Monday, July 29, 2013

On Writing #6 : Faizel Deen

Summer. Ottawa. 2013.
Faizal Deen

my writing has always been tied to the environmental. what this means is that I am quickly shut down by the mediocre. by energy that moves only according to imposed law. by food and drink that is overpriced. by cities that require cars, unfriendly to pedestrians. by cultures that insist that you are only a writer if you go out to every event. it sounds reactionary. but, really, it isn’t. when I am writing, I cannot be in social circulation. my mind is always on the page in the page somewhere else.

this is just me. I have never understood how it happened that to be a writer meant to be part of a community of writers. I have never understood the idea that to build an audience for one’s writing, one has to seek out the fraternity of other writers. I find that frightening and it shuts me down and causes me to flee from other writers. music, movies, theatre, travel: here are my influences.  this is not to say I don’t read. I read a fair bit. too much sometimes. I am aware that I will have to participate. I have nothing but respect for anyone who writes.

in terms of my claims of writing and environment and the links between the two, Ottawa acquires sets of significances for my recent project. this city was my entrance into Canada, an entrance into what is now called the Caribbean diaspora in Canada, and stretching it even further, the South Asian diaspora in Canada, which I know nothing about at all never having been raised with any ethnic or cultural markers of India beyond the once in awhile curry. modernity meant politics and economics in my family.

so what happened in Ottawa was this: there was never a present here only a past, a disappointment, a longing. Ottawa was not London England for my parents. they were never prepared for Canada and its landscapes. they were being imaginatively prepared for generations for England. think Jamaica Kincaid’s novels, primarily Lucy where the heroine discusses a “disappointment with reality” and the melancholia that ensues.

so coming to Ottawa for the summer is to court a tragic vision for the sole purpose of capturing something broken, fractured, really, the failure of the notion of diaspora---at least in my experience---to deliver some sense of belonging. Ottawa becomes the tristes tropiques because Ottawa must be writing and the writing is all backward-reaching and the memories are long because they don't begin and end with me but jump back into mothers, fathers, jungles, grandmothers, grandfathers, plantations, ships, rusty padlocks, saltwater.

what this all means is: when writing a book that is desperate for its own nation, its own identity, yes, yelling at, always yelling at what got packed up in suitcases so that it could get remembered in Ottawa, when writing that kind of book, I am unable to leave my house, carry on new friendships, attend functions, get contaminated by new memory, Conrad's hippo meat and all that. Ottawa is more than mourning. it’s sturdy cathexis refusing the de-. thus, it’s treacherous for me.

thankfully, this only happens when a book is being written. the first two meant I never left the house in Montreal in the late Nineties for about three years. though Billy and I would go swimming and to the movies. so, I did leave the house. when I am not writing in Ottawa, I hop on buses and go all over alone making notes or I eat scones at the Scone Witch or I play board games.

when the book is done, I hope I don’t find myself too lonely. usually making a book means the disappearance of friends brought on by my own disappearance. i remember reading somewhere that Dorothy Livesay, one of the greatest poets ever, had different groups of friends throughout her lifetime and I wonder if the writing process and what it takes out of you, especially when the writing is not being done casually or constantly in correspondence with what wins awards and acclaim, had anything to do with her ever changing circle of friends?

poetry's selfish, greedy hold on me has taken decades of acceptance. the politics of the language however and the ways in which I remain part of conversations about social, political and economic change makes me ok with the isolation that comes with writing. 

make meaning mantra the morning rule day to day until it's done.

Faizal Deen lives in Windsor, Ontario where he is completing an MA in literature and creative writing. He is also the UWindsor’s inaugural Student Writer-in-Residence for the English Department’s undergraduate creative writing program. Deen holds a BA in English Literature from Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario. Additionally, he has studied at McGill University, Oxford University and at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. His first book, Land Without Chocolate, a Memoir (1999) was published by Wolsak & Wynn. He was a contributor to Our Caribbean: Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited by Thomas Glave and a LAMBDA literary award winner in 2008. A scholarly edition of Land Without Chocolate, a Memoir is forthcoming along with a monograph on his contributions to the emergence of a Queer Caribbean literary canon.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On writing #5 : Michael Dennis

Who knew?
Michael Dennis

I've been writing poetry since I was in grade six at Queen Alexandra Public School in 1968 when I handed in the very naive poem "Jews and Negroes Hand in Hand," for an English assignment, to a very perplexed Mr. Rutherford.  In high school I was lucky to have an excellent teacher who fed my interest in poetry with actual books.

