November 9, 2016

On Poetry & Teaching after Nov 8, 2016

In my Cegep class Poetry & Wilderness we're reading Sue Goyette's brilliant book Ocean.
As usual, I’m asking myself, what do I want my students to take away from our time together today?

My answer is the same as always: Respect for ideas, for each other, for themselves, for the planet; for writing that demands they open their minds; for receptivity. Moments of joy, or at least pleasure, in learning and discovery. Courage when faced with challenges. And the courage not so much of convictions but of doubt, of expression of doubt. Of the usefulness of doubt. 

This American election shows that none of this, for now, is of value.

I don’t know how to model this. I don’t know how to respect this election. 

Today I have nothing. To contemplate a world in which none of this matters is anguish. To accept a world in which none of this matters is impossible.

But despair, the real despair I suffer as a human, is not useful. 

Therefore I continue.

December 16, 2015

Opening a Place: Ben Lerner in LRB

Back in the summer of 2015 when I still liked poetry, liked it idly, as I was gardening, say, or doing the dishes, that is, without thinking about it too much, I missed Ben Lerner's inviting consideration of poetry (and Poetry) in the London Review of Books (18 June 2015 issue).

Coming to it over coffee this morning with the first snow of the season melting from the deck, I experienced a renewal of sorts.

Here it is, in case you missed it too, or would simply like to return to it now.

December 1, 2015

Truth and Surfaces: Gabe Foreman In Conversation

Gabe Foreman makes poems that render little secrets in image and music; they often turn corners into the unexpected: streets, parks, neighbourhoods, backyards and byways of the adventuring psyche.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

GABE FOREMAN: I think that the writing of poetry first came to me on a school bus. When I was a teenager, I used to ride one of those big yellow buses with a friend and neighbour who went to a different school. She had been given an assignment to write a handful of love poems for her English class, for Valentines Day. When she asked me if I would write the poems for her, I agreed. I can't remember the content of the poems very well, but I do remember that it was liberating to write poems as somebody else. I had written things for my own courses, but something about ghost-writing poems for a friend made the process more relaxed, and more fun. I wasn't trying to make them too good, and that probably made the poems better. If I remember correctly, I think we got a satisfactory grade.

In terms of reading poetry, I remember enjoying the mix of darkness and humour in poets like Leonard Cohen, and T.S. Eliot, that I was assigned to read for my own creative writing course. I liked the darkness, and the surprising imagery, and the rhymes.

SG: I'm interested in what you say about ghost-writing -- not exactly in the voice of a persona, more like you-not-you. Do you still write this way? Is it one of the necessary conditions? What else have you carried forward from those formative experiences with poetry?

GF: I think that the 'you-not-you' observation makes sense. There is a personal core to a lot of what I write, but I'm more than happy to change the terms of the argument in the original draft for the sake of humour, imagery, sound, or some other aesthetic goal. I feel like the 'truth' of the original experience remains in some form, and the reader can detect it. Maybe that's false, but I think that starting poems from real experiences, or from ideas that I care about, makes a difference in how I write a poem, and adds an important element of contrast to the end result. Is the poem serious or is it a joke? I like absurdity and humour, but I feel like my favourite humour has a current of some 'serious' experience running underneath it, muddying the waters.

In 2003, I was at a talk by Margaret Avison where she said that when she was three years old, she went outside with a toy shovel to play in her sandbox, but was disappointed to find that the sand had frozen solid because winter was coming. No one had told her that the sand could do that. She told us that the devastation she felt at that moment was as real as any devastation she had felt since. Emotions do not age, she said. I thought that was wise and interesting and tried to apply this general principle to my first book. I wanted to keep the emotive core of the things I write about, the truth of the emotion, but play around with the surface details.

In A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People I tried to deploy a lot of vaguely universal places, nameless cities and lakes, so that the action was potentially taking place anywhere. I broke that rule more than once, and named specific places, but I wanted to use a host of generic Dick-and-Jane sort of names, so that the characters were somewhat interchangeable, cardboard cut-outs of you and me, on the assumption that our similarities may outweigh our differences. We've all experienced grief, love, disappointment, etc. A lot of the silliest poems in A Complete Encyclopdia are actually kind of personal. I write about failed and successful friendships, love, anger, insecurities, ideas, and more specifially, about my father's suicide, but I like to change things and have fun with language. I've changed names to protect the reality, to mimic encyclopedic objectivity, and at the same time, to poke fun at that objectivity. It's me, but it's not me.

