Laughing is great and people like doing it: "It's a Big Deal" by Dina Del Bucchia

The following interview is part one of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

Pride – Dina Del Bucchia

Sometimes it seems easier for every person close to me to be gone, than forthem to have to put up with me as a disappointment. Pressure when I thinkabout a family gathering, attempts to careen conversation topics into things I excel at. Avoid eye contact when the future is brought up. Unless it’s theoretical: talk of spaceships, technological innovations, our bodies transcending shape and space. Humans considering retirement, balancing accounts. Who will take care of my parents when I’m working seven minimum-wage jobs? If we can preserve brains by then, I will sit in virtual reality and hold their hands, make them laugh with stories about my life. Continue to avoid eye contact, wherever their eyes might be out in space. I don’t need them to be proud of me, cheers and air horns. I just need to feel them pull away from their own worry. Hot chest, hands, eyes, feet. Mine still firmly rooted on the earth.

Reprinted with permission from 
It’s a Big Deal by Dina Del Bucchia 
(Talonbooks, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Your new poetry collection, It’s a Big Deal! (Talonbooks), opens with the instruction “Read Marketing for Dummies. And then set it on fire because you are no dummy!” From there the book goes on to channel and ridicule a wide range of imperative language, from advertisting, to corporate-speak, to self-help books, to our own internal monologues (all the ways we are told, and tell ourselves, what to do). In this way it mirrors the self-help poems in your debut collection Coping with Emotions and Otters (Talonbooks, 2013). What draws you to explore these types of voices (and power dynamics) in your poems? Do you think your years of working in retail have shaped your thoughts around giving and receiving orders, including around what to consume?

Dina Del Bucchia: You’ve tied in so many things about my life and writing in this one question! I definitely see this collection as a companion to Coping with Emotions and Otters.

I think what draws me to these voices is a lifetime of experiencing being on the lower end of a retail food chain. It’s also in seeing people buy those self-help books, seeing the trends that appear around how we are supposed to better ourselves, watching how those trends influence television and film, and fashion, and food. Everything is connected now because it can be monetized, and influencer-ized, and the gig economy is here to suggest we can simply add “#ad” to a post and that is how people are paid. But it’s not really true. Native advertising is wild. In some ways, everyone is a writer because there is content everywhere. Is this what most poets are thinking about? Instagram influencers and LinkedIn? Sometimes I wonder if I should write a damn poem about some flowers in a field or something.

Rob: Ha! I envision a flower from time to time, crushed under the foot of a mammoth or something.

Speaking of Coping With Emotions and Otters, that book shared a similar structure to this one: opening with the more self-helpy poems and ending with furry animals (in that case, otters, in this case, extinct megafauna like the aforementioned mammoth). You also bring the two books together by ending It’s a Big Deal! with a poem about the extinct Giant Otter (Siamogale melilutra – how excited were you when you learned about them?).

In between those two books, you put out two other poetry collections—Blind Items and Rom Com (with Daniel Zomparelli)—which seemed more singular in focus. Do you consider this book to be more in keeping with Otters? A sort of sequel? Do you think of it as a general collection, or as unified in a way that matches your last couple books?

Dina: I remember reading about the Giant Otter when remains were discovered in 2017 and knowing that I was obviously going to write about it and also that it would be the poem to end the book. And I do think It’s A Big Deal is a sequel of sorts, certainly a continued conversation with some of the poems and ideas in Otters.

I am probably typical, in that, like most writers, I have certain interests that don’t just creep into my work, but live there full time. For me those are contemporary culture, pop culture, and how we all connect or don’t connect to it, how it influences our lives, how we absorb or consume or reject it.

Whether I’m writing about romantic comedies or celebrities or megafauna it’s all coming from a place of interest and interrogation (or obsession) that feels the same to me. A driving force. I think a lot in terms of persona and voice. Writing megafauna and writing about celebrities felt so similar to me, in unpacking who they are, what they mean to the speaker of the poem, digging for them, finding truths, and also making assumptions and making things up.

So yeah, I do think overall there is much overlap between all of the books, and to me the otters and megafauna and celebrities are all on the same level of fame.

Rob: In addition to sharing a certain constellation of “obsessions,” your books, or sections therein, are often tied to one theme or written in one style (“projects,” as someone writing a grant application might call them). In It’s a Big Deal!, the section “Tips” includes poems which comment on Marketing, Dating, Beauty, etc. (and are titled accordingly), while titles in the “Big Ideas” section include “War,” “Peace,” “Religion,” “Politics,” etc. And the aforementioned last section is dedicated to giant dead animals (“Megafauna”).

This made me curious about the role of structure in your writing life. Do you usually write toward a particular project or theme? Or do you just write whatever, and the categorizing comes later? Do you set aside particular times in the day/week to write, or just write when it comes to you?

Dina: I’ve barely worked on anything, aside from revising and editing this book, in over a year. So, right now is the first time I haven’t had overlapping writing projects. And it’s very odd. And uncomfortable, but also fine. Without knowing what I’m going to work on next I’ve had a hard time writing at all. My other books were all written over top of each other, one while taking a break from another. So now I’m like, um…

When I’m in the early stages of writing I let the pace be whatever it is. The organizational stuff, the scheduling for me, comes later when I’m revising and working through drafts. I’m pretty obsessive and excitable, so often the initial writing is frenzied, even if it’s just a few lines or the nugget of a story. If I stop being interested in something I stop, and maybe it becomes interesting again, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s always right there waiting for me, like a pop ballad.

I think I’ve let my life and work take up a lot of my time, and that hasn’t left room for writing. I’ve taken on a lot and I don’t regret the things I’m doing, but I might finally have to confront the reality of what my writing time will look like once I decide to start doing that again. And writing for me has escapist qualities, so I do miss it for a lot of reasons. I want to live in the heads of other people for a while.

Rob: Though not people, you did spend a bunch of this book living in the heads of giant dead animals. The “megafauna” are delightful, but what’s up with them? At first they seem totally out of place in a book about the modern realities of urban life, but soon enough these ground sloths and mastadons and cave lions start bleeding into our present moment. They star in reality TV shows and Jimmy Kimmel mean tweets, and are surrounded by brunch, bronies, and global warming (they’re on the “same level of fame,” as you suggested earlier).

What got you thinking about extinct megafauna? When did you get the idea to bring them into conversation with the rest of the poems in the book, and how do you think they influence the overall feeling (dare I say “message”) of the book?

Dina: When my first book came out I was invited to a poetry festival in Whitehorse. While I was there I went to the Beringia Interpretive Centre and was blown away by the vast array of giant animals that used to be on this planet. We hear so much about dinosaurs, but the extinct megafauna aren’t quite as popular, so I wanted to explore them. They were also alive at the same time as humans, some were even food, so it had me thinking, “What is our relationship to these extinct animals?” I thought about how to interpret them through a modern lens; to look at them the way we do with cute animal videos online. That also connects to my first book, which had poems written about otters that became YouTube famous. I don’t have a lot of tricks up my sleeve.

