Friday, September 27, 2013

Recent Reads: After Swann by Marthe Reed

After Swann by Marthe Reed

Published by above/ground press, 2013.

There’s a surprising amount of perspective unifying Marthe Reed’s new chapbook. A collaged piece intertwining Reed’s words with those of Marcel Proust (by way of his Swann’s Way), it’s also an animated video produced in association with the Plastic Theater of Lafayette. And when you consider this above/ground press release appears excerpted from a larger body of work, which (one imagines) will deepen already weighty themes of gender and consciousness, well, there is much to chew on here.

Given all of that context, After Swann surprises because it’s fully transporting on its own. I jumped in as I usually do, obliviously – having read no “product descriptions” in advance – and immediately felt the invisible parameters that directed acceptable female behaviour in an aristocratic setting; constraints that still loom today.

these dreams
stop like a clock
a malady

too irresistible
this black cavity
precisely the same

she might have a red
a certain type of femininity

her subjection
fixed in

oh, marvelous
the tombs
of sunlight straying

impossible for me
the vagrancy
of her

that face
deliberately unfinished

present except
in a flood of blue light
that current

we imagine
almost ours
that sort of tenderness

the instant of pain
the special pleasure
and seize

the mysterious object
still alive
buried in a couch of grass

From “21”, Reed’s first chapter, we’re acclimatized to a code of conduct pillowed between Freudian urges and bigoted expectation. Marthe Reed has tackled femininity in a male-oriented society before and here it’s quietly rendered amidst the formality of a Jane Austen-esque estate. There’s always the matter of evening entertainment, of dresses and figurative masks to attend to, while the meadows hang like a dreamscape just over property lines. From “27”:

her spirited
a cataract”

drunken with
scandal and asseveration
like a cage-bird

Alongside our nameless protagonist, we readers learn to cope within the strictly defined rules that govern a gender and home we had no hand in. After Swann’s gaze tenders no logical reasoning for our plight but no clear remedies either. These stanzas steady themselves on perseverance, never acting on defiance or self-pity. Womanhood, as sculpted by men, becomes a sentence to outlast and yet Reed’s collage engrosses us with its daily tribulations.

Her lines, which rarely exceed four words, huddle in clusters of threes over a dispassionate timeline often fragmented by obligation and excess. Scarcely placed details of these events welcome a share of guesswork while Reed’s lack of punctuation rolls a mental fog over what happened, when, and whether it matters.

After Swann's desensitized outlook cannot be empathized with through a veil of historical follies when femininity remains smothered, to one degree or another, throughout the world. Like any form of ignorance, sexism lowers the human condition and the few cases that make headlines have typically been rooted, unseen and cancerous, for years. In the Somali capital, it might justify treating women like possessions. In the posh office of Canada’s largest university, it may validate depriving students of the opportunity to read women’s voices. Somber truths like these underline the importance of After Swann’s character, which speaks for the speechless through a collagist voice of both sexes. Unless you scour Proust’s text in an attempt to dissect Reed’s patchwork, the voice surviving inequality, one day at a time, is united regardless of gender. That's a comforting thought. 

To close, here’s an excerpt from “28”, probably my favourite section, in which Reed and Proust’s psyche savors a moment’s peace away from the charade:

deep blue tumult of
the fragrance of

the moist air
such moments
escape submersion

vanished sensations
suddenly returned
slow and rhythmical

a state
melancholy, incessant, sweet

without speaking
a woman
a moment

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Writing #11 : Abby Paige

On the Invention of Language
Abby Paige

Almost two years ago I gave birth to my son, and since then writing — like sleeping, eating, using the telephone, shaving my legs, and everything else I once approached according to need or want or inspiration — has become a disordered exercise in resigning myself to incompletion.

Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg wrote recently in The New York Times about how she lost her sense of prayer when she became a parent. She eventually recovered it, or revised it, by accepting the “radical amazement” of parenthood as part of her spiritual practice. A prayer might now consist of, “deep contemplation of my 1-year-old’s ear…offered up with intentionality to the divine.” I am still incorporating parenthood into my practice as a poet and writer, and I don’t really know what my writing will be now, in this “after” period. But I cling to my own moments of “radical amazement” — and the radical monotony they punctuate — with the belief that they are making me a better writer and person.

As disciplines, writing and parenting have their affinities. Each has a mythology around it that is not borne out in reality. The reality is that the open expanse of an empty page is not unlike that of a sleepless night; each has to be approached with a kind of faith and disregard for fear. As a writer and a mother, I walk the balance between authority and surrender, savouring my moments of mastery, certain to be humbled swiftly and often. I ride my own enthusiasm for an idea (Today, to the park!) and yet cultivate a willingness to abandon that idea suddenly and completely when it fails. I do my best when I come to the table — to write or to finger-paint — with the intention of learning rather than demonstrating what I know, when I let myself be a channel for something other than my own will. This is a patience, a listening, that both writing and parenting cultivate in me.

My son is learning to talk. Wait. In order to convey astonishment, that should be written, MY SON IS LEARNING TO TALK. To speak English. To externalise thoughts created by a brain that not long ago was, essentially, two specks of nothing.

Unless you have ever lived with someone who cannot speak it is hard to understand the enormity of this development. How can I convey the experience of ministering to another human being for days and weeks that unfold into months, until a year passes, and then more months, and during that time, ministering and believing that this wholly dependent and completely uncompromising creature is experiencing thoughts, desires, confusion, and delight, the same way one believes that the universe operates on some organizing principle although that principle is entirely invisible? I honoured and respected his needs with as much grace as I could muster (sometimes not much), gratefully aware of how my own needs diminished somehow into inconvenient aches. I was something like a servant, and my son was something like a reclusive master for whom I had been chosen to care but whom I was forbidden from actually knowing. My son’s silence (can I call it silence when much of it was in fact very loud?) was so absolute that for many months with him I felt alone, as though I was caring for his physical form while his actual being was somewhere else. For many months I listened so hard to that silence that I think I heard nothing else. I decided that I could infer his desires with some confidence, even as I acknowledged my confidence as ridiculous. How can I convey what it is, after all that, to see the beginning of expression, to understand that this is where parenting transforms from a silent servitude to the active, awful responsibility of teaching another person how to live in the world? It is like witnessing his birth a second time.

We can’t pinpoint the moment he realizes that things have names, or even the moment he first calls a thing by its name. He gestures and makes sounds, and slowly those gestures and sounds develop a predictability, or we develop an ability to recognize them. Eventually he settles on pointing with an index finger and calling a thing by a name — a wrong name, a mere sound, but he repeats the sound until his father and I obediently accept the sound as the thing’s new name. Cow becomes moo. Horse becomes nee. More becomes moy. Buh means bus; also ball, bubble, boot, bath, and, somewhat whimsically, grandpa. We used to speak English at home, but now we speak some sacred pidgin that has fewer consonants, fewer syllables, more repetition, and pre-determined obsolescence.

We make a list of his first words, which seems to indicate something about the priorities of our household: boom, hi, more, apple, banana, guy. It is an unexpected breakthrough — an innovation — the first time he gives a word intonation. Wow, he sings slowly, his voice rising and falling. The first syllable of Mama is higher than the second if he’s being playful, but lower if his need for me is urgent. The first time he says his own name, half the consonants missing, I recognize it immediately by the electrical jolt that passes through me, a sharp biological response, as if he had said my own name, the name he doesn’t yet know I have.

And then somehow he does know. Abby, he calls from his bed in the morning, or in the middle of the night he cries, I want Abby. I don’t know how he learned my name, but he knows it now, and at first I am shaken by our separateness: it is distinctly weird to be called your name by a thing you once contained.

