seven interviews from 2013

As the year comes to an end, I've been looking over the interviews I conducted for this blog in 2013. My stated goal last New Years was to conduct 7,000 interviews in 2013. Well, I made it 1/1000th of the way. Seven in total - all featuring authors speaking about their new books, all very satisfying for me in one way or another.

In case you missed any, here's a recap. Click away!

Susan Gillis on "The Rapids"

Al Rempel on "This Isn't The Apocalypse We'd Hoped For"

Daniel Karasik on "Hungry"

Derek Sheffield on "Through the Second Skin"

Michael Hingston on "The Dilettantes"

Renee Saklikar on "children of air india"

Mariner Janes on "The Monument Cycles"

I hope you're enjoying these as... well... I am, and since no one pays me a nickel to run this blog, the content is going to be determined by what I like! More are on the way in 2014 (mostly, I suspect, around April?).

Happy New Year, all!


as though the arts were like science

When I used to be a speaker at colleges, I’d say, “Look, practice an art, no matter how badly or how well you do it. It will make your soul grow.” That’s why you do it. You don’t do it to become famous or rich. You do it to make your soul grow. This would include singing in the shower, dancing to the radio by yourself, drawing a picture of your roommate or writing a poem or whatever. Please practice an art. Have the experience of becoming. It’s so sad that many public school systems are eliminating the arts because it’s no way to make a living. What’s important is to have the experience of becoming, which is as necessary as food or sex. It’s really quite a sensation — to become.

The trouble I’ve had with art criticism is that it discourages people from painting. Dance criticism discourages people from dancing. But hell, everyone ought to be painting. It’s such a pleasant thing to do. With critics, it has to be original, as though the arts were like science, where you make progress. Hell, there’s no need to make progress.

- Kurt Vonnegut, in interview with Stop Smiling magazine, in 2006. You can read the whole thing here.


is that the noblest objective of a work of fiction?

Fiction having extensive detail about the gymnastics of copulation or sexual congress - or even the alleged responses to it - does not make interesting reading to me. It's like trying to describe the noise of a subway train. There are people who can do it. Young writers go in for that type of description. But when they're finished, all they've done is described the noise of a subway train coming into a station or pulling out of a station. Is that the noblest objective of a work of fiction? To convince the reader that what you're writing about is really happening? I don't think so.

- Joseph Heller, in 1992, in conversation with Kurt Vonnegut and Carole Mallory for Playboy. You can read the whole thing, as a Google Document, here.


One of your New Year's resolutions...

is more Dead Poets, right? If not, don't worry, you still have plenty of time to add it to your list. If you need an extra motivation, we've put together a heckuva lineup to help kick off 2014.

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event (and our second at our new venue, the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch) will take place on January 12th, 2013, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

T.S. Eliot (1888 - 1965), read by Russell Thornton
Max Jacob (1876 - 1944), read by Jen Currin
Zbigniew Herbert (1924 - 1998), read by Zoe Landale
D.H. Lawrence (1885 - 1930), read by Miranda Pearson
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), read by Jennica Harper

I know, right? Pretty great. See you there?

You can RSVP via Facebook here. For more info, visit http://deadpoetslive.com


a type of intellectual wallpaper

What I noticed above all in seeing over 100 “Younger” Canadian Poets interacting was a disconnect between a number of poets’ work and their actual selves. Ambitious projects dominated many poets’ ideas of themselves. I could talk to a poet but then see nothing of them in their work. This isn’t always a problem but it is a problem as a trend.

It seemed to me that particularly the younger poets were suffocated by the ambition that comes from this notion of joining something as abstract and meaningless as “the new canon.” Many young poets are so busy trying to prove how brilliant they are in every syllable that their poems have no breathing room and they cease to be about something... their poetry isn’t about the world but instead uses esoteric details of the world as a type of intellectual wallpaper.

- Brad Cran, discussing his Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference, in response to Carmine Starnino's CV2 interview. You can read the whole thing here.


Show your Support for Mayor Ford Poetry

Thinking about donating to the Indiegogo campaign to pay Rob Ford's legal fees? Stop right there! I know how desperately you want to participate in a crowd-sourced fundraising activity - you get to donate to a good project AND get some christmas shopping done at the same time - but my friend, do not stoop to such a level! Especially, when the CanPo world is offering you such good alternatives:

First off, we have the local campaign to get a limited-edition hand-bound book of Christopher Levenson's Vancouver poems into production:

The chapbook will be designed by New Leaf Editions, and will include etchings by Sigrid Albert. Swag for donating includes poems, broadsheets, copies of the book and printmaking lessons. The details of the project are explained in this here video:

Click here to donate to the project.

Second up is Zachariah Wells' campaign to get himself to France so he can be present for the operatic recital of four of his poems at the Opéra National in Paris.

Zach is opening up his storage closet o' swag for this one, with signed copies of all of his (and his wife, Rachel Lebowitz's) books up for grabs, along with CDs, postcards, broadsides and poetry manuscript consultations.

Click here to donate to this project.

Neither of these campaigns, of course, will help stop the bullying, so vote with your wallet - and your heart - this December.


the absurd, the strange, the humorous - "The Monument Cycles" by Mariner Janes

ginsberg and kissinger argue in a late-night supermarket bomb bay, or, political power comes through the barrel of a sunflower - Mariner Janes
political satire became obselete when kissinger was awarded the nobel peace prize. -Tom Lehrer
what thots i had of you, henry kissinger, for i walked under an atomic sky in silent alleys with a headache self-conscious, looking at the angry moon. in my angry fatigues, and shopping for images, i went into the neon supermarket, dreaming of your conspiracies! what obfuscations, what pomegranates! whole nuclear families shopping at night! aisles full of chilean dictators! mercenaries in the avocadoes, hand grenades in the tomatoes! and you, allende, what were you doing down by the bananas? i saw you, kissinger, hateful, lonely old bastard, poking among the corpses in the refrigerator, and eyeing the cambodian grocery boys. i heard you asking questions of each: who killed capitalists? what price human life? are you my antichrist? i wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cruise missiles following you, and followed in my imagination by the c.i.a. where are we going, kissinger? the doors close in an hour. where does your gun point tonight? (i touch your ears and dream of our fight in the supermarket and feel forlorn) will we stroll dreaming of the lost america of love, past green tanks in driveways, home to our oval office? ah, dear horn-rims, lonely old assassin, what america did you have when charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on the smoking aisles and stood watching the floor of the supermarket yawn wide, and the watermelon bombs disappear into the black sky beneath?
from The Monument Cycles
(Talonbooks, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

A problem with the poetry book industry (Don't laugh! It's a real thing! Sort of!) is that all the action gets crammed into a couple months. The major crush of books and coverage comes in April, with a second burst of activity following in September. Between those two oases of poetry? Well...

While it's a great way to bundle activity together and in unison cry out to major media outlets "Look! We've huddled together for your convenience! Pleeeeease for the love of god look over here for a second! Give us two minutes of coverage in that segment where you usually show off adoption-ready puppies!" it's also a frustrating scenario for those of us who try to give poetry year-round attention [March: 0 interviews to conduct. April: 43 interviews to conduct. May: 0 interviews. June: Stamp collecting, maybe? Macramé?]. Which is part of why I'm so grateful for slow-cooking poets like Mariner Janes.

I first met Mariner when we were both undergrads at Simon Fraser University. I was helping start up High Altitude Poetry, the campus' cheap-n'-easy-n'-printed-on-stolen-paper poetry zine and Mariner was helping start up iamb, SFU's student lit journal. They had a budget, and paid their printer, and bound their magazine with glue (not staples), and had a recording studio with a cool mic (each issue included a CD of contributors reading their work). Unlike us, they weren't messing around. And neither, for that matter, was Mariner. His poetry back then was already fully formed - intelligent, politically sharpened, often quite funny. This guy was a pro. I figured that at any moment his first book would appear.

So I waited. And waited. A decade later I was still waiting. Mariner wasn't, however. He was busy with other things - building a life, a family, and a career. Mariner works in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with the Portland Hotel Society (which, among other things, manages the InSite supervised injection program) as the coordinator of their Mobile Needle Exchange.

