11/26/2019

Best Canadian Poetry 2019 - Vancouver Launch

While Best Canadian Poetry 2019 technically "launched" at the Vancouver Writers Fest back in October, only one Vancouver-based poet participated in that launch! As this was the first edition edited by a Vancouver-based poet (which means they didn't have to fly anyone out ;), it made sense to have a proper launch to celebrate all the local contributors.

And what a celebration it will be! The details:

Best Canadian Poetry 2019 Vancouver Launch 
Thursday, January 16th, 7 PM
Massy Books
229 Georgia Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Christopher Evans, Dallas Hunt, Laura Matwichuk, Sonnet L'Abbé, Marion Quednau, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Shaun Robinson, Ellie Sawatzky, Kevin Spenst, Mallory Tater and Ian Williams
Hosted by: Rob Taylor and Fiona Tinwei Lam
Poster:

It's going to be a heck of an evening. I'd love to see you there!

11/16/2019

Biblioasis interview

The good folks at Biblioasis, the new home of the Best Canadian Poetry series, asked me a few questions about editing the 2019 edition:

An Interview with Rob Taylor, Guest Editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2019

I appreciated the opportunity to think about how editing What the Poets Are Doing and running this here blog helped prepare me for the project.

Caroline Adderson, who edited Best Canadian Stories 2019, was pitched a number of the same questions (though, strangely, not the one about running my blog). You can read her answers here.

11/05/2019

Photographing a Black Hole: Adrienne Gruber and Elizabeth Ross in Conversation

In editing What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Converstion (Nightwood Editions, 2018) I learned of all the ways an equal conversation between two poets, as opposed to a unidirectional interview, can unlock insights about their work and lives that might otherwise have been unreachable. When I discovered two of my favourite poets and people, Adrienne Gruber and Elizabeth Ross, were both publishing poetry collections on childbirth and motherhood in Spring 2019, I knew it was time to get another conversation started. Gruber and Ross had never spoken before this exchange, but (as you’ll read) quickly bonded over shared experiences in childbirth and in writing. I hope you enjoy the conversation!

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Elizabeth Ross and Adrienne Gruber, giving each other the side-eye

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Adrienne Gruber: Liz, I just finished After Birth, but I feel like I need to read it again, this time in a more relaxed way. I was so eager and inspired in the first read. I also kept having to put your book down and go through my own book, Q & A, to see the crazy parallels we have going. Obviously the birth and parenting stuff, but themes of elder care, cancer, mental illness, and death come up for both of us, too, though in very different ways. It’s a beautiful book, Liz. I can’t wait to read it again, slowly, and spend more time with each individual poem.

Here are some lines in our books that are creepily similar, yet totally different:


Q & A                                                      

From “Haikus For Baby Blues”       

Don’t worry, experts
coddle. You should be able
to just shake it off.   

From “Flood the Ocean With Your Breath”
For days your head
smells like me.


From “Flood the Ocean With Your Breath”
I prayed for a surgeon’s
salient hands and
weaponry.

After Birth
 From “Body of Water”
See your family doctor.
Join an online forum.
It’s just baby blues. It’s normal.

From “After Birth”
For days, I couldn’t bear
to wash it off.

From “Body of Water”
I begged for an epidural.

From “One Fuck of a Year”             

My friend’s dad will move               
into hospice and hallucinate                                                                         
chairs on the ceiling, talk about
the resurrection, update his Facebook status
                                                               
with gibberish. He will die.           
I will miss his funeral and regret it.         
                                                         
From “Bedside Watch”
my father survives
off the glow of unidentifiable
flowers growing outside the window
lines of hormones and antibiotics
ducted into him
from an IV bag. Doctors are trying
to shrink his benign (but massive)
brain tumour. They come, consult,
and go. Amiably,
my father sees them,
says he can distinguish
hallucination from what’s
real.

Elizabeth Ross: Holy: when you put our poems side by side, there’s such an energy. I feel like we’ve both tried to photograph a black hole. I also feel this connection between my poem “Guest Appearance” and the second half of your poem “Push”:

Q & A 
From “Push”            
                  …cheeks plump nests
mouth a curved shell
                    clam-scented curls
screams sticky
swallows of sobs
                    chin creases fat rolls
                    speechlessness…


After Birth
From “Guest Appearance”                         …cheese
behind ears, fat
rolling down arms,
beneath pudding the assertion
          of an elbow. Palmed,
          bottom soaped…

Q & A by Adrienne Gruber
I was so moved by Q&A, and the themes we share. I feel like your book is the book I initially set out to write, and then my idea of what the book was turned into what the book is (like kids, I guess!). When I started writing, I intended to incorporate more external cultural references, especially medical and medicalized ones. I’m haunted by how you use old medical wisdom in some of your poems — for the reason of my “failed” intent, on one level, and also for how, as I move through your book, the speaker’s experiences echo off these references in surprising and violent ways, like the shift from the funny and personal in “The Cat Has the Stunned Look of a Murder Witness” to “Streptococcal,” a medical poem about the history of streptococcal infections killing new mothers.

One of my preoccupations is the culture of midwifery, both historically and in the current day, and ideally I would have had a section in my book on lay midwifery, which fascinates me, and that section would have included the transition to regulation and post-regulation midwifery, hopefully from perspectives of people who birth, their partners, and the midwives. But the poems I tried were didactic and shitty; your poems weave in cultural facts in such a natural, gripping way, and I so admire how you did that. I’m thinking especially of “Ode to Lucy’s Pelvis” which moves (in this context I have to say “hingelessly”) from pelvic anatomy to the speaker in the birth tub.

I also wanted to write more about how postpartum depression is quantified and qualified in psychiatric contexts. I started writing an almost mathematical poem, but it went on to become Body of Water” and ended up being much longer than I’d ever guessed it would be. I’m so curious if overall your book took any surprise turns for you, as you were writing it.

I’m struck by another similarity both our books share: one birth story that contains so many perspectives, even though we both have birthed more than one child. In the early days after my oldest was born, I tried to write a “definitive” birth story: partly as a recommendation from my midwife, to try and heal from some of the trauma; partly out of a drive to figure out what had happened to me (I think it’s called matrescence); and partly because birth stories seemed to be something everyone was writing to or about their children, and even sharing on blogs and social media. So I tried, but I couldn’t write a singular poem or story that captured THE birth story. It felt impossible and continues to, as my perspective has changed with time and the knowledge that the story will continue to evolve. This is one of the main reasons I love reading the different angles you write from throughout the collection: the pain, humour, the partner, the light in the room, the spaces between pushes, the voices of the midwives – all for the same birth, which constantly reinvents itself and its meanings.

Another angle you call out, especially in “What To Expect When You’re Expecting (100 Years Ago)” is the classist and racist stereotypes that persist today (ugh: hypnobirthing, anyone?). And I think every person who’s about to have a baby should read “Supply and Demand” — “Our bedroom is a dumpster” is the most singularly brilliant line of poetry I’ve ever read. The body-as-axis metaphor you use in “Gestational Fall” is the perfect symbol for this collection: a gravitational force.


AG: I am overwhelmed with the close reading you have done of my book. It’s such an honour to be read in such depth.

The book that is now in print is light years away from the manuscript I submitted to Hazel and Jay at Book*hug three years ago. I have never worked so hard in a revision process in my life. I felt like I was pulling my own skin off for the last two years. It was definitely its own birthing.

I think your book is the book I was trying to write initially, too! And maybe that’s why we are drawn to each other’s books, because we feel this primal connection to them, the desire of what we initially hoped to write. There is something about your book that is so familiar to me. Your poems contain this beautiful simple wisdom (amidst loss and pain and longing and hope and joy) that I hoped to convey in my book when I was writing first drafts, but couldn’t quite reach because it sounded contrived when I tried. I think in order to get to the heart of the book I needed to write, I had to strip away so much of my personal backstory and rather than speaking in a straightforward way, it needed to come out almost disguised.

