Monday, September 30, 2013

City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, ed. Ryan G. Van Cleave


I have a bone to pick
with whoever runs this joint.
I don’t much like
being stuck out in the rain
just to feed on the occasional
vole or baby rabbit
and these wet weed-salads
confound my intestines.
A cat can’t throw himself
into the Chicago river,
not even in the luscious fall.
I get yelled at in human
language every single day
for things I can’t begin
to comprehend, let alone change.
But I go on cleaning myself—
why shouldn’t I?—
and so I think I smell sweet,
even though I suspect otherwise.
I wouldn’t harm a fly normally,
but why doesn’t anybody
take care of me? How am I
supposed to know that it’s Easter,
that I’m not allowed to die
in my own bed, and that neither prong
of this wishbone is meant for me? (Don Share)

Taking as its subject the City of Chicago itself is City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, ed. Ryan G. Van Cleave (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012). Over the past couple of years, Vancouver and Winnipeg have each produced anthologies along similar veins – A Verse Map of Vancouver, ed.George McWhirter (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2009) and The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg, ed. David Arnason and Mhari Mackintosh (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2005) – each utilizing and exploring their cities-as-subject in poetry specifically, and literature generally, predominantly by residents former and current. Chicago has long been known for a city of poets and poetry, from the origins of Poetry magazine over a century ago and Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1916) to more recent activity by poets such as Srikanth Reddy, Suzanne Buffam and Nathanaël, among others. The anthology explores and expands the mythology of the city by those who have known it, in whatever capacity, sent in after an initial call for submissions. As editor Ryan G. Van Cleave writes to end his introduction:

1916’s The Chicago Anthology: A Collection of Verse from the Work of Chicago Poets, edited by Charles G. Blanden and Minna Mathison, was one of the first attempts to define and present the poetry of Chicago as a distinctive, unified body of literature. Indeed, plenty of writers have gone on to be defined by their relationship to the city: Carl Sandburg, Karl Shapiro, George Dillon, Edgar Lee Masters, and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name just a few. And this anthology takes up the literary torch with some of America’s brightest poetic lights who’ve been touched by Chicago’s many inspirations. But by no means is the poetic conversation about Chicago over. It’s a vital, important part of the literary landscape of America, and it’s clear that new members are appearing daily. More than a few contributors remarked in their cover letters that the literature of Chicago is experiencing a renaissance. After seeing so many fine new writers and quality veterans, I’m inclined to agree.
            The poems in this anthology are not just beautiful objects to be enjoyed once and then put away. Savor the ones that seem written specifically for you. Consider the rest a challenge to be met. I guarantee at least three poems in this book will unlock a memory (real or imagined) of State Street vendor brats, the cacophony of smells that is the Taste of Chicago, or the sight of children skating at dusk at Daley Plaza – even if you’ve never been to the Windy City itself yet.
            Chicago is my hometown. No matter your background or interests, these poems do a fine job of making it yours too.

City of the Big Shoulders also provides an interesting counterpoint to the more author-specific anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, eds. William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi (Chicago Il: Cracked Slab Books, 2007) [see my review of such here]. I admit, I’m more interested in the sake of a geographic anthology to gain a sense of what kinds of writing and writer activity is happening within that arbitrary boundary, rather than an exploration of the personality of that geographic space. Still, I’m fascinated by the exploration of the myth of Chicago, one I’m very little aware of, but for the story of the city as central rail point, or inventor of the Second City comedy troupe, or namesake of that easy-listening shameful 1980s-era pop band. Who are you, really, Chicago?

Windy City

They wrote all over the rocks, the ones
who came before and come still; choicer
than graffiti, the paint cubed and letters
blocked like epitaphs: Acid or small groove
or baby cakes. And primary colors whet
the schools of foam the lake makes,
its mobile cursive less serene, while the city
wells above that trace of sociability—
its steeples snuffed, or nearly, in the mist:
this could have been Christminster,
or these the moral rocks Tess read
on her journey home in terrible,
delicate boots: the shores mirror us
always, but the city transpires. (Christina Pugh)

There are remarkably few names in this collection I’m previously aware of – but for Rachel Loden, Tony Trigilio and Don Share – meaning that the bulk of writers from the city working in an entirely different vein, including the more language-centred and more experimental poets are somehow absent from this collection. Contributors to the anthology include Barbra Nightingale, ElisePaschen, Janet Wondra, Vivian Shipley, Maya Quintero, Ellen Wehle, Susan Elbe and some two or three dozen others, each providing their own perspective on the windy city.

