Dead Poets September Lineup (+ Bonus WORD Reading)!

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch, Alice MacKay room, on September 13th, 2015, from 3-5 PM.

The lineup:
Milton Acorn (1923-1986), read by Michael Lockett
Philip Levine (1928 - 2015), read by Fiona Tinwei Lam
Don Marquis (1878 - 1937), read by Matt Whiteman
Tomas Tranströmer (1931 - 2015), read by Jeff Steudel

Attendance is free. For more info, visit our website.

Also in September, the DPRS will be participating in WORD Vancouver! We will be presenting a reading on September 27th, 2015 from 4:30-5:00 PM on the poetry bus!

The WORD reading will include:

Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014), read by Fiona Tinwei Lam
PK Page (1916 - 2010), read by Sandy Shreve
John Updike (1932 - 2009), read by Evelyn Lau

I'll be hosting the WORD reading, as well as the reading preceding it, "A Twist of Nature", which will feature Jeff Steudel, John Pass and recent silaron interviewee Elena Johnson.

So join me, maybe, on the 13th or the 27th? Or, goodness, both?


less craft than irritability

...it seems to me that when revising a poem, the most important thing one brings to the worktable is less craft than irritability. A poet can be irritated by any of several sorts of things. I just mentioned one of them: what might be called a level bump (something unexceptionable by normal lights that nonetheless affronts the ear or tongue or intelligence). The irritant can also be an inauthenticity (something which affronts nothing, but which one can’t quite hear oneself saying), an opportunity (something which is perfectly fine, but which nevertheless whispers, “I could be so much more…”). But whatever the irritant, a poet exercises something other and deeper than craft when responding to it.

(I’m not saying there’s no such thing as craft in the process of revision. If that were the case, there would be no such thing as editors. I’m just saying there’s an aspect of revision to whose mysteriousness the term “craft” seems inadequate.)

- Daniel Brown, from his essay "Craft Schmaft", over at the Partisan site. You can read the whole thing here.


the absurdity that reads as funny

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

- Linda Besner, discussing her collection The Id Kid with Susan Gillis, over on Susan's Concrete & River blog. You can read the whole thing here.


hello flowers! - "Transmitter and Receiver" by Raoul Fernandes

When The Teeth of the Gears Meet - Raoul Fernandes

the music chimes, the bicycle
climbs the hill, the clock releases
a bird. The streetlight blinks, goes night
day night day night. My bed
is a giant reset button I hold down
until morning. When the teeth
of the dream meets the teeth of the morning
I pour myself a cup of numbers in the kitchen.
Daydream a wheel inside a wheel. Daydream
children running from the shore with cupped
phosphorescence that dies out before
they reach us. Rushing back to do it again.
And I am a child running towards myself
and the teeth of the memory meet the teeth
of the day meet the clock, the highway, the heart.
Or the gears don't touch, just spin like ceiling fans.
What's a day? asks the sun. What's night?
asks the moon. Will you send me
that beautiful book about asteroids?
I want my life to change.

from Transmitter and Receiver
(Nightwood Editions, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


What can I say about Raoul Fernandes and his debut collection Transmitter and Receiver? First of all, I'm compromised as all hell: Raoul and I are good friends, and I have adored his writing for a very long time. The first thing I did when I was hired as Poetry Editor at PRISM international was to solicit two poets: Elise Partridge and Raoul, and the issue in which they both appeared still stands as my favourite. When Raoul was hemming and hawing about completing and mailing out his first manuscript I told him if he waited too long I'd found a press and put it into print myself. I assume he thought I was joking, but I still kick myself for not doing it.

To my mind, Raoul Fernandes' poems hit the sweetspot between being grounded and afloat, accessible and challenging, funny and necessarily (have you noticed our world?) stark, better than any being written today - and through it all his poems have this goddamn enormous, generous, beating heart which you can hear from the other side of the city. They're good, is what I'm saying. Which has made it all the more joyous an experience to watch Raoul's first collection, Transmitter and Receiver (Nightwood Editions, Spring 2015) go out into the world and start to receive the praise and attention it deserves.

I sat down with Raoul, a guitar, a hipster-mason-jar full of wine, a hipster-railway-conductor-shirt, and a Scategories game. We talked all things Transmitter and Receiver: flowers, the suburbs, universal cheeseburgers, disgruntled trees, electronic music and flowers. I hope you enjoy!

Don't even get me started on the hipster-velour-chair, Raoul.


Rob: With a book called Transmitter and Receiver I expected a lot of technology to have worked its way into your poems. And its certainly there in abundance - video games and YouTube videos, .jpgs and cell phone ring tones. But just as prevalent, perhaps more so, are flowers - in the foreground in poems like "The Tulip Vending Machine" and "Flower Arrangements" and also popping up in little cameos, like the night flowers which "open with ease // in the politician's garden" or the "soft buzzing" of flowers on an otherwise silent morning. I was wondering if you could speak about these two themes in your book - modern technology and flowers - and how they compliment and contrast one another. What does it mean for you when you put flowers in a poem? Could you imagine writing this book with the tech in but not the flowers?

