2015 silaron year in review: the interviews

2015 was my busiest year for interviews yet. After seven in 2013, and six in 2014, I jumped up to nine this year - ten if you count the short interviews I included in my essay on Elise Partidge's book launch (which I have, because this is my blog and I can do whatever I damn well want).

As a loyal silaron reader, I'm sure you've already read them all multiple times, and made extensive notes, but just as a refresher here they are again:

February 2015: Sequencing a Collection is Like Writing One Last Poem: An Interview with Robyn Sarah

"Sometimes the former self knows that a phrase or image is significant, but doesn’t know why: I have to live longer before I see what it signifies." - Robyn Sarah

April 2015: Like Talking About the Skeleton Without Talking About the Flesh: Don't Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something by Paul Vermeersch

"If people enjoy this book or that book, there are too many variables to say why exactly, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable assuming it’s because the writing is more or less experimental or more or less lyrical. That seems too much like brand loyalty to me. I like to think readers are more sophisticated than that." - Paul Vermeersch

April 2015: Motionpoems: An Interview with Todd Boss

"We began with the aim of making poetry more accessible to readers who increasingly get their content from screens, but our mission has changed in recent years. Now we just want to make great art." - Todd Boss

May 2015: Reading Elise Partridge

"Elise gave and gave and gave careful, meticulous, loving attention—to her poems, to others’ poems, to friends and family, strangers, anyone she met.” - Barbara Nickel

July 2015: Using the Tools at Hand: Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra by Elena Johnson

"All that to say that on that particular day I imagined a helicopter search and hoped they’d find us alive." - Elena Johnson

August 2015: Hello Flowers: Transmitter and Receiver by Raoul Fernandes

"There was a shift in proportion when we were in the city, we felt smaller, and I think it was important to me to feel small at times." - Raoul Fernandes

September 2015: Bassackwards and Geezly and Paralyzed: Waiting for the Albatross by Sandy Shreve

"For me, it’s been a lifelong journey, coming to terms with that loss. I’ve gone from rage at my Dad for dying – and thinking of him as an awful person – to embracing him as all but perfect." - Sandy Shreve

October 2015: Lake Chains in the Tennis Courts: Hastings-Sunrise by Bren Simmers

"Sometimes we need to fully embrace a place before we can let go of it." - Bren Simmers

October 2015: Let Your Inner Dude Out: Jabbering with Bing Bong by Kevin Spenst

"All this is to say that, yes, I’m a bit of a control freak." - Kevin Spenst

December 2015: The Long Route to Expression: Foreign Park by Jeff Steudel

"I started with love poems, for sure, really bad ones, I think, but the long route to expression can be, and probably should be, a messy one." - Jeff Steudel

Happy New Year, all. See you in 2016!


January Dead Poets Reading Series Lineup!

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch, Alice MacKay room, on January 10th, 2016, from 3-5 PM.

We're kicking the new year off in style with a lineup which includes some fantastic poets and a real life CBC radio star!

That lineup:

Robert Creeley (1926 - 2005), read by Mariner Janes
Sakutaro Hariwara (1886 - 1942), read by Sheryda Warrener
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882), read by Sheryl MacKay
C.K. Williams (1936 - 2015), read by Raoul Fernandes

Attendance is free. For more info, visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you there!


the weekly meetings of the model railway club

I actually think a lot of regular reviewers would agree that the hardest books to review are the ones that leave you with no feelings whatsoever—negative or positive. And yet you have to say something, which leads into the dangerous territory of spouting opinions you don’t really have. It’s like when you blurt out something while trying to fill a conversational gap with someone you don’t know very well: do it too often and you’ll eventually find yourself attending the weekly meetings of somebody-or-other’s model-railway club (which actually almost happened to me, so it’s fresh in my mind).

- Emily Donaldson, in conversation with Domenica Martinello over at the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts blog. You can read the whole thing here.


Two Things PRISM

My term as poetry editor at PRISM international ended back in May, but two major projects I was involved in getting started only came to fruition in the last few months.

