Sunday, May 20, 2018

rob reads w Tanis MacDonald at Ottawa's TREE Reading Series, June 12, 2018

In case you haven't heard. I'll most likely be reading snow day, the prose poetry sequence I composed from January to March, which also appeared as a chapbook (I had originally aimed to launch my new Salmon title, but the book has been delayed). Might we see you? Everything begins at 8pm (open set, featured readers). See the link to further information via The TREE Reading Series website here.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Annick MacAskill, No Meeting Without Body


One hungry afternoon
I ate an entire orange peel,
told my sister it tasted like the sun.
The neighbor gave birth to twins
and my mother returned with blood under her nails.
As crass as a teenager, my grandmother
moved in. Her moonlit flower-picking
became an escape attempt
that failed. We made six apple pies
one weekend. No one
could say no. I implored the skies,
tied my hair in twists
every night so it would curl.
Every morning the curls fell limp,
an argument I couldn’t win.

Lyric precision and lyric polish aren’t, as I might not really need to explain, the same thing. And while my interest in the lyric doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards the polish of a more straightforward line, there is something about the poems in Halifax poet Annick MacAskill’s debut, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), that compel my attention. Her poems are narrative, sure, but hardly straightforward, achieving an accumulation of thoughts and movement, as well as the occasional narrative disjunction and disruption, composed as polished poems both precise and slightly jagged, slightly off; punchy and visceral. She knows how to compose poems that suggest one purpose, and provide something slightly different (such as her attempts to twist certain Canadian standards), all while moving through a series of meditative, first-person lyric narratives. The poems in No Meeting Without Body range from good to compelling, and often with such a nebulous difference between that it becomes difficult to articulate. Needless to say, there are a couple of poems here that left me breathless.


Cortege of Ukrainian pontiffs and delis
and storefronts boasting embryonic
commercial success and water pooling

where tawny leaves blocked the drains.
You were asking why we call the month
September, coming back from a friend’s

Apartment and kissing me as if you expected
answers along my gums.
I tracked the whale sounds

of your indifference and the ways crowds
lifted their feet for us to follow. A man
on the sidewalk held a sign that said

Will Poet for Food. You referenced your treatise
on disappointment with a hand
on the small of my back, your eyes

on what you swore was a cormorant
hanging in a butcher’s window. Later
I lost three years and the sight of you

to a bottle of Shiraz. But fall, that’s permanent.
I was on your street at the wrong hour
and you smelled of pine.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Emilia Nielsen, Body Work

At the edge
of the logging road nothing
but tall grass, movement,
a shape out of focus
sharpening – a bear cut
on its hind legs sniffing
the wind. Might have been
standing in a patch of sapling alder
coated in dust, or cottoning fireweed,
for the softness of seed fluff.
Might have wailed
showing pink gums and milk teeth
as the car cut into morning.
But it faded back into grass
where it first emerged,
fur licked and glowing. (“Done”)

I’m impressed by poet Emilia Nielsen’s sophomore collection, Body Work (Signature Editions, 2018), a considerable leap from her Gerald Lampert Award-nominated debut, Surge Narrows (Leaf Press, 2013) [see my interview with her around such here]. Nielsen is a British Columbia poet set to join York University in Toronto this summer as Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science, in the Health and Society Program, and her Body Works writes the body as both a topic of study and of revision, managing both to articulate and rewrite, re-stitch and map an intricate series of patterns across the skin of each page. There is a meditative quality to Nielsen’s poems, but one akin to the language fractals of poets such as Margaret Christakos, Sylvia Legris or Christine McNair, composing pieces that concurrently seem less constructed than disassembled for the purpose of study and labelling, and precisely jumbled, jagged and staccato, as she opens the sequence “Dermographia: (Desire)”:

More than some accounting of notches, scrapes?
This birthmark, that mole. More than description
(decorative script).
                                    To stray, surface. Dig a little.
Become floozy, flimsy: dermographer?

Nielsen’s lyric sequences exist as explorations, picking and pinpointing of minutae around the body, and are remarkable for their vibrancy and sheer precision. Much as in Legris’ ongoing work, Nielsen’s cavalcade of body-study revels in language and in such exacting precision. As she write in the sequence “Surgical Notes”: “That I fuction well without an organ / but don’t have the know-how to stitch / a button back in place. Lacking how-to / to do a tidy job.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The names of things,

I gave my attention to the pause.
Angela Carr, Here in There


I am downsizing, for practical reasons. I gift my belongings before the choice is no longer mine. Ending six months of aggressive treatment, some small strength returns. Moving through boxes and bins and shelves, I name items as I release them into the world. I name you, glass figurines I salvaged from my grandmother’s possessions, as her quiet death ended the decades they sat in her sitting room. I name you, pilfered coffee mugs, each adorned with a different company logo.

