Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Writing #20 : Rob Thomas

Hey, short stuff!: On Writing Kids
Rob Thomas

Because people have asked: Yes, I am constantly shaking sand out of my poems. I spend a large part of my day with two to three kids at some park or other and that stuff gets into everything. Shoes. Underwear. Pant cuffs. Poems.
            Speaking of poems, I write them. I'm as surprised as anyone. It's a recent thing. Yes, I wrote them as a young person. Yes, I've always kept journals. There are volumes and volumes of them. These journals are filled with diary entries, notes, observations, ideas I thought I might massage into something journalistic or otherwise someday, maybe. They are scribble-books packed with typos, doodles and kinda-sorta-stuff.
            But as I began to spend more and more time as a stay-at-home dad [and less and less time in the real world] these journals began to fill up with – yes, sand – and notes about my kids. These included my many minor frustrations, our misadventures… but, mostly, the bizarre observations that only children can make. Kids do not live in the same world that we do. Shadows are appendages. The stars are your friends. The moon follows you everywhere. The sun pokes you in the eye. And, sometimes, the entire sky can be squeezed into a puddle.
            At some point in the summer of 2012, I began to cobble these fragments together into very short poems (I might have even daydreamed of a chapbook: Hey, short stuff!). I did this because they seemed unique and intensely significant and I had no idea what else to do with them. This was just after the birth of my third child. My plan (sleep deprivation may have contributed here) was to write one poem per day for a year. I fell a little behind schedule (hey, a schedules is just a fussy guideline). I’ve probably written 100. About 50 could probably be turned into something interesting – with more time and effort. A dozen or so have been published. Message in the bottles – the poem selected for the 2013 John Newlove Poetry Award  – was one of these poems. I’m thrilled. Writing poetry is hard. I’m lucky to have inexhaustible (really) subjects. It’s really wonderful to feel as though my poetry is improving all the time (wish I felt that as a parent).
            How does a stay-at-home dad of three kids find time to write poetry? Wrong question. What happens when a compulsive writer is immersed in the intense, stressful, joy filled and very surreal world(s) of three toddlers. This. This is what happens. I am so lucky.

Rob Thomas lives in Ottawa. He has poems forthcoming at The Steel Chisel and Bareback Magazine. His work has appeared places such as Broken Pencil, Feathertale Review, subTerrain, Chrysalis Zine, carte blanche, ottawater, Ottawa Arts Review, Jam Jar Words, Barnstormer and In/words. He’s working on his first chapbook.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Writing #19 : Anik See

On Writing
Anik See

My grade six teacher, Mrs. Wells, sent us home one day with a simple task. Write a story, she said. 

The class was silent. We waited for more details. What about? we asked. Anything, she said. Again, there was silence. How long? we asked. As long as you like, she said. We all looked at each other, confused. Up until then, every school assignment we’d received had been very specific, its goal transparent. Conduct an experiment that demonstrates the effect of light on seeds. Prepare a verbal book report about Harriet the Spy. Write two paragraphs about an animal you know.

We were not prepared for this.

On my way home, I thought about what I might write about. My best friend Wendy, maybe, and how in the winter we would try to walk the whole way home along the tops of the snowbanks, touching the road only at intersections, and how we invented adventurous stories while doing it. We were in the mountains after an avalanche, for example, walking while scanning the sky for a rescue helicopter. Or we were spies, scaling a ring of volcanoes, looking for a colleague who’d fallen in. Every car that passed was the enemy.

But a straight retelling of something I’d already experienced seemed to be missing the point, or at least not taking full advantage of such an open-ended assignment.

I don’t remember the details of the story I wrote, but I know it was about a rocket, and that when I went to my room to write it after dinner, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Ten foolscap pages. I remember the feeling I had of a complete and absolute freedom – no rules! anything goes! as long as you like! – to put on the page wherever it was my mind was going. And I remember knowing with absolute certainty then that this would be what I would want to do most for the rest of my life.

I went to bed that night charged, tingling. I hardly slept.

I don’t have the story anymore so I can’t tell you if it worked or not, or if it even had a beginning, a middle and an end. But that assignment was critical for my life as a writer. If my teacher hadn’t assigned something so loose, it might have taken me much longer to realize that writing was what I wanted – and needed – to do. Or I might have found out at a moment when that feeling I experienced might have been easier to dismiss. Knowing at such an early age helped set my determination to do it, often sacrificing things my friends and family found essential to their own lives. A house, for example, or a steady, well-paying job to pay for that house. To me, a house could never replace that feeling.

