hindered poems

Part of what attracts me to prose is that it’s a very unforgiving medium. It can be easy for a poet to gull reviewers and juries into thinking that he or she is a great talent. But there’s no more effective method for exposing someone’s cliché-ridden thinking than to ask them to write in complete sentences. Prose almost always gives away the poseur; it’s the perfect bullshit-detector... I’m happy that I’ve kept at it and grateful that editors have been willing to publish the results. But it’s come at a cost. For one, I’ve probably written fewer poems (Michael Hofmann describes his own reviews as “hindered poems”). It’s also, at times, infected my trust in poetry’s more mysterious aspects, introducing an unhealthy self-consciousness about my processes. Eugenio Montale had grave doubts about writing criticism, warning it risked shedding “too much light” on poems and robbing them of their secrets.

- Carmine Starnino, on writing poetry criticism, in conversation with Tim Bowling over at CV2. You can read the whole thing here.


a little list

whether the competitive triathlon circuit, the guild of Canadian potters, the Call of Duty or Clash of Clans video-game networks, the fly-fishers club of Alberta, dog breeding and showing associations, the professional rodeo circuit, bird-watching federations, the readers of Dentistry Today, competitive Scrabble, the Canadian literary world...

- Steven Heighton, placing CanLit among its peers, in his essay "Digital Distraction Is Bad for Creativity" in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.


finally prefer silence

[In] 2011, I published a collection of memos and essays on creativity, and in one memo I said... “Truly integrated, enlightened souls may dispense wise advice, but they seldom write interesting fiction or poetry. They don’t need to. The natural medium of the achieved spirit is silence.” To which I added this codicil: “The rest of us talk and write to find our way, and it’s from the rest of us—with divided, conflicted selves—that good poetry and fiction might emerge.”

More and more now, I fantasize about arriving at a place and a time when I can finally prefer silence. Of course, dreams of arrival are never more than figments. Resign yourself to the road, I keep coaching myself, there’s no arriving. To be sure, for those of us who haven’t yet accomplished our life’s work—
nearly all of us—public language, the medium of the clubhouse, remains what we have. And so we go on trying to make sense of our many solitudes, and this layered mess of a world, by deploying words as well as we can.

- Steven Heighton, from his essay "Digital Distraction Is Bad for Creativity" in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.


"Oh Not So Great" Launch Photos

The Vancouver launch of "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project happened last Saturday, and was a great success. Thank you to everyone who came out, and to all the people who hosted, introduced, presented, read and volunteered at the event. And special thanks to Kat Louman-Gardiner for taking these photos!

I've never felt so humbled to be part of such a wide-ranging and vibrant community (of writers and readers, of thinkers and doers).

The crowd, effervescent with anticipation.
Fiona Tinwei Lam opens the evening.
Dr. Alan Bates, President of the BC Psychiatric Association, speaks about depression.
You can read his blurb on the book here.
Dr. Patricia Gabriel introduces the project (and I think,
at this moment, endures some heckling from the wings).
Dr. Josephine Lee speaks about the research project's methodology.
I mime adjusting a tie. Hilarity ensues.
Dr. Carol-Ann Courneya talks about the Heartfelt Images program.
Lucas' second book launch. He's no more certain about it than
the first (though Mom does her best to convince him).

Though I don't currently have any planned, I hope to do more readings from the book in the future - keep an eye on the Readings page of my website for future events.

If you're interested in the book, you can pick up a copy from the Leaf Press website, or through your local bookstore.


visions of country with no people

...it wasn’t criminals who devastated the First Nations. It was priests and teachers and the RCMP and scientists. The virtuous are the scum here. The point of Canadian colonial culture was the extraction and exportation of value, and the destruction of originality. The drive of Canadian colonialism was, first, to pretend that Indigenous people did not exist, and second that, if they existed, they should be made British. Therefore, the best of Canada stole children and starved whole tribes.

The grand evils dribbled down to minor humiliations, as in other countries. I have always wondered why Canadians care so little for their history, why an event like the War of 1812—rich with fascinating characters and heroic incident—should be more or less completely forgotten. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report explains without explaining: When your country is based on taking away First Nations’ history from them, and replacing it with a history from a country thousands of miles away, why wouldn’t you throw out your own history too? The cliché of Canadian art is that it is obsessed with landscape. The TRC report reveals the terrifying why: Canadian landscapes are visions of country with no people.

He suspects that something has happened, a law
been passed, a nightmare ordered. Set apart,
he finds himself, with special haircut and dress,
as on a reservation.

So A.M. Klein described the existence of the Canadian writer in “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape.” Why is our culture so derivative? Why are we so unoriginal? The answer is in the country’s foundational annihilation.

- Stephen Marche, from his essay "CanLit’s Colonial Habit" in Literary Review of Canada. You can read the whole thing here.