Looking at what is no longer alive is an interesting way to look at the world now. Why do some things, like dinosaurs for example, hold such cultural capital, but a giant ground sloth doesn’t? What holds value, what do we remember, what is important, what is a big deal? The whole book hinged on that one poem’s title, which became the book’s title and, I hope, influenced all the sections and poems. Initially the book was just megafauna and the “Talk it Out” section. The other two sections were things I was sort of working on but realized could connect once that title took over.

Rob: It’s amazing how finding that right title and “angle” for looking at a book can snap everything into place, isn’t it? You joke about only having so many tricks up your sleeve, but I think what we’re really seeing is your deep awareness of the undercurrents that connect your poems into a book. You know how to weave everything together, both in theme and image.

One such theme in It’s a Big Deal! revolves around sarcastic or absurd, sometimes justifiably embittered, responses to the daunting economic realities of the world. It’s tough to get by for under-40s (and artists, to boot) anywhere in the world right now, but particularly in Vancouver. To what extent did the near-impossibility of making it in this city shape its content and tone?

Dina: I am almost not under-40 and I think this is reflected in the final revisions of this book. How will I retire, let alone survive the next decade? I want to question the larger economic realities, because, frankly, they’re garbage. Those systems are trash and so many people suffer because of them. I was looking at my own concerns, and those of friends, and others I see in the city.

Living somewhere that is obsessed with self-help, improvement, wellness, and appropriative healing practices; that wants to be both a weed-inhaling Vangroovy pseudo-hippie enclave and a completely corrupt capitalist real estate hellscape, is both terrifying and hilarious. It’s all about money translating to wellness, and self-improvement. And people here want to act like they’re so chill and accepting, but they’re also super fatphobic for example, which is extremely ironic and gross. It’s like a part of the city is saying, “Accept who you are, unless you’re any of these things that we don’t like and think are unhealthy. Please enjoy this framed self-affirming print though, it costs $90.” It’s a get off our lawn vibe, and only rich people have lawns.

Rob: Few people have done more than yourself to provide a platform for up-and-coming Vancouver writers. That work includes being senior editor at Poetry is Dead, co-host of the Can’t Lit podcast, and coordinator of the Real Vancouver Writers Series. You are vital to the success of Vancouver’s cultural community and yet, as mentioned above, the city sends a “get off our lawn” message to artists with every foreclosed arts space and renoviction. Which city do you feel you’re living in most often, the city you are a part of making, or the “corrupt capitalist real estate hellscape” that the global economy is busily demolishing-into-being? Are they inextricably one and the same?

Dina: So many people are doing work in the literary scene here, I just happen to be loud and selfie-loving and bright-lipstick clad. Visible. Audible. It doesn’t mean I don’t do a lot of work, but I know so many are out there doing so much. I am grateful to many, including Ben Rawluk and Daniel Zomparelli at Poetry is Dead, Jen Sookfong Lee at Can’t Lit, and Sean Cranbury and the whole team and board at Real Vancouver. I hope people are going to Growing Room and Indigenous Brilliance and Fine.

I have the energy (most of the time) and I want to create the events, publications, and podcasts I’d like to see in the city. That means putting in the time and calling on the best people and listening to them, especially when they are telling us about new voices or people who are doing exciting things. I am bad at being quiet and alone, so I like to do things that involve bringing people together—parties that are hopefully amenable to the mostly introverted and anxious folks in the literary sphere.

This city is rough. The good and the bad are one and the same and I can’t see it another way. The city wants us to make their coffees in the business district and not have homes, but we’re always finding funding or pockets of space for art. I am hopeful on some level that we can all survive here—artists, people in the service industry, single parents, disabled people, etc.—and that the city won’t turn us all out. Occupy Shaughnessy, burn something down, build a barge out of craft beer cans and dock it in front of the fanciest yachts.

Rob: Ha! Ok, that leads well into my next question. So many of these poems are damn funny (example: “How do you make your household sexier? The answer is to masturbate in the linen closet”). How often do you get to say that about either A) a Canadian book or B) a book of poetry, let alone an A-B combination?

Why funny poems, Dina? How do they do their work differently from “serious” poems? Does a joke, dropped into an otherwise serious poem, somehow change the molecular structure of the whole thing? Or can it just be a laugh for a laugh’s sake?

Dina: Laughing is great and people like doing it. The end.

As a writer I think part of craft is knowing what you want your work to do, and for me a part of that is I want it to entertain. Books are entertainment. Books are not these dour things that teach us about stuff, though yes they do that and I hope my work does that too, but people do read as part of their leisure life. I know, this may seem shocking and strange.

I think the emotionality of a poem is important whether the tone is more serious or more humorous. Sometimes you have a really funny line, and it is integral to the theme of the poem, and that is the greatest moment. All the connections are there. Similar to writing that is serious in tone, you want all the elements to be there: for the work to feel complete and full and the writing to be sharp. For me, humour is one of those elements. But sometimes, sure, you drop a one-liner in for a fun time, and that’s great too. All writers have failed to kill some of their “darlings” and sometimes mine are fart jokes or quips.

Rob: You teach comedic writing at UBC. Who are some of your favourite comedic poets to introduce your students to?

Dina: I don’t talk about poetry much in class at all, but if I am asked (I am not) I do I often point to people like beni xiao, Kathryn Mockler, Gary Barwin, Tenille Campbell, Jennica Harper, and Daniel Zomparelli, of course. This is just off the top of my head. There are so many funny poets. Please contact me for more information.

Rob: Speaking of all the great writers out there, in the acknowledgments or It’s a Big Deal! you thank your writing group, with which you’ve been working for almost 15 years. That’s amazing! What role has that group played in your development as a writer? In what ways has it functioned differently from/similarly to your more formalized education in Creative Writing at UBC?

Dina: First, I need to say that somehow in the final proofs one of the members of my writing group was left out. And he is the best. Thanks John Vigna! He deserves to be acknowledged.

I was very much a baby writer when I joined the group. I graduated from undergrad in 2002 and joined this group in 2004. After a few members left and others joined we’ve been almost the same group since the fall of 2004. Everyone has different experience, which is crucial. Listening to others talk about their process of revision, the ways they approach story or character, has been amazing to be around.

Unlike a workshop, we don’t read the work ahead of time and then have prepared comments, but read to each other and discuss from there. Coming from that workshop style of sitting and not speaking it was refreshing to enter a space with people you trust and respect. We’re able to have conversations about problems in our work, to consider options, and to ask questions about what others have done and what suggestions they might have. Also, we get to celebrate our successes, discuss disappointments, and talk about the community in general. Formal workshops are great, and I got some great stuff from them, but conversations are so integral, to me anyway, to learning and growing as a writer.

Rob: Weird little structure question: all your poetry books are almost the same length! (110, 112, 128 and 117 pages, by my count—the longest being your co-authored book with Daniel.) That is a good 30 pages longer than the average poetry book, so it’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence. What draws you to that length? Will you ever come out with a Canada-Council-minimum 48 page book, or are those too weak and puny for you?