Raoul: It's funny, I had absolutely no idea I had put that many flowers in the book until it was too late. It's like some little imp came in when I was sleeping and pressed them all in. But yes – and let's say that imp is a subconscious part of me – I have a few explanations. On a purely associative level, I like that sweet note that flowers can play and to use that to disrupt or enhance something in a poem. I have also felt distant or suspicious of something so purely beautiful when I was a moody and dark youth. That skateboarder in "Flower Arrangements" that holds the bouquet at a “precise distance” away from himself? That's me, in a way. Just overwhelmed and unable to relate to that beauty. I remember a period later when I was reading a lot of Gerald Stern, who has flowers in his poems, and how startling it was to me, somehow. At the time a flower poem to me was the most radical thing. And then of course, I relate them a lot to my wife these days, she's brought me into a quiet kind of appreciation of them and living green things in general.

As far as the technology goes, I think I was being playful with contrasts, mostly. I was trying to show the organic nature of technology as much as I was trying to place the flowers in unusual contexts as well. Flowers are a cliché right? But it's also a fun game to try to un-cliché an old cliché.

Rob: Yes, I also love the challenge of un-cliché-ing clichés. Unflowering flowers?

Sticking with the recurring themes of the book, another of them seems to me to be commodification, especially commodification within a suburban setting. Flowers and food are turned into products, and thereby deformed. In "Affordable Travel Through Time" a group of teenagers hangs out in front of a rotating billboard and the speaker notes reverently that "Nothing / was purchased tonight and nothing sold." What was your sense of the commodified world as a suburban teenager growing up in Tsawwassen, BC, and has it changed as you've aged and moved into the city?

Raoul: This is an area I feel very out of my depth on, but I will try to circle around it. It might help if I talked about that moment in the poem you mentioned. I was looking back at a time where I, like probably a lot of young people, was struggling to find a meaningful framework for my identity and life, something authentic or even spiritual. And around me, things like movies, shopping malls, advertising seemed to force a meaning onto us that we didn't want or at least, were very suspicious of. It was important to find meaning outside that, even though we didn't know what it was.

Some poems might also relate to the “thingness" I was just talking about. In a poem, does something become more real, more of a specific thing when it's placed in a dollar store or a vending machine? But being a mass-produced object, it loses uniqueness, so it becomes less real in a way, too. And another quality is that a mass-produced object is something shared, like when we drink a can of coke are we all connecting to the same object, just in different places? Confusing, right? Again, I feel out of my depth and I think I'm often just using it as a texture, not making any statements about it, but knowing when it feels right. Maybe you'd be able to help get a better grip on what I'm doing here.

Rob: I suppose I'm projecting my own experience on to your poems a bit, but as a child of Vancouver's suburbs myself, now living in the city, I feel that my geographic location changes my sense of the commodified world. In the suburbs, growing up, and even now when I return to visit family, I feel awash in a world that is made up of possessions, where the value of "things" comes in the buying and selling and hoarding of them, and where the purpose of existence is the acquisition of the best and most desired items: megahouses and massive shopping mall parking lots full of minivans and Hummers. Then I compare that to the city where, certainly, there is hyper-consumerism in many areas, but also so much resistance to it, resistance I never felt in the suburbs, where consumerism felt like a warm blanket pulled over the lot of us. Maybe it has more to do with childhood/adulthood than suburb/city - I'm not entirely sure.

Though ours is hardly a unique experience - growing up in the suburbs, then moving to the big city - it isn't a universal one, either. I felt in many of the poems in Transmitter and Receiver you used this perspective to take on questions like "What is a thing?", "What is its worth?" and "In what currency is that worth measured?". In these poems, a knowing, urban speaker looks back on their unknowing, suburban upbringing, and some insight or another is cracked open via the comparison. For instance, your poem "Night School", which faces "Affordable Travel Through Time" - busing into the city looking for something, some answer or perspective the suburb couldn't provide, something not found by the speaker until they'd made the move both into the city and into adulthood. Then there's "Grand Theft Auto: Dead Pixels", which I think you were hinting at above, where the speaker eats a fast food cheeseburger, emboldened by the fact that "maybe tens of thousands" are "experiencing this identical flavour / and texture at this precise time" while also noting that actually enjoying the meal is not important. How much more of a tangled suburban love song can one sing?

Do you find being in the suburbs substantially - let's say, hesitantly, "spiritually" - different for you when it comes to how you see and understand the "thingness" of the world, compared to the city? And how, if at all, do you think your upbringing shaped the questions you now find yourself asking about "thingness"?

