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.


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!


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.


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.


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
Featuring: Kayla Czaga, Matt Rader, Alex Leslie, and Elaine Woo

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.


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!