Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas offering, with apologies

The chilled air stretched
cautiously under his wife.
One by one, shades

Pass boldly, full glory
of passion wither
locked heart lover's

eyes. Generous tears:
such a feeling thickly
partial, young, standing

under a dripping tree.
Other forms were near.
His soul where dwell

the vast hosts of the dead,
wayward and flickering
out into impalpable dissolving.

Light taps upon the pane:
sleepily the flakes, silver
oblique against time.

Yes, snow on every
part: plain, hills, westward,
mutinous waves falling

upon the lonely, the crooked
the spears, the barren swooned
falling faintly and faintly falling,

like the descent
of their last upon
all the living.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good
  • A new online journal looks very promising indeed. Agora Review is publishing reviews and interviews regularly, though not poetry it seems. They are doing chapbooks and broadsides that you can download but I can't see online pages per se. Recently they have printed a series of essays from Margaret Christakos Influency Series. Great idea.
  • The Poetic Front: a promising journal out of SFU, taking advantage of the pdf format.
  • The KSW website. Kudos to Donato for creating a useful online resource in Canada.
  • The big American poetry sites: Ubu.Web and Penn Sound thank you, thank you, thank you Kenny, Al Filreis, Charles Bernstein--these resources are amazing. The Poetry Foundation comes third after those two, and yah, the PF has much, much more money. But money is only useful if its used. And used with vision. The Harriet blog is a fantastic start. How did Kenny Goldsmith create UBU? More people should be talking to him about that.
  • Kenny's avant garde podcasts rock.
  • Poem Talk has some great episodes.
  • rob Mclennan's issue of Open Letter 13, Number 6, Summer 2008 is a knock out. Great interview with Lisa Robertson, essays by Donato Mancini, Allessandro Porco, derek beaulieu, Jill Hartman and Jonathan Ball. Now can we get a sampling online please?
  • The editors that chose to do the concrete and visual poetry feature in Poetry Magazine: bravo, bravo.
  • The New Yorker fiction podcasts. I know, I know, we aren't supposed to like New Yorker fiction, but I do. I admit it. Nowhere else can one find such a high proportion of excellent, engaging fiction. Sorry people. Do I wish the editors were more inventive in terms of what they included? Absolutely. Am I not sometimes disappointed by the sameness of the worlds? The formulaic structures? Absolutely. Still, no one else consistently publishes this kind of satisfying, quality fiction. Nowhere. And the fiction podcasts make the best case for the magazine. An amazing resource. There is no Canadian publication that even comes close...oops, that goes on the bad column. But it's true.
  • Geist Magazine on the other hand, does publish consistently good excerpts and is single-handedly attempting to offer space for entre-genre work, great photography and intelligent commentary. This is a stellar publication and a bright spot on the internet. This is in fact, a magazine with vision. The editors have not only been publishing the magazine for a decade, but mentoring young Canadian writers directly and indirectly.
  • BookThug shows vision in reprinting an out of print Steve McCaffery text, Every Way Oakley, alongside its muse text, Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.
  • Les Figues for Vanessa Place's Dies: A Sentence and Stan Apps' God's Livestock Policy and the promise of much more to come, bravo.
  • Ugly Duckling Presse for everything.
  • belladonna for everything.
Books that made an impression (in no particular order):
  • Margaret Christakos, What Stirs, Coach House 2008
  • M. Nourbese Philip, Zong!, Wesleyan/Mercury, 2008
  • Jeramy Dodds, Crabwise to the Hounds, Coach House 2008
  • Vanessa Place, Dies: A Sentence, Les Figues
  • Jason Camlot, The Debaucher, Insomniac 2008
  • David O'Meara, Noble Gas, Penny Black, Brick Books, 2008
  • Helen Humphreys, The Frozen Thames, M&S 2008
  • Tim Lilburn, Orphic Politics, M&S 2008
  • Henri Cole, Blackbird and Wolf, FSG 2007
  • Rachel Zolf, Human Resource, Coach House 2007
  • K. Silem Mohammad, Breathalyzer
  • Dawn Lundy Martin, A Matter of Gathering / A Gathering of Matter, University of Georgia Press, 2007
and a few that I'm still considering/reading:
  • Alison Pick, The Dream World
  • Jacob McArthur Mooney, New Layman's Almanac
  • David Trinidad, The Late Show
  • Rita Wong, Forage
  • Sachiko Murakami, The Invisibility Exhibit
  • Elizabeth Treadwell, Wardolly
  • Kevin Connolly, Revolver
  • Vanessa Place, La Medusa, FC2
  • Stan Apps, God's Livestock Policy
Incomplete list as half of my books are in my office at school...and I must admit that I have not read all the books I wanted to read this year either. A few in particular: Ariana Reines' Coeur de Lion, Patchen's The Walking-Away World, the collected Oppen, Silliman's The Alphabet, my vocabulary did this to me The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and so on.

Women Who Do! I haven't posted one of these in months...but here's a women who does. Carol Matthews, a former teacher of yours truly and an inspiring woman gets an honorary degree from Malaspina.

The Bad and the Ugly to come after Christmas, and this list will change over the coming days too. Meanwhile, Happy Holidays all. Thanks for all the great poetry.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Avant Lyric, a few observations toward an essay, part one

Anyone who has read the anthology of Canadian poetry I edited a few years back, or has read this blog must know how much I love lyric poetry. They might also know that I love avant gard poetry, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, sound poetry, visual and concrete poetry, formal and even new formalist poetry. In short, this blog loves poetry. Not one version of poetry, not my version, or my mentor's version--if I had such a thing--no, I love poetry, or poetries. Multiple.

So what's the problem with avant lyric then? Why am I giving these particular poets such a hard time? If my perspective is all open and inclusive what's the big deal? A good question. It is perhaps not the poetry itself (though upon a closer reading there are some issues there), but the way we talk about it; the way we publish or don't publish, what we include in categories--categories in fact are bothersome, categories that make modes of writing exclusive, that brand one person as accessible and others not.

Why for instance, is someone like Michael Dickman, published three times in the New Yorker this year, accessible, and someone like Katie Degentesh or K Silem Mohammad, not? My problem is with the equations that keep some poets out of publishing circles and some poets in.

There is likely a more rhizomatic way of thinking about, and discussing poetry. There are connective aspects to the craft...and there are huge blocks about what the general public can or can not understand. And there is of course the Steinian obvervation that original is ugly and then others make it beautiful and accessible. Or others water down innovation. Or others "tone" it down.

There is, to my mind, a great deal being made of tone these days. People are offended by flarf, they hammer away at conceptual poetry with words such as "nonsense," "about nothing," "dead ends," and all matter of insults. They conflate conceptual poetry with conceit, with artiface. They link lyric poetry with painting and avant garde with conceptual art far too easily, far too simplistically to my mind. For evidence of this see comment streams everywhere....

And meanwhile there are certain poets and poetry that tend to rise above these little entanglements. Poetry that takes a little of this, or that, and goes off on its own to become somehow accessible. I'm interested in what this is. What makes this happen. I'm curious about this question of proportion. About the Michael Dickmans, and here in Canada publications such as Jeramy Dodds' Crabwise to the Hounds, for example, a highly enjoyable, well crafted book. That is, a wonderful stream of energetic images, questions, fragmented and yet thematically linked statements, bits of artifact and archival materials that document, gesture toward essay, toward catalogue, and not so much collage as work up a kind of temporary psychological, or intellectual dust-storm, a kinetic event that seems for a moment solid.

What is it about this avant lyric poetry that makes it so much more palatable than other contemporary modes? Take Kate Hall, whom I also blogged about earlier. You can find her "Little Essay on Genetics" and "The Shipping Container" online. Here are two poems that tend to "sound" more like prose poems than they look. Very quickly you get the voice, a quirky, inquiring perspective, you also get a sense of the kinds of tropes that appear frequently--even in the small sampling that I found after reading Suspended. As we see here at the end of "The Shipping Container:"
It’s true, the container
has great aesthetic value but I was really hoping
for a free watch with a rechargeable battery or
at least a better kind of nothingness.
Read as a prose line I'm quite content with such a line, but, but, but, what makes this poetry? And what makes this more coherent somehow than the flarf texts?

