Monday, September 01, 2014

Phil Hall, The Small Nouns Crying Faith

96 pages, isbn 978-1-927040-58-4, $20
Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013

Through nearly a dozen trade poetry collections, Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s poems have the durability and devastation of koans, and the envy of poets who encounter them. Much like the books that preceded it, his eleventh trade poetry collection, The Small Nouns Crying Faith (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), is deeply immersed in the world and history, yet contained by neither. The Small Nouns Crying Faith borrows its title from the poem “Psalm” by George Oppen, himself known as a “poet of attentiveness,” a quality easily attributed to the more than three decades of Hall’s work. Oppen’s small poem, originally published as part of the collection This in Which (1965), opens with “In the small beauty of the forest / The wild deer bedding down— / That they are there!” with the fifth and final stanza, that reads: “The small nouns / Crying faith / In this in which the wild deer / Startle, and stare out.” Reading Oppen and Hall side by side, the comparisons run deep—Hall composes poems from his Ontario landscape, shades of his darker past, notes on his literary forebears (whom he refers to as his “heroes”), numerous artifacts, and could just as easily reference, at any point, the importance of pausing to listen for deer.


  Our expedition followed her cold-tea stare

to chunks of boiled turnip wrapped in waxed paper in a lunch pail
  near camp that first night the shortest verse in the Bible

was recorded as her only expletive


  Hectares from where her breast had proffered the warmed bottle
was found a cigarette rolling-machine wrapped in a clown costume


  On our last out-bound day we came upon Royal Family clippings

attached to corn-stalks by bobby-pins   all these items (photos/articles)
  we harvested & catalogued   except the pins (rusted/discarded)   note

little brown saw-marks in the corners of the stiff ceremonies


  From Gab’s-Gift-Unsubstantiated
to Skugog Island an au pair

Phil Hall has long been a poet of deep attention, compiling and collecting into an accumulation of poems that speak of artifacts and smallness, and a humanity rarely lived and articulated so well in Canadian poetry. This is his first trade collection since he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Award, aswell as being shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, for Kildeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), a collection of self-described “essay-poems,” published as part of BookThug’s “Department of Critical Thought.” Hall’s latest collection of what have evolved into “essay-poems” continue to practice a folk-local, examining the small, local and deeply specific, composing striking lines and phrases that accumulate into individual pieces, as well as sections of a far-broader canvas. Somehow, his lines manage to self-contain in such a way that even a shift in the order might still make the entire collection no less capable, breathtaking and wise. As he writes in the poem “Plum Hollow”: “The failure of order is the work / disorder is not the work.” The collection also includes a small pamphlet-as-insert, “Faith,” a poem-sequence composed up of words and phrases plucked from the book as a whole, selected and rearranged to reveal both something new, and something about the entire project.

  I would celebrate every detail

now I have changed my thinking on that

  no such thing as not being at sea
the alphabet does not end or begin

  wild yet   this inextricable quickening

During the Ottawa book launch of The Small Nouns Crying Faith on June 2, 2013 as part of the AB Series, Hall suggested thatbeing left-handed, it was easier for him to read from the collection from back to front. There is such a great comfort to the work in The Small Nouns Crying Faith, one that knows the important answers might only emerge from important questions, and the level of self-awareness and self-questioning is remarkably rare and deep. If a pen falls in a forest, might anybody hear?

  They hate me in that province to this day

& I them without reason
  once years ago I was judge for a book award

& didn’t pick the friend-to-all who was dying

  it would have been right to give the prize
to that last-effort by that decent man

  but in those days I was all about the work
the work

  which is not a sacred thing   which is not even a thing

but the tracings of a social pact    almost accidental
  always incidental

grudges age backwards   elixir to plonk

  our vowels are slackened
& the folios unaligned
                                    (“The Small Nouns Crying Faith”)

A version of the second of the book’s five sections, “A Rural Pen,”appeared as a limited-edition chapbook with Cameron Anstee’s Apt 9 Press in 2013, a series of (as the author self-described in his acknowledgements) “hacked scrawls,” lifting its title from William Blake to write short and quick meditations with fireworks-momentum. What is continually astounding about Hall’s writing, via his last few poetry collections, is in the series of shifts, whether gradual or sudden, that bolt through the poems. Move your way backwards through his work to the award-winning Killdeer (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2011), to TheLittle Seamstress (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2010) to White Porcupine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007) and everything that came previous, and you will begin to understand the differences in tone, mood and question. Urban explorations and a dark rural history have shifted entirely to an ease and sense of peace in a country setting, sketching poems and fences and birds. His recent collections have continued his interest in exploring and questioning through collaged-fragments of turned and twisted phrases, composed as poem-essays, but more recently the poems have shifted into poem-essays that explore the purpose, means and goals of the writing itself. Precision is an essential quality to Hall’s poetry, even as it discusses the impossibilities of such precision. The poems question, respond, reiterate and shift, as the hand that scrapes the rural pen moves throughout the world, working to ask exactly what the meaning precisely means, and if that is even possible.