I think a lot of my poems were sentimental in their early stages because I was trying to get at the very real trauma I felt giving birth to my daughter, even though I had this very idyllic-seeming home birth and felt weirdly ashamed for feeling so traumatized. This is what I find so fascinating about birth. Every story is so unique, no matter how it looks on the outside. One of my closest friends in Vancouver also had a home birth and her first daughter was born a month before mine (we actually met in a hypnobabies prenatal class…yeah, I know!). She described her birth in such a serene way to me that when my own home birth was both “successful” AND I felt traumatized by it, I honestly felt like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone (but also had to talk about it constantly) because it felt like such a contradiction. I couldn’t explain just how fucked up I felt for having gone through that experience because I literally thought I was dying the entire 21 hours I was in active labour. I was convinced of it. I clearly remember thinking that all I wanted to do was walk two blocks to the hospital and beg the doctors to do a cesarean, but I didn’t say that because I didn’t want my doula to know. I was terrified of the pain I was experiencing and the pain that was yet to come, and that fear is what drove my own trauma. After I had Quintana, I did not feel like the warrior they say you’ll feel like after you push a baby out of your body in your own home. I felt broken and terrified. I felt like I had survived by the grace of something inexplicable. I did not feel that I had any inner strength.

There is some kind of reckoning that happens when you give birth, whether you have a planned home birth or a planned hospital birth or an unplanned (or planned) cesarean birth. It’s all just so crazy and each birth is so radically different and our reactions to our births can be so unpredictable. In some ways I feel like my book is, in part, intended to be a public service announcement: HOME BIRTH WILL NOT NECESSARILY MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE A ROCK STAR…IN FACT, YOU MIGHT END UP BEING REALLY FUCKED UP AFTERWARD.

Having said that, I still love my story, because it’s mine. And the birth of my second daughter (also at home) was completely different. I felt radical and beautiful and empowered during that birth. Of course, it was over much quicker.

One of the things I love about your book is how you unapologetically speak of, and to, your experiences. Aside from having some killer lines in your poems (and killer poems in the book), you have a way of speaking about the shame and pain you’ve experienced both unashamedly and with tenderness. Even though it isn’t my own experience, I feel like your poems make me feel less ashamed of myself and my own humanness. Which is definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever projected onto a book.


ER: I’m more than a little teary over your kind words. It took me seven years of writing and a lot of therapy to get some of this out. I completely relate to your writing process: tearing off your skin. And I see so much of my experiences in your poems — I can smell them, seriously. Your book is searing, beautiful, and brave as fuck. When I first read it, on the train, I’m pretty sure I freaked out the person sitting next to me: I couldn’t stop nodding my head, annotating, and snorting with rage and laughter (which may be the title of my next collection).

I keep meaning to ask you, Adrienne, if you thought about any poets or any books in particular as you wrote, either in an inspirational or in an avoidance way. When I was writing, I thought a lot about Sharon Olds. No poems in particular, but she has always made me feel like I might be able to write what I need to. (And she has of course written so much about her family.) In a more specific way, I studied how some writers I admire, in particular Brenda Shaughnessy and Ocean Vuong, composed the subjects of some of their poems. But, for the first time, I watched what I read, in that I didn’t read very much poetry when I was writing it, which was a change for me. I wanted to come across the poems I was writing in a different way.


AG: I read a ton of birth-related material while I was writing Q & A, but not a ton of poetry. What I DID read was Brenda Shaugnessy’s Our Andromeda (which I actually reference in the last poem in Q & A – something I’ve never done before, mentioning a book of poetry in one of my poems) and I read it obsessively. I also read Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting, another book of poetry with strong motherhood themes (her poem Nursery is the best poem about breastfeeding I’ve ever read). I’m sure I read other poetry during that time, but those are the two books that had a hand in what I wrote and the way I wrote it. I think I was mostly reading poetry as a way of researching form, especially during the process of revising Q & A. Many of my poems were lending themselves to traditional form, and I found myself searching out sonnets and villanelles to assist me with structure.


ER: I wondered if that was a Shaughnessy Our Andromeda reference! I still haven’t read that collection. I also love Joy Is So Exhausting.

I have another question, probably one as annoying as a total stranger sidling up to you in the grocery store and asking if you’ll have any more kids: do you feel done writing about birth? I’m almost certain I’m not.

Your poem “Investment” speaks to uncertainty in the context of having more children, but I think it applies also to writing about our experiences as mothers.

From “Investment”
Is this a love poem
or a poem of grief?
When we make something
we lose.


AG: In all honesty, I don’t know if I could ever be done with writing about birth, though the well is definitely dry at the moment. It feels like a topic I will never be finished processing. It also seems like every other month another friend is experiencing birth for the first or second time, or in the case of one of my close friends, the third time with twins almost two decades after the birth of her first child. It’s hard to imagine never writing about birth again, but I know that the next poems I write about birth likely won’t be about processing my own experiences. Unless I have another kid.

I’m struggling with poetry these days. I’ve been writing new stuff lately, but it feels too easy somehow, like I’m using a formula I’ve either mastered or pilfered from the internet. Everything feels recycled, somehow. I continue to write about my kids, the emotions and reactions they trigger in me. I explore issues that arise in my family (marital struggles, parenting struggles, anxiety and mental health triggers, etc.), but it feels too obvious. I don’t know how impactful the work would be if it went out into the world at this stage. I think I need to compost these new poems and let them grow into something new in a few years. I want my next book to feel as transformative as writing Q & A felt, but I don’t know how to conjure up that experience. Which is likely the issue: I’m trying too hard to achieve something that was the result of an authentic (and unexpected) process, something you can’t simply recreate on a whim.

In other news, why does it feel like birth analogies work to describe EVERYTHING a writer does? Hello obvious…


ER: Yeah, it’s hard to escape birth when we have our kids around us and friends who are having babies. It’s strange, though, despite how immersed I am in this world, that I feel this distance but also a sense of recall – I wouldn’t really call it objectivity or even déjà vu – when I see someone with a new baby. It’s like visiting a new place yet having this utter certainty I’ve been there before, but it’s not a mystery as to why I’m feeling that way. I can take in that tiny person in a way I didn’t with my own – like I forget, despite having had three babies,  how strange and little and wrinkled newborns are, and the grinding fatigue, and the leakiness and sloppiness.

There’s that saying, how “nature” (whatever the hell that is) makes us forget the pain of childbirth. I’ll never forget. But I have mostly forgotten the weeks that followed each of my daughters’ births – for sure there are moments that stand out (like when my confused and exhausted husband handed our hours-old daughter to a cab driver, but that’s another story!) but they’re mostly blurs of feeling, rather than recollections I can play back to myself, or things my brain consciously recollects and processes. Cognition is so radically different in the immediate postpartum. When my youngest daughter was born last year, I did write some poems, but the weird thing is, I’d totally forgotten about them – I actually found the notebook the other day when I was organizing a drawer. They were mostly about my body, though, than the baby: stretchmarks I’d discovered, my pelvis clicking when I walked up the stairs. I had forgotten about the poems, and I’d forgotten about these changes I was noticing in my body that had caused me to write in the first place. Maybe there’s a poem I could write about the forgetting.


