Sunday, July 26, 2015

Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970

[This short essay originally appeared online a while back; given the entire website seems to have disappeared, I replicate the essay here. An edited version also appears in my second collection of essays, Notes and Dispatches: Essays (Insomniac Press, 2014)]

I must have first read the work of Richard Brautigan when I was eighteen years old. There was a Pocket Book edition of Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (1972) that my girlfriend at the time was reading, loaned to her by a mutual friend we were just getting to know, Sabrina Mandell. I remember Ann-Marie pulling the book from her locker to show me, a volume she carried around, it seemed, for months. That book became important to me for a number of reasons, not just for the immediate joy and wonder and even sadness the stories brought, but the relationships that the book were a part of: the pixie-joy of Sabrina, and my girlfriend, Ann-Marie, who would, some three years later, give birth to our lovely daughter, Kate. Soon after the stories came The Pill Versus The Springhill Mine Disaster: the selected poems 1957-1968 (1968). If you're Canadian and old enough, you know that Springhill, Nova Scotia is famous for not one but two things: the infamous mine disaster (there were actually three, in 1891, 1956 and 1958) and the hometown of chanteuse Anne Murray (think of the song “Snowbirds”). Brautigan's title and title poem apparently refer to the 1958 disaster, which killed a total of seventy-four miners.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster

When you take your pill
it's like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
    lost inside of you.

Often lumped together with the 'hippie poets' of the late 1960s, many consider Brautigan the last of the Beat poets, and his Bay Area poetics were influenced by Jack Spicer, one of the most influential poets to come out of the area, for poets on both sides of the Canadian-American border. In my late teens and into my twenties, of course, I knew none of this, and, over the next few years, I went through as many of Brautigan's books as I could get my hands on. My initial forays into composing fiction were very much influenced by his work—the small self-contained pearls that accumulated into novels, or even sat by themselves, unbelievably whole for how short they seemed. How could anyone pack so much into such a small space, and with such a sense of wonder? “We know a little about her.” he writes, near the end of the story “Getting to Know Each Other,” “And she knows a lot about us.”

The Scalatti Tilt

'It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin.' That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

In my early twenties, during my daughter's first year, I spent my days schooling and working at a restaurant, scribbling short poems and stories in notebooks, wandering regularly through antiquarian bookseller Richard Fitzpatrick Books on Dalhousie Street for cheap paperbacks, including most of my current Brautigan collection. During my daily travels, there was almost always a Brautigan book of some sort in my sachel. After reading through A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), I dreamed of my own version, telling my partner that we have to get down to Berkeley, have to get down to California so I can write my “Big Sur novel.” I can't be the only one. I want to find the house where Brautigan lived with the third-storey ghost. The one only he could see. When I found my paperback copy of The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971), purchased sometime in 1991, it came with a small drawing slipped between pages. It was the image of a man with squiggles around his head, and an arrow through his neck. A girl beside him, holding flowers, smiles. I'm not sure where the drawing has disappeared, and because of this, the book seems diminished, somehow. My Pocket Book edition like a small archive or library, purchased for three dollars two decades ago, but holding all the important works. It is important to put things back where you found them.

God knows where our original copy of Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 disappeared to. I suspect my ex-wife still might have it somewhere on her bookshelf, or perhaps it was returned to Sabrina when we were still teenagers. My replacement copy is larger than the Pocket Book edition, a  Picador paperback with a cover I'm not entirely fond of. It has a version of the original book cover, with print of the photo of Sherry Vetter of Louisville, Kentucky, sitting with her chocolate cake, set out on a lawn, the photograph covered in honeybees. It just isn't the same. Still, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 is important to me because of how long I lived with it, reading and rereading it; important, possibly, because of where I went next, as a direct or indirect result. Through Brautigan, I got my first sense of just how short a story could be, how boiled down fiction made such a stronger effect than wordier prose. Through Brautigan, realizing novels could be written much the same way, each little section adding together into something larger, which is far less scary at the beginning than trying to write a whole novel. It was the first of his books that I read, before realizing I wanted to learn from them all, long before I wrote the poetry collection The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1999), or the work-in-progress “A Short Fake Novel about Richard Brautigan.” Perhaps it's important because it reminds me where I've been, and what I no longer have.

