Thursday, April 24, 2014

Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Artist Award;

Much to my shock, on Tuesday night I won the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Artist Award [see the link to the shortlist announcement here]. Enormous thanks to Michele Provost for nominating me for such an award, the judges, my fellow nominees, everyone at CAO and to Monty Reid, Amanda Earl, Sean Wilson and Marcus McCann for graciously and generously writing letters of support. Who knew? Fortunately, I listened to recent advice from RM Vaughan that I should dress like I was going to win (although "prepare a speech" might also have been good advice, fyi).

I sat beside the Mayor, handed out multiple "poem" leaflets and a few chapbooks, and even sold a copy of my new collection of short stories to a banker.

See the Ottawa Citizen blog post on the awards gala and other winners here. Photos by Pete Laporte.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rob Budde, Dreamland Theatre



map ink before it dries

dyes are a solution and are small than actual
colour on the molecular level. perception is held in suspension
and is considered a heterogeneous mixture.
poets and ideas are derived from
identical organic compounds. this similarity results
in ink classified as status.

functional polar groups are used
to working with dye molecules. this ingredient gives
power the disintegrating quality that is necessary to
dissolve the vehicle of class. that is what makes
that type of thought smaller.

with these functional polar groups, violence
is insoluble, the vehicles do not change from particle form.

to prevent the pigments from clustering, cooperating,
law makers must add a dispersing agent to the mixture.
the dispersing agent acts
as a detergent called order.

Prince George, British Columbia poet, editor and writer Rob Budde’s new poetry collection, Dreamland Theatre (Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2014) seems to exist as a series of sketches, a loose sequence of lyric notes on poetry, poetics and the histories and locals of his adopted city. This book is an extension, the press release tells us, of the Prince George explorations that make up Finding Ft. George (Madeira Park BC: Caitlin Press, 2007). Now that he’s explored the surface and a bit below of his new north (especially since he’s actually been living there for a bit more than a decade now), the work in Dreamland Theatre manage to take his explorations of poetic geography and space far deeper. The press release is far more specific:

The Dreamland Theatre exists in a photograph of a white building on sledges being pulled through the mud from one location to another by a team of horses in Prince George (then Fort George) circa 1912. These poems are about imagining place and, continuing the work of Finding Ft. George, Rob Budde’s process of trying – and failing – to find out where he is. Poetry is part of a place, and this book deals in the powerful homemaking that is language itself.

The author of the poetry collections Catch as Catch (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1994), traffick (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1999), Finding Ft. George (Madeira Park BC: Caitlin Press, 2007) and Declining America (Toronto ON: Bookthug, 2009), there is much in the way of Dennis Cooley and Robert Kroetsch influence in some of those earlier works, and it is interesting to see how his work in the long, fragmented poem has evolved into what emerges as Dreamland Theatre. Within the new collection there are still the homages to earlier mentors, such as the poem “after creeley’s ‘for w.c.w.,’” a poem dedicated to and from Robert Creeley (but which seems to owe far more to the work of Barry McKinnon) that begins: “the fragment / more there than / say          you [.]” Another example is the poem “how I joined the seal herd too,” composed in memoriam to Robert Kroetsch, but Budde manages to bring something fresh to his play of Kroetsch’s line, claiming it for his own somehow, writing both the idea of the place, and perhaps a dream of the same:

and it was not difficult                  this
landlessness                      at the pivot
of our dance                     what matters
what touches      in what language

The finest parts of Budde’s poems are entirely small, subtle and nearly faint, held together by the appearance of straight narrative lines. With Dreamland Theatre, Budde’s poetic seems to have morphed into an intriguing blend of influences that easily appear to include the extended, loping sentences and insights of Barry McKinnon, and the lyric parse and eco-poetic of Ken Belford, both of whom have also written extensively of and through the same northern locales. Given Budde’s city narratives and language ethics questions, one might even catch a trace or two of influence from British Columbia poets such as George Stanley and SharonThesen, perhaps. Budde not only writes of his space, but composes it, as in the poem “khasdzoon yusk’ut” that ends with: “— if we were on a lake / it would be in a strong, well-made / canoe unlike the one / I leave in the yard unwritten [.]”

