12/26/2014

a love song to the culture

I have been specifically concerned with issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and violence. The poems in Inheritance explore the links between PTSD and the ways in which poetry resurrects human experience, particularly through the use of formal devices. Many of the formal poems in this collection are concerned with themes of obedience, rebellion and power. They weren’t written with an agenda in mind, but I feel they explore some uncomfortable issues. Whose voice speaks through me? What does it mean to occupy an archaic form? The questions make me uneasy, but are nonetheless central to my experience as my father’s daughter and as a female artist in a patriarchal culture. And it was very important for me to not shy away from the emotional intensity of the subject matter, to allow the sense of mourning and love and trauma. It strikes me that this is what a lyric poem is in the end, a love song to the culture. And I think that all our stories and myths bear the scars of trauma. In a broader sense, I’m interested in humanism. I’m skeptical about art and its purposes and aims. It strikes me that we too often celebrate self-expression and creativity over what might help to ease suffering on a larger scale. I don’t mean that art should moralize. It’s one of the most rewarding forms of enchantment. But if I was compelled to define its relevance, I would say it’s the best means by which we can both create the world and understand the world as created – by our own perceptions, values and ambivalences.

- Kerry-Lee Powell, discussing her new book, Inheritance, in an interview with rob mclennan over at his blog. You can read the whole thing here.

12/19/2014

a powerful way to store energy

We had Zach Wells write a piece for Reader's Digest called "Doctor Igloo.” It was about someone named Dr. Paul Stubbing, who worked as a physician in Iqaluit for three decades. It was a 1,500 word profile, nicely done, nothing too taxing. But it was read by more Canadians than all of the books he’ll ever publish in his lifetime, combined. Sets you back on your heels, doesn’t it? And it’s been tremendously healthy for me to face how small our concerns are when compared to the size of the country. For every literary “firestorm” on Twitter, for every Facebook “controversy” over a bad review, my day job reminds me that people have more important things on their mind: the tar sands, rampant inequality, sexual aggression in the workplace. The fact is, the world that poetry once belonged to—the world that saw the form as a vehicle for major ideas—no longer exists. When you come down to it, other cultural forms (novels, movies, HBO dramas) are now regarded as offering a more useful, accurate and entertaining way of telling stories about ourselves. Poetry’s irrelevance, however, hasn’t changed the fact that it’s still a powerful way to store energy—emotional, intellectual—and to release it. Once you’ve had a taste of building devices that can do that, it’s hard to stop. And speaking as a critic, practicing a minor journalistic art underscores how important it is to do it well—and to have a healthy relationship with the reasons you do it.

- Carmine Starnino, in interview with Melissa Bull over at PRISM international. You can read the whole interview here.

12/16/2014

absolutely present and inevitable

Michael Harris: I was trying to think of how a first line literally has to have one hooked immediately. Without a first line that either leads in immediately to a second line hook or a third line hook, there isn’t any poem, you don’t get down to the fourth line usually. It has to be something that doesn’t throw one off. It has to actually bring one in. Reading a poem is a little bit like falling in love. Ten years on, if it was a correct falling-in-love you’re still with them and if it was an incorrect falling-in-love, you’re not with them anymore.

Carmine Starnino: Does that thinking affect arrangement in a book? For example, the first poem you place in your manuscript?

Harris: A friend of mine, the Quebecois poet Michel Garneau, once told me, “Lead with your best piece.” And that makes a kind of sense. He is, amongst other things, an actor and a playwright. And theatrically, what’s interesting is to have something very strong at the beginning. But I don’t think the first poem in a book has to be the best poem. It has to be a poem that is absolutely solid, that doesn’t push one away, that says, “Here I am. I’m a decently written piece. I have subject matter that’s of interest. I have a couple of oddities. A couple of interesting tropes that tell you I’m an interesting poet beyond what one might normally read.” And by the end of the first page, you have to have read something of import. Then the second page and the 3rd page and the 4th page, you can fool around a bit. By the time the 5th or 6th page, then you have to have a plateau poem, a decent poem, a very good poem. Something that’s so good that, had you put it first, you might have lost the reader; it’s a little bit like getting introduced to somebody you don’t know and coming on too strong. That’s how Shakespeare managed the plays. Very seldom is the huge speech in Act 1. The magic develops slowly. By the time you get to Act 3 or 4 there’s strength, power and explosiveness.

Starnino: You don’t want to come on too strong?

Harris: You want to be absolutely present and inevitable, but you can’t whack somebody over the head and say this is genius. At least, that’s how I would organize the seduction.

- Michael Harris, former Signal Editions editor, in interview with current Signal editor Carmine Starnino, over at Canadian Notes & Queries. You can read the whole thing here.

12/01/2014

a technique for the reconciliation of method and chance

Through a particular texture of physiological bravado, rather than knowledge, I attempted to participate in the world. What is life I thought, other than to succumb profoundly, thoroughly and enduringly. Thus began my career. I sought a technique for the reconciliation of method and chance. This ignited in me a sensation of intelligence, which is to say, I felt the being of my life in relation to a generality. What a voluptuous illusion! I continued. In this way it seemed that I began to understand history.

But I was also aware, in the last instants before sleep, that I was the one who was about to swindle myself. This was my vanity: that I did not pause long enough to imagine that each being harbours the same suspicion.

- Lisa Robertson, from her "Essay on Origins", over at The Rusty Toque. You can read the whole thing here.

11/29/2014

made more available for other tasks within myself

Christopher Levenson: So when do you ever find time to write?

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

-Russell Thornton, on writing with three kids and a day job, in interview with Christopher Levenson over at PRISM international. You can read the whole thing here.

11/27/2014

the elevation of one mode of expression over all others

It’s true there are poets, both established and aspiring, who have long forgotten or never acknowledged the ways they’ve benefited from the class advantages of higher education. There are also poets for whom the esoteric concerns of academic scholars and critics have become the primary motivating force in their writing. Both types of writer have little need for or interest in a mainstream audience. These are aesthetes writing for aesthetes. There isn’t any sin in this, but it does contribute to the perception that poetry is out of touch with the wider culture. Still, one of the reasons I’m not naming names here is that for every staid or esoteric poem, for every too-big-to-fail poet I might offer as an example in support of these observations, I can offer another that counters them. The fact is, there’s simply too much poetry out there coming from too many sources to make for believable generalizations about the art, and the trouble with recent attacks on poetry is that they’re based on too few examples without credible knowledge of the vast numbers of alternatives.

Beyond this, when critics call for a more relevant brand of poetry, their impulses might be well-meaning, but to believe that poetry should trump Facebook, cable, the movies, music, the news, Twitter, and the fact that more than a billion people now carry the entire Internet around in their pants is a weirdly capitalist ambition. It’s a desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others, and I’m not sure why these critics believe that desire should matter more than somebody else’s need for something else. The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.

- Jaswinder Bolina, from his essay "The Writing Class" over at the Poetry Foundation. You can read the whole thing here.

11/25/2014

Transatlantic Reading Series - Read and Recorded!

Last Sunday I participated in the Transatlantic Reading Series, an online poetry reading series with participants from across the globe. Sounds cool, eh?

And it certainly was, though my individual experience was one of sitting in my office talking into the green light next to my web cam. It was hard to tell if anyone was watching at all, but then while I was mid-pre-poem-banter for my second poem, up popped a tweet from Robert Peake, founder of the series and a poetry-blogging hero of mine, and I knew someone was out there:



The whole reading, featuring myself and Steve Komarnyckyj, and hosted by John Gosslee of Fjords Review, was recorded and can be viewed right here:



As web-cam recordings go, I think it turned out pretty well, though I now know to get the camera a little higher so my eyelids aren't the size of lily pads.

My set begins around the 5:10 mark, and I return for the Q+A around 39:50. My set list includes two poems from The Other Side of Ourselves ("The Wailing Machines", "Rejection Slips"), one from Smoothing the Holy Surfaces ("You Ask Me About My Mother") and five new ones ("Weather in Dublin", "Selfie with Skull", "Humanity", "Transatlantic" and "Strangers").