Raoul: Goodness, what a question! Well, yes, the suburbs do feel that way now, the warm consumerist blanket of possessions, beautiful lawns, two car garages. Such a privileged and unsustainable ideal. I don't know if going out into the city was to consciously get away from consumerism in particular (though you're right, the city is a less materialist place and, in general, people are more conscious about these issues) but it was to go somewhere more noisy and unsettling, to shake us out of that safe and sedated feeling.

There's a line from that Night School poem, “Friends who appeared / like giants by our town's driftwood fires, now slapped / pale and diminished in this crowded light.” There was a shift in proportion when we were in the city, we felt smaller, and I think it was important to me to feel small at times. We also attempted this kind of disruption within the suburbs too - experimenting with mind-altering substances, staying awake all night at the beach, hanging out in cemeteries, etc. Music, art, books were also part of this. I didn't know what my values were but I had resistance to it being money and possessions. Now I suspect what was important was connecting with people. Friendship is a strong theme, I believe, in those suburban poems. And the later poems explore connections with strangers and those close to me, my wife and child. Sometimes it's through objects, but the objects themselves aren't where the values lie.

Rob: Yes, I like that a lot. Especially the smallness part - the city is good for that. Sometimes too good. I'm wondering, as we talk about life being about friendships before objects, how you feel about peddling a book of your poems (in, say, author interviews) as a commercial item. Do you feel any tension there?

Raoul: It might be me being biased, but I weirdly don't feel much tension when it comes to books as commodified things in the world. Books seem kind of empty in a way, like vehicles for thought to be transmitted through, only existing when they are being written and when being read. Of course, it is also a bound physical object you can hold in your hand and a lot of disgruntled trees would have something to say about this somewhat romantic metaphysical idea.

As far as marketing goes, I'm pretty easy about it so far. I'd feel weird if there was marketing extraneous to the poems. Most of the time it's the poems speaking for themselves (at a reading or on a bus ad), or some reaction or discussion of the poems (in an interview or review) so it feels ok to me.

Raoul, blinking, wearing the coat from a skinned corduroy sofa.

Rob: "You have this thing" are the opening words to the opening poem of the book ("By Way of Explanation"). Then again, two pages later, we come upon "this strong coffee, this pulsing sky" ("Bioluminescence"). "This" is a showcase word in Transmitter and Receiver, a word returned to again and again, and it seems to me that the centrality of "this" in the book suggests a bond you feel with the reader. The reader is there in the world of the poem with you and you are giving them a tour: it's not just some random burger, it's "this burger, this popular fast food cheeseburger" ("Grand Theft Auto: Dead Pixels"). You can almost reach out and pick it up in your hands. Why do you think you are drawn to "this" instead of "the" or "a" in so many circumstances?

Raoul: That's a really good observation. Again, something I haven't consciously noticed. I like it, I wouldn't mind a lot of my poems feeling like an intimate show and tell session. I like to bring the reader into the room of the poem, into the specific moment. There's already so much in poems that risk distancing the reader or suggesting that objects in the poems are only symbols for something else. Sometimes it's good to be clear on the actual thingness. Which is funny because I think I use the word “thing” often too, which is vague. So “this thing” is both specific and vague at the same time.

Rob: How, if at all, do you think your work as Goodnight Streetlight (and/or electronic music generally) informs your poetry? Vice versa?

Raoul: When I first started making electronic music it was very playful and exploring, building little songs with whatever pieces of sounds I found around, from little Windows system bleeps to recorded ambient noises, to fiddling on a toy keyboard. One could make parallels to how I approach the data of my poems in the same way. Feeling out what's within reach, then putting odd things next to each other and seeing what energy they produce. Also, people have used similar adjectives to describe my music: weird/dreamy/comforting. So that reveals something of my aesthetic. I just hope there's a little bit of discomfort in there as well.

Rob: In reading the book it felt largely chronological: suburban teenage life at the front, family life with wife and son near the end. How much does that order line up with the order in which you wrote the poems? Have you found you've written about certain periods in your history at particular times in your life? What parts/times of your life did you start writing about first?

Raoul: I tend to go back to my suburban teenage life a lot for material. Not sure why, it was a crazy intense time where I was trying to figure out both myself and the world. I was hanging out with a lot of weird kids who were in a similar position, feeling crazy and different yet existing in this very safe well-manicured pretty little town. I enjoyed that contrast. I've revisited that weird suburbia often and will continue to go back there I think. I didn't write any of those poems during that time though, I should say.

The family domestic poems are a bit newer where I'm consciously trying to write something more current. It's more of a challenge, in as far as I use memories at all, I usually need the memories to age a bit.

Rob: Similar to my last question, I'm wondering if any of these poems were written late in the publication process, maybe to fill holes in the manuscript, and if so, which, and what were the perceived holes? Having seen and read your book in print, did it inspire you to tackle anything different in book number two?

