Thursday, July 28, 2016

the return of rob mclennan's poetry workshops: August-October, 2016

After nearly a year, I return once again to offering poetry workshops. Originally held at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, this session will be held upstairs at The Carleton Tavern, 223 Armstrong Street (at Parkdale).

The workshops are scheduled for Sunday afternoons, 2-4:30pm: August 28; September 11, 18 + 25; October 2 + 16.

$200 for 6 sessions.

for information, contact rob mclennan at or 613 239 0337;

The course will focus on workshopping writing of the participants, as well as reading various works by contemporary writers, both Canadian and American. Participants should be prepared to have a handful of work completed before the beginning of the first class, to be workshopped (roughly ten pages).

Participants over the past few years have included:
Amanda Earl, Frances Boyle, Chris Johnson, Roland Prevost, Christine McNair, Pearl Pirie, Sandra Ridley, Marilyn Irwin, Rachel Zavitz, Janice Tokar, Dean Steadman, N.W. Lea, David Blaikie, James Irwin, Claire Farley, Barbara Myers and Marcus McCann.

For those unable to participate, I still offer my ongoing editorial service of poetry manuscript reading, editing and evaluation.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and recently became a regular contributor to both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Monday, July 25, 2016

On Writing #101 : Daniel Zomparelli

On Writing
Daniel Zomparelli

To be very honest, instead of writing or having a process I just work very hard on my anxiety: both suppressing it and fuelling it.

I fuel it by letting my thoughts go as far as they need to. Whenever I am walking down the street, I think about what object could come into contact with my body to destroy it. The crane building a new high rise, that could easily fall on top of my body and crunch it into the earth. A car running off the road. The earth crumbling inside itself.

I take all these thoughts home with me, and clean my apartment, and make to-do lists, and stare at my emails. And then I don't write anything at all.

Today I thought about whether I even liked writing or the idea of writing. Nothing came from that thought. I ate a doughnut.

Maybe I don't write when I'm happy. I am happy. Or, I am in a state of happiness.

I have written 168 words. 170. 171.

I'm not writing today, just like yesterday and the day before. I won't write later today, and I won't write this weekend. I will fear about 20-40 random things will destroy me today. I will focus on that.

I am very good at administrative tasks. When I think about that, I think that maybe my calling was just being in administration. If everyone read books via spreadsheets on Excel then I'd be prolific.

Side note: I love doughnuts and wonder if I should be spelling it "donuts."

Writing processes are foreign to me. I'm impressed by writers who have a writing process. I think maybe if I did have a process it would be that I write nothing for as long as I can until I feel shame and feel like I've failed at being a writer by not even doing the thing that makes someone a writer and get very weird about it. Then I write. In other words, when my anxiety is high, my writing usually follows immediately after.

All of this is just to say, sometimes the writing process is not writing at all.

Daniel Zomparelli is the Editor-in-Chief of Poetry Is Dead magazine. He is a co-podcaster at Can’t Lit. His first book of poems Davie Street Translations was published by Talonbooks in 2012. He co-edits, a collaborative poetry project. His collaborative book with Dina Del Bucchia, Rom Com, was published by Talonbooks in 2015. He is currently completing his first short story collection.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

On Writing #100 : Dale Smith

Scouts of the Interior
Dale Smith

The most important thing is to be true to yourself, but I also like danger.
                                                                                                — Prince