Thank you so much to Robert, John and Steve for making the reading happen, and to all of you who tuned in either during the reading or after the fact. I hope you enjoyed it.



p.s. Speaking of Robert Peake, if you ever want a fun random-word generator to use as a writing prompt, check out his Poetry Writing Prompts machine, which randomly spits out words culled from back issues of Poetry Magazine. I just asked for five random words and it gave me: "ghost-flux, uncorrected, moo-goo-gai-pan, mctuesday's, garden-crusted". How many word generators can pull off something that great?

11/24/2014

Dead Poets Winter Solstice Poetry and Music Fundraiser

I'm very pleased to be part of a Pandora's Collective/Dead Poets Reading Series co-sponsored event, masterminded by Fiona Tinwei Lam.

Entitled "A Winter Solstice Celebration of Poetry and Music in Vancouver", the event will pair poems by dead poets with music played by local musicians Fraser Union, Christina Kent, Samuel Louis, and Bob Walker.

Entry will be by donation, and all money raised will go to buying stocking stuffers for school kids in need over the winter holidays.

The details:

A Winter Solstice Celebration of Poetry and Music in Vancouver
Wednesday, December 10th, 2014, 7-9 PM
The Cottage Bistro
4468 Main Street
Featuring: Evelyn Lau (reading John Updike), Christopher Levenson (W.B. Yeats), Bonnie Nish (Rainer Maria Rilke), Rob Taylor (Al Purdy), Diane Tucker (Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickenson), and Fiona Tinwei Lam (Simin Behbahani and Maya Angelou)
By Donation

As mentioned above, I'll be reading Purdy - expect Piling Blood/Beethoven to make an appearance. Nothing says Christmas like being covered in cow's blood!

I hope to see you there.

11/19/2014

Bowering's Books

Mailed out to subscribers earlier this month, the Fall 2014 issue of The Capilano Review, entitled "Bowering's Books", is devoted entirely to everyone's favourite Vancouver Canadians heckler, and occasional author, George Bowering. I am very pleased to have a short essay in the issue, on Bowering's 2000 book (the year, not his "2000th book," thought that's not off by that much), His Life: A Poem.

His Life was one of those early books I read which opened my eyes to what poetry could do, and Canadian (even Vancouver) poetry, no less.

The issue will be publicly launched tomorrow (November 20th), at 11:30 AM at Capilano College. You can get all the details here. If, for some reason, you can't make it to North Vancouver on a Thursday morning, still think about picking up a copy. I'm only starting into it myself, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it thus far.

To wet your whistle, The Capilano Review has put up an online supplement to the issue, chocked full of essays, interviews and aimless musings by Jonathan Ball, Brian Fawcett, Daniel Zomparelli, and more. You can read that here.

Thanks to Todd Nickel and the rest of the TCR crew for making this issue happen. And to George Bowering, for the books, obviously.

11/18/2014

Transatlantic Poetry

I'm very pleased to be have been asked to participate in the Transatlantic Poetry Reading Series, readings which take place online, including participants from both sides of the Atlantic (and a whole continent more, in my case).

I'll be reading alongside English/Ukrainian poet and translator Steve Komarnyckyj. We'll each read for fifteen minutes or so, followed by a Q+A. The reading will take place this Sunday (Nov 23rd) at 12 PM, Pacific Time, so 3 PM for those of you out East (and 8 PM for the Ghanaians out there).


To be part of this reading, you need a Google account (the reading will take place on Google+ Hangouts). If you don't have one, it's easy to sign up. If/once you have an account, simply click here:

Transatlantic Poetry November Reading

Where it says "Are you going to watch?" click "Yes." Then you should be good to go come Sunday.

So, non-Vancouverites, you no longer have an excuse for skipping my readings. I expect to see you there! And Vancouverites, why not give it a go, too? There's worse ways to spend a Sunday morning.

This will be my first time reading new material from my two-thirds completed second manuscript, and I'll be doing into a webcam. God knows how that's going to turn out. You're welcome to drop in on Sunday, from wherever you are, to see how it goes. I'd love to see you there.

10/30/2014

the art of rejection

Something else I must tell you, finally: we are all meant to side with the author. Even as you practice the art of rejection, always side with the author. You are the writer’s advocate, even when they might not see that, even as you fail each other. They are sending their manuscript to you in hope you will see them in all their humanity, their anguish, their joy, their triumph, their vulnerability, their pain, and not turn away. You will turn away.

- Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press, in a very entertaining piece about rejection from the editor's perspective, posted on the Graywolf Press blog. You can read the whole thing here.

10/25/2014

All Things Purdy

The Al Purdy Show at the Vancouver Writers Festival is happening tomorrow (Sunday, October 26th, 1:30 PM)! Hurrah! I've blogged about it previously, so won't bore you with the details here, but in short, it will be hosted by Charlie Demers and will feature Ken Babstock, George Bowering, Michael Crummey, Aislinn Hunter, Daphne Marlatt, Sina Queyras, Sharon Thesen, Fred Wah, and many more reading Al Purdy's poetry. Oh, and I squeezed in there somehow, too. In conclusion: YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME.

For a more thorough summary of the event, check out this post by Clara Kumagai, on the PRISM international website.

To promote the event, and to celebrate the release of We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987, myself and We Go Far Back in Time editor Nicholas Bradley selected four excerpts from the letters to highlight on the website. The letters document Birney and Purdy's first interaction (Birney calls a past editor at his magazine an "incipient fascist), a rejection letter from Birney to Purdy (Purdy says PRISM international's poetry editor is "full of shit"), an argument over the influence of Bliss Carman (Birney says "There isn’t one damn poet, old or young, worthy at all of the name..." who was influenced by Carman) and a discussion of the political climate in the US and Canada ("The thickening atmosphere of violence, ignorance, hate, stupidity, mutual brainwashing...") which seems like it could have taken place yesterday. Here are the letters in full:


Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #1: “A very ordinary liberal against an incipient fascist”
Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #2: “An orgasm not a belly rub”
Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #3: “Before I get nasty I want to thank you”
Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #4: “Lash and goad and liberal applications of Mace.”


The letters have proven to be hit, tweeted and Facebooked around like mad, with excerpts #2 and #3 even re-posted by Australian magazine Going Down Swinging on their website. You can read their version here.

So be sure to check them out, and then come to the big show tomorrow!

10/21/2014

there is a lot to be realistic about

So it seems that if there is a need for a new kind of poetry at present, we must also recognize some fault in the poetry of our time. What i think is distressing is that poets too often resort to irony – they don’t really mean what they write to be taken as straightforward or sincere, but rather to suggest by their tone a cynical or tongue-in-cheek or superior attitude.

There is an absence of realism – in the face of the fact that there is a lot to be realistic about: poverty and economic inequality, environmental destruction – and very important, for poets, a tacit but increasing assumption throughout our culture that there is nothing special about a human being – a human being is nothing more than a computational device, algorithmically driven. This i think is what Jack Spicer meant by ‘the human crisis.’

It’s true, as W. H. Auden said, that poetry makes nothing happen. Yet poetry is not a negligible part of our culture; it is on the contrary as highly honoured as any of the arts. If there were a sea-change in the practice of poetry, towards realism and sincerity, this might have an effect on the other arts and the way people look at our culture and society in general.


- George Stanley, elaborating on comments he made at the Cascadia Poetry Festival, as published on Paul E. Nelson's blog. You can read the whole thing here.

10/16/2014

dazzle but none of the damaged heart

When I look at contemporary architecture I see so much glass and steel that it has become a tyranny of gray metal and reflection, even though glass in itself is a wonder and steel in itself can be shapely and strong. I think of the mass movement in poetry towards odd vocabulary and syntax on the one hand to be sort of beautiful, in that sense of glass and steel, because I, too, am interested in how language itself dazzles. But I also think of it as a tyranny of coldness, a terrible fear of emotion. This fear of emotion has many cultural sources (people are always afraid to express their feelings publicly), but one hideous culprit is the dreaded writing workshop. Who want to lay their feelings bare when ten rivals around a table can get at them? Writing workshops can close up feelings, and therefore close up courage. That's how you get dazzle but none of the damaged heart.