That summer we drove through the prairies and out to Vancouver, as yet another mug slipped into my bag at a rest stop. You were not amused.

I name you, dresser: the scratched and scarred second-hand chassis with lime green coat over almond brown over deep red over powdered blue, salvaged from Neighbourhood Services when I was eighteen.

Downsizing, sized. My body erodes. The clothes on my back.

I name you, silver pocketwatch: handed down from my great-grandfather, from his time in Montreal. Now set in the palm of my sister.

Family lore holds that during his first decade away from home, he worked as a conductor for one of the newly-established lines of the Grand Trunk Railway. A decade saved, and spent, before relocating again with the emergence of a wife and three children, back to his eastern Ontario nesting grounds, where he gathered a further fifty-five winters. They say he moved non-stop until he finally did.

I name you, small wooden box, discovered in my mother’s closet. The musty nest of crumbling paper scraps: correspondence, postcards, a pendant. A locket, held in an envelope. Dust. Her maiden aunt’s engagement ring. This is all that remains. She, who died when my mother was young. I name you, Marjorie, aunt of my mother.

Heirlooms: objects for which we are but temporary caretakers, a loom that weaves in and out of the hands of ancestors down, and from mine to my sisters, nieces, nephews. Brother.

I name you, long dark curls, like my mother, back in the day; as her sisters, too, and their mother as well. Curls that hadn’t the seasons to autumn, to silver.


In my youth, I collected; perhaps more than I should have. I saved, and kept everything. Girl Guide badges, nuts and bolts from the driveway, miniature carvings of frogs. I constructed scrapbooks of fauna and flora, a field’s-worth of clover. I gathered my late grandfather’s wartime diaries, secured in a steamer trunk. I collected a single smooth stone from each childhood beach, carefully placed on my bedroom bookshelf as tokens. As tangible memories. From our suburban backfill, a daily memory of a particular Nova Scotian beach at sunset.

A vial of red sand from Prince Edward Island shores, St. Margaret’s Parish, where my mother’s family historically cottaged. A vial of water from the Athabasca Glacier. What had once been what it no longer can.

In our first shared apartment, there was the alchemy of a half-hidden compartment of books in a cupboard, unlocked. Paperbacks, mostly. Mass-market stuff from an earlier decade. I immediately decided they were there precisely for me, and read everything. Susan Dey’s For Girls Only. The Hawkline Monster. A Brief History of Time. I absorbed each one, until there was nothing unread. Upon our eventual move, more than a couple of titles managed to slip in among our possessions.

I name you, library. I name you, history.


I name you, rage. I name you, anger. A cracked wooden bowl. Stage four. The one where nothing left can be done. Meeting with doctors and lawyers and further doctors. I name you, comfort; I name you, recollection. I name you, heartbreak.

In a fever-dream, the moon asks: Why do we melt?


They say to name a thing is to suspend it, freeze it into a singularity. To name is to reduce, some say. To name is to provide weight to something otherwise nebulous, unformed. To name is part of being. Biblical Adam, who spoke, and the animals became what he named; as the Word of God, also. He speaks, and what has spoken is solid.

I name instead to remind myself of each object’s purpose, and to give them air.

To make concrete, self-contained, and release.

I have been contemplating both religion and spirituality lately, but am undecided, as yet.

Soap bubbles, carried away.


I name you, signed first edition of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, from a lover who’s name I’ve long forgotten. I name you, soft and dear and nameless. I name you, address book that belonged to my mother. I name you, Red Maple leaf, set between the pages of a hardbound, wax paper saved from summer camp. I name you, first kiss by the strawberry bushes. I name you, lakewater silt that spawned from our overturned canoe.

I name you, squeamishness. Layers of blood, burned brown on white linen.

I name you, intimacy. I name you, pigmentation. I name you, jade elephant.


Lorelei believes that people are a construction of memories and experience, and can be pieced together though what they have abandoned. Nigel remains unconvinced. He claims: we are made up of stories. Without stories to accompany, items are stripped of their substance. And yet, once beyond us, they become clean, able to collect anew. Are our possessions allowed lives beyond ours? If no-one knows why I owned a jade elephant or where it originated, will that even matter?