Gabe Foreman grew up in Northwestern Ontario. His first collection, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House, 2011) was awarded the A.M. Klein Prize for poetry, and was shortlisted for the Concordia First Book Prize. More recently, he has read several poems as an on-air guest at the CBC Montreal morning show, Daybreak, and illustrated two books: Halifax Hal, by Nick Thran (Bayeux Arts) and The Rude Story of English, by Tom Howell (Random House). Gabe lives in Montreal where he manages a soup kitchen. Read his poem Mammoth here.

November 6, 2015

Gabe Foreman: A Poem

Gabe Foreman

At the point where individual talent breaks down
through the clouds, and intersects tradition with a flash,
T.S. Eliot is there in the flesh
exposing himself
to the hollowness of language.

Using words good, a linguist on the lake
howls at the smoky shore
until the author of The Waste Land appears
adjacent to the mud hut,
his cape of lightning flapping.

Hitting high and low notes nice
in the hut’s northeast corner,
two singers caress the sin tax
their lyrics owe to Prufrock.
Like Satan in his cathedral,
T.S. Eliot is other people
nobody’s him.

A pandemonium of subterranean caverns
flap and deflate at the whims of Eliot,
who spread verbal misdemeanors like mozzarella,
who fills awkward silences like saints fill days on the calendar.
Rhetorical devices sprint down the starless slope
flutter on their backs, fly up, thud against Orion’s Belt, explode.
‘I myself am language, nobody’s me,’ quotes the sky.
It’s what the thunder’s friend, a cave, once said,
according to the sea. According to the Earth,
the substance under everything we trust
is just a fossil tusk becoming dust
as all things must. 

Gabe Foreman grew up in Northwestern Ontario. His first collection, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House, 2011) was awarded the A.M. Klein Prize for poetry, and was shortlisted for the Concordia First Book Prize. More recently, he has read poems on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, and illustrated two books: Halifax Hal, by Nick Thran (Bayeux Arts) and The Rude Story of English, by Tom Howell (Random House). Gabe lives in Montreal where he manages a soup kitchen.

Image by Mirja Paljakka, courtesy of Red Edge Images

October 3, 2015

Nyla Matuk In Conversation

The night was chilly--cold even. The occasion was a reading at The Word Bookstore in Montreal. Nyla's voice held the room like a glass ornament, suspended.

SUSAN GILLIS:  What brought you to poetry in the beginning?

NYLA MATUK: As a child, I learned the usual nursery rhymes and Edward Lear limericks and as a teenager would walk the halls of my high school with a fellow callous sophisticate, both of us having memorized large portions of T.S. Eliot (I knew all of “The Waste Land” and several of the early poems) and feeling the need to drop lines at people randomly, in our adolescent misanthropy. But poetry ended there, for almost 20 years. At 21, while reading Nabokov’s short stories, and early novels, I decided I wanted to be a fiction writer and I won a fiction prize at McGill, although I didn’t write or publish any short fiction for over 10 years after that. Then I realized in my mid-30s that I simply wasn’t all that committed or interested in creating fictional characters and (especially!) figuring out how to get them from A to B.

Sometime around 2002 or 2003 I started writing lines and short poems, and the first poem I wrote, I sent out to Greenboathouse Books, who published it on their website along with one other poem. Around that time, I started to read Elizabeth Bishop, Michael Hofmann, and a few others from the U.K. Grad school and my romance with fiction shut poetry out for a long time; but I could also say it just took me a very long time to figure out the way my creative energy really worked, and to find the confidence to try something new yet strangely familiar. My discovery of Wallace Stevens was a watershed, a few years later. It helped me acknowledge that language has always been such a charged centre of my being in the world: I learned French almost at the same time as I learned English, and I lived with ESL parents who aren’t particularly literary (though my father reading to me as a child was, and is clearly, a very important catalyst for this charged relationship to language, not to mention my hearing foreign languages spoken at home). By the time I was writing what was to be included in my first collection of poems, my writing life had become more about consciousness on the page, and less about using language wholly denotatively.

SG: You're also an excellent prose stylist, as the fascinating "Commentary" section of Sumptuary Laws reminds me, and there is no shortage of characters and stories in the poems. You have also written enjoyable and convincing essays on a variety of subjects. I would like to ask about genre in terms of the relation between thinking and writing. Do you think about genre conventions and differences as you write? How do you think about genre (sorry for the pun) generally?