- Molly Peacock, in interview with Jason Guriel in the Fall 2014 issue of CV2.

10/13/2014

long after I've stopped making sense - "For Your Safety Please Hold On" by Kayla Czaga

Song - Kayla Czaga
Outside my window, seagulls and crows continue
the discourse on language, insisting it need not be beautiful
to be song. If song accompanies their shallow black
and white bickering over garbage at 5 a.m., do I still believe

language needs to be beautiful? Their insistent discourse
pecks holes in the morning. Here I am still trying
to believe, at 5 a.m., despite the bickering over garbage
because faith describes perfectly how my mother is dying.

Here I am still trying to peck holes in the morning;
song is just another word I use for wanting
faith to describe how perfectly my mother is dying
thousands of miles away, in a small town I rarely visit.

Song is just another word I want to use.
Illness is just another word. Mother is just a word
thousands of miles away, in a small town I rarely visit.
The winter light pours slowly into my window.

Illness is just a word. Mother is just a word
with someone in it. Can I sing without words?
The slow winter light pours through my window.
Long after I’ve stopped making sense, I’m just a sound

with someone in it. Can I sing without words
and still be song, accompanying the crows, shallow and black,
making sense with just sounds? Long after I’ve stopped,
seagulls and crows continue outside my window.
from For Your Safety Please Hold On
(Nightwood Editions, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.

On Sunday, October 19th, Kayla Czaga will launch her debut poetry collection, For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions), alongside three other Nightwood authors: Matt Rader, Alex Leslie and Elaine Woo. The details:


Nightwood Editions Fall 2014 Book Launch
Sunday, October 19th, 7pm
Grand Luxe Hall
303 East 8th Avenue
Vancouver
Featuring: Kayla Czaga, Matt Rader, Alex Leslie, and Elaine Woo
Free!





I've had the opportunity to get to know Kayla and her work over the last year or so, and I was very much looking forward to getting a copy of For Your Safety Please Hold On in my hands. When I finally did, I wasn't disappointed - it's a terrifically strong debut.

If there’s a central concern in For Your Safety Please Hold On, I would say it’s: what are we to do with all these people? The book overflows with people – Mother, Father, Grandparents, Not-Grandparents, Aunts, Drunk Uncles, children, strangers, lovers, murderers, the murdered, ministers, neighbours, and Aaron the EpiPen kid (to name but a few). I suppose most books are peopled well enough, but few seem as concerned with the complexity and sheer volume of people that overwhelm modern urban life. In the second section of the book, “The Family,” Czaga seems to ask again and again: Who is family? What is family? And what defines its borders?

Those questions spill out over the rest of the book to cover much of the world: fellow bus passengers, Blockbuster employees, coffee shop customers. “Lord, it is hard to love / your people, so fast they go / thru drive-thrus.” (77) she says at one point. “The people watched the smoke of the Lord / barreling the Lord’s commandments / down the mountain. So the people / settled into their confusion.” (88) she says at another.

The question always hovering, rarely asked, pointed at most firmly in the title poem (in which the speaker contemplates the titular warning sign on the bus, and wishes to graffiti to the end of it the words “to each other”) seems to be: How are we, fellow people, not family? How are you not my comrade, my brother, my sister?

For Your Safety Please Hold On takes on all these questions gracefully – always with a sense of play and a deep and evident love of language, and often with a wink. It makes you look up at your neighbours (in the office, on the bus, converging at the mail box) and, if not understand them better, at least desire to.

In other words: it's good stuff. Kayla and I exchanged a few emails about her book, and the conversation wandered as they do from kicked in front doors, to pigeons and coffee shops, to an overabundance of "fucks." Enjoy!

Kayla, wondering what to do with this small person (who, she stresses,
is not her own small person - don't worry Mom and Dad!)


Rob: In reading For Your Safety Please Hold On, especially the poems in the “Mother and Father” and “The Family” sections, I got the sense that what I was reading about was your “poetry family,” a family adjacent to your actual family, stretched and transformed however your love of play and language suggested. In fact, it feels like you’ve built an entire “poetry family” cosmology (Mom, Dad, Grandparents, Not-Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles), which is probably what Paul Vermeersch is referring to on the back cover blurb when he says reading your book “feels rather like an initiation into the clan”.

Does any of the above ring true? Has your family seen the book? What has been their response?

Kayla: It’s interesting that you use the word cosmology. I think I focused on family as a way to locate myself. Each of the family members expresses a different way of being in the world. In writing about them, I got a chance to try on their language, see how they fit, and decide how I wanted to live in response.

My dad has seen a few of my poems and he likes to “correct” details and tell me that he doesn’t quite “get” them. We have long talks about what he thinks is going on. Once, during a hockey period break, he wrote “his kind of rhyming poem” and mailed it to me, hand written on a piece of loose-leaf. So, he's trying to participate.

Last night, my mom phoned and asked me to explain, “Poem for Jeff,” the poem in my book in which I use the f-word about a hundred times. “I’ve never heard you talk like that,” she explained. I think I actually offended her. I felt pretty embarrassed, but I think she likes the book, otherwise. She said she was going to read it again and call me back.


Rob: Ha! Yes, my first book had one "fuck" in it and I definitely hear about it a disproportionate amount (though my mother's never mentioned it). Your answer got me thinking about the speakers and voices in the book. Would you say this book is written in one common voice/from one common speaker, or does it change from section to section, poem to poem? When your mom says she's "never heard you talk like that," do you think of it as "you" talking in the first place?

Kayla: Sometimes it's me. Sometimes, as in "My Father, Winning me $242 dollars at the Kitimat Golf & Country Club, Last Christmas," I'm trying to speak as my dad, or someone else. More often, while writing, I feel like I'm just this device that poems get downloaded into on their way to the world. The poems are not me speaking, but speaking through me. I realize that sounds very strange, especially given the amount of details in the poems that come from my life, but that's what it feels like.


Rob: One of the great pleasures of your book is its sense of play. Puns abound (“She was a hoot, owling outside / the barn”, 30) and so many of these poems are steeped in jokes and turns of phrase and a general relishing in language. Many of the poems, however, also deal with heady subjects – death, murder, grief, isolation, etc. What purpose does inserting playfulness into heavy poems serve for you? Have you written any poems, in the book or otherwise, where you felt that such play would detract from the poem, and avoided it?

Kayla: Last summer, when my grandfather died, my father (who is in his 60s) had to kick down the door of his house because my grandfather never gave anyone a full set of keys. Sad, yes, but also very funny—all of us sweating in the driveway with our suitcases. I believe in the old maxim about light making the darkness darker. One of my favourite quotes goes, “How goofy and awful is life,” (Dean Young).

My classmates have accused me of using humour as a defense mechanism when talking about emotional things. Maybe they are on to something, but I prefer laughing to taking myself too seriously.

No, I can’t “play” with everything. The poem you chose to stand for the book (and coincidentally the book’s only formal poem), “Song,” is basically as serious as I get, as is the poem “Victoria Soto.” It is sometimes disrespectful to be funny.


Rob: I had the pleasure to hear you read Gertrude Stein at a recent Dead Poets Reading Series event. In introducing Stein’s poems, you mentioned that she had had a great impact on your writing – that she had been one of the poets who gave you permission to do new things in your writing. I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit more – which elements of this book do you think most clearly demonstrate her influence?

Kayla: I found Gertrude Stein at the right time in my life. I was pretty bored with lyric poetry and she set my hair on fire. I got shivers reading her. Still do. I think she helped loosen my fixation on “making sense.” Or, she helped me make a different kind of sense. The entire “FOR PLAY” section is a semi-homage to her and the influence of her writing.


