Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Interview with rob mclennan: The League of Canadian Poets National Poetry Month Blog

The League of Canadian Poets recently posted this interview with me over at their own enormously clever blog, for which I thank them! I'm reposting same here:

National Poetry Month Blog :An Interview with rob mclennan

rob mclennanWe are so very pleased to announce that rob mclennan will be doing a special Poet to Poet feature on his wildly popular blog, in which he will be interviewing all of our award shortlisted authors. But more on that below! If you do not already know him, please meet rob…
The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, rob mclennan won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include various chapbooks in Canada and the UK, the trade books notes and dispatches: essays (Toronto: Insomniac press, May 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Ottawa: Chaudiere Books, May 2014), as well as his forthcoming twenty-fifth trade poetry collection, If suppose we are a fragment (Ottawa: BuschekBooks, September 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( 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

BE: Why do you poetry blog?
rm: Originally, I started blogging (in June, 2003) for the same reasons I started reviewing at all: I saw so many worthy works being completely ignored, and couldn’t understand why. For whatever reason, I felt the need to do something about it. I started writing reviews more than twenty years ago, originally for The Carleton Arts Review back in 1993, starting what became a weekly column for The Ottawa X-Press in 1994 (for four and a half years), and then on the blog (as well as dozens of other venues, including The Antigonish Review, filling Station, Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, RAMPIKE, Rain Taxi, Jacket magazine, Prairie Fire Review of Books, Jacket2, etcetera). I’ve always considered that unless we speak of what we have already produced, there doesn’t seem much point in producing more, does there? A healthy reading and writing culture needs to be far more aware of what is happening, especially on the margins. Have you seen the work of Mercedes Eng, Jordan Abel or Marie AnnHarte Baker? Rachel Zucker, Cole Swensen or Pattie McCarthy? Brecken Hancock, Sadiqa de Meijer, Phil Hall or Sandra Ridley? Essential works are being produced right now and not enough readers who claim to love poetry are paying attention. Worse still, not enough writers who claim to love poetry are paying attention.

I’ve never seen the blog as one that is poetry specific, but one that moves as my interest does, although that does tend to favour poetry. Since I began (and even back to my Ottawa X-Press days) I’ve featured reviews on fiction, non-fiction and comic books (as well as reports of literary events, especially during my tenure in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta). I’ve also managed to post nearly a thousand interviews with poets, fiction, non-fiction and comic book writers since 2007 in my “12 or 20 questions” series, as well as a few dozen publishers in my sister-series of interviews with small publishers.

cover 2Cover1BE: Are you doing anything special for National Poetry Month?
rm: I’m currently working on a series of interviews/profiles on the various shortlisted works and authors for this year’s Raymond Souster Award, Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and Pat Lowther Memorial Award, working up to the announcement of the winners in June. April is also when the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s spring festival occurs, so I expect to be attending many book launches (including the Anansi Poetry Bash, for example).

BE: In the 16 years that NPM has been running, what is the most creative celebration of it that you have seen?

rm: A good question. Perhaps the most creative celebrations I’ve seen have been those that have specifically worked to celebrate poetry outside of poetry month, such as Ottawa’s annual poetry festival, VERSeFest. An intriguing side-effect of celebrating poetry during the span of a particular month has forced some to react against the seeming-arbitrariness of “Poetry Month,” and push to celebrate the craft beyond the boundaries of April, and throughout the rest of the calendar year. In the end, it brings a much larger and ongoing spotlight to poetry, which can only be good.

BE: What one book of poetry would you suggest right now?
rm: That might change from day to day to day, depending on when you ask. As I write this, we’re still in the midst of March Break, and I’m excited for spring poetry titles by Suzannah Showler, Brecken Hancock, nikki reimer, Sarah Lang, Paul Vermeersch, Natalie Simpson, Rob Winger, Chus Pato, Cecilia Nicholson, Sina Queyras, Gary Barwin, David W. McFadden and a whole ton of others, none of which I have yet seen. How can I pick just one?

