between wanting and not having - "This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For" by Al Rempel

Have a Bath - Al Rempel

anxiety fills up the bathtub. in the water-throated gurgle,
children’s voices — something’s wrong for sure —
it all starts with what if and ends up with someone dead.
the same kind of worry
as a paring knife buried under soap suds.
we put our hand in tentatively, over and again, 
this searching out of the unwanted. 
what isn’t a question of risk management? we send
our children off in automobiles and buses.
one minute, their smiles bobbing in the window —
but we mustn’t think of it, mustn’t imagine
gasoline tankers or ditches. we’re not sure
how much reality we make with our minds.
turn off the water. listen carefully. see?
it’s safe for now. a delicious inch of hot water on top
to stir in the suds. fingertip the black plastic handle,
draw the knife out, blade dripping. with the tip
puncture bubble after bubble. wait for the phone to ring
from This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For
(Caitlin Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Al Rempel, framed.
Photo Credit: Jayson Hencheroff
Though I've only met Prince George poet Al Rempel once, briefly, I've known him through his work for quite some time. I was introduced to Al's writing first in Rocksalt: An Anthology of BC Poetry (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2008) and then in the subsequent Mother Tongue anthology 4 Poets (2009). Al's first full collection of poems, Understories, came out in 2010 from Caitlin Press. In all three books, Al's poems stood out for their clarity of language and depth of meaning (or, as Sharon Thesen put it in her back-cover blurb, for his "spare, unpreachy, and premonitory lyrics").

Despite the quality of his work, I suspect few people outside of BC knew much about Al (in part because of his choice to publish with small, local BC presses). That slowly started to change in 2011 with the inclusion of one of his poems, "We Like Bananas" in The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology 2011 [you can read the poem, in a Word Document, here]. Since then, the poem has proved very popular (by poetry standards, in case that needs to be emphasised). It has been highlighted as a "stand out" of the anthology in the Winnipeg Free Press, and my link to it last year has been lighting up my Stat Tracker ever since. I also had the rather humbling experience of reading it at the Vancouver launch of BCP 2011 and receiving a better response than I've ever gotten for any of my own poems.

So I was excited to get my hands on Al's new collection, This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For (Caitlin Press, 2013), which features "We Love Bananas", to see if it was the exception or the rule. It turns out it was both. In terms of phallic innuendo it was a bit of an outlier, but in its sharpness of language and line, and its way of subtly unsettling you, it was right at home. This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For is entertaining, disquieting and (and this isn't a word I use often to describe poetry books) persuasive in its considerations of the apocalypse of stuff that we have unleashed upon the world, and upon ourselves.

I e-sat down with Al earlier this month and discussed our oncoming apocalypse, hoarders, garbage islands, list poems, and other such cheery subjects. It was much more fun than I just made it sound. No, really. And don't take my word for it - Al says as much at the end. Take a read, and I hope you find that you agree with us!

Rob:This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For is obviously a themed book - it's no random assortment of poems. Could you discuss the themes that came together to create the particular "Apocalypse" your book explores?

Al: One of the threads running through this book is our consumption and the anxiety it produces, that is, the "apocalypse" we’ve created — not the Hollywood, 3D version — isn’t healthy for us, and it’s coming out of our pores as anxiety and stress and accumulation, and this is obvious in everything from the garbage island in the North Pacific to our driving to our food culture, with its fast food joints and out of season imported fruits (like bananas). I’m glad you chose to feature the poem, “Have a Bath”, because it captures something of the personal anxiety we face in our everyday lives, in this instance, simply by being a parent.

The other two threads in my book deal with 1) our desire to find belonging and meaning in this world, either through a lover, a home, or in a spiritual journey, and 2) a wrestling with our own mortality and limitations.

Rob: I found This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For to be outwardly focused. Instead of plumbing the depths of personal emotion, it's looking out at the world. Where human complexity is explored, it is usually done through an examination of external forces - the natural world we inhabit, the mechanical world we construct, and the commercial "stuff" we fill our lives with. When humans are considered it is usually as part of a wider landscape, or as a collective of people ("we" is a dominant pronoun in the book). This seems to be done intentionally as a reminder of how peripheral we are in the world, both collectively as a species and as individuals. We don't run the show. We may hope for a certain type of apocalypse, but it isn't the one we're going to get.