Rob: Knowing a bit about your biography (born and raised in Kitimat, now living in Vancouver), I came to read the section “For Your Safety Please Hold On” as your “Vancouver Poems” – chronicling your shift from a small, intimate sense of community and family, to the big, chaotic urban mess that we rarely, if ever, consider familial. Reading poems like “23rd Birthday” and “For Your Safety...”, and lines from later in the book like “The Lord led me to a city / with a dripping, concrete sky / and fourteen thousand coffee // joints.” (82) gave me a clear sense of the city as seen from the outside. In what ways do you think your first book would have been different if you had never moved to Vancouver?

Kayla: I spent five years in Victoria between Vancouver and Kitimat, so I don’t feel like my transition into Vancouver has been very extreme or disruptive.

I actually hadn’t even thought of that section as Vancouver poems until you mentioned it. You are right; they are predominantly set in Vancouver. I see it as my “I’m an adult now” poem section. I spent a while creating the poem-voice that speaks in the way that I think—that scattered, fascinated, shy way. That voice feels more like what that section represents than the background details that make up those poems, but I’m sure For Your Safety Please Hold On would be a completely different book if I had moved to Montreal instead, as I had planned to.


Rob: Montreal's loss is our gain! Looking back through your book, are you able to better see or understand your own feelings about Vancouver? If so, what are they?

Kayla: I wish I could just insert one of the poems as answer to this question because they do a better job of articulating my feelings. I am really fascinated by Vancouver—really excited about how much there is to do and how many pigeons and coffee shops and good bits of fish there are—but I’m also overwhelmed and I find myself less patient and willing to engage with strangers than in a smaller town because there are just too many of them and they are too often forced into my physical space due to overcrowding. I hope that comes through in the book.


Rob: It certainly does. Alongside the crowds and pigeons and coffee shops, God makes a few appearances in For Your Safety Please Hold On - mostly notably in poems like “Temporary” and in the long poem which closes the book, “Many Metaphorical Birds.” Could you speak a bit about whatever religious upbringing you might have had, and if/how your connection to religion has changed over the years? Has poetry come to compliment, or replace, any parts of your life that you consider (or once would have considered) “religious”?

Kayla: My dad is an atheist and my mom is “spiritual” in a general way. I was a fairly rebellious teenager and one of the most effectively rebellious things I did was convert to Christianity. Since it’s always been a personal, rather than familial thing, I haven’t experienced the same falling out with it that some kids raised in religious homes have. My faith has changed and evolved, of course, as everything does all the time.

Spiritual traditions, family, and poetry—these are all ways of attaching to a bigger thing than the self, of plugging into a narrative. I think religion is a different barrel of fish than poetry, however, and I don’t think one can build a worldview out of a genre of writing, but it can compliment and help deepen many spiritual practices.


Rob: Now that you have your first book – now that it’s a real thing you can hold in your hands – what purpose do you think it serves? (i.e. if your book were a machine, what would be its function?) When you envision someone picking it up and reading it, what do you hope they get from it? And does your answer differ at all from the answer you think you would have given three or four years ago, when your first book was still an abstract concept?

Kayla: Wallace Stevens said it is the poet’s job to help people live their lives. I don’t know if I can aspire to something so lofty, but that’s how poetry “works” for me.

Poems are little machines you pour your thinking into and your thinking comes out differently, hopefully better, from the dispensing end. Maybe my poems will be a partner in someone’s ongoing thinking, or maybe they will amuse someone on her long bus rides. Maybe they will be cut up into nice collages or used to line a litter box.

Years ago, I thought I would have more figured out by now, that by having a book I would have “arrived” in some way as a person. Nope. Still can’t find my keys. Still don’t know anything. I’m happier knowing nothing now, though—it means I can still be surprised.


Surprise Kayla by picking up a copy of For Your Safety Please Hold On from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. Or better yet, show up at her launch. She won't know to see it coming.

10/07/2014

PRISM international 53.1 - Launched!

As I mentioned in my last post, I was part of the team which launched PRISM international 53.1 (my first issue as poetry editor) at WORD Vancouver.

PRISM Editors: Clara Kumagai, Promotions; Yours Truly, Poetry;
Jen McDonald, Circulation; Nicole Boyce, Prose.

The weather was fantastic (a WORD rarity) and we were busy at the PRISM booth all day, breaking sales records and taking an inordinate number of octopus-teacup photos, including my favourite, featuring my game-for-anything mother:


Such photos make (a little bit) more sense when viewed next to our new cover:


Amidst all the fun of the launch, I hardly gave a thought to the poems I was helping send out into the world. Now that I'm a week or so removed from the launch, I'm taking great pleasure in sitting back and rereading the issue. It includes poems by Canadians Elise Partridge, Peter Norman, Raoul Fernandes and Michael Lockett, and Americans Gwen Hart, Emily Tuszynska and Mark Parlette. The fiction and non-fiction are top-drawer as well, selected by prose-editor-extraordinaire Nicole Boyce.

I'm particularly pleased to be able to share a few of Elise Partridge's and Raoul Fernandes' new poems (a sample, from Raoul, can be read here), as I believe they are two of the very best poets living and working here in Vancouver. And to our great fortune, both of them have books forthcoming in 2015 (from Anansi and Nightwood, respectively). Hurrah!

If you can't wait that long and/or you'd like to read some new work from writers you probably haven't yet encountered, I would love if you picked up a copy (either in a bookstore near you, or via our online store). Or better yet, if you buy a year-long subscription right now, you can get all four issues that will come out during my term as editor. You can also get those same four issues if you enter any of PRISM's three contests (non-fiction, fiction, poetry), all of which are currently open for submissions. If you subscribe, I promise I'll do my damndest to give you a howlin' good read.


Thank you to everyone at PRISM, especially my trusty colleagues, my incredible editorial board, and past poetry editor Zach Matteson (who showed me the ropes), for making 53.1 a success!

9/26/2014

WORD this weekend!

Everyone's favourite literary street festival, WORD Vancouver, takes place this Sunday at Library Square! Highlights will include readings by Diane Tucker, andrea bennett, Dina Del Bucchia, Billeh Nickerson, Renee Saklikar and many more in the Poetry Bus, and readings by Russell Thornton, Joanne Arnott, Juliane Okot Bitek, Ruth Daniell and more as part of the Magazine Words "tent" (erm... Blenz Coffee Shop). You can read the whole festival schedule here.

I'll be there all day at the PRISM international table on Homer Street, launching the brand new issue of PRISM (my first as poetry editor!). Single copies will be on sale for the low, low one-time price of $10. You can read a sample poem from the issue here to get a sense of things.
There's no time to explain!!
What you won't understand from that sample is that our booth will be octopus themed. There will be tentacles and teacups. There is no time to explain right now - just come out and see it first hand!

At 2:20 PM at the Blenz Coffee inside the Library Square building, I'll be taking in PRISM's part in the Magazine Words event: a reading by Rachel Rose and Karen J Lee! Following that, at 4:15 in the same location, I'll be participating on a panel entitled "The Inside Dirt on Literary Publications." I'll be sharing the stage with Ian Cockfield (Event), Todd Nickel (Capilano Review), Carrie Schmidt (Room), Leanne Johnson (SFU/Langara Publishing), and moderator (and personal Vancouver hero) Frances Bula. I am currently trying to think up some inside dirt to share - I'll do my best. Hopefully the others will be... dirtier?

I hope to see you out there this weekend. And if you can't make it out, just keep an eye on the #octocup hashtag on Twitter - it'll feel like you're there! Sort of!

9/19/2014

How Pedestrian: An A-frame Update

At the end of August, Katherine Leyton finished the first-ever residency at the Al Purdy A-frame. A poet in her own right, Leyton is perhaps best known as the mastermind behind How Pedestrian, the website which featured random people reading great poems aloud. Of her stay, Leyton said:

Every morning I drank my coffee at the lake and read or thought about my work before stepping into the writing room to hash it out with my poems. Sometimes I locked the door on myself. When I got stuck, I walked the county roads that cut through the nearby farm fields, fascinated by the glowing stalks of wheat, the odd behaviour of cows, the farm machines, the farm men racing around in their trucks, the absurdly perfect sunsets and the way the fields and the sky seemed to open up to forever. It made me giddy, joyful, humble. I drove to Wellington and Picton and Little Bluff and the Sandbanks and Bloomfield and Point Petre. I drank too much wine in The County’s wineries. I went for runs at dusk and slipped into warm, calm Roblin Lake afterward, taking in the fireflies before returning to my computer and my poems, which I dragged around the various rooms of the house with me. When I needed a break, I perused Al’s impressive book collection, or played his bizarre records (he was a fan of Classical, Neil Young and The Red Army Ensemble—uh-huh.)