There’s also a new work of short fiction by Lydia Davis, but that doesn’t answer your question, either.

Really, over the past few weeks I’ve been in the midst of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Love, Like Pronouns (Richmond CA: Omnidawn, 2003). She is absolutely incredible. I’m attempting to go through everything she has published so far.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Brecken Hancock, Broom Broom


BEFORETIMES. Uranus culls his gilded camels and bathes in the Baikal, the Zaysan, the Lanao. He wades in low-lying plains, spas in every rain-filled meteor crater. Sixty-fourth parallel, March. Sunlight fires a salvo off his lover’s collarbone. Gaia’s slums hoard water, Asmat mud and patches of pubic forest. Her valleys are aqueducts feeding antechambers of lakes: caravans of bathtubs clawing overland talon by talon according to deep time, glacial wake, geochemistry. Lake Agassiz Basin, Morass hollow, calderas. Gathering my hair off the pillow, I rise from the spill on our sheets to bathe. Oceanus – Titan of the brutish Atlantic, master of Ketos and Kraken, conductor of sky to land. Half-man, half-serpent; horizon marks the fix. Biceps of accumulated cloud ceiling the sea. He’ll rip your ship apart for a violin. His tail’s a woman’s braid dropped deep. And over its mucus and muscled carbuncles, legions of mollusk princes ascend, knot by knot by octopus tapas – crabs’ pincers and half-spumed clams – through bergs of cloying oil slick, plagues of dross, black-booming purple and a drowned Cassiopeia of phosphor. Abyssss. Germs fermenting in the kegs of their slow-moving shells. Up through the punch-holes of Poseidon’s belt, out through the tunnels of his prosthetic manifold, svelte pipelines, immaculate taps – an invertebrate army comes to kiss the slit where my tail splits, two legs.

Ottawa poet, critic and dog walker Brecken Hancock’s first trade poetry collection, Broom Broom (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2014), explores the depth and darkness of death, loss and disappearance, as well as a history of plumbing, all while attempting to come to terms with her mother’s extended years of illness and recent death. Hancock strolls her poems through sing-song cadences and performs a wild linguistic gymnastics across both a comfortable domesticity and an unsettled history, and yet, this entire collection is unsettled, attempting repeatedly to discover and gain precise footing. As she said recently in her “Poets in Profile” interview over at Open Book: Ontario: “I’m invested in the tension between façade and confession, bravado and vulnerability. My poems are one way that I hold a mirror up to my bad parts, and I think poetry offers a potent means for exposing an internal landscape that’s not available narratively.” Compare the poem “BRECKEN” at the beginning of the collection to the poem “EVIL BRECKEN” towards the end (published recently at Hazlitt):


Booze tides me.
TV abides me.

My tits slung
astride me,

I noose quiet
to lie with me.

My other husband’s
a broom.

The sibling poems, situated at either end of the collection, show the ways in which Hancock explores and plays with the self, with unanswerable questions and uncertainties, and the mirror held up to the tensions she spoke of “between façade and confession, bravado and vulnerability[.]” Utilizing poems throughout that explore plumbing back to the Greeks, it allows her the distraction, perhaps, to write what is really the focus of the collection: the loss of her mother and the nature of the self through memory, and a rage both sharp and worn; a rage at times so fierce it can’t help but catch in the throat. As she writes in the poem “HUSHA”: “Some animals eat their young. / Animals sweet on their young.” Another poem, “WOMAN, WOLF,” ends with the direction: “Love, you’re the kind of cur / that gnaws the buttons off his coat / and drinks and drinks to blur the raw.” When it appears, the rage is sharp, directed and pointed, and comes with a remarkable clarity. The poem “THE CRIME FOR WHICH HE’S SERVING LIFE” includes: “This poem, his prom. I grew up with a boy // who grew into a murderer and I loved him. Love him // on the far side of the object of love, // the him beyond him. For words there are no // larger words.” One of the most striking pieces in the collection is the extended poem “THE ART OF PLUMBING” (an earlier version of which appeared as a chapbook through above/ground press), comprised of an accumulation of short prose poems progressing from 3300 BCE to 2014 CE. The history of plumbing, again, centres here, and allows Hancock to distract against what the focus might actually be. Two sections from different points of the piece read:

1348 CE: Forty-five percent of Europe’s population succumbs to the Black Death. Bathing, thought to transmit disease through the pores of the body, begins to decline as common practice. One hundred and fifty years later, Queen Isabella of Castile boasts at having bathed only twice in her lifetime: once at birth and once on her wedding day.