Dina: I would love to write a sweet little chapbook. I mean, tonally it would probably be aggressive like all my other books, but short in length. It would be cute, in stature. I don’t exactly know why my books are this long, but I guess being a verbose loudmouth translates into text. I think because I am often obsessive about concept and subject I go a little overboard. I have a lot to say. I’m not against shorter books. I’d love to write a short novel, then I could be like, “Look at this novel I wrote!”

Small is not weak or puny! I am just over the top.

Rob: It’s a Big Deal! is your third book with Talonbooks, who also published your debut. Could you speak a bit about working with them, and the role that long-term relationship has played in your development as a writer?

Dina: Firstly, they are really open in communication when it comes to administrative things, and as I’ve developed as a writer I’ve found that relationships that make those things easier are, ahem, a big deal.

Secondly, I have had such great editing experiences with Rom Com and It’s a Big Deal! Talon has been great to work with and Sachiko Murakami and Nikki Reimer are amazing editors. The editing work Daniel and I did on Rom Com was obviously slightly more complicated with two writers, and yet it was such an incredible experience. And Talon were fully on board for the paper dolls of Daniel and myself in Rom Com, which to this day is a life dream fulfilled.

Talon also really made me feel like my ideas were good! Knowing I can bring ideas to them is great. It makes me want to not retire from writing, even though I joke about it constantly right now. Most of my books are somewhat ridiculous in concept or subject, but they were always interested. That alone is huge to me. Knowing I could continue to be funny, use my voice the way I wanted to, and try out my aesthetic-heavy cover ideas. What more could I ask for? 

Dina Del Bucchia is the author of the short-story collection Don’t Tell Me What to Do (Arsenal Pulp Press) and four collections of poetry: It’s a Big Deal!, Coping with Emotions and Otters, Blind Items, and Rom Com, the latter written with Daniel Zomparelli. She is an editor of Poetry Is Dead magazine, the artistic director of the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, and a co-host of the podcast Can’t Lit with Jen Sookfong Lee. An otter and dress enthusiast, she lives on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations (Vancouver, BC).

Photo credit: Sarah Race Photography


Motionpoems: Videos and an Interview with Todd Boss

The following interview was originally published on PRISM international's website in April 2015. After PRISM recently updated its website, much of the old online content was lost. I've worked to archive some of that content here on the blog.

As PRISM Poetry Editor at the time, I had the opportunity to interview Minnesota poet Todd Boss. In addition to being the author of the collections Yellowrocket and Pitch, Todd is the co-founder of Motionpoems, an organization dedicated to making short film adaptation of contemporary poems. After prodding Todd to take his obligatory “pizza pug” photo, I asked him a few questions about Motionpoems, as a primer for new viewers.

Todd Boss
Rob Taylor: Could you tell us a bit about Motionpoems? How did the project come about? What makes you passionate about this particular way of presenting and promoting poems?

Todd Boss: Motionpoems has its genesis as an artistic collaboration. An animator approached me after a reading in 2008 to ask if she could animate one of my poems, and I said yes. A few projects later, wanting to share our enchantment with this hybrid of forms, we began inviting other poets and filmmakers to contribute to what became the first of an annual public premiere. Since then, more that 80 projects have been made.

Motionpoems is a nonprofit collaborative. We partner with publishers to introduce great new poems from forthcoming titles to our growing network of commercial and indie filmmakers. We do not art-direct these projects, but instead allow each filmmaker to choose his or her own creative direction for his or her project.

We began with the aim of making poetry more accessible to readers who increasingly get their content from screens, but our mission has changed in recent years. Now we just want to make great art. The audience is still important to us, and still stokes us. But the focus now is on the work itself.

RT: Could you walk us through your three favourite Motionpoems to date? What makes each of them stand out to you?

TB: My favorite films have yet to be released, which is part of the fun: I’m always most excited about whatever’s going out to subscribers next month. But of the films currently on our site, here are a few I love to use as great examples, for various reasons:

When at a Certain Party in NYC – Erin Belieu

Written by a woman, this poem is brilliant in a hard-boiled male voice, and jazz sharpens its snarky edge. Animation suits this poem better than film could, I think, because it can slide around and deliver so much visual rhythm. I love what the animator adds to the piece, from the tuna salad menu board to that perfecty timed license plate at the end.

Karl – Dag Straumsvåg

I love it when our films aren’t literal representations of the poems, but instead use the poems as jumping-off-points for whole new layers of story or meaning. This animation creates incredible tension with its use of pauses, sound design, and the interplay of an unscripted spider and moth. Not to mention whoever lies bleeding at the telephone upstairs…

Antique Sound – W.S. Merwin

The great Pulitzer winning poet W. S. Merwin recorded this poem in his Hawaii home after we approached him with the concept of pairing it with footage of an actual turntable submerged in a pool of ink, a sound installation by sculptor Evan Holm. I love the layers of metaphor in this pairing, and I love how tenderly it was filmed.

RT: What’s next for Motionpoems? What’s the Big Bridges project?

TB: Motionpoems wants to theme its seasons to draw attention to certain populations of artists, or important issues. Our new season’s poems, for instance, are all by women; our next by African Americans.

Big Bridges is a project commissioned from us by the Weisman Art Museum’s at the University of Minnesota. Minneapolis is the site of the famous 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge. Inspired by the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that “25% of America’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” we’ve issued a national call for poems that “dream big about big bridges.” Five winning poems will be made the subject of a film contest, the results of which will premiere as part of a larger exhibit at the Weisman this fall. Details can be found on our website.


An interview with Kate Braid

The following interview was originally published on PRISM international's website in July 2014. After PRISM recently updated its website, much of the old online content was lost. I've worked to archive some of that content here on the blog.

As incoming PRISM poetry editor at the time, I spoke with PRISM contributor Kate Braid about her poem “I Seem to Have Come to the Start of Something But I Don’t Know What”, which appeared in PRISM international 52.4.

Kate Braid
Rob Taylor: The title of this poem is an altered version of the opening line of Charles Wright’s poem “Last Supper”. You nod to this with your epigraph for the poem (“with thanks to Charles Wright for “Last Supper”). Is the one borrowed line the only link you see between the two poems, or are there other things you think you borrowed from “Last Supper” (or from Wright) which went into this poem, and for which you are thankful?

Kate Braid: Wright’s was one of those gift poems. When I read it I’d just learned my son Kevin and his wife had had a daughter and suddenly I was that mythological creature, a grandmother. But Kevin isn’t technically my son so his daughter wasn’t (technically) my granddaughter. Or was she? I’d lived with him and his dad since Kevin was seven and when he said, “We have a daughter,” every cell in my body realigned and I was a grandmother. Or was I? Really? What struck me about Wright’s poem, especially that first line, was the vulnerability of it though the whole poem has the feeling of groping and in the end, not being sure of any “right” answer, just as I was feeling at the time – rich and vulnerable and fragile.

RT: Your borrowing (with credit) the title of your poem made me think about other forms and poems out there which borrow in one way or another (found poems, centos, glosas, erasures, etc.). These kinds of “remixes” are very popular right now, and I was wondering about your thoughts on them. Do you think all borrowing is good? Are there limits or conditions that should be met when borrowing? And if there are limits, where do you, personally, draw the line?