Not content at just that, earlier this week Leyton also dusted off How Pedestrian (which hadn't been updated in a year) and presented us her A-frame magnum opus - a thirty-minute video of Prince Edward County locals (plus a cameo or two), some with personal connections to Al and Eurithe Purdy, reading Al's poems:



If watching all the readings in one big chunk isn't your style, Leyton says she'll be releasing shorter videos slowly over the rest of the month - so keep an eye on the How Pedestrian website. You can read her whole report on her stay, and the video, here.

Thanks to Katherine for kicking things off at the A-frame in such an enjoyable way. Here's hoping her writing time was equally productive.

p.s. If you feel like donating to the A-frame association, you can do so here. And if you're in Vancouver, and want a show with your donation, be sure to check out the Al Purdy Show on October 26th!

9/17/2014

the second-to-last person alive

The marvelous paradox is this: to read poems is to fully experience, not the actual experience that the poet had, but the figured experience that the reader has. To become a poet is to offer a reader the opportunity to be fulfilled with your vision as it transcends their modern life and as it reveals greater imaginary possibilities.

Becoming a poet is to be like the second-to-last person alive speaking out loud and interpreting the living world to the last person alive. Both by our living in modern times and by immersing ourself in the mastery of writing poems, we seek communion with those who also wish to relinquish what they fear and dream, what they accept and resist, in order to be renewed in the word and the world.

Becoming a poet is to consent to this medium of unity. Becoming a poet is to embrace the presence of this wonderful communion and then to return again and again with new figurations of life that we adore and honor as poems.


- David Biespiel, from his essay The Poet Journey: Conclusion over at The Rumpus. You can read the whole thing here.

9/15/2014

Hummingbird Prize! Hurrah!

I'm very pleased to announce that my story "Here I Lay Down My Heart" has won PULP Literature's 2014 Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction!

The story is set in Tanzania ("Here I Lay Down My Heart" is one of the many translations out there for Bagamoyo, a coastal Tanzanian town), and is part of a larger series of stories set in Africa which I have been writing feverishly (i.e. very slowly by anyone else's standards) over the last couple years.

I've only just started sending those stories out for publication, and when this one is published in PULP's Winter 2015 issue, it will be my first fiction publication. Not a bad way to kick things off!

I'm thrilled to have won, of course, and also to be in good company (friend-of-silaron Daniela Elza was the runner up). And I'm honoured to have caught the attention of contest judge JJ Lee, who said of the piece:

"On the strength of its setting, naturalism, and the pleasure it takes in the search for language, ‘Here I Lay Down My Heart’ wins the Hummingbird Flash Fiction contest. Its author has created a small gem about a nighttime boat trip and a missing child. The author avoids sloppy dialogue and needless back story and, in less than 600 words, crafts a compelling tale which readers will rush to reach to the end.”

Thank you again to the editors at PULP, and to JJ Lee, for making this possible!

experience is malleable

I am not entirely sure of the relationship between depression, and the art of poetry except to say for me it is profound. David Biespiel has recently written,

“The poet’s journey involves a series of transformations because to write a poem is, above all to change your life. And, no less important, to change someone else’s life. A poem is an offering. A poem is a common wealth. Because each poem contains insight, the wisdom you reveal in your poems can renew the community. When you present your poems to the world, you are saying to readers that you have discovered something. You are saying that you are ready to participate in the shared human experience…"

For the depressive who feels most often apart from the world and other people, stuck on invisible railroad tracks with their neuroses bearing down on them, it is vitally important to understand experience is malleable. A poem is transformative. It offers a way to connect and share with other human beings when no other way seems possible.


- Chris Banks, largely quoting David Biespiel, in a short essay on depression over at his Table Music blog. You can read the whole thing here.

9/12/2014

desk blog count: the rather-tidy baker's dozen

When it rains, it pours. A few days after announcing the discovery of desk blogs number eleven and twelve, along comes number thirteen. Lucky thirteen! After all this dreaming and hoping! Now I know how Stephen Harper must feel.

The latest is a big one, too: The New Quarterly, Canada's premiere square literary magazine, has taken up a "Writing Spaces" feature on their website. Started at the end of August, it has thus far featured desks from Ayelet Tsabari, Kevin Hardcastle, and Brent van Staalduien.

Thank you for entering the fray, TNQ!

Here are the mighty thirteen:


At The Desk

Writers' Rooms (VIWF)

Good Places to Write

On The Writer's Desk

Where Do You Write to My Lovely?

10 Stunning Writing Studios (Flavorwire)

Writing Spaces (Then New Quarterly)

I simply cannot get enough pictures of desks!

Keep hunting for more, deskblogmaniacs! We'll have fifteen any moment now, and twenty won't be far behind. And oh what a spoil of desks we'll have then!

9/08/2014

desk blog count: the rather-tidy dozen

It's been two long years since I last came to you with more desk blogs. Yes, poets starting touching trees recently, but we all know that that, like petting cats, does not count. It's been a lean couple years for us deskblogmaniacs - but, as always in life, patience and perseverance pay off in the long run. For today, I bring you not one, but two new desk blogs (well, one + a desk blog Flavorwire post, which to me is close enough in these lean desk-blog times).

Elizabeth Robinson's cherry pits
(dog kibble? I'm not really sure)
First up is Where Do You Write to My Lovely?, which so far features desks from rob mclennan and Elizabeth Robinson. The special angle for this blog is short essays about the desks, written by the authors. Neat!

Second up is Flavorwire's 10 Stunning Writing Studios, none of which are actually owned by writers, as they look expensive and appealing and aren't covered in cat hair.

So if you're keeping track at home, the list of desk blogs is now up to twelve:


At The Desk

Writers' Rooms (VIWF)

Good Places to Write

On The Writer's Desk

Where Do You Write to My Lovely?

10 Stunning Writing Studios (Flavorwire)


When I started this little count, I thought it would be really, really funny if I could find three blogs devoted to writers' desks. Internet, your bounty overflows. Thank you!

Keep hunting for more, deskblogmaniacs! Twenty is right around the corner!

9/06/2014

fearing one might be deprived of chances

After wondering whether or not my life was going to end much earlier than it might have otherwise, naturally, I had to think about how I wanted to live from then on. Things I had wanted to happen were not going to happen because of the cancer, and this at first seemed catastrophic; and yet other things that turned out to be important did happen because of the cancer. This put paid to the idea that one can always trust what one wishes for. Nobody would wish to have cancer, yet it undeniably brought things to my life that were, to my great surprise, valuable. Also, after having been so ill, I found I wanted to be bolder about many experiences. Fearing one might be deprived of chances can of course motivate one to take more chances.

- Elise Partridge, on battling cancer and writing Chameleon Hours, in interview with Evan Jones over at The Puritan. You can read the whole thing here.

9/05/2014

to be alive together!

Beth Follett: What is the most important thing you try to teach students when you attend academic classes?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: That, hell, I’m not supposed to be there and we all kind of know it. They will spend three or five years there, and a face like mine, a name like mine, doesn’t appear on their syllabi. I think about the instructor a lot. Are they trying to fill something that is missing, do they know the work, do they care? Am I here just for show? To fill up some time? For ridicule? There is nothing worse than walking into a room full of students and have to spend the whole class explaining who you are and what you do. The students are open or closed or uninterested if their instructor is that way. Sometimes that is what I walk into, that uninterest, and I try my best to change that. I’ve been given an opportunity, a platform, and I might as well use it even if it isn’t open to me. I always tell myself, somewhere in that room is someone who will one day run a newspaper or magazine, become a literary critic, a writer of some kind, a publisher, someone who could end up in a position that will change my life and writing. I assume that person is sitting there and I talk to them. They already are someone, they just don’t know it yet. If there isn’t uninterest, I am amazed I get a chance to be there. I know I don’t sound like anything in the university so it’s easier to hear me. Also, what a wonderful chance for both me and them, to be able to ask each other questions! And to be alive together! It's a risk for the instructor too. Whatever they say about me to the students is on them.


