desk blog count: double-digit edition!

Yes, my friends, a tenth desk blog has been found!

I was very tempted to name Canadian Poets Petting Cats as the tenth, but as someone who's tried to write on a good number of cats, I can tell you that it's wholly impractical.

It was a tough decision to leave the cats off the list but ultimately my restraint and patience paid off. For only a couple weeks later Sheniz Janmohamed has taken up a desk blogging project as part of her Writer-in-Residency over at Open Book Toronto (yes, if you're keeping track at home, that's two different desk blogging projects at OBT - the other being "At the Desk").

The new series, which will be running through this week, is called "On The Writer's Desk". You can read the first post, in which Janmohamed writes about her own desk, here, and you can follow her future posts on other authors' desks via her Writer-in-Residency main page.

I'm still not entirely clear about how this series will differentiate itself from OBT's "At the Desk". Still, I'm not overly concerned about that. If this desk blog counting project celebrates anything, after all, it's redundancy! Oh, and desks!

Here's the big double-digit list of desk blogs:

At The Desk

Writers' Rooms (VIWF)

Good Places to Write

On The Writer's Desk

For the second time this year I find myself moving the goalposts on this little project. Let's aim for twelve desk blogs by the end of 2012, ok team?

Fan out, Deskblogmaniacs!


the four subjects of poetry

1. I went out into the woods today, and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.

2. We're not getting any younger.

3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.

4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent, and on what we know not what.

- William Matthews.

Thanks to the Poetry off the Shelf podcast for pointing this out. You can listen to their whole podcast on William Matthews here.


an article of faith

I have a story. I was once in a bar with Don McKay. This sounds like a repurposed Al Purdy story, but it isn’t. Don was my teacher, and I was a graduate student at Western; the bar was an ersatz English pub called Chaucer’s, in London, Ontario. This was a while ago, at a point in my life when I know I was consistently trying too hard. I was trying to impress Don by telling him spiffy things about poetry, and he was politely listening to whatever it was I was saying. I somehow got on to Dylan Thomas, about whom I knew Don had written. I thought I might impress him with my newfound graduate student dismissiveness, which I believed he might take for a sign of burgeoning critical acumen. I made some offhand remark about “all that Dylan Thomas shit.” I actually meant it as a kind of complement to Thomas, in a sort of punk-jazz streetwise argot, which for some reason utterly lost on me now I thought seemed appropriate. Now that I reiterate it, though, it’s more or less just plain shameful, but that’s pretty much how I said it. And as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I had miscalculated. So. Don set his beer down, gently, and, still looking at his glass, said calmly, “Well, I wouldn’t say that.” At that moment, I think I learned two important things. First, you shouldn’t pretend to say things you don’t mean. And, second, the poets I admire take poetry, all poetry, seriously. It’s something like an article of faith to them. (I want to say, to us. But I can`t quite.) Those poets tend to mean what they say.

- Kevin McNeilly, from his presentation at last year's V125 Poetry Conference. You can read the whole thing, which McNeilly has posted on his Frank Styles blog, here.


new knowing - "I see my love more clearly from a distance" BC Book Tour

Thank you for Seed Catalogue - Nora Gould

With Robert Kroetsch, and Roger Tory
Peterson, and Vance Jowsey and McLean’s
revised and expanded Wild Flowers Across
the Prairies, and Poisonous Plants Agdex 666-2,
you could grasp the prairies, almost, ok you couldn’t,
but they could remind you if you knew,
if you were, through it all, still, gazing
at three flowered avens, still startled by Horned Larks.

Art Spencer, Special Areas man, knew, not book knowing,
first pussywillows, spots to pick saskatoons,
chokecherries, knew the grasses, old school sites,
teepee rings, buffalo wallows. Art could key any plant.

He’s dead now, the knowing in fragments.
Men, who think they’re familiar
with what they think is theirs,
figure they can school Prairie with a D9 cat, push
the Great Horned Owls to other land.

Jim ran broncs all over the prairie. He knew
some, a different knowing: catch-colts and grass,
knew not to get a phone. He’s in the home now, gone
soon enough, the knowing locked up.

Knowing the locked in sameness, weather
socked in, drizzling mud, impossible
that it will ever end. It doesn’t.
Neither does the drought, cold, heat,
like working cattle at the chute, more cows
in the pen, one more in the alleyway, one
jumping, smashing the top poles of the corral.