He commands us to tell him the names of things. He points at things with a teacherly little finger, and if we don’t respond quickly enough, he looks at us as if we were malfunctioning machines. He hisses an inquisitive exhale, Wassa?, and we tell him: Snail, acorn, light. He repeats these sounds — nyayo, coheng, yike — and we are puzzled by our comprehension. Articles, pronouns, and prepositions are all absent, along with most verbs, yet we are usually able to gather his meaning, obey his commands, and in the process we discover that our English was somehow limited before. He expands it by uncovering relationships between words — work and hug; water and wallow; running and raining and Randy. Language seems suddenly, impossibly elastic, loose, free, and way more fun than it’s seemed to me in a long time. I almost regret that he will eventually acquire grammar. I listen to him the way you listen when you’re travelling in a new country with nothing but an out-dated phrase book for company, leaning in, taking nothing for granted. It’s the way I try to listen at a poetry reading, with humility about my knowledge of English, with an expansive sense of what language is. I listen to the sounds and then wait for my brain to connect that sound to all possibilities of meaning. I don’t ask What is he saying?, but What could he be saying? I listen as he experiments with sound as though I am listening to the invention of language, and in a way, that is what I’m listening to.

I used to say that I learned everything I know about English by learning Spanish. My English was given to me, inherited. Although I was an early and avid reader and writer, I was hopeless at English grammar as a student, because I didn’t know anything about how English was made. But my Spanish, I built myself. I had to learn how it worked over the course of years, through use and misuse, and in that process, I discovered the inner workings of my English. My life as a writer has in part been the slow process of perfecting my mother tongue. The more I work with it and understand it as a medium, I discover what it can do and how the version of it that I learned from my parents is unique.

This summer, walking on the beach with another family, while trying to maintain the thread of an adult conversation, we and our friends named our surroundings for our three toddlers. Loon, I said to my son, pointing to a figure bobbing in the black water. (Loon is a word that gives me particular pleasure, and I was pleased to have an occasion to teach it to him.) Our friends are biologists, and their twins toddled up to the water confidently. Their mother pulled a spindly green weed from the wet sand and held it up for them. Algae, one of them announced. This makes me so proud, their father swooned.

It reminded me of something Owen Barfield wrote in his book, Poetic Diction, that “…even the most original poet is obliged to work with words, [which] owe their very substance (“meaning”) to the generations of human beings who have previously used them. No poet, therefore, can be the creator of all the meaning in his poem.”

Lately, when I think about the words I was given, that I am now passing on, I think the only original thing about my writing is me: my ancestry, my upbringing, my influences and interests — everything that has shaped me and the way I use language. Lately I think my writing is just an elaborate effort to reconcile my English with everyone else’s, to record its existence before I go extinct. Like parenthood, a very limited kind of immortality.

I write so that you will know what I mean when I say hospital or box elder or hermit thrush, so you will sense in those words the people who used them before me, the people who taught me to speak, and the people who taught them to speak before. In teaching my son the language I have, I hope he will sense these things, too, know some part of my inner universe and take it with him into the world. I also know that my moment to shape his passion and prejudices is fleeting.  But I hope some night he’ll be lying somewhere half asleep, and he’ll hear a loon cry out to the darkness, and he’ll say aloud to the quiet, loon, and for some reason the sound of word from his own mouth will remind him of how he is connected to all things, and to me, too, and this will give him comfort.

Abby Paige is a writer and performer. Her chapbook, Other Brief Discourses, was published by Ottawa’s above/ground press earlier this year. She lives in Ottawa.

