Monday, October 27, 2014

On Writing #43 : Adam Sol

How I Became a Writer
Adam Sol

            I’m ten.  My friend Derek and I are playing soldier in the woods that surround my home in rural Connecticut.  There are old stone walls to hide behind, and fallen branches with which to fashion machine guns and rifles.  There are clods of dirt to use as grenades.  There are gray squirrels and chickadees making a suitable racket that we can manipulate for our dramatic purposes.  There’s a scummed-over pond to act as a border and landmark.
            Derek is a few months older than I am.  He’s taller and more handsome and I admire him greatly.  He is the leader in our games.  His parents are Latvian and when I’ve slept over at his house, they’ve given me new foods to eat.  They dress their thin pancakes in powdered sugar instead of syrup. 
            In our game, Derek and I are constantly being shot in the shoulder or leg.  We shout “I’ll save you, buddy!” and drag each other through last year’s fallen leaves to some imagined safety.  We never call each other “buddy” except in this context.  We believe that “buddy” is a term soldiers use for each other.
            Now we are crouched behind a white oak, with its rugged bark and roots thick enough for a prone rifleman, preparing for our next attack on the enemy stronghold.  Derek points to a granite boulder, and signals that he’ll approach from the left, while I should making a flanking maneuver near the pond and come up from behind.  After a silent signal, we separate to sneak into our positions.
            The ground is damp near the pond, and there is as crop of skunk cabbages that needs to be carefully crept through.  I avoid stepping on them as if they are landmines, and proceed as quietly as possible, arcing around toward our objective.
            When I’m in position, I catch Derek’s eye and with boys’ joyous imitations of soldiers’ screams we launch our assault.  The slaughter is glorious – my branch rifle is shattered in one desperate melee and I am forced to slay my opposing commander with blows from a handy stone.  I am shot in the right thigh and must limp.  At last I emerge victorious, leaves clinging to my sweatshirt, and attain the promontory.  I scan the field for Derek, who is lying face up at the base of the boulder.
            “Buddy!” I shout, leaping from the boulder and preparing to apply a grape vine tourniquet to his shoulder. 
            But no.  Derek is dead.  He says so:  “I’m dead.”  “But where were you hit?!  I can save you!  We captured the fort!”  “No, he says, I got shot in the chest while you were killing the general.  My guts are all over the place.  I’m dead.”
            I am confused beyond language.  Is the game over?  Did I make a mistake?  Should I be dead too?  What happens now?  Do we need to go inside to play board games with my sister?  Are we still friends if Derek is dead?
            A moment passes.  Then Derek jumps nimbly to his feet and yanks a twig from a low beech.  “Now I’m Derek Two.  Let’s secure the perimeter.”
            From now on, Dereks and Adams will perish liberally, affording us opportunities to take on divergent new personalities – the coward, the reckless fool, the saint, the bitter veteran.  Each will meet his individual fate.  We’ll even occasionally turn traitor on each other.  Then we’ll invent new names. 

Adam Sol’s fourth book of poetry, Complicity, was recently published by McClelland & Stewart. He teaches at Laurentian University’s campus in Barrie, Ontario, and lives in Toronto.

Photo credit: Patrik Jandak.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Found It at the Movies launches at Black Squirrel Books on Tuesday, October 28

Across the street from the Ottawa International Film Festival’s venue at the Mayfair Theatre, a crew of Ottawa poets will celebrate movies and the movie-going experience with the launch of a new anthology of “film poems” at the Tree Reading Series on Tuesday starting at 8 pm. 

Toronto-based editor Ruth Roach Pierson named her anthology, I Found It at the Movies, as a twist on famous movie-reviewer Pauline Kael’s memoir I Lost It at the Movies, and many of the poems in the book do have the tone and feel of memoir. Nearly all the poems refer to specific movies – like Stephen Heighton’s “2001: An Elegy” and Patrick Warner’s “Apocalypse Now.”  Others – like Margaret Atwood’s “Werewolf Movies” and Kim Addonizio’s “Scary Movies” – address whole genres. Still others concern the special connection audience members feel with the figures on the big screen – like “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” by Sharon Olds and “Love Poem for a Private Dick” by Karen Solie. And not only Hollywood movies fill the dreams of our poets. Ottawa’s Jacqueline Bourque, for instance, takes inspiration from a European source in “Bicycle Thieves” and Phil Hall makes a nod to the avant-garde in “In Memoriam Stan Brakhage (1933-2003.” 