One Way or Another: On Don Coles and his Poetry

On January 14th, 2018, I gave a short talk and reading on the life and poetry of Don Coles, as part of a Dead Poets Reading Series event. What follows is an extended version of that talk, with weblinks to the poems read. I hope you enjoy it.


Don Coles (1927 - 2017)
I’ve been a coordinator of the Dead Poets Reading Series since 2011, but I haven’t read here in five years. I’ve wanted to make space for others. But when I heard, in late November of last year, that Don Coles had died in Toronto, at the age of 90, I pulled myself out of retirement. Don Coles’ poetry has meant a great deal to me, and in recent years his friendship did too. I wanted to share both with you today.

Don was an intimidating man, both physically and intellectually. 6’4” (with a reportedly formidable volleyball spike), he was educated by Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye at U of T, receiving an MA in English Literature, then off to Cambridge for a second correspondingly-pond-hopping MA in Canadian Literature, the start of 14 years spent in Europe studying, working and marrying (just once, I should clarify, to his wife, Heidi), before returning to Toronto and a 30 year career teaching Humanities and Creative Writing at York University. On top of that, in the 1980s and 90s he developed a reputation as a demanding (cantankerous?) reviewer of poetry books, a legacy that, he confessed late in his life, he still felt caused certain writers to avoid him at dinner parties.

But, beyond its literary and cultural (and architectural, and historical, and...) references which would often sail over my head, his writing was never standoffish, never intimidating, always welcoming. And the man himself, just the same.

Reading of the poem "Kingdom"

I first contacted Don while I was poetry editor at PRISM international, to arrange publication of his poem “Flying”, which appeared in his final collection A Serious Call – our exchange was warm, but formal and brief. When I received a copy of that book a year later, I sent him an email saying how much I appreciated it, and his writing in general. I wasn’t sure I’d get a reply (how often did an 88-year old check his email?). Instead I quickly received:


how lovely of you! (if that sounds ironic, it is NOT so intended: just happens to be an uncensored rendering of the first four words your letter brought out of me)

And that was Don, the Don I got to know in the in-person and electronic conversations that followed: Bursting with open enthusiasm and anchored by critical self-reflection (he later apologized for his accidental over-indulgence with the two “Rob!”s off the top). A man filled with the best kinds of contradictions. As Richard Sanger put it, in his recent tribute to Don in The Walrus:

Little Bird
Like all writers, he had his contradictions, and they were fruitful: he was a Canadian who seemed to write mostly about Europe, an unabashed elitist who strove to make his poems accessible, an adamant opponent of writing about writing who could be supremely (and sometimes excessively) self-conscious in his own work, a poet who refused to read in public but wrote magnificently for the ear, a master of economy and terseness who in perhaps his greatest poem, the book-length Little Bird (1991), just couldn’t stop talking.

To these lovely contradictions I’ll add that he was a deeply educated and opinionated man who didn’t let any of that stand in the way of simple human friendship, simple human kindness. Richard Sanger spoke of the time he confessed to Don that he’d read neither War and Peace nor Anna Karenina, and Don replied, with envy, “Well, you’ve really got something to look forward to!”

And another contradiction: he had the ear and eye and training of a formalist, but channeled them into superficially “untended” free verse (he spoke once of the need for metre in all poetry, but also of the need for metre to “be obliterated by the arising requirements of the poem, the line”).

Take his poem “Sampling from a Dialogue”, from his 1979 collection Anniversaries, which opens in a way that suggests a Petrarchan sonnet but then, as the poem requires, “falls apart” formally, in keeping with the subject matter.

Reading of the poem "Sampling from a Dialogue"

Me, at the reading, itemizing
Don's books (it took a while)
When I met Don he was the author of sixteen books: ten poetry collections (including 1993 Governor General’s Award Winner Forests Of the Medieval World and 2000 Trillium Prize winner Kurgan). He had also published two new and selecteds (one in the UK, one in Canada), one “Essential” poems, edited by Robyn Sarah, a book of translations of the Swedish poet (and later Nobel Laureate) Thomas Tranströmer, a novel, Dr. Bloom’s Story, and a collection of essays and reviews, A Dropped Glove in Regent Street: An Autobiography by Other Means. I had two books, one only just released. But he treated me as a peer, and read and replied to my books in short, attentive notes which I will treasure for the rest of my life.