Raoul: Regarding the newer poems in the book, I found the natural thing to do was to continue to write poems after the manuscript was accepted and then choose the ones I felt were playing different notes than the other poems, but somehow still connected to the themes. I don't know if there were obvious holes, but I remember having a worry that there were too many poems that had the same feel, that used the same images (hello flowers!) or ended the same way.

I haven't really started anything for another collection, but I think I'm going to just keep writing and let new poems grow organically and hopefully explore new terrain, voices, approaches. Maybe (probably) get deeper with some of the concerns that are already in this book. So no real plan, but I like the idea of working on a few little chapbooks instead of the somewhat daunting prospect of Book Number Two. I want to give myself the freedom to take risks and get a little weird. Whatever keeps my head lit up.


Raoul is Transmitting like crazy, so make sure you Receive a copy of Transmitter and Receiver soon. You can tune one in from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website, or, if you wish to worship at the grand temple of commodification, via Amazon.


using the tools at hand - "Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra" by Elena Johnson

Spines - Elena Johnson

spine of the sky spine of the sparrow spine of the sheep’s horn spine of the antler spine of footsteps over tundra spine of white plastic spine of unknowing spine of modern research spine of the lilting shack spine of the black spruce spine of the pika spine of the 21st-century human spine of a caribou settling into the scree

from Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra
(Gaspereau Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


Elena Johnson's Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is to the Canadian poetry world as a marmot is to the Alpine Tundra. I don't think I need to explain how the world of CanPo is like a barren tundra, do I? But Field Notes being a marmot might take a minute.

Ok, so you've got a big empty expanse, right? Lots of scrub plants and stubby trees clinging to the sides of rocks and such, the wind howling. And occasionally there's a big, flashy animal making itself known: some proud caribou or robust mountain sheep or a grizzly bear taking swipes at its neighbours. They insist on being the stars of the show. But then you hear this little sound every once and a while, this little whistle, and you know something else is busy at work, too. You just can't see it yet.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is that marmot hiding in the rocks while all the bigger creatures lumber by. It has been living in the CanPo tundra for years (originally composed in 2008), and you've heard or spotted it from time to time, as when excerpts or earlier versions of the book were longlisted for a CBC Literary Award in 2010 and shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2013. But it took until Spring 2015 for you to spot it in all its glory, when it was published by Gaspereau Press.

Slight in stature (48 pages with all the paratextual padding), narrow in scope (exclusively focused on Elena's short visit to a field research project in the Yukon), and composed using stripped-down language to match its subject, the book could easily slip your attention. Don't let it. An attentive, meditative look at wildness and how we can and cannot lasso it (in words; in graphs and charts), it's a book to read and return to, to dip into when you need a refreshing jolt, like stepping into a cold stream.

I hiked into the Alpine Tundra and waited for Elena and her little marmot to arrive. It took many months of waiting, but Elena had taught me to be patient. When they finally appeared, I asked Elena a few questions about Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, and the results are below. I hope you enjoy!

Elena Johnson, in her blue period.


Rob: Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is a series of poems composed in 2008 during your time as writer-in-residence with a field research project in the Yukon. Could you speak a little about the residency? How did you find out about it?

Elena: I had applied for a job back in 2006 to work as a field ecology researcher at the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project’s field camp in the Yukon’s Ruby Range. I ended up taking another job that summer instead, but I kept wondering about this remote mountain range in the Yukon. It occupied my imagination for several years. In 2008, after the first year of my master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, I had the great luck of having some free time to travel in the summer, and wrote a proposal asking to visit the camp as their writer-in-residence, in exchange for assisting with some field research (and doing my share of cooking, etc.). A close friend of mine who had worked at the camp for many years vouched for my abilities as a backpacker, researcher, writer, and generally likeable human being. The proposal was accepted. I was helicoptered in with the food supplies, and I hiked out at the end of my stay.

Rob: Did you have any hesitations about taking on the project? Was there ever a point during those weeks when you found yourself questioning or regretting your choice to attend?

Elena: On the day I was supposed to hike down toward the treeline and head home, I got lost. It was a foggy day, and I was with someone who knew the way. But because there was a dead sheep on the usual trail, which meant the grizzly that had killed it was likely still in the area, we had to take an alternate route. No one would lend us a map. (There were only two topographic maps at the camp, so they were valuable.) So we ended up on a mountainside, in a dense fog, not sure where or how we’d taken a wrong turn. I had a compass, notebook and pencil in my pocket, so we drew a rough map of where we’d come from and marked the last place we were certain we’d been. Then we attempted to retrace our steps back to that area. Luckily, we found our way. When the fog cleared a bit, we had already made our way – roughly – back toward camp. At that point, we were very close to the trail with the dead sheep – exactly the area we were supposed to be avoiding! All that to say that on that particular day I imagined a helicopter search and hoped they’d find us alive. But even during that incident, I didn’t regret being there. I did attempt a poem about this experience of being lost in the fog, but it simply wasn’t a good poem. There are hints of this experience in the book, though – a line or stanza here and there. And there is a poem about the dead sheep.