The text made me question (and re-question) my desire for a kind of polish that I don't ultimately believe in so much anymore. At least not in theory. The rough edges, the emphasis on the thinkingness of the text rather than its polish, those aspects speak to my current interests. I'm not sure I want a poem to tell me how to feel or what to think. I'm quite tired of poems that tuck everything in neatly in the end. Poems that don't recognize the world they are being carved out of. And in terms of the poem on the page, I found the actual layout, the presence of the poem on the page, to be both compelling and slightly irritating--a retrofitting of a kind of poetry that exists elsewhere in rangier forms. And gangly references to more conventional aspects of poetry. Why line breaks if one isn't going to do something with them?

But line breaks are not what this chapbook is about, and it is a random event that these questions are being tagged on Hall's chapbook because they are questions that have lingered in my reading for some time. And the irritation stems perhaps from the fact that they are sufficiently accentuated to notice the dissonance of them but for no apparent reason. Why? A poet like Anne Carson is very, very attuned to how things are laid out on the page. Even Short Talks, her early Brick book of short prose pieces, are meant to have space around them and they are meant to be read as "prose poems." Her insistence on having them "not" be run on one after the other, "like a grocery list," I think she said, actually dictated the entire formatting of Open Field. And with good reason: the poems were formally and consciously presented on the page, fully justified, smaller margins, etc. Nothing haphazard.

Again, this is not necessarily a problem of Hall's text, which is, as I've said, a very compelling one. It is a question of the discussion and organization of contemporary poetry and one of several questions I bring to my reading these days. One question has to do with the use of formal elements. Where and why. What are line breaks doing circa 2008? And why is there so much poetry that is not acknowledging its place on a page? This spins out into, why do so many poems seem unaware of their place in a poetic tradition? Lryic or otherwise. Where are the elements of "poetry"? What is going on here? What makes this more "poetic," than the apparently less successful modes of poetry including flarf?

The oddness of the line breaks and the lay out on the page made me look more closely, and then the closer I looked the more the poems seemed, not quite to fall apart, but perhaps to seem flimsy as poems. Yes, we have musings, and they are quirky and hold together thematically, but as Hall says in the end of her chapbook:
...I didn't want to know
that you could add up so many things
and have them equal so few.
Which, going back to my little analogy of the dust storm, begs the question, what happens after the dust settles? You tell me--is there some base line thrum under the event? Because what you have after the dust settles is all that longtime engagement not only with the ideas, the thinking itself, but the shaping of the line and the project, the well-honed craft. Or not.

One of the things lyric poetry does to my mind, aside from a providing a kind of speaking subject or subjectivity (an entity can work, no), is to provide an anchor in the poem--an emotional and intellectual anchor. That "thing," you find yourself face to face with after the dust settles. Someone, depending on your temperament, like Anne Carson or Lisa Robertson, Karen Solie or Ken Babstock, David O'Meara, Margaret Christakos, Juliana Spahr, perhaps even a newcomer such as Jeremy Dodds, or for that matter Mohammad. A good poet will leave you, not alone, but alone with your thoughts.

Your thoughts are your solace. Not the poems easy placations...

The question remains, is this lyric mode doing anything different? Is it taking risks, or is it taking the foment of the innovative response to lyric and making it cozy once more? Surprising surrealism in the texts, yes, but benign collections of ideas that go...where? Is it terribly old fashioned of me to want poetry to be about something? To go somewhere? And who is to judge where it should go? Who is to judge what a reader finds meaning in?

Further, are these lines more coherent than the flarf poems we have read on this site in previous weeks? Take Mohammad's "I said to Poetry."
poetry has died, just as easily
as junkies who spent all their money
on dope were killed
and later,
of course, I love Courtney, and her essays
have appeared in the future
some are embellished, and some are just
a blast furnace act for all the world to behold

what a sad violent fact it is
that poetry is just a bank or something
Indeed, it is a sad fact that poetry is "just a bank" or something. And that certain poetries are ascribed to have, or to evoke feelings, and meaning, whereas others are not. I'm tempted to read Ryan Fitzpatrick's piece about Katie Degentesh's Anger Scale, and Jason Christie's piece on Fitzpatrick's Fake Math, and Jordan Davis' on Drew Gardener, side by side and ask just what is the difference between flarf and this avant-lyric mode? Is it social, rather than individual in the way that Fitzpatrick describes flarf as being or back to the lone individual in the surreal world of self-referentiality? How can we be so unsophisticated in our reading as to not note these registers in tone? Or read them. So, I guess what this unruly rant is really all about is not so much a complaint as a query about this mode and avant lyric in general, and more precisely into where do we talk about our reading of poetry? One must address the question of tone, yes. As Lisa Robertson points out, sincerity is rhetoric. But perhaps more importantly we really need to unearth and investigate these assumptions around our reading and corralling of poetry.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Upon reading a recent poem in a magazine she reognizes the difference between imaginative lyric poetry and what is purported not to be real poetry

As long as the title is clearly connected to the mid-section of the poem. As long as the eating of people is clearly a metaphor. As long as the idea of human longing is signaled early, best in the first stanza. As long as the question "What do you love?" appears. As long as there is a sense of "teasing" disunity, not too teasing though. As long as "My" and "I" appear with minimal irony. As long as the reader is constantly reminded they are human, their longing is human, and given a glass of wine, a Rusty Nail, anything in stemware, they will be fine by the end of the poem. As long as intestines aren't the end of the poem, as long as we don't spend too long on on illness. As long as the doctor's appearance is not expressly for the speaker of the poem, rather say, for a brother. As long as their aren't too many specific contemporary cultural references (after all the poem is a transporter not a mirror). As long as abstract ideas are minimal, as long as metaphor is present and doesn't stretch the imagination too far. A long as God appears (or his intestine), and at least one exclamation mark. As long as the poem ties everything together in the end. As long as there is only a residue of thinking after the event of the poem. As long as the wonder lasts only as long as turning the page. As long as it contains the word "miracles," and better if it ends there. Yes, best if it ends there.

Another here...it seems we are back to the question of the avant lyric poem.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chap book Round Up 2

JAKE KENNEDY, HAZARD

Hazard (2006) won the bp Nichol chapbook award, and for good reason. As with Jay Millar and Kate Hall, this is a beautiful artifact. Not quite the same technical quality as a Greenboathouse chapbook, which can be a year in the physical making, but it is mindful of its materiality, a distinction that I suspect will make it impossible for the book (or chapbook) to actually die out (as the fear mongers are wont to propose). Those of us who love books, love books, and while we might appreciate the access to them online as etexts etc., I highly doubt we'll want to let go of physical libraries and pages and editions and covers. In fact, it may be that we become more concerned with the object itself.

Kennedy's chapbook reveals an engaged reader and lover of books. One who interacts directly with others: Balzac, Rossetti, Mandelstam, Cahun, Beckett, Lowry, Acker to be precise. The poems range from visual cheekiness to narrative biographical interventions, dramatic structures to prose poems. Here from a three part response to Beckett:
In this space the words do not meet their
destinations. The words start out alright
but they end up turning into other things.
or from another variation:
My art is for shit. This really
hurts. I am hurt. Do you like this? It seems
there is no division between I-can-speak-
to-you and I-can-kill-you. I can't say I like
it.
Having only recently met Kennedy and discovered the chapbook I wonder how I missed it? But as this line-up of mini-reviews suggests, there is more compelling work out there than one can reasonably comment on. And when commenting on, one begins to see strands that are of larger interest than the immediate text one is faced with. This new avant-lyric mode that both Christie and Fitzpatrick point out. What makes this avant-lyric mode work? What makes it distinct from flarf? If I compare a Degentesh poem, or a Fitzpatrick poem to a poem from Hall or Millar for example, or this one from Kennedy? Tonally? My musing undercurrent is twigged here, but in a good way. Very curious to see what is next from Monsieur Kennedy.

SAWAKO NAKAYASU, INSECT COUNTRY (B)

Insect Country (2007) is a tiny chapbook from Dusie, a small press based in Switzerland that has been publishing fabulous projects, many of which are available for download as pdfs. While I constantly bemoan the state of the Canadian online literary presence (or lack of), one is reminded of the prevalence of the gift economy in the avant-garde writing community where so much is made available at no cost. Perhaps because unlike the SoQ stream, there is an understanding that poetry isn't about money, or isn't *so* much about money, or about single careers.