Farley works the back, has a flow
of cows ready for us to vaccinate, preg
check. He’s always playing basketball,
new knowing, the kid’s growing
his own. Moves with his horse, jumps, intercepts
a pass, drives for the basket, runs his haybine,
changes sections, guards. He knows the rock
piles, the fences, the low spots, the roads. He knows
years of drought, grasshoppers, the runoff
of heavy rain. He knows his .22, picks off gophers
at thirty yards without a scope, leaves them
for migrating eagles. His telephoto lens ready to shoot.
from I see my love more clearly from a distance
(Brick Books, 2012).
Reprinted with permission.

Back in 2009 I headed off to Lumsden, Saskatchewan to attend the Sage Hill Writing Experience. When we first arrived, all of the participants were gathered together in the sitting area for a general introduction at which we were informed that one participant, arriving soon, was very allergic to perfumes - so please could everyone tone it down on the aftershave in the morning. We all wondered over who this mystery woman might be. Immediately an image of a small, quiet, fragile person popped into my head. Later in the day I met Nora Gould - small and quiet, yes, but once I got talking to her, I quickly realised that the "fragile" part was way off.

A rancher and veterinarian from Consort, Alberta, Nora's world was completely different from (and more physically demanding than) my own. And yet we hit it off, in part because of how easily and thoughtfully she could speak about her life and make it seem relatable to me, and in part because of the incredible poems she was writing.

Since leaving Sage Hill, I've had the great pleasure of watching Nora achieve success as a writer. In 2009 she won the Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award, and earlier this year Brick Books published her first collection of poems, I see my love more clearly from a distance. Of course, all of that is just noise that you say in an interview introduction. Nora's real successes are the poems - beautiful, often haunting, explorations of love, family, the natural world, and the rules and machinery through which we try to harness them.

You know those books which, when you finish them, you sit there motionless for ten or fifteen minutes trying to take it all in? Those books which leave you exhausted, happy, curious and ready to start reading them a second time? Such books come along rarely for me, but I see my love more clearly from a distance is one of them.

Nora is coming to Vancouver next week as part of a mini BC Book Tour (Vancouver, New Westminster, Burnaby, Victoria) in support of I see my love. I cannot encourage you enough to take the time to listen to her read at (at least) one of these events. The dates:

TWS Reading Series
Friday, July 13th, 7:00 - 9:00 PM
Take 5 Café
429 Granville St., Vancouver
Featuring: Nora Gould, Bernice Lever, Ben Nuttall-Smith, and more!

Poetic Justice Reading Series
Sunday, July 15th, 3:00 - 5:00 PM
Heritage Grill
447 Columbia Street, New Westminster
Featuring: Nora Gould

Spoken Ink Reading Series
Tuesday, July 17th, 8:00 PM
La Fontana Caffe
101 – 3701 East Hastings, Burnaby
Featuring: Nora Gould

Planet Earth Reading Series
Friday, July 20th, 7:30 PM
The Moka House
103 - 1633 Hillside Avenue, Victoria
Featuring: Nora Gould, Emily McGiffin

In anticipation of her tour, Nora and I conducted a short e-interview. In our exchange we talked about naming (of both cattle and poems), the trepidation that comes with writing autobiographically, and the axle (or "axe") around which her book revolves. The result can be read below - I hope you enjoy!

Nora Gould, waiting patiently for me to get to my point
Photo © Danielle Schaub

Rob: I see my love more clearly from a distance is populated with animals and plants and machines and facts and rules of ranching life (and the industrial and medical sciences that support them). Added on top of that are your observations, as a veterinarian, of both farm animals and the wildlife of east central Alberta. In other words, there are a lot of things to "know about" in this book. This is well demonstrated by a poem like "Thank you for Seed Catalogue", which further adds a layer of literary knowledge with its loving nod to Robert Kroetsch. And yet, for all those (often unfamiliar) names and terms, the knowing that seems most important in I see my love is not a string of facts but a way of being and looking, a state of mind. And that state of mind seems to me to be very much attached to the landscape of east central Alberta, and the ranch - to the taking in of a wide expanse of space and dwelling in that place until you begin to see all of the things, both beautiful and ugly, that occupy that "emptiness". Does any of that ring true to you?

Nora: My “way of being and looking, (my) state of mind”, is certainly informed by this landscape. And I live here with the eyes of an outsider, having moved here in 1984, expecting to stay only a year or two at most.

Rob: Often when I read a book of poetry, I find one poem presents itself as an ideological center for the book - a poem in which the intellectual or stylistic concerns of the book (or of the author at the time of composition, if it is a more general collection) are made most clear. I don't mean here the emotional peak of the book (which your book reaches, for me, and with great effect, in "Let me rub your hands with pumice"), but instead the point at which the idea or question about poetry (and the world) that runs as an undercurrent throughout the book is made most clear. That one poem (or perhaps small series of poems) is the axle around which the rest of the book revolves. Would you say I see my love includes such a poem or poems? If so, which one(s)? How do you feel about my assertion, more or less mapped out in my first questions, that "Thank you for Seed Catalogue" might be that poem?