2014 CE: I need to soak. Gathering my split hair from the pillow, I rise from the television news, from the navalia proelia on our sheets. Grief isn’t an epoch; it’s a milieu. In the tub, Mom’s waiting, water slipping through the noose at its bottom. Tuberous teats in the faucet’s bulb. One damp hand fixed to the hot faucet; fingernails chewn, skin leavened at the quick. It’s not quick; the earth turns round on its spit.

In her essay “Forensic Confession,” composed as a companion to “ONCE MORE” (published in the ninth issue of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics), Hancock writes about the complications of “confession” against the emotional complications of attempting to reconcile her mother through her writing. She writes, “This poem isn’t making me feel better. It’s no time travel.” She writes:

Ah, my mother’s deathbed. Now we’ve come to the nub of my obsession, my compulsion to confess. For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been writing about my mother. Mom contracted front-temporal dementia when she was forty-three years old and I was eighteen. The timeline is rather muddy because she was misdiagnoses over and over again, the medical establishment considering her too young to test for dementia. […] By considering forensics in creating my own work, I’ve been able to think about rhyme, rhythm, metre, formal structure, word choice, image, and metaphor as reconstructive tools for piecing together the case of my mother’s death and my culpability. As I said, the timeline is muddy. I scour the trail, back and forth, attempting to see things from an objective, scientific perspective, looking for the clue that will click the pieces into place. I consider my mother’s decline and death again and again from different angles, like an investigator pinning disparate photographs and pieces of evidence to the wall. Taken together, poems form the picture of what I know: the crime scene. I try my mother in the role of perpetrator, then exonerate her as victim. See myself as prey; try myself as criminal.

Broom Broom is very much a book about Hancock’s mother, composed as the thread that can’t help but run through the entirety of its pages. Broom Broom is a powerful first poetry collection that exists as both an exploration of a dark history and subsequent grief, as well as an opening into a comprehension of what might remain, and a possible freedom from that same grief. Still, the book isn’t one burdened or weighed down with any such overwhelmingly serious tone; one can’t deny the playfulness of her writing, even through poems composed to cut down to the bone, such as:


Husband leaves me.
I swill another.

Sandy leaves me.
You only get one another.

Best friends’ babies
amass like cloud cover.

Why wasn’t Mommy
a better lover?

Over the space of some seventy pages, its as though the subject of her mother circles throughout Broom Broom, circling ever tighter as one moves past the first few pages, becoming featured in a poem such as “THE ART OF PLUMBING,” finally to emerge as the focus in the second last poem, “ONCE MORE.” Reminiscent of the prose of Susan Howe’s That This (2010) that wrote of the death of her husband, Hancock’s penultimate poem includes:

Mom would stand in her pyjamas and green, knee-length insulated coat, puffing without remembering how to inhale. Hair forcibly washed, stringy, scraggly, broomstraw. Face: wet-bread white. Disconnected from language, from subjectivity, she still ached for home. She forgot her name, forgot her pronoun: adopted the neuter ‘it.’


            It asks my brother over and over to break it out:

            ‘Take it. Take it to where you have your life.’