I’m someone who loves to camp and travel, so I’m accustomed to roughing it. A more precious person would have had a hard time in these conditions – no bathing, unless you could jump into an icy creek or get the cook-tent to yourself for a half hour and heat a pot of water; cold temperatures; sleeping in a shared tent; etc. But I loved it. Well, I guess a bath or shower would have been nice.

Field Notes, in its animal form.
Photo © Elena Johnson
Rob: Yes, I remember that poem - the "Dead Sheep Valley". The way that image of the dead sheep ("Bear-marks / in its flank") jumps out of the poem, leads me to think about one of the most arresting qualities of the poems in Field Notes. The language is so spare and stripped down, mirroring the landscape. But then one flashy word suddenly appears in a poem and it shines like it never would in a different collection - like wild flowers, or a small mammal springing up among the stones, or a dead sheep out of nowhere with a claw slash through its side.

I wonder if you chose this sparse, stripped down writing style consciously when writing these poems, or if it came about naturally, in response to the landscape?

Elena: Thanks for this insightful description of the poems. Nearly all of the poems were written in the mountains (the Ruby Range), and I think the setting – the terrain itself – did have a big influence on the shape and style of the poems. But it wasn’t a conscious decision – as always, I just picked up a pencil and scrawled some lines into a notebook. I’ve noticed, over time, that the size of the pages of the notebooks I’m writing in affects the forms of the poems in both subtle and direct ways, and I think that principle was at work here, too – I had tiny notebooks that fit into my pockets, and one wider notebook. As for the language, I think I was just using the tools at hand – the vocabulary of the people around me, and the phrases my brain put together as I observed what was around me.

Rob: I've noticed that for myself, too - that the size of notebook can affect the shape of the final poem. How do your non-Field Notes poems, written (I assume) in notebooks of all shapes and sizes, differ from these? Is your stylistic approach the same?

Elena: I don’t have a consistent stylistic approach. My approach to poetry is always evolving. So my non-Field Notes poems are very varied – in theme, style, tone, voice, diction.... Some are quite sparse and small, like these, some are lists, like some of these, but others are very narrative and some are experimental. Found poems pop up now and then in the other collections I’m working on, as they do in this one. I’ve also been writing haiku and tanka for many years, and people have pointed out that there is a haiku-like feel to some of my other work. Another ongoing influence is my interest/background in ecology. I suppose a consistent element in my work is that it’s often a response to a geographic environment, whether urban or rural; the poems tend to have a clear setting, rather than being abstract or language-based. (And yet I enjoy reading work that is abstract and language-based.)

Rob: In reading Field Notes, I was reminded of a number of other books in which the poet reports from a remote part of Canada, such as Al Purdy's North of Summer (especially poems like "Trees at the Arctic Circle") or Anna Swanson's The Night Also and its suite of poems about her time in an Alberta fire lookout. Did any books (poetry or otherwise), or particular poems, serve as inspirations or guides for you in writing these poems? Did you look to any titles in particular when considering how to compile the poems as a book?

Elena: I did bring a few books with me on this trip, and I remember that one of them was by Charles Simic. But I don’t think you can comb through and find any Simic influences in here. I don’t remember which other books I brought along, but I know that none of them were Northern-themed. When I camp and travel, I like to photocopy a few pages from many different books and bring those – it’s a mini collection that is light to carry and can be put to other uses (scrap paper, tinder, etc.) if necessary.

When I got back home, it took a while to type up what was in my notebooks and see what was working. As I started to shape the poems into a series, I did look to some other collections. I remember that I read much of Gary Snyder’s Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. While Snyder’s poems didn’t resonate directly with my own work, his translations of Han Shan (Cold Mountain Poems) did. There was one passage I copied down and tacked to my wall, and I included that passage as the postscript in Field Notes.

I also looked to some other poets’ collections to see how they had incorporated a long series of poems into a more assorted collection. (I originally thought Field Notes would be just one section of book, so was trying to figure out how to structure a collection around it.) While I was in the final editing stages this fall, I read some of Paulette Jiles’ writing on her time in Northern Ontario, including the poetry collection Celestial Navigation; I loved a lot of it, but I don’t think it had an influence on these poems, especially because the locale – and community – she was writing about were so different from where I was. And several writers have noticed that there might be a Kroetsch influence in these poems, but I hadn’t read his work at all until these poems were finished.

I should mention that one of these poems was included in Arc Poetry Magazine’s North-themed issue in the winter of 2013. If anyone reading this interview is interested in poetry about – or from – the North, that issue contains a lot of incredible work. There are so many amazing poets in it, many of whom live in Northern communities. The issue’s out of print now, but available in libraries.