Given this, it would appear that the dream (or dreams) that Budde writes of are tangible, deliberately mixing an abstract space with a current and even historical one. Can history simply feel, at times, as nothing more than something once dreamed? It makes one curious to consider that his engagement with this blend of poetics and locale might now be an ongoing one, watching Budde’s work sink deeper inside Prince George with each succeeding title. In Dreamland Theatre, his poetry has evolved away from the major movements of long poems and language theory, and even the eco-poetry concerns, of some of his previous works, to somehow manage these as a far more subtle blend within the shorter lyric. The poems might not have the overt language play of earlier works, but Budde plinks and plucks at the lyric, composing a narrative line far looser, and yet, far more subtle than before. There is a looseness that exists in these poems that could certainly be tightened and strengthened, but one that allows in an alternate kind of spacing and breath. One almost forgives the occasional weaker poem within the collection for the sake of the larger tapestry, as Budde collects an accumulation of imperfect poems on an imperfect locale, and therefore, manages to capture the essence of such entirely. As he writes in the poem “unnamed places”: “like the body, poetry leads or follows [.]” It is as though that previous work, Finding Ft. George, worked hard to write of the city and areas surrounding Prince George, but Dreamland Theatre instead manages to write from the inside of those same spaces. Without the requirements of so much descriptive or historical elements, the poem can simply be of that space (and even the dream of that same space).

double me down 10th ave.

quick one two push
off and hey move
eyes back on the road and
stop giggling
okay not
too fast

the words turning
as we go
downtown when it’s
sunny and down-
hill and not too
car-filled

is it you steering or
me wishing
you would

turn and kiss
my cheek
because of something
we’ve discovered
about ethics

caring about language
emissions and how

we, careening
got there


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Guillaume Morissette

Guillaume Morissette is the author of the novel New Tab (Vehicule Press, 2014) and the short story collection I Am My Own Betrayal (Maison Kasini, 2012). His work has appeared in Maisonneuve Magazine, Pop Serial, Little Brother Magazine, Metazen, Thought Catalog, Galavant Magazine, HTMLGiant and many other publications.

He lives in Montreal.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a collection of stories & poems called I Am My Own Betrayal, which was published in 2012 by Maison Kasini. It was a compilation of different pieces written over a period of time during which my identity as a writer kept evolving, so it’s a book that has quirks and a kind of child’s drawing quality to it that’s interesting, I feel.

My new book is a semi-autobiographical novel called New Tab, published by Vehicule Press. Compared to Betrayal, the tone is more united and it’s deeper and smarter in its themes and structure, I think. Part of this comes from my own evolution as a writer, like while I was working on Betrayal, I still felt like I was magma or something, as if my identity as a writer hadn’t fully cooled itself down yet. Another factor was working with Vehicule and being backed by a much more experienced team this time around.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I first got into writing wanting to pursue fiction, but then I realized that it would be easier to get noticed and perform at readings and stuff if I did poetry, because one poem was faster to read than one short story. I was never a huge poetry fan, like there are some poetry books I like, but in general, I just don’t think of language as beautiful, I think of language as functional. My attitude was probably very poor towards poetry, like I didn’t care at all about tradition or form or whatever, but one interesting side-effect of exploring poetry was that my stories started to become more personal and intimate and vulnerable, which I liked. In the end, New Tab has some poetic sections and a kind of non-fiction-y feel to it at times, so in that sense, it’s not that far from any of these modes of writing.

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?

I spend infinity hours staring at my laptop and at some point I have a manuscript for a book or a thing I can publish online. I am pretty much always writing, thinking about writing, reading or noting down thoughts I am having into my phone. It’s an absorbing lifestyle. I also re-read myself a lot, desperately seeking a kind of imaginary 2% improvement.

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 just start working from an initial idea and then I figure it out through trial-and-error. I try not to think, “This is a book,” because then it’s really easy for me to think, “I am never going to finish this” immediately after.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like using humor in my writing, because I think of humor as an attractive mechanism, kind of like a little reward that might motivate a person to continue reading. New Tab was very much composed with the idea of being able to read from it at readings in mind, which might explain some of my stylistic choices, I don’t know.