AG: I know what you mean. I also have these large gaps in memory of those early newborn days. I wrote a lot of non-fiction when I was pregnant with my second daughter and continued as much as I could after she was born. I recently read that material to see if I could shape it into something interesting and I was shocked at how few details I truly remember about that time. As I read, I was pulled back into that place, but if I hadn’t written about it those memories would be entirely lost to me. I think memory is fascinating, how it functions, how we store and retrieve memories, how memories are formed through associations. I’m especially interested in how pregnancy, birth, and postpartum permanently transform our ability to access memory. During pregnancy, if I’d put something down for a second, I’d instantly forget and spend an hour tearing around my apartment trying to find whatever it was I had misplaced. I also had trouble formulating thoughts. I would be in mid-sentence and suddenly completely unable to finish that sentence – I couldn’t even find alternate words/phrases to substitute for what I had originally intended to say. It felt like a serious condition that I couldn’t escape from. I find it so crazy that when we remember something, our neurons are firing to create a new reality, a new set of images of that past experience, an experience that no longer exists. Here’s an excerpt of the non-fiction piece I was working on a few years ago:


Before having children, I was relatively confident in my memory and my ability to circumvent memory lapses. Conversations, important dates, crucial periods and events were recalled with ease. Any instances of forgetfulness could be chalked up to environmental stresses, circumstantial events, or a stretch of clinical depression. Pregnancy changed all of this. The early stages weren’t too bad, but towards the end of my first pregnancy I was forgetting everything. Most of it was laughable; my husband convincing me that it was more of a scatterbrained state than a full on recall issue. The way I loaded the dishwasher as though it were an art installation, with no rhyme or reason, a plate wedged at an angle, a pot on top of the plate. I was willing to chalk it up to pregnancy hormones but when it continued postpartum, I worried. Then it worsened. I lost my keys six times in the first few months of my daughter’s life, once for several weeks. I lost whole conversations, misplaced important papers and found myself up against a daily wall of consuming inertia. Worst of all, I was completely inarticulate. I could hardly string three or more words together to form a complete sentence, let alone maintain any sort of linguistic fluency or coherency. I began to feel a kinship with those suffering from brain damage or those immersing themselves in a foreign language for the first time. My head would pound. My tongue would twitch. I ached to speak about my experiences, my feelings of identity loss and newly acquired motherhood. Instead my essence swam around inside me as though my body was an aquarium, as though my own brain was liquefying just like my Granny’s did in her state of dementia.


I’m dying to hear the story of your sleep-deprived husband handing over your newborn to a cab driver! This is the kind of thing that makes the pregnancy and postpartum phases full of poetic inspiration. There are so many layers to all of it, so many directions you can take with the work. One theme I really gravitated to in your book was the whole idea of competing birth and postpartum experiences. In your poem, “Toronto Moms Group,” you write,

We pushed

our stories, shushed them
when they cried, burped

their painterly pudge, bodies thrown
over our shoulders like infant muses

fallen from heaven. My position usurped
by a mom who invited us to her house uptown

where her baby sat unassisted
on the carpet and matter-of-factly

drank water from a cup with a straw.

I think part of what I was hoping to do in Q & A was address this whole idea of competition in birthing stories and how fucked up it is. I’m not sure if readers would see that theme directly in my work, but I hope it came across in some way. I definitely see it in your book and found it really comforting. Was it cathartic to write that poem and address some of those darker parts of motherhood in After Birth? Was that piece planned or did it evolve into its current form?


After Birth by Elizabeth Ross
ER: I’ll tell you the story one day! Yes, the competition is SO fucked up, and such an interesting cultural phenomenon, and one I’m completely guilty of participating in, especially in the birth ideal vs. actual birth experience department. When my second daughter was born, I honestly felt like a superhero who had roared out her baby in under two hours (see? I’m still kind of proud). I was higher than high for months – amazed at my internal power and at the birth process, when it goes “as planned.” But I was in a weird competition with the version of myself who four years earlier had made similar birth plans, but went on to have a brutally long labour topped off by an obstetric emergency, and then felt hugely inadequate and incompetent – two self-judging feelings that contributed to postpartum depression. I felt like I was betraying her, even though, of course, both births were completely out of my control and unfolded the way they had for completely mysterious reasons, because babies.

I think in my case, the competitiveness took root with a lot of well-intentioned but pious birth literature, and Ricki Lake, and other outdated information (that continues to circulate, argh!) about various interventions and the purported harm they can cause. If you “choose” to have an intervention, not only are you failing somehow at “natural” birth, you’re summoning the notorious “cascade of interventions” that supposedly endanger your child. So much judgment, so much fear.

I’ve heard some arguments that the “natural” birth movement has quote unquote “gone too far,” and I absolutely disagree: poems like your “Streptococcal” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (100 Years Ago)” show the oppressive and hubristic birth practices that have injured and killed so many women and babies. However, there’s an issue when someone measures their self-worth by how they give birth. Perhaps this correlation leads to the gross competition you identify, which seems to manifest in circles of other moms-parents, I guess because we’re all busy unpacking our experiences and consciously and unconsciously holding ourselves up against our own ideals of who we are. I mean, who would actually look another fellow parent in the eye and say, “Your weakness stalled your labour, you fool.” Or, “High five! Unmedicated birth!” No one. But I did this to myself.

There’s also the consumer side. When I wrote “Toronto Moms Group” I was fresh from reading some cultural anthropologists’ work in midwifery in Ontario, and increasingly aware of how the way a woman chooses to give birth can begin a self-branding process, especially in privileged contexts. Some branding is more self-declarative, like in online groups (e.g., “I’m a cloth-diapering, attachment-parenting, granola-making mama”) or on Instagram. But for some people a birth plan kicks off what leads to their personal brand: home or hospital, breast and/or bottle, the stroller, sling or carrier, used or new, organic or non-organic, this playgroup or that – all create a kind of logos. And the birth stories, especially. Narrative constructs realities in the most powerful ways, much in the way you talk about the recall process in memory creating a new reality. Looking back, I think storytelling is one of the ways I, and probably many women in this group, constructed ourselves as mothers, and also framed our various traumas: emergency or elective caesareans, hospital transfers, losses, genetic differences, inadequate milk supplies, formula shaming. These were all things I was processing when I was writing poems, including “Toronto Moms Group.”

I have to say, though, that I’ve noticed a softening away from the competition I’d initially felt. I first gave birth in 2011 and most recently 16 months ago; it feels like now people are speaking out against birth shaming and the other awful iterations of postpartum/early parenting shame, and I’m so glad. Have you felt this shift? I love how your poem “I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake” takes on birth dogma:

I’ve Made A Terrible Mistake
I’m not like all those
other women. I will not
rise above myself.

And I want to clarify that while I’m critical of birth plans and birth stories, I also deeply respect and celebrate their role in reclaiming women’s prenatal and postpartum care, and in their continued function to empower care, especially outside of colonial and heteronormative and cisgender birth contexts. Overall we need to do so much work to ensure reproductive justice for everyone.


AG: I think I feel the shift, though it’s hard to tell if it’s that or just that my children are now long past infancy and I’ve moved into the pre-school/school-aged phase. A few of my close friends just had babies and visiting them shortly after their births threw me back into that intense postpartum world where it does seem that you either feel like a superhero or an utter failure.

I felt a similar internal competition between my own two birth experiences. I felt like a full-on birth warrior with my second, simply because the labour was much shorter and I didn’t have the same kind of terror I felt the first time around. That may be why I don’t look at anyone else’s birth experience as being superior or inferior to my own. I know that the environment was the same, I had informed and educated choice with both births, and I had body autonomy and respect. The births were just different. My level of understanding of how my own body births was different with the first and the second. I felt safer the second time because the way I birth wasn’t entirely unfamiliar and unknown.

Having a home birth doesn’t make a birth experience less traumatizing. I feel that a certain amount of trauma is inherent in birth. I’m not sure how you can go through an experience as transformative as birth and not experience some trauma. My body expelled two humans, how does that not automatically lend itself to trauma? And why is the goal to pretend we won’t live with the permanent impacts of that trauma? When I was reeling emotionally (and hormonally) after the birth of my first daughter, and telling that birth story to anyone who would listen, a friend of mine said, “Well, no wonder you’re traumatized. Women die giving birth.” It hit me, in that moment, that we are literally facing our own mortality during birth, no matter how that baby is born. The risk may be smaller than it once was, but it’s still there. And then we have to exist in a culture that essentially demands that we shut the fuck up after we’ve given birth, to deal with our post-partum bodies and minds, and the often extreme and permanent changes we’ve endured, in silence. We’re supposed to quietly disappear until we’re ready to re-enter society with our ‘pre-baby bodies’ intact, never alluding to what we’ve gone through because, what’s the big deal? Birth has been happening since the beginning of time, none of us are special for experiencing this, and we (most of us) ended up with healthy babies so let’s all just move on already.