The prose pieces in Insect Country feel more prose-like than other pieces I've read from Nakayasu involving ants. The two that were included in a recent Filling Station section on American poets, for example:

Box with arms and butterflies

A large box with many arms reaching out of just as many holes in the box. The arms reach out and grab butterflies, deposit them back in the box. The butterflies go out the holes, some go so far as to fly away forever, while some get grabbed and returned to the box. The arms look like they just might try to leave the box as well, if they only had bodies to take along.
There is something so visually surprising in this one: the butterflies go out holes, the chaos of entrapment and dispersal, the many arms that remind me of Lydia Davis' "Cockroaches in Autumn"( which you can hear, Davis read here). ("The forest of moving legs..." What a line.)

You can read more poems from Sawako here in Coconut, and check out her blog, Insect Tutelage, here. Nakayasu has been working on the Ants for several years now, and when they surprise, it's so satisfying.

AMANDA EARL, ELEANOR

I discovered Earl's chapbook in an envelope filled with chapbooks and broadsides in a mail-out from rob mclennan out of Ottawa. Receiving such a pile of texts can be daunting; difficult to know how to handle so much. derek beaulieu, who like mclennan, publishes others constantly, has a great system: he has files for friends and students and publications that don't necessarily speak to him are quickly passed on to someone who will appreciate it. My own desk is often laden with piles of read, half-read, want to comment on, when will this be commented on, piles.

Earl's chapbook has been in the "want to comment on," for some time. The fragments of this narrative concern Eleanor of Aquitaine, referenced in the title and in the epigram at the beginning: "They left me word, these men and their ties, but they did not level me." After years of resisting this impulse in poetry now I can't get enough of it. But not all fragmented poetry works, or is satisfying. What is it about one text that seems to be at a level of interrupting itself that shakes the very idea of its being on a page, but holds together enough to offer a willing reader a way in and through? From the beginning of this text I am quite taken: "all night on a curb is this where you expect to find me/music and tin cans rattle." There is something musical here. Something that, like Jeanette Armstrong's "Winds," operates like wind chimes, notes hitting and resounding. Earl's text jousts images and expectations, mundane glasses emptying, histories, feuds, mostly self-referential, domestic images, but still enough surprise here to keep me grasping through. Visually the text reminds me not of Armstrong, but of Rachel Zolf's earlier work, as well as parts of Zong! the brilliant new book from M. Nourbese Philip.

The fragments of this woman's life come together even as "Yesterday fused glass shatters." The gaps are effective:

seep ssssssssss like ssssssssssssss october a hurried sssssjune heatwave ended

and

ink runs dry ssssssssssssssmy thraoatmy throat without beer

talk to me you cannot hear

or you choose not to

Earl has a book out from BookThug which I'm now very curious to see. As well, I would like to hear this text read.

And there are a few newcomers--undergraduates to be precise, both published by Kevin McPherson Eckoff.

HEATHER MCINTYRE, TWO HAIKUS

Tiniest chapbook award goes to Kevin McPherson Eckoff for his sweet little production of two haikus from a student reader at a recent literary festival in Kelowna. No bigger than a gift tag with two pages.

HELEN HAJNOCZKY

Hajnoczyky is an undergraduate at the University of Calgary where they have Nod, an excellent undergraduate publication.
A Portrait of Gertrude Stein

I find her incredibly irritating. I’ve read her before in other classes and I just find her so annoying, and I think that if I understood better what she was trying to do or why she writes this way that maybe I would find her less annoying, but she is so irritating because I really just don’t understand what she is doing, and if I just understood her intentionality then I think I would like her more, but I find her really irritating because I don’t understand what she’s doing and so it’s just really annoying, which I think I would not feel as much if I knew what she was doing, but it’s just so irritating.
This is, if I recall correctly, a poem based on fellow classmates' responses to Stein. That's okay. If they're complaining, she has done her job, has gotten in there. And Hajnoczyky has caught the experience of coming to such strange shores brilliantly.

More and more chapbooks to come.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Virginia Woolf reads K. Silem Mohammad

Formalism Doesn’t Kill People

A curious poem this morning. You will note the title above from a poet I have never met. Strange tensions from the beginning. I am assuming, given the tone of the poem that the poem in question isn’t what the poet thinks of as “formalism.” I’m thinking too that Eliot might signify formalism. Eliot, Yeats, Byron, and down. Though what might formalism mean now? And please, tell me poets aren’t writing the same as the old poets? What would be the point in that? Though with all of these many poets zinging lines toward each other in the air, with a click, what does being a poet even mean?

But back to the poem, which suggests, if I’m reading my irony correctly, that formalism is the opposite of this poem. This poem starts with a series of observations. Small ball-bearings that go forward and backward.
a brave vastness (faith)
dovetails with concerns
of what music is
A poem like a necklace, gathering momentum. About nothing it might seem. Tiny snapshots calling out to each other. A world I have no idea how to enter. A scrambled world of anachronism and quotation marks. Tonal. Exemplary. But I like the “brave vastness” contrasted with “faith,” clearly lacking, and mocking. I like dove tailing in with concerns and music—a natural pairing? What a strange meshing together of words without, it seems, attention to meaning:
thinking being analogous
to “breakthroughs”
turns them into formalist armatures

abstract or optical effects bend words
to painting’s non-retrospective
melting plaid center
It does make one reconsider each word. “Armature,” for example, a word that has morphed from meaning “armour,” or "arms," from the Latin armatura, to suggest a motor, or coils in a motor, how they are structured one assumes, to create energy. So the poem once again, speaks to the aspects of formalism, which clearly is suggested here relies on structure to create coherence. The “abstract or optical effects” create these non-retrospective melting plaid centers. The poet does seem to shake out these words and render them fresh, crisp, more themselves if that is possible. What is a plaid centre? An intersection? A meeting place? Something non-retrospective must be non-representative, the new formation playing on the many layers of realism and romanticism laden with the word “representation.” As I once said of Donne, this poet “leaps into poetry the shortest way.” This poet offers a new kind of poetry: punctuated, severed. The old associations having been lopped off. No whiff or romanticism here. And yet I feel something under the posturing, some kind of earnestness that seems profoundly familiar. As if, by squinting into the future we had seen such poetry occurring. And we had, without knowing it, been longing for this very thing.

Where at first I felt lost facing lines such as “sense of the Infinite/an image obtains a moss,” I quickly became excited. “An image obtains a moss,” is an unusual construction, but it is very clear too: and not stagnant. I am reminded of the pompous American who liked to eat and produce words at an alarming rate and was quite full of herself. Gibberish yes, but not without intelligence. Made me feel seasick to read her. As if suddenly I was floating high above, looking down at my ridiculous, grounded self. Look up, look up! I wanted to shout—Words need not be anchored.

Now, if it would only own that it takes itself a tad more seriously than it wants us to think...and if only formalists would take themselves a little less seriously. Good lord, as if they are out in the trenches protecting poetry from the senseless hordes of avant-garde flarfists...as if lyric poetry is at all under threat!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Chap book round up part one: Millar and Hall

JAY MILLAR, WOODS/PAGES

Jay Millar is quickly becoming one of Canada's most ambitious publishers of poetry, with an impressive and diverse line-up including Elizabeth Bachinsky, Lisa Robertson, Nathalie Stephens and most recently, Steve McCaffery and Gertrude Stein. He is also the author of the small blue (2007), False Maps for Other Creatures (2005), Mycological Studies (2002), The Ghosts of Jay MillAr (2000), and this chapbook from Greenboathouse (see interview). Millar offers us a slender affair concerned with looking and nature:
How to desire that crackle trees half
empty of leaves crackle? A mind that
will run their minimalist instincts
through an environment only to
build nests in the whole of the sky...
These poems feel organic in an unsettlingly contemporary way, crafted from ideas of leaf and wood. They are couplet and free formed, they have "lingual tics," long for names, for sound, "the foliage scoots/a leaf scream." This is familiar poetic territory. Particularly here in Canada where despite our communal dissatisfaction with the likes of Atwood and her Survival tome, we are still very much face-to-face with weather, temperature, a constant reminder of our tentative clinging to the earth, the temperatures about to dive into the well-below zero zones.