Before the disease rendered it completely dumb, it was abusive. Exiling me from home, it forbade me from visiting and told me repeatedly that it hated me. It chased my dad with a knife and would sometimes turn on the car in the garage – make him watch while it knelt at the tailpipe, purposely sucking in exhaust.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Six Questions with Jordan Abel: 2014 Gerald Lampert Award Shortlist

From early April to early June, I’m featuring short interviews with the authors of the six shortlisted titles for each of the three awards run through The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Vancouver poet and editor Jordan Abel, whose book The Place of Scraps (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013) is on the shortlist for the 2014 Gerald Lampert Award. See my previous Gerald Lampert Award shortlist interview with Julie Joosten here. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Jordan Abel is a Nisga'a writer currently residing in Vancouver. Abel's conceptual writing engages with the representation of Indigenous peoples in Anthropology through the technique of erasure. He has been described as “a master carver of the page” who passes the work of sculpture along to the reader “who reads, and rereads, in three dimensions.” Abel’s chapbooks have been published by JackPine Press and above/ground press, and his work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals across Canada, including Prairie Fire, EVENT, dANDelion, ARC, CV2, The Capilano Review, Descant, Grain, and Canadian Literature. He is an editor for Poetry Is Dead magazine and the former editor for PRISM international and Geist. Currently, he is an instructor in the Continuing Studies department at Simon Fraser University and an English instructor at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. Abel’s first book, The Place of Scraps, was published by Talonbooks.

1. the place of scraps is your first trade collection of poetry. What was your process of originally putting the manuscript together, and how long did it take? How do you feel your concerns as a writer has developed over the space of starting the collection to finally seeing a finished copy at your front door? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, evolved?
When I originally began putting the manuscript together, my process leaned towards mechanical. To construct a poem, I would scan through Marius Barbeau's book Totem Poles until I came across a section that spoke to me. Usually, I was looking for a paragraph or two that I could type out in InDesign and subsequently erase. When I found a section that I liked, I would begin by erasing a word, a sentence, or a group of sentences. Sometimes I erased punctuation, letters and parts of letters.I erased until I found something that spoke to me. Sometimes that meant I erased almost everything.

As the process continued--The Place of Scraps was written over a period of 3 years--I found that the pieces I was adding to the book were no longer erasures of Barbeau, but were the snippets of fact I had written that connected my personal life to Barbeau's anthropological processes. The last pieces that I added to the book were the most personal sections. Those were the pieces that were the most difficult to insert.

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
As I continue to write, I find that the list of works that inspire me is constantly shifting. Right now, these are the books that make me want to keep writing:

Boycott by Vanessa Place
Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith
children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections by Renee Sarojini Saklikar
Dies: A Sentence by Vanessa Place
This Is Importance: A Student's Guide to Literature by Gregory Betts
X by Shane Rhodes
Mercenary English by Mercedes Eng

3. You’ve lived in Vancouver for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the landscape of Vancouver, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country?

I guess there's no way to know for sure, but I suspect I might have been a different kind of writer if I had lived in another part of the country. Specifically, there are a few people who have really contributed a great deal to my development and growth as a writer: Daniel Zomparelli, Ray Hsu, Bert Almon and Melissa Jacques. Without their influence, I would most certainly be a different writer. They gave me feedback that was instrumental in forming my work. They connected me to books that I found inspiring. Had I not lived in Edmonton and Vancouver, I may not have met those people and my writing would not be the same.

4. In an interview posted on Lemonhound, you speak of erasure, and that, in children of air india (Harbour Publishing, 2013) by Renée Saklikar, you always “linger on the missing pieces.” In both projects, yours and hers, the idea of what is not there is used to articulate a grievous loss of life and culture. In your mind, is erasure the same as a missing piece?

For me, erasure is inherently political. Erasure can be a missing piece. But it can also represent the pieces that are stolen, censored, manipulated, or removed. Erasure can shine a spotlight on the pieces that remain, and can map out the connections between fragments.

5. What do you feel teaching writing brings to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
Teaching writing has been an extraordinary experience. I find it inspiring to see writers finding their inspiration. There is something infectious about that. Or at least cyclical. For me, it's difficult to resist writing. Especially when I'm spending my time talking about writing.