But we don’t ever ‘move on’ and we shouldn’t have to. That’s why I needed to write Q & A. It was entirely selfish, entirely for cathartic purposes. I wrote it because I couldn’t stop thinking about how completely insane it is that humans DO this, we just make and birth other humans. And yes it’s absolutely the most common experience in the world, but it’s also the most transformative and crazy and why are people not talking about it more? I couldn’t stop thinking about the way women were historically treated during pregnancy and birth, and how, in many ways, not much has changed. Options in pre and post-natal care are often limited depending on socio-economic status. It’s not lost on me that as a cis-gendered white woman living in an urban centre where there are a plethora of midwifery clinics, I had access to the best care available. I also had the financial means to hire extra support in the form of a doula whom I paid for out of pocket and was worth every penny and then some for the many ways she advocated for me and my family. I have a partner who is incredibly supportive and went on paid parental leave after the birth of both our babies, which meant I had extra support postpartum. We had family help. We had friends supporting us. We had dozens of lasagnas in our freezer. My birthing choices were informed and educated and I had no physical trauma and healed quickly and it was still fucking hard, so how many other people are walking around with birth experiences that have altered them permanently and aren’t given the space to tell their stories?


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Adrienne Gruber is the author of three books of poetry, Q & A (Book*hug), Buoyancy Control (Book*hug) and This is the Nightmare (Thistledown Press), and five chapbooks. She won the Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron poetry contest in 2015, SubTerrain’s Lush Triumphant poetry contest in 2017, and her chapbook Mimic was awarded the bp Nichol Chapbook Award in 2012. Originally from Saskatoon, Adrienne lives in Vancouver with her partner and two daughters.


Elizabeth Ross is the author of two poetry collections, Kingdom (2015) and After Birth (2019). Her work has been published in literary magazines across Canada, longlisted for the CBC poetry prize, selected for inclusion in The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry in English, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. She grew up in Victoria and now lives in Hamilton with her family.

10/22/2019

Best Canadian Poetry 2019 is here! (Contributors and Notable Poems)

Best Canadian Poetry 2019
Today marks the official publication day for Best Canadian Poetry 2019! We will be formally launching the book at the Vancouver Writers Fest and Toronto International Festival of Authors on October 26th and 27th, respectively.

It was a great honour to be the guest editor for this edition, and while the vast majority of the reading, and the final selections, did fall upon my shoulders, I was pleased to learn that the making of Best Canadian Poetries (BCPs) is very much a collaborative act.

Series Editor Anita Lahey and Advisory Editor Amanda Jernigan played essential roles in guiding me through the process, and in helping me narrow down an initial list of 170+ poems (from a total of 2,133 read) down to the fifty that made the anthology and the fifty listed in the back of the book as "Notable Poems of 2018" (more on those two lists in a minute). I've rarely experienced a gut check like having Anita or Amanda pause at a poem and say "Why's this one on the list?" After a moment's fluster an answer would either come to me or wouldn't - either way, the decision I needed to make was immediately apparent.

Anita, Amanda and I were greatly assisted by three editors-at-large: Michael Fraser, Laboni Islam, and Fiona Tinwei Lam, who were tasked not with reading everything but with noting poems that jumped out at them in their normal course of reading the country's literary magazines. Those poems received a little extra attention from all of us, and a number of their suggestions ended up in the book.

Keeping all of us on task was BCP Managing Editor Heather Wood, and the wonderful new team at Biblioasis (which, this year, took over the BCP series from Tightrope Books) led by publisher Dan Wells and copy editor Emily Donaldson. And blessing it all from afar, series founder Molly Peacock.

So my point is, yeesh, THANK YOU to everyone who made this possible, and who will continue to make new editions of BCP possible for years to come, while I'm off somewhere doing god-knows-what (but definitely not reading 2,133 poems in a handful of months). As I say in the book's introduction:
To be devoted to poetry requires a devotion to the people who write it and read it, and to the stories they have to tell. Though it may be largely invisible, this string of devotions—authors, editors, publishers, readers, parents, children, spouses, friends, neighbours, strangers—holds together the poems that make up this anthology.
This is especially true for the people mentioned above. And also, of course, for the contributors. That list for 2019 is:

BCP 2019 Contributors 
Colleen Baran, Gary Barwin, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ali Blythe, Marilyn Bowering, Julie Bruck, Sara Cassidy, Sue Chenette, Chelsea Coupal, Kayla Czaga, Sadiqa de Meijer, Adebe DeRango-Adem, Chris Evans, Beth Follett, Stevie Howell, Danielle Hubbard, Dallas Hunt, Catherine Hunter, Sonnet L’Abbé, Ben Ladouceur, Tess Liem, D.A. Lockhart, Jessie Loyer, Annick MacAskill, Domenica Martinello, Laura Matwichuk, Katie McGarry, Jimmy McInnes, A.F. Moritz, Alexandra Oliver, Alycia Pirmohamed, Marion Quednau, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Shaun Robinson, Yusuf Saadi, Rebecca Salazar, Ellie Sawatzky, David Seymour, Kevin Spenst, Mallory Tater, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Russell Thornton, Daniel Scott Tysdal, William Vallières, Katherena Vermette, Douglas Walbourne-Gough, Cara Waterfall, Gillian Wigmore, and Ian Williams.

Oh, I love these poets' poems so much. I can't wait for you to read them (or read them again).

I'm also very happy to share the list of "Notable Poems," the silver medalists in this strange Olympian struggle. My first brush with the BCP series was when a poem of mine was "Noted" in the 2011 edition. I flipped a copy open in a bookstore and was floored. The Other Side of Ourselves had come out earlier that year and in the final edits I'd removed the "Noted" poem from the manuscript! So I felt ridiculous and afloat all at once. I was only beginning to learn the vagaries of literary awards and lists of "Bests": how little one should let these things get to them (be they excluded or included), and how impossible it is to fully manage that.

Priscila Uppal
The 2011 guest editor was Priscila Uppal, who I met for the first time when she came to Vancouver for a BCP 2011 launch. There were only a handful of Vancouver-based BCP contributors that year (I don't want to shock you, but seven of the series' first ten guest editors were Ontario-based!), so I was asked to read as a "Noted" poet. From the stage, I teased Priscila/BCP/the universe about my runner-up status, and though she laughed it off with the good humour she was so known for, I could tell it pained her a bit as well, and I later regretted doing it. In hindsight, I understand her reaction - oh, how you come to love all of these poems and their poets! The arbitrary severing at poem #50 feels unbearably cruel, as does the one at poem #100. So I very much appreciate this chance to recognize the "next 50" poems, which would make just as strong an anthology as the fifty selected. I wish I could have included an "Also Notable Poems" featuring the next 50, too, and another after that, and another after that...

Funnily enough, Priscila herself is on the 2019 "Notable" list. She published a powerful, very funny suite of poems in ottawater not long before she died in September 2018. I agonized over including one of her poems in the anthology, and I wish I could invite her up on stage at one of the BCP 2019 launches to read it. I like to believe she would have teased me mercilessly (as I would have rightly deserved).

To the poets on the "Notable" list (posted below and included in the back of the anthology), I hope you float a bit, as I did in 2011. And I hope you aren't too hard on me for making what is obviously the wrong decision. Where possible, I've provided links to the poems themselves. These poems may not have made the book, but the upside is that you can read them now for free (and, goodness, you should)!