I know now that there are rules in writing, but I also know how to bend then, to test them as much as possible, á la Calvino, á la Sebald. Not all of the time, but enough. And when I do, that feeling I had in grade 6 returns. I’d go so far to say that if I’ve written something and the feeling – of freedom, of keeping going, of being sucked into the middle of a magnetic field – hasn’t surfaced, I know what I’m writing isn’t as good as it could be.

I still write longhand. A psychoanalyst might say that I do it because I’m still very attached to that first experience, that it worked for me then and I’m trying to recreate the same conditions for success. And they might be right. But I think my reasons are more practical (but just as psychological). Writing longhand – putting pen to paper, indelible ink, means I’d better be writing something worthwhile. There’s no ‘delete’ key that can cheerfully erase any evidence of words hastily put down. I can still experiment on paper and cross something out if I don’t like it, but it’ll still be there (which comes in handy sometimes) as evidence of struggle, and sometimes triumph. Writing straight to the computer feels like an uncontrollable purge to me, without that feeling attached, or without much thought involved.

I don’t write about rockets anymore, and haven’t since that first time. (Rule: write what you know. Though I prefer to modify it to: begin with what you know. Otherwise, writing about rockets would be the domain of a select few, to the detriment of our collective imagination.) As a writer, I’ve got to at least half-believe that what I’m writing could happen for it to resonate – if it doesn’t resonate with me, it’s unlikely to resonate with the reader.

But these are personal choices. And every writer knows the feeling I’m talking about. I haven’t met a writer yet who hasn’t had it, and who isn’t always in search of it. I can think of worse things to aspire to, and whether one is Alice Munro or a writer most have never heard of, if our literary canon exists in part because of that feeling, who could diminish its importance?

Anik See is a writer based in Amsterdam. Originally from Canada, she moved to The Netherlands in 2005. She is the author of three books: A Fork in the Road (Macmillan, 2000); Saudade: the possibilities of place (Coach House Books, 2008), and postcard and other stories (Freehand Books, 2009). Her fourth book, Cabin Fever, is forthcoming. Her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, has been nominated for several awards, and her articles have appeared in many magazines, including The Walrus, Brick and The National Post. She also spent three years as a staff producer at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, where she produced award-winning, internationally syndicated radio.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


More info abseries.org
Join us as we celebrate the launch of Shane Rhodes' new book, X: Poems & Anti-Poems

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ottawa Art Gallery
Arts Court
2 Daly Ave.
Ottawa, Ont.

An A B Series presentation 

With a premiere screening of videopoems by Shane Rhodes!

On January 16, award-winning poet Shane Rhodes launches his latest book of poetry, X, which was inspired by one of Canada’s most unpoetic subjects: Canada’s post-confederation treaties and the recent Idle No More protests. Investigating what the treaties mean today and what art can do with such unpoetic documents, X breaks new ground for Canadian poetry and the results have been published in magazines across Canada, Australia and the United States.

Rhodes states, “Canada’s treaties represent one of the largest colonial land appropriation projects in the world. The documents are still vitally important to understanding Canada today and ongoing settler, First Nations, Inuit and Metis relationships. They are also key to understanding the recent Idle No More protests and the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence. I wanted to use poetry to show how it is vital that Canadians know about the treaties and what they mean.”

Rhodes has just returned from three months in Brisbane, Australia where he held the prestigious 2013 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence position. As the official Poet-in-Residence, he was paid to travel around Queensland give readings, talk about poetry and host workshops. His treaty poetry and poetry about Idle No More sparked a lot of interest and there will be exhibitions of his visual poems in the coming months in Cairns and Brisbane, Australia.

Shane launches X in A B Series’ first event of 2014. It happens at the Ottawa Art Gallery in Arts Court (2 Daly Avenue, Ottawa) at 8:00 PM on Thursday, January 16. The launch features a screening of visual and video poems that Rhodes created during his Australian residency.
Shane Rhodes is the author of five other books of poetry including Err (Nightwood Editions), which was a finalist for the 2012 Ottawa Book Award, and The Wireless Room (NeWest Press), which won the Alberta Book Award for poetry. He is also the recipient of a National Magazine Gold Award and the P. K. Page Founder's Award for Poetry. Rhodes lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where he is the poetry editor for Arc, Canada’s national poetry magazine.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Recent Reads: Ground Rules: the best of above/ground press' second decade

Edited by rob mclennan
With an introduction by Gil McElroy

Published by Chaudiere Books, 2013.