When I decided to be a poet I really had never met one or seen one on TV.  I had an idea of what a poet was, but no real clue.  Forty years later I've been published a couple of hundred times in magazines, journals, reviews, anthologies and every other thology.  I've published books, chapbooks, broadsides, posters, audio tapes, videos, CDs, posters, you name it.

But I remain one of those poets you might have read if you stumbled across a book of mine in a second hand store.  I recently had a phone call from a publisher of two of my books.  His publishing house had been purchased by a larger publishing house and one of the first things they were doing was purging by pulping "dead stock".  That meant that my remaining books would become toilet paper.  Perhaps an entirely too obvious metaphor but it wasn't allegorical, it was happening for real.

At this point in my literary career was bringing me little joy.

And it was a damned shame because I love poetry.  I started to write it because I loved reading it.  The first poet who really turned me on was Gwendolyn MacEwen and her fine book The Armies Of The Moon.

                                 "their leaders stand motionless
                                  on the rims of craters"

I didn't get it at all - but I liked it.  It made me feel smart and stupid at the same time.  Challenged and excited.  I liked that it was an entry point to a world I didn't know.  Of course I only know that in hindsight.  Since discovering MacEwen, I could easily divide my life into poetic discoveries.  After MacEwen, Cohen, Birney, Layton, Pratt, Lane, Lowther, Souster, Purdy, Bukowski. Ross, Tourbin... it is an endless list, an iceberg that I've shown the tip of.  Since then, outside of my marriage to my lovely and patient wife, my greatest joys have come from reading and discovering new poets.

A few months ago on while on Facebook, I posted a small note about a book of poetry I'd read and enjoyed.  For the fun of it kept doing it.  Two or three sentences and the title, name of the poet, etc.  After a few weeks my friend Christian McPherson said I should blog about the books, but I had no interest in that.  Then he said, "but they will send you books!"

Christian set up my blog and I started.  I write about books I like.  Not really reviews, because they lack any critical analysis - instead, I would call them appreciations.  And to my absolute joy and utter astonishment, Christian was right, books started to arrive at my door.  Little bundles of joy.  I started collecting poetry long before I thought of being a poet.  Having new books, new authors, arrive at the door, perfect.

Then a curious thing happened.  I'd always thought I was a good poet, not great, but happy to call myself good.  And like many poets I know, I had a chip on my shoulder about my lack of success, no small amount of jealousy about those whom I perceived received undeserved success (which really meant - any success other than mine).  Having all these new poets come through the door has been a staggering reality check and punch in the head.

In a few short weeks it was clear to me that there were an army of poets I hadn't read.  Gwendolyn's excellent army of poets who wrote in as many different ways as there are languages and voices.  It was a joy to discover and a release from any frustrations I had about my own craft.  Clearly I had been lucky to publish what I had, or at all.  All these years I'd been reading as much as I could find at the local stores, whatever I could amass - only to recently discover that the small stream I thought I was swimming in is a rather large river, an ocean in fact.  The vast army of poets, so many of them truly excellent, has given me back what I loved most, first.

I rediscovered the joy of finding new voices, voices that astonish.

Michael Dennis [photo by John W. MacDonald] was born in London, Ontario in 1956. He is the author of numerous books and chapbooks. His first, Quarter On Its' Edge, was published in 1979 and his most recent, The Uncertainty of Everything from Burnt Wine Press in 2011. His forthcoming title Blue Movies For Blues Players or Sonnets For The Eternally Sad, will be out this fall from Pooka Press in Vancouver. He blogs at

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Recent Reads: Jason Christie and Jessica Smith

Government by Jason Christie
Mnemotechnics by Jessica Smith

Both titles published by above/ground press, 2013.

Anyone who has watched Question Period on Parliament Hill likely understands why politics turns a lot of people off. I’d wager that most people intrinsically care about counting ballots, improving government programs, standing up for what’s right and so on. But I’m far less optimistic that even a tenth of that population will watch, with hands clasped, as MPs play the blame-game across the aisle while the marrow of their issues gets cast aside. The art of speaking in circles can make a nihilist out of anyone and that apathy lands squarely in the crosshairs of Jason Christie’s Government.