BCP 2019 Notable List

Hugh Anderson “Splitting Wood” Grain 45.2
Chris Banks “The Book of the Dead for Dummies” Taddle Creek 42
Joelle Barron “Ghoul Goblin Ghost” Poetry Is Dead 17
Gwen Benaway “speak” West End Phoenix October 2018
Ronna Bloom “Happiness” Queen’s Quarterly Winter 2018
Tim Bowling “Sweet Sixteen” Queen’s Quarterly Winter 2018
Melanie Boyd “The Falls” Event 47.2
Maggie Burton “Wiping down the counters” Riddle Fence 30
Lucas Crawford “Potential Stops on Our Maritime Bus Tour” Prairie Fire Spring 2018
Molly Cross-Blanchard “First Time Smudge” CV2/Prairie Fire ndncountry Fall 2018
John Degen “To You, Who Gave Me Directions in Greenwich Village” Taddle Creek 41
Jonathan Dyck “On not learning to speak German” Prairie Fire Summer 2018
Victor Enns “Reading Mary Oliver” Prairie Fire Summer 2018
Connie Fife “Edmonton to Regina” CV2/Prairie Fire ndncountry Fall 2018
Adrienne Gruber “Push” The Maynard 11.1
Joy Gyamfi “Moonlight/Sunrise” The Capilano Review 3.34
Matthew Hollett “The Day After the Best Before” The Fiddlehead 275
Doyali Islam “Sites: Mill Road” PRISM Winter 2018
Cellan Jay “Mother” Grain 45.2
Heather L. Kelly “I Was Here” Vallum 15.1
Paula Kienapple-Summers “Onion Skins and Brushing Hair” Existere 37.2
Lynn Knight “The Remedy” The Dalhousie Review Summer 2018
Aaron Kreuter “Cousinage, A Meet Cute” Pithead Chapel 7.7
Jeff Latosik “Pack” The Walrus April 2018
Evelyn Lau “You Are Here” The Fiddlehead 275
Nancy Lee “No Place for a Heart” The Puritan 41
Alex Leslie “The Purity Detector” Arc Poetry Magazine Summer 2018
Julie Mannell “For the Sake of Transparency #UBCAccountable” The Fiddlehead 276
Dave Margoshes “Dictionary of Small” The New Quarterly 145
Steve McOrmond “The Epistemology of Balloons” New Poetry March 7, 2018
Alessandra Nacaratto “Homestead” Room 41.3
Zara Neukom “My Mother’s Body” Glass Buffalo Fall 2018
Rebecca Păpucaru “The Panic Room (Glue Ear at Forty-Five)” The New Quarterly 146
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha “Parliaments on the Stoop” Room 41.3
Mia Poirier “les enfants des francophones” Room 42.2
Jason Purcell “I Go Over It Again” Glass Buffalo Winter 2018
Shannon Quinn “Lousy Guide to Awful Goodbyes” CV2 Winter 2018
kerry rawlinson “Savage Lands” Literary Review of Canada April 2018
Brent Raycroft “Ghost” Vallum 15.1
Robin Richardson “The Afterlife and All That” Riddle Fence 29
Lisa Richter “Theory of Loneliness” Minola Review 19
Jane Riordan “The Buoy Line” The Malahat Review 203
Adam Sol “Butcher” The Fiddlehead 276
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy “go-” CV2/Prairie Fire ndncountry Fall 2018
Anny Tang “birthright” The Malahat Review 203
Richard Teleky “6:20 am” The New Quarterly 146
Kim Trainor “Little Mountain” The Antigonish Review 194
Priscila Uppal “Poetry” ottawater 14
Sarah Wolfson “Apples” The Fiddlehead 274
Catriona Wright “Apprenticeship” The Fiddlehead 276

Please do pick up a copy of Best Canadian Poetry 2019, and if you're in Vancouver or Toronto, I'd love to see you at one of this weekend's launches!

10/17/2019

Poems + THANKS

It's been a couple years since I last posted about poems of mine which have snuck out into the world via one magazine or another.

In addition to the sample poems from my new chapbook, The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake, two other poems of mine appeared online recently:

Juniper: A Poetry Journal, Summer 2019 (Issue 3.1): "The Baffled King"

A poem about the boy's wonderful imagination, featuring everyone's favourite Leonard Cohen song.

Thank you so much to Juniper for featuring the poem!





Train: a poetry journal, Fall 2019: "Love, fidelity, etc."

A poem about my sneaky, sneaky wedding ring.

Two other poems of mine, “Vancouver” and “What Wisdom’s In Wisdom Recorded?” were just published in the sixth issue of Train's print edition. You can order a copy of that (for the absurd price of $4!) here.

Thank you all around to Train  for their support!


Speaking of print editions, I've got a few poems out or coming along in those fancy paper magazines that you have to go out and buy in the physical realm:

Hayo, Spring 2018 (#3): "18:00"

I was very grateful to have a poem I wrote about living in rural northern Zambia featured in Hayo's "North" issue.

This poem had been published once before in The Cascadia Review. You can read it on their website here.

Thank you to both magazines for their support of this little poem!




Vallum, Fall 2019 (16:2): "The Artist"

A poem about the boy's imagination (are you noticing a trend?) - this time how he used it to freak himself out while playing with a remote control T-Rex. I rarely find my poems fit into themed submission calls, but this one lined up perfectly with the issue's "Fear" theme.

Thank you Vallum-folk, one and all!


The New Quarterly,  Fall 2018 (#148): "What did you dream about?"

You can actually view this one online if you have a subscription to the magazine. This one's another poem about the boy's imagination, though this time his dormant one, "What did you dream about?" was a runner-up in The New Quarterly's Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Competition.

I also have two poems forthcoming in the Fall 2019 issue of The New Quarterly (again runners-up in the Nick Blatchford contest). Their titles are "Transmission Tower" and "The Commons" and only one of them is about the boy, and that one is only partially about his imagination. So I think I'm getting myself back under control on that front.

Thank you to The New Quarterly for being so damn terrific and giving me some space in the magazine!

10/15/2019

A Little Retreat in Myself: An Interview with Matthew Walsh



Cargo memories - Matthew Walsh


I like to be naked and comfortable with my older friend I treasure it
he likes it at the beach, and who cares if we are naked

I am just realizing this now but we are all chromosomes
at the heart of it. My summer body is my winter

fat glistening. Nothing is ever going to sink how I feel.
Behind my house was the Atlantic, my village made for export

of sawdust, trees. Big cargo boats to take pieces of my town
across the ocean. Time path and least time path.

If feels like the tail end of happy hour when memory leaves
you gauging the multi-phases of life. I remember thinking my body

is a tadpole body in Nova Scotia—itself shaped like a tadpole
body seeing the ship as a much larger frog splitting open the water

floating like it was Jesus or something much more sinister and now
I text my mother and ask in a more serious adult way about the cargo

ships and what they wanted she said what cargo ships I’m not sure
what you are talking about because there was also yachts


and I said sternly they were cargo ships and she responded ok ok
they probably wanted wood chips or pipes or they were picking up


something at the port. I have a hard time believing in art saving
the world when there are so many holes just in me alone

and there is no Earth-like planet like this Earth-like planet.
I’m guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life

preserver—sometimes it makes me feel good just for a while.
I stare at the head of my beer and think let me get to the golden stuff

and the sun touches my face like a mother with a warm washcloth.
My older friend is fine lying in the sand, has been asleep and got a scar

but is sparking with little minerals, microscopic rocks, who used to be parts
of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts.


from These are not the potatoes of my youth
(Goose Lane Editions, 2019).
Reprinted with permission.


---


Matthew Walsh hails from the eastern shore of Nova Scotia and has twice travelled by bus across Canada. Their poems may be found in The Malahat Review, Arc, Existere, Matrix, Carousel, and Geist. Walsh now lives in Toronto.


---

These are not the potatoes of my youth
Rob Taylor: Many poems in your debut poetry collection, These are not the potatoes of my youth, have a wandering, Frank O'Hara-like "I do this I do that" vibe to them, perhaps none more than "Flaneurial," which drives home the spirit of the poems right there in the title. The poems meander about, landing on surprise after eye-catching surprise. Could you speak a bit about writing in this style? Have you always done it, and if not, what lead you to it? Was O'Hara an influence?

Matthew Walsh: I haven’t actually read a lot of Frank O’Hara but every time I scream or cry in the bath tub I think about him. I have read a few of his poems and really enjoyed them. I feel like some of the poems in the collection do have this meandering quality like you said, but I kind of wanted to imitate what it was like to walk around a city, or get off the Greyhound and walk around a new place and discover things for the first time.

I got addicted to writing in that way when I was in Vancouver. It just seemed right, the right voice and form, but I haven’t always done it.

I wanted those meandering poems to have this voice which goes on and on chattering, and I wanted to include as many details as possible so it would have a collage kind of feel, like when you see graffiti all over a wall and some of the elements don’t necessarily go together, but something in some way links them together.