Then, early in 2013 I heard the news that Talonbooks was putting out Mariner's first book, The Monument Cycles, in April. I contacted Mariner and Talon in hopes of getting an interview out there before his Vancouver launch. The book arrived and I was thrilled with what I found. The Monument Cycles is a deep consideration of place, grounded in Vancouver's monuments and the sights and stories of the city's Downtown Eastside. Its poems are sometimes difficult, sometimes playful (with form, with language), and always thoughtful and rewarding.

Official launch photo. Hair cut in the bottom
left corner courtesy of Vina Barbershop.
We didn't quite get our interview together in time (though I went to the launch: that's the back of my head in the corner of the "official launch photo"), but I figured we'd have it all sorted out and published in time for Mariner's swing out East as part of Talon's 2013 poetry tour. Alas, Mariner was still working on his responses. Through the sweltering Summer I waited. Then crisp, cool Autumn nights. As the temperature dropped and the trees shed their leaves I began to despair. Christmas was just around the corner, and soon after that the new year and the rush of 2014 titles. Would this interview ever happen? But then, as with his book, just as I was about to abandon all hope, Mariner swept in with his interview replies.

So here is my interview with Mariner, in which we talk about monuments, bombs, writing on the DTES, and the positives and negatives of slow-cooking your book. Both interview and book were very much worth the wait. I hope you enjoy!

Mariner Janes slow-cooking, eyes set to "simmer".
Rob: Two recurring themes I see in The Monument Cycles are the DTES ("it the shangri-la", for example) and the the nuclear bomb ("a homemade sunrise"). Are these two themes very separate in your mind, or do you see them as connected in some way? If so, how?

Mariner: I can see them in both lights, really. They are, of course, quite disparate in most ways, but the binding idea between them is the concept of oblivion, of devastation, of loss, and overwhelming grief. Anyone who has lived or worked in the DTES bears witness to the difficult nature of the lives of people living there and struggling with trauma, addiction and/or mental illness, and I think that there are certainly some ties between the core issues of both. I think that at its heart, the DTES is a strong, vibrant community, made up of people who are urgently aware of their humanity, and I can only imagine that the pilots of the Enola Gay must have struggled with issues of grief, humanity, and loss before (and after) the bomb was dropped.

Rob: The first four poems of The Monument Cycles are set aside in their own section, "face to face with history", while the rest of the book is gathered in one longer section entitled "the geography of memory". Could you talk a bit about the two sections? Why was it important to you to group the "face to face with history" poems together at the front?

Mariner: The sections are grouped in a way that addresses the particular "questions" of the poems... that is to say, they are writing towards (and sometimes away from) a history grounded in place, in the visual standing in for memory. The poems in the first are an attempt to actually do what monuments themselves propose - which is to put us "face to face" with history, to force our eye/memory/thought towards the event or person encapsulated therein. The second section works towards an understanding of how these physical objects, located in space and time, fit (or don't) into the city both as a concept and a real place that we move in and through.

Rob: Continuing with your themes of physical objects and Vancouver as a "real place", The Monument Cycles either directly or indirectly references a number of Vancouver monuments. Do you think The Monument Cycles would be read differently by someone not familiar with Vancouver and its monuments? Why or why not?

Mariner: I think of course the book would be a different experience for a non-Vancouver native. However, part of the central aim still stands - to force reconsideration of the purpose of monuments, to question why we build these things in the first place. This is, I hope, a question for any city, for any mind. Even those very familiar with the monuments in question ("angelic deference", for example, is written towards the "Angel of Victory" outside Waterfront Station) will hopefully look at them differently, perhaps more critically, or at least with more curiosity and attention.

Rob: The Monument Cycles contains a number of poems titled "experiment in form #__", with the "numbers" ranging from 44 to 723. Did you number them chronologically, as you wrote them (and therefore, have you written over 700 of them?!), or are you doing something else with the numbering? As you've experimented with form, have you found certain forms more successful or interesting to you than others?

Mariner: They are numbered chronologically - although it doesn't feel like I've written that many! Lots of them are pure throwaways, because, true to "experiments" in the scientific sense, many of them don't work! The series began as an attempt to push myself/my writing style/head/focus away from things that I would "normally" point towards, and focus instead on techniques/styles that I found compelling but perhaps difficult. Some worked, some didn't. Hopefully I only crammed the ones that worked into the book!

Rob: I like that idea. A little nod to all the failures that go into the writing of one successful poem. So often I feel casual readers don't appreciate how many poems have to be written and discarded before the "book worthy" poems come along. It's like this much larger ghost-book that the author sees hovering behind their book, but no one else detects. With your numbering system you make that plain to people. Very cool.

Continuing on the theme of your experiments and play, a number of your poems contain some kind of verbal trick or joke or punning - I'm thinking here of things like pain and wastings (main and hastings) and angry fatigues (army fatigues). Do you find this conflicts with the serious subject matter of your poems? Compliments it? What effect are you aiming for this wordplay to have on the reader?

Mariner: I think this really reflects my personality in some senses - though I hate to get tangled in the author/artifact web. I'm one of those horrible punsters - I embarrass even my small children - but I think that there is a very real and serious value in deconstructing the "serious" and the "real" (a term we don't have space to discuss here) and finding the edges of humour in them. It's a way of coming to an understanding of things that may conflict with our values or our way of seeing/interpreting/comprehension. As Pinter famously said, "The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression", a statement that has affected me profoundly in terms of writing the world around me. I hope only that it may jar, disturb, knock off the pace of things enough to create a small disconnect that points out the absurd, the strange, the humorous, in things we take for granted.

Rob: I recognize a number of poems in The Monument Cycles from our days together at Simon Fraser University in the early 2000s, including "ginsberg and kissinger...". How far back do some of the poems in The Monument Cycles go? How recently were the newest ones written? How did you feel mixing them into the book alongside the newer ones?

Mariner: The oldest poems in the book indeed go back to 2003, but the newest were written shortly before the manuscript was submitted, so the book inadvertently became a selection of poems from across a rather wide expanse. This was an interesting process - because of course over that period my writing had changed a bit. I stopped shying away from the local-political, and also declared a stalemate in a mental war I'd been having with myself. So the process of selecting what fit into the book alongside the pieces that had been written expressly for it was a curious and difficult one. Thanks to great editors, publishers and the patience of those around me, I feel it came out well.

Rob: Can you speak a bit more about that "mental war" and how you resolved it? Did it lead to changes in your writing style?

Mariner: I think it did change my writing style rather significantly. As I mentioned above, although I'd been thinking about the local-political and the neighbourhood that I had been working in, I struggled (almost) endlessly around issues of exploitation. I wanted to talk about the DTES, I wanted to tell some stories, shoot out some currents of questions and concerns, but I also wanted people that I know in that neighbourhood to have a voice. It's a very cliché thing to say, but it's all too often that voices from that 'hood are drowned out in a sea of academic discourse, intrusive journalism or photography, and the chorus of developers, business owners and new residents that don't want those voices heard. I fought with my conscience, my fear of exploiting people, but in the end decided that the methodology and spirit behind the poems should win. It's not something I've ever stopped struggling with, but it has certainly changed the way I write, the way I think.

Rob: Considering that a good amount of the material in The Monument Cycles has been around for a number of years, what finally drove you to put the book out now?

Mariner: I've wanted to put a book out for ages, but didn't think that I had enough good material for it. It took the convincing of friends and editors to change that. I'm glad they did. I feel like the book is a journal of my struggles around writing. Hopefully it makes for an interesting read as it arcs across its various ages and trajectories.

Rob: In your bio at the back of your book it mentions that in your future work you aim "to incorporate the multitude of voices [you] encounter" in the DTES. Clearly in poems like "in the shangri-la" and "tents on the tracks..." you are trying out different approaches to including polyvocality in your poems. Do you plan to continue with those approaches? Take things in a new direction? Do you have a particular project in mind for book number two?

Mariner: I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stop using those techniques. I find that the idea of letting other voices direct/take over/manipulate the text is a good way for me to produce writing that accomplishes the aims I have for it. "in the shangri-la" riffs off of Gwendolyn Brooks' great poem "In the Mecca", and leaps from voice to voice and from different rooms in a fictional hotel.