NM: I’ve noticed an affinity between poetry and essays in my writing, and I consider the two genres to reside at the opposite end of the spectrum from fiction writing, which I’m far less drawn into. Essay and poem are two related aspects of my use of language, while fiction demands some other, thespian register. Often, I’m writing through a persona (not myself) when I write essays/prose, and certainly there was a stylized self behind the Commentary section in Sumptuary Laws, and in many of the essays I wrote for A given persona also speaks in several of the poems in Sumptuary Laws, but as I’ve developed since its publication, I’ve jettisoned the persona and begun to write poems from my own standpoint—not usually a confessional standpoint, but on occasion it might be. This isn’t to say my curiosity hasn’t been satisfied writing through a persona, but it’s possible I’m growing out of relying on her. I think of the essays on Ryeberg as kinds of lazy poetry, I suppose, where I was able to relax some of my aural inclinations—the ones I recruit when I’m writing poems.

A recent essay I wrote was rooted in my own lived experience, and appeared in Partisan magazine earlier this year; in those cases where the inquiry isn’t aesthetic, I would never write from a persona’s voice since I want to elucidate something autobiographically without overt self-irony.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days? And if I can add to that question, where do you look for poetry you haven’t encountered before?

NM: Curiously, I’ve returned to a preoccupation with the strange, which I had explored in my chapbook Oneiric. In those poems, however, it was about the uncanny—the familiar meeting the strange, as in dreams. Now I am mostly curious about self-estrangement and the undiscovered, as catalysts for curiosity and appetite. I think maybe a fitting inquiry for an almost-midlife book, which is what I might write next. It’s this quality of living in embodied space, and the way it’s unpredictable, unlike one’s constant label/identity, so much a part of online living. What happens outside that over-determined identity and audience-focused content? I look for new poetry based on what’s being reviewed in journals and the newspapers, or talked about online. And the recommendations or interests of friends. I must admit I return often to the same poets, or else I seek out books of theirs I haven’t read yet. Other ways I’m inspired just happen from reading, for instance, about art, or being in a certain situation (recently, a VIA train I was on struck and killed a pedestrian; the other day I wrote a poem after looking out my balcony on a July evening).

Nyla Matuk is the author of Sumptuary Laws (Vehicule Press, 2012) and a chapbook of poems, Oneiric (Frog Hollow Press, 2009). Sumptuary Laws was named a National Post best book of poetry in 2012 and nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Matuk received a Yaddo fellowship in 2014 and was the 2015 Reynolds Atelier Visiting Artist at McGill University. Her poems have appeared recently in PN Review, The Fiddlehead, and the New Poetries VI anthology published by Carcanet Press in 2015. Read her poem Gloriette here. 

August 28, 2015

Nyla Matuk: A Poem

Nyla Matuk

First of the year, we’re snowbound, in debt
to the city’s surpluses. Humble strips of flashing

discern corners between Prada and Burberry
espied by lorgnette, stretched by silver mirror,

or Mary’s soul magnifying our Lord.
Elegance is a glam accompanist, a buttery scroll,

the distanced pace before a gauntlet’s dropped, 
and a dish best served cold.

(from Sumptuary Laws [Signal, 2012]. Reproduced by permission)

Nyla Matuk's poems have appeared recently in PN Review, The Fiddlehead, and New Poetries VI.

Photo of mannequin head by Scarlet James, courtesy of Red Edge Images

August 20, 2015

Cassidy McFadzean in Conversation

Where would poetry be without talk about poets?  I first heard about Cassidy McFadzean in Arc ("the up-and-comers issue," #73), in a memorable introduction to her work by Medrie Purdham. You might remember Medrie from our conversation and her poem in this blog.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place—or if you prefer, what brought poetry to you?

CASSIDY MCFADZEAN: I didn’t read a lot of poetry growing up. I read a bit of E. E. Cummings in highschool, and wrote bad Cummings imitations, but my main interest was short stories and novels in translation, my favourites being Notes From Underground and Crime and Punishment. In University, I didn’t take a lot of poetry outside the requirements and certainly wasn’t writing it. In retrospect, I think that something had to click in my brain before I was ready for poetry. I didn’t understand that a poem was the effect of its form, sounds, and techniques on the page—that a good poem couldn’t be paraphrased without losing its magic. I didn’t get it.

This changed the last year of my undergrad when I took a creative writing workshop with Regina poet Medrie Purdham. Medrie’s love for poetry made the genre irresistible. I began to see that those things I loved in fiction—the rhythm of a line or an immediacy of language— could be even more heightened in poetry. I began reading contemporary Canadian poets and really thinking about the effects of form and sound for the first time. It was in this workshop that I also met my husband, Nathan, who was reading Canadian poets like Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, and Jeramy Dodds, as well as Americans like Frederick Seidel and Michael Robbins, poets whose work pays attention to rhyme and form but also the contemporary world, the strangeness of being alive. Poetry has been the main focus of my writing life since encountering these works.

