July 19, 2017


S. E. Venart

She was sixty-nine or was she seventy?  Some people said a ripe old age.        
It’s said that if the young learn that they are dying, they become holy.    I suppose
it’s their face.  It is said, anyway.     Above the barn sink, the glass held the reflection
of a barn cat leaping for a barn swallow. I saw it go down, slapping my wet hands and seething: Shit! Well, that’s over.      I looked everywhere for meaning: in her soft-tissued pyjamas,
in her perhaps-holy face. I read poems to her that were little stories: man walks into autumn
beach town, is a skunk, finds a skunk, the end.      I made lemon custard.
I set spoons on the two-by-four table. This is my gold-packed love.   I pushed in her puritan bench. The other side of the window bloomed lilac— I can’t say what I want that to mean—
she was already above me, outside me, beyond me? Still I brought a bowl to her table.  
Each spoonful she spat into the napkin, her face lit with adoration for that later-place.  
She made a device of folding her napkin into smaller squares, hiding my love without looking.     
But who can talk about what you will miss every minute?   We turned toward signs painted Peaches, I recited.      Once she looked up and said, I’ll miss that face    
Oh, how I hoped. I kept combing the moment. It was said. I return to it.  
Falling action, floodlit.   Anything could happen. Nothing fixed in place yet—. 

S. E. Venart lives in Montreal.
Read Chance Harbour 
More poems

June 21, 2017

A Convergence of Gazes: Gjertrud Schnackenberg on "Afghan Girl"

I was enjoying my second coffee on a quiet morning some time ago when this message from Gjertrud Schnackenberg arrived in my inbox. 

Dear Susan, At last I’ve finished the poem I’ve been working on day and night since October, 2012.  When I began the poem I was overjoyed because I thought it would be a short poem, and I always want and hope to write short poems — but as weeks turned into months and years, the writing began to feel like a dream in which I was using magic scissors to cut into it and cut into it,  and with every cut, the poem grew longer and longer. 

She had attached a file. I put down what I was doing and opened it, and began reading. And re-reading. It was, to put it simply, astonishing. 

“Afghan Girl” (New England Review, June 2017) pays tribute to Steve McCurry's iconic photograph of a young woman, later identified as Sharbat Gula, in an Afghan refugee camp. Her arresting gaze is the starting point for Schnackenberg’s interrogation of conflict, empire, religion, beauty and presence. It's a poem that meets the gaze of Sharbat Gula with its own intensity, unfolding in rhythmically propulsive short lines its quest to understand what that gaze expresses and what it stirs in the viewer.

I wrote back. How do you do it, break my heart in a poem and lift it up at the same time? The conversation that follows, with the kind participation of Gregory Fried, is Trude's extended answer to my question. Gjertrud and Gregory spoke with me via email over a period of several months.

Steve McCurry's June 1985 National Geographic cover.

SUSAN GILLIS: Your poem “Afghan Girl” opens on Sharbat Gula's gaze as it is caught and held in Steve McCurry's photograph. Let's begin there, then. Is it fair to say the poem is one in which image-making as subject is explored through image-making?
GJERTRUD SCHNACKENBERG: Image-making as a way of exploring the image, and of exploring the insuperable drive to make images — yes, and the poem seesaws between the opposing facts that human images are prohibited in Islam, and that this photographic image of an Islamic girl is one of the most famous photographs in the world. 

In reference to the paradox of this poem's subject, an image taken from an image-forbidding culture, the poet Mary Jo Salter has spoken of "the unwinnable, unlosable argument of imagery." Her phrase goes directly to the heart of how poetry thinks, and I think it furthermore hints at the bond between imagery and negative capability. That is, the way that poetry thinks, which is so often in imagery (and in imagery that imagines thoughts about images), is one of the ways that poetry slips the cuffs of ideologies and beliefs (and of the self and its viewpoint, too) while retaining the value, even the moral value, conferred by witness.

June 1, 2017

A Most Anticipated Kindness

Another most anticipated 2017 collection: Susan Elmslie's Museum of Kindness, Fall 2017 from Brick Books.

Why are there so many museums devoted to acts of war, instruments of torture, all manner of atrocity, but not to acts of kindness? This is essentially how Susan Elmslie explained her new collection to me when we chatted one day last fall. It's wonderfully affirming, the thought of honouring kindness this way. It also sparks something slightly chilling: is kindness so strange to us that it needs to be set in a museum? But museums are not the only places the things in them inhabit....