It’s a high building in Singapore that holds the only beauty for this San Francisco day where I am walking down the street, feeling terrible and watching my mind function with the efficiency of a liquid pencil. (“A High Building in Singapore”)

Recently, my partner Christine went on a work-related trip down to Washington, D.C., and she took my paperback copy of Trout Fishing in America (1967) to read on the flight. I haven't asked her yet what she thought of it. Mayonnaise.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Monica Kidd, The Year of Our Beautiful Exile


Nobody thought about the fish. Stranded in parking lots, ball diamonds, soccer pitches. In basements. Backhoe buckets. A kitchen sink. A toilet bowl, severed from its gasket. An overturned bass drum. A firepit. The trunk of a Toyota Tercel. A little red wagon. A large black boot. A bassinet. A toy box. A suitcase. A child’s wading pool. A tire swing. Concerned officials and willing children picked them up and rinsed them off, launching them down their raw new limnographies.

Calgary writer and family doctor Monica Kidd’s third poetry collection and sixth trade book is The Year of Our Beautiful Exile (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2015), a collection of short lyric observations composed during, as the title suggests, a year’s worth of travel with her family. The poems in The Year of Our Beautiful Exile are deceptively straightforward, suggesting a straight travel-narrative of sites visited and experiences felt and observed, instead utilizing those same ideas and stories to construct poems that, more often than not, instead focus on cadence, structure and sound. Where I think her poems are the most interesting are when she plays with form and line-lengths, including her forays into the prose-poem, which I’ve long considered some of her strongest writing. Some of the material that falls into her poems in this collection include being displaced by the 2013 Alberta flood, evolution, natural formations of earth, a variety of historical tidbits, and quotes from Walt Whitman, Jan Zwicky, Don McKay and others. Utilized as a form through which to process the world, this is a collection of poems composed as Kidd’s best thinking form, attempting to make sense of the hows and the whys and the whats included over an extended period away, aware of the arbitrariness of what exactly that means. “And what is a year?,” her opening Woody Guthrie quote asks. In the long run, perhaps little; perhaps far more than you’d think, helping reshape all that comes after.


Summoning his inner bard, the mayor put out a call for nouns to describe on national television those who would walk the banks of the river in flood. (Later, a clause was enacted allowing the substitution of compelling descriptors.) Diaper licker. Hammer sack. Buzzard briner. Sharp as a heap of sawdust. Quick as a set of square tires. Cousin lover. Lost as a drunken cherry. Jug plucker. Cow tipper. This, of course, was many weeks after His Worship sat beside me at a play about Will being slaughtered by zombies. And that, gentle reader, is as true a story as they come.

The poems in this collection suggest that it is a transitional work, between what Kidd has published previously, working through a series of explorations toward what she might end up producing in the future. Despite some weaker moments scattered throughout, this is a strong collection of lyric poems, all of which make me curious about what she might be working on next.

Friday, July 24, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) with Mike Steeves

Mike Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal, and works as a fundraiser at Concordia University. Giving Up is his first novel. Connect with Steeves on Twitter @SteevesMike.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Giving Up is my first published book so it’s still unclear whether it will end up being a life-changing experience. As far as the difference between my current and previous work, I hope that the current work is better.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I guess because fiction is what I read growing up. If that’s what you’re taking in then I imagine that’s how you’re going to respond. But I also know that I loved stories. Some poems are stories, but they don’t have to be. Non-fiction was definitely not even on my radar. So I wanted to emulate and reply to the stuff that I was reading, and what I was reading was fiction.