KB: Isaac Newton said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Anyone’s work that inspires us is a gift and it’s always been important to me to acknowledge when I can, exactly whose shoulders I’m on at any particular moment. This is deeply important in traditional societies. Buddhists begin conversations by stating their lineage – who their teachers were. First Nations and indigenous cultures are similar.

So I’m fine with “borrowing” as long as lineage is acknowledged – as glosas and many other forms do, as many poets like Jordan Abel did in Place of Scraps where he “erased” the words of Franz Boaz who’d previously helped “erase” Jordan’s traditional First peoples. In cases like that, borrowing can work like the best of forms, its power increasing the power of the whole, as a beautiful vase increases the beauty of a bouquet.

But erasure, or “borrowing,” or the thousand other clever words for it, makes me very nervous when it doesn’t acknowledge its source. Some poets don’t even acknowledge which phrases are borrowed. That feels arrogant and disrespectful to me – not clever at all.

Which isn’t even to approach the issue that we used to call the uncredited use of other people’s work, “plagiarism.” As writers, what right do we have to ask for copyright, to ask acknowledgement (and payment) from others who use our work, if we’re not willing to do the same?

RT: “I seem to have come…” is such a lovely, intimate and (seemingly) personal poem. I hesitate always, though, to read a poem as being “true” – how the heck am I supposed to know, really? Still, it’s inevitable that readers will interpret a poem as referring to the real life of the author. In your writing you’ve produced both largely biographical books (Turning Left to the Ladies) and books which are clearly more imagined/fictional (A Well Mannered Storm, Inward to the Bones). Do you put much thought into how “true” a reader might find a given poem? Do you find value in people thinking your poems are “real” and about the “real you”? Is it at times a hindrance?

KB: One of the things I love about poetry is that I’ve always assumed it didn’t have to be “true,” that I could make it up. On the other hand, granted the challenges of memory and individual experience, I’m rigorous about “truth” when writing non-fiction. There, if the “deeper truth” can’t be conveyed with the facts as accurately as I can get them, or can’t be suggested with other techniques, (“The conversation might have gone something like this….”) then I hold it should be billed as fiction. Even in poetry when I take on personas – Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Glenn Gould – I do my homework: I spent two years researching O’Keeffe, four with Gould.

As you say, it’s fascinating how readers want to know what’s “real” and what’s not. I honour that. I think it’s part of staying balanced in this topsy-turvy world. It’s saying, what can I trust? What can I learn from someone else’s (real) experience?

To answer your question more directly: in poetry, I assume people know I’m playing with facts while aiming at a deeper truth. (Don’t all poets say that?) I actually prefer people not to think the poems are about me. I like being hidden.

RT: Looking back over your last few poetry books, I realise just how themed they are (poem on construction work, or Glenn Gould, or Georgia O’Keeffe/Emily Carr), and, by comparison, how unthemed “I seem to have come…” appears to be. Could you speak more about your next book, however embryonic it may be, and how you think this poem might (or might not) fit into it?

KB: Ah, you are a careful reader! Looking over my recent poems, I’m a bit alarmed to find I’m writing more personally, neither behind the mask of another or out of my experience as a carpenter – which also became a sort of persona. I feel far more vulnerable about these poems than any I’ve written before. Funny, how as I write, I keep having to find new kinds of courage…

You can read my 2018 interview with Kate, about her collection Elemental (which includes "I Seem to Have Come to the Start of Something But I Don’t Know What") here.


“Sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem”: An Interview with Robyn Sarah

The following interview was originally published on PRISM international's website in February 2015. After PRISM recently updated its website, much of the old online content was lost. I've worked to archive some of that content here on the blog.

PRISM 53.2 included a homecoming of sorts. It opened with five poems by Montreal poet and editor Robyn Sarah, whose first published poems appeared in PRISM 13:1 in 1973.

As PRISM Poetry Editor at the time, I had the opportunity to ask Robyn a few questions about the poems in the issue, her new book My Shoes Are Killing Me, and the development of her writing and editing process. My Shoes Are Killing Me went on to win the 2015 Governor General's Award for Poetry.

Robyn Sarah
Rob Taylor: Your five poems in PRISM 53.2 will be included in your forthcoming collection My Shoes Are Killing Me (Biblioasis, 2015). They could then, in a sense, be seen as a little sampler representing the book as a whole. From this perspective, what about the collection do these five poems capture well? What do they miss?

Robyn Sarah: The dominant theme of this collection is the past: what stays with us, what we lose, how perspective changes the past, how our relation to past time changes as we move farther away from remembered events. These are poems of memory, nostalgia, retrospect and reckoning – sometimes, they encapsulate moments suddenly remembered, arbitrary moments that in hindsight seem “decisive” or symbolic. (“Breach” is one such poem.) A secondary theme of the book, not as overt, is the future – less and less certain or predictable as we inhabit a present marked by constant rapid change. (“An Infrequent Flyer Looks Down” reflects this.) I think the PRISM selection captures these aspects of the book quite well.

What does it miss? Well, the book also includes two long experimental sequences that could best be described as impressionistic – poems built from unconnected “scraps” of consciousness poured into a stanzaic structure: a rapidly moving stream of random thoughts, observations, feelings, and sensory data. I think these sequences represent a less orderly aspect of how we experience “life time.”

RT: Has working as Poetry Editor at Cormorant Books changed the way you approach the arrangement and editing of your own collections? If so, how?

RS: I would say it’s the opposite: I’ve been able to bring to the books I edit for Cormorant what I have learned over some thirty-five years of arranging and editing my own collections. When I first began publishing, it was very hard for me to conceive of an order other than chronological – the order in which I’d written them – for presenting my poems, even though this is rarely the most effective order (creation is rarely orderly.) It wasn’t until Questions About The Stars, my sixth collection, that I began to get a handle on how to sequence a manuscript of individual poems effectively, and to recognize that this is as much a creative act as the writing of a poem.

I’m well aware that many if not most readers approach a poetry collection as something to open at random and flip around in, and that’s fine (I often do the same myself, at least on first picking one up), but it became important to me to present my own poems in an order that would reward reading them in sequence. This doesn’t mean that I look for a narrative thread; it’s more about finding juxtapositions that are satisfying: pairing or clustering poems that resonate with each other thematically, imagistically or aurally, looking for poems that can serve as natural transitions between clusters. It’s a lot like hanging an art exhibition. For me, sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem, which is the book itself: discerning the overarching concerns of this body of work, finding the unity in its diversity, meeting the challenge of how to present it in a way that will best illuminate connections, contrasts, echoes. I have come to very much enjoy this stage of putting a book together. At Cormorant I was pleased to discover that I can do it just as effectively for someone else’s poetry collection as for my own. Poets not infrequently tell me that when they see my suggested sequence for the manuscript, they gain a new and better understanding of their own work. It’s a great feeling to hear that.