Of course, more goes on at the movies than what can been seen on the screen, as witnessed by Ottawa writer Deborah-Anne Tunney in “drive-in 1969” and John Barton’s “After the Movies with O.” As editor Pierson says in her introduction, “movies are part of our common experience,” something that brings us together, culturally, at a time when many forces are at work to divide people and set them against each other. Biblical stories were once the lingua franca of the Western world’s poets; today the mass media, especially films, play a similar role.

The Ottawa launch of I Found It at the Movies, at Black Squirrel Books, on Bank Street just north of Sunnyside, will feature several Ottawa poets reading their pieces from the anthology. In addition to Bourque, Tunney and Hall, local contributors include David Groulx, rob mclennanColin MortonClaudia Coutu Radmore, and Peter Richardson. Editor Ruth Roach Pierson, whose book Aide-Mémoire was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Award in 2008, will also be there to introduce and discuss the anthology and to give a reading from her own celebrated work. It sounds like a night to get up off the couch and mix with the stars of stage, screen and page.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Recent Reads: Wintering Prairie by Megan Kaminski

Wintering Prairie by Megan Kaminski

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

and this poem will be a long one
will widen will drift like snow
like language like dribbles and artic chill
will stretch to Dakota fox alone in the field
to field mice buried deep
will follow the compass’s pull magnetic north

Even in this fragmented excerpt from the first page, Megan Kaminski’s momentum feels unstoppable, peering and pushing forward as both the stranded pedestrian and flurry. True to its name, Wintering Prairie pits the reader in the throes of weather and geography but merging those hopelessly broad forces in ways that feel fresh. Throughout, Kaminski presents the darkest, coldest season in clumps of active transformation, using small leaps of language to create a patchy vista. She doesn’t disguise the continental reach of her muse, either; eschewing recognizable beginnings and endings, Wintering Prairie picks up mid gust and surveys a relentless accumulation.

Double-spaced in page-long, single stanzas, these poems resist titles in favour of a lone capitalized opening word which, like a deep inhalation, distinguishes one tangent from the last. That stream-like layout reinforces the text’s linear examination, tracking the snowfall along a longitudinal stretch of Plains, Kansas.

Long shadows and sun-melt spread
across lawns across asphalt
neighborhood strip mall and shop
spread west past town into farm
past county line and field
cottonwoods on the river
switch grass and bluestem crowd
over limestone around barbed fence

With that notoriously flat topography in mind, the locomotive quality of Kaminski’s lens gains further traction. And the more ground she covers, the more her snow-covered redundancies create a white veil, erasing all but the corners and outskirts of things, and motivating our senses to fill in the blanks. We begin to understand Kaminski’s sense of place in lieu of an actual view; earthy peepholes (“water-logged field brown grass brown / twig on ground on branch”) and ephemeral senses (“hawk-call and chimney-smoke”) invoke signposts the reader can readily associate with, guiding us through a prismatic makeover.

I carry absence
I carry want
I carry body ache
on this bright day

Wintering Prairie doesn’t shy away from the season’s barren hostility and yet there’s a cozy, snowed-in feeling each time I pick it up. Kaminski scrubs her language clean of graceful qualifiers and the resulting hop-skip-jump prompts visceral, wide-eyed associations on the page. Examining cycles of climate and vulnerability, Wintering Prairie emboldens the landscape poem with an almost unrecognizable force.

Recent Reads: Acceptance Speech by rob mclennan

Acceptance Speech by rob mclennan

Published by Phafours Press, 2014.

Much like how a well-manicured movie trailer pieces together a story from distant scenes, Acceptance Speech gathers four rob mclennan poems into its own micro chapbook. Each of these pieces appears reprinted from elsewhere and shares a recent enough timeline to comingle with ease, though a deeper read suggests that these were always meant to link into an evolving suite.

I sense a strand of concern for the welfare of language, a tiny arc struggling for the sentence to assert itself. Paralleled with a seasonal thaw, might mclennan's exertion reflect the unsure creative space between manuscripts, or a gentle probing around new ideas? “Biopsy: linguistic. I am not ambition: all my roads repeat, interior, repeat. Winning. Snow-branch weight a study, low to ground. This brutal, excessive heat.” The paradoxes at work in “Acceptance Speech” draw attention to the creative process as layered against the more ambivalent course of nature. That “Sick leave,” follows with a chain of interrupted thoughts, holed up indoors and resentful, furthers this question of writing as a natural or forced behaviour.