Does any of this ring true to you? If so, was it a conscious effort for you and/or your editor to focus the collection on these types of poems?

Al: Well, I deliberately chose to use ‘we’ for a lot of the poems, since I’m part of the community. I’m not the poet standing on the outside pointing my finger saying “you you you – you gotta clean this mess up”, I’m the poet that ducks into McDonalds because I’m running late and my daughter is hungry. I’m the poet that looks around at my house wondering how did we manage to accumulate this much stuff and where in the world will I put it? Sometimes this requires a ‘we’ and sometimes an ‘I’, but either way, I’m implicated. And while a large part of it seems out of our control, we are the ones who created the mess, who decided we want bananas anytime of the year, or oranges, or carrots. We’re the ones who thought, “Since we’re driving around in cars so much, we should be able to pick up food at a window and scarf it down in less than 5 minutes, and why not do our banking and dry cleaning that way too?”

Rob: Considering this theme of collective and personal responsibility for the world's problems, your choice of the closing poem for the book is quite striking. "On the Porch" is a rather conventional love lyric, which closes

if I can find you here
then what's outside
won't even matter

This seems to challenge the position argued by the rest of the collection. Or refocus it somewhat, at least. Could you speak a bit about why you chose to end the book with this poem?

Al: Here the 3 threads I discussed earlier — our anxiety borne out the world we’ve constructed, our angst over our own eventual death, and our desire to belong — meet and collide. Of course, we’ll never get to a point where “what’s outside / won’t even matter”. These are the words of a poet who wants it, who desires it, even if for a moment, or a night — but knows it’s not ultimately possible. We are caught between longing and reality, between wanting and not having.

Rob: A few of these poems, such as "Bring Me My Sky Canoe" and "Blind Bird", seem very connected to First Nations spirituality and myths. How has First Nations culture influenced your writing?

Al: I have been fascinated with the cultures and stories of First Nations right from very young. One of the things their teachings offer is how to live on this land/earth, and I believe it’s critical we listen closely, before we completely sever our own connection to the land. In “Table Setting for Six” there’s a line “we’ll get up from our places unable/ to remember why we were here”, and I mean that in a very deep way – if we forget why we are here on this earth, if we destroy the land under our feet that feeds us, then we will cease to exist. But it’s important that we don’t just take their stories and use them the way we want. There has to be respect. We are a long way off from a true conversation of cultures, where we all sit around the same circle. I hope that changes soon, before people lose their language, their land, and their ways of being.

"Bring Me My Sky Canoe" is, in part, about that journey, and it was carved into a Coleman canoe by the sculptor Phil Morrison. Last summer we took it to a lake and ‘launched’ it, and the underwater footage of it was made into a videopoem called "Sky Canoe":

Rob: In the poem "Survival Kit", you write:

here's something: every poem written
is a list; and then something happens —
something breaks, something needs
building; this, that and the other
become necessity

Is this poem a glimpse into your writing style? Many of the poems in This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For are, in fact, list poems. And many others seem borne out of lists. If you do start poems as lists, what causes some of them to stay lists and others to "break"?

Al: I don’t start poems by thinking in terms of lists, but sometimes they end up being one. And when I was writing this poem, the thought occurred to me that everything we ever write is merely a list, even if it’s a list of words, strung out together. The list form tries to get at the complexity of things: one idea is powerful and simple, but is it too simplistic? Two things gives choice, but it makes a binary, so maybe our listing is a way of breaking out of the simplistic and dualistic ideas we have of the world. Maybe a ‘spilling over’ of words more closely represents the reality we’re faced with. What haven’t we accumulated as a North American culture?

Rob: Yes, exactly my thought. "Survival Kit" seems to equate poets with hoarders. Do you think this is true? Is there some parallel that can be drawn between how a poet hoards images, words, lines, etc. and how someone might hoard magazines or knick-knacks in case they might be "useful" one day? In our over-consumptive society, are poets part of the solution or part the problem?