Follett: What is your opinion of literary criticism?

Thammavongsa: It’s like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that he’s just some kid who doesn’t know a fucking thing. He’s probably read everything about Michelangelo but has he been to the Sistine Chapel? Has he ever stood there and looked up at that painting? Does he know what it smells like in there? You can read and sound like you know things but that doesn’t mean you know them or the writer in particular. I think a good critic is someone who can situate you in the writing that came before you, can assess what you are trying to do and whether or not you’ve achieved that. Someone who knows things besides literature, like art, music, linguistics, respect. A small part of literary criticism is the review.

- Souvankham Thammavongsa, in interview with her Pedlar Press publisher, Beth Follett, over at Open Book Toronto. You can read the whole thing here.

9/04/2014

The Al Purdy Show + Call for 2016 Residency Applications

Things are happening in A-frame land!

First off, we're getting set for Vancouver's biggest A-frame fundraiser to date. The Al Purdy Show: Vancouver Edition will take place on Sunday, October 26th at 1:30 PM, as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Hosted by Charlie Demers, with all proceeds going to the Al Purdy A-frame Association, the reading will feature a breathtaking array of poets (especially if you try to say all the names at once), each of whom will be reading at least one of Al's poems: Ken Babstock, George Bowering, Colin Browne, Brad Cran, Michael Crummey, Maxine Gadd, Aislinn Hunter, Daphne Marlatt, Billeh Nickerson, Sina Queyras, Rob Taylor, Sharon Thesen, Fred Wah, and Howard White.

Yes, my name is in there. I'm stunned too. I've only slipped onto a list I'm otherwise completely undeserving of because I will be staying in the A-frame for a month in September 2015 (!), and I am the only West Coast representative in the first batch of residencies.

We should do something about that, eh? West Coasters, the call has opened for applications for 2016 A-frame residencies. Applications are due in by October 17th, and all the needed info can be read here, so get at it!


9/03/2014

what a silly thing we do

A long time back, maybe twenty-five years ago, a reviewer (Hudson Review, I think) ridiculed William Carlos Williams for saying one reason a poet wrote was to become a better person. I was fresh out of graduate school, maybe still there, filled with the New Criticism, and I easily sided with the reviewer. But now I see Williams was right. I don’t think Williams was advocating writing as therapy, nor the naïve idea that after writing a poem one is any less depraved. I believe Williams discovered that a lifetime of writing was a slow, accumulative way of accepting one’s life as valid. What a silly thing we do. We sweat through poem after poem to realize what dumb animals know by instinct and reveal in their behavior: my life is all I've got. We are well off to know it ourselves, even if our method of learning it is painfully convoluted.

- Richard Hugo, in his essay "Statements of Faith" from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

9/01/2014

they will tell themselves that often enough

When people tell a young poet he is good, they may be doing him some disservice. They are telling him he is not worthless and so unwittingly they are undercutting what to him seems his need to write. I'm not suggesting we run about telling young poets how awful they are to ensure they keep on writing. They will tell themselves that often enough without our help.

- Richard Hugo, in his essay "Statements of Faith" from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

8/30/2014

try to find someone who teaches it

One student, named Hughes (I think), had moved to West Seattle from Oklahoma. One had to be unusually ingratiating and aggressive to find friends among the little snobs who banded together at West Seattle High. I suppose that's standard for a high school. Hughes was shy, a stranger, just one of many of the 2,000 students passing through, unnoticed, lonely, and probably miserable.

One day he read aloud a theme he had written—we had to read our work along to get credit. It was a true story about an evening some older boys had taken him to a whorehouse. He had been fourteen at the time, and he was candid about his fears, his attempts to appear courageous and confident to the older boys, his eventual panic and running away. We were a bit apprehensive when he finished. That story could have gotten him thrown out of most classes in the school. McKensie broke the silence with applause. She raved approval, and we realized we had just heard a special moment in a person's life, offered in honesty and generosity, and we better damn well appreciate it. It may have been the most important lesson I ever learned, maybe the most important lesson one can teach. You are someone and you have a right to your life. Too simple? Already covered by the Constitution? Try to find someone who teaches it. Try to find a student who knows it so well he or she doesn't need it confirmed.

- Richard Hugo, in his essay "In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes" from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

8/28/2014

the effrontery to get in the way of all that thinking

When I read some academic writing I marvel that as common and everyday as language is, it would have the effrontery to get in the way of all that thinking. I've seen sentences that defy comprehension written by people with doctorates in English from our best universities. So have you. And I doubt that academic writing will improve until academics believe Valéry, who said he couldn't think of anything worse than being right. In much academic writing, clarity runs a poor second to invulnerability.

- Richard Hugo, in his essay "In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes" from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

8/26/2014

;)

No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.

- Richard Hugo, in his essay "Nuts and Bolts" from The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.

8/24/2014

the distinction between prêt-à-porter and haute couture

Jason Guriel: It occurs to me that the non-practitioners — i.e. actual readers — would love [A.E.] Stallings as well as Alexandra Oliver, Bruce Taylor, Robyn Sarah, Amanda Jernigan. These poets make it look easy, which is what makes them so readable.

Michael Lista: The poetry world is so like the fashion world that way, isn’t it? Trend-driven and often emptily stylish. The only difference is that at least fashion recognizes and makes the distinction between prêt-à-porter and haute couture, a line that for all intents and purposes is the bottom line. People buy and wear and live in the former, and only marvel curiously at the latter. Poets like Oliver and Stallings and Taylor and Sarah are prêt-à-porter; the problem is that no one but designers are buying.

- Michael Lista, in conversation with Jason Guriel about his new book The Scarborough and not being here to make friends, over at Maisonneuve. You can read the whole thing here.

8/22/2014

to not repeat the struggles is to admit defeat

Having worked hard, we must continue to work hard. To not repeat the struggles is to admit defeat.

This is the rural philosophy. Our past struggles become noble as we move further away from them and to repeat them is to persist: against impossible odds that no one is keeping track of, against snow, against everything. Since we cannot progress, through repetition we become ennobled experts in getting by. Sit quietly in any roadside diner along any small highway in Ontario and you’ll hear people speak proudly of sacrifice and near-failures that are, likely, actual failures. That’s how we survive.

From that struggle comes a deep desire to find meaning and beauty, here in what Purdy calls “the country of our defeat.” Canada’s rural poor (and even some of its rural rich) make condolences to ourselves. Where something must be fought for, failure is an abstract; success is fleeting and seasonal, and so the only true success comes with good, old-fashioned hard work. The pain in our lower back is rewarded by the way the corn looks blowing in a certain warm wind; the furrowing in autumn made worthwhile when we spot a distant smattering of colour in the valleys (and by the whisky stashed away in a drawer in the barn, or kitchen, or desk, or dresser).

- Drew Gough, discussing Al Purdy, the A-frame, and the country north of Belleville in his essay "Looking for Al Purdy" over at Maissoneuve. You can read the whole thing here.

And speaking of Purdy, get ready Vancouver...

8/17/2014

September Dead Poets Lineup Announced

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on September 14th, 2014, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

Don Bailey (1942 - 2003), read by Shannon Rayne
Earle Birney (1904 - 1995), read by Kate Braid
Celia Dropkin (1887 - 1956), read by Faith Jones
Zbigniew Herbert (1924 - 1998), read by Zoe Landale
Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946), read by Kayla Czaga

It should be a fantastic reading. Attendance is free, and the reading will start on time - so don't arrive on "poetry time." You can get more information on the DPRS website.

I hope to see you there!

