Friday, October 31, 2003

“yes, i HAVE published a lot of stuff: a dozen reasons why i will not apologize” — a schizophrenic text for a talk i will probably not follow

The first thing to say, is that I didn’t come up with the title, but don’t mind using it as a loose guide. When Jay MillAr first approached me to do this talk, with the suggested title, I realized that merely by him asking, I had already won my argument. Not that there was really an argument to be made, this is simply how I work, & will continue to work. I feel no pressure to change speed, really, & for the most part, let the work itself govern where it will go next. I refuse to apologize for any of it, but don’t mind speaking as apologist, in the classical sense. (An idea I have always liked. In titling his selected poems, Apology for Absence, John Newlove wasn’t telling you he was sorry for being gone, he was telling you were he was.)

Having said that, I have published a lot over the past few years, with eight trade collections of poetry since 1998 (& another forthcoming), & over fifty poetry chapbooks since 1992, with various book-length poetry manuscripts finished, another half dozen in various parts of beginning & completion, & a multitude of other projects. I’ve edited six anthologies of writing since Written in the Skin appeared with Insomniac Press in 1998, & written hundreds of book reviews for various weeklies, dailies, journals, etcetera, since 1993. After seven years of work, I finished a novel two years ago, & have since started three others. The first has been returned by publishers so many times, that I don’t even bother with it anymore. (They say you’re supposed to abandon your first novel anyway, so it feels less awful, knowing I’m simply following a long & established tradition.) I’ve started various collaborations with photographers, visual artists & other writers, am working on two separate collections of essays, & a collection of interviews with Canadian poets. After years of chapbooks, & subsequent books, I can only think in the format of the whole book as a unit of composition. There haven’t been occasional poems for years & years & years. Occasional poems become occasional manuscripts. & lately, I’ve begun two different works that might be up to four full books each. The further I work, the more complex my constructions become. The multiple book as unit of composition.

Since 1991, I’ve forced myself to write almost every day, finding a schedule by 1993 or so that had me writing six days a week, at least five hours a day. For a few years, I would write my poetry & reviews during the day, & then retire to the pub in the evenings, where I would work on my fiction. Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell once suggested that simply due to the time we individually allow ourselves to write, he & I are forced to be different writers. For him, with a poem every few weeks if he’s lucky, the individual poem becomes the thing, the important unit, with the book as a whole becoming mine. Even poet George Murray, who has given me grief over the years for what he thinks is my publishing “too much,” presuming I put to print everything I write, says in the long run, I’ll be known more for books than for individual pieces.

Not just working in the literary, over the past eight years I’ve been working on a genealogical project; in 1995, starting to update a long-ignored family history my late great aunt Belle had done on the McLennans in the late 1960s & early 70s. Going through what she had, & doing my own research, I found a third of her information wrong, & a generation she didn’t know about. After a few years working on the project, still stuck on the book as the unit, I decided to expand my research to include every single McLennan & MacLennan throughout Glengarry & Stormont Counties, going back to 1770. With the history of my area producing numerous books of the same — McLeod, Campbell, McDonald, McRae — it only made sense to me. & I like having a non-literary project I can completely obsess upon, for a few weeks at a time, a couple of times a year. With my travel for reading tours, I’ve been able to do research in Toronto & Regina, finding out more & more detail of what had come before me. Currently I’m reading up on early Ontario history, of the “indian wars” that preceded the Scottish immigration to Glengarry County that happened from 1770 to 1820. Someday my research might even produce a book of non-fiction on Glengarry County, once the genealogy is complete. I don’t imagine it being anywhere close to complete for another ten or fifteen years, at least. Still in the mid-1800s, I’ve found at least 45 unrelated McLennan families (apart from eventual intermarriages). Luckily, I’m in no real hurry (although sometimes I am).

I multi-task rather well, depending on what kind of week I’m having. Every so often, I do have to pull back from a multitude of projects when they start to overwhelm, to focus back upon only a couple. Two weeks doing nothing else (writing-wise) but work on my piece on jwcurry for Open Letter, for example. The sort of thing I really needed to wrap my whole head around. Or, whenever I’m working on fiction, able to do almost nothing else. I usually get a few weeks of that before something else happens, whether a weekend jaunt to Toronto or Montreal for a reading or book fair, & I’m back into poems again, my million billion manuscripts.

Part of my considerations over the past few years, to effectively “slow down” the appearance of my speed, has been to focus on various prose projects (which, through learning new forms, automatically takes more time), as well as to send the bulk of my poetry submissions to non-Canadian publications, so I don’t “use up” Canadian journals. (Hell, I’ve been in most everything I want to in Canada, already.) Every six months for the last three years, I’ve sent about forty or fifty submissions to American journals, with varying successes. My submissions to Canadian journals are much rarer these days. Canadian readers who pay attention to such things already know who I am. There are other things I could be doing. I don’t need to be in everything anymore, at least not up here.