Museum of Kindness, cover image by RenéBolduc
As the publisher's website says, in this book Susan Elmslie's is "a sober and unflinching gaze that meets us where we really live and does not look away." Read "In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias" here and more from Museum of Kindness at Numero Cinq


In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias

Water, is taught by thirst. — Emily Dickinson

Not exactly an oasis in the desert,
but as you bide time before the biopsy
or loosen your watch to let the news
sink in, good to avail yourself
of the $2.22 coffee & muffin combo
or Fairlee pulp-free OJ and bagel,
benign beige plastic chair,
dusty plant languishing on a ledge:
a single bloom, reaching
toward the window’s frosted glass.
On another day this plant
would be giving God the finger. 
The food service worker’s skirt
argues with her butt.  Luck
sounds like a word a baby might say,
trying out her tongue.  So what
if you have forgotten the common names
of trees, the taste of a carrot with the dirt
just rubbed off, which bird
says, youcheeseburger, cheeseburger,
cheeseburger, cheeseburg.
There is ordinary comfort in wrapped straws.
A lady is scraping a muffin paper
with her teeth, so
beautiful.  For now
there is no bloom of blood in the syringe—
magenta, a magician’s scarf.
Here you are:
a hiatus before climbing an endless flight
of unpainted stairs or sitting at home, suffering
the Muzak of the incontinent faucet.

"In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias" first appeared in Prism 52:4. Reproduced here by permission of the author.

May 23, 2017

SQ's Ariel

Among my most anticipated this year is Sina Queyras's My Ariel, from Coach House Books (September 2017).

Sina Queyras' My Ariel, from Coach House Books
If you've been watching these poems hatch over the last few years, you're probably like me: eager for the book, to hold, browse, watch, read and hear.

Meanwhile, fortunately, this poem, Tulips.
And this and this from the Awl
And this and this from Poetry

Sina Queyras: Tulips


The tulips are not lovely, they make me cry, they are
Excitable, willing, complicit: they will never fly.
They begin so prim, they turn and stare, then settle
In and suck my good air. I think they slipped in
Between the nurses sailing by my bouquet-bright harem
Festooned room and now wild tulips from Syria
And Persia swoon.

They are servants of mood, descendants of the fifty
Thousand sent as a gift to Turkey where a Sultan tamed
The small explosions so central to the pleasure gardens.
The tulips swan my fears, they mock my tears, giggle
And preen across the sheers where the variegated
Parrot reigns over lesser varieties whose sculpt and sheen
Are nonetheless honeyed bright apples I cannot bite.

I hear the Sultan crammed his pipe—a stem of some long
Tulip—full of fat red bores—the kind that drove you
Out of London, though not the ambition out of you—not even
Death could achieve that. Listen, these sheets cocoon me
Hour after hour, the sun is a yowl, I turn in my salt water,
Float toward tulip light, not a tunnel I like;
I do not trust their brightness.

The stamen is a small lens that watches me writhe.
I want out of this vase; I am always drawing the Ace of Cups,
I am always a vessel overflowing. Amy Lowell insists,
Even before they shatter the earth in spring the air smells
Of tulips, but the tulip is scentless, the tulip is all colour
And cower. That spring in Devon a rare American Cardinal
Darted past like a tulip to nail the green day down.

On the plateau dirty tulips stream by, barely upright, drunk
With warmth and swaying like alley cats. There,
A single sultry early red pants against a wall, so much
Need to feed a crisp stem whose gnarled petals clench
In a late frost. These tulips crinkle loudly in their plastic
Wrap but once in water unclench ten angry
Fists wanting more, more, more!

Blooms are bestowed with no formality
But the laurel festers. Why do prizes come in spring?
They swab me clean of pride, my bottom up in the air,
Take me, it says, pushing against the gatekeepers gate,
Take me! Still, these tulips make the other me want
To see: we stretch our fingers up, up, into
The bullet holes above the bed.

As for scent, I can barely breathe for spring
And all. The tulip’s redness brings me numbness
In bright needles, talks rudely to my wound, heavy
As lead in my dressing room. Is it only we poets,
Who bless our ravished sight to see such order
From confusion sprung, such gaudy tulips
Raised from dung?

How eloquent our sex is, and how easily placated
Our mothers were; a vase, some verse, voila.
What, the young women ask, what has the tulip
To do with us? How do we think about the tulip?
What do the tulips want of us? Do they believe
Women? Are they determined? How
Does a tulip show it is determined?

If the tulips have emerged from heaven’s side door
Which planet is it they are marching to, or for?
Now crow flaps past the window and once again
A whiff of bright light. Just before the tulips crossed
Their legs sun lay across my desk like bands of grass
Bobbing on tulip flesh, down, down, down below
The hum of an insect chorus.