I like what this technique allows - there is both a freedom and a movement in it. At the same time, I'd like to think I'll always be trying out new forms, new directions.

For book two I'd like to start looking at the body. I'm fascinated with what somebody called "non-poetic language" in poems, such as medical terminology or industrial construction slang, and though I wouldn't be the first to write about it, I've started writing a lot about blood, organs, naming, ancestry... I'll let you know when I've got it all figured out!

While we're waiting for Mariner to let us know about Book #2, you can pick up a copy of The Monument Cycles from your local bookstore, or from the Talonbooks website or Amazon.


Ghanaian Poetry's Influences

Over at One Ghana, One Voice we recently completed our series of memorial poems for Kofi Awoonor (which we organized following Awoonor's shocking death as part of the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi. Awoonor's death, and the tribute that followed, delayed another project we had been about to launch: "Ghanaian Poetry's Influences".

Over my years running OGOV I've received many questions about Ghanaian poetry: who's writing it, what they're writing, what shapes/influences their work, etc. Most of these questions seem hopelessly unanswerable to me - the explosion of writing, publishing and interest in Ghanaian poetry has made it a world too large and diffuse to be pinned down with clean, simple answers. Still, I realised, I did have some hard stats that could help with one of those questions.

For the past seven years, I've been asking Ghanaian poets whose writing I've published on OGOV the same question: Which poets have most influenced and informed your work? In total I've asked this question to 93 writers, the vast majority of them Ghanaian (some are international writers, writing on Ghana - such as myself). I decided I would take a stab at tracking Ghanaian poetic influences by tallying up the answers our various poets had given to that question. The results were fascinating to me, and I decided to share them over a series of posts, published throughout the month of November. They have all now been posted, and you can find the results here:

Which continent's artists most influence Ghanaian poetry?

Which country's artists most influence Ghanaian poetry?

Who influences Ghanaian poets more, men or women? By how much?

What types of artists are influencing Ghanaian poetry?

Which female artist most influences Ghanaian poetry?

Which artist from Ghana most influences Ghanaian poetry?

Which artist from Africa (non-Ghanaian) most influences Ghanaian poetry?

Which artist from Europe most influences Ghanaian poetry?

Which artist from the Americas most influences Ghanaian poetry?

Which artist, generally, most influences Ghanaian poetry?

Take a guess on each question, then click the link. Some of the answers may surprise you!

Anyone feel like doing something like this for Canada? I'd be curious to see the answers for that, and to contribute a vote or two.


in the power of spirits - "children of air india" by Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Exhibit (1985): fourteen. eleven. - Renée Sarojini Saklikar

His brother excels—French, English, math, science—
  he takes a paper route, 
buys milk when an old woman offers two dollars
  with the coins he fetches a carton,
holds it, high – 

Father: You took her money? She’s an old lady.
Son: But Dad, she gave me, she gave—
I ran all the way.
Father: Take the money back.

He slow-walks 
to the woman’s house.


Before the car drives away, before the plane takes off—
 this paper-route boy
lags behind in his home—
 everyone is waiting—
he touches each piece of furniture,
 good-bye, sofa, good-bye lamp—
His arm brushes 
 against a locked door.


Status: It is his brother’s body, found.


When she hears the news about her paper-route boy, the old woman—
 the woman, old, 
when she hears the news—
from children of air india
(Nightwood Editions, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

If you've spent much time in Vancouver's literary community, you've probably heard of, or run into, Renée Saklikar. If you've heard her read, I'm sure you remember her. A co-founder of SFU's Lunch Poems reading series, and a regular blogger and interviewer on her own site, Renée is also one of the most dynamic and compelling readers in town. Much of the work she presents is part of her "life-long poem chronicle" thecanadaproject and deals with issues of place, race and identity in her life, and in the broader Canadian society.

The first "chapter" of her life-long poem, children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013) is set to be launched on November 13th at 7 PM at SFU's Woodward's Building (149 East Hastings, Vancouver):

[Click to Enlarge]

The book explores the Air India bombing: both the event itself and the ways in which it has lived on in individual memories, court cases, media coverage, archival records, etc. It is a personal story for Renée, who lost her aunt and uncle in the bombing. children of air india is a powerful book, filled with the stories (lived, researched and imagined) of those involved in the events, most especially those who died that day, and those who were left behind. It is a compelling and haunting entry point (or re-entry point) into an event that should loom much larger than it does in our collective Canadian memory. And in the story of our country that we've constructed for ourselves.

I e-sat down with Renée to discuss the book, imagining the lives of others, the slipperiness of memory, and writing for the page v. the stage. As is often the case with my interviews (due, I hope, to the talent and assertiveness of my interviewees, and not to my complete lack of authority) Renée quickly took control of the interview, stretching out my questions, interrogating them, and making more of them then I ever could have. It's a great skill of hers, and one that makes me glad to know that she is out there working through difficult histories and ideas, and sharing her results with us.

Renée Saklikar, colour coordinating with a railing, and making it look effortless.

Rob: “Exhibit(1985): fourteen, eleven.” is part of a larger series of “Exhibit” poems that run throughout the book, adding depth to the (usually redacted) names of victims of the Air India bombing mentioned in official reports. Over and over they are some of the most powerful poems in the book. Can you speak a little about that suite of poems – how it came into being, and how it progressed? Did you feel any anxiety imagining (and constructing) the lives of strangers in this way?

Renée: Originally, this work, the first completed sequence in my life-long poem chronicle, thecanadaproject, was to have been a series of prose poems, exploring memoir as a kind of manifesto document, rather like Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, introduced to me by Wayde Compton, my mentor at The Writer’s Studio at SFU.

The deeper I entered into the archive that is Canada/Air India, the more a kind of urgency began to call out at me – that’s really the only way I can put it. There was something otherworldly about sitting and reading document after document and just getting deeper into the language of those documents.

Within the Air India archive, there exist thousands of documents, from the over twenty-year investigation into the bombing, from the lengthy trial that resulted in acquittal, and from the subsequent inquiry into that investigation as well as my own personal collection of artefacts. The more immersed I became in this archive, voices started to rise up, particularly of the eighty-two children under the age of thirteen who were murdered. The writing of this work has been over a span of about five years and during that time, I began to believe in ghosts, in the power of spirits. I believe my introduction to the book speaks to how that feels: when one becomes both transmitter and transgressor.

Coda: interesting, about that word, “victim.” It has always made me uneasy. In children of air india, the word occurs only once.

Rob: I'm glad you've mentioned thecanadaproject right off the bat. Your bio on the back of the book describes it as “a life-long poem chronicle about [your] life from India to Canada, coast to coast.” Can you speak a bit more about the project, and how children of air india fits into it?

Renée: thecanadaproject is on one level, a kind of memoir-manifesto, which explores place, identity, and hopefully many other things; also processes. It includes:
• a work-in-progress prose poem novel, The New Douglas Chronicles, about an old river town located on an imaginary West Coast;
• a series of place poems, incantations, really, about life from India to Canada, via Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec, Montreal, Saskatchewan and then to British Columbia;
• and a series of essays, for instance, a 6000 word essay, still unpublished, entitled, Man with Golden Helmet, in part, about my father and his life in New Westminster.

Rob: The poems in children of air india are built upon a great deal of research on your part (as the three pages of references at the back of the book make clear). What was your research process like? Did you research a great deal up front, before writing? Or did you write from personal experience and knowledge to start, and fill in the details later?

Renée: My research process was slow and cumulative. The poems would come to me as visitations, from some place that feels both holy (not quite sure what that word means, only that is important and comes to me as I contemplate this question) and also terrifying. I would spend days and evenings reading documents, reviewing correspondence, looking at records and photographs, and I would also visit sites (these are listed in the book). Then, usually, in the early mornings, sometimes in that period before dawn, the voices would start.

Rob: Building on that, while much of this book is based upon (and sometimes directly excerpted from) outside sources, much of it is also deeply personal, as your aunt and uncle were killed in the bombing. Did you wrestle with how to mix the two perspectives/narratives?