At the Crawford Coal-Fired Power Plant

As she inhales the scent of boiled eggs, the woman thinks of childhood, the farm she grew up on, the chicken coop down the hill from the clothesline. She thinks how back then, coal dust could coat sheets in a matter of minutes. Not anymore. These days it’s what she can’t see that worries her. But the plant manager says that this is a forward-thinking plant. Why? Because Crawford has reduced its mercury emissions ahead of schedule. And its nitrogen oxide emissions are down 30%. She doesn’t ask him what schedule. She doesn’t ask how much mercury or nitrogen oxide a person should breathe. Nor does she ask why the plant has been in the news in the past few years for spewing deadly toxins into the Chicago air and increasing the risk and incidence rate of asthma. She’s a guest here, so she smiles and nods when he hands her a hardhat, goggles, and orange earplugs. The building hums and throbs around them. She can barely make out his words as he shouts and points. She sees the pulverizer where the coal is crushed and blown into a furnace. She sees the boiler, the precipitator, and the fireball that glows like a small sun. In one room fly ash lands on her black sweater. She tries to brush it off, but it sticks to the cashmere. She asks if she should wear a facemask. She asks if the ash is dangerous. No, no, he says. These days we collect the ash from the precipitator and gather it into bins. Then we sell it for cement. But it’s in the air, she tries to tell him, pointing to the ash she sees rising like dust. She’s not sure he hears her. She’s not sure he sees what she means. He keeps opening and closing his mouth, as if to reassure her, as if to explain that everything is fine. She has nothing to worry about here. (Nin Andrews)

Perhaps this might be a matter of the style itself in which those more experimental poets work, given that subject was the centre of the collection (or perhaps these writers simply didn’t submit to the original submission call), a call more easily suited to a narrative, metaphor-driven lyric style. This also means that the work within the collection are predominantly, if not entirely exclusively, from the previous decade. It would have been interesting to have seen an anthology that worked archivally, to actually dig through the past half-century or so of Chicago (and further) writing, to see how the city has been already depicted, instead of the fraction of the anthology that appears to have been composed for the call itself. How has the city already been discussed, and by whom? What kind of portrait of the city has already been painted?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sadiqa de Meijer

Sadiqa de Meijer's writing can be found in The Fiddlehead, Geist, Poetry Magazine, and other journals. Her poem "Night" appeared as an above/ground press broadside. A series of her poems won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. Her collection Leaving Howe Island appears this fall (Oolichan Books).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I'm not sure how it will change my life: it comes out in late September.

What I’ve tried for in recent work is clarity, lack of predictability, and also certain kinds of risk.

There’s an inclination I have – it’s like in that musical exercise when students are asked to ‘finish’ a melody or rhythm that the instructor starts – when I write, the words fall into line to meet a kind of aural expectation. Part of what I’ve wanted is to let that impulse be open to disruption. Phil Hall said to me that in jazz it’s called dirt – intended elements of dissonance. Probably what it takes first of all is a closer listening to the world.

The other kind of risk I’ve been interested in has to do with the speaker: risking the dignity or composure of the speaker.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I think it's the effect that poetry has on me as a reader. 

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?
My first drafts do not much resemble the final poems. I write them in sketchbooks on large, unlined paper – I like the possibilities of writing between and around the initial text. Then I revise on the computer. And I work slowly. 

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?
Poems usually start with phrases for me – a few words that seem to have a force-field to them. Some overheard or read, others arising internally.

Leaving Howe Island wasn’t a book from the beginning – it’s an accumulation of poems from the last half-decade. But the first section of the book is a series united by subject – I’d written three or four poems and felt I could dwell on that material longer. At this stage I see internal resonances to the manuscript that I wasn't really aware of while working. I guess that’s inevitable when the writing is compiled.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys readings?
I do enjoy readings. They don’t factor into the writing process for me. 