PRISM 53.2
RT: Could you tell us a bit about the process of bringing “An Infrequent Flyer Looks Down” (the opening poem in PRISM 53.2) into its current form? Was the first draft composed, as many might suspect, in the “backwater of an airport lounge”? How many iterations did it take to get to the poem we see today, and at what point in the process did the nursery rhyme slip in there?

RS: It’s rare for me to compose a first draft of a poem in the commonly understood way, i.e. conceived as a poem from the start and written whole, then put through multiple revisions. By the time I get to the end of a first full draft of a poem (such that I feel what I’m working on is actually a poem, something worth moving from scratch-pad to keyboard and a trial printout), it is usually closer to being a final draft than a first draft. But the germinating fragment or fragments that led to this point may have been evolving in my scribblers over a long period (months or years) – repeatedly picked up, played with, and abandoned – expanded and contracted as I try different continuations, abandoned again, rediscovered, sometimes combined with other such fragments that have been evolving separately. I can’t really call these “drafts” because I am not yet “writing a poem”, or not one that I know I’m writing. The provenance of these fragments is various: a dream, a line or phrase written in my journal or a letter, a quotation, often just a phrase that pops into my head out of nowhere, or a phrase that emerges in the course of what you might call warm-up scribbling.

To answer your question about “iterations”, I would have to go back through several years’ worth of raggedy Hilroy notebooks to see how long I had been playing around with various lines, phrases, and other jotted fragments that found their way into this poem. The first three lines were indeed written in an airport lounge, but they were written as prose, in my journal – this was in 2000. On the plane later the same day, I wrote the sentence “Now we are so high that you can’t see a car unless it twinkles” – also as part of a journal entry. Periodically, I mine my journals for lines with poetic potential and copy them into a notebook (sometimes inserting line breaks), and I see that I copied these bits from the journal into my notebook in August 2013 – more than a decade later. “Twinkle, twinkle, little car” appears immediately after the second journal fragment – but it is written with a different pen, which almost certainly means that I added it at a later date. Perhaps it was the spontaneous addition of this line – appended to the journal fragment as a joke, just a bit of free-associative wordplay – that triggered the first full draft, which appears on a notebook page dated a few months later.

Altogether I can discern eight or nine preexisting fragments that came together in that supposed “first draft.” The last stanza is the only one I wrote from scratch on that day. The rest of the compositional process was one of assembling, juxtaposing, and connecting these fragments to make a whole – conceived as such for the first time on that day. Subsequently I tinkered a bit with line and stanza breaks, but otherwise changed very little.

My Shoes Are Killing Me
RT: The process you’ve described for composing “An Infrequent Traveler…” reminds me very much of collage, and of collage-like forms of writing (found poetry, centos, etc.) in which an author pulls in language from various sources to construct their poems (the great difference between such forms and your technique, of course, being that all of your sources are you). Do you think of your composition process as a type of collage? Perhaps as a kind of collaborative effort with your former self – the person who wrote those notes in a journal long ago? Have you written any “found” poems yourself, using others writing/voices in your own work?

RS: From time to time I have indeed composed collage poems entirely from “found” material: in fact there’s a collection of these in my last book, Digressions: Prose Poems, Collage Poems, and Sketches (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012). The source texts are various, ranging from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to the Editor’s Preface to Roget’s Thesaurus, physical clippings from magazines, and phrases that popped up in a Google search.

But I think there’s an element of collage in most poetry. Poetic logic is nonlinear; it makes leaps; on some level it is improvisational, free-associative. One of the things a poet does intuitively is to discover/uncover unlikely connections between diverse particulars by placing them next to each other (e.g. last night’s dream; today’s weather; something heard on the news). Whether these particulars come out of one’s daily life, out of one’s head, or out of somebody else’s written text, the poet is doing the same thing: choosing, highlighting, and juxtaposing things that have caught attention. It also doesn’t matter whether they are freshly observed or remembered/rediscovered. I keep notebooks where I jot things down as they come to me – physical or sensory particulars, random thoughts, words or phrases, words heard or read, stray memories. Why did they catch my attention on the day I noted them – who knows? Some jottings begin growing immediately into poems-in-progress; others just sit there, waiting to catch my attention again. They ripen as I get older. They accrue. After four decades of keeping notebooks, there’s a wealth of such material to draw on for inspiration on a day when I need a jump-start.

I like what you say about this process as a collaboration with a former self. Sometimes the former self knows that a phrase or image is significant, but doesn’t know why: I have to live longer before I see what it signifies. I now understand that many attempts I’ve made at poems over the years – “poem starts” that went nowhere – simply were poems I wasn’t ready to write yet; I began them prematurely. They were prescient flashes of where things were headed, in my life or in the world or in my development as an artist, but I needed to be further along on the path before I could make something of them.


Christopher Levenson interviews Russell Thornton

The following interview was originally published on PRISM international's website in December 2014. After PRISM recently updated its website, much of the old online content was lost. I've worked to archive some of that content here on the blog.

In the interview, 2014 Governor General’s Award Finalist Christopher Levenson talks with 2013 Finalist Russell Thornton about his two recent books, Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain (Harbour Publishing, 2013) and The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014). The Hundred Lives would go on to be named a finalist for the 2015 Griffin Prize.

Christopher Levenson: From reading all your books, I see a continuing preoccupation with the natural world, often in elemental and archetypal forms. In fact, fellow poet and scholar Susan McCaslin has grouped you, along with Don McKay and Tim Lilburn, as an ecological poet. How do you react to that?

Russell Thornton: I’m not displeased by the grouping or the term but I wouldn’t say that it fully defines me. Well, I admit that, believe it or not, I spent two years once reading all fourteen volumes of the Collected Carl Jung. Around that time, I probably didn’t utter more than a sentence or two without using the word ‘archetype.’ Still, I’d say that any preoccupation I might have with the elemental and/or archetypal is simply due to my individual nature, plus the fact that I was born and grew up in North Vancouver, where mountains, forest, rivers, and creeks meet inlet ocean waters. It’s an elemental landscape, and I know it has informed whatever imagination I might possess.

CL: I notice that you often take epigraphs from such archetypal sources as the Bible and certainly in your earlier work use religious terminology and concepts such as immersion, metamorphosis, reinvention of the self, in secular, even erotic contexts. So, how much of your response to this natural world derives from any religious background or upbringing?

RT: I have no formal religious affiliations. I inherited different backgrounds from my two sets of grandparents — Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish — but all were pretty secular people. I’ve dipped into the Bible a fair bit, but as a work of literature. Again, aspects of the natural environment have no doubt registered in my deeper traces. For me the natural world here is like a host of forces, spirits. It’s an elemental, transformational world that invites certain categories of inner experience. But who knows what you get from even brief reading glimpses? It can only take a few words to receive things from great pieces of writing, especially sacred texts. I love any writing that touches at the depths of life.

CL: A lot of the intensity and charge in your recent work seems to come from an increasing preference for longer, more syntactically flexible lines. Is this something you are conscious of and work towards? How concerned are you with cadence? And how much of your poetry is meant to be read aloud?