Friday, September 13, 2013

On Writing #10 : Adam Thomlison

On writing less
Adam Thomlison

I feel like I'm an odd choice to write anything "On Writing": I have no formal literary training, and I nearly failed high school English class. My only higher education is in journalism. Stylistically, all that taught me was to never use two words when you can use one, and if you're thinking of using an adverb, make damn sure it's necessary. Brevity, in a word (any more would be counterproductive).
The thing is, I think it's a valuable lesson for my fiction as well, though it has cost me in a lot of ways (concision is not rewarded in an business that often pays by the word or page).
It is an ideal to be striven for. Just as great writers can (and do) spend endless hours chasing le mot juste, it is an equally laudable literary goal to chase le coupe juste (I don't know if that translates -- my French grades were no better than my English ones): It is as important to decide what words to keep out as what ones to put in -- like that jazz cliché about the notes you don't play.
It's an endeavour that has driven me to my latest literary obsession: Twitter. As well as being a medium designed to spread words widely and quickly -- the small pressman's dream -- it is also a demanding taskmaster; its implicit challenge: to express a complete story in 140 characters or less. It forces me to do something that a wide open blank page doesn't ask of me -- to consider every word. Every single one. (Repetition, by the way, is a luxury not afforded by Twitter.) It forces me to treat my audience's attention as a gift, one not to be squandered on words which, like my readers, don't have to be there.
'Audience' is rather strong in my case: I still have only a handful of followers, most of whom are friends who do have to be there (if they want their Christmas presents, anyway). So Twitter is certainly not a vocation for me. What it is a ritual; a philosophy; a reminder of what's important. What's important is what you have to say -- to get in, tell your story, and get out. Before they're tired of you. Before they know what hit them. Before they realize that you nearly failed English class.

Adam Thomlison is a journalist, editor, self-published novelist, and a writer of tiny stories. Some of the latter have appeared in his zine series, The Last Thumbnail Picture Show, and some appear on his Twitter feed, @40wattspotlight, and on his website,

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Recent Reads: Rosmarie Waldrop and rob mclennan

Otherwise Smooth by Rosmarie Waldrop
The creeks by rob mclennan

Both titles published by above/ground press, 2013.

The concept of living in the moment is simple in theory but difficult to execute. It’s a cliché dressed up as friendly advice yet also a core discipline in Buddhist thought. It’s a dangling hook for vacationers and an art form for procrastinators. We all feel the passing of time when peering backward but how many of us identify the time ticking away right now, each second as recognizable as individual words being read on this screen, at this moment? Waldrop explores the relationship between our transient time in this cosmic happenstance and the language we’ve constructed to explain it.

That said, if we can ignore Rosmarie Waldrop’s reputation as a known poet and editor for a moment, Otherwise Smooth bares only residual markings of poetry, visually. None of the stern line-breaks she used in The Ambition of Ghosts, no fragile cascades of language here. But, despite the title, these nine, numbered entries elicit a raw form of poetry, one more concerned with understanding its own nature than striking the most appealing pose. Here’s something of a centerpiece from Otherwise Smooth, "5":

I say “I” and thereby appropriate the entire language. And trust I am,
through words, gradually to become. A person? An instance of
discourse? Plain as the sky to a fisherman? Beginnings are hazy, below
the belt, where a face is not yet possible though already bespoke by
gravity. But pronouns do not refer to anything in space and time
except the utterance that contains them. Each time, like death, unique.
Not like walking in light that lies like fine dust on the ground, but
language handing me, each time, the gifts of memory, a past. A soul?
While the voice excites intimacies of organic existence, modulates the
frequency of pulses from nerve fibres. Code. Clouded sentence.
Crowded square emptied of bustle by a sudden rain.

The poem reprinted above – indeed in its first sentence – forms an apex upon which all of Otherwise Smooth hinges. Waldrop has articulated a voice that is not only conscious of its own devices, it’s yearning to express innate feelings through the confines of that manufactured language. The poem also ushers in the focal theme of Otherwise Smooth’s second half, loss and death, which lends her “ticks of the watch” awareness all the more acute.

Critically, her assembling process, of choosing the best words to suit myriad situations, plays out on the page. In "6", Waldrop’s grief is “Without body. Without air. Therefore I too can’t breathe. Sore. Sere. The self goes from the self” while, in "7", she describes mourning as “the passage of time you’re no longer in, and the clocks risk stopping. The rock has split. Early. Eerie.” These amendments of speech, almost like stutters on paper, reinforce Waldrop’s shock.

