Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Postcard: Billings Estate Museum,

We made our way to the Billings Estate Museum last week, an Ottawa historical site neither Christine nor I had previously visited (we weren’t entirely sure where it was before). Since we moved out of Centretown last fall, I’ve been curious about a number of aspects of our new neighbourhood, slowly making our way out to explore side-streets and parks, and a series of small pockets of city I knew little or nothing about. Our immediate part of Alta Vista Drive was originally one of a series of farmer’s fields before the advent of mid-1950s housing development. To the east, houses are slightly more recent, stepping into the early 1960s. A few blocks to the north-east, the houses along Orchard Avenue, for example, weren’t constructed until the late 1970s (what I would consider rather late for the area), and various neighbours apparently still have memory of a plethora of fruit trees. Christian McPherson, who owns a house on Orchard, recently discovered a lattice of tree-roots throughout his back yard.

We’d only been meaning for a couple of months to start taking advantage (in the tourist sense) of Christine’s maternity leave, and the three of us finally ventured the half an hour or so walk north along Alta Vista through Pleasant Park, over the Transitway towards Riverside, and up into the estate of old Braddish Billings (1762-1864) and his wife, Lamira Dow Billings (I’m curious to know if she, in fact, was related in any way of the Dow family who helped name Dow’s Great Swamp, later cleared out as Dow’s Lake). Curious, too, to see the occasional house around the transitway that seem to pre-date the other houses in the area (including the loveliest green house at the corner of Cavendish and Pleasant Park, with charming log fence), suggesting the 1940s, 1930s and even a house that appeared to be built closer to the end of the 19th Century (among, of course, the more modern and expensive monolithic in-fills). Once closer, we saw that the estate sits on a fascinating rise, and there is a section of Cabot Street where one can even catch a glimpse of the Peace Tower, which suggests it must have been quite a view before the emergence of city.

Given my fascination with history, I thought the tour quite compelling, and learned a number of things I didn’t previously know, including the fact that American-born Braddish Billings was raised in Brockville, and later moved to the area to work for American-born Philemon Wright (1760 - 1839), the same Wright who established the first permanent settlement in the area (Wrightstown, Wright’s Village, Wrightsville; what eventually became Hull, Quebec). Interesting enough, Billings and Wright were both originally from neighbouring towns in Massachusetts, born two years apart in the towns of Ware and Woburn, respectably. Billings also managed to get the contract to provide food to the workers who built the Rideau Canal, long before being known as one of the city’s founding lumber barons, helping him establish himself enough to build his grand estate on the Rideau River, slightly east of where Billings Bridge and Billings Bridge Plaza now sit. The tour was pretty interesting, with a number of characters throughout the family worth paying attention to, some of whom were quite colourful. It was interesting to compare the story of Billings and his family, as well as see how his connects, with other tales of early Ottawa-area settlers and figures, including Colonel John By, Hamnett Pinhey, Ottawa lumber barons Booth and Eddy, and William Stewart (who invented Stewarton) [see my piece on such here].

According to Wikipedia (which appears to have far more information than The Billings Estate website actually has):

The Billings Estate National Historic Site is an Ottawa museum located 2100 Cabot St. in the former home of one of the region’s earliest settlers. The oldest wood framed house in Ottawa was built in 1827-9 by Massachusetts-born Braddish Billings. It became the home for the following four generations of the Billings family. It is Ottawa’s oldest surviving house, though the Bytown Museum building is older. Billings had moved to the area in 1812, and was the first settler in Gloucester Township.

Billings became prosperous in the timber trade, and built the large home that was named Park Hill. Billings later moved into agriculture, and the house became the centre of a large and prosperous farm providing produce for Bytown, with the farm linked to town by the Bytown and Prescott Railway.

The estate remained in the Billings family until 1975. Over time the property was slowly sold off to developers, and today the estate retains only a relatively small plot of land. In 1975 the house became a Billings Estate Museum which is today operated by the city of Ottawa. The house was included amongst other architecturally interesting and historically significant buildings in Doors Open Ottawa, held June 2 and 3, 2012.

The estate also includes a historic cemetery that contains graves dating back to 1820.