6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but has also sometimes brought with it a particular kind of pressure, and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and award-winning writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally? What difference has it made to the way you approach your work, if any?
One of the pieces of advice that I've heard over and over again is to always keep your audience in mind. I don't think I've ever been able to fully comprehend what that means. But, when I write, I've always kept individual readers in mind. How quickly will you brush by these pages? Where will you linger? Will you double back here? Will your eyes catch the whole page? Or just this piece? Will you try to "read" this page of concrete poetry? Or will you just observe it? My focus has been tuned to the reading process for some time now, and I suspect that will remain the same regardless of what happens.

In regards awards culture in general, I think awards and nominations can definitely have an impact on the lifespan of a book. For the most part, I think this is excellent. But I do feel that impact can be problematic when awards lists completely inform how we read. The way that I’ve always thought of it is that books lead to more books. Awards and nominations can be an excellent entry point into unfamiliar genres and styles.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

the ottawa small press fair, spring 2014 edition: june 7, 2014

span-o (the small press action network - ottawa) presents:

    the ottawa
    small press
    book fair

spring 2014 edition
will be happening Saturday, June 7
in room 203 of the Jack Purcell Community Centre
(on Elgin, at 320 Jack Purcell Lane).

contact rob at to sign up for a table, etc.

"once upon a time, way way back in October 1994, rob mclennan & James Spyker invented a two-day event called the ottawa small press book fair, and held the first one at the National Archives of Canada..." Spyker moved to Toronto soon after our original event, but the fair continues, thanks in part to the help of generous volunteers, various writers and publishers, and the public for coming out to participate with alla their love and their dollars.

General info:
the ottawa small press book fair
noon to 5pm (opens at 11:00 for exhibitors)

admission free to the public.

$20 for exhibitors, full tables
$10 for half-tables
(payable to rob mclennan, c/o [NEW ADDRESS!] 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa ON K1H 7M9;

send by May 20 if you would like to appear in the exhibitor catalogue.

note: for the sake of increased demand, we are now offering half tables. for catalog, exhibitors should send name of press, address, email, web address, contact person, type of publications, list of publications (with price), if submissions are being considered & any other pertinent info, including upcoming ottawa-area events (if any).

& don't forget the pre-fair reading usually held the night before, info tba! also,

BE AWARE: given that the spring 2013 was the first to reach capacity (forcing me to say no to at least half a dozen exhibitors), the fair can't (unfortunately) fit everyone who wishes to participate. the fair is roughly first-come, first-served, but preference will be given to small publishers over self-published authors (being a "small press fair," after all).

the fair usually contains exhibitors with poetry books, novels,cookbooks, posters, t-shirts, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, scraps of paper, gum-ball machines with poems, 2x4s with text, etc, including (at previous events) Bywords, Dusty Owl, Chaudiere Books, above/ground press, Room 302 Books, The Puritan, The Ottawa Arts Review, Buschek Books, The Grunge Papers, Broken Jaw Press, BookThug, Proper Tales Press, Phafours Press, and others. happens twice a year, founded in 1994 by rob mclennan & James Spyker. now run by rob mclennan thru span-o. questions,

free things can be mailed for fair distribution to the same address. we are unable to sell things for folk who can't make it, sorry. also, always looking for volunteers to poster, move tables, that sort of thing. let me know if anyone able to do anything. thanks. for more information, bother rob mclennan.if you're able/willing to distribute posters/fliers for the fair, send me an email.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lesley Yalen, the beginning in

