as far as you can in your thinking, a place that accepts the complexity of saying an idea and its opposite and having them both be true. When I write, I fight with language not in order to pin the world down into the big budget version of it, but because I hope that the more I enter the arena of poetry the deeper I can go into language’s capacity for wavering, unstable, accommodating ideas that can reshape thinking, even, perhaps expand what language can do. Sparring and writing poetry: both are safe contexts to explore what can be quite dangerous: violence and language itself. And I hope to come out of each context being able to wield my body, my pen, to protect and express the most fragile things.
            I still felt grateful to taxi driver even after I stopped enjoying the songs he was playing. He brought me back into my brain—my brain-culture of tearing language apart, fighting it, so as to break into language that can hold the position of being foreign and known, as this man saw me to be. He reminded me of what I love most when I find it in a poem, what I can’t find in a song that speaks in one direction at a time—a brightness that shines a light on its own dark underside. And so I’ll end here with how I ended that ride: thank you so much.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, and the recently published chapbook CASE STUDY: WITH. She co-translated The Acrobat, the selected poems of Yiddish writer Celia Dropkin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Aufgabe, Best Experimental Writing 2014 (Omnidawn), Bomb, Boston Review, Fence, the PEN Poetry Series,Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean), and elsewhere. She has taught at Beijing Normal University, Columbia University, and Washington University in St. Louis. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in Guangzhou, China.