SG: Your poems have the kind of formal control I associate with musical composition, certain kinds of photography, choreography. You describe that formal awareness clicking for you as though it’s making poetry spring open; what is the relation between form and subject for you?

CM: I hadn’t really thought about the formal control of those art forms, but I think you’re onto something. As an admirer of visual arts, music, and dance, I’m most moved by the tension between freedom of expression and constraint, an invisible charge that I can almost feel as an audience member or gallery-goer.

I think when I write, I strive for a similar balance between chaos and control, or—because my book deals so much with the classical world—the Dionysian and Apollonian. Sometimes my use of form gestures to subject matter, and I think the structure of a poem is another way of evoking the feeling, tone, or energy of a piece, another way to express its texture. Other times, a pattern develops that at first might be unconscious, but lends scaffolding to a poem that might otherwise become too unwieldy. As an artist, I am interested in using all the tools available to create the aesthetics of a piece. Form allows me to explore another element of a thing, and to look at ideas and images from another angle, one that isn’t so easily put into words but expressed through patterns and what’s below the surface of language.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?
Reading the news seems to be affecting me the most, especially on Twitter. It is impossible to read of police murdering another innocent black man or woman in the US, or the injustices uncovered by the TRC here in Canada, and not feel like my work must address it in some way.

SG: Where do you look for poetry by other writers?

I’ve found some of the most exciting work shared online by other writers. This is how I came upon Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong," which was shared by a bunch of poets a few weeks ago, with good reason.

Cassidy McFadzean is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015). She has been a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize, the Walrus Poetry Prize, and won second place in the 2014 Short Grain Contest. McFadzean lives in Regina and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Read her poem Stag Hunt Mosaic here.

August 3, 2015

Cassidy McFadzean: A Poem

Cassidy McFadzean

We return to places we’ve already been.
The path outside the city pulls us in.

Winter kept our footprints whole,
mud-covered fossils hidden under snow,

so walking on old steps weighs the negatives of who
we were against the imprints of what we’ve become.

This year, my body is locust-thwacked.
Their buzzing bodies struck my skin

and landed on tilled earth, whirling insects
like spinning tops animated from within. 

There’s an order to such tiny things.
Is our passage any less stupid or dizzy?

My fortune cookie promised
I’d meet a stranger on an unpaved road.

I found the blue jay with a cut wing in a tree.
His triangle gash shadow-painted branches.

Between two hills and the rusted tractors
abandoned in a straight line, we feel the weight of sky.

We’re a tin can crushed by the rubber of your shoe.
We’re the shell of a seed that splits in two.

We stand on red and yellow leaves,
the cloak of round petals peeled over ground

like mosaic tiles leading to the valley’s portico.
In smooth pebbles at the river’s bed

the stag emerges from still water,
his antlers, hands reaching from scattered stones.  

Cassidy McFadzean is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015). She has been a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize, the Walrus Poetry Prize, and won second place in the 2014 Short Grain Contest. Cassidy lives in Regina and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Read our conversation here.

Image by Mirja Paljakka/courtesy of Red Edge

July 15, 2015

So Awesomely Cheeky: In Conversation with Linda Besner

I met Linda Besner when we read Tolstoy out loud together one autumn in a small group. Things would bubble up through her reading: undercurrents in dialogue, subtle complexities of society and politics. We'd forget it was snowing, or late, or that we had work yet to do. That the same ebullience turns up in her poetry and her talk is not the least bit surprising, and a great delight.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry—or, if you prefer, how did poetry come to you?

LINDA BESNER: I didn’t get exposed to poetry much in school, but when I was a kid my family had a tonne of British story tapes—Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan—all read by actors. I think I got a lot of my interest in prosody from listening to those recitations over and over.

Then in Cégep I got interested in the Greeks—I still have my little copy of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Greek Lyrics with notes from when I was seventeen—“Opposes the heroic view of ‘Come back with your shield or on it’” and “I made it, screw the ideal.” Those are on Archilochus’ fragment 3:
     Some barbarian is waving my shield, since I was obliged to 
        leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind 
     under a bush. But I got away, so what does it matter? 
        Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

I think I was attracted to pieces like this for how direct and immediate they feel—there’s still something neat to me about being able to hear someone’s voice so clearly thousands of years later.

And it’s so awesomely cheeky! The ignominy of “under a bush” kills me.