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?
Theoretical concerns are present for me, but I wouldn't say that they dominate over other concerns. I don't think of my poems as answers to questions.

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?
I can’t conjure a single idea of ‘the writer’ that feels accurate – there’s such diversity under that term, and there should be.

Or it makes me think of a figure like Harry Mulisch, the late and brilliant Dutch writer who would say amazing things like: “At a fairly early age, fifteen or sixteen, I knew for certain that I was a great genius. Only I didn’t yet know in what.”  He was conscious of creating a writerly persona – he even argued there was a cultural need for remythologization, after the holocaust and war.

As much as I like to listen to his interviews, I guess what I’m getting at is that being ‘the writer’ strikes me as a performance. Some people are really good at that. But it should be optional. The work should be enough.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It's essential to me. I have the good luck of close editing relationships with a few writer friends.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It's tough to give advice a ranking, when the relevance depends so much on circumstance. Currently on the wall at my desk – it's not advice, but I feel it’s worth holding on to: Whatever is misanthropic is false (the French philosopher Alaine, in a letter to Simone Weil).

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I schedule writing hours into my weeks – ideally daily – but the specifics shift all the time. 

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sometimes it’s enough to pause and let some less striving part of the mind work it out. I tend to fill the gaps with domestic chores.   

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cumin frying in garlic and ginger.

13 - 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?
Sure, all of those elements influence my work. To name a few of the influences on Leaving Howe Island: the work of artists Jamelie Hassan ( and Theo Jansen (, a treatise on squid, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, and a newspaper report on plastic pellets washing up on Lake Huron beaches (

There was one poem, a pantoum, that wasn’t working for a very long time. Then I saw the Jack Chambers exhibition at the AGO ( Some of his paintings are of his family at home, and he was incredible at converying—and heightening—the sense of natural light in the room; I found that merger of light and domesticity very moving. I revised the poem with the spirit of those works in mind. Which I guess is also an alternate answer to question 11.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Maybe I’ll narrow it down to writers whose work surrounded me while I was writing Leaving Howe Island: Elizabeth Bishop, M. Vasalis, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Babstock, Paul Celan, Ida Gerhardt, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Anne-Marie Turza, Jason Heroux, Amanda Jernigan. I’m sure there were others, too.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Cracow, and Istanbul, and Newfoundland. 

16 - 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 probably would have been a doctor: I studied medicine before changing my mind.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing gives me a particular kind of experience that nothing else does: I don’t love it in the sense that it’s predictably enjoyable, but I do love it.

Like most writers, though, I’m generally doing something else as well.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
It was a re-read, but I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Especially the story Mrs. Sen’s. And in film: Goodbye Solo by Ramin Bahrani.

19 - What are you currently working on?
Some early drafts of poems, a series of short essays on the experience of learning English from Dutch as a child, and a novel.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Finley John and Julia McRae McLennan and family, circa 1910

After years of complaining, I finally have a photo of my great-grandparents, Finley John McLennan (December 1, 1857 – January 12, 1938) and Julia McRae McLennan (June 1, 1862 – July 9, 1932) and their children, taken approximately (according to the back) 1910 (given my grandfather's birthdate and the fact that he looks about seven or so here, my father points out, this is more likely a photo from a couple of years later than that; he also tells me a neighbour has a family image from the same photo studio in Maxville, around the same time). Standing, from left to right, are their children Scott (January 17, 1902 – June 20, 1983), Belle (May 24, 1895 – August 7, 1978), Roddie (May 7, 1889 – October 24, 1955), Christina (December 24, 1892 – March 11, 1923) and Donald (August 1, 1898 – August 17, 1955), along with my grandfather, John Duncan (July 13, 1907 – November 2, 1969) in the front. My cousin Susan (eldest granddaughter of Donald) was good enough to scan and send both sides of the image, from her mother’s collection [see Donald and Jesse’s 1930 wedding photo with Jesse’s 2011 obituary here]. Finley John and Julia had seven children: Roderick, Katherine Finlayson, Christy Ann, Margaret Belle, Donald John, Alexander Scott and John Duncan, as well as an unknown daughter that died in infancy.