Attached to the their Twitter page, the Mongrel Coalition against Gringpo offers this prescient slogan: “DECOLONIZE OR DIE / DECOLONIZE AND LIVE.”
To hear in that declaration only a dogged attack is to miss something more startling and anterior to the perceived aggression often associated with this anonymous, activist poetry collective. What Fred Moten says about modernity, that it is a “socio-ecological disaster,” is sounded in the Mongrel’s appositional epigram: to account for our relations to others, to bear the near-absolute ransacking of the physical earth, requires a confrontation over certain bodies of feeling that for a very long time have ruined things for many people and the ecological systems they (we) inhabit. Assumptions about bodies and land, and possession of properties divisible by racial doxa, have deformed a Western imaginary. Anyone writing today must know that.
My friend, the gifted poet Farid Matuk, last year shared with me a work by Emmanuel Kant, who long-ago promised, in exchange for taking his classes at the University of K√∂nigsberg, students would find their rightful place on “the stage of [their] destiny, namely, the world.” The philosopher’s promise was initially devised as advertisement for a class in anthropology called, “Of the different races of human beings.” Kant’s pledged destiny played out brutally in 18th-20th—century settler colonialism. It is a destiny pushed outward by social and agricultural violence, terms understood almost casually by anyone now; more deceptively, that destiny is bound to intellectual and spiritual assertions, and certainties in divisions of knowledge. That destiny is inscribed in language’s possessive codes and attitudinal apertures, determined by habits of thought that lead to a refusal of anything but that destined world: the plunder of stolen bodies thrust on newly discovered land distorted an interior wilderness, too; an inward determination of control in that wild remote often erupts, almost too casually, carving a disfiguring destiny into the so-called modern world.
For a white person to write, it is often common to govern the writing self from the advantaged illusion of a race-free perspective, an unacknowledged inheritance, perhaps, of Kant’s promised destiny. A protective shield of whiteness is delivered in language acts shaped by devastating hierarchies like those Kant promises. Whiteness scripts conformity to an easy familiarity with the world that produces and consumes racial secrets (conspiring, at least for those in possession of white consciousness, a terminal imperative at times made corporeal, and more often metaphorically exerted as argumentative, social dominance). The secret secures certain cultural values as though all shared in them equally, as though an opposing view from a person of color were irrational, defensive, or intentionally, malevolently, antagonizing. The writing of the defense of white honor when issues of race are at stake is especially clear, emotionally resonant, sincere, at least, in forms of defensive posturing. The bitter contestations over Kenneth Goldsmith’s claim to Michael Brown’s body began one recent conversation on race and poetry where divisions of art and intellect suddenly, for some, came into view; around that time Vanessa Place’s tweeting of Gone with the Wind, and the circulating image of her “mammy” avatar in social media, forced a crisis of debate regarding the performative value of a white artist pressing her finger into the affective, racial cut. While attempts to re-state the management of a white interior under the banner of “Je suis Vanessa” momentarily heated conversations about race and free speech, the larger concerns, the urgency to bear life against “our destiny,” remain for writers, necessarily for writers as scouts of the interior, to urge onward.
It’s not easy to unsettle oneself. I have been lucky to live with a brave woman of color for nearly twenty years. How would I write out of the white space of the page without her hard questions, her insistence on confronting the white blank, that whitewashed destiny I didn’t know was there except in confrontation and collusion with her otherness so intimately exposing me to myself? Writing, all writing, imposes division. Poetry cuts open, breaks through, to demand conspiracy and order, determining fragmented approaches to life that help me cope with an incompletion of form, the contradictory nature of myself. I have felt hurt, held hostage to my white assent to a circulated destiny, turning in anger against some mild rebuff she has wagered on her love for me. It has been far easier to write about race in the abstract or the situational, safely settled in a proclaimed distance. It is much harder to confront moments in myself when I have failed to see Kant’s promised destiny; that persistent, phantasmagoric inheritance rises inadvertently to insist on priorities of world division cut by lance and sword and gun; and pen and school and hearth. I am not free of the obfuscations of that old destiny.
Writing leads me to others from the standpoint of where I am, how I am determined to be, at a given moment. Not to impose or react, but to improvise perspective by acts, signs, and images exposed by the intermittent impulses and torsions of writing. Decolonization requires self-confrontation and unsettlement. The stakes are larger than oneself, than my particular location; to participate in the energy of the page is to refuse agencies that may distort my relations to others in word and act. Nothing survives its destiny anyway; new inroads map a wilderness in me onto a dispersed, collective intersection of viewpoints, the ongoing, composing circumstances of the world.

Dale Smith lives in Toronto, Ontario, with the poet HoaNguyen. He teaches rhetoric and poetics at Ryerson University. His recent publications include Slow Poetry in America (2014) and Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 (2012).

Monday, July 11, 2016

Recent Reads: "Kiki" by Amanda Earl

Kiki by Amanda Earl (ChaudiereBooks, 2014)

The brave new world in Amanda Earl’s first trade book, Kiki, happened almost one hundred years ago. In the bohemian villages of Paris and between the wars, when surrealism, modernism and hedonism were surging, the belief in true art seemed impervious to irony, self-doubt or marketplace considerations. If that go-for-broke artistic freedom feels a tad futuristic, it’s because most utopias are. And although nostalgia plays its part in waxing the contours of a seemingly flawless community (see: Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris), Earl channels the era’s inventiveness by testing character studies of Alice Ernestine Prin, better known to history as Kiki, and Paris itself against the erosions of excess.

Earl expounds on each historical narrative in that order (the “Alice” sequence comes before “Tales of Montparnasse”) without trying to extricate the micro from the macro, or vice versa. That is, Kiki and Paris are interdependent, with neither capable of instilling the liberal freedoms of 1920s France without the other, and Earl’s commitment to that incidental partnership makes a titan of Kiki. It helps that Alice Prin was already an enormously brave and complex personality, asserting the independence of women well ahead of her time. But the “Alice” sequence makes a bid to explain that individuality, mapping a trajectory of honesty into empowerment that parallels Kiki’s unapologetic appetite for artistic and sexual expression alongside the creative approach taken up by modernist friends like Hemingway – in essence, a reaction to the traditionalism of previous generations in order to innovate (or, as Ezra Pound incited, “make it new”.) As a result, “Alice” captivates not because the title character is otherworldly, but because she is relatable, humanized.