So I think in the back of my mind, he was an influence. I love that bath tub poem and the tone so much because it’s silly but there is some sort of emotional cord in that poem as well, but the comedy and sadness have such a nice balance.


Rob: You mention the direct influence of Vancouver in the development of your “wandering” poems ("Flaneurial,” for one, is set there). You moved from a small town in Nova Scotia to Vancouver complete your MFA at the University of British Columbia, and you note at the back of the book that it’s where "most of these poems were written." To what extent do you think these "wandering" poems were about being in Vancouver, specifically, as opposed to simply being in a place where you had fewer "roots"? (Sorry, I’ll keep the potato puns to a minimum from here on out.) Would these poems have been the same if you'd moved to a different city or town?

Matthew: I think because I had not done any sort of travelling except for bus trips, and because Vancouver was such a big move for me, and I was going to be there for at least two years, I wanted to see everything it had to offer. It was my first time spending any length of time on the West Coast.

And Vancouver just feels like a very transient city, everyone moves out, comes back, moves away, so I was constantly just walking around the city itself and also nearby places. When I lived in Toronto I didn’t take advantage of seeing any neighboring cities like Detroit, New York, Chicago, so when I was closer to places like Portland, Seattle, Olympia, I took advantage of it, and I wanted to see everything and be inspired by the street art there, and see bigger things in the little things people were doing around those cities.

So yes, I think you are right. It was a place where I knew no one, had less roots, so I felt like I had so much possibility and wasn’t worried as much as I had been in the past. I was excited for the future and what I would see and what could be made into a poem.


Rob: Speaking of the future: many of your poems seem as if they could go on forever. They flow from scene to scene (or thought to thought, or image to image) so effortlessly, seemingly indifferent to the idea of reaching a conclusion. Eventually, though, they all do. How do you know when to end a poem? Is it different from poem to poem? Has it changed over the years as you've developed as a writer?

Matthew: How do I know how to end a poem? Maybe I never want them to end. Sometimes I write long poems. One method I use is to lay all the poems out on the front lawn on a full moon and scream at the stars until they tell me what to do. No—I’m kidding—I HAVE NO IDEA. Sometimes a line will just come to me and I know that’s the end line. Sometimes I start with the end line and then I figure out ways to get there, to get to the point where that one line, whatever it is, works.

Yes, it is different from poem to poem, how they will end. Sometimes I will go for a walk and I will see something and something will click in my head and I can come back and finish it. Once I saw someone combing their girlfriend’s hair on Mont Royal, overlooking Montreal and I thought what a great ending image to a poem.


Rob: A good number of the poems in These are not the potatoes of my youth are about your father, most often about the physical/emotional/philosophical gulf between the two of you. In "Garbage box with black loons" you write of your dad, "driving his red car looking at junk and making it / into something strangers would love him for." This struck me, perhaps, as your poetics as well – discovering unexpected points of connection and making something new (like wandering Mont Royal and gluing on an ending). Could you talk about how the role you think your father played - for good or for bad - in making you the poet you are today?

Matthew: My dad is such a character and a real human being, and no one is perfect. He is very funny at times, but he also has a lot of hang ups, or did, about gay people, though I think he’s probably more open to the idea now. I remember having to secretly watch The Kids in the Hall late at night, because that was just not something we were allowed to do. Everything was of course super heteronormative so I remember feeling very confused and trapped in my body.

I think he inspires me to look at the small and funny moments in life. As a kid I had a huge, very active imagination because there was so much I couldn’t do or say openly. I would imagine myself doing those things, or write about myself doing them. So I had a little retreat in myself when things got hard, I suppose, which helped with writing, because writing can be so isolating. I remember even as a kid I wrote stories in Duo-Tangs and I just wrote and wrote.

I think my dad taught me to think deeply, have deep thoughts. Most days he would sit in the window and chain smoke and drink Nescafe and stare out at the ocean, so I believe he did think a lot, and think deeply about things, but I’m not sure what those things might have been.


Rob: You mention how helpful writing was in giving you a “retreat” in yourself – what a wonderful way to phrase it! But then in "Cargo memories" you write "I'm guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life // preserver". What are your current thoughts about the role of poetry in your life/the world? Has publishing These are not the potatoes of my youth and seeing it travel out into the world affected your thinking on this?

Matthew: I think poetry can be extremely helpful to the brain and body, and I think it’s good to write things down and think things out on paper if you’re writing something personal because it can be like peeling out of an old skin and into a new one. But I don’t think it can do everything for me, personally. That’s what I was getting at in “Cargo memories.”

I think poetry—reading or writing it—can help healing or start healing. What I feel is that the real life preserver is the writing community. Those people are so good. If you’re a writer then you share this special little thing with all the other writers out there.


Rob: A major theme running through These are not the potatoes of my youth is segmentation. You close "Cargo memories" with the image of "microscopic rocks, who used to be parts / of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts." In "Kiss a horse" you write "I see myself in sections in the mirror section", in "Wheelbarrow and cabbage" that you were maybe a "tomato -- half vegetable, half fruit" and in "Tool shed" that "I dreamed of being a full-out gay person." A desire for unity runs through these poems, as well as an attention to all the ways that unity is elusive, if not impossible. Would you say that you seek unity in your life/your self? If so, do you have a sense of a path to finding it, and what role might poems play in that path? (If you know the secret, we're all dying to know!)

Matthew: Wow, these questions are so kind. Yeah, I had unity on my mind a lot in several of these poems. I sometimes feel like not a full person, or half of a person, and sometimes I can get down on myself. Do I seek unity? Maybe. I know that I like looking at the week ahead and having a plan about what I want to accomplish, and I like knowing I have completed something.


Rob: A number of the poems in These are not the potatoes of my youth refer to your once considering entering the priesthood. Did you really consider it? If so, why? And do you think your interest in the priesthood shared any common sources with your interest in poetry? Is poetry its own sort of alternate priesthood?

Matthew: Oh, maybe! I mean I do worship a lot of poetry books. Ummm, when I was growing up my grandmother always hinted at me going into the priesthood and it was talked about but I never really wanted to do it, even though I was told I would have my own house and everything, and that I would get to read all the time—which is how it was pitched to me. I do love to read, and I do feel there are a lot of poetry books which have, over the years, become very sacred to me. I mean writing is pretty solitary, and from what I understand the priesthood is pretty solitary, so I can see some correlations there, yeah.



Matthew, among the vegetables
Rob: Your book’s title is not misleading: there's a lot of potato content in here! I don't want to go and ruin the book for people, but by the end of it you sort of... turn into a potato? Potatoes in the book are weighty with metaphorical significance: they see underground, they grow even after being plucked from the earth, they possess "long pale tubulars" like arms reaching out, or gathering in. When did you begin to see potatoes - which you grew up surrounded by as a child - as more than just a simple vegetable? When did you start turning into them in your poems?

Matthew: I once swam in a potato garden, and we always had bags of potatoes lying around. I remember once we found an old bag of potatoes that had tried to root in the cupboard and they looked like octopi. They are just so weird. Do you know that Marge Simpson meme, where she is just holding the potato saying “I just think they’re neat”? I just think they are very cool and weird. My grandmother always said they had eyes, and she’d cut all the eyes out before boiling them—the eyes are just like little blemishes on the skin.

I started turning out potato poems once I had the title, then I couldn’t stop growing them.


Rob: Ok, let’s close with the question everyone’s been wondering about your three major recurring motifs in the book…

Fuck, Marry, Kill: Potatoes, Tomatoes, the Moon. Go.

Matthew: I would absolutely fuck the moon, I would kill potatoes—and I would marry tomatoes but still keep my relationship with the moon super open.


---

Truly, These are not the potatoes of my youth will take you to the moon and back. Don't miss out! You can pick a copy up at your local bookstore, or via the Goose Lane or, I suppose, from Amazon.

10/07/2019

The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake

I'm very happy to announce that my new chapbook, The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake, has just been published by London, Ontario based 845 Press!