Nora: I’d have to agree that "Thank you for Seed Catalogue" covers quite a bit of ground. A particular point that interests me in this poem is that in 20-odd years, Farley (as he represents his generation) has experienced the extremes of drought, rainfall, and grasshoppers that it has taken his father over 60 years to see. The one extreme he hasn’t seen is snowfall although he slugged through eighteen straight hours of a particularly difficult spring snowstorm, working to feed our cattle and help our neighbours who were calving.

As for a poem that might be the axle around which the book revolves, I’d suggest “The jars are translucent blue, the lids glass with zinc rings”.

Rob: Oh yes, excellent pick. "The jars..." is a powerful poem, both sweeping in scope and deeply intimate. And that axe in the middle of the poem, whose flight path must always be monitored in case the head comes loose - that's certainly seems like the axe the book revolves around, if not the axle.

Speaking of the collection more generally, does I see my love contain the bulk of your best writing to date, or does it represent a particular thematic sub-set of your work? What I mean is, is your book a collection of your best individual poems, or a thematically-connected suite of poems, or something in the middle? Would you consider it to be a memoir?

Nora: I have been working almost exclusively on this collection, so yes, this is a thematically-connected suite (you can call it one long poem with subtitles if you want) and it is (I hope) my best writing to date. To me, it’s an exploration, not a memoir.

Rob: My suggested retitling for the second edition: I see my love more clearly from a distance: an exploration with subtitles.

Regardless of whether the book is an "exploration" or a memoir, most of the poems in the book are, or at least seem, deeply personal, and many deal with difficult subjects. Did you have any trepidation in publishing this book about how members of your family, or your community, might respond to it? How has their reception compared to your expectations?

Nora: Yes and no.

My immediate family had the opportunity to read the manuscript before I submitted it. Charl corrected the capacity of the tanks in the back of the Chev grain truck and other than that, his comment was you tell it like it is. None of the kids expressed any concerns.

Dave read his poem, corrected a detail in terminology and otherwise approved.

Matt (of the yellow tulips) gave the poem about Irving, his father, the nod.

I don’t know if my siblings have read the book but I doubt if it would concern them much. I don’t know what Charl’s extended family thinks.

I certainly felt trepidation about launching my book in Consort; I didn’t know what to expect but people attended and were supportive which I appreciate. A few people have taken the time to tell me that they read the book and related to it. Several have expressed surprise that I write poetry and wonder how I find the time.

Rob: I see my love delves into the mechanization of ranch life, including the ways in which animals are turned into numbers (the poem "Poplars were the shell, we the blood on the slough" stands out particularly for me in this regard). I wonder how this process of turning animals to numbers affects how you think about the animals, and through that how you think about names in general, and the process of naming things (in poems and elsewhere)?

Nora: I hadn’t thought of our numbering system as “turning animals into numbers”. Each cow is individually identified and the first digit of her number indicates her age: the heifers having their first calf this year were born in 2010 so their numbers all start with zero. Next year, the heifers’ numbers will all start with one.

I would hope that "Poplars were the shell, we the blood on the slough" would demonstrate that we look after our livestock, keep track of each animal. Yes, there are some slip ups in the bookkeeping and not everything is in the record book as it should be. Calving season is incredibly busy and the long hours are tiring; the cows calve in June on pasture so they have space to be off by themselves.

While every cow has a number, many numbers conjure up a particular image. Nine sixty (aka Star) is an affectionate black cow with a small offset star and a white patch on her flank. I raised her on the bottle; her mother abandoned her, chose her twin sister. Lots of cows have nicknames: Twinkletoes, Bunty, Lily, Onions. And Ovid, born on a Wednesday of course.

One other thing. If I see a black cow walking the fence with her tail out, and I give her an hour then go back and see a black cow that has successfully calved, I better be sure that’s the same cow I was looking at before. A number can sure help with that.

And yes, I refer to dead cows. If you have livestock, you have deadstock. That was a bad run, losing three cows, but it happens. We have years when we don’t have any cows die but that was a tough year.

There’s a business side too so stats are necessary. If a cow raises poor calves, we can’t afford to keep her.

You might notice that although the land is all officially numbered, we call each piece by name: “Our place is medium-sized: the school board / deals with sparsity and distance issues”.

You ask about names and naming. I think that naming expresses concern and thoughtfulness (positive or otherwise) about whom / what is being named. Spottay (trying to spell that the way I speak it) might seem more caring to some, but one oh two gives me the same image of a black and white pinto cow, overwhelming in her motherliness. I recall that while Bronwen held her calf for me to tag, one oh two proceeded to groom them both, giving Bronwen’s hair a good going over with her tongue.