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?

Right now, I am less interested in theoretical concerns or answering questions, and more interested in seriously, brutally and honestly examining my life as well as my position in time and space, which hopefully will resonate with others and further their own self-examinations.

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?
Writing is the closest thing we have to thinking, and we go to books to be entertained but also to learn, which is a weird dual purpose. The best case scenario is that a writer entertains you, teaches you something new, helps you question your assumptions, or does all of this all at the same time, somehow.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Andrew Steinmetz was my editor for New Tab. Andrew “got it,” I feel, like he took the novel very seriously while still thinking of it as “funny,” which was what I was hoping would happen. We edited over Skype at one point. He seemed out of his element, but willing to give it a shot.

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

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

Feels like I inadvertently answered this earlier.

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?

I got this full-time job thing about two months ago. Lately, my routine has been to accumulate as many notes and ideas as I can during the week, then write during the weekend while leisurely peaking on a very small dose of Adderall. I’d love to go back to a jobless lifestyle in the future, but we’ll see what’s possible financially and what isn’t.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I do “nothing” for a while. After finishing New Tab, I spent two months feeling frustrated and unproductive, like just sitting at my keyboard with nothing even remotely interesting coming out. Then I decided to give up. For a while, I reloaded on life experiences, read books, watched something like fifty episodes of an anime about baseball, didn’t feel bad about taking a break from productivity. Eventually, I felt inspired again.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Coffee. I only drink tea now.

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?

Videogames, Twitter, observing people, animals.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writer Ashley Opheim is one of my closest friends. I highly recommend her work and friendship.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?Feel content.

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?
In a parallel universe, I never stopped working as a videogame designer, which was my profession before experiencing a quarter-life crisis and being sucked into writing.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?Disillusioned with everything else.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

What Would Lynne Tillman Do? by Lynne Tillman, her collection of essays. I tend to dislike more or less all movies.

20 - What are you currently working on?

My internet presence.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, April 21, 2014

Six Questions with Alexandra Oliver: 2014 Pat Lowther 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 Toronto poet Alexandra Oliver, whose book Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (Windsor ON: Biblioasis, 2013) is on the shortlist for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award. See my previous Pat Lowther Award shortlist interviews with Elizabeth Bachinsky and Anne Compton. 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.

Alexandra Oliver’s [photo credit: Andie Petkus] latest book, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, was recently named by Michael Lista of The National Post as one of the top four books of Canadian poetry for 2013 and was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Prize.  She has also received two Pushcart Prize nominations, as well as a CBC Literary Award nomination. Oliver has performed her work at venues and events including Lollapalooza, The National Poetry Slam, the CBC Radio NationalPoetry Face-Off, the Bowery Poetry Club, the Spectacular Obsessions Fellini Retrospective at the Bell TIFF Lightbox and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival in Toronto.  She is a co-editor of Canadian formalist poetry journal The Rotary Dial.

1. Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway is your second trade collection of poetry, after Where the English Housewife Shines (London UK: Tin Press, 2007). After two trade books over the space of nearly 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?
Well, I'll begin by saying that Where the English Housewife Shines was basically a Whitman's Sampler of performance works I had created from the early 90's onward with a few new pieces thrown in for good measure. We were temporarily in Seattle, and I was at home with a small baby. I had friends in the UK who had created an artist-run press, and when they suggested collaborating to make a book, I was thrilled and frankly relieved to have the distraction. It was a fun process putting it together; I got to throw in some of my own illustrations, and that was novel. Skip ahead six years to Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, which began life as my MFA thesis and then evolved into a full-length collection. The poems had more of a narrative purpose there; I wanted to capture the mood of the suburbs, the hypocritical soup of newness, convenience, loneliness, alienation, materialistic desire and competitiveness. I think, as a writer, I've moved away from the "bada-boom-bada-bing" school of thinking which sometimes guides you in making performance-based works. I don't think about flash or drama or trawling for laughs when I'm telling a story now. I instead slow my observation processes down. I watch people very closely, and I always keep my antennae up, even in places like airports, waiting rooms, hair salons, school yards, conferences, office buildings. If the impulse of urgency and compassion is there, the potential to make a meaningful poem will be there also, no matter how "small" the subject matter. Writing doesn't begin and end at one's desk; it's a matter of being "on" at the unlikeliest moments, watchful, sharpening your axe.