My first writing models were west coast, from the 1960's & the early 70's, & their slow movement into the book length work. Everything I do stems from that. Ken Norris has been saying for years that he’s 2nd generation Tish, & I’m 3rd, but I don’t agree. I was influenced first by the writing of George Bowering, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt & John Newlove, well before I was ever influenced by Artie Gold, or Sharon Thesen. (Most of my earlier structures can be traced back to George Bowering’s work. A good game for that party going nowhere.) I feel almost a late bloomer 2nd generation Canadian postmodernist, whatever the hell that means. Maybe on this I should just shut up.

(I’ve always felt somewhat out of synch. At my mother’s side in the 1970s, for example, growing up, effectively, on 1940s black-&-white films...) I’m a big fan of the extended poem, the serial poem, the book length. It goes without saying, no matter how many times I’ve said it before.

1. How can you be the best there is at what you do, unless you focus on it? It’s something I learned years ago from Judith Fitzgerald — aim to be the best & accept nothing less. She was one of my earliest supporters, telling me that, yes, what I did was important, did matter, & that she understood what was going on. I don’t have a job, didn’t go for a university degree, & I’m not terribly interested in doing either, at any point. Eighty percent of my time goes into the work. Why should I spend the bulk of my energy on employment that, in the long run, doesn’t matter? I’d rather be writing.

History doesn’t care if I have money in my pocket, but it might care about the writing I could be doing instead.

As well, with the amount of work I’ve done in a relatively short time, I’d rather get the bad work out of my system earlier, as opposed to later. I work hard to vary my reading, in literary & non-literary, printing off thousands of sheets of paper from the internet, ordering books, & scouring used bookstores as I travel, mailing home far more books & magazines than I started with. The nature of working so much, & so quickly, is also having to take in a lot of information in a relatively short amount of time. I take in lots of reading, & am constantly distracted by other books I’ve gone through over & over. I am always running out of things to read. Books piled over my floor I still haven’t got to.


Fragments of a self-interview:

rob mclennan: Through my last few projects, I’ve felt my formal considerations shifting. Over the past two years, I’ve tried my hand at the ghazal (after John Thompson), the collaborative renga (with Stephen Brockwell, Dean Irvine & Shane Rhodes), various other individual collaboarations (with b stephen harding & Matthew Holmes), and am working the utiniki (after Fred Wah & bpNichol), a travel journal written as a mixture of prose and poetry. Five years ago, I was content to work on more all-encompassing projects that still happened two, three at a time, composing concurrently. For example, paper hotel (Broken Jaw Press, 2001) and what’s left (Talonbooks, 2004) were written with an almost complete overlap over a two year period. (A third in the “trilogy” is still unpublished, the collection ruins, a book of absences.) Now, my projects might take longer, but I’m currently working on over a dozen prose and poetry projects, each one working another strain of formal consideration, and breaking down still.

rob mclennan: Do you worry about confusing or alienating your reader through, not just the variety of production, but sheer volume?

rob mclennan: I do and I don’t. As far as magazine publication goes, I’ve been sending far more work over the past three years outside of Canada for consideration, and most of that to the United States. It’s a whole other range of options to open up into. Really, I can’t imagine everyone picking up everything I publish, although there are a few that try. I thought the response to my three poetry collections in 1999 were very telling. Kevin Connolly (an ECW Press author) preferred my ECW book, derek beaulieu at filling station preferred the fragmented style of Manitoba highway map, and Mark Cochrane (a Talon author) preferred what was happening in my Talonbook. People go to different books for different reasons, and my reading is all over the place, so why shouldn’t, then, my books?

rob mclennan: Why do you have to be such a jerk?


Over the past few years as well, my reading has moved far more into international poetry than only Canadian. I decided early on to focus on Canadian writing, so I could get a sense of it before I went anywhere else, & I think I have that now. With recent explorations into the work of CD Wright, Lisa Samuels, JL Jacobs, Cole Swensen, Robert Creeley, Fanny Howe, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo, among others, my work is then forced to move in another direction still. The most interesting part of any writing, really, is not knowing where it will end up. Its the exploration that makes the whole process interesting, to me, anyway.

2. I write at my own speed. Despite what folk might think, I have spent up to seven years on my first novel (since shoved in a drawer), & six years on my second poetry collection. Books aren’t written over the course of a weekend, although there are always exceptions. I work at the speed at which I work, & pieces can go through as many as thirty or forty edits before being sent out. Some pieces don’t get seen at all. Despite what some think, I don’t publish everything I write. There are manuscripts that have been seriously reworked before going to press, & whole manuscripts that have been abandoned, including a sequel to bury me deep in the green wood that fits between bagne, or Criteria for Heaven & harvest: a book of signifiers. I doubt anyone will see that collection as a whole, although there are parts of it I wouldn’t mind seeing in a selected at some point, with selections over the years variously published in magazines & anthologies.