But "eco" is everywhere at the moment, and with good reason. The escalating climate crisis demands we rethink our relationship not only to technology and culture, but to nature. So yes, the "rotten tree-falls" the "toe nudge," the "trajectories mammals/insects and birds weave" we are here. How do we think about it? How does all of this embodiment play out in LANGUAGE?
Patient for lines, impatient language asks of trees
who has spoken lately? Who has shed their leaves in

this long tradition of the best of the worst to
become the long arm the world casts out: great shadows

deliberately tedious, meticulously
limitless? I must ask who draws which attention

from who. Who owns the woods when the owls start to call
themselves a play on words: that first hoot a hollow

the second fills in for the third's sheer panic. The
wind dies away. Warm softness. Imagine the sound.
These poems are not offering a kind of transformation of these things it lists (See Gary Barwin, below), rather, more like the lyric nature poetry it seems to echo, it is a kind of marking, or witnessing. The language is not innovative, not flarfing, not googling, it insists on a language one might describe as romantic and yet there is a twinge in the perspective, no? Something slightly outside of that familiar kind of seeing. A movement toward this avant-lyric, a subject of much rumination, notes on which should appear some time soon.

KATE HALL, SUSPENDED
Tracking a package can be so easy.
It can be traced backward from any point to
the source. Other times, my watch
falls off my wrist and I don't notice
until I reach and it's gone.
You are like an old cotton sweater--
your bones clasped together by ligaments
slowly losing shape and deteriorating...
Kate Hall, Greenboathouse, 2007

Jay Millar's chapbook was the last to come out of Greenboathouse, Hall's the second last. Like Woods/Pages, Suspended is a testament not only to Jason Dewinitz' technical skill, but his (and Aaron Peck's) ability to choose intriguing texts. Printed on "Rising Bristol Vellum," with a handmade "Tibetan wrapper, cover & flyleaf," the book feels good in hand. And the text doesn't disappoint--at least not the first time through. Suspended is a short thesis in seven parts, both surreal and lyrically grounded, echoing, at its best, Lydia Davis and Anne Carson (Short Talks). "Bats basically scream/until they hear their voices..." the sequence begins. There is much to chew on here, strange mail, "epistemic hunger," many suggested statements of fact: "we'll begin in a vacuum with/artificial tools," statements of the absurd: "nothing will be/ a substance to suspend years of facts..."

Hall has been called a powerful poet, and I think that is partly due to the assured investigations and weavings-in of thinkings and poetries while maintaining a kind of accessible "lyric" base. There is something very welcoming about this particular pitch, and at first read it caught me as well. But there is something jagged too--which became a jumping off point for a set of larger questions that arose for this reader, not only about Hall's poems, but a strand of "new lyric" or "avant lyric" poetry that is becoming more and more common (what does this look like in Canada? Is it different from the neo-liberal poetry described below?). One needs to take a serious look at that strand of poetry alongside other contemporary lyric modes as well as the much disdained flarf, Langpo and all the rest...but I'm going to take that conversation and set it aside for the moment because it is probably not fair to pin it on a first chapbook which in many ways is completely satisfying and rife with promise.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Jordan Davis reads Drew Gardner

Fixing a Real Phantom Limb

with a special glove
fits real life to a private message
the abominable pixels
that help people with snow.

a lifetime watch battery for allowance
encyclopedia soda,
name and profession,
I should be mimicking things
context is vinyl
I am, but that's not me.

refill packs drive home all night,
sneezing and snorting into everyone's self.
still at work, I eat bunnies and rainbows for breakfast
real estate on the wall of harping on it,
not because I don't have freedom
what I have is a quick run around with the Hoover.

the thing about me
is that I enjoy personal experience
I don't know where the nearest video shop is,
and for some reason
I can never bring myself to drink on my own blood.
I like sunlight.
analyze it for me.

Drew Gardner

*

For the last oh let's arbitrarily say forty years the main way art has earned the right not to be destroyed by the so-called real world is to a) annex some previously anesthetic territory or b) engage in whatever pendulous dialectic is happening in the art world in such a fantastic and vulgar way that admirers of sheer nerve everywhere take note. In his role as a chief engineer of flarf, Gardner has been viewed as precisely the kind of militarist any definition of avant-garde would imply. But as "Fixing a Real Phantom Limb" demonstrates, Gardner is a cuddler, not a punisher.

Wide reading in the key psychology texts of the last midcentury -- Karen Horney, D.W. Winnicott, S.J. Perelman -- informs Gardner's therapeutic approach to the lyric. An empath, he is acutely aware of pain and ignorance as motivating factors in your basic everyday human foibles. He begins the poem by segueing directly from the title -- is the traditional opening of the poem the lack Gardner is mediating here? In any case, the tone is simultaneously disorienting and reassuring. The scenario in which pixels "help people with snow" is specious yet plausible, just as the contrast between real life and a private message points out a chasm that, whether or not it really exists, slows the reader down a moment.

These microdistortions will be familiar to anyone with more than passing exposure to John Ashbery's work, and Gardner did study with the master. But he is not merely borrowing Captain America's costume here. Where the traditional Ashberyan folkdance inevitably dislocates the reader's attention, Gardner recalibrates it, returning again and again to the not-quite-legible activities observations and aversions of a stable first person, albeit one who eats bunnies and rainbows, performs menial tasks, ventriloquizes hippies.

This eternal return is prompted by the sense of responsibility and obligation that leaks out of the poem in places. Horney has written extensively of the trauma the ego sustains in the face of unreasonable expectations which it experiences as "shoulds." "I should be mimicking things," Gardner writes, letting us know he both knows the rules and knows how to cooperate with and subvert them. As a moment in a poem it's probably a little over-compressed, nevertheless I take "context is vinyl" to be an affirmation of the old-school premodernist value of explaining what one is talking about and why, just as audiophiles have come out swinging for predigital recording techniques. Gardner affirms his alliance with the folkways -- "I am" -- even as the poem's speaker asserts an independence from purism and programmatic behavior -- "but that's not me."

We hear more about this underused "I," this so-called "me" and their dialogue with the lyric a few lines later. Where the poet is expected to provide an engaging first-person experience, Gardner's speaker admits to liking that kind of thing -- the experience, that is, not providing the depiction. As conscientious objection goes, it's cheerful, fannish even. Gardner even comes close to ending the poem with the standard American poetry move of shifting to a natural phenomenon, such as the beauty of light. But where that tactic is ordinarily deployed in hopes of simulating a feeling of sublimity, of submerging the reader into the writer's mastery of the grandiose, Gardner instead offers to share the experience, appealing to the reader to come closer, to tell the speaker, the poet, what it's like.

I don't know what "encyclopedia soda" is, what "refill packs" are. I too am unaware, now that Blockbuster has imploded never mind Kim's, of the location of the nearest video place -- unless we can count Netflix or hulu.com? And I am baffled what the Missy Elliot prepositional phrase "drink on" is doing next to my own blood. But I recognize the feeling of wanting to recycle all this trash into something functional, to harness ambient confusion and hostility as the energy sources of the future. More importantly, these strange phrases make me smile more and more as the poem goes on. They do not have that old-poem smell. They are not ugly. They surprise me. They indicate that art may be happening. It is.

"Fixing a Real Phantom Limb" appears in the eighth issue of The Hat, which I co-edit with Chris Edgar, and which is arriving in December. You can preorder a copy at http://hatpoetry.com/.

Jordan Davis was born in New York City, where he lives and works. He has written about poetry on-line for such audience-estuaries as UBPoetics, Subpoetics, Subsubpoetics, PaperMag.com, Nytoday.com, Equanimity, Constant Critic, and Slate. More information about Jordan Davis is available on the internet: http://www.jordandavis.com/
Photo by Alison Stine Davis.

See Ryan Fitzpatrick on Katie Degentesh and Jason Christie on Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Governor General calls a Time Out

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper digs in and the leader of the Liberal party, the opposition, and now the "Coalition," tries to get himself back in focus....

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Chris Piuma reads Catherine Daly

Three nice poety things about Catherine Daly’s Vauxhall

1. From “Art Art Art”:

Is art a way?
A truth?
A light-
well?