The first word was a noun

The first thing was a box                     It was needed

The first feeling was a pre-                  A preposition

It was in                       Before there was anyone

Before there was any thing                          An in

There really needs to be more work by Lesley Yalen books out in the world; who do we need to convince so that will happen? She was good enough to send a copy of her chapbook the beginning in (minutes BOOKS, 2011), a title I wasn’t aware of until very recently, part of a 2011 season of minutes BOOKS chapbooks that included titles by Eric Baus, Geoffrey Olsen, Sam Lohmann, Jacqueline Waters, Matvei Yankelevich, Taryn Andrews, Ben Fama, Corina Copp and Lewis Freedman. Why haven’t I heard of this press prior to this? Yalen’s the beginning in is structured as a single, ongoing sequence of untitled short lyric fragments, held one to a page over nearly thirty pages of text. Less structured as a straightforward narrative, Yalen’s poem does build up in swells, rising and falling away in turns, allowing the flow of the lyric itself to navigate where the poem moves in a sure, steady path. Through returning repeatedly to multiple beginnings, she writes of endings, the structure of cities and the creation of something else, and something more. “The end will be more of a prism and less of a rainbow,” she writes, somewhere in the middle of the sequence. Later on, writing: Skip ahead quite a lot through ages of wood and carbon, metal and velvet [.]” In her poem, lines build upon lines upon pages, shaping into something scattered and formed, yet returning, inevitably, to that origin point. This work reminds slightly of Robert Kroetsch, who revelled in play on beginnings, from the tantric delay to a return to origins. And so, to begin again.

An adjective created the city. It crept into the city. It found the spots for licking salt and slaking thirst.

blue, large, vast, crowded, comfortable, jagged, damp, prior, connected, close, aquamarine, alone, fearsome, fierce, ripe, violet, even, terrible, loud, surprising, shaken, hushed, poised, pregnant, aflame, aligned, faded, tired, visible, awake, old, important, dear, and all their opposites

Friday, April 11, 2014

the ninth issue of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics is now online!

Amanda Earl
An Essay About Writing A Talk About Poetry

Brecken Hancock
Forensic Confession

j/j hastain and Marthe Reed
On Collaboration

rob mclennan
Chus Pato: three of five,

David O’Meara
The Information

Wanda Praamsma
a thin line between (an excerpt)

Jessica Smith
ekphrastic poems

The Earl, Hancock and O’Meara pieces were originally presented (as earlier versions) as talks as part of The Factory Reading Series’ VERSeFest fundraiser in November 2013

rob mclennan: editor
mdesnoyers : design & (re)compiler
roland prevost: founding managing editor

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Six Questions with Anne Compton: 2014 Pat Lowther Award + Raymond Souster Award Shortlist(s)

From early April to early June, I’m featuring short interviews with the authors of the six shortlisted titles for each of the three awards run through The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Saint John, New Brunswick poet, critic, editor and anthologist Anne Compton, whose book Alongside (Toronto ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013) is on the shortlist for both the 2014 Pat Lowther Award and the 2014 Raymond Souster Award. See my previous Pat Lowther Award shortlist interview with Elizabeth Bachinsky here. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Anne Compton is the author of Processional--winner of the Governor-General's Award for Poetry (2005) and The Atlantic Poetry Prize, shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Prize; Opening the Island--winner of The Atlantic Poetry Prize (2003), shortlisted for The John and Margaret Savage First Book Award; and asking questions indoors and out (2009) – shortlisted for The Atlantic Poetry Prize. In 2008, she won The Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts and a National Magazine Award in Poetry. Compton is the author as well of the scholarly works, A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical (1994) and Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews (2006), and numerous scholarly articles. She is the Co-editor of Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada (2002) and the editor of The Edge of Home: Milton Acorn from the Island (2002). Compton's most recent poetry collection, Alongside, was published in 2013.

1. Alongside is your fourth trade collection of poetry, after Opening the Island (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002), the Governor-General’s Award-winning Processional (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005) and Asking Questions Indoors and Out (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009). After four trade books over the space of a little more than a decade, how do you feel your concerns as a writer have developed? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, has evolved?
Each book is concerned with a central idea. This idea or subject preoccupies me over the course of making the book. Alongside is about beauty (human beauty, landscape beauty, and the beauty of books themselves); asking questions indoors and out is about belief and doubt; and Processional is involved with the procession of the seasons. This is, and has been, my “process”: Each book is a long-term mental and emotional engagement with a subject. After writing an initial eight or ten poems, I recognize the preoccupying idea in the poems. That recognition gives energy and direction to the poems that follow. What I’m observing, overhearing, remembering, and reading attaches itself to the preoccupying idea. Usually, the individual poem begins with a visual or auditory observation.