Beyond what’s written, the consideration extends to what’s articulated – the breath and speech that propel words into landscapes. “What remains of winter; spring,” and “Prairie montage,” breach the boundaries of these domains, now overlapping.

Laden, comma. Heavy. Common
thread. A snowy onslaught, pleather.
Coats. Backed-up, curved, a repro-
duction. Side-long. Snow-sweats,
sidewalks bathe. Reluctant. Margin,
marginalia. Attempt to see if
sentences can breathe, take root,
grow limbs. A shiny tension. We borrow,
shoplift, hoard. Spring.

As with this excerpt from the former, “Prairie montage,” presses toward a new terrain – informed as much by imagination as by elements. With the “constant, consonants” and “gymnastic voice” fine-tuned, the birth-cycle of Acceptance Speech results in an altered environment, neither reliably tangible nor abstract. The fragments in mclennan’s poetry, often the spoils for interpretive avenues, appeal on a linguistic level but better serve this underlying convergence. It is in omission – between his fragments – that mclennan oscillates his attention, coaxing these separate plains of existence into gentle and blurry juxtaposition.

Sometimes a trailer proves better than its film; a whirlwind dip into another world, its tantalizing promise well-preserved. Acceptance Speech spreads a considerable set of ideas over such a brief read and could be the prologue for an ongoing meditation. The end of “Prairie montage,” not only gives the chapbook’s title another dimension, it leaves the reader at a rich culmination, wondering “what’s next?”.

(This charming little x-book is part of a series of seven, available at Phafours Press for the ludicrously reasonable price of a dollar per title.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Writing #42 : Jason Christie

To paraphrase
Jason Christie

Louis Zukofsky said: poetry and horses and shit. What he really meant to say was that if we ever wanted poetry to mean something then that's why spring fields smell like manure. And I guess, when I bend my mind toward guessing, the earnestness usually expected is what I'm really trying to address, when I bend my mind to addressing. And then, Louis Zukofsky said: I liked Ezra Pound at first, right up until the rest of the world found out he was an asshole.

The thread through it all hinges upon value, upon words and capital. So, I would seriously like to let poetry's fans know that no poems were harmed in the making of the canon. Despite the best attempts of white theorists in the 1970's we're still talking about the world, still grifting every morning or surrounding ourselves with like-minded people in order to complain that the rest of the world just doesn't get it. I'd like to take an informal poll: how's that working out for us?

To paraphrase, Louis Zukofsky said: keep your hands off my bottom line. At least in the first half of A, that's what he was probably getting at. And really, what rubs the spice on the chicken carcass of it all is that every one of us prefers not to think of him or herself as a meat eater or the problem because of:

a) some theory in a book
b) some kind of activism escape clause
c) religion
d) pretending to be poor
e) a community
f) the city in which we live
g) space
h) ______________________

To paraphrase Louis Zukofsky: make of me a kind of shrine to which you will always bow, and tell others about my greatness, for that is how we shall build this pyramid and in the future it won't even matter that we are poets. And then he moved on to write the poems in the second half of A that were basically a big middle finger to the overthinking of things that had fallen out of the backside of modernism. Therein we find a chance to stop being assholes in our writing, or at least I do except that I haven't learned the lesson yet (obviously).

At the end of it all, when the money dries up, when we're crammed in an elevator speaking loudly in an attempt to be overheard, when whatever mall we are in stops employing us, when all we are left with is our dignity (maybe?), when there is no other reason to write poetry because even the poets don't care anymore as we trade virtual business cards and high fives and copy and paste grant applications to infinity, at the end of it all, to paraphrase Zukofsky: "Don't/bother me." Just kidding, he continues, please review my next book.

Jason Christie's poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including N/A, filling Station, dANDelion, Poetry is Dead, Action, Yes!, The Capilano Review, West Coast Line and Interim. He is the author of several chapbooks, most recently Government published by above/ground press (shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award). Jason is the author of i-ROBOT Poetry, Canada Post and Unknown Actor. He is also an editor alongside angela rawlings and derek beaulieu of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry. Jason has lived in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and now calls Ottawa home. He is currently writing poems about a fictitious forest, a tongue-in-cheek take on Jason and The Argonauts, and Money.