  It can’t be October

in the stove I burn old New Yorkers
  (but always save the William Steig covers)

lake light quavers
  leaning as it again mulls over
the smoke-darkened Rene de Braux painting

  Chris benisoned walls with / now I get to
a man / a cattle-gad on each shoulder
  half-way / no hurry / a Roman bridge
(double arches / quick weed-hints)

  a stuccoed villa set in along a hillside
Ann has taken the Wolf River apples down to Margaret 92
  mornings I try to read page-shaped ash

a quote my fire preserves all night
  from columns it has only one use for now

riven by passion, not profit. We contin

Hall’s isn’t a poetry carved into perfect diamond form, but a poetry whittled from scores of found material to be arranged, pulled apart and rearranged. The poems are important for what they know, what they ask and reveal, and they might tell you, if you know to listen.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

STANZAS magazine + Missing Jacket magazine: some above/ground press bibliographies

Lately I've been digging through boxes around our little house, given that the scattering of some twenty-plus years of activity are in the same location for the first time, and I've been discovering an enormous amount of material I simply forgot about. Part of this digging around prompted me to post a bibliography of two of the journals above/ground press has produced over the years: STANZAS magazine (forty-five issues between 1993 and 2006) and Missing Jacket: writing & visual art (five issues between 1996 and 1997). Not that much earlier, I posted a bibliography of the above/ground press "poem" handout as well, and one for The Peter F. Yacht Club; its slightly out-of-date, but an updated version of such exists in my new Notes and Dispatches: Essays (2014). Perhaps I should keep digging around, and possibly work on bibliographies for drop magazine, and various of the other odds and sods I've been involved in over the years...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Little Red Leaves Textile Series: Beverly Dahlen + Sara Lefsyk

One of my favourite American chapbook presses, Little Red Leaves Textile Editions are edited, designed and sewn by Houston, Texas poet Dawn Pendergast, with the covers for each title produced by materials found from a variety of sources. Over the past couple of years, I’ve written about her chapbooks here, among other posts. I keep hoping she might even answer the small press ’12 or 20 questions’ questionnaire at some point, possibly. First off: I like very much how the poem/chapbook of The Rose: A Poem by Beverly Dahlen (2013) is slowly pulled and stretched apart:

death rose

                        immortal rose

mortal rose

the stink of dying roses    black at the heart

hedged  edged  etched  each petal browning

failing   falling

                                    the invisible worm

San Francisco poet Beverly Dahlen’s second Little Red Leaves title—after A Reading: Birds (2011)—is, according to the website, “dedicated to Jay Defeo’s 2000 lb work with the same name.” The reference intrigues, and the internet explains that the late San Francisco visual artist Mary Joan Jay DeFeo (March 31, 1929 - November 11, 1989) was considered to be part of the Beat Generation, and “The Rose” (1958-66) is considered “her most well-known painting,” and one that “took almost eight years to complete and weighs more than one tonne.” Part of DeFeo’s piece is replicated on the cover of Dahlen’s small chapbook. Given the weight of the piece, the lightness of Dahlen’s poem is even more remarkable, able to articulate something of Defeo’s painting, writing “ghastly / ghostly / acid light,” to “sacred [sacrificial] star / dark star / im / ploded [.]” Furthering Dahlen’s ongoing series of response texts, “A Reading,” into the realm of responding to visual arts, I would be curious to hear some of the author’s thoughts on composing such a piece, if she would consider such a straight response, or something even akin to translation.

I TOLD THIS SMALL MAN: if I had a mule, a parachute and long flowing locks, I would jump out of this plane, put you in my shopping cart and push you clean to Brazil where we would change our names, cut our hair and join the local militia. After that, we would lead a small army of chickens to the sea and, after many days of floating, I would catch a small fish and name it Pavlov. Then, we would all jump into the sea and swim until we reached the large island of Europe, where we would start a mariachi band with my birth family and yours and the sun would set and we would all drink sugar water and go to sleep beneath a large curtain of black air.

Boulder, Colorado writer Sara Lefsyk’s second chapbook, after the christ hairnet fish library (Dancing Girl Press, 2013) is the utterly charming A SMALL MAN LOOKED AT ME (2014). Composed as a sequence of short prose sections, the design allows each paragraph/stanza to wrap over to the subsequent page, allowing for something far more compelling than had everything been standardized. It allows an interesting take on the prose, suggesting a more organic and linked progression from section to section. An imagistic sequence of self-contained pieces, each prose-section works to accumulate slowly into the realm of extremely short novella, heading towards a subtle and soft denouement. Where is this short work heading, exactly?