I’d only ever seen the photo in my father’s copy of Maxville: Its Centennial Story, 1891-1991(1991), a photo presented along with information on our family by one of my father’s older cousins (my father appears to be the youngest of that particular generation). Unfortunately, some of the information this cousin presented was not only twenty-five years out of date, but incorrect (my birth year is wrong, for example). It made me not trust the information on us that had been provided, and triggered my interest in properly pursuing genealogical work. After a decade or more of attempting to get a copy of the photo from this particular cousin, I simply gave up.

Finley John and Julia lived next door to where our homestead currently stands, inheriting his uncle Roderick McLennan’s (d. 1873) farm when he died, inherited under the stipulation that Roderick’s widowed mother, Christina McLennan (born in Scotland, she died October 4, 1912 at 81 years), as well as his sister Mary (d. January 29, 1887, at 64 years) would be cared for. The McLennan family Bible, still in my father’s house, was actually a wedding present to Finley John and Julia, who married on February 23, 1888. The house that currently stands on their former property is actually the third (at least) to stand, as the house Roderick would have lived in sat slightly back from the current (you can still see the remains of the foundation), and at least one further (for Christina and Mary) sitting closer to the front of the property. It was actually Roderick McLennan who originally purchased the two hundred acre lot 3, concession 7, Roxborough, from the crown April 10, 1845 (where my father, as well as my sister and I, grew up), only to purchase the one hundred acres next to it, lot 4, concession 7 in 1860 from James McDonnell, the original owner (after Rory’s death, Margaret married Angus MacDonald of Sandringham). Given that he was still listed in the census in 1851 in Lancaster, I’ve long suspected that Roderick never actually lived on the original property, but moved out in 1860 to land that was, instead, already cleared.

The farm next door to where my father currently lives was in our family from 1860 until my great uncle Scott finally sold the property (selling parts and parcels off over a stretch of years) in 1955, when he and his wife Janie retired to Ottawa. Since my grandfather was the youngest, he moved across the road from his own homestead after he married (while still working the home farm with his elder brother, Scott), in a log house where my father was born, and where my grandmother not only widowed, but my sister now lives with her husband and three children. At the corner of my sister’s property, apple trees the only evidence of where a one-room schoolhouse once sat, where my great-grandfather and his siblings, as well as some of his children, would have schooled, abandoned around the time my grandfather was born. When my father was less than a year old, he and his parents moved to where my father has remained since.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ongoing notes: late September, 2013

We slowly begin to settle into our new house. Only another six or seven weeks until baby.

And,of course, if you subscribe to above/ground press for 2014 before November 1st,you will also receive forthcoming 2013 titles by Rae Armantrout and Hailey Higdon! Other forthcoming titles include new chapbooks by Hugh Thomas, Nicholas Lea, David Phillips and Carrie Olivia Adams…

Toronto ON: Out of a workshop conducted by Victor Coleman comes the collaborative journal COUGH, the first two issues of which are now available, most likely by contacting one of the editors or Victor Coleman himself. Loosely based on Vancouver’s TADS magazine (as was our own journal, The Peter F. Yacht Club), the journal is edited by a different member of their group each issue, with the first issue, February 2013, edited by Oliver Cusimano, and the second, May 2013, edited by David Peter Clark (a third issue is apparently due out any minute now). Since the Queen Street Quarterly folded, there really hasn’t been much opportunity to see the work of more experimental writers in/around Toronto in journal form, especially from emerging writers (chapbook presses such as Ferno House and The Emergency Response Unit, as well as the Avant-Garden Reading Series, at least, have been picking up some of that slack), so the appearance of such a journal is much-required.

I Pilot

A video loops on the ceiling.

A pumpkin in the corner
eats its young. Funny

feelings: I, pilot,
next to a pirate, who’s just gotten an
actual parrot, which turns words
on a perch
down the road. The ghost smells of

laundry soap.