8/14/2014

great fiction is not written in places where reality is 'far in'

Ngwatilo Mawiyoo: Do you remember [the] story that appeared in the newspapers a few years ago about how a man survived being eaten by a python? I heard about it because the Concerned Kenyan Writers group discussed the story. I think it was Binyavanga who half seriously concluded that it’s no wonder fiction seems irrelevant in Kenya, since reality itself is so far out! With your fiction writer hat on, what do you think is the work or potential of fiction in Kenya?

Billy Kahora: Reality is not only far out in Kenya. It is far out in Mpumalanga, Western Virginia, North New Zealand, Chenai, Chernobyl. Do you know how many people survive being eaten by anacondas in South America?

Great fiction is not written in places where reality is 'far in'. Fiction is written in places where people have a grasp on language (both written and oral) that is highly relevant to the material conditions of the society they live in. It’s written in places that have a storytelling tradition that has internalized that society's culture and economy within the same language(s).

Great fiction happens in places where those languages and storytelling traditions can be streamlined into today's primarily capitalist and modern world, and the publishing offshoots and all the technical processes and mechanisms that come with it.

Stories are a prerequisite of humanity. Whether a society can convert story into a genre, industry, system under its prevailing cultural and economic conditions is what counts in its production of fiction. And Kenya, according to me, struggles in these three conditions to create a serious fiction industry that is sustainable and ongoing. We will continue doing piecemeal things for a while and making excuses as we go along till we address those three primary things.

- Billy Kahora, managing editor of Kenya's leading literary institution, Kwani?, in conversataion with Ngwatilo Mawiyoo over at One Ghana, One Voice. You can read the whole thing here.

8/13/2014

the world out of which poetry first came to me

As Northrop Frye says, many writers compose in such a way that they are filling out a rhythm, one internally heard in advance of the words that will come to comprise it. Such rhythms tend to bubble up out of deep wells. In an interview in the current issue of Canadian Notes & Queries, Michael Harris says that his taste in poetry is in no small measure a function of the Scottish speech- and song-rhythms he absorbed from his father, while young.

I tend to feel that the form of a poem (and when I say ‘a poem,’ I really mean, ‘one of my poems’ — this is a personal, not a general, prescription) should be aurally implicit: a listener should be able to ‘hear’ the shape of a poem, in the absence of any typographical cues. (Not all of my poems work this way, but many of them do.) I suppose this means that I am in some way, at root, an oral poet — for all that I love the look of words on a page, the shapes of letters, words, and stanzas.

And I should say that I am drawn to rhyme and meter for reasons mnemonic as well as aesthetic: I like to make poems that a reader (or the writer) can carry around in her mind — poems that can go back into the world of recitation, out of which, it seems, poetry first came to me.

- Amanda Jernigan, in conversation with Susan Gillis on her Concrete & River blog. You can read the whole thing here.

7/30/2014

there is always someone who can be those things

It's important to me not to make my background or my gender a thing to sell. It's important to me but I don't want it to be sold. I think if you make those things a selling point, you'll be replaced sooner or later. There is always someone who can be those things.

I was once asked to be on a panel for a particular reason and I said no - and they got another writer to replace me who was more willing to please, to sell those things I refuse. Then I saw that the invitation was not about the quality of the work but about the image they wanted to have. I want to be a writer you can't replace and I don't think I can be those things if you sell me on a point someone else can take. When Small Arguments was first published I was young. I like that [my publisher] Beth [Follett] never made it a selling point. That was important to me because I intended to get old.

- Souvankham Thammavongsa, in interview with Quentin Mills-Fenn in the Summer 2014 issue of CV2.

7/29/2014

Kate Braid Interview

I recently interviewed Kate Braid about her poem "I Seem to Have Come to the Start of Something But I Don’t Know What", which appears in PRISM international 52.4. The issue (on which I worked as an Associate Editor) is just hitting bookstands this week.

The interview started with the poem, and then wandered a bit (as these things do). It can be read here:

An Interview with Kate Braid

If you're interested in reading the poem itself, you're going to have to pick up a copy!

6/30/2014

where the world's weirdest people congregate - "Canoodlers" by andrea bennett

There’s a story - andrea bennett
and it happens when I am twelve. There’s the back seat of a car, where my best friend Jane is sitting — I can see her in the rearview. Outside it’s a zoo, according to my mum. Rolling through downtown Hamilton, she says, Some of these people truly belong in cages. She points out the driver’s side window, flicks her fingers at a woman walking. Wouldja look at that, she says, and so I look — crunchy blonde hair, crop top, too-short cut-offs.

Then I say one of those things that emerges from your mouth like a just-born giraffe learning to walk immediately on whatever legs it’s got. It’s just a hop and skip, I say to my mum, between you and her.

In the rearview, a hyena. To my left, a lioness stalking, deciding if now is the time to pounce. That’s the thing, I say to myself. The thing about cages. I get it now.
from Canoodlers
(Nightwood Editions, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.


I've known andrea bennett through her writing for a long time now. Poets of the same age working in the same city tend to bump into one another (and one another's work) every once in a while. Still, we'd only ever exchanged a few words in person. Since lining up this interview, I've gotten to know andrea better through my new job as Poetry Editor at PRISM international, where andrea works as the designer (and where she was once Poetry Editor herself). So my interview with a relative stranger has turned into yet another insider-y interview between colleagues. Bah... you win this round, Jason Guriel!

New Technology #1:
iPhone Mirror Selfie.
None of this, of course, has any relevance to a discussion of andrea's debut poetry collection, Canoodlers (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which is lovely and weird and delightful and sad and sharply written all around. It turns out she answers interview questions with as much skill as she writes poems, and I very much enjoyed our exchange.

andrea has been embracing new technologies of late, as you can see from the two author photos she contributed, so we chatted via hologram (I was Narendra Modi, she was Tupac). Ok, we just emailed each other, but a boy can dream...

Our conversation covered a few of andrea's preoccupations: prose poems, Florida, food, and keeping it real. Jar-sharks, crocodile backscratchers and James Frey all make cameos. And andrea makes "a confession a poet probably shouldn't make" in her opening reply. What more could you want from us, people? Right, holograms. Next time, I promise. Until then: get reading!

New Technology #2: Obama Spy Drone.
Taken as andrea forded a creek in Utah.

Rob: The majority of the poems in Canoodlers are prose poems - to the point where I was a bit thrown off each time I encountered a line break. What is it about prose poems that you are drawn to? When writing do you find you have a default style/shape that all your poems start in (i.e. everything starts as a prose poem, but some change, or?), and if so, has that default changed over the years?

andrea: I used to write tiny opaque little poems. One of the first poems I ever had published, in The Antigonish Review, was maybe 20 words. I had a habit of writing song poems too, not because I have any musical talent whatsoever, but because I lived for awhile in Guelph, and my friends there were mostly musicians - I used to be very involved with the Kazoo! collective, and I loved those people and that time in my life.

Prose poetry became my metier when I started grad school. This was partially because what I wanted to do with my poetry was capture the rhythm and cadence of the way people spoke in my hometown, and partially because I wanted the interconnections between the words and the images in the poems to be subtle and embedded, rather than polished bright at the beginning or end of a line.

Here's a confession a poet probably shouldn't make: I can't hear metre the way that some people are able to hear metre. It's not a black and white thing to me. I talk funny, slow and clipped, and my family is from England and Jamaica, and I grew up in Hamilton, and to me, the way people speak is so variable that I don't get standard metre. So every time I try to write a sonnet sequence, it ends up morphing into prose poetry. ("A Week in the House of What Repute" started off as a seven-sonnet sequence, for example, and turned into a long prose-poem during the editing process because it worked better, and was easier to edit, that way.) I don't have the gall to fail at formal poetry anywhere past the first draft stage. Occasionally I'll write a poem that works best with line breaks, but I'm never 100% sure about it.