Al: Poets are thieves. Poets are crows and ravens and magpies. Poets pick over the scraps of human consumption. We can look at all the stuff we’ve created as garbage, we can look at it as something to hoard, we can look at it as something to reuse.

I grew up on a farm with parents that lived through the depression. They were recycling before it became popular term in the ‘70s with its energy crisis. You can’t run a farm if you have to drive to town for every little nail or screw or bolt or piece of wood. My mother kept any old loose leaf that had one side still blank; I could dig down through the pile and find my grade 4 work, and my siblings’ university and high school assignments. But farmers aren’t hoarders. We’ve created the notion of ‘hoarders’ by tracking them down and sensationalizing them and tripping through their houses with TV cameras, but the answer is always more complex, isn’t it? Poets, farmers — everyone — are both part of the solution and the problem. We have to come to the tipping point where we all realize that our way of doing things isn’t working. There are still people who firmly believe the earth is doing ok, that climate change isn’t a reality or a real problem. There are still people who think the best economy is the one with the greatest increase in financial wealth. “More is better” has been hardwired into most of our country’s DNA. This isn’t the apocalypse we hoped for.

Rob: Your conspicuous product placement has been noted, there, Al. We'll make an ad man of you yet!

Maybe that's a good transition to thinking about the book as a commercial product (well, as much as poetry can be considered "commercial"), and how it took its final shape.

In its consideration of disposable suburban culture, This Isn't The Apocalypse We Hoped For reminded me of Elizabeth Bachinsky's Home of Sudden Service. I wasn't too surprised, then, to find that Bachinsky edited your collection. How did Bachinsky come to edit your book? Can you speak a bit about her role in shaping the book's final form?

Al: Well, I just asked her and she said yes! I thought that our writing styles and the concerns of our work had enough overlap that we could work together, and I’m very grateful for her input. Liz took the manuscript I had and converted it into an aerodynamic vehicle: tight and streamlined. She was able to take apart the three main threads of it and braid it together in a way that made it a “book”. I’m also grateful for Vici Johnstone of Caitlin Press, who not only literally made it into a book, but also chose and designed the fantastic cover for it.

Rob: Ok, I have to close with a question about the bananas. People seem to really love your poem "We Love Bananas", which is very fittingly included in This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For. What kind of a reception have you had for it when you've read it at readings? Did you expect it would be popular when you wrote it?

Al: Yeah, I always get a lot of laughs with that one. It’s one of the few poems that fell out onto my lap when I was writing it, and all I had to do was to pick it up before it slid onto the floor. I knew it was cheeky but I didn’t know it’d be a ‘hit’. I was happy to see it included in Tightrope’s The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology 2011 .

Thanks again, Rob, for these questions; it’s been fun.

You can buy a copy of Al Rempel's This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For from your local bookstore, or from Amazon. I don't have any info for you hoarders out there, but if you want to buy - say - 30 copies to stack on your dining room table or scatter about the floor of your bedroom, it may be possible to place a bulk order with the publisher.


if someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer

So. I read the thing. And it hurt, man. It really hurt. I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here's the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I've done you a favor, because now you'll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them.

- Screenwriter John Olson reads a friend's bad script, from his essay "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script". You can read the whole (largely obnoxious and sporadically hilarious) thing here.


Canada + Ghana + Poetry

In the Venn diagram of everything, few people sit at the intersection of the "Canadian poet" and "lived in Ghana" sets (though there are more than you might guess, as I've learned through One Ghana, One Voice). One such Canadian poet who's lived in Ghana is Daniel Karasik, who recently also joined me in the "Cormorant Books author" set with his newly released collection of poems, Hungry.

Needless to say, with so many Venn intersections shared between us, I'm excited to read the book when it gets to me. As a sneak peek of sorts, I've published a poem from Hungry and a short interview with Daniel over at One Ghana, One Voice. You can read the poem here and the interview here.