—Oh no, more poetry about poetry, more art about art. But yes, art is a way. Yes. OK? It was a rhetorical question, and we knew the answer. Is it the way? No, it is a way. (When is art not a way? When it’s away.) As a way, it is a creation of truth; by the way, it is a well of light. Well? Right? Isn’t it? Let’s say we call truth the satisfying connection of A to B. It is satisfying, in a way that we call “true”. Because we can connect it, which is like being able to explain it. This doesn’t tell you anything about this book. This is a nice poety thing about poetry. But this particular book is relentless and baldfaced about its drive to connect. It is a manual of connections, or an exhortation to connection, written in slinky steps.

2. I have been reading rhetorical manuals lately, starting with Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. There is this idea that the orator should have a mental commonplace book of maxims, of ideas or phrases which “everyone knows”. The orator takes one of these ideas – “Life’s a game; play it as it lays” – and drops it into the situation at hand, thus reassuring the audience that its native wisdom is respected. The better orator can twist the maxim, put new wine into the old skin, and get a new win from the old skein. Or from the old scheme? Vauxhall is the better orator working without any situation at hand, and weaving with whatever tattered yarn you offer. Like, what, golf:

Anything with a ball
any game Life’s a game,
lends itself to puns.
fun golf is serious.

Play it as it lays,
“A young woman with long hair and a short
white halter dress walks…”
Golf is a game where the ball lies poorly
and the players well. People lie.

(“Golf”)

N.B. People do lie! Are the long (hair) and the short (dress) of it as seductive as a well-turned phrase that revolves around opposites? Even if it’s about golf?

3. But: Vauxhall is named after the long-gone gardens, and if we don’t want to ascribe too much truthiness to this rambling bramble of words and ideas, to the constant flickering of connections, well, we can enjoy the “very pretty contrived plantation”. It makes for a nice walk. But then again, is it the walk, or what we do when we walk? Golf is a good walk spoiled, after all, but some people seem to like it. Then again, people lie! And consider, from “Hook and Ornament”:

You’re coming to town.
How still we see it lie.
(adore you)

Chris Piuma spent many years in Portland, Oregon, where he helped run Spare Room and its ongoing reading series. He now studies medieval languages in Toronto. His poetics blog, Buggeryville (buggeryville.blogspot.com) still exists. His small and psuedoephemeral chapbooks, Exercises in Penmanship and [On January thirty-first...] were published. He takes requests.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Neoliberal Poetry?


Engrossed, originally uploaded by The Badger Revolution.

Could she be reading a book of poetry? Or possibly the Neoliberal Poetry Broadside? You can find it here. Where I got mine I can't tell you. It slipped out of a pile of chapbooks I've been trying to organize and review the one's I can review so who knows where I got it. I was happy to find it though, if mildly irritated by a line or two. Mostly I was amused. Though it made me wonder whether it's "neoliberal poetry" that has been making me so cranky of late. Wading through a whack of poetry (reviews to come) I became very irritated. So much posturing and so little to say.
Here is the typical language of branding: “Here’s what it takes to be the CEO of Me, Inc. . . . the main chance is becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents, looking to have the best season you can imagine in your field, looking to do your best work & chalk up a remarkable track record, & looking to establish your own micro equivalent of the Nike swoosh.” Under neoliberalism, the contemporary poetry scene–especially the “innovative” scene – has succumbed to branding...
Though no branch of poetry is immune. The "I just write what I feel" school which is "tantamount to the quiver of a jellyfish-like sentimentality..." Yes, and no feeling at all...if a poem is going to feel, let it feel. I can take it. Make it intense. If it's going to be all cerebral go for it. Make it way out there. Make me have to spend a weekend reading... Is it wrong to want a poem to say something? "Which one of your little piggies will you chop off first," the pamphlet asks, "because there are just two positions in the neoliberal order:
Cynicism: the willingness to cut your feet to order
Infantilism: the happy-talk that blinds the other 4 piggies to their predicament
This is a broadside out of Brooklyn. A send up many things, the MFA grad scene, the way in which we talk about poetry, the earnest battle lines, the painful Q&As, the courtly aspects, the characters--Deconstruction Dick etc.

We do take ourselves seriously. More on this when I get to the larger questions lurking in the back of this pamphlet, and my irritation.

There is a pdf, or html version here.

Neoliberal Poetry, Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, Matthias Regan, Brooklyn March, 2007

Friday, November 28, 2008

Gary Barwin, a few words and a poem

LH: I've been following your blog on and off for a few years now. I'm very intrigued by the tooth and deer series, which for some reason I find as disturbing as it is compelling. Can you tell me where the idea for this came from?

GB: I’ve always had a fascination with deer, with teeth, and with antlers. In my walks through the woods of Hamilton, I frequently come across deer. There’s always the—what feels like—rare surprise of encountering a deer in my everyday life. The experience is typically fleeting, silent, and seems like an encounter with a parallel dimension. The deer exist predominantly in silence and invisibility between the trees of my world, hidden except when we come across each other at a gateway between my forest and theirs. I’m also aware that they appear to me as the flesh-and-blood analogues of images that I know from literature and song. It seems like antlers could sprout from anywhere. Teeth. Mailboxes. Toast.

Teeth aren’t surprising, but they also exist at a gateway. The gateway between some kind of unconscious experience, something on the edge of the psyche, and everyday life. They are also wonderfully absurd. When at the dentist, I always wondered, my mouth gurgling and full of instruments, the dentist picking at things and speaking a strange Dental Kaballah to the nurse, if the whole experience was not medical at all, but really a complex performance art piece performed at the expense of the patient/audience.

I’ve quite a few works exploring teeth as imagery. Teeth invoke speech, primal experiences of reality, childhood, and the oral, but are also like letters in an alphabet parallel to our own. Here’s a poem from my book, Raising Eyebrows, called “The Birth of Writing.” There’s a connection between teeth and the alphabet, between teeth and the keys of a typewriter, between teeth and childhood.

Somehow antlers and teeth seem to possess a similar literary weight for me. If one could construct a table like that of the periodic table, a table of weights and comparative properties on the subatomic level for images, they would be in the same family and share the same atomic weight or charge.

I don’t find the series to be disturbing, personally, though I can understand how it might be a bit, um, creepy, to some. I hope for it to be psychically and culturally rich in association and resonance.


LH: In a sense I think of this as nature poetry in the way that it makes us confront the human tendency to either graft whatever we find onto ourselves, or embed ourselves in whatever we see. The "deer and toothhead" for example. How do you see this work as relating to the larger Canadian strands of "nature poetry"?

GB: I’m glad that you make the connection with nature poetry. I do, too. I’ve been interested for a long time in how our experience of nature, indeed the whole notion of nature is mediated or constructed by language and by the arts. Our language, our culture, our image hoard developed from our relation to nature. ‘Light’ is nature. So is ‘dark.’ And, of course, on some basic level, our bodies are nature. The multidimensional spacetime of contemporary signification has rivers of Canadian nature poetry running through it, not to mention a cirrostratus layer of nature painting and music. In a way, I think all of our experience of nature is ‘post-natural,’ and so, while acknowledging this, and indeed relishing the iconography of toasters, dishtowels, and candy wrappers, I hope to reclaim some of the resonant authority of the world of runes, petroglyphs, and lichen, and explore how there is a green fuse of sorts running through our language, our experience, and the light switches of our consciousnesses.

LH: Equally compelling are the poems you have been posting with the visual poems. For example the poem "Inverting The Deer" (which appears at the end of this interview):
the deer of this earth have been doubly inverted
once, and their antlers point toward the centre

(the antlers of inverted deer point toward
the antlers of every other inverted deer)

once again, and their antlers point toward space
and later,
fish swim around the remembered hooves of deer
they understand
they understand
they know
These are funny, poignant poems. In Canada we don't seem able to appreciate humour in poetry. Do you feel you are in conversation with Canadian poets?

GB: Yes. I definitely feel a sense of conversation / dialogue. We have a brilliant tradition of “funny, poignant” in Canada. Stuart Ross and David McFadden come immediately to mind. But we have a wide range of other writers who use humour as a significant part of their work, for example, writers ranging from bpNichol, Kevin Connolly, Hugh Thomas, Frank Davey, to Christian Bok, Robert Kroetsch, Steve McCaffery, Anne Carson, and George Bowering, to list just a few.