Given the insular (yet universal) subject matter, these poems feel surprisingly sterile. There’s no nostalgia with which readers might veer off course. The past exists and is left alone but the present hasn’t been compartmentalized yet; it leaves no hue or definition. And in that limbo Waldrop connects, her language battered by suffering and hope, predestined to chase after permanence, recording every tick.

Mercy does not come from the sky
Norma Cole, Coleman Hawkins Ornette Coleman

If the above quote, which prefaces The creeks, feels like a foregone conclusion, rob mclennan proceeds to trace mercy’s whereabouts from the ground up. What churns to the surface isn’t necessarily forgiveness but a swelling of earthy compassion; the waterways, hedges and concrete throughways we form relationships with, both as obstacles and touchstones.

Poem "The creeks" surveys a convergence of raw and abandoned materials: the dark, iridescent wet of a cave, the date-stamped artifacts passed over. Appearing in three prose findings, it’s handily the chapbook’s most loaded entry and perhaps its cryptic key. Underground rivers meet slabs of pavement but there’s a sense of disarray, that these “remains of civilization” lack category, appreciation.

Ample cases of contrast exist in The creeks, between natural and manmade discoveries, forming a mute awareness instead of any environmental concern. mclennan is very good at implying the presence of two persons in his work without letting them obstruct his focus, persons who more often adapt to the currents around them than act as agents of change. As such, over “bashed ancient stone” and “useless, feathered, goods” mclennan’s surroundings reverberate on the relationship between his would-be anthropologists, always teasing a sensual interpretation.

Alternately “site map: draft” collects a sequence on Ottawa’s concrete upheavals but still notes a pulse lurking within its infrastructure.


hard-bodied; crunching past,
a singing,         sword; the Queensway,
                                    fractals, lifts; an interruption

             carved from minutes; language promised,
vertebrae, sudden-fused; a blind, and brilliant eye,

mclennan’s immersed in the language of a city, becoming. A conversation bound to change with each new construction sign. Arising from the title poem’s deep abyss and lush in the isolated prose of his “Escarpment pages,” mclennan repeatedly finds that it is compassion linking the place and its commemoration on paper.

Some might consider that analysis quaint but “Escarpment pages,” turns the relationship on its head with the arrival of letters waterlogged by the elements. “The pulpy mass of paper heart becomes.” As mclennan’s trajectory continues to climb up, away from tangible surroundings, so too does his muse bleach into the creative fray. From “Little sentences,”:

Each mark is equal to a line or a separate lie. The word sonnet
scratched onto green paper. An envelope edge torn off as a bookmark.
The hair of each curled photo cracks at the crease, memories that no
longer remember. Once you were gone I divided into two distant

Again the virtues of place shape the language, this time coding personal vignettes in sleet. And again, mclennan’s “we” proves resilient amid the shifting terrain. Offsetting the massively daunting relationship between place and language with intricacies webbed up in his signature, concise style, mclennan has illustrated a treasure of ideas in unassuming strokes. “We might bend, but in new forms” he suggests in “A terrible decay,”, a fitting closing poem that feels light-years removed from everyday topography but ever-closer to a timeless compassion.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