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Let's start with poetry: I love Pope, Auden, Thomas, Bishop, Millay, Bogan, Merrill, Larkin, Walcott, Kizer, so many people. I also read a lot of craft and theory books. I'm meant to be reviewing Annie Finch's A Poet's Craft, and I'm dragging my heels because can't stop re-reading it! It's kind of like over-reliance on a friend you have on speed dial. Apart from poetry I'm naturally drawn to writers of observation, and that includes fiction writers who have what I'll term a critical, yet melancholic, eye. I adore, for example, Balzac, Goethe and Nabokov, and I am devoted to Edith Wharton. The House of Mirth is probably my all-time favourite. I also love to read books about looking, thinking and remembering; here, I'm thinking of Bachelard's The Poetics of Space and Elaine Scarry's wonderful books. I also enjoy really good biographies. Over the past year, I've been visiting with Edvard Munch, Edna St Millay and Federico Fellini.

3. Originally from Vancouver, you currently divide your time between Glasgow, Scotland and Toronto. I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the variety of landscapes you’ve existed in, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you remained living predominantly in a single city, or even a single country?
Oh, definitely. I love travelling, and I love meeting all sorts of people. People is the operative word here; like I said before, I'm concerned with observation of the ordinary, seeing folks going on about their business. I'm not concerned with big external sweeping themes--I won't be writing any opuses about Scottish independence, for example. It's outside of my experience range and my jurisdiction. Amongst the new poems I'm working on are a poem about trash on the River Kelvin, one about the people on my street looking out of the windows of their 19th century tenement apartments, another about a fight breaking out in a supermarket (supermarkets again!) and another about kids trading soccer cards outside of a primary school. There's one about Lockerbie, but it's disguised as a kind of fairy tale ballad, and you'd never get that from a first reading.

Scotland has a magic to it; it's very beautiful, in spite of the rain, which is relentless. As for a community of writers: I've met a few here, and they're great, very engaged and friendly. People in general  have a deep respect for poetry, and there's a real noble attempt to keep its existence celebrated. I've gone into my son's primary school to teach workshops, and I've never met a more wildly keen bunch of youngsters. Burns is a god in Scotland, and that's heartening because, in Canada, when you tell people you're a poet, they either think you're a wastrel, a foggy academic or a deranged hobbyist.

4. I’m intrigued at the fact that your work appears to be influenced by more formal poetic concerns as well as performance, especially given your time as part of Vancouver’s Edgewise Café. While the two shouldn’t necessarily be considered unnatural partners, most who work in one don’t often engage with the other. How are you able to negotiate and navigate the two, and how comfortable are you doing such?
I started off as a theatre student and, even though I was pretty dreadful as an actor, the whole experience left me with a deep reverence for being as engaged and entertaining as possible when reading anything aloud. I write poetry in form largely because I'm the product of eccentric older European parents. My friends grew up in communes and on goat farms or in swinging ranch houses where the parents had key parties and hoarded sex toys under the bed. None of that in our house; once you crossed the threshold, you may as well have been in a Thomas Mann novel. My dad had me reading poems aloud to the dinner table on a near-nightly basis. So the ham-prissy chicken dialectic has been with me my whole life. My inner Felix Unger and Auntie Mame have been happily married for years.

5. What do you feel teaching writing and creative writing has brought to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
Although I love having long spells where I can just take notes and hammer out poems, teaching enriches my writing life in many ways. For one thing, I get to meet interesting people with their own universes and viewpoints. I get to help them navigate these universes and translate the impulses they experience into written work. I learn from them, and that adds new dynamism to my own view of the world, my own practice. I love teaching people about form because, dollars to donuts, they've been led to believe in hushed voices, either in high school or in undergrad, that meter was practiced by writers who were a) repressed, b) politically conservative, c) unsophisticated or d) insane. They've never been told that meter can be a conduit for subversion or playfulness. Lastly, I find myself astonished by what I tell my students; I catch myself yammering on about how they need to establish good habits for a writing practice, and then I remember all those lost mornings I've spent following some story on the Guardian news wire or searching for shoes on the Internet. I am learning to follow my own counsel, and that's a good thing.