I hope you enjoy them - and may your interpretations of them float away like the little blue circle in the diagram below:


Dark Matter by Leanne McIntosh - Leaf Press Spring Launch

On Tuesday, May 14th (Election Day, BC - vote early!) Leaf Press will be launching its Spring 2013 titles. Leading up to the launch I've been featuring a poem a day from each of Leaf's three new poetry collections.

Untitled - Leanne McIntosh

Fresh from the knife
my great heap of flowers
is slow to accept words
that tempt my ears
and stretch my nerves.

Flowers display only
the colour they reject
and demand of the world
a new conversation.
We light our own taper
and keep it burning
and thereby prove
that human is divine.

Where our hands touch
ligaments of light
hold the world together.
For me
beliefs are still to make
if I consign old and doubtful cargo
to a new and wayward seed.

One belief after another
an avenue of trees
on fire.

from Dark Matter
(Leaf Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Leanne McIntosh was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. She has published two previous books of poetry: The Sound the Sun Makes and Liminal Space. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and a series of chapbooks edited by Patrick Lane. She is a regular participant in local reading events and she volunteers poetry sessions at the Nanaimo Brain Injury Society.

Leanne will be launching Dark Matter on May 14th, along with collections by fellow Leaf authors Emilia Nielsen and Daniela Elza. The details:

Leaf Press Spring Launch Party
Tuesday, May 14th, 2013, 7:00 PM
Rowan's Roof Restaurant
2340 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver
Featuring: Emilia Nielsen, Daniela Elza and Leanne McIntosh
Free, and free appetizers!

If you missed them, you can read a poem by Emilia here, and a poem by Daniela here.


milk tooth bane bone by Daniela Elza - Leaf Press Spring Launch

On Tuesday, May 14th (Election Day, BC - vote early!) Leaf Press will be launching its Spring 2013 titles. Leading up to the launch I'll be featuring a poem a day from each of Leaf's three new poetry collections.

I write between drops - Daniela Elza

I write between drops.                    eaves dripping.
two crows in a tree          like ears           listen.

again          I fool myself
                              that I can even get close
                                        to writing                :rain:

these                    ghosts on the page that pull at me
drag me out of my skin                  into certainties.

if we have to be           truly philosophical 
                                                              we will not say
a word.

          in the linden tree           below the balcony—

the breaking of twigs                    the weaving of a nest.

crows here          speak so effortlessly           of rain
tap                    tapping                    on leaves

and the strip of light                    above the horizon
          delivers us
                    to the eye of the moon
                                                  to the night

where we are           dark thought                  perched
in the trees of dreams.

with first light
                            you notice
                                                 speckled turquoise eggs.

          rain           isn’t
                                            divisible           from this.

from milk tooth bane bone
(Leaf Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Daniela Elza’s work has appeared nationally and internationally in over 80 publications. milk tooth bane bone follows closely on the heels of her first poetry collection, the weight of dew (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2012). In 2011 she received her doctorate from SFU and self-published the book of it (Ebook and print).

Daniela will be launching milk tooth bone bane on May 14th, along with collections by fellow Leaf authors Emilia Nielsen and Leanne McIntosh. The details:

Leaf Press Spring Launch Party
Tuesday, May 14th, 2013, 7:00 PM
Rowan's Roof Restaurant
2340 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver
Featuring: Emilia Nielsen, Daniela Elza and Leanne McIntosh
Free, and free appetizers!

Check back in tomorrow for another Leaf Press poem!


Surge Narrows by Emilia Nielsen - Leaf Press Spring Launch

On Tuesday, May 14th (Election Day, BC - vote early!) Leaf Press will be launching its Spring 2013 titles. Leading up to the launch I'll be featuring a poem a day from each of Leaf's three new poetry collections.

from "Vernacular Hearts" - Emilia Nielsen


The heart is getting shit-faced. Can’t hold the gaze
of tetchy waitresses, bartenders. Cleans its pocket knife.
Sharpens fork tines. Just because. Tests irony. Stiff upper
lip and downing another round. The heart is doing a bit
of pickling, a bit of self-preservation. Has never been so
wrought. Likes it straight-up, no chaser.