3. I make as many slots as I take. Despite what some have claimed, I don’t think that my activity as a writer is obscuring the work of other writers. If you don’t like what I do, don’t read it. It gets pretty simple. With the editing work that I do, as both publisher and non-publisher, I’m getting numerous works out by lots of other writers that deserve as much or more attention than I do.

4. What the hell is too much? The Canadian standard for poetry collections seems to be every five years, with the occasional writer publishing a book every two years or so. Still, there’s a context — bpNichol, George Bowering & Daphne Marlatt were all publishing “too much” for a number of years (although I do understand that the 1960s & 1970s were different times in Canadian publishing. I think that’s when folk used to buy books, right?) I’m certainly not the first one to try it, although a few who’ve decided to take me to task seem to act like it. George Bowering published three books of poetry in 1969, the year he won the GG, & Daphne Marlatt the same, in 1980. Stan Rogal does the same thing now, between poetry & fiction, although I don’t know if he gets the same complaints thrown at him. I’ve always thought, if the books individually sell well enough to make the publishers happy, it really shouldn’t matter. If the work is interesting, & different enough that it simply isn’t a repeat, then it really shouldn’t matter. Again, I’m of the Bowering school, where every project is different, & has its own individual concerns, with poems that can’t necessarily be included in any others.

Of the three books of poetry I had in 1999, by the end of the year, a thousand of them had sold. That’s not too damn bad, I don’t think. That includes five hundred of my first Talon book, gone within the two months between appearing in October & January 1st.

5. I enjoy making books, & what’s wrong with that? As both publisher & writer, I learned long ago that I’m apparently not in it for money, fame or women, so self-amusement is all I have left. Once it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it. George Bowering said very early on, that he would only publish his long poem magazine Imago for ten years & twenty issues. I’ve made no such claim. I’ll keep publishing as I see fit, until it’s no longer fun. From here, I can’t even imagine that happening.

When I was still a teenager, my interests were all over — writing, music, visual arts. Thirteen years of piano lessons, musings on guitar, drawing classes, short fiction. It was only in my early 20s that I decided to focus on something, & do it well, before moving on into other areas. But for gods sake, why did I pick poetry? I have no idea. I should have started with fiction. At least I would have made some money by now.

It seemed a good idea at the time.

Written & published for the third in Jay MillAr’s Speakeasy series:
(second series, number two)

series of informal talks

rob mclennan: “yes, i HAVE published a lot of stuff:
a dozen reasons why i will not apologize” & Angela Rawlings:
“My Centre for Sleep and Dream Studies: A Linguistic Guide”

Sunday, November 2, 2003 at 2:30pm
Lynn Donaghue’s studio, 2154 Dundas Street West, Toronto
[just East of Roncesvalles]

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Ogress Oblige

2001, KRUPSKAYA: San Francisco, $14.95 CAN / $10.95 US
distributed in Canada by Arsenal Pulp Press
64 pages, isbn# 1 928650 11 2

Jack Spicer ruined hell for the rest of us.
(p 16, "Lumpen Prole By Choice - A Novel In Arias")

Already in its second printing is Dorothy Trujillo Lusk’s Ogress Oblige. One of Vancouver’s more interesting language writers, engaged with some of the people and work surrounding Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing, Ogress Oblige collects pieces written over the last few years, included in such places as the chapbook Sleek Vinyl Drill (2000, Thuja Books: Vancouver), Open Letter, Raddle Moon, The Gig, and the late lamented Boo (the magazine that existed between the previous Kootenay School’s Writing, and current incarnation, W). Her first collection of new work in years, since Redactive (1992, Talonbooks: Vancouver), reprinted in part in the anthology Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology (2001, New Star Books: Vancouver), the poems in Ogress Oblige write among language and culture, single-parenthood, arias, apocrypha and vulgarity. A mix of issues, Lusk’s work abounds with circumstance and happenstance.

If I could concentrate on my own provenance

I might just get a long poem.

Working the strange tensions between the "ogress" and obliging factors, Lusk twists the language and language theory of her surroundings into readable baffles, unwilling to play by any of "their" rules. Written in verbal assault (with references that abound), the poems in Ogress Oblige wring with sly anger and severe wit. "Be that as my intention remains, muster grubbly manifold. / Inherent poetics will out." (p 36, "Sleek Vinyl Drill"), or

All hail the crushed amber groin of Late Capital refines
within extant character

That nothing will pleasure
any more
or any less.
(p 24, "Vulgar Marxism")

A smart and deceptive collection of poems, Ogress Oblige spares no-one, awash with verbal play and guttural speech, tackling social issues and whatever else gets in her way. “That which / we here embellish / is the fit of permanence” (p 23, "LET MY VOICE THUD THROUGHOUT / THE LAND").
(originally appeared in RAIN TAXI)

Jill Hartman, A Painted Elephant
2003, Coach House Books, 106 pages
isbn 1-55245-117-8, $16.95

what is it about first dates we all think we know don’t we? makes a
difference when you are an elephant, might make the ferris wheel quite
dangerous. all the cotton candy in the world can’t counterbalance a mass
like thunderclouds, a presence like the absence
...........of all sunlight
(p 71, "enamelled red and gold upholstered cars")