On writing #9 : Christian McPherson

On Writing
Christian McPherson

        Jesus, how has it come to this? How is it someone has asked me to say something about writing? I suppose I should know something about it, considering I can look at the bookshelf beside me and see a bunch of published books by. . . well, me (and not self published either). I was practically illiterate until I reached high-school. I failed grade four because I couldn’t read or spell. I was a disaster. Even now, as I type this, the red squiggly line appears often under words misspelled. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent looking up words in the dictionary. Thousands. Thank bloody goodness for spell-check.
        So what can I tell anyone about writing? For me, it’s about being creative. It’s about creating things, making thing. When I was a kid it was about building Lego, drawing cartoons, and making my own computer games. I’ve always made things, artistic things. I love doing it. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I realize making things, let it be Lego castles for my kids (which are really for me) or Halloween monsters for my lawn, or writing novels, it’s what I love to do. The medium is the only difference. Different tools, different products, but it’s in the creating where I live. With writing you get to create a whole world which can be as big or a small as you want. The only limit is your imagination. I’ve got that in spades. Straight flush. My limitation is time. I only have so much time. Dishes, stepping on a Lego piece and doing the one foot hop, a day job, dogs to walk, kids to drive here and there, help with the school fundraiser, etc. and then repeat ad infinitum. I like this quote from writer Harry Crews which I keep it on my wall at work: “The world wants you to work the lawn or walk the dog or paint the house – anything but write, just so you bleed whatever energy you have away from writing, and if you’re not careful that’s exactly what you’re going to end up doing.” This is exactly how I feel about writing, how I feel about creating things. It’s what’s important to me. Aside my family, I don’t care about anything else (well that’s not entirely true, but close) other than my writing. If I lost my DVD collection or someone stole all of my books, I could care less. If someone were to erase my hard drive I would murder them. I would be on the cover of the newspaper covered crimson like Dexter. Writing is creating and creating is how I breathe.
        I got into writing because of my love for film. Perhaps this is what I should have done with my life? Maybe it will still be the thing I do? Time will tell. But yes, film. I lived and breathed film. I ate celluloid for breakfast. Lauren Bacall hung inside my high school locker. I wanted to be a screen writer. A screenplay was far too daunting of a task. I began with short stories and poems. These seemed like manageable pieces to chew. And they were. And after seven years of typing and editing I managed to publish my first book, a collection of short stories (Six Ways to Sunday). And never begin a sentence with “And.” Cheapens the work.
        Post publication I felt high and wanted more. The mountain stood before me – the novel. Why climb? Because it’s there you nincompoop! Sorry about the name calling. Anyway, I climbed. When I got to the top and realized it was a mountain rage. There are tons to climb! I also discovered much to my own amazement I liked climbing. And right now I realize I’m sick of this stupid analogy. I like writing novels. Period. I’m currently finishing my third. How crazy is that? From the kid in remedial English his whole life.
        I suppose I should say something about work habits, my work habits. Often writers say you should write every day, even if it’s crap. Just write. Bullshit I say. If you are sucking wind, take a break, take the day off. Go do something else. Go read a really good book, go for a walk, go see a movie. Hell, do all three. Shit, take the week off. Come back to when you are ready. I live by this. I would write every day if I could, but often I just don’t have the time or energy (remember the words of Harry Crews). I try to carry around a note pad and a pen in case I get a good idea. Write them down because you will forget. Sometimes I dream them. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea, get up and write it down, because if you don’t, you won’t remember. Trust me. Get your lazy but out of bed and write it down. You will thank me in the morning.
        The last piece of advice I will give you is, read good writers. Who is a good writer? It’s the person you read that blows your hair back and makes you say, “Damn, I wish I had written that!” Read them and find out who they read. Don’t forget to pay attention to the world around you. Eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Listen to how they speak. Listen to the ebbs and flows, the rhythms of their conversation. Write dialogue and make it sound like real people. Use slang. Be fearless.
        I will leave you with this quote from Harlan Ellison, “The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.”

Christian McPherson [photo credit: Judith Gustafsson] is the author of six books, Cube Squared, My Life in Pictures, The Sun Has Forgotten Where I Live, The Cube People (shortlisted for the 2011 ReLit Awards), Poems that swim from my brain like rats leaving a sinking ship, and Six Ways to Sunday (shortlisted for the 2008 ReLit Awards). He has a degree in philosophy from Carleton University and a computer programming diploma from Algonquin College. He is married to the beautiful Marty Carr. They have two kids, Molly and Henry.