Rob: I love that idea of reading poems and then using them to start fires! The poems in Field Notes... prepare yourself... really "caught fire" themselves - they were longlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in 2010, and were part of larger manuscripts that were shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize in 2012 and 2013. In other words, these poems have been garnering acclaim, and bouncing around from one arrangement/manuscript to another for quite some time now. Can you speak a little about the journey the poems took from original composition to the final product as a full-length collection?

Elena: This series of poems remained fairly unchanged between 2010 and its publication date (2015). But it took me a while to gather my confidence and start sending it around to publishers. The changes that were made to these poems were fairly minor: deleting a word here or there, or taking out unnecessary passages – mostly whittling and reordering.

Rob: Connected to the above, Field Notes is just barely long enough (48 pages with all its paratexts and a good amount of white space) to qualify as a full length "book" by Canada Council standards. How do you feel about that? Did you have any desire to add poems to the series to pad it out?

Elena: I’ll admit I did feel a bit shy about putting a smallish book out into the world, especially for my first collection. This work was originally part of a longer collection that included a variety of other poems not related to this series – travel poems and urban poems, for example. It was my editor at Gaspereau Press, Andrew Steeves, who suggested that we try splitting the collection in two and giving the Alpine Tundra poems their own book. When I put my ego aside, I could see that he was right – I had basically folded two books into one, and the Alpine Tundra series was really distinct from my other work. And, deep down, I had always wanted these poems to have their own book – I just didn’t realize that there were enough poems. 48 pages seemed the right size for this collection; in the end, I actually had a few extra alpine tundra poems that we just didn’t have room for.

Rob: Do you have a general preference when you're reading towards shorter or longer collections?

Elena: As a reader, I enjoy both short and long collections. But I do find that 70 or 90 pages can feel a bit long if the book is exploring just one main theme. Friends of mine (poets and non-poets) have mentioned that the small size of this collection appeals to them – they feel that they can potentially read it in one sitting, or that they’re not overwhelmed/intimidated by the idea of reading a whole book of poetry, cover to cover.

Rob: I'm glad you mentioned Andrew Steeves and Gaspereau. As I read your book, which includes some charts and tables from the scientific research the project was undertaking, I was struck by how it seemed perfectly suited to Gaspereau, who are known for not just publishing great writing, but making physical books that are works of art in themselves. Were all of the graphs and maps in the book already a part of it when you submitted it to Gaspereau, or were some of them added later?

Elena: All but two of the graphs, maps and other visuals were already in the manuscript when I first sent it to Gaspereau. Two of them were added in later, during the year between signing the contract and beginning the final edits. I had some time that year to take a new look at the manuscript, and wrote to the camp’s head researcher to see if he had any graphs that illustrated certain ideas/findings I was hoping to incorporate into the text. He sent a few, and two of them fit in quite perfectly.

One of the things I’ve really appreciated about working with Gaspereau, and specifically with Andrew Steeves, the editor, is that he sees, in the same way I do, that these visuals are poems in themselves. I think he sees the true beauty in, say, the illustrations of the cross-sections of willow stems. Not all editors would be open to including these scientific charts and illustrations.

Rob: More generally, how, if at all, did working with Gaspereau change your expectations for what the book was, and what it could be?

Elena: As I mentioned above, the biggest change the book underwent (and this was just a few months before publication), was being split in two. I’m so glad to have been working with an editor who could see that these poems needed a book of their own. The other change was that I sent Andrew some of my photographs from my time in the Yukon, with the thought that perhaps he’d like to base a line-drawing on one of them for the cover of the book. Instead, he chose to use two of the photos in the book itself – one as the cover, and one as a two-page spread at the front of the book.

I felt the book was in good hands, and that was a great comfort during the editing and production processes. Gary Dunfield and Andrew did such a beautiful job with the book. Even the typeface was so thoughtfully chosen. I feel pretty honoured to have worked with them.

Rob: Have you shown these poems to members of the research team you accompanied? If so, did you have any trepidation doing so, and what was their response? If not, do you plan on sending them a copy of the book?

Elena: I sent an early draft to one of the head researchers a few years ago, to make sure it all made sense from a scientific standpoint. And I sent a copy last summer to the professor in charge of the field camp, with the same intention: to make sure it made sense, and that I hadn’t misrepresented any of the science.

At this point, they’ve both received their copies of the finished book, and have sent words of delight my way. It means so much to me that they love the poems, and the book. They were open to having a poet at their camp, having no idea what would come of it. It goes without saying that I couldn’t have written this book without their support.

Elena's shadow still haunts
the Alpine Tundra.
Photo © Elena Johnson
Researchers – mostly biologists and ecologists – were coming and going from the camp during the weeks that I was there. We had a group of 6-8 people at any point in time. Because the group kept changing, I wasn’t able to thank them all by name in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. But I am so thankful to each one of them: they cooked for me and ate what I cooked, they made sure I knew where to watch out for bears, they took me along on their field studies (including marmot-trapping and plant-counting), they made good coffee, and they reminded me to spend time writing poems. They even made me a card when I left – a crayon drawing on a folded sheet of printer paper. While the poems have an alone-in-the-wilds feeling, there was definitely a social element to my time in the mountains. Even if I spent the day alone, I was happy to have supper with these folks at the end of the day.