Alibi Air Freshener, hairspray
called Consort: pilot aborts to the bathroom,
takes a second to self is then able to return
to a party where

parachutes please,
speckled spores on the coffee table. Feeling

funny, something brought me back
to my ejector seat: lazy boy
beside the couch’s clam, its pull-out host,

where me

and this black cat discuss an ordered cosmos
as recliners kick
back and

before that, and before
that, and before that? (Zach Buck)

The first issue has contributions from David Peter Clark, Zach Buck, Victor Coleman, Andrew McEwen, Laine Bourassa, Mat Laporte, Tyler Crick, Oliver Cusimano, Jonathan Pappo, Kelly Semkiw and Robert Anderson, and the second issue has contributions by Louise Bak, Gary Barwin, Michael Boughn, Laine Bourassa, Zach Buck, Jack Clarke, Victor Coleman, Tyler Crick, Oliver Cusimano, Sam Kaufman, Victoria Kuketz, Mat Laporte, Danya Lette, Andrew McEwen, Jimmy McInnes, Jonathan Pappo, Vanessa Runions, Dominique Russell, Kelly Semkiw, Brad Shubat, Dale Smith, Drew Taylor and Jess Taylor. There are some intriguing things here, and a number of writers I haven’t heard of previously, which is always exciting. I look forward to seeing what these folk end up doing next.

Worn atomics. Buss shelter logistics. To get to the front. Iterate the passage as it’s narrated. Rerun. The return binds industry, numbers quantity. Pre-packaged, pre-read. This is nothing. No one is called next. Lines repeat unnoticed. A stance again, another. Equally isolated blindnesses bind viewer recognition. This is a theory of high art. (Andrew McEwen, “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything”)

Cambridge UK: CRITICAL DOCUMENTS editor/publisher Justin Katko was kind enough to recently send a small mound of publications he’s produced over the past few years, including Rosa Van Hensbergen’s SOME NEW GROWTH AT THE TEMPLE OR LOBE (2013), his own Songs for One Occasion (2012), Mahmoud Elbarasi’s ST. BEAUMONT CONSERVATIVE CLUB: TEN POEMS (2012), Posie Rider’s CITY BREAK WEEKEND SONGS (2011), Frances Kruk’s A Discourse on Vegetation & Motion (2008) and Tom Raworth’s LET BABY FALL (2008), among others. It’s nearly too much to go through at once.


forgotten monkey amber
delights my introspection

but bubble massive armour
fermentation magnet arc

geek motherfucker instinct
fix mitochondria a

generous martini ice-cream
further messages arrive

germ mail illustrated
flashes medical alert

gone mental incandescence
flames melodically around

glitz mercury illicit
coagulability (Tom Raworth)

At this point, Tom Raworth is an old master, publishing dozens of books and chapbooks over the past five decades, and has created a space for himself between language poetry and political commentary that is entirely his own. A former Calgary writer now living in England, I’ve been catching small publications by Frances Kruk for years now, wondering why more of her work hasn’t been available in Canada, or why she hasn’t (at least, that I’ve seen) produced a trade collection? Her small sequence A Discourse on Vegetation & Motion is all anxiety and rage, and it is marvelous.

today I have ₤12,000 worth of Rage
squashed into a Mindset   I vacuum
Ladybirds   re-live Nausea,
insert Electrodes into Aspic & watch
the Meat dance
in its sustainable Environment

The short sequence that makes up Rosa Van Hensbergen’s SOME NEW GROWTH AT THE TEMPLE OR LOBE is quite compelling, each page/stanza pushing against its own conclusion, rushing ever forward from page to page. The poem feels sectioned and contained at first, but begins to pick up speed, each stanza/page beginning to bleed into the succeeding page until the entire sequence is irrevocably linked. As she writes:

Hoc grasp sudden, out trolleyed on the steps,
sung a chantey in reputed chaste. Your
eyes turned off to sync with left hand fighting
right hand, in gender unfounded. Redeemed
with your good foot forward, dug prong, an
Assisi under earth mound. Wounds raw
but invisible. Not equipped for locomotion