A Painted Elephant, the first trade collection by Calgary writer Jill Hartman, reads an an opera in eight parts, built from snippets of story and myth around the elephant, as the narrator, a "lonely Dutch elephant" in the Calgary Zoo, escapes repeatedly, and, as the back cover tells us, is "made to suffer a thirty-day quarantine in which she meditates on the true meaning of pachyderm love." Part of a crew of new(er) writers to emerge out of Calgary over the last few years, along with Julia Williams, JC Wilcke, Jason Christie, Ian Samuels, ryan fitzpatrick and Darren Matthies, through publications such as (orange), Yard, filling station, the new dANDelion, and PHU-online, Hartman releases her first collection with Coach House Books with another Calgarian, housepress publisher derek beaulieu, whose visual/text collection is with wax.

Hartman’s elephant is variously painted in different passages throughout, shifting in colour, in the room we can never mention, whether the white of IKEA sales and Ernest Hemingway’s hills, or coloured a pink seen only after a liberal amount of drink (and Dumbo’s hallucinatory dance). As she writes, "drown in rose petals. red satin tongues / speak in / romance // courtly language, courting love /// one woos the other" (p 22). Throughout the text, Hartman quotes other Canadian poets, Roy Kiyooka, Lisa Robertson and Robin Blaser, to weave a complicated puzzle of phrases, fractions, faux-news articles of elephant sightings in Calgary, and other threads to produce a collection on a Dutch elephant as Alberta myth, or dream: "she dreams of clarified air [...] a newborn elephant sleeps / in the shade of her mother’s body." (p 64).

Hartman pulls a number of cultural references on the elephant out of the air, the clouds, in the story of the doomed affair between the lonely elephant and Maytag Man statue on Calgary’s 9th Avenue: "the lonely dutch elephant talks to him lifts / the beard away from his face so he can talk / back // he looks back across 9th avenue [...] snow angels drop snowflakes on her lashes" (p 75). Experimenting without sacrificing meaning, or reading as trick for the sake of trick, A Painted Elephant reads in a number of interesting directions, and makes her debut, in the form of Dutch pachyderm opera, a joy to read.
(originally appeared in WORD)

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

a note on stone, book one
(unpublished so far as a whole. fragments have appeared in various places, including side/lines: a new canadian poetics (Insomniac Press))

stone, book one is essentially the story-in-verse of a relationship, written elliptical, & underneath the poem; more fluid & musical than narrative. Written in short, lyrical bursts, the piece follows & surrounds a young couple meeting & awkwardly exploring in an unspecific rural place & time, & their resulting collaboration that ends book one with childbirth.

There are traces of autobiography in "stone", elements taken from my own origins in eastern Ontario, & elements of my grandparents era in the same area, but the vagueness that surrounds the piece is deliberate. This is not a historical poem, but a lyrical, emotional one. It doesn't matter when the action happens. It only matters that it does.

That being said, the most important part of the poem is the music, & the evasiveness of the story seeping through.

The beginning of an eventual four volume poem, the second book will explore the young boy born at the end of book one, as he grows through childhood & into adolescence, with the length & breadth of rural background that surrounds. stone moves along the lines of other open-ended long poem forms explored by Canadian poets such as George Bowering (Rocky Mountain Foot), bpNichol (The Martyrology), Fred Wah (Music at the Heart of Thinking) & Barry McKinnon (Pulp Log; I wanted to say something), whether telling a story or simply telling, even to books such as Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, or American poet Ed Dorn's Gunslinger. The poem is written following no true & steady course, but evolving into a process, & a language thick with physical elements of greenery & stone.

As Gunslinger wrote around stories & myths of the eroded American Wild West, so stone writes of the eroding rural landscape, of family farms & days before travel & communication made daily lives less about the land.

The structure of the book also borrows individual titles from various phrases by American poet C.D. Wright, out of interviews with her, various of her published essays on writing, & fragments of poems, to leap each piece off another work. Of the four volumes, each will "borrow" phrases from a different writer, to expand not only the range of the language in what the poems are accomplishing, but my own reading of certain authors that interest me, whos work I'm not yet familiar with.

I've always been partial to bouncing a poem off a phrases taken as title, whether out of newspapers, magazines or television. When something catches my eye, the impetus is to simply write & see where the poem goes. A poem should be written the way we live, & acknowledge such. It's more interesting to me as a writer, to take a small phrase & run with it, as I did in an earlier collection, bagne, or Criteria for Heaven (2000, Broken Jaw Press). In that collection, each title was the last line of a poem by various poets, predominantly Canadian writers but not exclusively, depending on what I was reading at the time. The result was 93 interconnected poems, with few source poets used more than once. Around this, the book cohered in subject matter, dealing with issues around the Millennium & building angst - history, religion, popular culture & media, & the arbitrariness of the triple-zero score that still brought cultural fear of the event. I compared writing that collection to repeatedly parachuting into a field. No matter where you landed, you still went to the same central point, but it was how you got there that became interesting.