The heart curses brownnosers and hacks. Writing
rhyming verse. Crayoning a do not disturb sign in loopy
cursive. Dotting the “i” with a tiny balloon you-know-what.
The heart sits at sidewalk cafés, tries to check out passersby.
Can’t be bullied into anything. Marches to the beat of–
self-sufficient. Solo.


Wants to blow. Wants to get off. Shoots down every tin
image in its likeness, every plastic facsimile, every tissue
paper cut-out. Turning tricks. Picking scabs. The heart is
back on crack. It’s schlepping. It’s tonguing scissors.


The heart will stay on the line for the next operator. Will
await further instruction. Needs a convenient paradigm
shift. Wants to take responsibility for its actions. The
heart sings on caffeine. Thinks empowerment.


The heart’s skinny dipping. It’s gone fishing. Glib. Glee.
Its dancing shoes are on. It’ll never be a wallflower. It’s
kicking up dust. Wants to get this party started. The heart
blesses all who populate its corners. It’s on a camp-out.
It’s sleeping under the stars. The heart has never surfaced
more queer.

from Surge Narrows
(Leaf Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Emilia Nielsen holds a BFA in Writing from the University of Victoria, and a MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. Currently, she is a PhD Candidate at University of British Columbia. Her poetry has appeared in literary journals including The Antigonish Review, Contemporary Verse 2, English Studies in Canada, Event, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Grain, Prairie Fire, Room Magazine, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry by Prism international.

Emilia will be launching Surge Narrows on May 14th, along with collections by fellow Leaf authors Daniela Elza and Leanne McIntosh. The details:

Leaf Press Spring Launch Party
Tuesday, May 14th, 2013, 7:00 PM
Rowan's Roof Restaurant
2340 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver
Featuring: Emilia Nielsen, Daniela Elza and Leanne McIntosh
Free, and free appetizers!

Check back in tomorrow for another Leaf Press poem!


a game with a single price of admission

...there’s [a] difference between a game and a poem. Both should be played with as much skill as possible, but a game is played for its own sake, while a poem, and our pleasure in its gambits, depends on the recognition it is saying something true about life. A poem, essentially, is a game with a single price of admission: that its rules aren’t cut off from the sadness, exultation or distress that pushed the poet to fashion those rules in the first place. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that we’ve moved past poetry as the zero-sum sport Frost called ‘prowess – something to achieve, something to win or lose’. Yet we seem pretty far from the only other option likely to generate memorable work: the clue-gathering Auden called the ‘game of knowledge, a bringing to consciousness, by naming them, of emotions and their hidden relationships’.

- Carmine Starnino, from his essay "Steampunk Zone" in his collection of criticism Lazy Bastardism. The whole essay has been posted on Lemon Hound, and you can read it here.


May Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event is less than two weeks away (Sunday, May 19th, 2013, 3 PM at Project Space).

The lineup will be:

Robert Frost (1874-1963), read by Danny Peart
Frank O'Hara (1926-1966), read by Elizabeth Bachinsky
Rumi (1207-1273), read by Kate Braid
May Sarton (1912-1995), read by Elsie Neufeld

You can RSVP via Facebook here.

It will be my first time hearing Frank O'Hara and Rumi read back-to-back. Shocking, I know...

I hope you can make it to be shocked alongside me!

Al Purdy A-Frame Residencies

Following on their success in saving the Al Purdy A-Frame, the Al Purdy A-Frame Trust has announced their first call for A-Frame residencies. Residencies will begin in April 2014.

From the press release:

The Purdy house is now the site of the A-Frame Residency Program, under which writers are offered a time and place to work in a location that is attractive and of historic significance. Each year between April 1 and November 30 the house will be open for the residency. Writers who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents may apply for a term of one to three months. The residency will be open to all such writers, but preference will be given to poetry and poetry projects. Each year the jury will also consider proposals for a one-month project in critical writing about Canadian poetry and will be open to unusual and creative ideas for residencies.

To read the full press release, click here.

Applications need to be stamped and in the mail by Friday, so get to it!

Not sure what this is about? This nifty video can help fill you in.