Friday, August 29, 2014

new from above/ground press: Weaver, Kaminski + mclennan,

Andy Weaver
for more information, click here

Megan Kaminski
Wintering Prairie
for more information, click here

How the alphabet was made,
[an instructional]
rob mclennan
for more information, click here 
produced, in part, as a handout for Philalalia: the three-day book and art fair, September 25-27, Philadelphia PA

keep an eye on the above/ground press blog for author interviews, new writing, reviews, upcoming readings and tons of other material;

published in Ottawa by above/ground press
August 2014

a/g subscribers receive a complimentary copy of each

To order, send cheques (add $1 for postage; outside Canada, add $2) to: rob mclennan, 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa ON K1H 7M9 or paypal (above). Scroll down here to see various backlist titles (many, many things are still in print).

Review copies of any title (while supplies last) also available, upon request.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Amy Lawless

Amy Lawless is the author of two collections of poems, most recently My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013).  An audio chapbook, from BROADAX is just out from Black Cake Records.  Some prose has recently appeared in Poor Claudia's Ten Sources and Literary Mothers. She grew up in Boston, and lives in Manhattan where she teaches writing.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I always like my own newest work better than my older work. My most recent work and manuscript causes more agony, more than ever before, because it is more personal. This manuscript, BROADAX, is killing me.  My last book, My Dead, brought up sad feelings when I wrote it, but I felt invigorated by the process of writing it and its concerns. Its arrival and existence as an object in the world was a symbol for my own continued living and survival, its author.  This new work is eating me, and it tastes like me.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My personal journey is not unique. My lovely mother encouraged my writing when I was a girl and read poems aloud to me from an anthology of poems geared toward the youth.  I write prose as well, but writing prose requires the kind of patience that I associate with the superhuman.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I take notes on trains and during conversations with friends and people I meet.  These notes usually remain as notes. 

I write a lot because it staves off feelings of dying and loneliness. Things happen extremely quickly, tumultuously, emotionally, and aggressively. Then nothing happens.  Then something happens. Then, if I’m lucky, I will allow time to pass and the document is again opened and investigated and altered. My editing process consists of grumpiness, anger, indecision, laziness, avoidance, staring off into space nowhere near my manuscript, going to the beach, followed by a few adult decisions. Then disgust.  Then mute adoration. The more I spend on a piece of writing, the better.  That is all.  I have written many poems that do not fit into manuscripts. 