rob mclennan

Sunday, July 13, 2003

the day we lost the stanley cup

would that we knew nothing
of sixty silent years

against a long, perfect season

of lower-case capitals, a flick
of the wrong wrist

puck white against the black

so close could taste, of iron
in the blood, a blue line

of the heart

so what of next year

a spring of perpetual blame
that could lose us all to hockey

June/July 2003

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

A life built up in poems: an intersection with some of George Bowering's lines*

Men who love wisdom
should acquaint themselves
with a great many
- Heraclitus
epigraph to Curious

Since the announcement that Vancouver poet George Bowering was chosen as Canada's first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, those of us who care for writing but not for politics or correctness couldn't be happier. Like a crazy uncle, saying those things you should and shouldn't say, sometimes getting himself into trouble, but far more clever and craftier than anyone around him. Uncle George who, when the announcement was made in the fall of 2002, was quoted in the Globe & Mail as saying that Ottawa hadn't given him as much as a bottle of "Alberta plonk"? (the British laureate gets a case of something. Whiskey?). So, when he read in Ottawa the following March, a friend and I were there, with the requisite bottle of plonk, Alberta Springs rye whiskey, as recommended by Talonbooks publisher Karl Siegler. Why not take George at his word?

His so often quoted line, whether epigram to Curious, or included in the poem "Desert Elm," written as sound advice: "Men who love wisdom should acquaint them- / selves with a great many particulars." (George Bowering Selected).

What was it that first triggered my own connections? Who's to know. Poems when we were seventeen, my eventual ex-wife handing me a paperback copy of Eli Mandel's Canadian Poets of the 1960s? My favorite John Newlove poem still lives there, his stomach of contents. Was it the pared down speech? Was it the consideration of the local that made me look at me, at mine? Was it simply the lack of anything else that tweaked an interest in (deceptively) simple speech? This, after years of the religious bent of Ralph Connor novels, and Dorothy Dumbrille poems.

Moving later into his solo collections, was it the consideration that the books were different compositional units, trying something new each time? Bowering as BC's figure Coyote, the trickster god, as seen in so much more, including one of his own favorites, Sheila Watson's celebrated novel, The Double Hook. Bowering the shape-changer.

Of his best friend for so many years, the late London, Ontario painter Greg Curnoe, they used to say that he was worth watching, partly, because they didn't know what he'd do next. Do you see the connections here?

Poems on other writers, poems on his wife and daughter, friends, teaching, what he'd read or seen, history, what his day was like, on the back of his own life.

Smoking Mirror

For the longest time, the only book I wanted that I didn't have, twenty or thirty volumes into it, another week in the east, published in 1982 by Edmonton's own Longspoon Press. From the first part of the opening series, "Smoking Mirror," asking,

Who is teaching me
to climb down to heaven
to fall upward to
my reflection?

to later write in the same series:

It is in the brain's shared work
we discover the music

Here we read the questions of body and soul, of God. A series of pieces each leaning toward the suggestion of another ear. Here we see parallels later on in Robert Kroetsch's title series to the collection, Letters to my Friends (General Publishing, 1985). The story of a legend. A legend of another long telling.

Delayed Mercy

A book filled with questions as important as the answers, if not moreso. A book filled with learning. They tell me that Kerrisdale Elegies (Coach House Press, 1986) is supposed to be his best poetry collection (his "translation" of Rilke's Duino Elegies), but I disagree. Structural resonances to that later work, HIS LIFE, A POEM (ECW Press, 1999), and repeated phrases that exist in both, clipped questions, and mentions between the body and language, passion against reason. A resonance with God, and how the senses come into play, in the work and in the play -- ear, brain, heart.

Less a matter of me claiming favorites, than the one of his more than any I return to, continually. More and more often. There is always something new to learn, admiring the way he would leap off lines and phrases, taking the pieces into a direction made most by language, much like previous of his works such as Autobiology (Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, Vancouver Series, #7, 1972), taking a moment and simply running. At a reading I recently heard a friend say, to my astonishment, that the writer they were there to honour once told her that a poem wasn't just about language, but was about telling a story. How wrong they were. If it's not about language, then its not about anything. Its the language that propels it, whether poem or story or grocery list. It's the language that makes you sit down and listen.

These pronouns are confusing & so personal,
I can eye birds in the sky & fat,
well, maybe not fat flying toward the brain.

Tell me, if you can, old fat, what's the difference
between brain & the blue sky? Is it
that the brain will never cloud up & rain?

What I've always liked about Bowering and his work, wherever he goes, always willing to take others with him. His poems are like reading lists, what else I should be looking at to learn.

He is not there to tell you how great he is, he's there to tell you how great other people are.

He is not there to tell you how great he is. He expects you to already know.

Urban Snow

Canada Puzzle

When I was a little kid fifteen miles from the border I got a neat
Christmas present. It was a jigsaw puzzle map of Canada.