Rob: How did you find the experience of working with your editor, Jan Zwicky? In what ways did she influence the final product of the book? Did she have any input on the book's sequencing (which I found to be very effective, and often quite powerful)?

Nora: Jan Zwicky was stunningly patient with me.

She made suggestions about the overall arc of the sequencing, but allowed me lots of space to determine which poems rubbed up against, informed, each other.

A main area of influence was in her suggestions to re-write poems. I did. She also asked if there was another poem and indeed there was. I am thankful for that nudge.

Rob: Before we go, I have to ask you about your titles. They are often long and descriptive ("The calf placed in front, off to the side in case the cow staggers" or "In this dearth some pack a .22 in their calving kit"), reminding me of the Billy Collins poem "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poetry of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles". Many of these long titles, though, seem to have only a tangential connection with the poem itself, as if a metaphoric leap occurs between the title and the first line. I was wondering how you came to title your poems like this. Has this been your style from the start? If not, how/why did you come to it? Did it start with a few poems titled in this way, after which you extended the style to other poems to add some coherence to the book?

Nora: Barbara Klar (Banff Wired Writing Studio) insisted that I entitle my poems. I had no interest in picking out a phrase or word from the poem to use as a title. (Might as well just give them a number, eh?) When Barbara insisted, I decided to try looking at poems from a slightly different angle in order to find titles that worked for me. So yes, I went back and wrote titles, and continued writing titles as I went forward. I didn’t deliberately make them long, some of them just turned out that way.

I see my love more clearly from a distance can be purchased online from the Brick Books website (or from the usual suspects), or can be bought in person at any of Nora's four upcoming BC readings.


Dead Poets Reading Series - This Sunday!

The next Dead Poets reading is coming up this weekend. It looks to be an excellent reading! Sadly, I will be out of town, but I'm sure Diane Tucker will run the show expertly, as she always does. The lineup:

Ted Hughes (1930 - 1998), read by Kate Braid
Octavio Paz (1914 - 1998), read by George McWhirter
Wisława Szymborska (1923 - 2012), read by Daniela Elza
Alden Nowlan (1933 - 1983), read by Ken Klonsky
Bronwen Wallace (1945 - 1989), read by Hal Wake

Daniela Elza has blogged a bit about the reading and her poet (Wisława Szymborska). You can read that here.

If any of that has piqued your interest, here are the essential details:

Dead Poets Reading Series
Sunday, July 8th, 3 - 5 PM
Project Space
222 East Georgia Street, Vancouver
By Donation
Facebook Event Page

I hope you can make it out, and please do help in spreading the word!


a long walk in the dark

I think that most poets labor joyously a long time to learn the language, to hear it, to speak it, to write it. It is also important to read poetry for me, to see how other men and women have used language during their time on earth. Beyond that process, which goes on all the time, there is simply a long walk in the dark - and the sweet electrical moment in which a fresh poem occurs. Though this may be the same poem that has occured through the ages. It may even be the same moment, friends.

- Larry Levis' "Coda: A Word to the Wicked", originally published in Rolling Stone in 1973, and republished posthumously in Levis' The Gazer Within.



Somewhere in the busyness of preparing for my trip to Poland (which I've recently arrived back from), I forgot to mention here that another crazy book dream of mine had been achieved: a poem from TOSOO was "found" by Geist!

"The Slave Castle of Elmina", one of my two poems from Ghana in TOSOO, was republished in the "findings" section of the Spring 2012 issue. They even got a mention in there for One Ghana, One Voice. Thanks, Geist - and thanks to The Antigonish Review for originally publishing the poem way back in 2008!


they make poetry harmless

What interests me here is a deeper poetics, one that tries to grasp what happens at the moment of writing itself—not a discussion that indulges in prolonging what Marvin Bell has called the pointless “dualisms” of form versus content; nor a poetics that praises one kind of poem as organic while denouncing another as artificial. Ultimately, the trouble with such classroom determinations is that they do reduce poetry to technique, to something stripped of vision, something which gives the illusion of being soluble through either/or choices; they make poetry harmless. And in doing so, they lie. We all know that poetry had better come, if not “as naturally as Leaves to the Tree,” then at least with something more alive and luminous than a servile, cynic’s technique. We know that a poem made to order from theory is slave labor, just as we also know that a poem, any poem, is artificial in one huge respect—if only because, as Eliot’s character so famously complained: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”

- Larry Levis, from his essay "Some Notes on the Gazer Within", originally published in Field in 1986, and republished posthumously in Levis' The Gazer Within.