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
I return regularly to work by Michael Symmons Roberts, John Glenday, Charles Wright, Sue Sinclair, and Don Domanski.

3. You’ve lived in New Brunswick for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the landscape of New Brunswick, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country?

As to a community of writers, I’ve never done a workshop or worked on one of my poems in a group situation, although I have taught many creative writing classes and I do free-lance editing, both of which are wonderfully conducive to the discussion of the nature and value of poetry. In terms of making my own poems, though, I do not belong to a community of writers. I work in solitude. Occasionally, I send poems to a journal, but it is generally true that no one sees my work until my editor, Evan Jones, receives the manuscript. I do work with colleagues on poetry-based projects such as the anthology Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada and, of course, I talked to many poets in compiling Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews. And, yes, certainly, I would have written differently had I lived in a different part of the country. My research for articles and for the interview book has shown me that here in Atlantic Canada poets are more likely to feel an affinity with Irish, UK, and  continental writers, and writers on the American seaboard, than with Canadian poets west of the Maritimes. “Place” is an under-discussed force in poetry. Place includes, as well as landscape, the cultural-geographic position of the writer.

4. In an interview posted on the Canadian Literature website, you mention how your poetry comes, in part, from your “rural roots.” The natural world exists throughout Alongside, from poems on the seasons, rain and the garden. What do you think you bring to the conversation of the natural world, and what has been called “eco-poetry,” and what do you feel you gain in return?
I understand “eco-poetry,” in the literary sense, to refer primarily to the shaping force of landscape on the forms and rhythms of poetry. It probably matters, therefore, that I grew up near the ocean and that I have lived for years close to the shore of a broad, deep river. The rhythm of water has a way of getting into poems. As for “eco-poetry” in the broader sense, all poets of the natural world summon us to attention, and paying attention is the first step in paying respect. I hope that I have contributed, in some small way, to a more vigilant concern for nature.

5. What do you feel teaching literature brought to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
Reading and teaching literature is no different from any other experience that goes into the making of a poem. Observing pigeons lined up on a power line may result in a poem image. Talking to a physicist may initiate a train of thought that leads to a poem; similarly, a novel might leave you with a gorgeous phrase that is the start-up of a poem. But it is these differing observational and cognitive experiences in combination that works best for poetry. Nothing, while you wake or sleep, is separate from poetry.

6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but has also sometimes brought with it a particular kind of pressure, and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and award-winning writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally? What difference has it made to the way you approach your work, if any?
Getting overlooked by an awards-jury is no different from having your work rejected by a journal. If you don’t want your work judged, then you shouldn’t publish or try to be published. Rejection is part of the process when you publish. I’ve experienced lots of that kind of disappointment.

Awards in poetry, though, are particularly important because they place poetry before the reading public. If those people who read fiction and non-fiction on a daily or weekly basis hear of a book of poems – by way of an award – and go out and get the book, that is positive for all poetry. Awards in poetry, however, make no difference in the making of poetry. Even if you win one, you still have to get back to the innocent, expectant, and exciting state you experienced in creating your first poems.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Karen Solie, The Living Option: Selected Poems


Blue jay vocalizes a clash on the colour
wheel, tulip heads removed one by one

with a sand wedge. Something
in the frequency. Expectations are high

There’s a reason it’s called the nervous
system. Someone in bed at 11 a.m.

impersonates an empty house. The sharpener’s
dragged his cart from the shed, his bell

rings out from the 12th century
to a neighbourhood traumatizing

food with dull knives. A hammer claws
to the edge of a reno and peers over. Inching

up its pole, a tentative flag. And the source?
Oh spring, my heart is in my mouth.