The chapbook contains 15 poems, written before, during and after my family's stay at the Al Purdy A-frame. The poems feature my family (the boy was barely toddling at the time), the A-frame, Al and Eurithe Purdy, disgusting pancakes, bonfires (book and otherwise), carbon monoxide poisoning, black holes, drowned mice, a heron named Ike, lilacs, frozen turtles, Nick Thran, etc. Mostly they are about making space in your life for the things you love.

Here are three sample poems:

County Roads
Last Embers
Lyric

For only the second time in my life (the first being "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project), something I wrote has blurbs! I like blurbs but hate nothing more than asking someone to blurb my books, so I was overjoyed when the wonderful team at 845 Press (Aaron Schneider and Amy Mitchell) went and organized blurbs on my behalf. It even inspired me to ask a couple more people, which led to a very imbalanced poem-to-blurb ratio (15 to 4 - one blurb for every 4 poems!).

The blurbs:

"Luminosity, the ability to make mundane objects glow while holding onto their “thing-ness,” is a difficult poetic skill to master. Rob Taylor has managed to do just that in The Green Waves – and with Al Purdy relentlessly peering over his shoulder, no less."

—Michael Mirolla, publisher at Guernica Editions and author of The Facility

"I love how these poems tackle the subjects of grief, joy and family in a subtle, sweet-bitter landscape. The collection is an immensely powerful and inventive way to tell a story everyone can relate to."

—Bola Opaleke, author of Skeleton of a Ruined Song

"Throw another log on the woodstove; spring has “hitched back to Toronto.” Driving the country roads of memory and legacy, Taylor address his young son sleeping in his car seat, his father’s ashes, his wife whose arm rests “on the lip of fat above my hip,” and even Purdy himself, thanking him “For ferrying nothing, not one blooming word, with you across its black eye.” Tender and human, these poems allow us to see
the unseen dust that settles on everything."

—Bren Simmers, author of Narratives of the Lost

"“I doubt you’d have liked me. I don’t drink. / I make nice. I stunt my opinions.” Without romanticizing or acquiescing, Rob Taylor’s collection pays tribute to larger-than-life Canadian poetry icon Al Purdy, and the A-Frame Al and Eurithe built on Roblin Lake. By turns moving and quietly humorous, these poems inhabit the A-Frame with a new dailiness of parenting, mice, loss, and attention to place—adding to the legacy of one of the most storied dwellings in Canadian literature."

—Anna Swanson, author of The Nights Also

Much thanks to my blurbers, 845 Press, cover artist Kailee Wakeman, and the Al Purdy A-frame for helping make this chapbook happen.

Copies are $10 and can be purchased here. (Or $4 for a digital download, here).


10/03/2019

A Very Real and Open Window: An Interview with Emily Davidson



Nobody Does This On Purpose - Emily Davidson


1.
I have been keeping my virginity
like the special occasion dishes

the company tablecloth

a pair of women’s gloves
that button at the wrist.

It is important at this stage in the game
to forget the subtle tarnish of the early twenties
and go mouldering on, fortitudinously.

2.
I do this on purpose.
Nobody does this on purpose.

3.
There are polar bears swept away
on ice floes, disembarking
in downtown St. John’s

to wander past the jellybean houses
and bellow confusion at the locals.

I think the bears are urban myth
but it is something to be endangered

it is something to be
bright white and monstrous.


from Lift
(Thistledown Press, 2019).
Reprinted with permission.


---

Emily Davidson is a writer from Saint John, New Brunswick. Her poetry has appeared in publications including Arc, CV2, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Room, subTerrain, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2015. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and Maisonneuve and was short-listed for The Malahat Review’s 2013 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction. She writes literary reviews for Arc and Poetry is Dead. Emily resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

---

Rob Taylor: Many of the poems in your debut collection, Lift, revolve around disappointments, be it with the city ("If she likes you, even a little, / Vancouver isn't telling"), the wider culture ("Consumption is not a decision / but we practise, just in case") or personal relationships ("I am single always, you never"). Through it all you seem determined to stay hopeful and optimistic. In "On Saturday," for instance, you’re stuck at a party where people brag about investing "in real estate / before the bubble" and then it "begins to rain / the way fire spits." Nonetheless, the poem closes with the line "I am not unhappy"–and the truth is I almost believe it!

It's as though the book is channeling the "This is Fine" meme. There's something very Vancouver, very late-capitalism, very early-to-mid-30s about "This is Fine" energy. Do you see it as present in the book, or am I just projecting (mid-30s Vancouverite that I am)? If it's there, to what extent do you think this stance is simply your nature, as opposed to a product of the city and time you live in?

Emily Davidson: The funny thing about this is that I actually was happy! “On Saturday” describes one of my favourite days in Vancouver; it was also, coincidentally, the day a good friend told me about their pending divorce. How can such a painful thing and such a sweet, perfect day coexist? Are things genuinely crap, or are they delightful?

The first thing my mother said after she received her copy of Lift was, “I read your book! It made me sad.” Which was puzzling to me, because that wasn’t my intention: I was just paying attention and writing things down. The negatives fail to tip the scales for me, generally. I guess that makes me an optimist?

I could see how the situations, the concerns, the challenges of these poems might channel “This is Fine” energy, might trend towards ennui or despondency if you followed them far enough. The early-to-mid-30s seem to me so far to be a weird blend of small wins and major indignities. That’s real—and that’s not even mentioning Vancouver or late-capitalism (or climate crisis or politics). But I’d be sorry if the book conveyed an overall tone of resignation. I’m not terribly interested in ignoring the things that aren’t fine, there is simply something in my internal wiring that renders me determined to hold onto the funny. The good. The noteworthy. I think art, by its very nature, resists “This is Fine.” (Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.)

I find I have to hold both things at once—I’m here, I’m alive, things are beautiful; I’m here, I hurt, things are falling apart. All of that is always true.


Rob: Yes, you’re right. The “This is Fine” meme is a very different thing from the artist’s perspective than from the dog’s. The dog’s stance–its resignation–is horrific, but we laugh/cringe because we recognize it, and know that sometimes embracing it is our best option. It’s only from outside of that room looking in, as artist or reader, that we can both laugh at, and wrestle with, our behaviour. (You’re the artist drawing the dog, not the dog itself, is what I’m saying!)

So I see “This is Fine” energy less as resignation than awareness and honesty, as you say. And also a call to action: these things happen; this is how we deal with them; could we/should we deal with them differently? Your book asks these big questions of us over and over again in a very compelling way.

Speaking of big questions, in "We Are Dancing to ABBA" you write (of Anglicans, having come from an Evangelical background): "They let me sit very still and unprodded / while I adjusted all my structures." So many of the poems in Lift grapple with life's great "restructurings," whether they relate to religion, relationships, physical relocation, aging, the prospect of parenthood, etc. etc.

I'm curious to what extent the making of this book mirrored what those ABBA-loving Anglicans provided you. Did writing the poems create a still space in which to "adjust your structures"? And if so, what's it like to see it out in the world now, helping other people consider their own adjustments (past or yet to come)?

Emily: Yes, I think so. Not much about life makes sense to me—does it to you?—and so poetry was a good place to do the work of being uncomfortable. A whole book of tiny doubt cathedrals. (Okay, I maybe see my mom’s point now.) And a good place to uncover the beginnings of what might be built afterwards.

The idea that someone might be able to better consider their own restructurings after having read Lift—that’s the most encouraging thought. The making of the book was one of concentric circles of vulnerability for me: I started with subjects I was content to share, and then I ran out of safe things to talk about and had to wade into the next layer of exposure, and so on. Lift feels like a very real and open window to some of the parts of myself I’m still learning to like, but if someone were to climb through to their own discoveries—then the discomfort would be worth it.


Emily Davidson
Rob: Yes, exactly! We reveal and discover so that others can reveal and discover so that we can reveal and discover so that… Lift is certainly doing its part in that regard.

Speaking of (doubt) cathedrals, you and I are the children of Christian ministers. Another minister's child/poet, Renée Saklikar, taught me the term "PK" - "preacher's kid" - and it turns out there's any number of us out there in the poetry world. How do you think being a PK, and being raised in a church, shaped your interest in the reading and writing of poetry? Did it have an effect on themes you tackle in your poems?