RT: I’ve always been partial to longer lines: I’m attracted to the undulating, rhythmically snicking movements that long lines can produce. I think my recent longer and more complex sentence structures have to do with my trying in an ongoing way to be faithful to the natural complexity of experience, while trying to write precisely and keep a passionate flow in my poems.

And yes, I’m very concerned with cadence and sound values: I can’t imagine trying to produce a poem in which cadence isn’t crucial. Certainly the poets I most admire, starting with Yeats and including Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, are all sonically connected. With every poem I attempt, one of my chief motivations is to find the words that will give voice to the rhythms, sounds, and overall music that I hear in myself and that seem to embody a drama that I keep trying to get onto the page.

As to being read aloud, like most writers I was an enthralled reader as a child. I’ve been a print freak since I was quite young and I appreciate very much the experience of reading poems on the page. But it’s a complicated issue, printed versus spoken poetry: I’d say I compose poems both to be read aloud and in silence. I suppose all poetry is ‘spoken word,’ a voicing, and all great poets have been very aware of the oral dimension of the art, but poetry is also a set of signs on the page. For me, the experience of the lyric poem is that it moves from the eye to the ear, then to the deep inner ear, the deep inner eye. There’s the feeling of a magical openness, an alertness that is at once visceral and spiritual.

CL: Speaking of openness, I gather that you have also traveled, and lived abroad, and speak a number of languages. What contribution have those journeys and residence abroad made to your poetry? And how important for you is the sense of place?

RT: I lived in Greece for three and a half years (and have returned for varied lengths of time). I feel now that living in Greece was like having much of the dross of myself burned brightly away. People say this about Greece and it’s true: there you find yourself becoming more nakedly human. There’s a particular ruthlessness and beauty in the light and the people. Probably I would have based myself permanently in Thessaloniki or Athens if the Greek woman I met in Larissa and became engaged to hadn’t died a sad, very early death from cancer.

I’ve been to Tunisia where I was able to get by with French. I went to McGill and lived in Montreal for a few years in my early 20s, and speak passable French. For two years I studied Persian with a tutor and got to the point where I could stumble through Classical Persian. A few years back I translated into English forty or fifty poems by the Classical Persian poet, Hafez. I wandered around central northern Mexico for a few months when I was eighteen. I’ve been to Peru twice as an adult.

When you travel, it often seems blind wanderlust makes you leave your familiar surroundings. Then you discover that all along you were yearning for something that you’d had glimpses of in yourself but had never really encountered with open eyes. You wanted a fuller relationship with hidden elements of yourself. Actually, I’m nothing if not a North Van poet.

CL: Most of your earlier poems are obviously based on experience, but with the exception of “The Summer Grass” about your grandfather (a poem I find very moving), they are not identifiably personal. Can you yourself trace a development, a change, in your books, The Fifth Window, A Tunisian Notebook, House Built of Rain, The Human Shore, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain, and now your current volume, The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014)? Do you know, for instance, what made you write the first, at times brutally autobiographical, section of House Built of Rain?

RT: I’ve always felt that poetry should arise out of one’s actual life. I’ve proceeded accordingly. Of course, the trick is to universalize the particulars of one’s life; the challenge is always to write through one’s life into the universal. Where previously I may have been speaking to, trying to come to terms with, a person in the past, and it was enough that I knew the background, nowadays I’m more aware of an audience, and I try to make autobiographical references more accessible to anyone who might happen to read this or that poem of mine. I try to speak to a hypothetical “everyone.”

CL: Some of those things in Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain revolve around your domestic life and your children. Could you say something about that and your day job?

RT: I have three kids. As for jobs, I‘ve had many, including academic hack work for a number of years. For several years I was head of a small, private two-year university and BCIT transfer college in Vancouver. I taught at a college and a university in Greece. For the past three years I‘ve taught evening classes at an ‘academy’ in North Van. This fall I’ve also begun teaching in the Creative Writing department at Douglas College. For many years I’ve also had my own small building maintenance business. So I work more than full time and do a lot of childcare.

CL: So when do you ever find time to write?

RT: I get an hour and a half per day Monday to Friday at the local Public library to read and blacken pages. Having kids actually helps me in my writing: kids take me into a daily meeting of obligations and fulfillment of meaning. In this, oddly enough, I feel I’m made more available for other tasks within myself. My kids lash me to a metaphorical mast. If they didn’t I wouldn’t be able to sail past the islands of the sirens without falling in to the sea. I’m not saying I’m some sort of Odysseus. But I think many people who write poetry hear in some part of themselves those alluring sirens. The sirens’ singing contains all that is beautiful, yet it is terrible, dangerous. Having kids has taken me closer to my own island of sirens; it has also provided me with the right ship to negotiate my way through the winding voices, and make it back home — home being my literal home as well as my symbolic home, poetry.

CL: You spoke earlier of music and drama. Are you very much or at all involved or interested in other arts such as painting, music, drama? And if so, how does this manifest itself in your work?

RT: I painted and drew a lot in high school. After high school, I only picked up a brush or pencil once in a while. I suppose my visual art impulse went into poem writing. I love music and drama — I listen and read and/or watch whenever I get the chance. Hopefully this has flowed a little into my poetry.

CL: How do you feel that The Hundred Lives differs from your previous book(s). Is it perhaps more mystical? or more consistently focused on specific personal events and experiences e.g. in Greece, such as the death of your beloved?

RT: A portion of The Hundred Lives is comprised of poems plucked out of previous books and reprinted to make up a book of pieces set largely in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Yes, the first section, “With a Greek Pen”, includes a poem or two about the person I knew in Greece who died. My poem “Larissa New Year’s” is an elegy of a kind. A section called “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene” I actually wrote in my twenties and aren’t about the same person mentioned in “With a Greek Pen”. The third, overtly “mystical” section, I also wrote in my twenties. I studied Hebrew for a while. This section is the result of my trying to study The Song of Songs. The final section of the collection is the only fairly recent one. Poems there about a “beloved” are about someone other than the person mentioned in “With a Greek Pen”. I don’t mean to be confusing or puzzling. The book is meant to be a look at a particular kind of emotional experience from a couple of different angles.

CL: Finally, what are your long term literary plans?

RT: I’ve been working for a year or so on a new manuscript that I’m tentatively calling The Terrible Appearances.

Russell Thornton’s latest books are Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (Harbour Publishing, 2013), which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the BC Book Prize and the Raymond Souster Award, and The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2014). He lives in North Vancouver.

Christopher Levenson is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Night Vision, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. He moved in 2007 to Vancouver from Ottawa, where he taught English and Creative Writing at Carleton University for 31 years. He was co-founder and first editor of Arc Poetry Magazine.


Interview Typhoon Coming At You!

You may have noticed the rate of tumbleweed-accumulation on this blog has increased exponentially of late. At last I can explain to you why!

Starting tomorrow, I will be taking over the Read Local BC website, posting a new interview with a BC poet every Tuesday and Thursday throughout April!

The interviews will eventually make their way here, to join the 40+ interviews currently on this blog. But if you want to get them hot and fresh (and who likes cold, soggy interviews?) keep an eye on ReadLocalBC.ca all month!