Renée: The wrestle is the work, in a way. The idea of being grieving niece and daughter; poet and writer; witness and citizen; receptacle for voices; these stances are roles that are like openings to a central dialectic: subject v object. I see the work as a kind of meditation on that spiral. What it means to be inside history and outside of it. Two writers have influenced me in this approach: Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Now, the interesting thing is this: I didn’t actively consider Spivak’s seminal work, Can the Subaltern Speak? until after having completed the manuscript! And yet, many of her ideas and her language for exploring this central reality of what it means to be other in any society, appear in my own work. It is as if the language of the experience came to me before I understood what it was.

Rob: Have your family members seen the book yet?

Renée: Yes. I offer this book to my family and all the families of Air India, with a sense of bowing my head before their readership.

Rob: Memory, and through it, History, are malleable forces in the poems in children of air india. I’m thinking here of poems like “June, 1985—” with its repetition of the line “Another version of this moment exists.” The poems in the book repeatedly cycle over the same moments from different perspectives and while bearing various amounts of knowledge, with each revisiting producing a different results. How did your grappling with “memory” – your own memory of the event, but also larger questions about the slipperiness of memory – shape the book?

Renée: Perhaps my previous responses speak, at least partly, to this question. Again, the waywardness of memory, its spiral intertwined with dates, locations, names, absent/still present, that is the work itself. Also, the work of grief, which never follows a straight line, which can last a lifetime, particularly in a culture which very quickly demands, “move on!”

Rob: How much do you think you “know” about the bombing?

Renée: In my past life, as a lawyer, as an occasional family spokesperson regarding Air India, I might have attempted an answer. Now, the work of the poems must suffice.

Rob: What of it can never be known?

Renée: we never speak of it

Rob: Many of these poems reference Paldi, the town on Vancouver Island where Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person convicted for his involvement in the Air India bombing, designed and tested explosives. In the ways you consider the town, though, Paldi becomes far more than a backdrop for a single element of the larger drama. Can you tell us about Paldi and what it represents for you within the broader themes of the book?

Renée: Again, for the most part, the book must speak to these things. It is as if any language I might have to communicate about Paldi, can only be realized through the language of the poems. Here are some narrative fragments from outside the language of the book:

The Paldi Poems (as I think of them), are an attempt to situate the bombing of Air India Flight 182, Canada’s worst act of aviation terror, within the frame our complicated Pacific coast history, which is of Empire, of settlement, of intersection: race, class, location, events, individual stories.

I conducted a site visit during the work of the manuscript which is reflected in the poem series. It was a kind of pilgrimage: Paldi is one of the first settler communities to have been entered in British Columbia’s geographic name register, although, I think most British Columbians still don’t know much about it.

I wanted to visit the place where men and women from many different backgrounds had lived and worked together. It’s really beautiful and the families who remain share a rich history. My visit was to honour that history, a desire to make sacred again that which had been desecrated. Perhaps the Paldi Poems can be seen as an act of redemption.

Although, as I write that word, I’m wary of what Rachel Blau DuPlessis in her long poem Drafts, warns against, the “plumpness” of making too much meaning out of the incomprehensible.

Rob: I’ve had the privilege to see you perform your work in public on multiple occasions, and often I find your poems don’t fully come to life for me until I hear/see you recite them. Lines like “There will be nothing for you in that cadence that is the falling of their names.” (“June, 1985—”) and “the only oxygen present / is now” (“and it’s dimensions”) almost demand to be spoken aloud. Are there poems in children of air india that you particularly prefer to read in public? Do you find the experience of presenting these poems to be enjoyable?

Renée: I don’t know that enjoyable is quite the right word for the experience of reading any of these poems; but I think I know what you are getting at: I have to prepare myself emotionally, physically, and spiritually, each time I read these poems in public. Afterward, I’m exhausted. To read children of air india, out loud, perhaps for both poet and audience, is a kind of harrowing.

Rob: Are there poems that you think reside primarily in performance/public oration, and only secondly on the page?

Renée: This question interests me very much. It reminds me of questions I’ve heard put to other poets with whose reading style(s) I might share a kind of commonality: we’re expressive and alive to rhythm, and our voices project well. That said, the poems are first written for the page.

In all my writing, sound, rhythm, the breath as a kind of field, a sort of weight, silence and space—these are preoccupations stemming from the body in the act of inscription. During the writing of poems, I guess I don’t really separate writing from reading out loud, I don’t separate the page from the body.

For the poems in children of air india, as I’ve mentioned, I must prepared myself emotionally, physically, spiritually, before reading the poems out loud. It is as if the text is a kind of kryptonite and I must treat it with just enough care that the poems come through. And, also, I must take care not to care too much, lest the words drift into bathos, that shadow cousin of pathos. Always it is a kind of calibration. To keep the channel open. Performance is a site of research. I’ll be writing more about this in an essay (I say this about a lot of things, by the way!).

Rob: In the closing poem of the book, “For an Afterword that Might Be Read as a Preface”, you write “and after, there develops an ecosphere, a habitat that surrounds any public/private tragedy”. For me, this echoes lines from an earlier “un/authorized interjection”: “Those on the cusp, become centre of / a gyre” (p. 26). Clearly you put a great deal of thought into how the post-tragedy world is constructed (repaired?), and what make up its composite pieces. How do you think your book fits into those new ecospheres, both our collective one (if there is such a thing) and your personal one?

Renée: I am honoured to think that it might fit there. I will await word from the world.

You can buy a copy of Renée Saklikar's Children of Air India from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. Or, if you're in Vancouver, you can pick up a copy at Renée's book launch on November 13th!


Dead Poets Reading Series, November 10th: New Partner, New Venue, (And Most Importantly) New Poster!

We at the Dead Poets Reading Series got the bad news in September that our beloved long-time venue, Project Space, was closing. After a brief search, we're pleased to announce that we have a new sponsor and venue, and a fancy new poster - thanks go to the Vancouver Public Library for all three!

Our next reading will be held on November 10th, and will be held in the VPL Central Branch's Third Floor Meeting Room. The reading will feature:

A Medley of War Poets, read by Christopher Levenson
Kofi Awoonor (1935 - 2013), read by Leslie Timmins
John Donne (1572 - 1631), read by Ken Klonsky
Anna Świrszczyńska (1909 - 1984), read by Fiona Tinwei Lam
William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850), read by Charles Carroll

Because of the support of the VPL, DPRS readings are now free events (instead of "free" events where we guilt you for donations). Hurrah!

You can RSVP via Facebook here.

I hope you can make it out to see our first reading in our new venue!


the early chapters are the most savage - "The Dilettantes" by Michael Hingston

from The Dilettantes - Michael Hingston

It was his last name: Belmont. His (as yet unwritten) book would inevitably be shelved immediately next to those of Saul Bellow. What self-respecting reader would look at the two of them, and then go with the untested, overwrought young punk? It was enough to make him close his laptop on the spot. Plus, anything he wrote would inevitably be compared to the Nobel laureate anyway, since Alex, like his idol, had a habit of trying to capture the entire universe in every sentence. He didn’t need to give critics such a readymade way to phrase the insult.

Besides, what could he do to give his book even the hint of a fighting chance? Think of a hilarious title? Kidnap Chip Kidd and make him design a cover that could outshine the majesty of the all-black Penguin Classics? Should he switch to non-fiction, or sci-fi, just to get a fair shake in a different part of the store?

Alex remembered reading an essay that pointed out how sad it was that an innocent woman’s one-line obituary will read, “She was Timothy McVeigh’s mother.”

Well, he thought, for every titan of literature, there are two lesser writers who will forever be remembered as their bookends.
from The Dilettantes
(Freehand Books, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Full disclosure: books columnist, reviewer, blogger (and now novelist) Michael Hingston is my friend, and despite his well-communicated disinterest in poetry, he was very supportive of my book when it launched a couple years back. In other words: he's fantastic and I owe him one and darnit this is my blog and I can do what I want, poetry-only rule be damned. That said, there are a couple other reasons why Mike's first novel, The Dilettantes, is an excellent subject for an interview on this blog.