Bearing no author’s name on its cover and opening with “The Golden Fleece”, a lengthy examination into the spectrum of political consumption, Government has the radical air of a manifesto. But notice I use the word examination and not attack; Christie isn’t keen on getting sucked into the vortex of identity politics as it would negate Government’s raison d’ĂȘtre. Instead this chapbook observes from the eye of the storm, underlining thoughts on materialism, ownership, conscience and ambition – existential subjects at the roots of litigious jargon. From “The Golden Fleece”:

It’s the abuse of
acceptable practice
that really puts
chapstick on my
grocery list. It’s
really that smile
and nod and smile
and smile when really
nothing hangs
balanced and
backpatting and
gladhanding and
co-signing and
winking and
book publishing and
obligatory face time and
it all amounts to
churning for the sake
of making someone
else superior because
that’s what you both
want, isn’t it? Necessity
and utility attached
to knowledge with
wonder shackled
to output and process
turns lush greenery
into rigid structures
that make us an
authority on rigid

Sticking with “The Golden Fleece” for a moment, since its nine segments do occupy half of Government, there’s a copious amount of opinion anchoring this work that I don’t wish to downplay. Christie employs repetition to reduce meaning and spins unique phrasing to obfuscate simple points. Yes, strategies straight from the Question Period survival handbook! But even Christie’s opinion resists being politicized, choosing to anchor Government with a desire for simplicity rather than hinging the chapbook on a reader’s allegiance.

Christie’s stanzas cascade in tight fragments, creating tongue-in-cheek observations that pertain as much to society as to the parties which govern. Perhaps the most searing poem arrives with “Ceres”, wherein Christie speaks of the human condition as a cycle of wants and achievements that requires destruction for distraction. Heavy stuff, I suppose, but it maintains the un-preachy logic that matches philosophical food for thought with the satisfaction of a good read. Excerpt from “Ceres”:

We demand, um,
a round planet
to conquer and
grapes to crush
and woods to raze
and my fingers
smell like bacon
what were we
demanding again
now that we have
our roundness and
promises of voyage
and desperate
skyward pleas
launched with
arcing smoke trails
which way is home
when everywhere
we look burns
new memories
into the fabric
of our great need

Sometimes the book you've recently finished and the new one you’ve just picked up compliment each other in unexpected ways. Fresh off of reading Jason Christie’s analytical Government, I turn to the wholly bucolic, undaunted echo-space of Jessica Smith’s Mnemotechnics. Betraying its tricky title, which refers to “the practice of aiding the memory”, these poems reside in a state of wakefulness untroubled by the march of humanity.

What makes Smith’s latest chapbook so imaginative – yet also difficult to transcribe – is her liberal use of spacing, which isolates outdoor imagery and one’s sense of place with a more meditative pulse. Occasionally, as in “warning”, spacing obstructs the very direction in which the poem should be read. I took these gray areas as cues to go off-trail, so to speak, and experience Smith’s details in new ways. Mnemotechnics’ content lends itself well to reorganization and, even when subbing one line before another, each fragmented string contributes to a rewarding sum, a greater awareness.

So there’s no rushing to identify the arc in “robins” or the unfinished Roger Tory Pederson quote in “canada geese”; one simply appreciates the scope. With each line as deliberate as a brushstroke, Smith constructs scenes on standalone details, which – like the birds she muses – contribute insights best when taken as a flock. Unlike Christie’s Government, this is very much a chapbook to cleanse one’s mind, to take outdoors and read with nothing but the breeze to assist it. In fact there’s probably no better way to approach Mnemotechnics, a work constantly conversing with nature. Read "ghost" below, captured authentically in an image snagged from above/ground press:

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

On writing #4 : Michael Blouin

On Process
Michael Blouin

Process. I don’t know that I have much to say about it that anyone other than me would find interesting. Once or twice a day I sit down and I write. Sometimes I write a little, sometimes a lot. Sometimes it’s a revision and sometimes it’s something new. I don’t know why the words are there and I never have. It used to be different. I would sit down when the words were already coming, or I would sit down and nothing would happen. Now I sit down and I just get to work. I write. The words are always there so I write them down. Sometimes there are three, sometimes there are three thousand. It took me years to get to this point and I don’t know how long it will last. It’s not that it’s any less of a mysterious or an alchemic process now than it was, it’s just easier. I am quite aware that someday it will end.