A selected poems by Toronto poet Karen Solie would be news enough, but the UK-published The Living Option: Selected Poems (Northumberland UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2013) includes not only healthy selections from her three trade poetry collections—Short Haul Engine (London ON: Brick Books, 2001), Modern and Normal (Brick Books, 2005) and the Griffin Poetry Prize-winning Pigeon (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010)—but forty pages of previously uncollected work under the section title “The Living Option: New Poems,” allowing a generous one hundred and sixty page volume of her work. Given the length of time between her trade collections to date, it makes one wonder if this “previously uncollected” section might end up being the bulk of a future collection to appear in Canada, as opposed to being work that appears only in trade form in the current selected. The latter has certainly been known to happen, such as in the bulk of the “new” from Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley’s Sunfall: New and Selected Poems: 1980-1996 (Anansi, 1996), but I would suspect the former is a more likely outcome, given the fact that Bloodaxe titles don’t necessarily make their way into the Canadian market (unless, of course, Anansi decides to produce a Canadian edition of the book). Either way, there aren’t too many Canadian poets managing to get selected poems produced by British publishers: Gary Geddes had a selected poems co-published between Bloodaxe Books and Goose Lane Editions in 1996, his Active Trading: Selected Poems 1970-1995, and Toronto poet Priscila Uppal’s Successful Tragedies: Selected Poems 1998-2010 appeared with Bloodaxe in 2010. Other contemporary Canadian poets with British titles are few and far between, but also include Edmonton poet, editor and critic Douglas Barbour’s Fragmenting Body etc. produced by both NeWest Press and Salt Publishing in 2000, or even my own name    , an errant (Stride, 2006).

Your News Hour Is Now Two Hours

Gratitude toward the houseplants, shame
for what they must endure. Of particular concern,
the azalea, flowering like the gestures and cries
of someone off the trail who sees a helicopter.
A long cold night is coming on.4

Is it dying or being killed?
When I’m 100 percent on what’s happening,
there’s still that niggling five. Too much
water, neglect, information. Decisions
made at the executive level.

Science tells us plants emit signatures and responses
on yet another frequency we cannot hear.
That’s all we need. When little,
we were told our heads were in the clouds.
Now we suspect the opposite.

This is an impressive and impressively large collection of her work, and would provide not only an incredible introduction to her work as a whole, but an enticement of the new poems for anyone already familiar with her first three trade collections. Solie’s poems have long existed as even uncomfortably-sharp meditations on violence, bad luck, back and lost roads, love, desire and mistakes of perception, all presented with a remarkable clarity, even from the perspective of voices trapped in the midst of any or all of the above. What I’ve always appreciated is how precisely she locates her poems, providing a wealth of incredible detail in very few words, writing on Lake Erie, Lethbridge, the Kananaskis Valley, rural Saskatchewan, Victoria’s English Bay, suburban Toronto, highway travel on the 400-series out of Mississauga, Greyhound buses (“Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way”), and more than once on driving and car rental (even in the space of this collection). Any regular reader might notice that John Deere tractors, also, are discussed regularly in Karen Solie poems. Whenever she does place a poem so specifically, she does so with insight and the attention of a local, articulating not a postcard poem about any arbitrary geography, but composing a piece with a suggestion of intimate knowledge, especially of the darker elements of what it means to exist in that place. In the poem “Rental Car,” she writes: “Eastbound, westbound, exodus via / the 400-series highways. Personal reasons / I will not get into. The 427 Interchange / is a long note in space, a flightpath of materials / the grace of which is a reason to live.” Her poems attest to and articulate a restlessness and an ability, one might suspect, to remain still or static, or in the same place for too long, and often end up being short narrative pieces on experience, attention and consequence. “Anything / going has far to go.” she writes, near the end of the poem “Lift Up Your Eyes.” Or the poem “Sault Ste. Marie,” that includes: “Each day a new threshold / to break upon. The fires mean for now there’s work. The drugstore // clerk plans to stop in to the casino / for a couple of hours after shift and what so-and-so // goddamn doesn’t know won’t hurt him. She’s not talking to me / so I’m inclined to believe her. How difficult could it be // to stay here?”