The first is that it's local to the Lower Mainland - very local. Specifically it is set on Simon Fraser University's Burnaby Campus in the mid 2000s, the place and time where Mike and I first met (he editing the student newspaper, The Peak; I illegally printing off thousands of copies of High Altitude Poetry and leafleting them around campus like a mad man). It was a strange, strange time, and a time that Mike puts under a microscope in The Dilettantes, a "campus novel" about The Peak, early-20s angst and irony, exotic sodas, and writing the next great (or good enough) novel.

That leads me to the second reason why The Dilettantes is at home on this poetry blog - while on the surface the book is a sendup of campus life, it ultimately proves to be a loving tribute to the art of writing - student journalism, yes, but more so books (yes, even poetry books): why we read, why we write, how we get the art of writing wrong and how, eventually, we find our way to getting it a little less wrong. It's a thoughtful and companionable novel for writers as much as for readers. Oh and it's damn funny, to boot.

The Vancouver launch for The Dilettantes is next Friday. The details:

The Dilettantes Book Launch
Friday, October 4th, 2013, 6:30 PM
Pulpfiction Books
2422 Main Street, Vancouver
Featuring: readings by Michael Hingston and Thea Bowering

In preparation for the launch, Mike and I exchanged a few emails in which I tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to get him to admit that I am a talking inukshuk. You know, normal interview stuff. I hope you enjoy!

Michael Hingston, very much enjoying dodging my most pertinent questions 

Rob: In the opening sentence of The Dilettantes you accurately note that the buildings of SFU's campus resemble Tetris blocks. In many ways, the book that follows seems assembled similarly. Though there is an obvious narrative line running through it, many of the chapters (especially the early ones) read like independent vignettes about particular aspects of campus life that, when assembled together, combine to show the campus as a whole. I'm thinking of the chapters (or long stretches within chapters) dedicated to Clubs Days, the poster sales, The Peak offices, student elections, Higher Grounds, the Highland Pub, the mini-mart, etc.

Was the book written from beginning to end, or did you start with a number of the key SFU "scenes" or locales that you then pieced together? Before you started writing did you have a checklist (mental or otherwise) of campus highlights that you wanted to cover? If so, did you end up leaving any of them out?

Michael: I did write it beginning to end, but before any of that I started out with a bunch of lists - one of which was, indeed, of places around SFU that I thought would be interesting to see in a novel. There are a lot of them. Everything you named above was on that list, I'm pretty sure. And I did have to leave a few out, actually! It was a tiny bit tragic. The big one was CJSR, the campus radio station: I wanted to have a very short scene where Peak editors are storming down a hallway, totally caught up in their own heads and problems, and they walk past a group of radio staff who look basically identical to them, storming right past them, on their own mission. A nice little Bizarro World moment, where they slow down and eye each other warily for a second. Just to reinforce this idea that these mini-crises aren't unique to the student newspaper. Neither are the editors' carefully constructed identities, for that matter. They're happening all over the place. But the editors, at least, are too far inside their own narcissism to recognize it.

Cue the Russian folk music

Rob: The Dilettantes, though a work of fiction, is tied rather closely to your real-life experience at The Peak (at least the newspaper parts, I won't pretend to be friend enough to know about the sex fantasies). How much was this intentional from the beginning, and how much did you find your own experience into the book as you went along? Looking back, is the book more or less tied into your own life than you intended?

Michael: It's a lot less autobiographical than I first intended [Editor's note: smart answer, Mike, smart answer...]. Although, actually, I wonder what my original intent was. I think I started out by pouring as much of my real-life experience into the book as I could - certainly Alex encapsulates some of the worst parts of myself at that time in my life - if only because I needed the raw material. But over time, everything shifted. Certain lines and anecdotes are still true to life, but all of the larger character arcs and personalities have evolved a lot since I first started out. Most characters are total composites now. Some of it, I'm proud to report, I even dreamed up all on my own. Part of me probably knew that was bound to happen.

Rob: I'll admit it: as someone who attended SFU with you, while reading your book I kept a lookout for any characters who I thought resembled me. After much searching I'm now fairly confident (and flattered) that I am the talking inukshuk. Considering how closely this book is tied to your life, have you pre-prepared a line in reply/defence for when people come up to you and ask "Was I _____?" or "Why did you make me say _____?" If so, what is it, and have you had to deploy it yet? What's the most inaccurate connection someone has made between reality and the characters in the book?

Michael: You know, it hasn't really come up yet. The nice thing about this book taking so long to write is that by now, everyone I went to school with is also five years out, and has benefitted from the same added perspective that I have. So I think they're able to laugh at themselves a little more. Or if they are mad, at least they haven't said it to my face yet.

That's a good point about inaccurate connections, though. Or even truth and fiction more generally. I was flipping through the book the other day and saw I mentioned this peculiar SFU tradition called Gung Haggis Fat Choy, which is a mix of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day. That's a real event, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone read that and came away thinking I was a real buffoon for "creating" such a lame - and possibly insensitive - "joke."

Rob: I had that experience, actually, in reading the Gung Haggis Fat Choy part - at first I thought you were having your own David Gilmour moment, but then I quickly remembered it was a real thing: the guy in the dragon head and kilt running around Convocation Mall. I remember how simultaneously absurd and utterly reasonable it seemed at the time. It reminded me what an odd, temporary bubble University life is.

Speaking of such "bubbles", in writing The Dilettantes, did you worry about writing something so locked in a particular time (a particular little moment when both newspapers and Livejournal existed, and even thrived), a place (SFU) and a posture ("post-ironic", as you put it)? Do you worry about how it might read in another part of the country, or in another country? Or how it might read ten or twenty years down the road?

Michael: No, not at all. In a book like this, you have no choice but to choose your setting and then stick to it. Plus, I mean, everything dates it one way or another - do cars exist in your novel? Fax machines? Antibiotics? Either way, that tells me something about the timeline. It doesn't make any sense to ignore questions of technology or slang, in the hopes of writing for "eternity," or whatever. I think truth and humour and beauty come from specificity. For instance, most campus novels (and fiction in general, for that matter) shy away from any technology introduced in the past decade or so. But I wanted to make mine feel true to 2008-09, so my characters are on Facebook, they send texts, and they fall into hour-long YouTube K-holes. They kind of have to, or else it wouldn't be believable at all.

Rob: Shifting gears, you are a regular reviewer for a great number of terribly important newspapers, and have been reviewing for many years. Could you speak a bit about how being a reviewer, and being aware of the community of reviewers out there (with their varying reputations for brutality), might have affected how you approached writing The Dilettantes?

Michael: This seems to surprise people, but it honestly didn't affect me at all. The part of my brain that reads and reviews novels has no contact with the part that allowed me to write my own. I wasn't able to apply any of what I'd learned as a reader to the writing of this book. To my frustration, initially, but I think it's for the best. It was peaceful, in a way - especially because I honestly did not think it would end up being published. There was real freedom in that. I don't know how people who write comics, or for television, are able to give away their story in pieces, which are each summarily eaten up, analyzed, and spit back in their faces by their audience. To be able to follow your artistic vision in that context is, frankly, inspiring.

As for the "community of reviewers," I'm not really sure there is one. At least, I'm not sure there are any overarching personality traits or aesthetic preferences that we all share. I can think of some fellow reviewers who I think would like my novel, and some who probably wouldn't. It's a gamble. But I certainly didn't hedge my bets for fear of reviewer brutality. If anything, I think critics should be hardest on novels that don't push far enough.

Rob: "I wasn't able to apply any of what I'd learned as a reader to the writing of this book." Really? You think your book would have turned out the same if you hadn't been a book reviewer critically reading, oh, let's say, a gazillion books over the last few years? There must be some leakage between the various parts of your brain, no?

Michael: OK, OK, that may have been a slight exaggeration. I will admit that reading and reviewing taught me a bunch of things not to do: dream sequences, for instance. Anything that bored me as a reader I made sure to avoid like the plague in my own book. But beyond those obvious narrative potholes, I felt pretty much on my own.

Rob: With the book now out and receiving reviews, has being on the "other side" changed how you think you will approach writing reviews in the future?