What the Poets Are Doing - Ontario Launches and Readings

I'll be racing through Ontario at the end of March and early April, launching What the Poets Are Doing in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and Kingston (yes, in that nonsensical order - what can I say, I love driving up and down the 401).

The book has been getting some lovely reviews of late, and I hope to carry that energy into the launches!

Those events (with links to the Facebook pages in their titles):

What the Poets are Doing Toronto Launch
Thursday, March 28th, 6:30 PM
Queen Books
914 Queen Street E, Toronto
Featuring: Linda Besner, Karen Solie, Phoebe Wang and me!

What the Poets are Doing Ottawa Launch
Saturday, March 30th, 4:30 PM
Knox Presbyterian Church
120 Lisgar Street, Ottawa
Featuring: Linda Besner, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Phoebe Wang and me!
This event is part of VerseFest Ottawa!

What the Poets are Doing Kingston Launch
Wednesday, April 3rd, 7 PM
Novel Idea Bookstore
156 Princess St, Kingston
Featuring: Ben Ladouceur, Steven Heignton, Armand Garnet Ruffo and me!

Tuesday, 2 April 2019, 7 PM
The Printed Word
69 King St W, Dundas
Featuring: Jaclyn Desforges, Elizabeth Ross, and me. Hosted by Marilyn Gear Pilling!


a roll of nickels 2018 year in review

Twelve years and this blog is still (kinda, sorta, somehow) chugging along.

It was a busy year for me, launching two (!) books - "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project in January and What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation in November (launch photos here and here). I pledge never to do this again, lest folk start thinking I'm the heir apparent to George Bowering or something...

While getting those books out in the world required a good share of my energy, I was still able to make a few things happen here on the blog. The highlights:

January 2018: One Way or Another: On Don Coles and his Poetry

My reflections on the life and poetry of Don Coles, who died in late November 2017. It includes some healthy quotations on the man and his writing from both Don and others. I delivered this essay as part of a reading at the January 2018 Dead Poets Reading Series event.

March 2018: a gift to myself - An Interview with Mallory Tater

"A big part of writing this book was going back into my adolescent mind-frame and seeing what I believed no one to care about, a time when maybe I felt voiceless, and subverting that as a sort of gift to myself and my childhood friends." - Mallory Tater

April/May 2018: BC Poetry 2018

The third, and final, year of the series featured 38 new books (and 38 poems) by BC poets, bringing the total number of books/poems featured up to 94 (you can read the 2017 and 2016 editions here and here). It was a very inspiring - if exhausting - project, and while I'm leaving it behind, I do have a new special project I'm cooking up for 2019. Stay tuned!

May 2018: I keep coming back to what gives me courage - An Interview with Kate Braid

"I think now I’m braver. Or I care less about what people think of me. This is one of the great joys of getting older." - Kate Braid

June 2018: Guest Interview: Brandon Wnuk interviews Catherine Owen

It was a real pleasure to host this interview with Catherine Owen, conducted by my former student at UFV, Brandon Wnuk.

September 2018: caught unawares at the centre - An Interview with Amanda Jernigan

"I suppose that poetry is, for me, among other things, the language — or a language — of faith and doubt. Life, too, is such a language." - Amanda Jernigan

September 2018: an entire page of words about one damn thing - An Interview with Curtis LeBlanc

"Some of the good I wanted to do with these poems was to give a window for other men to look into and see themselves and maybe realize that that resentment they feel and felt towards the way they were expected to be wasn’t misplaced." - Curtis LeBlanc

December 2018: the passport filled with shrapnel - An Interview with Dominique Bernier-Cormier

"“Foreign correspondent” means a correspondent of the foreign, not a correspondent who is foreign. That’s the wrong way around, I think. " - Dominique Bernier-Cormier

December 2018: One Last Dead Poets Reading Series Update

I stepped down as a coordinator of the Dead Poets Reading Series in December, a series I co-"resurrected" with Diane Tucker and Christopher Levenson back in 2011. I really enjoyed writing this piece on my time with the series, which caused me to reflect on the role public readings, and public remembering, have had on my development as a poet.

I finally turned the tide on interviews - my output per year had been dwindling from nine in 2015, to seven in 2016, to four last year. 2018 saw five, and if all goes according to plan (see "new special project" above), 2019 will continue that upward trend.

My posting of new quotes on writing slowed considerably, though. I only added thirteen (down from 29 last year), and none after March (I have a very bloated "to read" file of online interviews and essays which I hope to get to soon). The two new books and editing for Best Canadian Poetry 2019 have kept me busy. Oh, and the kid too.

Thank you once again this year to PRISM international for simultaneously posting interviews from this site. And thanks also to EVENT magazine for providing another new home for some of my interviews. I hope to continue to add new interview venues in 2019, though no matter where they're simul-posted you'll always be able to find them here too, oh stubborn handful of people who still monitor RSS feeds.

Happy New Year, all!


What the Poets Are Doing - Some Responses and Excerpts

It's been just over a month since we launched What the Poets Are Doing in Victoria and Vancouver (photos here!). Since then, the book has been getting some wonderful coverage, including a wonderful review from Tara Henley in the Toronto Star.

“If you think an entire book about the poetic process — chronicled through email interviews, no less — sounds depressing or dull, you are not alone. You are, however, delightfully mistaken. This gem of a book sees several generations open up on writing, loss and life, and is a riveting read, akin to stumbling on private letters between your most literary and intriguing friends.”

WTPAD also made the Writers' Trust's 2018 Books of the Year, thanks to Journey Prize winner Shashi Bhat, who said of the book:

"As a creative writing instructor, I’m finding so much in here that I can share with my students to show the kind of lateral thinking involved in writing poetry, and that poetry isn’t written in a vacuum, but reflects and responds to the world we live in.”

That quote gave me a thrill, in that reaching young writers (or young maybe-I'll-be-a-writer?s) is one of my strongest desires for the book. I'd love to see Creative Writing and English classes take on the text. More generally, I've been pleasantly surprised by how many non-poets have responded very positively to the book - as both a way in to poetry, and a way to look out at the world through the poets' eyes.


Further coverage for the book has come from Read Local BC and The Source newspaper, which interviewed myself and Raoul Fernandes respectively:

Rob Taylor interview with Monica Miller (Read Local BC)
Raoul Fernandes interview with Brittany Thomson (The Source)

Raoul, on the nature of the book:

“I think it can be a wonderful thing to overhear people who care deeply about what they do, and talk about what it means to them.”

On the same theme, while speaking about Where the Words Come From (for which WTPAD serves as a spiritual sequel) in my interview, I mentioned:

"Where the Words Come From came out when I was 19 and only just starting to find my way to being a poet (a long path which I am still walking). But how does one “find their way to being a poet”? Through poems, of course, but also other means—literary readings, critical essays, social gatherings between writers. I like to think of Where the Words Come From as having been a combination of those last three things in book form, which was vital for me as I didn’t know any writers personally, and didn’t (and don’t) like actual parties. In just being there, in the room of that book with all those writers, I got a sense of what a life in writing might be.