For whatever reason, one of the bedrooms in the house, decorated with an exhibit on World War I, reminded slightly of the Hemingway House in Key West [see my post on such here].

We were given our own personal tour of the house, and later wandered a bit on the grounds, before stopping for tea (my scones are better than theirs). High tea: not something I’d done before either, but I know something my mother would have appreciated. Rose sat on the lawn for a spell, brushing her palms through the grass before finally tearing out a series of small handfuls. After tea (during which Rose was amused and distracted by Christine's change purse), we picked out postcards and guide books, and Christine gifted Rose a small kerchief doll, which brought up peals of laughter from the wee babe. Before we left, we wandered the small cemetery, and Rose fell asleep on my chest, nestled deep in her snuggly. What else might our summer bring?

Monday, July 28, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Geordie Miller

Geordie Miller is the author of Re:union, a collection of poetry published by Invisible's Snare imprint (2014). He is completing his PhD in English at Dalhousie University, and his critical and creative writing have appeared in Canadian Literature, The Dalhousie Review, The Coast, and The Rememberer (Invisible, 2010). He lives in Halifax and sometimes cameos as himself, an NFL fan who has the misfortune of supporting the Buffalo Bills, on the Eastlink television show Flag on the Play.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Well, I've done more interviews in the past month than in the previous 375 months of my life combined. So that's a change--getting opportunities to converse about poetics outside a classroom. My previous work emerged out of an academic environment (creative writing workshops and literary studies). At its worst, it was poems about Wordsworth and masturbation. The recent stuff certainly feels different, better. As in, it's not look-at-me clever, and is more mature.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I did do fiction first, technically. In Grade One I wrote a short story about a flying car and was selected to attend a Young Authors' Conference. I returned to poetry as a teenager and carried it forward into my 20s because I liked writing lyrics, but couldn't sing. Then it got to the point where poetry seemed like the best mode of registering that I don't know much about the world. Still is (because I still don't).

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

The majority of the poems in my first collection were written in six months. Is that fast? Some poems arrived quickly, and if they didn't make me cringe when I returned to them, the task of reshaping was often minimal--paring down ideas or disciplining the unruly lines. But yes, there are Hilroys or digital records of random phrases/notes/concepts. For my new project, I'm drawing somewhat on my PhD research into how literature is (de)valued in free market terms.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
For the next one, I'm working on a "book" from the beginning. The first time around it was a number of short pieces selected for thematic or narrative coherence, not to mention overall quality.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are central to my creative process. For years, I would agree to go public as a motivation for writing new poems (a deadline, a purpose). And I've done some stand-up and improvisational comedy, which further encourage me to treat the reading as a performance--banter, jokes, but absolutely no explaining the poem away. I enjoy reading them very much. That said, not all of my material is conducive to performance.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are several theoretical concerns behind my writing, which can be broadly considered as political. How do we continue to do what we do while knowing what we know? In other words, how do we bear the knowledge that we've been transformed into market subjects eg/the notion of the artist as an entrepreneur? Such transformations are based on a fiction of agency that is systematically denied to a growing majority of the population. Does poetry not remain "barbaric" given the pervasive illusion of individual freedom (versus the reality of non-living wages, personal debt, and a dominant affect of precarity)? Why write when (to borrow a phrase of Frederic Jameson's that has recently resurfaced in critical theory circles) "it is easier to imagine end of world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism"? I can't answer these questions; I can only try to raise them, however indirectly.  

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There is a lot of anxiety attached to this question because since the arrival of mass culture (movies, television) in the 1950s and into our neoliberal moment (the Internet, social media), books have not been the dominant cultural form. I don't think that the role of the novelist or poet--to take two examples--is to compete with these other forms as entertainment, exactly. But maybe novelists, poets etc. can be models of aesthetic autonomy--to entertain, yes. But also to educate and/or improve readers (however unintentionally). To be irreducible to market metrics. Here might be the place to include the caveat that I won't complain if my book sells 10,000 copies.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
At first it was difficult in the sense of "oh, I don't want to pass over the wheel. And was I even driving a vehicle? Am I a fraud?" Collaborating with Jake Kennedy was ultimately essential for interpreting my own writing--for getting outside my head and seeing things closer to how a reader might. So, both. Jake didn't wrest control away, and he asked good questions while contributing his own aesthetic insights.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

A writer friend relayed to me that Sue Goyette once described her first draft as an "S-draft" (where "s" is a swear word). That you need to get this draft out, aware of the inevitability of return and reevaluation. I like the term because it acknowledges that writing is hard, but it's also a process. Not a one-off. And if writers whom I admire (like Goyette) are willing to acknowledge this fact, then it moves us (even further) away from the Coleridge "Kubla Khan" fits of madness and inspiration "s" (which more often than not produces bad writing).