Michael: Nah. Reviews are written for the reader's benefit, not the author's. And let's not forget that while critics get free copies of the books they review, readers are shelling out as much as $35 a pop. That's a lot of money. It's not fair for a reviewer to cut an author a break, just because writing a book is hard. Honestly, who cares? All you're going to end up with is a bunch of readers who are mad they wasted their money - and mad at you, the reviewer, for misleading them.

Rob: According to a note at the end of the book, you wrote it between 2008 and 2011. The book relies quite a bit on a sense of near-nostalgia - an often-fond remembering of the recent past. Looking back, have your senses of The Peak, and SFU, and that world you left behind on a mountaintop in Burnaby, changed over the years? Does 2013 Mike Hingston view the subjects in his book differently than 2011 Mike Hingston? 2008 Mike Hingston? If so, how?

Michael: Very differently indeed. I started out trying to write a scathing takedown of my entitled, shitty, ever-ironic generation. But then a funny thing happened: I graduated. I moved to Edmonton. I got an office job. Each of those steps took me farther and farther away from SFU, and the more that happened, the more I found myself trying to understand that time of my life, rather than simply ridicule it. There seemed to be something worth unpacking there -- something I couldn't see clearly while I was living it. I think you can see that in the book itself, too. The early chapters are the most savage. As you progress through to the end, as Alex gets closer to graduation, even he starts to soften a little.

Rob: Yes, that's very true.

About midway through the book (somewhere halfway between scathing and soft), Alex is scanning through bookshelves and the narrator notes:

"To him, there was no better proof of a life fulfilled than seeing your name on a cover. No matter how slim or unappreciated the rest of the book was, this was a concrete marker of one's legacy - even the bare fact of one's existence. Books outlived everybody... Whatever meagre amounts of love or hate Alex gave to this world would fade, and soon. Maybe they were gone already. But a book could be his way of making a permanent mark on the world."

How much did you believe this yourself as you were writing the book? How much do you believe it now?

Michael: This is definitely Alex at his most hifalutin. Books go out of print all the time. They don't sell. They get remaindered. It's fine. I'm not someone who gets too precious about the concept of The Book. I mean, I do think it's the best and most dynamic art form ever created by humanity. But I don't fetishize the smell of books, or anything like that. That scene is about a 22-year-old struggling with ways to leave a mark on this world. Because he's emotionally sealed off, he naturally gravitates towards objects. If he were more into music, he'd be having this epiphany while staring at a bunch of vinyl in a record store. Or he'd be an apprentice carpenter ogling an old couch. I think Alex is drastically underestimating the power of love, for instance. But, at this point in the novel, anyway, person-to-person meaning is not quite within his grasp.

You can buy a copy of Michael Hingston's The Dilettantes from your local bookstore, or from the Freehand Books website or Amazon. It costs notably less than $35.


better than rain

Fall has come to Vancouver, and brought along its predictable weather forecast. Still, two exciting literary events are coming up in the Lower Mainland this weekend - one is indoors and the other has awnings - so you can be sure to keep yourself relatively dry and very well entertained.

The first is SOFIA/c's inaugural event, entitled Verse on the Edge: Poets in Conversation. "SOFIA/c" is the newly formed South Fraser Inter-Arts Collective, an organization devoted to hosting inter-disciplinary arts readings and events in Surrey. "Verse on the Edge" will feature poets Cecily Nicholson, Wanda John-Kehewin and Taryn Hubbard reading about their connections with Surrey.

The details:

Verse on the Edge
Friday, September 27th, 2013, 7:00 PM
Newton Cultural Centre
13530 72nd Ave., Surrey, B.C.
Featuring: Cecily Nicholson, Wanda John-Kehewin and Taryn Hubbard

SOFIA/c isn't messing around with this - they've produced a promotional video and everything:

If leaving Vancouver-proper is too much for you, you can always fall back on Sunday's event, Word Vancouver (formerly "Word on the Street"). In addition to poetry vending machines you get a gazillion reading, special events and vendors, who this year will almost certainly be fending off the rain with a variety of awnings and umbrellas and plastic bags and lengths of plastic sheeting and prayers. It's always quite the spectacle!

The details:

Word Vancouver
Sunday, September 29th, 2013, 11 AM - 5 PM
Library Square
Homer and Georgia, Vancouver
Featuring: Everyone and everything!

Have a good wet weekend, all!


pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers

We have found a new land - Kofi Awoonor

The smart professionals in three piece
Sweating away their humanity in driblets
And wiping the blood from their brow
We have found a new land
This side of eternity
Where our blackness does not matter
And our songs are dying on our lips.
Standing at hellgate you watch those who seek admission
Still the familiar faces that watched and gave you up
As the one who had let the side down
'Come on, old boy, you cannot dress like that'
And tears well in my eyes for them
These who want to be seen in the best company
Have adjured the magic of being themselves
And in the new land we have found
The water is drying from the towel.
Our songs are dead and we sell the dead to the other side
Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of Moon
And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.

Robert Serumaga: This is one of your poems. Does it sum up your opinions about the Africa before, the present Africa, and the Africa to come?

Kofi Awoonor: Yes it does, to a very large extent. You can see I was talking and what I was saying in this poem is really that the problem of adjustment for the new African, if there is anything like that, the new African who is caught up in the world of Europe, in the world of the white man, with a ballot-box, with a new outfit, clothes, and with a parliament, with a national anthem, and a song, what is he going to do about the wisdom of his fathers? And this is what I was trying to mirror in this particular part.

Serumaga: And what do you think he is going to do about the wisdom of his fathers in the new circumstances?

Awoonor: This is a very difficult question. I have a strong feeling that on whatever level you are going to discuss a subject like this, the political, or the social, or the economic level, one invariably returns to a certain basic aspect, which is the technological advancement of Africa, and all the things that are added on to it: what are we going to do with some of the basic traditions of African life, African communal life, the general spirit that did motivate African societies long before the white man came? And I see in this a simple answer which is not going to be described in political terms, that one has to adjust one's self to the thinking, the way of life which has almost died, to marry it to this new technology; I am thinking particularly about the traditions and customs and observances, and also positively about relationships to one another.

Serumaga: How much are you yourself, first as a person in your society, and secondly as a writer, influenced by the old traditions of the society in which you live?

Awoonor: Tremendously. I have always felt, perhaps involuntarily, I should take my poetic sensibility if you like the word, from the tradition that sort of feeds my language, because in my language there is a lot of poetry, there is a lot of music and there is a lot of the literary art, even though not written, and so I take my cue from this old tradition, and begin to break it into English, to give it a new dimension as it were.


Serumaga: Now here... you have the writing within which certain people are trying to forge a new kind of African writing in English or in French. Do you think they are succeeding very much? Can you point to particular examples which in your view have succeeded in doing this?...

Awoonor: Well, I would say yes; there are a lot of African writers who have really succeeded. I think readily of somebody like Wole Soyinka. I read Wole Soyinka and have a feeling that he's not exactly writing English - he's got a hybrid of Yoruba strength which is married to English which he uses very well; and I think about Chinua Achebe, and I think of J.P. Clark; I will not mention others, but I feel that African writing is moving; it's moving about say four or five generations into a new field which is going to mean that African writers are going to go back and find materials and inspiration in their own societies to write about. They move from the period of Osadebay and Michael Dei-Anang and so on, the political writing, to personal writing which is going to be defined as writing committed to a certain positive aspect of African life.

- Kofi Awoonor, sagely predicting the future of African writing, a future in which he and his writing would become towering influences, in a 1967 interview with Robert Serumaga. The interview was originally published in African Writers Talking (Heinemann, 1972).

Kofi Awoonor died on September 21st, 2013 in the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi, Kenya. He was seventy-eight. Over at One Ghana, One Voice we are preparing to run a series of memorial poems for Awoonor. You can read more about that project here.