Who smells so much like lies as the tulip?
I think the tulips all have Assia’s eyes.
They haunt me. They
make me faint.
Recall with envy the faces of all the tulips Ted
Has touched.
I am no saint, no bleeding
Heart; like David I hide my desire under the blanket,
But my pride parades, swollen, angry, red.

Who slipped in through my bureau of linen?
Who through the iron bars of my garden gate?
Who flew off in the eye of Raven? Who
With my health tucked in his breast, stole north?
Tell me, why did only some of the tulips leap?
Why are all the bad tulips expelled
From the garden? Where do they go?

Sina Queyras is the author of Lemon Hound, Expressway and MxT, all from Coach House Books. My Ariel will be published in September 2017. She is the editor of Lemonhound. You can follow her on Twitter.

May 2, 2017


Image by Mirja Paljakka/Red Edge Images, used by permission

S. E. Venart

Some things cannot be faced head on. Inside
the bay, men in boots come with shovels, open our
washed ocean floor. The thoughts I can never lose

or use spout from the sanded throats of clams beneath
what the tide exposes. Two years after your death, you’re back
visiting my sister’s yard, admiring the lilacs. Some things cannot

be faced head on. When the men climb in a dinghy, they accept
a black mask and plunge for whores’ eggs: prickled delicacies
to be eaten, peeled, by eastern men. These thoughts I will never lose

lie beneath our bay’s smooth skin, it’s coming in, low tide holds
its copper strength for only sixty seconds. I have no time
to fix you in place before you’re gone. Some things cannot be faced head on.

This visit, you stood by tiny lilac flowered flutes, unruffled
bay behind you. All pettiness aside, I can’t be the daughter pulling
something hopeful from your thoughts. I must never lose

you, but we are allowed a break. On the peeling rust stones, the tide
stops in its moment— nothing to heed. The black suits dive for gold
among our waves. Some things cannot be faced head on.
What I can never lose, I’ve used.

May 1, 2017


It might have been the Athens Restaurant in Halifax where I first met Darren Bifford, deep in conversation with a friend I'd gone over to greet. Or it might have been in Montreal, at The Word Bookstore (for everyone eventually turns up at The Word). Or maybe some other realm entirely.

SUSAN GILLIS: What first brought you to poetry?
DARREN BIFFORD: It’s surprising to me that I became interested in poetry at all. I grew up in a small town in Western Canada where there wasn’t much by way of culture. I have a memory of my ninth grade English teacher laboriously attempting to explain the difference between a metaphor and a simile. Still, some cultural scraps ended up within reach. My grandmother ordered this four cassette series of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Haydn which I do not recall anyone ever listening to. I was interested in this music in part because it seemed so out of place.
          The same, I think, happened with poetry. We had a teacher of English Literature, Murray Johnson, who exerted an incredible influence on some of his students. He was a big bulldog of a man with a baritone voice who always wore a blazer and tie. He’d walk slowly down the halls of the high-school, head down, either thinking or attempting to block out the noise of teenagers. I was terrified of him and dreaded twelfth grade mainly because I’d be in his classes. Naturally he turned out to be a wonderful teacher, full of humor and compassion for his students. He taught us Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantics, reading aloud from his beat-up Norton that he’d kept from his university days. He took those poets very seriously, very personally. He argued with them and I recall that he once wished that Tennyson would have died instead of Keats—a remark he apologized for the next class, as if he’d said something truly horrible He was mostly angry with Milton, whose poetry he loved. He also loved Charlie Mingus. I owe to him my first experience of a serious desire for literature. The desire itself is most important—I barely understood any of the poetry. 
          That still seems the case now. Desire—that mix of poverty and eros—is what really matters.
          When I began university a few years later I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to walk into Jan Zwicky’s philosophy class. Her influence and the influence of the other poets living in and around Victoria in the mid-to-late nineties was more direct. Al Purdy was alive and active, so was PK Page, Pat Lane, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst. I was in awe of them all. I also had a teacher, Luke Carson, in English, who was terribly generous with me. He turned out to be a great reader of John Ashbery. Also, despite the fact that I studied philosophy, I was (competitively) moved by a lot of the young writers at UVIC who were around in those days: Steve Price, Esi Edugyan, Billeh Nickerson, Brad Cran, Tom Powell, Matt Rader, Rhian Cox, Spencer Maybee, Joe Denham, Jill Wigmore, Jenny Goth, Gillian Jerome, Bren Simmers, Melea Acker. I also came to meet some of the painters of the recently-dissolved Chapman Group: Jim Gordaneer and his son Jeremy, Mark Laver and Lucia Sanroman. I list all those names because twenty years have passed and it all feel like elegy already. Poetry happens to me because everyone else. It was a cool time.