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?
Giving Up took me two years to write. That’s not including the editing process – that took another year. Once I start writing, things come quickly, provided I stick to it and make time every day (or most days) to do an hour or two of work. I write without any idea of structure or plot so I just start and keep going until I think I’m done. The final version of Giving Up is close to the manuscript I submitted to the publisher, which is to say that there were no major changes or additions. Before I start work on a book I may spend many months not writing anything at all. I will read and feel anxious about not writing and occasionally take down notes and then I think what happens is my anxiety builds to a point where I can’t stand it anymore and then only way out is to start working.

4 - Where does fiction 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?
I try to think of whatever I’m working on as a story. It’s either a long story or a short one. Most of my stories are longer ones. As I’m writing I start to think about just how long it’s going to be. So far, I’m typically not that far off the mark.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like reading because if it goes well then people will come up to you afterwards and say nice things and I love it when people say nice things to me. But it’s not part of the creative process and based on my limited experience it can be disruptive. I get very nervous and want to do a good job so weeks before the reading is going to take place I will find it hard to concentrate and will spend most of my time imagining how the reading is going to go. And then things go fine and I realize that I wasted weeks of my life worrying about it.

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?
When I’m writing I think I’m more concerned with the details – the ‘will this work’ mindset – but in the buildup or aftermath of writing I will definitely try to understand why I wanted to tell this particular story. In the case of Giving Up, the big concern was over the paradox between devoting oneself to an overarching goal, and how that goes against the demands of our everyday lives.

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?
I think there are as many writers are there are roles. Some writers will see their role as one of explaining the world to their readers. Others will see themselves as primarily entertainers. Of course, these roles aren’t exclusive to each other. But it’s pretty clear that in North America the role of the writer has been reduced somewhat and they are no longer expected to be authorities on culture or politics. We have experts for that now. And so writers are often seen as paid entertainers providing cultural commodities and should be solely concerned with providing the maximum entertainment possible to the largest group of people possible. This is a perverse understanding of how literature works. Unfortunately this perspective is frequently endorsed by other writers and critics.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
There’s a huge difference between a manuscript that can be shared among friends and a finished book that can be sold over the counter. I can’t see how Giving Up could have ever made this transition without Malcolm Sutton. This is the great secret that all authors carry around with them – that books are a collaboration.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In order to write a book, you have to sit down and write it. Seems like this should be obvious, but many of us seem to forget it.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have a day job so I write in the evenings. There’s not much of a routine to it. I just try to carve out an hour or two at the end of the night, after all the life-stuff has been tended to, and my goal is to get at least a page or two and to leave off in a place I’ll know I’ll be able to continue from the following night.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read constantly. That helps. But for the most part, even if my writing isn’t going well, I will still continue to write. I may not be happy with what I’m doing, but eventually that changes and I start to feel okay again. When I’m not writing at all, as I mentioned above, that makes me anxious. Anxiety is all the inspiration I need.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cleaning products.

13 - 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?
I love the music of John Coltrane and he has definitely served as an inspiration. Not so much the music, but simply his career, the ceaseless searching and experimenting in his work. And his integrity and devotion. All of that comes through in his beautiful playing. Also, I have been going to galleries for years. I love looking at paintings, even though I know very little about painting and visual art and can’t really talk about it, it still means a lot to me and I think some images have had an effect on my work. But what’s great is that it doesn’t have to be good in order to be influential. Flaubert was hugely affected by a painting of Saint Antione that I believe is universally considered to be a mediocre picture.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Dostoevsky is very important to me – both in my life and in my work.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

16 - 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’d like to be a detective. Not in real life though, just make-believe.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wish I had an edifying response to this question but I believe I started to write because I thought it would make me famous, and I believed that being famous was a way to avoid death. Wrong on both counts.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
There’s so many great books that it’s possible to read them almost exclusively. I just finished a collection of Tolstoy stories – the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation – that was unquestionably great. His story – The Death of Ivan Ilyich – is a harrowing and courageous look at the experience of dying. The Kreutzer Sonata is simply crazy. One of the craziest texts I have ever read, and I read the 9/11 Commission Report. As far as movies go, I watched John Ford’s Young Mr.Lincoln recently and it was a revelation.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a story that takes place during a professional development workshop. It’s extremely violent.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Joseph Massey, To Keep Time