I feel that Canadian writers and readers thinking about humour are in more direct conversation with Americans. Or rather the Canadians are in conversation with each other about those Americans. The writers I'm referring to here use humour to question the assumptions of the poetry itself, to bordercross, to investigate the construction of meaning and discourse. It isn’t diversion from 'important concerns' but is an intrinsic and significant part of their overall project.

I have the feeling that the ability to trust humour in poetry is a mark of a confident tradition and an unapologetically sophisticated literary culture. I’m really pleased to see the call for papers for an upcoming Open Letter on humour in experimental Canadian poetry. I think it’s an important beginning.

LH: That is good news about the Open Letter call. Thinking too about the relationship between tone and humour. We can have a lightness in verse, but it seems to need to be of a certain note.... You posted two versions of the "Tooth & Antler" image. One with stars and one without. I thought that the version with the stars revealed a slightly more earnest gesture. Is there one you prefer, and are these part of a larger project?



GB: The continuum from earnestness to irony is an important concern in my work. I imagine exploring ironic earnestness and earnest irony. I’m not entirely sure which image I prefer, though I tend towards minimalist, stripped-down images such as the one without the stars. Recently, I’ve been interested in exploring the complex meanings of apparently simple work. The “Tooth & Antler” images are part of a developing series of such images. For me, series develop haphazardly, organically, chaotically, like choosing a route across a highway busy with cars.

LH: "Molar + A + O" =?

GB: Molar + A + O = Three letters from a parallel alphabet. Three teeth from a parallel mouth. Three icons from a parallel culture.

LH: You teach high school I believe, and from what I can tell on your blog, you're very engaged in pedagogical questions as well as the world around you--recent references to Algonquin and outdoor education. Is there some strand of this thinking in your poetry as well? Do you introduce your students to this work? If so, how do they engage with it?

GB: Actually, I usually teach music in middle school. Primarily Grades Five and Six. However, as my school is from K to 12, I often have occasion to teach high school kids. The main interaction students have with my work is through my children’s writing, both picture books and YA novels. In fact, the Grade Sevens study a YA novel of mine for English. However, more generally, they know me as a writer and I provide lots of creative writing opportunities in my music classes. I do think that allowing creative exploration is important for kids. Too often they are shut down by the goal orientation of the curriculum and by some utilitarian notion of learning. I try to encourage and validate the creative imaginations of my students. I also try to lead by example. Many of my students seem to feel empowered by my appreciation of their flights of ‘wayward fancy’ and their humour. I try to engage with them as young creators or imaginators, not just as ‘students’.

*

In thinking about these questions, I came up with these brainstorming explanations:

ANTLERS

Antlers are diacritic, a growing, a branching, a choosing of routes. A fluorescence, or florescence, something dendritic. They are the potential of things externalized, a thought growing outward, reaching outward. The blooming of the sign, a crowning.

Humans, animals, letters are trees, antlers, are the fractal shapes of crystals, are signs, experiences, realities in flux.

And punctuation lives in quiet symbiosis around the walls of the castle of letters, the mystic serfs of the alphabet, sworn to silence, to breathing only.

TEETH

All these glyphs reveal a secret art, an alchemy outside the church of words. And a tooth is a new letter, an alternate sign, a resonant archetype from a parallel alphabet.

These images connect the tooth to the alphabet, an alphabet connected to the mouth, to the tongue, to the place where the sounds of consonants are formed. But yet the tooth is a letter, a sound, a meaning extracted from the mouth, fallen. It is a sign out of place, removed from the locus of signification, from the place of utterance. It becomes itself, its own talking head. It is a megalith, a dental henge, an inukshuk.

The mouth is an alphabet of teeth. The air is an alphabet of potential antlers.

LH: Do you know Tim Lilburn’s work? He has an ongoing and intense relationship to deer as well, and though it still falls in the rubric of the romantic poet, it’s nowhere near as romantic as someone like Mary Oliver; her much cited poem, “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957.” Here the deer “stumbles” against the poet who surmises that the deer is “busy with her own happiness…” I am deeply troubled by the representations of animals in contemporary poetry…it seems we have no ability to describe our relationship.

GB: Yes, I know Lilburn's work, though not well enough. Some of his work is wonderfully overgrown and brambly.

I am intrigued by how we represent animals and by extension, ourselves and our relationship to the things around us. In fact, representations of our representations of animals have occurred throughout my work; my first full collection was called “Cruelty to Fabulous Animals” (Moonstone Press). The magic thinking of traditional cultures is based on the idea that our relationship with the things around us is filled with the potential for fluidity and change, the transformation from human to animal, vice versa, and states, both physical and mental, in between, and how animals may talk or enter into non-hierarchical relation to humans in these tales. One day a ‘wild animal,’ one day a ‘talking animal’ in a fable, one day a coat. Of course, I’m also interested in how our notion of animals relates to the possibility that our shag carpeting may talk to us. Or that our appliances may look at us with the steady, gentle gaze of deer. I found a hunter squatting by the kitchen sink, eyeing my refrigerator greedily.

Is our relationship to animals hierarchical? Are we fellow travellers? Are we ought-to-be-humble pilgrims on a permanent pilgrimage through the sacred wilderness of the universe or are we at the top of food/value chain? Is it as we joke in my family when not feeding table our dog from the table, “Sorry Dude, better luck with evolution next time. We won.”?

In terms of value, I don’t think that the contemporary world, generally, has sorted out our relationship with animals, and with nature in general. We are nature but yet we’re not natural. Animals aren’t us but yet they may be us in our stories. Animals may be more closely connected to ‘nature,’ or they may be our belts. Or both.

LH: I wonder about the relationship of metaphor to eco-poetry. You mention that your students “seem to feel empowered by (your) appreciation of their flights of ‘wayward fancy.’” I’m wondering about imagination as a force of eco-poetics. We seem focused on “capturing” in some way the natural world before it becomes “unnatural.” Again, thinking of Canadian poets such as Don McKay and Jan Zwicky for example. Here we see metaphor as a kind of flight of fancy, but it seems to operate within a very specific, representative system...

GB: I see an analogy between how we think of ‘vision’ and how we represent our relationship with nature. Vision is a paradox. When we look, it’s not that our vision beams out at the world as if our eyes were headlights, but that light from the world enters into our eyes, though we tend to conceive of it otherwise. We have the same paradoxical relation with nature. We’re caught between imagining that we shape it with our vision (shining our conceptual light upon it) and having it shape our vision.

To go back to our discussion of deer, I think that when we see a real world ‘deer’, it is a sign, a signifier, and not the signified. When we look at nature, it is as if we are looking into a massive dictionary. Under ‘deer,’ there are many definitions, and its various meanings can be cited from contexts throughout history. We can’t look at a deer, or at anything at all, and see some objective and pure notion of that deer or that thing.

Just as ‘history teaches that history teaches,’ I feel that ‘writing represents that writing represents.’

I see the imagination not as shaping nature, or capturing it (or indeed as some kind of conceptual taxidermy, but rather, as being nature. The history of everything is the imaginative unfolding of the universe. Evolution is the brainstorming, the free writing of the natural world.

A few days ago, I was gardening at the end of my yard, when a bird flew onto my shoulder. We spoke about going green and about the environmental impact of each of our species. It was worried about its nest. We talked about our instincts and our interest in novelty and imagination. I talked about evolving a new language for my poetry. It spoke of becoming a new species. It gave me a gift of some feathers. I taught it how to create nouns. Then one of us flew away.