SG: Your poems often import scenes and situations, also people, from a classical world into real time, real life contexts. I have the sense you are wrestling with them as real living entities. What are the compelling quarrels or quandaries? Do we have any hope of learning from the past – is that even a reasonable aim? Or is the past already us?
DB: Walter Benjamin writes somewhere about images / scraps of the past flitting by. He says that the critical historian is always sensitive to and in pursuit of those scraps, attempting to seize them. The same holds, I think, for a certain kind of poet.
          It’s worth saying again that poetry is a way of comprehending one’s own life and time. That means pretty clearly that a poet worth reading ought to be historical sensitive, and alert to historic analogies with his or her present circumstances. I don’t mean that we all ought to be scholars or go about reading huge texts; I mean that the lyric impulse, which aims to launch itself outside of history, is in my own case tempered by a historical burden I’ve felt obliged to take on.
          In another less heavy sense, I’ve always believed that the entities which populate our imaginations exist independently of us, like devils and angels exist. Literature establishes contact with these beings and, when I write, I keep my poem open for any of those “figures of the imaginative past” who might wish to show up. Practically this means that I’m increasingly unafraid to import and alter lines and images and rhymes from old poetry, and to do so explicitly.
          I think of this differently than using “found text”, as if I’ve sought out the text and then integrated it into the poem. Here the encounter occurs in the act of writing the poem and seems to me not extraneous to the creative act as such. So: “wine dark ocean” is, of course, Homer, and hence violence, exile, the desire for home; it’s Ezra Pound’s translation in Canto 1, and hence his noble and stupid Cantos, etc. I want all those allusions. I have also attempted in these poems to retain and exploit an elevated diction, using the Latin / Greek root instead of the Anglo Saxon one.
          Finally, the “quarrels” you ask about and which continue to be compelling are just the same as ever: love, grief, death, power. Having a child had this unsurprising effect on my life: all the clichés are true; we haven’t solved anything; I’m going to die. And so: how not to panic. The poems are flares out of that crisis.   

SG: What's inspiring you these days?
DB: Inspiration is part of creation; it’s probably best not to talk about it. So I’ll take your question as one about influence rather than inspiration. 
          The other day I picked up from my shelf Adam Zagajewski’s essay collection, A Defense of Ardor. I’d read it close to ten years ago but I’ve not returned to it since. I noticed I’d marked a paragraph which seems now to have very much characterized the (almost always ill-formed) intent behind my work: “Along with his traditional labors, the writer’s pressing task must be the weighing of these two components, the discovery of new forms of evil, new varieties of good, new forms of behaviour and ageless ways of life. The writer evaluates the world, always a little new, always a little old, both archaically the same and changing under the invasion of the ‘modernity’ that now sheathes the world like a layer of shining nylon, even though not so long ago it had been traumatized by the convulsions of the thirties and forties, partly under the influence of the same modernity. The age’s great intellectual labor is still chiefly the comprehension of the twentieth century’s vast tragedies. Is there a place for poetry in this labor?”
          All that is a bit—a lot!—grandiose, perhaps; it’s also conceptually sloppy (new forms of evil? modernity as a catch all phrase?). Still, Zagajewski, like Czeslaw Milosz before him, sets the lyrical impulse against historical reality; as a result there’s a moral dimension to their work that has infected my own sense of what I wish my poetry to be. So I’ve been attracted to those poets of the 20th Century in whose work I could discover a moral stay against the overwhelming maw of our recent history. W.H. Auden is crucial for me. As is Robert Lowell, Milosz and, recently, Joseph Brodsky. I’ve returned to the Greek and Roman classics over the last few years, as I have turned to more reading in history proper. I get a real pleasure from Gibbon’s prose. Tony Judt’s books and essays almost cured me of poetry entirely, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands was a serious assault on my capacity to get through the day. In response to their work I’ve returned to reading Jacque Maritain, Leo Strauss, Simone Weil and George Grant. I do all this unsystematically and poorly. (It’s a good thing that poets don’t have to be scholars).
          Occasionally I want to write a poem and so I sit down and try to write a poem. I’m happy and relieved when I do so and I discover that some of what I’ve been reading has managed to shape the poem in cool ways. It’s almost always unintentional. That’s almost my entire poetics.

Darren Bifford is the author of Wedding in Fire Country (Nightwood Editions, 2012) and Hermit Crab (Baseline Press, 2014). His next book of poetry will be published with Brick Books in 2018. He lives in Montreal