I think it depends on the project.  My Dead took like three years.  My new manuscript took about fourteen or sixteen months, or many years as it is on certain pages about being the little girl Amy Lawless who I used to be and sometimes still am.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I have no idea where it begins. I am not a neurologist or a deity or a mind scientist. However, once some poems exist in a document using a copy/paste function in Microsoft Word, I call the document a name or will think that the poems are in the same family as one another.  Suddenly it will be 80 pages and live as an untamed family of children who want what they want, and one must feed them. One’s time is no longer one’s own.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love attention and find it hard to say no to opportunities to stand in front of an audience who will listen to my words. I don’t think that they are part of my creative process as much as part of the role of poet/writer that I am living in New York City and the United States. It is a chance to share my work, and I like sharing my work because I live in the world and I am not writing for myself. I need to intersect with others, but as a poet there are other ways to do that: friendships with poets. I have many of those.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am really interested in myself (there-I said it). Concerns at present include but are not limited to the following questions: What is the point? How can I be a good person? What’s funny? What is death? Why is it so hard to be a person? Why is it so alienating? How do I reconcile the weird things that I experienced as a child with the present person that I am today? What’s the deal with sibling rivalry? What kinds of violence (social, physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.) do people inflict upon one another? How do myths and media and tales intersect with history (both personal and geographical) in a meaningful way? How can the stories drawn from my own phenomenological experiences of being a woman and its shaming be included in my poems in a way that is not the same ol’ way? What does it mean to be a poet?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is not limited.  There is room for everyone at this sick party.  However, not all of these roles are interesting to me.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I am in some ways an extremely disciplined writer and in other ways I am not—that’s how it is with Amy Lawless. So, I have found it helpful to work with really brilliant editors.  I think every writer is different, but given the fact that writing is a form of communication, it is extremely helpful to have at least one other person intersect with one’s work at some pre-publication stage in order to experience a person human’s reaction and poetic and editorial expertise to one’s words. If your deodorant doesn’t work you need someone to tell you or you’ll keep smelling for a long time.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t be an asshole.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Often I like to write in a way in which my intended meaning remains intact.  And more often than not, my poems are written in a form that does not verbally obfuscate; therefore, the transition itself is not challenging.  It is guileless in that sense, and it is possible to obfuscate in other ways like with the description of complicated ideas and images.  An appeal of writing critical prose is to be part of the rich conversation about poetry and writing.  It’s also possible to wage war on the conversation in one’s own poems.  There are always new things to write about.  I just need more time during which to do so, and that is in no way unique to my experience as a writer. One sometimes can be strangled by the time spent working in order to pay rent.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day begins in bed.  First, I wake up. I will leave my bed and start to think about coffee. I build in energy. If I write prose, I must begin in the morning and I work three hours.  When I write poems, I am unable to dictate how and when I will begin work. I need to be doing something at all times or I fall asleep from boredom. I write on subways, offices, home, couches, bed, on my phone walking down the sidewalk. I do many things that are not categorized as ‘writing.’  I find when my physical setting shifts to a trusted and familiar place, I am often overwhelmed with memories or ideas.  When I occasionally visit my parents in Boston, I can write a great deal and sleep a great deal due to the womb-like safety feelings that accompany being in my childhood home. I find that Sundays are great for writing as I am not concerned with obligations or a schedule.  I teach at two colleges so I must either teach each day, or at least have it in my mind that I must read or grade something. Over a few years, I have attempted to train my mind to ease and relax regardless of my schedule in order to open up to the idea of being receptive to writing words at the end of a day – if not to actually write.  However, this whole paragraph is kind of bullshit—when ideas come they flood and receptivity is just a mindset.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I just live my life.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Christmas tree.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The poem “Elephants in Mourning,” which appeared in My Dead sourced National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the film Dude Where’s My Car?, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Chandra Levy’s body in the news in my memory, my uncle’s coffin, and three deaths.  I am often secretly and not secretly an ekphrastic poet. Recently I wrote an ekphrastic poem while watching the film Dazed and Confused.  Life is a source.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Unfortunately, I can’t find it within myself this morning to make a list of all my friends and all the books I’ve read that live in my mind—there are so many! A cognitive mapping of that sort would have such a wide emotional and creatively sweat-inducing breadth it would completely spend me and some names would be left off accidentally and that would lead to emotional distress.  I assure you I have friends whose work I love and am inspired by and I also read diversely throughout history to the present moment and the internet, both prose and poetry, criticism and philosophy, and I am also inspired by non-writers and their friendships and conversations both virtual and in person.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to write a book of essays.  Someday I will write a memoir. But more than either of those things I would like to fall in love.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I enjoy the water, so something involving that.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There was something to be expressed, so I tried it.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti.  

Film:  I tend to return to the same films over and over again. Yesterday I re-watched Idiocracy.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I just kind of finished writing my latest manuscript of poems, BROADAX.  An audio chapbook from it was just released from Black Cake Records and you can listen to it on Bandcamp.  Go to to listen to it.  I had so much fun working with Kelly Schirmann on the recording of it.  Black Cake is everything.  I’m also working on an essay about The Incredible Hulk.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

6x6 #30 : Words


Right after the birth of our red baby we shared a room with another couple & their blue baby. What’s her name, they asked. Rosy, I said, what about yours? This is baby Dusky, they said, like the sun going down. The world was generous that day; we all took turns holding Dusky & Rosy & watched through the doorway as green or orange or more red babies went by, swaddled in white hospital towels. When do they lose their color, I asked a nurse. After forty-eight hours, normally, she said, except for the blue ones, of course. (Jon Boisvert)

The poetry journal 6x6, produced by Brooklyn, New York’s Ugly Duckling Presse, as usual, showcases the work of six poets (none of whom I’ve previously heard of), with this new issue (#30, Summer 2014) featuring the work of Ana Martins Marques, Jon Boisvert, Jeffrey Joe Nelson, Anzhelina Polonskaya, Denise Newman and Hirato Renkichi (translated from the Japanese by Sho Sugita). Absent of author biographies (which I always consider frustrating), one works through the issue by virtue of the writing alone (which might entirely be their point), and I was immediately struck by the subversive, surreal and downright odd prose-pieces by Jon Boisvert, and his pieces in this issue are reminiscent of poems by Canadian poets Stuart Ross and Gary Barwin for their twists and turns in and out of surrealism and strange wisdom. His small handful of poems included here delight, confound, confuse and are even slightly troubling. Where, exactly, did Jon Boisvert come from?


The cows have all died in their field & now the dogs are herding the sunset. The corn is pondering graduate school. The farmer says through his tears, let’s hold a vigil, light candles & write poetry for the cows everyone, let’s hold hands around a burning bale of hay & praise the order of the world for once. (Jon Boisvert)

Another highlight of the issue was in the small poems of Denise Newman, each composed as a single, explored moment, akin to the breath held before a blow.

Take up thin sticks and sit pressed together
picking grains of sand from a crevice of a boulder
with a little girl whose head down total
absorption is an image of grass growing.
The satisfaction of watching her
is the seduction of film.