From Gary Barwin's blog serif of nottingblog "Inverting the Deer"

INVERTING THE DEER
for Craig Conley

1.

the deer of this earth have been doubly inverted
once, and their antlers point toward the centre

(the antlers of inverted deer point toward
the antlers of every other inverted deer)

once again, and their antlers point toward space

2.

do not touch deer
and you will not touch deer

do not walk on deer
and you will not walk on deer

do not mourn deer when you are dying
though their noses are against the glass

do not mourn deer when you are dying
though their minds are edgeless


3.

fish swim around the remembered hooves of deer
they understand
they understand
they know

4.

antlers grow toward deer
the deer which grow toward the ground

the wind rustles the hair of deer
the deer are a harp

5.

when the first trees
whose home was the water
whose home was the sky
began to die
the deer did not know what to do

and so, their smooth heads wrinkling
their hooves beating the water
their hooves beating the air
they ran through the world weeping

until they planted the branches
and ran over the world
trees growing like memories
from the tops of old televisions
from the tops of old brown heads

6.

there is only a single vast deer
and there is no longer sky

the deer has but one season
and the hunters wait for it

after a great while
they become trees
and bullets lose their green

night falls in the skyless rivers
& a deer’s breath warms the sky

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. His music and writing have been published and presented in Canada, the US, and overseas. He received a PhD in Music Composition and was the recipient of the KM Hunter Foundation Artist Award for his writing. Seeing Stars, a YA novel, was a finalist for both Canadian Library Association YA book of the year, and an Arthur Ellis Award. His poetry includes Outside the Hat and Raising Eyebrows (both Coach House) and, with derek beaulieu, frogments from the frag pool (Mercury) His fiction includes Doctor Weep and other strange teeth and Big Red Baby. The Briefcase Hand, a new poetry collection, is forthcoming from Coach House. Lives in Hamilton, Ontario and teaches music at Hillfield Strathallan College. He can be found at garybarwin.com and serifofnottingham.blogspot.com

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jason Dewinitz: Conversation ending with a poem

LH: Jason, thanks for agreeing to this little dialogue. I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed Greenboathouse, not only the beautiful chapbooks, but the website itself. There is a big gap in Canadian poetry now that your site is inactive. It was one of the few sites that one could click on and find consistently intriguing work and positive energy. I know you have your reasons for moving on from the web venture, but I wonder if you can comment on the experience of the web, internet publishing, and whether or not you see anything dynamic happening online now.

JD: When I started Greenboathouse Books I had absolutely no experience with publishing. In terms of production, for the most part I was simply hacking together things with paper and staples, embarrassing attempts that left me entirely unsatisfied. The web, on the other hand, was a relatively simple and inexpensive media to learn and utilize. Sitting in a quiet room and tinkering with code fit my temperament, and I found the maze of late-90s html intriguing.

I was also going through an intense feeding stage with Canadian writing and I just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. A shift seemed to be taking place then towards a more crafted, form-driven poetry, and yet it was simultaneously exploring content that I found far more interesting because it was working with a looser understanding of meaning and meaning creation. The poststructural notion of disparate reference systems was becoming ingrained in contemporary writing (whether the authors knew it or not), and these new webs of understanding were resulting in some very unconventional and often surprising work. This sort of stuff was ideal for the web, and from a purely means-of-production position, the web was where I was able to work at the time.

Thus, while producing the Greenboathouse Reading Series in Vernon every summer, I had a fairly steady flow of new writing coming my way in the form of visiting writer from across the country. I was also keen to look in on as many literary events as I could, and, at about the same time, I was also going to school, first in Victoria, then Edmonton, and then touring a book, so I was coming in contact with some very intriguing people cranking out really intriguing work.

The result of this was first the Greenboathouse Poetry Archive (on the website) – along with the evolving series of chapbooks from Greenboathouse Books – and eventually the Variant Project, which Aaron Peck and I came up with to see what a random group of writers might do with a single thematic referent. Again, the web was ideal for this project as the reader could jump from one poem to another, quickly, and explore a variety of investigations of a given topic, which is what the web is all about.

All of this was a lot of fun, and I was also working freelance designing websites for a variety of clients, so, again, from a Marxist point of view, the economics of working as a freelance designer was keeping me involved with the web, and thus at least some of my creative energies were thriving there.

During this time, however, I was also falling in love with fine-press books, and I began to realize that this was the direction I wanted to move in, and away from the web. The reading series and the website did, it seems, serve a sort of community purpose, and I’m glad they’ve done so, but after half a decade, these projects were becoming repetitive from a personal-creative position, and thus were no longer challenging me.

I realized that it was time for a fairly significant change. My book design interests were beginning to take solid shape, and thus the activity of the Greenboathouse website began to slow. I have no regrets about this, because around the same time all kinds of other, similar things were popping up. The blogging world was beginning to take off, with BookNinja, Lemon Hound, Poetics.ca, and dozens of other contemporary lit sites popping up, offering a more interactive environment to look at new writing; each of these has taken on-line Canadian poetics much further than the Greenboathouse site ever did, and it’s great to see these sites cranking out the discussion. Facebook has allowed for the creation of book clubs and small-press publishing groups, and all of this is creating a new literary community that, ironically, I find myself shying away from more and more.

LH: Greenboathouse won several design awards, not surprisingly. One of which I believe was for a chapbook of mine in fact. Or, rather a chapbook that contained my work because clearly the artifact was your brainchild. If I recall, the dialogue around that chapbook went on for a year or so, with several intricate proofs following discussions on design etc. I mention this because clearly you have a sense of work ethic combined with an intense perfectionism. Can you comment on how difficult that process is to maintain, and how you think chapbooks of this quality fair in the publishing world.

JD: Again, as above, I’m not particularly concerned with how the books fair in the publishing world. In fact, the publishing world is a rather disparaging place, and, frankly, I don’t really want much to do with it. Which isn’t to say there aren’t folks out there hammering away with very good intentions, but that the economics of publishing make it nearly impossible to maintain any kind of good intention. Most of the books we read in Canada – that is, the objects we hold in our hands – can hardly be called books. They’re usually cranked out by someone in-house who has little or no design or typographic background, and everything is deadline-based and economics-ruled. Publishing is a business, after all.

That said, there are a handful of publishers working hard to push back. Gaspereau has been very successful at combining quality writing with quality book production, Coach House and Anansi still put out a nice book (although not the books they each once made), Pedlar is doing very nice work, Nightwood (with Carleton Wilson’s help) have put out some solid books, and Jay Millar (Book Thug) has taken the leap from micro-press to trade. But, for the most part, the technical and economic realities of trade publishing are just too demanding to do anything all that interesting. I don’t mean this to sound like a complaint, it’s just the way it is. If you want books in as many hands as possible, to get the work out there, it becomes about money, and, to my mind, money is antithetical to quality when it comes to books.

To actually answer the question, though, the print runs have always been small with Greenboathouse titles, and thus most of the books are sold before the project is even released. Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but they move – mainly, I think, to folks who have picked up our books before, or have heard about them from friends. I’m not all that keen on promoting, or selling for that matter. I end up giving half of the books away. Once I’m finished making a run, my main interest is the next project, so what happens to those already made is relatively incidental. This might sound like I don’t care if anyone reads the books, which isn’t the case at all. As I said, they sell and are given away, and I like to think (guided by feedback) that the people who wind up with them take them as a breath of fresh air. They’ve been small, humble, but nurtured slowly and with care, and I do hope they feel good in the hand while being enjoyed for what the writers have put up for offer.

As for maintaining a combined productive urge and a slowing perfectionism, the two seem to maintain each other. Every book is a challenge, and, honestly, I usually have no idea what the thing will become. If I did, I wouldn’t bother. It’s the mild panic with each project that I enjoy, the risks, the potential blunders, and the crisp moment when it comes together. It’s very similar to writing, I suppose, but lately I’m enjoying this more than writing. Perfectionism certainly doesn’t have a lot to do with it: there’s no such thing, of course, but I do suppose I try to find the right way to get something done. Of course, the challenge and risk has recently been taken up about 100 notches with the shift to hand-set letterpress production. Which leads to your next question.

LH: You are moving on to bigger and better things. Will we see a resurgence of your online presence in tandum with your new venture?

JD: There’s a new site developed, almost finished actually (to be launched early in the new year), but it won’t involve much in terms of on-line publishing. The site is massively expanded, but focused far more on the fine-press world: plenty of information about letterpress printing, a growing photo gallery documenting the setting-up of the print shop, type specimens of all of the metal faces in the cabinets, etc., etc. But between teaching, freelancing, and production, I just don’t have the time anymore to keep an ongoing web project running. Reading on the web has never been something I’ve enjoyed anyway; like most, I think, I want something made of paper in my hands if I’m going to sit back to read.

LH: In terms of your own sense of poetics, I notice that you are a poet not engaged in a specific school of thought, but rather a ranging attention to aesthetic and intelligent inquiry. Do you see a place where this kind of discussion about poetry is fostered in Canada?