I hope this new book can serve the same role for prospective writers and readers alike: a welcoming into this strange world of writerly concerns, habits, fears, jokes, and acts of faith. And for those already fully committed to poetry, I hope it serves to reinvigorate, to take them back to the source, that first feeling."


In addition to reviews and interviews, we've had great support from a number of online magazines in hosting short excerpts from the book itself (a couple more are still to come):

Dionne Brand and Souvankham Thommavongsa excerpt at The Puritan
Marilyn Dumont and Katherena Vermette excerpt at PRISM international
Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin excerpt at Rabble.ca
Russell Thornton and Phoebe Wang excerpt at EVENT


If you haven't got a copy of WTPAD yet, and any of the above intrigued you, you can pick one up at the usual places (or, until the end of the month, straight from me). Some of those links:

At Your Local Bookstore!
Harbour Publishing Website
Amazon Kindle
Kobo Ebook
Nook Ebook

Or, please, request a copy at your local library - few things make me happier than the thought of a reader stumbling upon this book in the stacks and having it worm its way into their life, as Where the Words Come From did with mine.


Hopefully there will be more updates along these lines in the new year, and the book will only continue to gain momentum. Regardless, it's been a wonderful first month!


One Last Dead Poets Reading Series Update

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, as of this month I am retiring as a coordinator of the Dead Poets Reading Series, which I helped "resurrect" in 2011 after founder David Zieroth had folded it following a three-year run on the North Shore.

One of my duties with the DPRS was to design and maintain the website, which I did for the final time a couple days ago. I'm going to miss updating a few of those pages, as they gave me a lot of joy. I wanted to take a minute to share a bit of that joy with you.


The first page is the "List of Poets Read" since the series' inception, which is now up to 207 poets (228 readings, which include some repeats). And yet we've barely gotten started. A fun game is to read through the list and find who's not on it - there are some surprises!

I love, especially, reading through and remembering the poets whose work I first encountered through the series who have gone on to have a significant impact on my own writing. That list starts with John Newlove, who I'd barely heard of when David Zieroth read him at the first DPRS in 2007. It goes on to include Mahmoud Darwish, Jim Harrison, Randall Jarrell, Audre Lorde, C.K. Williams and many more.

I also think about the poets I was lucky enough to be able to present as part of the series: Al Purdy, Larry Levis, Jack Gilbert, Don Coles and, in a shorter reading, C.P. Cavafy (a few others, like Kofi Awoonor, Elizabeth Bishop, Elise Partridge, and Muriel Rukeyser I happily deferred to other readers - though now a part of me wishes I'd been more selfish!).

The May 2012 DPRS readers: Lilija Valis (Hanshan),
Chris Gilpin (David Lerner), Catherine Owen (Loren Eiseley),
Rob Taylor (Larry Levis), Evelyn Lau (John Updike)
I've shared abridged versions of my talks on two of those poets - Jack Gilbert and Don Coles - on this site. I remember, too, reading a quote from Larry Levis about every poem being the same poem, and moving from that to discuss how Levis' poetry always seemed to be building on the same handful of themes and moments, turning them over and over until he produced "Winter Stars," which to me is his (and, well, just about anyone's) finest poem . I said how that seems like a more-than-valid way to build a literary career, like a gyre - circling and circling, moving in on your one subject. I remember saying all that and then seeing Catherine Owen, another of the readers that day, nod in agreement, and something that should have been obvious clicked in me - that I had been doing, and should continue to do, the same in my own writing. That was back in 2012, and my fairly obsessive poems and books on family (my father, my mother, my wife, my son) have followed over the years.


Another page I'll miss updating is the "Photos" page, not because the photos are thrilling (Are poetry reading photos ever thrilling? I was never willing to humiliate the poets enough to find out if they could be...) but because they capture so many of the Vancouver (and visiting) poets who I care deeply about, and the important moments when we came together.

Here are a few of my favourites:

This is from our May 2015 reading, where Heidi Greco (in blue) read Lorraine Vernon. The folks surrounding her are Lorraine's family. Lorraine died in 2004 and her writing has gone underappreciated since. That day both Lorraine and her poetry were celebrated as they should be.

This one is from our March 2015 reading when - stars aligning as they sometimes do - we had four poets in town who are all primarily known for living elsewhere (and have since returned to said places): Karen Solie (Toronto/Saskatchewan), Sarah de Leeuw (Prince George), Alice Major (Edmonton) and Ngwatilo Mawiyoo (Nairobi).

As an unfunded series in which no money changes hands (not since we moved to the VPL and stopped having to pay rent, at least), it's always been tough for us to get non-Vancouver poets into our lineups. It has happened a few other times, though: Yvonne Blomer, Kim Fu, Nora Gould, Carol Glasser Langille, Rhona McAdam and - just this November - Amanda Jernigan have all paid us out-of-town visits.

When I look at this photos I think about how lucky we were to get those four poets in one room - something that's very unlikely to happen again - and all the warm, good thought that that particular combination generated on that singular afternoon. I also like to think about the good warmth of that Vancouver room traveling out with them across the country/world.

Two more photos: the first one is from our September 2012 reading. Three of these poets (Jamie Reid, E.D. Blodgett and Elise Partridge), who took time out of their busy lives to celebrate other poets, have since died themselves (the other two, Christopher Levenson and Elena Johnson are - I'm happy to report - alive and well!).

The second is from our September 2017 reading - five years and one day later - when Jamie and Elise's poetry was read by Wayde Compton and Barbara Nickel, respectively (recently deceased BC poet Peter Culley was also read that day, by Weldon Hunter). At our November 2018 reading Heidi Greco read a poem by E.D. Blodgett, who only recently passed away.

That repeating cycle, of honouring and being honoured, seems to me to be at the heart of poetic practice, and of this series. We read, we write, we celebrate, we forget, we discover, we return.

The series serves many (many!) purposes, and remembering Vancouver poets is only one of them (another - an education in poetry - was what drew me in in the first place). But giving our community a space in which to collectively remember, to honour and be honoured, has certainly meant the most to me.


My last link, truth be told, is very tedious to update (formatting those damn photos!) and I won't miss having to do so, but now that it's done I find myself particularly fond of it nonetheless: the "Meet the Organizing Team" page.

I've loved so dearly working with the co-coordinators I've had, especially Christopher Levenson and Diane Tucker, who did the "reviving" with back in 2011. And the new team! Wow! Joanne Arnott, Jane Munro, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Kevin Spenst, Diane Tucker, Isabella Wang - what a group! They are going to do great things.


It's quite possible the amount I blog about DPRS events will decline in the future - cutting back on side projects so I can write a little more (i.e. at all) was the point of this - but who knows. Regardless, if you aren't already connected up with the DPRS' social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), or on their mailing list (you can sign up by entering your email in the text box at the bottom of the homepage), you should get connected ASAP.

And then come out and celebrate the world's poetry (which is also ours) and our own poetry (which is also the world's), alive and dead and alive once more.