These are the men between the wars that come to Paris and
expect to find… what? Life? This is too big a word. I sit in
their laps and they feed me, give me pearls. Shiny pure white
pearls. I devour these men and their brilliance. White pearls.
An Egyptian black cat. Stroke me. In these arms, salvation.
I’ll rock you to sleep, bebe. Mama will cradle you.

I tell all the boys: Tzara, Soupault, Aragon, Breton. They’re
nattering again to Man.  (“Alice”, pg. 24)

The above anecdote illustrates the ground rules for Kiki’s empowerment: that the pleasures of men should never come at the expense of her own. I shouldn’t feel compelled to explain that, nor pontificate on just how progressive such a mentality was, practiced openly in the 1920s, but alas, there is a fraction of men in the world — I will not venture how big or small that fraction is — that would no doubt share vitriol and condemnation based on the above passage. Some men remain intimidated by an empowered, sexualized femininity and it’s because of that population, often visible and yet anonymous in the comments section of articles about gender equality, rape culture or issues pertaining to the female body, that Kiki is a timely work of poetry. 

Beyond my own surface commentary, however, the above excerpt also hints at the strain of Kiki’s stature among mostly male artistes. She’s intelligent and passionate about Dadaist developments in her midst but often relegated to the role of Man Ray’s accessory — a cheerleader out of bounds.

This is Alice. This is fucked up. Cowboys and Indians square
off on the walls of le Jockey. Men with wild west dreams
spoil for a brawl. The tables are nailed down. Dark suits
rub against dancehall floozies while I belt out “Les Filles de
Camaret se disent toutes vierges.” Pimps and goons hunch
over banquettes, chatting up wallflowers, their future
whores. I pass hookers on cobblestones beneath streetlamp.
In Man’s bed he wants to know why I’m always so hungry. (“Alice”, pg. 32)

With Ray’s oblivious remark, the male gaze again flits into view, shrugging off a dimension to Kiki that Earl commits great attention to: the realities of being poor and perpetually in character. Chronicling a day-to-day survivor, “Alice”’s diary avoids the steady arc of a biography (burdened as those often are by hindsight) and instead swings between the subconscious perspectives of Kiki and Alice. Her duality is abridged in the opening sentences of many entries — “This is Alice. This is fucked up.” — with Kiki’s agency contrasting Alice’s passive bewilderment. In a glance, one could see these alternating personalities as a convenient turn of cheek, letting vivacious desire overrun a soft-spoken moral center. But with so many entries mired in the hardships of poverty — whether thats having her tightly wound corset stuffed with cotton in order to sell more shallots, or numbing herself with cocaine in order to make money for her ailing mother — the dual synergy of Kiki and Alice forms a survival instinct. Eventually, Kiki’s moments of clarity accumulate to a startling realization:

I am tethered by ribbon and iron hooks.
The men of Montparnasse. A not so tender trap?

I am common glass.
I am the broken fragments.
I am ugly, a nightmare kaleidoscope.
I am mad. I am naked. I don’t know what I am. (“Alice”, pg. 46)

Although previous passages I’ve excerpted were intended to augment Earl’s character study, they are just as notable for relaying the frenetic pulse of a Parisian nightlife that will not subside into background imagery. “Tales of Montparnasse” serves to further populate the character of place that supported Kiki’s joie-de-vivre by stitching together thematically linked texts Earl has cut up and selected at random. The resulting piece, ripe with the mention of famous avant-garde artists, displays a cultural zeitgeist through cracked panes, whereby each dislocated stanza presents a scene of abstract busyness.

Champagne Dadaists pout
for Tristan Tzara and Philippe Soupault.

The Great Gatsby
tames cool bones
cracking to hurry.

The Saturday Evening Post
is serious as a death-mask.

Kisling and O’Keefe
rise like angels with horses. (“Tales of Montparnasse”, pg. 53)

Given Earl’s surrealist cues of construction, I trust that losing my coordinates in “Tales of Montparnasse” is at least partially by design. But without Kiki as my guide, or at least her degree of separation, I strain to uncover some hidden context here. (In a moment of panic, I even Googled unfamiliar names, hoping their art or biographies might unlock some subversive purpose to these experiments.) Ultimately a sensory re-read is more fulfilling and something Earl seems to encourage, signaling a gradual disassociation throughout the latter half of Kiki.

This downward spiral is engineered by tapping into the not-so-subtle drug-use that permeated the period’s devil-may-care spirit. Beyond its role in transcending logic and embracing surrealist ideas, ‘getting high’ provides a clever lens for Earl to forge ahead on, remaining true to Kiki’s challenges while linking two of the text’s most jarring transitions – “Opium” and “In which K meets B in a dream” – in a muddy state of consciousness. Utilizing source texts of Jean Cocteau alongside Earl’s own impressions, “Opium” wrestles self-assessment — a bed-ridden process of discovery, ecstasy and muted horror — through an hallucinatory lens.