JD: Interesting phrase: “where this kind of discussion about poetry is fostered…” As though such a discussion requires “fostering.” Hmm. Anyway. Where do I see such discussion taking place? Your site, of course. Actual conversations with other writers, one on one. I don’t really know what’s going on in the academic or lit. scenes these days; I gave most of that up after my MA. I’d had enough. Enough of talking about things. Makes me think of that Pound quote: “What is the use of talking! / And there is no end of talking— / there is no end of things in the heart.” I love the double take on that, but, for the most part, I prefer the angle that speaks to the uselessness of talking (yeesh). Barry McKinnon had this great book in the 70s called I Wanted to Say Something, and in college I wrote a paper on it called “I Wanted to Say Nothing.” While I suppose I might still be called a writer, I’m drawn more and more to this idea of saying nothing. Who the hell am I to say much of anything? And, for better or worse (most likely for the worse), I find myself less and less interested in what any particular “scene” has to say. It’s mainly self-aggrandizing and/or bitching about other camps anyway. Blah, blah, blah.

LH: You recently began teaching at the Okanagan College. I love your pedagogical statement. Particularly the idea of "finding a balance between various literary conventions (including the mechanics and structure of writing) and a critical approach largely rooted in hermeneutics." Looking back at my own experience in creative writing classes I realize that no one was talking about poetry as a way of engaging intellectually, or as a continuation of reading and thinking. To think of craft, for example, or voice, as the crux of a poetic journey, seems stilted. Is your pedagogical position based on your experience in the classroom, or in your own thinking/working and community thinking?

JD: Again, this is somewhat personal and biased, but I find myself really quite uninterested in what an author is attempting to do, because quite often when I ask authors about their work, they clearly weren’t aware of half of what they were doing anyway. The text is the thing, right? And I appreciate it and am fascinated by it for what it is: a strange matrix of letterforms on a page that construct a certain kind of meaning one moment to one person, and something quite different in and to the next. The poststructural slate-cleaning struck me as a wonderful kind of freedom (although I’ve seen it cause some pretty serious panic in others), because it helped to kick ego a bit further down the hole. If there’s no truth, there’s no need to seek it, and there’s certainly no reason to inflict it on others, whether it’s “the” truth or some kind of misguided “personal” truth. And so, I’ve become more and more interested in how meaning is created, rather than whatever the particular meaning might be. This, of course, also feeds my interest in typography, and it certainly guides my pedagogical approach, not only in teaching English, but also creative writing and design.

LH: The question of poetic camps keeps coming up in various ways for me these days. For my own part, I have never been able to be part of a school of anything, or a posse of anything. Nor could I figure out why one might want to secure oneself to one way of thinking about, or approaching poetry, or anything for that matter. Recently it occurs to me that one reason might simply be a matter of having support for one's opinions, a constant stream of reassurance that one is on the right track (or helpful nudging of one along a particular track). Tempting as that is, I prefer to set my own course, and I refuse to choose sides in these poetry wars (to the extent that one can *not* choose sides...). I sense you have a similar experience and wonder if refusing the dominant discourse of one's time necessarily makes one prone to being a loner, or an outsider, and if so, whether this is a positive experience.

JD: I’m right with you on this (which is a bit funny, given the topic). The thing is, I killed myself from 17 to my mid-20s trying to figure something out, and by my mid-20s it became fairly clear that there was no figuring it out. It’s all a big shit-show, really, and, to me, when writing becomes an attempt to edify a reader, I get queasy. Scenes do the same thing, or try to. They have a tendency to become agenda driven, and perhaps that is, as you suggest, simply about validation. But validation is all ego, just ego in disguise. Most of the ‘scenes’ I’ve come across have something they want to privilege, hence the group formation to champion a given cause, and in turn to pump up one’s own sense of worth. But isn’t the point to both recognize that all causes are groundless, and to move towards a cause-less exploration? What kind of exploration can there be if it’s limited by a cause? There’s so bloody much I don’t know, and this enormous gap will, I know, keep me busy, too busy to sit in one camp shouting slogans. And so one whittles it down, I suppose, and focuses on the things that provide a sense of personal challenge and reward. And then it’s time to move on.

For my part, this movement has led more and more to a pursuit of something really quite ridiculous: setting metal type by hand, one letter at a time. A good lamp, the CBC, and a few hours of this and I’m really quite happy. Kevin (McPherson) comes by sometimes, and we talk about type and books and other things, and we work while we talk, and it is in the doing that we connect. But, for the most part, I’m less and less inclined towards group activities these days.

So, to answer your question (finally), I have no idea if being a loner is necessary to resisting a common (that is, bland, widely-held – I’m not big on the notion of ‘dominant’) discourse, but it probably helps. I just can’t seem to shake the idea I’ve had since I was 15 that if lots of folks dig it, it must be crap. And that goes for literary trends and movements too.

LH: Is there someone you are reading right now that is exciting you? And on the matter of reading, how do you approach that as a writer? I'm thinking of the tendency toward intertextual readings. Who we read simultaneously can have such an impact on our reading and writing.

JD: For the last couple of years I’ve been reading non-fiction almost exclusively, in particular books on books, typography, the history of printing, etc. This has turned into a bit of a fixation, scouring ABE for rare titles and staying up late reading pages that stink of dust and damp. Such books, however, wouldn’t make for interesting discussion here, but I’ll mention that I’ve been especially drawn to books on Nicholas Jenson and the early Venetian printers of the 15th century. Aside from this stuff, I’m reading bits & pieces here and there: things that come into Greenboathouse (including recent manuscripts from Jan Zwicky & Robert Bringhurst), other things I find at used stores, chapbooks from a variety of very small fine presses, etc. I can’t remember the last time I read a book of poetry or fiction from start to finish, but I tend to have a half dozen books on the go at any given moment. At the moment I’m reading 3 different translations of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, as I’m planning to print an edition in a couple of years. It was a pivotal book for me in my late teens, inflicting considerable psychological damage, but I’m wrapped up in the idea of setting it by hand, perhaps as a way of exorcising it. I don’t know if this speaks to your comment regarding intertexual readings, but this mixture fits with my temperament, in that I tend to have a lot on the go most of the time, and mixing texts this way both informs and inscribes each page I’m looking at, just as my various activities do the same. I suppose one could make some sort of comment about multiplicity or juxtaposition or the always shifting poststructural matrix of language and meaning, but at the end of the day it just makes for a more interesting experience while breathing.

LH: Is it possible to end this interview with a poem from you?

Maybe
Perhaps it’s better that your night vision is getting worse;
that you can’t tell if the road is giving way to a slow decline
or leading you to the edge of a cliff.

Perhaps the deer you see at the last second as the car passes
had meant to conceal themselves; not interested in
your prying glance, your inflicted romanticism.

Perhaps the moon, distracting you repeatedly
thinking it an oncoming car – one headlight burnt out,
the other cracked – is trying to tell you something.

The twist in your stomach is not from the coffee after dinner,
the rush to get back to Sundre before
1am, the flashing signs
warning of animal crossings up the 22 past
Cremona.

It is not that you can’t see where you’re going.
That uncertainties threaten disaster. It is not that an animal
might lift its head, turn to your rushing headlong, and devour you.

Maybe it’s that you are returning,
again, to what you’d thought, at last,
you’d left for good and all.




Jason Dewinetz is a writer, publisher, graphic designer & typographer originally from, and now living back in the Okanagan Valley. The author of The Gift of a Good Knife (Outlaw Editions), In Theory (above/ground press), and moving to the clear (NeWest Press), Jason's poetry and fiction have appeared in literary anthologies & journals across Canada including Grain, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, The Pottersfield Portfolio and Descant.

With Michael O'Driscoll he is also the co-author of A Bibliography of the Black Sparrow Press Archive, a detailed catalogue of the University of Alberta's collection of the Black Sparrow Press' first 94 publications.


A past instructor at the University of Victoria (Publication Design), and currently at Okanagan College (English/Creative Writing/Publication Design), Jason is also the founding editor, publisher & designer of Greenboathouse Press, a small letterpress shop publishing limited edition chapbooks by writers from across Canada. Jason's design for Greenboathouse has brought in multiple consecutive Alcuin Award for Excellence in Book Design in Canada, and in 2008 he served as one of three judges for this national competition.