SG: Voice, comedy, tragedy, their inter-relation--these elements are at the forefront of your work, at least in my reading of it, carrying me further into each poem. Is there a cast of characters bumbling and/or gliding through the poems' worlds, a dramatis personae through whom someone (perhaps you) is speaking, or something more like an omniscient maker, setting up the funny-odd, funny-ha-ha worlds your poems stage for us?

LB: I’d say the latter. Some of the poems are set up as dramatic monologues (like Bathtub Showroom, which takes on the voice of a bathtub salesperson) but it seems to me that the personae of the poems are all essentially disguises, a set of false beards that barely hide the winking chin of the omniscient maker, so to speak. In that bathtub poem, the salesperson is him/herself making up characters—“A basin readymade for little Jim’s tadpoles, or Auntie Jean’s/ homemade gherkins”—who are themselves wraiths meant to conjure, half-sardonically, an ideal family life.

I think none of the speakers in this book are anything I would call real, even those closest to myself. I’m interested in the ideas and feelings that pull against each other, and this interest tends to militate against cohesion or consistency in the poems. At the same time, I hate the idea of randomness and meaninglessness! So I think the tragicomic note you’re hearing is me struggling to reconcile a seemingly cruelly random world with my own need for order and structure. If there is an omniscient maker of these poems, that speaker is still not omnipotent—-you can know a lot without being able to control much of anything. So the extent to which the maker can set up the world of a poem is limited by the inherent contrariness of reality and of language. I wouldn’t say that my poems stage a weirdness, exactly—I think the materials of life just *are* quite weird. The absurdity that reads as funny isn’t something that I’d say I go in search of—-it’s something I’d say I’m perpetually trying to wrestle into some kind of sense. I don’t see being funny as an end in itself.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

LB:  I moved back to Montreal a year and a half ago (I'm from Quebec but have lived in New Brunswick, BC, and Ontario over the past 15 years or so), and being back in a francophone environment is pretty great. My French is far from perfect, but being reminded that I have access to a whole second language as well as a separate set of historical and cultural references is a huge boon.

I essentially want to answer this question like I'm listing Oprah's favourite things of the month: Crayola markers, Nancy Mitford, kites, street signs, Heather Christle, cucumber water, the LRB, the coming environmental apocalypse. Those are essentially all hovering, psychically or otherwise, on or near my desk right now. As well as a bunch of books in which I have been searching fruitlessly for guidance on journalistic ethics--seriously, I kind of wish there were some sort of exam you had to pass before they let an idiot like me go around reporting on other people's lives. I'm not sure if "inspiring" is quite the word, but I am awake at night thinking about that a lot--what the ethics are of my choosing to write about certain things, either as a journalist or a poet. Especially because (with poetry) I've recently been using text that I see in ads or online as a departure point, I'm aware that people who blog or otherwise post their thoughts online don't always understand the ramifications--that someone like me could come along and use their text in a way they didn't intend. I do it in a way that's legal, but is it fair? Does it matter when it's pretty much 99% certain that the person who wrote some tag line for a travel ad to Aruba will not see the poem I've written that uses their line as a title? What about if it's a line from a personal blog? I guess I'm wondering these days how I can write about what interests me--which is often, frankly, other people's experiences and generally a lot of things that are none of my business--without being a jerk in some respect.

Linda Besner’s first book of poetry, The Id Kid (Véhicule Press) was one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. She was a 2013 MacDowell Colony Fellow, and her poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely, including in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, Hazlitt, and Best Canadian Poetry 2012. She lives in Montreal where she works as a journalist. Read her poem Paris in the the Spring here

July 7, 2015

Linda Besner: A Poem

Linda Besner

We were orbiting the étoile of the Arc de Triomphe in its
its traffic circle. We drove our attention before us and in
in her silver heels she ran revolutions,
her braided mane lashing the reins
of our chariot. Maypoling
the neoclassically naked
men and angels, in our haste
to sightsee we swung past what
what we saw, kept losing
the Louvre, eliding the Élysées.
Like astronauts who,
sans gravity’s lorgnette, can’t
can’t tell a white vase from black faces.
Then a gap in traffic burst upon us
like a clock radio revival tent.
The parking meter,
an Eiffel smoothed flat, now
now sprang into view.
My father, the cognitive scientist,
was running alongside us.
He motioned that his hand was caught in
in the automatic window.
I hadn’t noticed. 

(from The Id Kid [Signal/Véhicule]. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

Linda Besner’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines across Canada, including The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, and Hazlitt, and been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry 2012. She lives in Montreal where she works as a journalist. The Id Kid was named on of the National Post's best poetry books of 2011.
(Photo by Rebecca Cozart. Reproduced by permission of Red Edge Images.)