Rob: It's always good to get those big confessions out of the way right off the bat, isn't it? Now we can take a deep breath and move on to the really serious topics, like Florida. Florida plays a prominent role in a number of these poems. What is your personal relationship to the place, and when you think about it now, does it resonate for you more as a symbol/idea, or as a real, tangible place? What does writing about Florida allow you to talk about in your poems, which would otherwise remain inaccessible?

andrea: Just yesterday, my partner Will and I were watching some TV show about people who purchase their own islands, and there was a couple who bought a house on stilts on a small island off Florida for a super-reasonable price - like $400,000 or something. (Living in Vancouver makes that seem like a steal, no?). Will said, when I was visibly excited about mimicking this couple's choices, that there was no way he'd live in a red state. I corrected him: Florida is a swing state. Florida is a wild card. It's a Swiss-cheese sinkhole. It can be a violent, and awful, and racist place - and I personally feel like Disneyworld is the most depressing place on earth - but it is also a place where the world's weirdest people can congregate and feel okay about themselves. Example: the last time I visited my snowbird Nana in Port Charlotte, Florida, I was training for a half-marathon. I went to a gym for my long run and my gym-mates that day included an 80-year-old man in a three-piece suit on a treadmill, a 50-year-old bodybuilder woman with a full-face snake tattoo, and a young man with a rainbow mohawk wearing a vintage weight belt.

My personal relationship to Florida is that my grandparents bought a manufactured house in a gated park for old people in Port Charlotte when I was a kid. My nuclear family did not have a lot of money, but my grandparents did help us fly or drive down to Florida to visit in the winter. My grandparents were a very, very important part of my young life, so being in their home was a reminder for me that I was loved, and that everything would be okay. On top of that, Florida was so different than Ontario - like someone had turned the colour dial up on the TV that was my life. Hot-pink ibises, green crocodiles, turquoise water, trees and vines and creatures everywhere. Giant flea markets. Baby sharks in jars. Crocodile backscratchers. Weird, simultaneous reminders of life and death, just everywhere. I'm not sure, exactly, if that comes through in the poems, but that sums up the practical and symbolic backdrop of the poems set in Florida.

"All you need to know about gators" also deals with a different kind of (in)accessibility. I'm estranged from my mother, and we always had an intense and fraught relationship, and I spent much of the first part of my life just trying to understand who she was. One way I did this was to surreptitiously interrogate my grandparents, when I had them to myself. "All you need to know about gators" takes place after my grandfather passed away; it was probably the last time, and the most straightforward time, I tried to press my Nana for information.


Rob: Yes, that all comes through (though I could have used a few more jar-shark references throughout). Another dominant theme in Canoodlers is food, though it dominates from the periphery. Food and the making of food sneaks in as simile ("You can put your fingers on the feelings // like you can put your fingers into the cake", p. 52), and metaphor ("I am baking, says summer", p. 18), and background noise ("Meanwhile we're watching a marathon special of the celebrity chef cooking show", p. 51), while most often not being the the central theme of the poem. The food that sneaks in is most often of the fast and commercial variety - Waffle Cones and Cracker Jacks and "eating only pizza every meal" (49). All of this seems to align very well with North American food culture, where food is in many ways our obsession, but at the same time is not given due attention or care (and skyrocketing-off go our obesity rates): food is everywhere and nowhere; it's all we care about and it's not worth our time.

Could you speak a bit about the role of food in the book, and its connection with the emotional themes in Canoodlers? Similar to my question about Florida, what did talking about food allow you to get at that you couldn't address directly?

andrea: Appetite, consumption, compulsion, shame, desire - all of these things are wrapped up in food, for me, and food is a way to get at these things sideways. North American food culture is such a complex thing. Quinoa and soy versus Oreo and hot dogs - whether you're a Whole Foods-shopping vegan or a vegetable-eschewing McDonald's eater, you probably can't avoid making some ethically dicey choices, and your choices are also, probably, bound up in your class position. Moreover, we have a tendency to equate food with bodies, in the sense that your body is a physical manifestation of your choices. If you're fat, especially if you're a fat woman, it's hard not to internalize that as some kind of moral failing. The food-themed poems are, I think, a way for me to get at who I am, and where I'm at, and what undercurrents are pulling me out to sea. Sometimes I make the poems first-person plural, or a cheeky second-person, because I think these feelings are somewhat common.



Rob: The back cover of Canoodlers features three blurbs, and two of them make a common observation. Rhea Tregebov suggests the poems in the book "carry an absolute authenticity", while John Paul Fiorentino says "There is an impressive authenticity... in these poems." "Authentic" is not a word I've seen used to describe poetry books too often, and there it is - back to back - on your book jacket!

It got me thinking, what does "authentic" mean? Is it simply a code for "non-fiction", assessed at the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey level? Is it about having a voice that sounds "real," regardless of the subject matter? Or does it necessarily have to be both, the alignment of "truth" and a "real" voice? And then on top of that there is the whole hornets nest of felt truth v. literal truth. My point being: the word confounded me, even while at the same time instinctually feeling accurate in regards to your collection.

I wonder then how you feel when you hear people describe your book as "authentic". What do you interpret it to mean? How do you think telling people your book is "authentic" might affect how it's read and received? Does it matter to you if people think the poems in the book are "true" or not?

andrea: Ooh, all good questions. I wonder if "authentic" has something to do with class? Like some of the poems are quite blunt and straightforward on the surface, and I've consciously incorporated colloquialisms. Maybe that's the "real" voice you're mentioning. Maybe it is a nice way of saying "unsophisticated" :).

The poems in Canoodlers are mostly non-fiction, but they play a little fast and loose in the way that I probably wouldn't in a prose memoir - a few characters are composite characters, a few names have been changed. (Nothing approaching the James Frey variety of truth-stretching.) Most everything in the book comes directly from my life, and I've tried to be honest about myself as a character and a narrator.

I think people approach non-fiction with a different set of expectations than fiction, so in that way I'd prefer that readers have a sense that the events in the poems are "true." I think Fred Wah's Diamond Grill plays with these expectations of truth and autobiography in a super-interesting way, and that book, as well as the film True Stories, were both methods of story-telling I had in mind when I was writing Canoodlers.

When people describe my book as "authentic," I guess, overall, I accept that description. Like oh, okay, if there are a handful of people saying that, then that's a reader reception I should pay some attention to.


Rob: As a younger writer who both has her first book out and is active in the publishing world (through your work with PRISM international, Geist, CWILA and more), you seem to be in a prime position to give younger writers advice about navigating their way to their first book. If you had one piece of advice to give an aspiring young poet about that journey, what would it be? Are there any common pieces of advice out there that you think aren't actually that helpful, or perhaps that have become irrelevant as technology has altered the publishing world?

andrea: Ha ha. I'm turning thirty this year, so I guess I am a youngish writer, but as a human being I'm finally seriously considering a lot of life choice things like marriage and kids and financial responsibility. (I tried out taking on more financial responsibility this year, in the form of owning a car and living in a nice, spacious apartment, and it was not a fit.) That comprises my first point of advice to young writers: prioritize your writing, and understand that that might be somewhat painful on the "life" front: maybe your childhood and university friends will be buying houses, and celebrating career milestones, and you'll be like, "What's a career?" and "How am I scraping rent together next month?"

Maybe you have rich/supportive parents, and all the power to you. Maybe you don't. It's still worth taking the risk. You're a smart person. If the writing thing doesn't work out, you can always take some college classes that focus on concrete skills and insert yourself into some kind of profession where people get health benefits. (Is this depressing? Sorry. I have a friend who is a doctor and a poet. If you can balance a career you love with your poetry-writing, you are amazing!)

I think the journey to a first poetry book is in some ways the same as it has always been: work hard on your writing and find your community. In some ways it's easier now, because you can make friends with writers you admire on Twitter, rather than just reading their work from afar and hoping to maybe run into them at a conference or a festival. Also, it has been helpful for me to be knowledgeable about my field. It has definitely been helpful to be involved with magazines and literary journals - you get to see a side of the process you wouldn't see otherwise, and you get to feel truly connected to publishing. Lastly, introduce yourself to writers whose work you admire in respect, either over email, or in person. Be a little gutsy about it.


Be gutsy. Follow andrea on Twitter. And pick up a copy of Canoodlers from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. You won't be disappointed.