My short, attentive note on his books: in Don Coles’ best writing I find three predominate themes – childhood, literature, and loss, all three meeting in a sense of nostalgia (all children become adults, all books are fixed in a moment while the world moves on, and yet both return and return to us, in memories and re-readings). In a 2002 interview in Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation, Stephanie Bolster offered the expressions “Nostalgia for the present” and “presentiment of loss” to describe this preoccupation. Don replied:

[Those] are both good (without being identical they are very similar) and I find myself easily in either. Both, of course, are seamlessly linked to memory. The feeling, this “nostalgia” or “presentiment of loss,” can be overpowering, even paralyzing: at its most positive, though, it’s as close to the centre and source of art, of poetry, as anything. That’s not strong enough: it is, for me, the principal source of poetry, and poetic temperament. One can be struck by its power in obvious ways, e.g. watching one’s child in a particularly moving moment, knowing that this child is even now growing away from this moment – also, though, in less obvious ways, in any moment at all in which the thought of transience occurs to one. And it’s entirely clear to me that the power would be either less or altogether absent were “time,” its passing, not an essential part of it, of this image one is watching. It can seem intolerable that it will not endure, the physical, living, reality and beauty of this moment (“Stay stay, thou are so fair!” as Faust cries out). If this unendurable feeling is indeed what I’m calling it, i.e. “unendurable,” then I must do something about it or else, I suppose, in one sense or another, metaphorically or literally, die. That’s no overstatement (I do say “metaphorically”!).

Here are three of my favourite poems on these themes:

Reading of the poem "Somewhere Far From This Comfort"
Reading of the poem "Flying"
Reading of the poem "My Death As The Wren Library"

Death as books, books as life. The power of one or two words to mean just about everything (the moon among all the faces), even after the author is gone. In a 2012 interview with Evan Jones, Don said:

I asked myself how much it mattered to me that I had never met Albert Camus, never heard him read, never had the chance to tell him how, on my first reading of a remembered page of the first of his books (L’Etranger, a thin book which, for its clarity and its swiftness and also for its thinness was carried about in my back pocket for most of a Paris summer long ago, the first summer of the book’s life and the twentieth of mine), two sentences moved out of their paragraph and gave me a minute or so’s feeling of something I had no experience of and no definition for but knew was special, knew that the two sentences had halted the usual haphazard running of the film of my life and was now letting me know, or guess, or half-understand, with a sort of, possibly (the word I’m choosing to use next here could ruin all this, I know, but try not to let it do that), wonder, that two average-length sentences could do this, that I was now in an unusual mind-state which these sentences had, without a syllable of warning, effected, achieved, for me. I was, I think, startled that this was a thing you could do, that the little echoes that these words were mutually and perfectly offering and receiving inside their lines could do this. But that’s all it was. It was the words, the lines, the little thin book. It wasn’t the man, it was what he had in a special hour, or in twenty tries over two weeks, made.

A Serious Call
A noteworthy element of Don Coles’ writing life is how late he started publishing: his first book came out at 48 (though I should note he was writing before that. In 1993 in The Globe and Mail he described his writing in his 30s as “Wordy and ornate. But I stripped it down and got rid of that. The best craft is transparent.”) He made up for that fallow period by writing poetry of an incredibly high quality until his death. His last poem in his last book, the long title poem in A Serious Call (most of his books had one or more long poems, often at the end), was a return to his major themes: youth, loss, literature. This time a memoir-in-verse to a good friend, John Rolph, with whom he’d worked, as a young man, at Grattan’s bookshop in London. The poem opens with an anecdote about Pushkin:

Dying on a couch in his study after being
shot in a duel, Pushkin was asked if he
wanted to say goodbye to his closest
friends. He looked around at his books
and said, ‘Goodbye, friends.’

And twenty pleasurably-wandering pages later, including a digression to discuss William Law's 1728 publication A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the poem closes like this:

Later John Rolph was to move, with his wife and two sons,
to the North Sea town of Lowestoft, where he opened
an antiquarian-book business and, near the end of his life,
developed an interest which involved him in devoting, as he
wrote to me to explain, a few minutes' calm and untroubled
thought at the start of each day directed towards
one or another of a small number of friends, among whom,
me. Such a thought was not a prayer, he explained;
and, clearly not content with this, added that he himself was
'never a pray-er'. That note ended with him
expressing the hope that one day someone might find
a name for what this non-praying, prayer-less, thought

My most recent and, obviously, last note to him, sent
two years and two months ago, was answered by
his widow. I'd written to ask how, with regard to the title
which he had not, so far, found for that early-morning
thought concerning chosen friends, he would feel about
'a call'.

It wouldn't have to be serious, that call, I'd said.
Or it could be. Whatever he decided (was what I wrote)
I'd probably get to know about it, one way or another.


transcends the definitions that would confine it

In the high school I attended, the English curriculum covered only traditional poets, mostly people who’d died a century earlier, the poetry rhymed, highly stylized, rigid—poetry that, for me, had meaning only in an historical sense. In college, those same poets popped up again, but, thankfully, the works of a few contemporary poets were included as well. That’s when I discovered Nikki Giovanni, Randall Jerrell, Robison Jeffers, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, and, most important for me, Raymond Carver. Their work demonstrates that a poem should be, above all else, a vehicle to reach, entertain, challenge, console, and arouse its audience, that it shouldn’t be highbrow, pretentious nonsense (though such poetry has its place if only to torment high school literature students), that it doesn’t have to be the darling of academia or the folks down at the poetry slam to be important. Poetry, I believe, should be a construct that transcends the definitions that would confine it.