Beyond its implicit roundness, skipping forward or backward in clean slices that gleam with impunity, what’s in a decade? What makes it a respectable interval, a begging glance? Does it detect a pillow of separation? Or a panic-stricken jolt? What did you do in the last decade? Perhaps our reverence to the decade owes to the limitations of memory; that as the years gather and so much blood and sweat get mothballed, nobody can rightly gauge the potential of ten years without its anniversary, marked by cultural clocks in fluorescent detail. Oftentimes, there’s just too much to remember beyond the face of it.

So how does one approach a decade (the second, to be precise) of above/ground press, one of Canada’s most fertile and industrious publishers? Gil McElroy’s introduction, while hazardous for someone confused by the very mention of calculus, arrives at a sort-of chaos theory, interpreting poetics – through Louis Zukofsky’s “A” – as Music and Speech captured in a relationship of exhausting potential. As the two forms zigzag from opposite comfort zones of traditional rhythm and lyricism, McElroy locates above/ground press as reliable coordinates by which fresh collisions consistently occur. Ten years, in McElroy’s view, isn’t so much a measurement of time (the how-longs and how-manys) as it is a matter of choice and execution. It’s about staying vital: the enduring impact of and interest in above/ground press acts as its seal, its legacy.

Fittingly, Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003-2013 begins with an impulsive foot forward, sharing visual poems by derek beaulieu and strong, solo poems highlighted by Stephanie Bolster’s instantly re-readable “Night Zoo”. With its playful sense of variety firmly intact, the compendium settles into a showcase of chapbooks, the medium above/ground champions at a prolific, damn-near-obsessive pace. Now as a relative newcomer, having followed only the last handful of the press’ twenty years in business (and thereby missing Groundswell), I was quick to get excited about the selection process. Which titles will make the cut? And had Ground Rules been a perfunctory slap on the back, or even some cut-and-paste of personal favourites, much of that anticipation would’ve reconciled itself on the Table of Contents. Instead, editor and publisher rob mclennan has used this occasion of collecting previously published work to reframe and carry anew the conversation about poetics.

Organized like a trade pamphlet, Sharon Harris’ More Fun With ‘Pataphysics gazes upon the poet from the stance of a curious outsider and offers imaginative answers that reflect the futility of assigning too much structure to craft.

“8. If I place a poem and its translation across from each other, and I stand between them, can I
see my reflection stretching away into infinity?

In theory, you could get an infinite number of reflections in the poems, but only if the poem 
was perfectly translated and you stood there forever."

"15. Where’s the best place to sit at a poetry reading?

Sit up front if you want the best view. Sit in the middle if you want a scary ride. Sit in the back if to 
feel like you’re floating.”

Harris’ light, irreverent jabs at the somber weight heaped on poets from the mainstream form one of the many voices interested in the function of art itself. A more clinical tactic surfaces in Lisa Samuels’ The Museum of Perception, a chapbook of poems that look the part – and, to some extent, serve the purpose – of text panels one would find in a gallery but overlap their descriptions with a poetic voice that obfuscates the imagined view. Sometimes Samuels probes the limitations of perception, other times she warns against accepting directives for how a given thing should be perceived. The grey area between forms and intentions feels oppressive, complicated but mesmerizing nevertheless. Then there’s Natalie Simpson’s Writing the Writing, a clear-headed mediator between the aforementioned cheeky and theory-drenched examples, which through clever wordplay pinpoints the transient ways a person can net and manipulate everyday language for something therapeutic, something unusual, something new.  Each of these chapbooks begs the reader: what is this practice and why does it happen? What are we, as readers and writers, chasing?

If that’s the knottiest theme unifying Ground Rules, it’s interspersed with chapbooks that fortify the shoe-gazing, near-existential question by looking outward and showing no concern for it.  In her conversational free-verse poem My City is Ancient and Famous, Julia Williams’ preoccupation with living spaces and the rites of moving collide with the maintenance, politics and market-worth that often keep people stationary. Eric Folsom’s Northeast Anti-ghazals alternately thrives by obeying a tailored structure and littering severed omissions for the reader to fill in.

“Slipping Away

Whatever lies frozen in the ice, a mitten or a Buick,
Suspended as though floating upside down in the sky.

The fiddle music over, so the priest went home
And saw the ghost of his father sitting on the bed.

Late in the season when the ice gets soft,
Some drunk tries to cross at night and disappears.

Most people worry about saying the wrong thing,
Think too long about the darkness beneath their feet.

Wheels lock automatically
When passenger doors are open.