I work on more than one project at a time. At the moment I am putting finishing touches on a book to be released this fall and I am finishing the first draft of one novel (65,000 words) and starting the second draft of another (95,000 words). I’m also making notes towards a new book that I haven’t actually started to write yet. This way there is always something to work on. I take notes during the day on my phone (I used to write them on my hand). I almost always have headphones on when I’m writing, the music gives me something to do while waiting and to some degree likely informs what I write and so I’m careful about selection although as soon as I begin writing the music disappears from my head. I find it very challenging to watch narrative on television or in film when I have a project on the go and I always have a project on the go so I tend to stay away from these things for the most part. I read a lot. The current music playlist for the novel I’m spending the most time on is as follows: The National, Frightened Rabbit, Seasick Steve, Wiseblood, Snoop Lion, Justin Townes Earle, Low, Don Covay, Beirut, Schlomo and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Each book has its own playlist. I’m starting now to publish these playlists at the back of the books.

Mostly I write at night. I’ve never written anything in the morning unless I’ve been up all night.

I don’t do anything else when I’m writing. I don’t eat, I don’t drink, I don’t leave the desk and I don’t tend to look away from the work. This didn’t used to be the case. When I was younger and had to wait for the process to start I found countless ways to do other things, to leave the desk, to not write. Now I’m quite content to just sit with the words. More content than when I’m doing just about anything else in fact. The only exception now is that I might pick up a guitar though I don’t have to leave the desk to do this. I would describe myself now as very integrated with the process whereas when I was a younger writer I was in conflict with it much of the time. I didn’t realize it then though, I just thought it was a struggle. I suppose I had to go through that.

None of my previous houses have had a place dedicated to writing. I once wrote a whole novel in the wet moldy dirt floored basement of a hundred and fifty year old house. I now have a bright and airy loft of an office overlooking a huge oak tree. It’s like a treehouse.

Here I have everything I need. Paintings by bill bissett, Stewart Jones and Elizabeth Rainer. Signed broadsheets by J.P. Fiorentino, Susan Musgrave and Stan Bevington. An historic map of St. Thomas Ontario given to me by Sandra Ridley. A 1930’s Underwood. There are photographs: my wife, Johnny Cash, my dog (also named Cash), Jay-Z, Gillian Sze and Ken Carter (who both appear in my next book), a paint by number of Jesus, Jumbo the circus elephant, some Greg Curnoe artwork and some Jean Michel Basquiat. An original poster for the film Hard Core Logo which I’ll be getting signed by the director Bruce McDonald (who is also a character in my next book).There’s a ceramic skull from Mexico I bought the day my father died. A bowling pin. My three guitars; a Gretsch Alligator Resonator, an Alabama resonator and a Fender Stratocaster. A plastic Superman. Three guns. A Popeye comic book. There’s a coffee mug that says “Write Like A Mother****er” (I saw one belonging to Jeremy Hanson-Finger online and had to order one the same day). There’s an old tin sign, hand painted and found at a flea market, that says “LIFE IS TOO LONG TO LIVE LIKE THIS” and a wooden sign that says “RIDE ‘EM COWBOY”. I often wonder about the individual that painted that tin sign. I mention what is here in the room because for the most part these things are important to the process. I don’t need them in order to write but they are things that have accumulated here because I am a writer, and they create a workspace, a space which is welcoming to the work. Talismans.

I have almost died or been killed nine times. I am lucky to be a working, publishing Canadian writer. It is one of the three things I’ve wanted most in this world. I’m lucky enough to have the other two as well. Family and friends and a God who is intimately connected to this life. These are the things I carry with me to this space each day. I am lucky that the words come. For as long as they come I will continue to write them down and hope that they find readers. This is my process. I keep on writing. Life is too short to live any other way.

MICHAEL BLOUIN's critically acclaimed first novel Chase and Haven (Coach House) was a finalist for the First Novel Award and won the 2009 ReLit Award for Best Novel in Canada. In 2007 his first collected poetry I'm not going to lie to you (Pedlar Press) was a finalist for the Lampman Award. In 2011 Pedlar Press released Wore Down Trust which was nominated for the ReLit Award and won the 2012 Lampman Award. In 2013 the renowned publisher BookThug will publish his innovative fourth book I don't know how to behave. He was a finalist for the 2010 CBC Literary Awards and his work has been published in many literary magazines including Descant, Arc, Branch, Dragnet, The Antigonish Review, Event, Grain, Queen's Quarterly, The New Quarterly, Branch, Dragnet and The Fiddlehead. He is represented internationally by Westwood Creative Artists. He was recently shortlisted for the bpNichol Award for his above/ground press chapbook Let/Lie co-authored with Elizabeth Rainer. Author website