Emily: One of the real benefits of a religious upbringing is that your conversations and studies are centred around a text. And what a text for poetry! There’s repetition, archaic language, weird turns of phrase, astonishing contradictions, vibrant imagery—poetic elements I talk about now when I teach or engage with other people’s writing. Language was the way in at church—and so it’s remained for me in my writing practice. I love me a good psalm.

Being raised in church surfaces as a theme in Lift—it was inextricably linked for me to family and morality, and I get to continue wrestling with it as I age. And then there are the implicit themes that bleed through (no pun intended) in my work that I may have borrowed: belonging, identity, doubt, purpose. Would I be so interested in these things with different roots? I mean, probably, but the answers, and the paths I take in search of them, will be informed by this strange heritage.

I’m reading The Odyssey for the first time right now (I know, I know, I’ll turn in my poet badge to security), and I got a little way in and thought, “Huh, this feels familiar.” Then I realized my brain had gone into Bible-reading mode—historical text, ancient culture, gods and quests. I’m loving it.

Side note: I’ve discovered that a lot of PKs also end up as actors—I wonder if there’s something in the water/wine that makes us turn to art. Incidentally, have you heard of missionary’s kids? Those MKs are a whole other ball of wax.


Rob: MKs! Oh dear. What will they think of next? That connection with acting makes sense – ministers are up there performing all the time. The PK poets I know are definitely on the more performative side during their readings, or at least have above-average confidence in front of a microphone. So I do think there’s something there. Mostly, though, I think the PK-artist connection is about what we talked about earlier: all that space to rearrange structures, which the Anglicans provided you. Art as a secular way to create a similar space for people.

The poems in Lift create different kinds of “spaces” for their readers to think in. While many of the poems follow a linear narrative, others leap in subject matter from stanza to stanza, in a style reminiscent of the ghazal form. Some of these are written in ghazal-like couplets (say, "Interlock" or "Night Walk, Saint John"), while others like "Tenant" have irregular stanza lengths, and still others, like the excerpted poem that opens this interview, are built out of a numbered sequence of smaller poems. When in your development as a writer did you start experimenting with these kinds of non-linear poems? How do you think each of these different approaches to leaping from stanza to stanza alters the poems?

Emily: I was introduced to ghazals in undergrad, mainly through the work of John Thompson, and I love the weird, sparse connectivity between the stanzas. It’s tenuous: poems held together by thematic hum. The tenets of the ghazal tend to creep into even my more linear work.

I think the leaping in subject matter between stanzas is my way of stringing unlike pearls. My brain collects images over time until somehow the final one drops in and I have a fistful of something. In “Interlock,” for example, the fisftul was: two-stranded knitting, two people getting married, two romantic leads in a dumb movie about leap-year proposals, one person alone. Once I’d strung the components, it became a poem about fabrication—one person’s hands making something for two people in the context of the stories we tell ourselves about love. But it’s an uneasy fit, all of these images, so “scattershot” felt like the best method of organization. The throughline is absurd. Could I have achieved a poem without these leaps? Possibly, but less effectively, and with visible effort.

“Night Walk, Saint John” is more of a snapshot poem. Each stanza is a flash exposure: here’s a new build going up, here’s the ocean seeping, here are the church bells tolling. All taken the same night, all showing you the photographer’s perspective. You get to take home the set and make a collage. The poem gains an eerie resonance by being choppy.

Each poem I write emerges suggesting its own shape. Sometimes the stanzas are simply meant to mirror my own thought process, or how the poem fell out: fragmented, sharp-edged, scrappy. The numbered poems are often baby poems that needed to be in conversation with one another to hold water.


Rob: Many poets write their poems entirely in lowercase letters, but they usually do so consistently throughout the book. In your case, three of the poems have lowercase titles, while the rest are capitalized. Even among those three there is variation as to whether or not the first-person "I" is capitalized. It feels as though you've resisted standardization that might alter your original vision for each individual poem (the poems, as you say, suggest their own shape). Could you talk a bit about your interest in using all lowercase at these particular times? In what way do you think it changes how/what the poem communicates?

Emily: There were poems in the book that asked to be spoken in a smaller voice, or with the hush of lowercase to speed their journey. And the reasons were all different: “child’s drawing” was always written, to my mind, in crayon, before proper capitalization mattered. The “I” in the poem is clear on who she is, but she’s realizing she was not completely clear on anything else. “the baptismal is a fish tank” is a poem trying to crack open the idea of the mystical in the mundane by circling it, uninterrupted. Removing all punctuation and capitalization was a way of bringing down the stakes—you know, we’re just having a regular conversation about immersion baptism, no big deal, we do this all the time, right? Totally normal. And “i meant for my heart to be an invertebrate” is a heartbreak poem whispered after the beloved has left. The lower case is a relinquishing, a retreat, a whisper, a confession.

It’s okay if I did this wrong. I certainly baffled my copyeditor. But there are things in this book I had a hard time writing. Pushing them through in the smallest letters possible seemed to help. And for the reader, I hope they land with gentler footfalls.


Lift
Rob: Ha! Your poor copyeditor. But I applaud your commitment to your poems and their particular voices.

That leads us well into talking about poetry mentors, encouraging and guiding younger poets along. In your acknowledgements you thank two mentors, Rhea Tregebov and Anne Compton, who you call your "poetry guides on opposite coasts." Could you speak a little bit about your relationships with them, and how each of them shaped the poems in this (bi-coastal) book?

Emily: Oh my goodness, yes, thank you. Can we just take a moment to appreciate mentors? I feel so much gratitude to have had the instructors I did. It actually sort of makes me sweat to think about my luck.

Anne Compton took me under her wing while I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. She’s a Governor General’s Award-winning poet and a respected critic, and she was generous to my work from the very beginning, which was gracious of her, as it was bad and I was learning. I remember in particular one batch of poems I handed in, Anne gently and resolutely passed one back to me with the singular comment, “This is not a poem.” And she was right—it wasn’t! I’m so glad those drafts are buried somewhere on my hard drive and not out in the world.

I am indebted to Anne for the shaping of a young poet’s ear and resilience and hope. She read and supported the first two poems I ever had published—“Conurbation” and “Night Walk, Saint John”, which appeared in their earliest forms in The Fiddlehead and later in Lift. She taught me pantoums and ghazals and when to take out the pruning shears and cut a poem back to its essentials. Anne is a poet deeply rooted in place, and I came up through the same soil. She’s a teacher and a friend.

Rhea Tregebov and I crossed paths during my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia—Rhea is also a decorated poet, and a phenomenal professor. It is something to be in Rhea’s classroom: she teaches with great empathy and precision. She used to diagram every poem we workshopped on the board—what was happening, when, to whom—and we’d be in stitches by the end, because the drawings were so deeply bizarre. But the point was taken: a poem should hold up to scrutiny. It should not be soft, structurally, should contain no sinkholes of laziness or inattention. The building blocks of the poem mattered.

Rhea was my thesis supervisor: she read the early drafts of Lift, and blurbed the final version seven years later. She sensed somehow that the thesis process for me was going to be a long, slow uncovering—she didn’t press me to present work, but let me come to her in my own time. I felt skittish and untested, and she really put the legs on my work and got it to stop wobbling. As anyone who’s had the privilege to work with her can attest, Rhea champions each of her students—even those of us with long incubation periods. If I’d taken nothing else away from my MFA, Rhea’s friendship would have been enough.


Rob: I know it's a terrible question to ask when one is still basking in the glow of the first, but do you have a sense of what book number two might be?

Emily: None whatsoever. Is that okay to admit? I’ve got a novel I’m trying to breathe life into. And I remain hopeful that I’ll figure it out. Rhea has the most lovely poem in the opening of her book All Souls’ about being rediscovered by poetry: “You thought all the poems had grown up / and left home. You didn’t expect to find one / putting its little hands on your face.” I’m happy to live here for a while, waiting for the small hands of poetry to find me again. I have to trust they will. This is fine.

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Lift is more than fine! You can pick a copy up at your local bookstore, or via the Thistledown website or, I suppose, from Amazon.