I am the woman with the long black gloves. My eyes are dark.
I am the statue. I am the ox with harp and globe.
I am a smokestack. I am demolition. I collapse into rubble.

If a storm comes, Paris, the beautiful voyeur, will rub itself all over me.

I have written my name on a tree. Trees are better than marble because you
can see your name grow. (“Opium”, pg. 66-67)

“Opium” at first advances with the unerring slide of a bad trip: an early buzz of metamorphosis, that moment’s doubt, and then a cascade of self-destructive beliefs. Yet the tail-end, excerpted above, feels laced with resolution, at peace with the demise of identity in a way that “Alice”, with its confused and sober finale, couldn’t muster.

“In which K meets B in a dream”, another cut-up experiment (this one featuring text from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch), formulates a conversation between Kiki and Burroughs. The pairing maintains Kiki’s theme of excess by comparing various drugs and, on an unspoken level, draws out the mindset that binds outsiders: coping with and trying to find their scene, their people, amidst the constraints of a square community.

These two domineering personalities play off each other as one might expect, with playful jabs and blunt opinions keeping the imaginary exchange sharp, but it would close the book as a curious diversion if not for our awareness of Earl as mediator. Throughout its four sections, Kiki’s experimental demeanour reaches further into Earl’s own subconscious. And with Kiki and Burroughs trading barbs as vapours of place and perspective, it’s the author who rises — a virtual stranger in these pages — to the station of torch-bearing innovator. Alice Prin’s life-story in Paris isn’t rewritten so much as relived through a variety of Dadaist and drug-fueled experiments. Much like the surrealist works of Dali or Ray, Kiki connects best when introducing the reader to his or her own confusion.

Given the close relationship that Earl has forged with the memory of Kiki over the years — visible through her website and Twitter handle — not to mention her own reputation as a self-proclaimed “writer of smut” and “pornographer”, it’s almost a shame that this appropriation of the avant-garde mantle doesn't include Earl’s own place and perspective in Ottawa. Maybe next time.

Writer's note: My thanks to Ted Nolan, who offered editorial advice on this essay in the fall of 2015. Due to a lapse in computer software, I was stuck with the program Pages and unable to see his Microsoft Word critiques for months. The opportunity to work together passed, but I credit several small clarifications in the overall readability of this review to him.

Monday, July 04, 2016

On Writing #99 : Brian Henderson

On Writing
Brian Henderson

Writing: a rope bridge you have to throw out across the abyss of an empty page, a trail that continually forks, a trail that has no path; it’s a trace that wants to unravel itself in you you’re tracking but there’s no trail, no rope bridge, no tracking.

Writing is hunting and gathering. You go through the same territory many times but take different routes. Always stopping and sniffing. The difference is you don’t often know what it is you’re looking for, though when you see it or hear it or smell it you usually know it. Each bent blade of grass leads you astray into a following.

All this wandering and searching is of course actually a sitting still, waiting. Waiting for the right word to appear on the horizon over the hill.

You’re actually inside what the language wants; you’re inside that being; it’s its swerve you’re attempting to follow; you look out through its senses. It often breathes too loudly. And you can’t hear anything. You want to tear out a throat. Usually your own.

When I was working on The Alphamiricon -- that looked at writing as if from the outside. All real writing had been done; the Adamic Language that embodied the embrace of word and thing had been lost, and that piece worked with the physical and psychic fragments left to us on a Moebius strip of time.

Now I’m lost in language in a different way, though still the gleaner certainly. One of my sons spends a lot of time at the dump. It’s astounding what you can find there. A brand new radial saw with case and manual, perfectly functioning tools and equipment with perhaps a missing cord or fuse or bulb, just the right switch for your failed compressor, gold from electronics (if you know how to extract it), all the copper you could ever need. You could build a workshop. The living alchemy of the dump. We could say the same perhaps of the dictionary, or the already written.

So the gathering and the gathered, but the poem is always in the future.

And I have to learn so much patience. And to learn to parse the writing out from personal need. The writing is an atmospherics of the yet to come where each trace prolongs.

Deleuze and Massumi aver that writing opens humans to a becoming-animal, a process of non-representation.

So it looks after all like I’ve lost the track and it’s time to sit and wait a bit.

What is writing but the marks in the water you make while waiting? (Or maybe it’s the breadcrumbs you drop while walking and can never find again after you’ve waited.)

Brian Henderson is the author of 11 collections of poetry, the latest of which is [OR] from Talonbooks. Nerve Language (Pedlar Press) was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and Sharawadji (Brick Books), was a finalist for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. He is the x-director of WLUPress.