I put it together and took it apart, over and over. It was not a
game: it was a puzzle.

I got really good at it. I could put Canada together upside down. I
could do it in the dark.

Then as often happens I lost a piece. I did what people always do
when a jigsaw piece goes missing.

I threw the whole thing out.

A simple and complicated piece about a complicated issue, and an issue of different sorts and proportions depending on where you were situated. Quebec? British Columbia? Ontario? Anywhere but Ontario? It's the brevity that gets, and the boiling down of a simple puzzle. A man from the provinces he ain't, having taught in three and even schooled in another, but for the longest time, anthologies that published him as the guy from BC. How much and how little it all means. Its only just a puzzle.

George Bowering Selected: 1961-1992

Do Sink


When I have fears that I
may cease to be
open to pain that shines
wet on the side of a gold
fish in my own, I thought,

I ought to forget
comfort, forget family
history, drive a black sedan
over thin prairie roads
looking for a town even
my mother does not believe
was ever there

pain is not colour, not value
but condition, the cost
of starting a damned life
in the first place, where no
thinking man ever was.

A brilliant poem, included in the George Bowering Selected: Poems 1961-1992 (McClelland & Stewart, 1993, edited by Roy Miki), that by itself, was the bpNichol chapbook award winner in 1992, a fourteen part piece, three stanzas each, with every part including a consecutive line of the Keats classic, "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be," written in January, 1818. Driven by this, it tells the story of the author/narrator, going "home" to find a town that was no longer there, of his mother's family, and the graves that went with it. Great to read aloud, just to hear the rhythms inherent to the poem. It must be a George thing, to watch either Bowering or Elliott Clarke read, with such an attention to the musicality of a poem, the rhythms, watching the one hand keep beat, keep score. Does Stanley do the same?

Conducting yourself, as one might say. Conduct yourself, Bowering.

Another poem, originally in the collection Urban Snow: "My Family's All in Bed." A great simple piece, to end the selected, starting

I'm up
against the silences to come .

They keep telling me to talk more,
write less --

but I can't figure this out, I
will be doing neither
soon enough .

Writing not only of a life, but against a life. Life and death. His running joke for how long, trying to publish a collection under the title "Death & Other Poems" for years, with his title poem, "Death" that eventually ended up in Urban Snow, and later, this Selected, that includes this section, pulled out of the middle:

You see? said D, you announce that you are going to say
something straight about death, and there you are talking about
life, as far as I can see. That's just my point, I said. Death will be
horrible because it won' have anything of life in it, no matter
how many fancypants graduate students have told me that you
can't really submerge yourself in life unless you are fully conscious
of your death. They have all been reading Albert Camus lately, &
they are so much wiser than I am.

After another publisher would say no, that no one would buy a poetry collection with that name, Bowering claims, he'd pull the title poem and include it in the next attempt. And so on, until something else happened, and it was left in Urban Snow. An urban myth propagated by Bowering himself. Another lie, perhaps. Another misleading direction. Not how much he has written about life, but how long, instead, thinking about death.


Island, Island, I wish I were no man.
In the basement, doing laundry,
in the kitchen, doing supper,
in the lineup, buying canned goods,
four-year-old at the table.


He wishes he was at most an isthmus,
a continental compromise.

A book of fifteen years -- and thirty in the making -- a poem for each season, no matter where he was, from "SUMMER 1958. MERRITT" to "SUMMER (WINTER) 1988. CANBERRA." Bowering, sly trickster, retracing thirty years of seasonal steps, going back through not only his own life, but his life with wife Angela, daughter Thea, his parents, friends, students, writing and travel. In short, a life. Taken from notebook entries on equinoxes and solstices, and the arbitrariness of the entries from those dates, what I think Bowering's strongest book of poetry since Delayed Mercy and Other Poems (1986), tracing quirky movements and the reflective voice in the pinpoint accuracy of short takes. In HIS LIFE, Bowering gives us what he's known for -- strange and sharp poems that don't always make sense, rife with puns and bad jokes, hidden tricks and the occasional namedrop (although fewer than usual), and the turns that drop even the most expected wretch on his ear.

Certain chords throughout the text repeat, touching in on itself, such as the thread of reworked "Classical / relation makes a family of us all." ("SUMMER 1958. MERRITT") to "Classical re / duction makes a family of us all, / even his happy daughter." ("SUMMER 1980. VANCOUVER") and "Classical re- / lation makes a family of us all." ("FALL 1986. VANCOUVER"). Not only are there threads that run the stretch of the text, but back into previous work, such as into a series of related poems, "Paulette Jiles & others" in Urban Snow (1992), displaying his interest in pieces fixing friends and family in a specific time and place, or back further, to Delayed Mercy, where he took a phrase or foreign point to leaps a poem out of it, talking about small family moments. Those thoughts at home writing late night poems, expanding on his localized time even further, from "This long disease, my life / lets me some days stand / & even walk where my eyes / have shown me a path." (Delayed Mercy, "The Pope's Pennies"). How much an extension, then, from where he sits now (and then) at his west window, writing "This long disease my life / is much the same this year." ("FALL 1977. VANCOUVER"), or "Island, Island, I wish I were no man." ("FALL 1976. VANCOUVER").