- C.S. Fuqua, in interview over at The Maynard. You can read the whole thing here.


the poet themselves

When I think of my ideal poems I think of my favourite poems and I’m not sure I could pin point specific characteristics. There is a mixture of maturity, of purposeful language, of emotional intelligence, of confession, of the poet themselves that makes a poem spark.

- Adrienne Gruber, in interview over at The Maynard. You can read the whole thing here.


a roll of nickels year in review

This here blog turned 11 in 2017 and it's now a full-blown tween. Moody and unpredictable, it can't even get its year-in-review post finished before the year's end. Still, here are the Roll of Nickels highlights from the (generally awful beyond the poetry) year that was!

January 2017: sincerity, music, risk - An Interview with Tim Bowling

"Aren’t we all insiders and outsiders, attracted and repelled by the world?" - Tim Bowling

April 2017: BC Poetry 2017

Year Two of the BC Poetry series saw 21 participating presses and 31 profiled books. My hope is to grow this even further in 2018!

May 2017: Nora Gould's Letter to a Young Mother

"There was never time for writing until I decided to do it then I fit it in and worked." - Nora Gould

September 2017: The If Borderlands: Reflections on the Poems of Elise Partridge

Not technically a Roll of Nickels post, as it ran over at PRISM international, but very much in the spirit of this blog, which has celebrated Partridge a great deal.

October 2017: between nostalgia and mainstream unease - An Interview with Chris Banks

"Perhaps you can’t live there, but you can see through to the strange terrain of the past even if the present moment bars the way." - Chris Banks

October 2017: throwing a little light on it - An Interview with Patricia Young

"The “big” subjects can sometimes be best explored when a little levity is introduced." - Patricia Young

November 2017: collapsed into something coherent - An Interview with Chimwemwe Undi

"This is something I see here in Canada: an attempt to decolonize without unmaking the colony...”" - Chimwemwe Undi

Most of the rest of the year was reading announcements and poetry quotes, quotes, quotes. I added 29 new ones this year, bringing the running total well past 400, with 500 in my sights in 2018. You can read all the quotes on poetry posted on this site here, or pick them out by individual author on the sidebar over there ----->

Oh, and in 2017 I also somewhat unexpectedly published a book, submitting it as a chapbook to Leaf Press in January only to have it come out as a full-length trade book in November! I'll be launching it on January 20th, if you're in Vancouver.

Thanks once again this year to PRISM international for simultaneously posting my interviews on their site. I hope to bring more interviews, and book profiles, and quotes your way in 2018, if the world isn't submerged in nuclear fire.

Happy New Year, all!


a decontamination process

I believe some poets begin from a position where they take language as a given. Others, like myself, have a profound distrust of language. This may seem like an extremely odd position—it’s like an artist distrusting colour, a sculptor distrusting stone, or a musician distrusting sound. With one difference. Neither the painter nor the sculptor nor the musician needs his medium to function on a daily basis. We all need words and language to function. We are told it is what makes us human. But in its day-to-day use this very language is very much devalued coinage. This is the same medium that is used to sell us goods we don’t want and, through political half-truths and lies, to convince us that what we know to be the truth is not really the truth. In general one of the most insidious uses of language is to separate us from a sense of integrity and wholeness. Essentially what I’m saying is that the potential seductiveness of language is dangerous. I believe many of those poets who are described as language poets begin from this premise. But for me there is another layer of distrust—historical distrust, if you will. After all, this was a language that the European forced upon the African in the New World. So that the exploitative plantation machine could be more efficiently run. It was a language of commands, orders, punishments. This language—english in my case, but it applies to all the languages of those European countries involved in the colonialist project—was never intended or developed with me or my kind in mind. It spoke of my non-being. It encapsulated my chattel status. And irony of all ironies, it is the only language in which I can now function. And therein lies the conundrum—“english is my mother tongue,” but it is also “my father tongue” (She Tries her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks). I begin from a position of extreme distrust of language and do not believe that english—or any European language, for that matter—can truly speak our truths without the language in question being put through some sort of transformative process. A decontaminating process is probably more accurate, since a language as deeply implicated in imperialism as english has been cannot but be contaminated by such a history and experience.

- M. NourbeSe Philip, from her book Blank: Essays and Interviews by M. NourbeSe Philip, as excerpted over at Lemonhound. You can read the whole thing here.