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, now, shortlisted writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally?
It's pretty clear that one can't just write because one wants prizes. I write because I honestly can't think of any other way of staying sane in this world. That being said, making poems is an insular business. My dad was a judge, and he used to say that it was a bit like being a priest or an astronaut. Having the acknowledgement of a nomination is gratifying, because, pathetic as it sounds, you feel that it all wasn't in vain. Like many poets, I generally feel as if I toil in obscurity; the idea of getting a prize seems pretty alien, but also rewarding. I'm a realist: I know that I might not fit a certain profile and/or certain judges might not like what I do, but that doesn't really affect my writing life.One thing to keep in mind is that it's important to keep poetry in the public consciousness and awards and accolades help to do that. If folks open the paper and read something about a poet, all of a sudden poetry's  a public act. Any public act has the potential to instigate change. And change, as we all know, is a damn good thing.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ongoing notes: late April, 2014



April is poetry month! (You mean we’re still doing that? Yes, yes, yes.)


What else? Oh, I’ve been working on copy-edits for my second collection of essays, out sometime in May or June with Insomniac Press. Admittedly, working on copy-edits is my least favourite part of the process of book-making, but there you go. Looking forward to seeing the final book in a few weeks.

And poems. There are starting to be poems again. Do you remember poems?

Seattle WA: I’ve long been a fan of the poetry of American poet Sarah Mangold, even to the point of issuing and/or reissuing a chapbook or two of hers over the past couple of years, so can’t help but get excited at the appearance of THE GODDESS CAN BE RECOGNIZED BY HER STEP (Dusie, February 2014). An extended lyric sequence of eleven pages, she seems to favour the accumulation of inquisitive lines and phrases that collect into a kind of chapbook-sized quilt. I very much like the way she brings a quirky narrative thread through seemingly-disconnected phrases, managing something subtle and delightful through various small collisions. As she writes: “Plunged you down plunged // down by one minor detail // I would have liked to // imitate a certain kind of // writing Device is everything[.]” She has a poetry collection perpetually-forthcoming with Furniture Press that I am hoping sees the light of day soon.

What is it that makes everyone want a child these days

                        Who is this everybody


                            To call ourselves outsiders is a kind of lie


Sometimes we are forced into this location

                        Sometimes we choose to inhabit it


Normalized

            And comfortable


                        Our companion monsters

                        Paws on keyboards

Fredericton NB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a trade collection from Fredericton poet matt robinson, so the appearance of his a fistmade and then made (Gaspereau Press, 2013), produced as #27 of Gaspereau’s “Devil’s Whim” chapbook series, is worth noting. According to his website, his last trade poetry title was Against the Hard Angle (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2010), which doesn’t seem that long ago. The ten poems that make up robinson’s a fist made and then made continue his blend of formal lyric, descriptive sketch and open-ended accumulation (as well as his continuing subject matter of sports, which appears far less often as the subject matter in really strong Canadian poems than you might think). The poems might be short, but they’re packed with a descriptive patter rich to the point of appearing as a multitude.

february afternoon, near tampa


unsteady – not quite anxious – from the limp of this
deck furniture’s scuff-addled vantage, this small, prefab
balcony’s whitewashed aluminum rails: strobe-frames the inflatable beach
slide’s flaccid blue end-of-day posturing – captures everything
here, uneasy; collapsing; folding in, on itself. and there
is near nothing as far as wave action goes; the water sleepily-dimpled,
the gulf a sun-soaked newsprint facsimile of overworked levi’s.
afternoon’s now a breezy, disinterested sigh; nameless
near palms struggle to grab the air’s pay. checked, the view’s a strip-mall
waffle house, segmented and greasy; you can’t un-stick your eyes’
thick lids for all the air’s syrup. the beer’s not quite warm.
            this, it would seem, is america. you sit here. you lounge
in a favourite shirt worn and washed once too often –
the seams ready to give, but no one’s willing to water, just now, on
quite how.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Joshua Marie Wilkinson, The Courier’s Archive & hymnal



Tonight just opened its door. Your stranger steps in with a head of worries: saying, I have no feeling in my hands, my face. The last brother, the moon’s ditch. We sketched the map out together with red tea. I held my hand open for him to practice the lines on.