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving between genres is not like moving between apartments. You don't need to rent a van or haul a sectional up infinite flights of stairs. You just need to recognize that especially in this instance (poetry and critical prose) the two places are not so distinct (and the rent's roughly the same). I am critical and thinking aloud through poetry and I am striving to compel line-by-line in my critical prose. The style of critical theorists is rarely remarked upon, except in the negative. What I'm trying to say is that the appeal (for me) is that moving between these genres allows me to do both things better. I hope.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
It would be easy to invent one for the sake of answering this question and not feeling defensive. Like I probably should (have a routine). There's an ideal where I wake up in the morning and get down to writing for an hour or two. Then there's most days where I wake up with somewhere I have to be, and try to make time to write in the late afternoon or early evening. Or I don't make it at all.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The people around me (for lack of a better phrase)--talking with loved ones, going to shows (music, alternative comedy, visual art) in Halifax, discussing literature with my students, overhearing strangers having an odd conversation in a coffee shop.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I was just visiting my hometown (St.Catharines) and could have opened a window then typed something precise. Something more poetic than pollen. My mind must work backwards--home reminds me of certain fragrances.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The previous question gave me pause, so it ain't nature. The love of my life designs clothes, so I'm fortunate to learn from her aesthetic principles and sensibilities. These aren't a secret or anything; they're just hard to articulate in this space (someone who would answer "science" to this question might say something about osmosis here). Music, yes. Stephen Malkmus will have to suffice as elaboration because otherwise I'll just start listing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Here I will list (in no particular order and it's partial): Frank O'Hara, Inventory, Karl Marx, For the Union Dead, Wendy Brown, Bertolt Brecht, The Commons, David Foster Wallace, Wars of Position, and Autobiography of Red.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Teach Creative Writing, particularly at the secondary or post-secondary level.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think I would have been a professional comedian, whether sketch or stand-up or both. Not prop comedy (insert Carrot Top joke here) .

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always received a lot of attention for my writing and encouragement to pursue it from a young age (perhaps as a product of my upper-middle class mileu; I've since learned that Young Authors' Conferences do not abound). And when I started reading in earnest I was very, I guess, envious of the writers whom I was reading. I wanted to be them one day, more than I ever wanted to be a lawyer or a not-professional basketball player (my other two options).

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Dani Couture's YAW and The Great Beauty.

20 - What are you currently working on?
My dissertation. And I'm applying for jobs and writing a lot of poems about labour and the labour market. I must not be very creative.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Sunday, July 27, 2014

andrea bennett, Canoodlers

Dock Shoes

After he marries a pleasant single mother,
Larry the lech moves in two doors down.

One sunny day I go down to the backyard
to pick mint for tea. Rest my hand on the latch.

See my mother, gardening in cut-offs
and a sports bra, fists of dirt clinging to her knees.

Lecherous Larry leans over his wooden fence.
Lite beer in one hand, the other hand hidden.

His eyes on the hose in her hand,
her thumb on the sprout.

Later, I will be scolded for not saying hello.

Later still, lecherous Larry will enter our quiet house
during a street party. He’ll shimmy

out of dock shoes, pad down the hall
with bare feet. Drunk, he will look for my mother.