She gave her daughter the red sweater and a key
To the safety deposit box down at the bank.

Something that shouldn’t have been there,
A car in the same spot for days, gathering tickets.”

“Slipping Away” dutifully showcases Folsom’s ominous tone and knack for loosely associated imagery, although it's worth noting the latter quality flexes just as convincingly in a nearby poem about the warmth of a young family’s morning routine ("Just Another Yuppie Raising Children"). Almost evaporated and yet equally unmovable is Rachel Zolf’s the naked & the nude, which in pockets on each page displays a sensual account in its minimal, elemental glory (stealthily citing the work of Bob Marley, Phyllis Webb, and Joni Mitchell in the process).

Alongside a wealth of titles I’d missed the first time around, Ground Rules exhibits reproductions that intuitively fill gaps in the library of authors I’ve grown to admire. The crumbling Santa Maria hotel in cuba A book exists in an historical and cultural nexus perfectly suited to Monty Reid’s inquisitive voice.

soldiers and barricades

on the airport road
checking the papers

hard stabs of light
that doubt

who you are.
Oh yes

we are still
who the papers

say we are.

A cloud of jellyfish
wash up

on the shore
at Santa Maria

where you found
a cheap hotel

built by the Russians
and used

as a love hotel
in their idyllic phase

and then abandoned
in the general

that comes after

the idyllic phase.
The jellyfish tremble

in the small breeze
or is it resentment

since no one
will touch them

in spite of their beauty
and their arms

so many, so much
to let go of

can still
hurt you.

the Russians?

How they went
home disappointed

in love
and in concrete?”

The above excerpt offers a surface glimpse at the subjects Reid meshes – aging amid the rituals of dating, identity as culture and place, nature as pure or putrid – without letting their philosophical weight hamper the clarity of his tourist’s candor. Another eureka moment arrives with Helen Hajnoczky’s A history of button collecting, a shimmering exercise in prose poetry that takes inventory of the material, maternal and natural ephemera that instill memory.

“Pastel smudge of sunset, cold memories cling like dust, crackle of
gravel, the lane sheltered by an awning of oak trees. Press on and
watch the sun go down. Cold gravel of memories, crackle of sunset
like dust. Go down the lane, sheltered by an awning of sunset, oak
trees watch the sun go down. Press on, a pastel smudge.”

Memory’s addictive traits form a paralyzing subtext to the whole but the above portion finds Hajnoczky’s nostalgia at an impasse, dwelling less in specific details than in temperatures – warm or cold. A history of button collecting remembers itself in revisions; the actual past increasingly fragmented, obscured. Catching minute impressions creates a more physical memorial in Cameron Anstee’s Frank St. but the act is pressurized all the same; our wordsmith scales the premises, recording every happenstance from a perch over downtown Ottawa but his proofs struggle to compete with the building’s scars. None of these poems bear any strain of the restlessness they recite – each effortlessly rooted in the quirks of an old apartment and the timeline of its resident couple – but Frank St. documents memory as an ongoing present, a unrequited limbo. Anstee’s couplets and stray lines tiptoe the left margin, never staking their subject as home with a capital H but sketching a safe haven for books, plants and cooperative hands. Earlier I mentioned chapbooks that interrogate their own bones but these recent examples (by Williams, Reid, Folsom et al.) tend to above/ground's duality by seeking new ruins, new worlds.

Readers will approach Ground Rules with varying degrees of familiarity; longtime above/ground subscribers might own all of these selections while casual fans should recognize at least a few. Given that my knowledge of the press’ output exists somewhere between these two camps, I’ve been in the enviable position of adding several authors to my must-pursue list, discovering older work by authors I already enjoy and revisiting some classics (by the likes of William Hawkins and Robert Kroetsch) that require no introduction from me. Even so, the bounty of Ground Rules doesn’t hinge on what you have or haven’t read yet. These entries probe, reflect, dance and thrash together, harnessing a friction that confounds as much as it compliments. It’s surprising that an anthology looking backwards should say something new but, then again, above/ground press has been releasing fresh poetry for twenty years now. We had a solid ten to see this coming.

Friday, January 03, 2014

On Writing #18 : Eric Folsom

On Writing
Eric Folsom

For decades now I’ve been journaling and drafting poems in notebooks of various sizes.  The early days were dominated by old steno pads with spiral bindings at the top.  Lately, it’s pocket-sized artist’s sketchbooks, stacks of black unlined Moleskins, and a bulky collection of yellow legal pads.