As much as anything, this is sincere and classic Bowering, illuminating new corners of phrase and personal/public history, and expanding others, of home and life and love and ordinary moments, beyond all the familiar and unfamiliar tricks. "Any symphony by Bruckner, played loud enough / will please you if you've just started middle age. // If he just didn't have this terrific desire / to be taken seriously. But I sympathize too." ("SUMMER 1978. VANCOUVER"). These poems move because they are ordinary, and familiar, and because they are unfamiliar, opening up to new turns. There are such layers woven in, that its hard to keep track, synapses firing in the kitchen light, even as he starts "FALL 1961. VANCOUVER" piece with the phrase "Oh clarity to come," just where he ends his "FALL 1981. VANCOUVER" piece, bookending thirty years of awareness that arrives too late, at all, if ever. "Later outside, the liberated boys and girls / were learning to make snowballs. // This, he told his daughter, / is what happens when you marry the sea." ("WINTER 1981. VENICE").

Sitting in Vancouver


who the hell works here?
offers hard-eye love
at most

not a ghost in this place,
no real
tracks, no smell of sausage

this train station's
a museum, like
the notion of Calgary


("Sitting in Vancouver: Central Station")

A sequence of nine poems from the IV Lounge Reader (Insomniac Press, 2000, edited by Paul Vermeersch), an anthology celebrating a range of past readers at a regular reading series in Toronto. The disconnected series harkens back to his Sitting in Mexico series (1970), composed after two trips he took to Mexico in 1964 and 1965, and published as the 12th issue of his IMAGO longpoem magazine. Sitting in Vancouver, in hospitals, malls, and the Simon Fraser University cafeteria, a different setting each time. Sitting in Winnipeg as well, in a one-piece aside (almost): -- my old time / Metis girlfriend, / I made her arm green // wearing my ID bracelet in Manitoba. // Was that history / or mistake --" ("Sitting in Winnipeg: West End Cultural Centre").

In the series, echoes of his late wife, Angela, between the UBC Hospital and a multiple sclerosis clinic, and a strange, yet personal distance, if there can be such a thing. In one piece, moving from asking "Chinese woman stares / at setting sun, black cedar things, / her hands wrapt around tea, // -- where does she / truly live? Where is her life?" to asking "My dear woman in a machine / reading her, another chapter, // a good sentence or two?" ("Sitting in Vancouver").

The wisdom hindsight allows, seeing Bowering’s poetry as a single unit of fragments broken into fragments, with countless links between; writing out his whole life, again and again. What originally struck me about his work was the language, the play of leaps into the unknown, and his willingness to shift between books, altering style, tone, purpose. No long thread broken into books, but working dozens of small asides, still with that unmistakable Bowering line, no matter the size. Tongue planted firm within Okanagan cheek.

Bowering, known more for books than for individual poems; for more than the poem “Grandfather,� out of how many Canadian anthologies since the 1960s. Now the author of dozens of books of poetry, fiction, essays. Two young adult novels. Three books of history, including Stone Country, An Unauthorized History of Canada (Penguin Canada). In 2002, a collaboration in prose, Cars (Coach House Books) with Vancouver poet and former student Ryan Knighton. Rumours of three selecteds out in 2004 -- poetry, essays, stories.

Troublemaker George. Trickster George. Foot in a new direction every time, with firm links back to central core. A ball thrown out to start, despite the rain.

A game set into endless innings.

rob mclennan
(*with apologies to Alice Notley)
an earlier version of a fraction appeared as a review in the Globe & Mail

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

It seems so rare that my publications are reviewed, that I thought I should post this. Its a short review by august higland of Continuations I-III by Douglas Barbour & Shelia E. Murphy, part of an ongoing series published as STANZAS #30 (unfortunately, long out of print). I think they're up to 30 of them so far. Hopefully, it won't be too long before it appears fully, in book form.

How light a melting fall
Across flame's feeble wash
Floats chiaroscuro's contra
How brightly oil's pall
Denotes punk beauty
As a young saint sin(g)s a loud

- Douglas Barbour & Shelia E Murphy

Published by above/ground press and edited by rob mclennan this is a valuable edition to any library. If you have read the book reviews in the MAG (muse apprentice guild - will have no doubt noticed quite a few being published by above/ground press. Just as important to the reader as the text may be, the publisher is to the writer. This is nothing more than a great collaborative effort by all involved. It is my wish that more and more writers would collaborate in this fashion. The writing here is vibrant and jumps from the page. And as the two poets wrote, "..and who would speak to such conjunction of each..?"