Over a gorge flanked
by black oak
ravens relay calls

that double back in
echo. Thick
morning thinned to a

pitch of sun and no
Here you’re either lost

or lost. A wordless-
ness written
into dirt writes


As he writes as part of the press release to the collection, American poet Joseph Massey’s To Keep Time (Richmond CA: Omnidawn, 2014) is his “third and final book grounded in the landscape and weather of coastal Humboldt County, California, and contains the last poems I wrote there before moving to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts in the winter of 2013. Most of the poems were written with the knowledge that I would be leaving the place that was the backdrop and impetus for just about all of the poetry I wrote since the summer of 2001. I think the gravity of that long goodbye permeates the collection, and the question of place – “the geography of our being,” Charles Olson – became more frantic and fraught than usual.” Following his two previous trade collections – Areas of Fog (2009) and At the Point (2011) – both published by British publisher Shearsman Books, To Keep Time is a collection of lyric meditations on space, geography and being. Constructed in seven sections, the book includes a longer lyric sequence (“AN UNDISCLOSED LOCATION IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA,”), a variety of lyric suite-sections, and a bookend of short, stand-alone poems—the poem “ANOTHER REHEARSAL FOR MORNING” to open, and the three-line poem “NAMES” to conclude, that reads:

and what remains of them. Night,
here, coheres;
and the mind unsettles in.

Given its exploration and adherence to geographical space, as well as a cadence of the poetic, meditative lyric, To Keep Time connects in intriguing ways to numerous other titles I’ve seen produced by Omnidawn throughout the past few years, including Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book (2014) [see my review of such here], Robin Clarke’s Lines the Quarry (Omnidawn, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses (Omnidawn, 2013) [see my review of such here]. Also, part of what what appeals about the poems in this collection is Massey’s sense of pacing, articulating a sequence of short phrase-lines and line breaks, akin to Robert Creeley or Rae Armantrout, that pause and break and breathe, inching along in one direction while maneuvering outward into multiple others. These are poems that deserve quiet attention, and can move deceptively fast, highlighting turns and curves at breakneck speed. The space and feeling of geography that Massey maps here is intimate, and deep, sketching small moments even as they fracture, diminish and dissolve. Even as he keeps time, he writes with the awareness that it can’t be held, not even within the space of a poem.


Listening to wind
dislodge objects
in the dark around
my room, I want
to think thinking
is enough to locate
a world, but it isn’t.
it isn’t this one.
It isn’t this world,

Given that his first three poetry collections are constructed as a trilogy (although I’m uncertain at what point during the compositional process this trio of works became a single unit, whether mid-point, or from the very beginning), it will be interesting to see how his next poetry collection, Illocality (forthcoming this fall from Wave Books), will differ. As he describes his first few publications in his recent “12 or 20 questions” interview:

My first book, Areas of Fog, was more or less a collection of all of my chapbooks up to that point, with the exception of one (Eureka Slough). Once the book came out I felt like a space was cleared — I felt free to get to work on other things — so it changed my life in that respect. With all of those out of print and often very delicate chapbooks reprinted in a single volume, I was able to really look at what I had done. The book provided a beginning.

What’s unfolded since then revolves around the same concerns — attention to immediate details of the daily surroundings, the actual backyard and the universal backyard, the seams and fractures between natural worlds and human intrusion, and perception itself — but lately there’s a gradual drift inward, something (I almost hate to say it) personal coming into the work.

I think that can be heard in the book that’s coming out in the fall, To Keep Time, from Omnidawn.

After having composed a single project for so long, does the idea of what comes next become complicated, or as a relief?