Friday, October 03, 2014

On Writing #41 : Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin

There are those who feel at home in several languages. Language-wise, I’m always in a hotel, or just across the road from it.

I speak only English, it is my mother tongue. I speak but trippingly only a light sputtering of words from other languages. And so I wonder: is there such a thing as a ‘mother hand’, that is, a writing script in which one feels at home, a script in which one writes fluently as opposed to an experience of writing words which is more like drawing them?

I did learn to read Hebrew and to write its script, though I know only little of what it actually means, but what I am referring to here is a variety of styles of writing Roman letters.

Though I can produce many written ‘fonts’, there are a few styles of letterforms that seem natural to me, scripts which I learned early and which continue to form a natural and ongoing part of my writing life. These in addition to the script I employ in my signature.

If I were a computer, I might cite Arial, Times New Roman, or Courier. Instead, I have a style of cursive, and three styles of printing: all caps, upper and lower case printing, and an ornate style that I developed when I was about 12.

Certainly my styles were influenced by observing scripts around me and adopting some of their elements.

My ‘th’ ligature was learned from a middle school science teacher. The G and the B in my signature were adapted from my father’s (and somewhat from my mother’s) signature. Something about the shape of their letters appealed to me and so I took them on board my orthographic canoe. I use these forms of the letter as a specialized kind of display font, mostly when writing my name, but occasionally in writing uppercase G and B. (For security, I haven't posted an image of my signature. I would hate the $4.53 in my bank account to be emptied by an unscrupulous reader.)

I grew up in Northern Ireland and I remember, when I came to Canada, a principal looking at my script and noting its British provenance. I suppose it was more spidery, less plump and round than the standard North American school script.

When I studied with bpNichol in my first years of university, I learned to love his style of lowercase printing as it appeared on my work for class as well as in his work. The writing seemed to delight in itself  and in an entirely unostentatious way. This was an influence on my writing.

When I was twelve, I taught myself to write an ornate, swirly curly script after reading a book on heraldry. The actual style in the book was somewhere between Irish Uncial and Italic, but I adapted it and added its little leafy swirlycues to my repertoire.

I tried to adopt an Irish lowercase ‘g’ sometime in my teens upon observing a friend of my father’s who came from the south of Ireland. It was an affectation for a while, like wearing a cravat which, I confess, I also did for a painful year in my teens.

It is true that, as a teenager, I wanted my writing to say something about me, to make an aesthetic statement, to be an interesting feature about me. This gave way to my current fascination with typography, lettering, orthography, and visual poetry.

I wonder how many writing forms most people would consider their mother script, or at least a script in which they feel at home?

This leads me to wonder, also, what are our default ‘voices’? What is our mother sound?  And mother grammar and father lexicon? The nation tongue of our micronation? What script do we follow? What form of natural selection occurs in the ecotone between our past and future?

Indeed, I’m interested whether people’s writing—their literary and literal writing—remains stable or if they are aware of it changing over time as those who must sign many documents find their signature evolving through repetition and exhaustion. For me, my writing, while remaining stable for the most part, is not so fluent; this causes me to examine it, making conscious decisions as I write as to which form to use, how to connect letters, and even how to shape individual letters.

And so writing—like that other creative writing—remains a form of discovery, a wavering line wandering onto the page, an alphabetic artery coursing with orthographic blood—our own, and that from our history, family, and culture—or perhaps, the blood of outer space.

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and educator and the author of 17 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for both teens and children. His work has been widely performed, broadcast, anthologized and published nationally and internationally. His latest book is Moon Baboon Canoe (poetry, Mansfield Press, 2014.) Forthcoming publications include: Dr Greenblatt, 251-1457 (short fiction; Anvil Press, 2015); Yiddish for Pirates (novel; Random House Canada, 2016); Sonosyntactics: Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton, introduced and edited by Barwin (Laurier Poetry Series). Two recent visual poetry chapbooks are Bone Sapling (with Amanda Earl; AngelHousePress, 2014) and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial Editions, 2014). He is this year's Writer-in-Residence at Western University for 2014-2015. and lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at