I have a jade elephant, attached to a string. Purchased at an outside market, I think. London? Paris? I suspect I might be losing my rigorous attention to the integrity of each object.

I consider writing your name on a paper scrap, something I can ingest. Something I might keep.


Terminal illness can’t be fixed, it can only be carried. I am putting it down. I release it. From here on, everything lightens. Even my step. Living well, as they say, the finest revenge.


I name you, school portrait of my first love, squirreled deep in the pockets of my leather jacket, circa 1995. I name you, 1980s Polaroid of my father in the kitchen window.

I name you, shadows; cast in the doorframe, the hospital blinds.

I name you, tears of my mother. I name you, legs and arms. I name you, mouth.

I name you, morphine. I name you, breath.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick [photo credit: Timothy Donnelly] is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and Violence (2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (2012), both with YesYes Books, and the co-editor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in APR, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and elsewhere, and she has written essays and book reviews for Boston Review, LA Review of Books, and Poetry Daily, among others. A 2017-2018 fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she also teaches poetry at the 92Y and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Born in Indianapolis, she grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, If I Should Say I Have Hope, pushed me out into the world in a firm but gentle way, and I needed that. My second book, Landscape with Sex and Violence, is the book I have always wanted and needed to write but I had been too afraid until my first book came out and then I was like, fuck it, I’m gonna write that book now! I can tell you that having a second book doesn’t feel any less terrifying and vulnerable than having a first book did.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Come to it in what way? I didn’t read poetry first, I read both fiction and non-fiction first. When I started writing, it was poetry, though, and it was only much later that I tried other genres. 

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?
Every book and poem is different. Most poems come to me quick and then I revise endlessly. My first book took 15 years to finish. My second took 4 years.

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 knew early on what I wanted Landscape with Sex and Violence to contain. I always saw it as its finished book. Right now I only have a vague idea but I seem to be writing towards two separate things so I roughly separate new poems into one of two possible book folders, but who the hell knows what will happen.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My creative process? No. And I wouldn’t say I enjoy giving them because I’m actually a lot more shy than my poems are. But I’m happy people want to hear me read my work, that means a lot to me. Seeking out readings is my worst poet skill, but I almost always say yes when invited!

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 tend to write about that which I have a complicated relationship towards, and about my own history. I guess the question I am always trying to answer is, why do we treat each other so terribly, and how do we survive that?

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 do think poetry is having a more visible moment in our culture at the moment, because everything is so out of control and poets have a way of making sense out of the absurd or overwhelming. And poetry can be inspiring, or comforting, in a way nothing else can.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve never been heavily edited, and I have a very firm idea of what I want, but I am always so grateful when someone edits me as I might have edited me, and my editor at YesYes Books, KMA Sullivan, totally sees where I can be better at the thing I do. Good editors are so important.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When she turned 90, my grandmother said to me, “I’d give anything to be 50 again.” And she could have said any age! But she said 50, which is still several years away for me, and I just thought, wow, middle age is really the best.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays to reviews)? What do you see as the appeal?
I guess I would say very easy because I just write what I need to write when I need to write it. That’s for poems and essays. Book reviews and drier prose like that is a different part of my brain and I have to force myself more to the page.

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?
I’ve learned in the last 12 years (since becoming a parent) to be able to write in small bursts and very much make the most use of my time. This academic year I’m on an amazing fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, so I’ve been able to take a break from many of my freelance gigs and just have time and space to write and it’s been a dream – and I’ve been writing my ass off. No way I’m going to waste this opportunity. But, regardless, my days usually start with getting my kids up and out the door to school.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Myself. I’m like, just fucking do it, you don’t have a lot of time!

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have an absurd fondness for the smells of NYC in the summertime, even when those smells are subway tunnel piss and hot garbage.

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?
David Lynch’s work has been a huge influence on the way I see the world.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh there are far too many to name here (I am very fortunate, I know), so I will just name Timothy Donnelly, who is my husband, my best friend, and my favorite poet and who has been very important for my work and my life outside my work.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Dollywood. The good news is that I’m (knock wood) doing that this summer!

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?
In my fantasy life, I’m a social worker.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not sure. But it was always ever writing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. I don’t get to a lot of grown-up movies but Paddington 2 was terrific!

20 - What are you currently working on?
What I think will be two separate books of poems, and then possibly a book of essays.