Some of the older entries no longer make sense to me.  Oh sure, an insight probably existed at one time, but now they seem more suggestive than informative. Nonetheless, in the oddball self-generated advice department, the old notebooks come reasonably close to being entertaining.

            Build your own Aeolian harp.

            If you can’t hear the music, the words are too loud.

            There’s a lot to be said for a beautiful surface.

And my favourite, the one I never get tired of.

            Fresh excuses.

I also have scraps of paper lying around on my desk, some to remind me of projects I’ve been meaning to do (The Sound of Our Town: Kingston Poets Writing about Kingston) and some to remind me of the proper attitude to bring to the work.  Enjoy.  Let go.  Be wild. Trust.  Then there’s a sliver of the spirit of 1968, channelled through Chrissie Hynde.  Demand the Impossible!

Any advice we poets give ourselves is bound to be flawed, and it seems unlikely we could dredge up better advice for anonymous others.  What are the chances my judgement would actually improve, just because I have an audience?  Despite these misgivings, better stand back. Here it comes.

To start, you want to look for a poem-shaped hole.  Choosing a subject, looking for inspiration, doing piles of research, that’s all well and good.  But what you aim for is the poem and the poem is a wily, elusive creature.  Spend your time watching and waiting.  Look carefully at your surroundings.  If you’ve got the patience you will perceive a space where the poem ought to be.  Just the right shape, the right moment, the perfect environment.  For unexplained reasons, some poem that ought to exist, right there, doesn’t.   That’s what you’re looking for, the missing item.  The poem that deserves to be.

Now, listen.  You can almost hear the words breathing softly in the dark.

Forget that nonsense about finding your voice.  Who told you that you only had one?  Who said you’d lost it?  You are not finding your voice, you are finding your freedom.  The voice will be ready and waiting for you when you need it.  Trust.

But what if, deep inside, you are still finding yourself?  Well of course you’re still doing that, silly.  We all are.  The poets worth discussing are the ones always questioning themselves, always on the road to a different identity, always prepared to doubt and second guess.  In fact, the very talented Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, holds that we writers create a different self for every book we write. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/17/kathleen-jamie-writing-book-self   Before composing the poem, you should really compose yourself, in both senses.

While you’re composing the latest and greatest you, bear in mind the following tiresome, unnecessary identities. 

Although you love to party and tell yarns afterward, you are not Charles Bukowski.  There was only one.  He’s dead.  Trying to imitate him just makes you look like Rob Ford.

You are not Gertrude Stein.  Modernism is 100 years old, dude.  The phrase “Make it new” first appeared during the Shang Dynasty in China.  (Translation: a long, long time ago.)  Don’t worry about making it new, make it better.  Or better still, make it beautiful.

You are not Northrup Frye.  You do not embody the Great Tradition of English Literature.  Or if you do, you obviously don’t live anywhere near me.  Most of us are on the edges, far from Cambridge, Oxford, and the validations of pedigree.  The edge is now the middle, the minorities are the majority.  You and I and the places we inhabit are now the centre of the world.  Let’s just open our eyes and tell the truth.

You are not Emily Dickinson.  You will not be discovered when you are dead.  If anything is going to happen, it’s up to you and you must do it now.  Besides, post-mortem fame sucks.  There’s no sex, no conversation, not even any bookstores.  Eternity is a hotel room at the airport.

Lastly, for goodness sake loosen up.  It is a truth universally disparaged that a man who writes a poem has automatically put his manhood into question.  Deny it all you like, people.  Most of the world thinks we’re pansies, weirdos, and eggheads.  Know what I say?  Fuck’em.  Bring back beauty.  Make your poem the most gorgeous experience ever.  The sound, the imagery, the drama: put it all in and crank it up.  Self-expression is not a classroom assignment, not a therapy, and definitely not a sign of narcissism.   It is life and it should be alive, and we should shove it in their faces.

Expression and creativity make us incredibly vulnerable.  Some will hate it and us.  Ever notice any similarity between homophobia and the anti-arts attitudes of our contemporary philistines?  Could it be something beyond a mere coincidence?  Let’s not pander to the bastards by trying to write “muscular” prose, let’s not worry about whether our poems are virile. (Christ, whatever that would mean.)  You were born to sing, my darling.  Now, steady on. Breathe from your diaphragm, open your mouth, and sing.


Eric Folsom lives in Kingston, Ontario and currently serves as Kingston's Poet Laureate.  He has some poems in a chapbook, Northeastern Anti-Ghazals, from above/ground press.  He identifies as bisexual.  He doesn't understand hockey at all.