Alfred Gustav Press Series Eleven

5. - Kevin Spenst

White Zombie throttled metal as the rental van 
skidded onto the clear cut. One veteran was duct-
taping her fingers, better traction than a glove.
Ten of us clamoured out, cinched belts, unwrapped
cellophaned seedlings, adjusted head phones, 
surveyed row upon row of soil, stumps and rocks.
I made a piecemeal ten dollars that first day:
shovel in, forward and back, slide the root into
the hole, remove shovel, step on soil to close. 
Soon it was rote work and I could run the maze of roots.
To celebrate our day off six of us crawled into Yohav's 
two-person tent. He played the guitar as a joint 
went around the small circle of our mouths.
Even the dirt under our fingernails glowed orange. 
from Pray Goodbye
(Alfred Gustav Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Depending on who you ask, the best or worst part of the Alfred Gustav Press' chapbook series is that you never know what you're going to get. Three chapbooks by three poets you may or may not have heard of, writing goodness-knows what about goodness-knows what, all arriving in your mailbox one afternoon.

So for better or for worse, consider the above poem a spoiler for Alfred Gustav's eleventh round of chapbooks, which will feature:

Ian Adam, Three
Annie Deeley, Brother
Kevin Spenst, Pray Goodbye

Kevin, fresh from Yohav's
two-person tent.
I got a sneak peek at Kevin Spenst's chapbook, which travels from Surrey, into the tree-planting hills, through Vancouver and back out to the suburbs, all in eleven poems. And along for the ride with you come Goombas and VHS tapes and meat packing plants and Star Trek and French youth hostels and zambonis and Dune and Price Waterhouse Cooper and Guildford Mall and eternal birthday cakes (and White Zombie, of course). Needless to say, it's quite a trip, written with a deft hand and a deep heart, and is certainly worth the $4.33 cover price.

As the chapbooks need to be ordered in advance, Kevin has organized a subscription-drive party, at which he will be reading alongside Ben Rawluk. The details:

Spenst and Rawluk Read
Thursday, September 12th, 7:00 - 9:00 PM
The Paper Hound Bookshop
344 West Pender Street
Vancouver, BC

If you can't make it out to that event, you can also see Kevin in action this Sunday at the Dead Poets Reading Series, where he will be reading the poetry of John Berryman.

And, of course, regardless of your ability to attend any pre-subscription parties (if you're in Winnipeg, Annie Deeley is hosting one on September 11th) you can always subscribe to the next round of chapbooks simply by popping an order in the mail.

Inflation has pushed the cost of subscriptions up to $13 (yes, for all three! $18 outside Canada). The subscription deadline is October 1st, 2013. To order, send cash or cheque payable to David Zieroth at:

The Alfred Gustav Press
429B Alder Street
North Vancouver, BC
V7L 1A9

Please remember to include your mailing address (and include your email address if you wish updated information).

For more information contact David Zieroth at dzieroth(at)telus(dot)net and for more background and history check out the Alfred Gustav Press webpage.


our very solitudes and distresses are credible

In one of the poems best known to students in my generation, a poem which could be said to have taken the nutrients of the symbolist movement and made them available in capsule form, the American poet Archibald MacLeish affirmed that "A poem should be equal to/not true." As a defiant statement of poetry's gift for telling truth but telling it slant, this is both cogent and corrective. Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be transitive like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm. We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing there blue with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror of Stalin's regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art could be equal to it...

Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a steadying, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and whatever is centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats's work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.

- Two excerpts from Seamus Heaney's 1995 Nobel Lecture. Heaney died today at the age of 74.


Lineup Announced for September Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event is just around the corner. It will feature:

John Berryman (1914 - 1972), read by Kevin Spenst
Anne Hebert (1916 - 2000), read by Thuong Vuong-Riddick
Malcolm Lowry (1909 - 1957), read by Steven Brown
William Matthews (1942 - 1997), read by Rhea Tregebov
Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968), read by Sheila Rosen

The reading will take place on September 8th, 2013, from 3-5 PM at Project Space. Entry, as always, will be by donation.

I hope to see you there!


there's someone in that cottonwood - "Through the Second Skin" by Derek Sheffield

Lucky - Derek Sheffield

When Bradley laughed because Dean didn’t even know 
his rabbit’s foot was cut from a real rabbit, Dean’s thumb
froze mid-stroke, feeling a claw under the green fur. 
No wonder he lost his popgun. No wonder 
Laura beat him in the UNICEF drive. He counted
on his fingers all the things taken from him. 

In the parking lot alive with children and parents 
waving from car windows, he found bus six
and kept thinking about the foot in his pocket,
the prints it must have made along a river 
or leading from a dark burrow.

When the bus stopped in front of his house,
he walked straight to the backyard 
and chose a spot under the plum tree. 
With his father’s shovel, he dug a hole,
then placed the foot inside and covered it.
He knew it might take hours for the rabbit
to grow back. He waited on the porch.

If he sat there long enough, he thought,
he would see his mother’s car.
from Through the Second Skin
(Orchises Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

I first encountered Derek Sheffield's poetry in the pages of Poetry Magazine. Specifically it was his poem "A Good Fish" that grabbed my attention - so much so, in fact, that I mentioned in a 2008 blog post here on silaron that I thought it was "bloody fantastic" (I was British back then?). After that brief moment of attention I went quiet on all things Derek Sheffield for almost five years.

Then, unexpectedly, and presumably after a diligent publisher Googled the aforementioned blog post, I received a note in my inbox from Orchises Press informing me that Derek Sheffield's first book was coming out and would I like to do something about it? First I thought "First book?" and then I thought "Yes please!"

Through the Second Skin arrived a few months later and I was pleased to find that "A Good Fish" had good company. Sheffield clearly took his time writing the poems and assembling the book, and he has been rewarded with an excellent collection of well-thought and well-honed poems. Or I should say we have been rewarded. And we didn't even do anything to deserve it!

I was also pleased to learn that Sheffield wasn't only a neighbour-in-verse but also an honest to goodness neighbour. Sheffield lives just across the border in Washington State where he teaches at Wenatachee Valley College and edits poetry for Terrain.org.

Derek and I connected by email and after we finished reviewing great "Cascadia" book stores and hiking spots (Sheffield is an avid birder) we got down to our interview. Our subject bounced around from suprises, to birding, to the limits of names and borders, to bioregions, to the weird world of American book publishing (it involves a lot of contests, apparently) to SURPRISES! Ok, we only talked about surprises once, but admit it, I got you...

Through it all we never managed to discuss his clear and abundant love of bird shirts. But then some questions should be left for the second book. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Derek in one of his many bird shirts (see example #2 below).

Rob: Many of the poems in Through the Second Skin, including "Lucky", contain a surprise - a slip-up, a misunderstanding, or, in this case, an unexpected revelation. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the role surprise plays in your writing. Do you construct surprises consciously or do they... well... surprise you as you write them?

Derek: You’ve just touched upon one of the chief delights of poetry for me. I tell my students that poets don’t just sneeze and out comes a poem. The process we each find for ourselves is crucial and highly individualistic. I think this is partly what Roland Barthes is getting at when he writes, “It is language which speaks, not the author.” The inductive nature of writing poetry is the link to a numinous aspect of language and humanity.

Pattiann Rogers writes about this in her book, The Dream of the Marsh Wren, where she coins the term, “reciprocal creation.” And I recently read “The Marsh” by Rick Bass on Terrain.org in which he likens the writing process to mining. You never know what you’ll find. Or, as Rogers might put it, what will find you.

Rob: One of my favourite "finds" in Through the Second Skin, "A Good Fish", hinges on a particular kind of surprise - the speaker surprising him or herself while in the act of speaking. An unintended word slipping out and opening up the poem to new meaning. Thinking more about this, I realised that a number of my favourite poems use this same technique - Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art", for example, or Raymond Carver's "Fear".

Why do you think we are drawn to poems like these? What does our attraction to poems like these say about the relationship we desire with the speaker/poet?

Derek: William Zinsser, in his classic text, On Writing Well, says that you are the ultimate topic in anything you write. These poems make that more overt than others. These poets let the flashlight of the reader’s attention shine momentarily on their particular humanity.

We may be drawn to poems like these because they exhibit the full spectrum of our shared humanity, our mastery mixed with our fallibility, our strength our frailty. This is what we love about biographies. And this is why Satan is a more compelling character than God in Paradise Lost.

We receive similar rewards when we attend readings or read interviews — like this one right here — where the poet confesses to misspelling a word as he was writing a poem and realized, upon reading it, that accident can indeed govern in a thing so small.