Vancouver poet andrea bennett’s first trade poetry collection, Canoodlers (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2014) is a work of short lyric narrative confessionals exploring family and other interpersonal dynamics of small town growing up, existing as a darker counterpart to some of Elizabeth Bachinsky’s early work, notably her Home of Sudden Service (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2006). Where Bachinsky merely hints at some of the Gothic aspects of youth, bennett articulates the failures alongside the accomplishments, as well as the dark aspects of violence, family battles and small-minded abuses. As the entire poem “In #2K11,” reads:

My mum defriends me on Facebook, and this means I am cut out of the family

Many of the poems in the collection exist as prose poems, skirting the boundary of short fiction or memoir, as she writes to open the poem “There’s a story”:

and it happens when I am twelve. There’s the back seat of a car, where my best friend Jane is sitting—I can see her in the rearview. Outside it’s a zoo, according to my mum. Rolling through downtown Hamilton, she says, Some of these people truly belong in cages. She points out the driver’s side window, flicks her fingers at a woman walking, Wouldja look at that, she says, and so I look—crunchy blonde hair, crop top, too-short cut-offs.

bennett is an accomplished storyteller, and much of Canoodlers is seemingly composed very much as a poetic memoir absolutely rich in exactly the right kind and right amount of detail. bennett knows how to create portraits quickly, and in small spaces, utilizing only what is essential to her narratives. And yet, some of the most intriguing poems in this collection are often the ones where she doesn’t allow the story she is attempting to overtake the flow of the language, and allowing the moment to simply be what it is, such as in the poem “Summer,” that reads:

is the well-meaning guest late to the potluck, needing to use the oven for a sec. The anemics swoon, stick their feet out the windows. Deficient in iron, rich in quiet time, they think of those they think of often but never remember to call. I am baking, says summer, echo the anemic. I am making you a pudding cake. I am pitting cherries and leaving their plump cups face up, waiting for syrup.

Friday, July 25, 2014

new from above/ground press: Ursuliak, Baus, Dyckman + Touch the Donkey

Braking and Blather
Emily Ursuliak

See link here for more information

Eric Baus

See link here for more information

Susanne Dyckman

See link here for more information

Touch the Donkey #2
featuring new writing by Julie Carr, Catherine Wagner, Susanne Dyckman, Pearl Pirie, David Peter Clark, Susan Holbrook, Phil Hall and Robert Swereda.
See link here for more information, as well as a direct link for ordering

keep an eye on the above/ground press blog for author interviews, new writing, reviews, upcoming readings and tons of other material;

published in Ottawa by above/ground press
July 2014
a/g subscribers receive a complimentary copy of each

To order, send cheques (add $1 for postage; outside Canada, add $2) to: rob mclennan, 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa ON K1H 7M9 or paypal (above). Scroll down here to see various backlist titles (many, many things are still in print).

Review copies of any title (while supplies last) also available, upon request.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Rusty Toque interview with Jon Paul Fiorentino

I interviewed Montreal writer Jon Paul Fiorentino recently on his new collection of short stories, I'm Not Scared of You or Anything (Anvil, 2014), newly posted online at The Rusty Toque.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pattie McCarthy, Nulls

THE FOLLOWING IS PLAINTEXT. the poem uses no metaphors. the poem uses no irony. the poem uses no figurative language whatsoever. the poem uses no humor. the poem uses no appropriate eye contact. the poem has a monotonous voice. the poem has difficulty repairing communication breakdown & restarting conversation. the poem uses language in an eloquent but inarticulate way. the poem knows the emperor has no clothes. the poem knows squares don’t have cousins. the poem chews on things that are not edible. the poem is unusually loud. the poem creates jokes that make no sense. the poem creates its own words & uses them with great pleasure in social situations. the poem interprets known words literally. the poem interrupts others. the poem tells no lies. the poem not single spies. the poem has impairments in prosody. THE PRECEDING IS CIPHERTEXT. (“Domestic Cryptography Survey I”)

Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s fourth trade poetry collection is Nulls (Grand Rapids MI: Horse Less Press, 2014), which is, as the back cover suggests, a four-section “collage of possible meetings which ultimately lead to birth [.]” I’ve only seen a couple of titles from Horse Less Press over the past couple of years, but this is easily the most attractive, and showcases the fact that this is a press worth paying attention to. The first section, “scenes from the lives of my parents,” appeared as a chapbook earlier this year with Bloof Books, and the short poems that make up the section each begin with a small asterisk and opening line. In many ways, the entire suite of short pieces in the first section is constructed as a sequence of footnotes, broadening the scope of information presented within an unseen source. Perhaps the footnotes exist as the real story, the important moments, between the mundane pieces of living. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

*scenes from the lives of my parents:

my father shaved his head in order to write
a letter upon his scalp & waited
(for his hair to regrow)—whereupon
he set off for my mother & there shaved
his head again to reveal the message.
this was a period of history that tolerated
a certain lack of urgency.