Sorry I know you less than the ice does.

Mr. Matta-Clark, dawn sniffs through an oval, mooring the joists. Which are the tools for chronicling what you sawed through? Drywall in an elbow crease, scraped free with sink water.

A hole smeared into the boathouse floor. I startle the gull-laden ocean into beams.

I’m curious about the construction of Tuscon, Arizona poet and filmmaker Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s No Volta pentalogy, the third of which is newly out: The Courier’s Archive & hymnal (Portland OR/San Francisco CA: Sidebrow Books, 2014). Each of the three books in the project so far—the first two being Selenography (Sidebrow Books, 2010) and Swamp Isthmus (Boston MA/New York NY/Chicago IL: Black Ocean, 2013)—are constructed out of an accumulation of sections, each in turn constructed out of a sequence of untitled fragments. One begins to wonder: is the structure of the book unit deliberate, or perhaps more of an arbitrary one? It’s as though his projected pentalogy might simply a matter of breaking down a far larger project into publishable units than specifically worked out of five individual works: might the entire project of accumulated sections eventually appear, even a decade or two down the road, as a single publication, perhaps some five hundred pages in size? It’s an interesting question, certainly. The Courier’s Archive & hymnal is made up of four poem-sections: “Day for Night for Night,” “In the Trade of Alive Letters Mis-sent,” “The Dogs” and “fortnight’s Insignia.” What has always attracted me to Wilkinson’s poetry is in the disparate narratives that are suggested through a hodgepodge of phrases, sentences and sections that somehow mesh together into something that bonds into a much larger, layered structure.





She repeats egress & ingress over the lobby scuffle.

The bellhop’s wrist was bandaged with napkins.

The elevator goes up for a long time before returning with nobody.

A ridge of pollen drawn clean into the vent. Trail of gumdrops shows our courier where went a friend.

The bats follow you to the tavern & wait outside on your bicycle until the tenth inning.

Rain rocks the dead.

Curtain, I say: please come down now.

In his “Or: A Hollow Little Nimbus of Grime: How I Made Certain of My Poems,” composed for the “Why Write?” series for Green Mountains Review (posted June 22, 2013), Wilkinson speaks of his recent compositional and thought processes, writing that “I don’t see writing as expressing something that’s already inside me. Instead, maybe it’s to find words for what’s unworkable and thereby feel out the textures of that gap.” In order, he sketches out a bit of the structure of the individual No Volta books:

In my book Selenography, I tried to see how far I could strip a lyric poem back to minimal elements, but still retain character and setting and get glimpses of story churning hard. Tim Rutili’s beautiful polaroids helped me to locate the world of the poem, but also gave me a set of metonyms away from which I could push and they helped me to build up the tension of resistance, of counterpoint, of dissonance.

I cut it all up into strips, laid it out over my big table, and rearranged the scraps with Tim’s pictures. It probably didn’t look much like writing; it might’ve looked more like collaging or watching or arranging or just waiting. With coffee and music on, mumbling and pacing around it, learning the texture of its speech, getting to know its ghosts.

With Swamp Isthmus [see my review of such here], I worked to tease some lyric utterances back through whatever I’d polished out of Selenography [see my review of such here]. And looking back at it (how would I have known then, really?), I was working to expand those landscapes through apostrophe, circuit of address, leaps, and questions.

I love a kind of broken, alive syntax. I love grammar haunted with multiple levels of speech, whose context leaves us uncertain but whose force seems immediate. I love it when the dead speak, and I love talking right back to them, with them. Maybe a poem is a conjuring. And if it’s any good, it frightens us through recognition or just awe. I like it when a poem has the residue of other lives, other failings, other mysteries and plumbed encounters from without.