Carver and Bishop are important to me, too. You might also like Carver’s “Your Dog Dies” and “Prosser.” The first furthers the moves made in “Fear” and the second is a hymn to place.

Rob: You are an avid birder, and many poems in Through the Second Skin reference birds and birding. What similarities and differences do you see in how you take in and record the world while birding and while writing poems?

Derek: Birding and writing both rely on watching and listening. And both rely more on listening than watching. Many people don’t realize that much birding is done by ear alone. And even when the eyes are involved, the ears have more often than not alerted them. I am never disappointed when I go birding. Someone always appears, bearing his spark of wildness, her croak of otherness, whether it be Western Tanager, Cassin’s Vireo, or Great Blue Heron. Likewise, the act of writing always yields some reward: a word, a line, a realization. Roethke writes about “a poetry of longing: not for escape, but for a greater reality.”

The listening that goes into poems happens all the time, of course. Not just hearing the language as you work with it, but paying attention to the soundtrack of your life. I am almost never without a little notebook that is stuffed with scraps of talk. My daughters (ages eight and five) appear in these pages more than anyone.

I think a special connection exists between poetry and birds. The first ornithologists, in fact, were poets like John Clare who recorded different behaviors in verse and tried to evoke warbles and trills in language. This makes sense. Poets are keenly attuned to the textures of language, and I think this sensitivity applies also to bird-speak. Robert Bringhurst gives us another way to think about it when he writes, “Sentences move like living creatures through the forest of the body and the mountains of the mind.” Birds aspire and so do poets. They use feathers and we syllables.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” writes Dickinson. I think even T.S. Eliot would agree that making art is intrinsically optimistic.

What’s more, you can see poets and avians in the city (where most humans live), and they both manifest wildness (think Ginsberg and Stellar’s jay). In a poem about his father called “Listening,” William Stafford writes,

My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.

More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.

In birding and writing, when you are still and quiet, marvelous things happen. The world opens itself to you where you did not even guess there was a door.

Rob: Continuing with that, do the two practices function symbiotically for you? Does one encourage the other? I'm thinking here of writers who go for walks to "sort out" poems in their heads, and how the mechanics and rhythms of walking facilitate that. Is part of why you go birding to write poems? Is part of why you write poems to capture the experience of birding in a new or different way?

Derek: Yes, these two practices are symbiotic, and I like what you say about walking. I do think the mechanics involved with walking instigate the physicality of language. The rhythm of our feet meeting the ground can jog the poetic brain. In fact, enough of my earlier poems relied on walking references that I remember Linda Bierds made mention of it when I was working with her at the University of Washington and living a fifteen-minute walk from campus.

In the way that poetry and ornithology are symbiotic, I believe art and life should be symbiotic. I love what Christian Wiman says about the alternative in Ambition and Survival: “If life is art’s price, if imaginative creation is contingent upon, or even just coincident with, the destruction of reality... or the exploitation of reality..., then art, even the greatest art, just isn’t worth it.” Art should add to life in the same way that life nourishes art. I don’t mean positive subjects or anything so simplistic. I mean something like what Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss: “There is a fluidity between art and life, then, in the same way that there is, in the best lives, a fluidity between mind and matter, self and soul, life and death.” Now that I think about it, this must be the kind of fluidity that appears in “Bye-bye.”

Rob: Many of the poems in Through the Second Skin focus on words and how they can and cannot contain the meaning of the natural world they attempt to define. I'm thinking here of fish/fist in "A Good Fish", or course, but also apple tree in "Alice", far in "Another Word", etc. In reading these poems I got the sense that you were mapping out and exploring a triangular relationship between "nature", "us", and the words that we've set up - like middle-men - to help us navigate between them. Does that ring true? If so, was it a conscious concern of yours while writing the book?

Derek: Yes and yes. How language, consciousness, and physical reality form the dust devil of existence is one of my concerns as a poet. A word is an abstraction, but I believe onomatopoeia is more than just a fun word. David Abram’s work is fascinating on the subject of how language has affected Homo sapiens.

I’m also interested in nomenclature and how our language affects how we treat the non-human world. For example, when we bird, we say, “There’s someone in that cottonwood,” or, “His plumage is still vibrant.”

I wonder how our language for the natural world affects our behavior. We use the word “nature” in a way that excludes our species, but I find myself trying to break that habit. I think it might encourage our dangerous misconception that we are not part of the complex system of relationships that have evolved on this planet.

And, of course, there is quantum physics and Brian Greene’s wonderful work.

Rob: I was surprised, in reading your bio, that you live only a few hours south of Vancouver, in central Washington State. Here I am living just across a border from you, ignorant to the fact that you are in the neighbourhood, while at the same time being able to tell you which poets live in Toronto and which live in Montreal, three time-zones from here. After learning about your whereabouts, I went and picked up my copy of Alive at the Center, a "Cascadia" focused anthology with poems from Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and there you were!

Alive at the Center is one of many recent initiatives, such as Cascadia Review, that aims to draw together poets on either side of the 49th parallel. I was wondering if these initiatives have been having any effect on you - do you identify with being a "Cascadian poet"? And how does that compare to being an "American poet"? Or would you rather leave the tagging to the scholarsand bureaucrats (and birders)?

Derek reading in HJ Andrews
Experimental Forest in Oregon.
This photo features Robert
Michael Pyle and Bird Shirt #2.
Photo by Bill Yake.
Derek: Your poem in Alive, “The Wailing Machines,” reminds me in the best way of “The Twittering Machines” by Olympia, Washington, poet Bill Yake. They are different poems, but make similar moves to great effect.

Nomenclature and taxonomy can be a tricky business. What are the gains at being categorized? The losses? At the least, a name is a hook upon which to hang attributes, and a category a bowl in which to keep like things.

Richard Hugo and other so-called “Northwest Poets” often struggled with this tag which perhaps implied that only fellow residents could appreciate their work. They also felt there was a bias in favor of east coast writers since that’s where the big publishing houses are. As for me, I don’t mind the term, perhaps because the landscape becomes almost a character in my writing. This is also true of other writers in these parts, such as Allen Braden. The dry farm country of eastern Washington keeps cropping up in his poems in surprising and beautiful ways. I’m just getting to know the work of Rick Barot, but I noticed the same thing happening in his poem in the anthology, “On Whidbey Island,” which fairly drips with the Puget Sound.

I do like the term, “Cascadia,” and how it emphasizes bioregion over country or state, and I appreciate how Ooligan used the bioregion to organize Alive at the Center. I think the border does get in the way and we need to acknowledge that and encourage more such projects. ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) is also very good at getting American writers and thinkers together with their like-minded colleagues in Canada.

Rob: You've been writing the poems in Through the Second Skin for the past decade, and many of them were previously picked up by leading American literary publications. "A Good Fish", for instance, was published in Poetry back in 2008. I suspect, then, that you've had opportunities to publish your collection earlier. What caused you to wait until now? And since you've waited so long, why now and not later?

Derek: I had a couple opportunities, but mostly, I had a bad case of the runner-ups (Emily Dickinson First Book Award) and an even worse case of the finalisms (Walt Whitman Award, Brittingham, Beatrice Hawley, etc.).

The opportunities I had I was grateful for, but I didn’t pursue them because the presses didn’t feel like the right place for my work.

Right before the book landed, I had two very encouraging notes, one from Don Share at Poetry, and another from Jonathan Galassi at FSG. Their words helped me stay optimistic enough to keep the manuscript in the mail.

When Roger Lathbury accepted Through the Second Skin for Orchises, I felt like it had found the right home. And now, with the book out since January, I know that it did.

What also helped me bide my time and prepare me for the full-length book was publishing two chapbooks: A Mouthpiece of Thumbs (Blue Begonia, 2000), and A Revised Account of the West (Flyway/Iowa State U., 2008), which won the Hazel Lipa Environmental Chapbook Award judged by Debra Marquart.

Although I wasn’t trying to wait, I’m glad now that I published Second Skin when I did. It is a much richer collection for the extra years that went into its making.

You can buy a copy of Derek Sheffield's Through the Second Skin from your local bookstore, or from Amazon. And while you're at it, why not check out these Derek Sheffield approved bird shirts.*

*Bird shirts not actually approved by Derek Sheffield.