Sunday, June 29, 2003

some notes on the poetry of ryan fitzpatrick & Jon Paul Fiorentino

I'm struck by the similarities between the poetry of ryan fitzpatrick & Jon Paul Fiorentino, both working the local prairie long poem from different geographical & poetic stances, but with much overlap. & all of this, with the fact that, until recently, the two might not even have been more than peripherally aware of each other.

Roughly the same age, these two prairie poets seem to be working similar sides of a poetic point-of-view, in their own means. Both are from working class rail suburbs that have been annexed into larger centres - fitzpatrick from Ogden, a suburb of Calgary, & Fiorentino from Transcona, a suburb of Winnipeg. Very deliberately, from two sides of the same prairie, the two poets work to transcend the lyric, even threaten to abandon it altogether. With an interest in bpNichol, & the disassociative prairie long poem, & the early suggestion of the poem as long as a life, as everything they have each done so far work into a particular whole, surrounding the places they come from, & have since left, whether to escape from, or better understand through distance.

As fitzpatrick wrote in an earlier version of his statement for the anthology evergreen: six new poets (2002, Black Moss Press: Windsor), "The pitch and roll of the long poem has something for me that the lyric never had. Maybe that's why i was blown away by Whitman and Ginsburg in high school and why writers like bpNichol and Bruce Andrews and Steve McCaffery appeal to me so much now. They can't hit what they can't see so you need to move fast and do as much as you can in that short time... The poems here are all from a series that continues to grow. Beginning as an offshoot of a short serial poem i finished and published in the summer of 2000 called revised notes, the series started as an exploration of the immediate world around me, the community of Ogden." fitzpatrick's moves are clear, scattered & physical, as in this fragment of "coyote on the tracks" - "in ogden / toward the bow river / toward glenmore tr / toward the oil refinery / toward the ogden shops // damn coyote bit / the rail with his sword / in repair" (p 111). In a review of revised notes in endnote #3/4, Leah Laxdal writes that "ryan fitzpatrick squeezes poetry into a compression suck of knives. His words cut straight lines of detail, images streaking blood with each row and verbal slab." Her description seems a bit much, but there is an impressive compression of detail in fitzpatrick's poetry, & important detail, whether references to the physical landscape of Ogden, or to the western god & trickster, coyote. His work reads very deliberate, even in seeming haste & slapdash, changing form to extend the boundaries of his landscape, while writing his landscape, as in these two stanzas from the extended piece, "a spade where the rail goes" (117-8):

we watch the rail to skyscraper blue sky
glass tower watches back
brick watch the bottom
in the line of the river we hide
watch oil saws on bark through
to ship oil
we see BP hold their esso notebooks
nametags clap hands
cash blue


we draw a sword where the rail goes
through the ogden shops
brick blue fathoming a contract line
like the robin in the tree nuzzes money
like sherwood tells stories about coyotes
pull seams with blue teeth
the poet throat cut
pages in oil barrels under graves bridge
that's what they say
bp in bed with capitalism then BP
blows corporate lips kisses

With no less care, Fiorentino's poetry is more emotionally moved & turbulent, with looser lines than fitzpatrick, & filled with reference to chemical intoxicants & abuse, trying to move through a river of mud with cement shoes. If Fiorentino's poetry had a body, it would often get trapped there, for constant daydreams of stars. In a statement written for the same anthology, Fiorentino says that "I often explain my poetry to others as a process of transmitting secrets. I am interested in creating a personal mythology; I am drawn to the notion of hauntings, of the persistence and inevitable indeterminacy of memory... Poetry is performative language. I want to perform acts of revelation and deception. I want to perform new ways of transcending and drowning." (p 29). Less fixed in the physical, his world of transcona is no less there, in lines that even the narrator finds highly suspect, as in the first & last stanzas of the six stanza "transcona fragments" (p 40):

ah good old ground tasting like invasive snow
salt reeling under exhaust no matter the cost
and don't forget to write from the east where
you will sit in a state of abandoned bliss stitched
to a street that hardly knows you


we quickly clothe ourselves and turn down the
heater and turn up the am radio and pretend to
be innocents, with decorative smiles for the
constable who was hoping for something more

Where it's too early to tell the form of fitzpatrick's beast, seen otherwise in a self-published chapbook & an issue of STANZAS, as well as his own (orange) magazine, Fiorentino's has already achieved multiples, in both publications, in his journal dark leisure for one, a chapbook, Poetic Stream Three (2001, above/ground press) & three poetry collections in quick succession hover (2000, Staccato chapbooks: Winnipeg), transcona fragments (2002, Cyclops Press: Winnipeg) & resume drowning (2002, cauldron books, Broken Jaw Press: Fredericton) - more in keeping with Kroetsch's ongoing Completed Field Notes, or Robin Blaser's The Holy Forest, for it's sweeping range of styles & sometimes disconnected connections in a single whole, than with bpNichol's The Martyrology, or William Carlos Williams' Patterson.

For both, it seems the disconnections are the things that keep the connections. As bpNichol's assertion, how the writing connects, even if only through being written by the same hand.

rob mclennan (originally appeared in filling station magazine)