In one of the nearly-final versions of the book, I made a sweeping dedication: to all the scientists who dedicate their lives to the study and protection of northern ecosystems. The dedication was perhaps a little much, and was edited out; I simply thanked this specific research team in my acknowledgements. But I do feel this work is dedicated, more broadly, to field scientists in general, and especially those who focus on northern ecosystems.


Make sure you corner a copy of Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra and pluck it from the scree. You can do so from your local bookstore, or from the Gaspereau Press website, or, if you wish to gut the book industry as a grizzly does a sheep, via Amazon.


NXNW Interview

I was very fortunate recently to be interviewed (along with my colleague and friend Dr. Patricia Gabriel) by Sheryl MacKay for CBC's North by Northwest.

The interview focused on a research project we have been working on for the last three years, which looks at if and how poetry can be used to enhance physician empathy around the diagnosis and treatment of depression.

You can stream the interview here (Patricia and my part starts at 15:50).

Thanks to Sheryl for giving us this platform, and to everyone involved in the project for making it happen.


Surrey Poet Laureate Call for Applications - Due June 30th!

Surrey is looking to hire their first Poet Laureate. Hurrah! The deadline is June 30, and all the details can be found on the poster below (click to enlarge), or if you click RIGHT HERE.

I want a 10% finder's fee if you get the gig... Good luck!


July Dead Poets Lineup Announced!

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch, Alice MacKay room, on July 12th, 2015, from 3-5 PM.

The lineup:

ee cummings (1894-1962), read by DN Simmers
Lauris Edmond (1924 - 2000), read by Christine Hayvice
John Keats (1795 - 1821), read by Matthew Henley
Robert Lowell (1917 - 1977), read by Christopher Levenson
PK Page (1916 - 2010), read by Ruth Daniell

Attendance is free. For more info, visit our website.

I hope to see you there!


what a teeming fragment of minutiae, and yet crucial minutiae

Time made wastrels of us all, did it not, with its gaunt cheeks and its tombly reverberations and its admonishing glances with bony fingers. Bony fingers pointed as if in admonishment, as if to say, "I admonish you to recall your own eventual nascent death, which being on its way is forthcoming. Forthcoming, mortal coil, and don't think its ghastly pall won't settle on your furrowed brow, pronto, once I select your fated number from my very dusty book with the selfsame bony finger with which I'm pointing at you now, you vanity of vanities, you luster, you shirker of duties as you shuffle after your worldly pleasured centers."

That was some good stuff, if only he could remember it through the rest of his stroll and the coming storm, to scrawl in a passionate hand in his yellow pad. He thought with longing ardor of his blank yellow pad, he thought. He thought with longing ardor of his blank yellow pad on which, this selfsame day, his fame would be wrought, no, on which, this selfsame day, the first meager scrawlings which would presage his nascent burgeoning fame would be wrought, or rather writ, and someday someone would dig up his yellow pad and virtually cry eureka when they realized what a teeming fragment of minutiae, and yet crucial minutiae, had been found, and wouldn't all kinds of literary women in short black jackets want to meet him then!

In the future he must always remember to bring his pad everywhere.

- George Saunders, from his short story "The Falls". You can read the whole thing here.


Reading Elise Partridge

This piece was initially published in The Coastal Spectator in anticipation of the posthumous book launch for Elise Partridge's The Exiles' Gallery. I have modified the essay slightly to serve as a more general commentary. You can read the original here.


Elise Partridge
I was a fan of Elise Partridge the Poet before I was a fan of Elise Partridge the Person. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. Not because her poems prove lacking—far from it—but because she was perhaps the most generous and encouraging poet around. Following Elise’s death from colon cancer at the end of January, proof of her giving spirit came pouring in from just about every corner of the Canadian poetry world (from The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire, to writers’ personal blogs). Christopher Patton noted that Elise was “warm loving acute witty skeptical wry and humane,” Elizabeth Bachinsky added that she was “gracious and self-effacing,” and Stephanie Bolster praised “the generosity of spirit, the deep humanity, the ability to see each person or thing clearly and for its own qualities” in Elise’s life and work. In my own piece remembering Elise, I wrote that she taught me “that the generous heart and spirit that go into the page need to be the same heart and spirit that travel out into the world every day.”