The prose sentence—and the prose fragment as well—were the units of composition in The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal. I wanted to see if I could write in the shadow of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep Interior (as many before me have done), but to deploy this skeining, gothic, overly descriptive syntax. I missed punctuation (Swamp Isthmus left it behind), so I brought that back, too.

I think I was hoping to overhear these long kinds of uttered sentences and questions, descriptions and tales. There are endless setting details throughout Courier’s that just confound me, but I get drawn in to the overblown half-world it unfolds, while the messenger girl threads the landscapes, making her deliveries. So, that book begins with a morphing of Diogenes’s “I have come to debase the coinage” and sort of takes it from there into the weird woods, through Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire, and back out of the pre-apocalyptic Chicago, Ankara, and Trabzon of my dream life.

Given his pre-pentalogy works—Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms (Portland, OR: Pinball Publishing, 2005), Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (Iowa City IO: University of Iowa Press, 2006) and The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2009), as well as the collaborative Figures for a Darkroom Voice (Saxtons River, VT: Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007) with Noah Eli Gordon and artwork by Noah Saterstrom—it would appear that this larger project works at a conscious exploration of dismantling lyric meaning and narrative into a kind of amorphous, non-linear collage. Throughout his work, Wilkinson has been immersed in the possibilities of the extended lyric poem, the fragment and a deeply evocative and descriptive collage, and the No Volta project, on the whole, seems to be his attempts to take all of these ideas further, breaking down the possibilities of what the fragment can achieve, even within a structure that can’t help but be held in a linear narrative.

But in the moments of composition, it feels more like a physical need: to talk through the written words, to speak them aloud, to hear it quaver awkwardly in the voice, to scribble them out with a ballpoint pen. To inscribe and cross out; to converse and wonder; to find a name for something resistant to language; to connect and slash; to make up and lie and alter; and to sing an awkward song with a pen in your hand, muttering it out, pretending you know who you are while you’re saying what you’re finding words for, while what’s eluding you is also resurfacing new.

He then goes on to write of the two final books in the project:

The break for me was with a book called Meadow Slasher. I’d begun to write through what I would have otherwise arrived at later, from a more comfortable or safer distance. I needed another compositional practice to steady me, even to locate me, because I was coming apart after a really hard break up. I wrote the bulk of that book in a couple of days, and then worked and reworked it between Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. I charted a spectrum of feeling previously unavailable to me in my writing life, namely: shame, dread, rage, perplexity, humiliation, and loss—but also vindictiveness and taunting invective juxtaposing playfulness and exuberance, right alongside curiosity and unknowing—and so on.

Not that I knew it then. It just came out in the voices of stark interrogatives. Andrew Marvell’s extraordinary Mower Poems helped guide me (lines from each of them appear throughout), and I obsessed over the violence in Leadbelly’s own life versus the beauty and playful gravity of his songs. (Catullus helped also.) Meadow Slasher marked a chasm between what I’d written before it.

So, with Shimoda’s Tavern, the final book in the pentalogy, the question was, how do you come home when all your compositional practices have been obliterated? When he arrived in Tucson, shortly after I did, I kept asking my friend, the poet Brandon Shimoda, how should it end? And he’d say this way or that way or out to the ocean or into the belly of the mountain, and so on; so, No Volta just ends in his tavern instead. Which seemed like a fine enough place to close out a long poem.

I’m more and more skeptical of what’s gettable and knowable and broadly accessible. And I’m increasingly moved by what eludes and enchants and frustrates and divulges itself differently, in unseen methods and flashes. A poem’s singularity and its otherness remain intact. Like any piece of art, a poem that moves us retains its inassimilability.

To construct these five titles as a single project (as opposed to simply allowing them to exist on their own as part of a trajectory of individual titles) suggests a break from what he has previously produced in his other works, and provide some incredible moments and connections. Even in his own words, the No Volta project is very much about him tearing apart, disassembling and reassembling how he constructs the poetic line, and not only honing his own craft, but altering it irrevocably. This certainly allows him a variety of freedoms, but leads to the question of his post-No Volta works: just what will he do once this project is finally complete?