Many of McCarthy’s poems over the years have been composed in part from her apparent love of research into medieval subjects, topics and sources, blended with contemporary, personal and familial references, including her children, all of which come through with an incredible, staccato ease (something she recently discussed in an interview posted at Touch the Donkey). Her poems bounce and leap and have such a wonderful sense of sound and play that I don’t see in most other writers (Sylvia Legris, perhaps, or Emily Carr), as well as playing off a repetition and accumulation that build up to something quite magnificent. As she writes to open one of the pieces in the second section: “WHEN I SAY go TAKE THESE SENTENCES ONE AT A TIME—the / poem may laugh inappropriately. the poem may engage in / sustained and unusual repetition. the poem may prefer to be alone.” And yet, as much as McCarthy’s poems can exist as individual units,they are very much built to live with and even against each other, as Michael Ondaatje wrote in the introduction to The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1970): “Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can […].” It is as though McCarthy’s work is slowly evolving as a larger, ongoing, singular work of interconnected works, each composed as book-length units.

I can’t do this orally, only headily.
my sleep today was long but thin.
I don’t like the blinding sun, nor the dark, but best I like the mottled
but the butterfly is snowed, snowed with snow.
the long green grass with be yours & yours & yours . (“Domestic Cryptography Survey I”)

The four sections of the collection—“scenes from the lives of my parents,” “Domestic Cryptography Survey I,” “a poem including a brief history of autism” and “Domestic Cryptography Survey II,” as well as a section of “Sources”—extend many of the threads of McCarthy’s prior concerns, structures and subjects, blended together in such a way that expand on what she’s previously accomplished. Her interplay between medieval and contemporary ideas of women, children, birth, courtship and marriage work their ways through four sections, each of which focuses on a different point in a narrative from courtship through to marriage, childbirth and child-rearing, with the additional thread of autism. As she writes as part of the third section:

John Langdon Down, in his 1887 Mental Affections of Childhood & Youth described a type of child ho, when first dentition proceeding, lost its wonted brightness; it took less notice of those around it; many of its movements became rhythmical & automatic; […] anxiety was felt on account of the deferred speech, still more from the lessened responsiveness to all the endearments of its friends. Down notes other children who at second dentition suffer crises of intelligence having night terrors & not unfrequently loss of speech.

after my third child was born, I worried about post-partum depression. my ‘irrational fear’ was that someone was going to come & take the baby away. but if I confessed my irrational fear to the doctor, would that mean that someone would come & take the baby away? would the fear of someone coming to take the baby away be a reason to come & take the baby away? when I read the history of autism, I can taste that fear again.
it is as tough all of my skin can taste it.

Part of what has long appealed about McCarthy’s work is the way in which she manages to combine research and confessional in such a visceral, personal way, pushing inventive language poetry to very personal spaces (something Ottawa poet Brecken Hancock has been doing lately as well, such as in her recent series of pieces at Open Book: Toronto or in her Broom Broom [see my review of such here]). McCarthy is adept at writing about parental fear and anxiety, subjects that still somehow have the sheen of taboo, despite the growing list of poets managing to write such with incredible power, including McCarthy, Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg. The poems in Nulls are composed with such a primal force over an extremely large and complex canvas, and delve both historically and personally deep. “[A]ll words in fact have private meanings,” she writes. As one of the poems in the second section begins:

to give her something to be anxious about, she was taken to the shock room, where the floor is laced with metallic strips. to give her something to be anxious about, two electrodes were put on her bare back, & her shoes were removed. to give her something to be anxious about, z-process. to give her something to be anxious about, re-birthing. to give her something to be anxious about, he was shot to death in the arms of his aide. to give her something to be anxious about, some children will need more than ninety hours of listening. to give her something to be anxious about, a bit like a radio station going in & out of frequency & will change from left to right ear. to give her something to be anxious about, the process of removing heavy metals.