Serifs ascending, descending,
I want to recognize all of you

– Chemo Side Effects: Vision
But before all that, for me, Elise Partridge was the name on the byline above two poems: “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” and “Chemo Side Effects: Vision”. The year must have been 2008, or soon after, when both poems were published in Elise’s sophomore collection Chameleon Hours (Anansi). At the time, as today, I was in part drawn to poetry for its compactness and care for detail: the best poetry serving as an antidote against the big, noisy, chaotic world we live in. But the moments when poets really did this—really stopped and looked, and became small and free and powerful through that looking—were rare. Then I opened Chameleon Hours and there was Elise, in the middle of chemotherapy—a particularly awful type of industrialized chaos which denied her full access to her basic faculties—saying “No” to the disease and the distraction. Saying, “I’m sorry if you’d rather I worry about the ‘big picture,’ but I have this small thing to look at: a word, a letter, the serif on the tip of an f, this fiddlehead fern.” Saying this even if she couldn’t quite see them any more. What a bold statement it seemed to me then, and even more now, against death. “Death,” it was as if she was saying, “you can do many things, but you cannot stop me from relishing the world.”

In Babel, they also lay down and wept.
– The Alphabet

The Exiles' Gallery
(Anansi, 2015)
And death didn’t. Testament to that is Elise’s third collection, The Exiles’ Gallery (Anansi, 2015). Two poems which are the new book’s strongest inheritors of the defiant looking of the “Chemo Side Effect” poems are “X, a CV” and “The Alphabet.” In “X, a CV”, the author lists the twenty-fourth letter’s finest accomplishments and most famous roles, including “bowling strike,” “kiss,” and “default sci-fi planet.” She drills down and down into a letter most of us think little about (“in Pirahã the glottal stop; / a fricative in Somali”) and in the process elevates and enriches the final image: “the name of millions: / those never granted an alphabet’s power.” I’ve read this poem aloud and listened as that last line’s simple observation resonated through the room, generating a depth of meaning it never would have accomplished had it been placed at the end of any other poem. More proof that Elise’s particular form of persistence paid off. “The Alphabet” functions similarly, with perhaps a more devastating conclusion.

And each crop a loyal perennial.
That infinite stash of pippins,
cores shied over a wall!
– Before the Fall

Elise’s attention to words and letters is not limited to their shapes and serifs—it’s clear in an Elise Partridge poem that all of a word’s meanings were considered, too, before it was pressed into the page. Many poets ask their reader, via the density of their poems, to pick up the dictionary in order to fully understand the poet’s work—few, though, succeed in making that process pleasurable. But with Elise’s rigour and intention, I always know the extra work will be worth it. Take, for example, the last sentence of the short poem “Before the Fall” (which opens a section of The Exiles’ Gallery). A poem about Adam and Eve in the garden, it closes: “That infinite stash of pippins, / cores shied over a wall!” Look up “pippins” in the dictionary and you’ll see it’s the word both for the apple and the seed (such a vital distinction in the Garden of Eden!). Look up “shy” and you’ll find a great number of meanings (eleven in the dictionary I’m using) from “throw” to “reserved” to “startle” to “distrustful” to “insufficient” – all of which seem to have a home in the poem.

The gate that won’t quite shut
with its scruff of lichen
invites us into the orchard

– Invitation
As playful and powerful as the above poems are, the most affecting suite of poems in The Exiles’ Gallery comes, as with the “Chemo Side Effect” poems in Chameleon Hours, when Elise applies her determined attention to her battle with cancer (Abigail Deutch, in her review of The Exiles’ Gallery, pulls out a line from “Chameleon Hours” and suitably dubs Elise “The Virtuoso of Upheaval”). In poems like “Gifts”, “The If Borderlands”, and “Invitation”, we see the rich benefits of all of Elise’s looking and insisting: “the bursting plums” in the orchard, which we are invited “to pick ‘till time and times are done’”; the globe in our hands that we linger and long for, “tender as a peach.”

With your labour of double love
you will give us hundreds,
and all you ask is two loaves.

– Range
At this point in reading and thinking about Elise and her work, the difference between Elise the Poet and Elise the Person begins to feel irrelevant. She lived the two, in union, so seemingly effortlessly. Like Klaus, the repairman in her poem, “Range,” Elise came into our lives both in person and on the page, and fixed what needed fixing. As Elise's friend and colleague Barbara Nickel puts it: “Like Klaus… Elise gave and gave and gave careful, meticulous, loving attention—to her poems, to others’ poems, to friends and family, strangers, anyone she met.” In talking with Elise’s husband, Steve, he used the phrase “scrap-yard rescue” to describe a theme that runs through Elise’s poems like “Range” and “A Late Writer’s Desk”— poems focused on “preserving what others have given up on.”

My friend, you didn’t lie down.

– Last Days
Sometimes it feels like poetry itself is what we, as a society, have given up on. Or simple, generous attention. Or, simply, generosity. But all of these things feel preserved, and redeemed, when you have a book of Elise Partridge’s poetry in your hands. So please, pick up a copy and find a comfortable chair. Read with the focus and wonder under which the poems were created. And wherever you are, you won’t be alone or unseen.

Miranda Pearson reading at Elise Partridge's Vancouver Book Launch, May 21st, 2015