Project #1: Back Issue Digitization

PRISM: July 1984
Starting last Spring, PRISM digitized all of its back issues (since 1959!). This was done in collaboration with UBC's Digitization Centre, and with a grant from the BC Arts Council. The site the Digitization Centre put together to display the back issues is really impressive and can be viewed here.

In it you can find all sorts of goodies, including Robyn Sarah's first ever published poems and PRISM's nifty African-themed issue from 1984, which features writing from Kofi Awoonor, George Elliott Clarke, Dionne Brand and - somewhat inexplicably - Wisława Szymborska.

Those "discoveries" of mine barely even scratch the surface, of course - give it a go testing out search words and see what you come up with. I know they're first one you'll try, so I'll just let you know now: "fuck" has been written in 127 issues of PRISM, "poop" in only five (and twice each in 2001 and 2004, which makes me wonder about those editors).

Project #2: Reviews Editor

Anita Bedell, PRISM Reviews Editor
When I started my term at PRISM, one of my main goals was to enhance PRISM's online reviews and interviews. In partnership with Prose Editor Nicole Boyce, Promotions/Web Editor Clara Kumagai and an incredible team of Editorial Board members, in 2014-15 we managed to more than double the number of reviews and interviews on the site compared to the previous year. Editing and posting all that content, however, nearly permanently dried out Clara's strained eyes, so we built a plan for a Reviews Editor into PRISM's grant proposals for the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council.

In October, PRISM announced the hiring of its first Reviews Editor, Anita Bedell. You can read an interview with Anita here. Anita has been doing great work thus far, and more reviews and interviews keep appearing every week.

If you have a book coming out soon, be sure to send a copy PRISM's way. Chances are still slim that you'll get coverage (fun fact: Canadian publishers produce an absurd number of books every year), but how many other magazines can say they have a *paid* reviews editor on the receiving end trying to make something happen for your book?

In conclusion: good things are happening at PRISM these days. If you haven't taken a look in a while, check it out!


the long route to expression - "Foreign Park" by Jeff Steudel

Postcard - Jeff Steudel

He steps over the iridescent puddle by the white van.
The storm-drains overflow. A motorboat explodes
by the cannery. The rink’s ice melts. Paint burbles
in the creek. A man accused of murder on the island
releases the hold on his scow, so does the family sailing
off the point. An expired bottle of Warfarin. Boat fuel
drizzles. Fish mill at the mouth. Fertilizers and pesticides
reach the river’s plume. The horizontal stack discharges
chlorides, sulfides, copper, zinc, and arsenic. Inspectors
cattle-prodded out of the budget, heavy metal thunder.
Trucks as big as Edmontosauruses come to repair
the mine. The creeks and the rivers? The mountain is
a reflection on Berg Lake. Toxins in the glacier. Canada
is everywhere. The Fraser, the Nile, and the Gomati.

from Foreign Park
(Anvil Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


I met Jeff Steudel at a reading at UBC a couple years back. I was there to see Elise Partridge, in what would turn out to be her last reading, and I love the idea that - very much indirectly and unintentionally - Elise helped introduce me to Jeff. Jeff, it turns out, comes from a similar mold to Elise's, both in his warm presence at readings, and in his keen attention to the world, especially the natural world.

This attention is well on display in Jeff's debut collection, Foreign Park, which came out last spring from Anvil Press. Traveling the length of the Fraser, the book considers the natural landscape of "Beautiful British Columbia" and just how unnatural (and sometimes unbeautiful) it is becoming as we mine and pipeline and pollute it into submission.

Jeff is a past winner of The Fiddlehead's Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, and his work has been chosen as a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards. More importantly, as a high school English teacher in Vancouver, he holds an enviable 4.65/5 rating on RateMyTeachers.com (in summary: "Steudy" is a tough marker, but he's also chill and "likes to talk about weird topics"). I sat down with Steudy and we talked about weird topics like Mt. Robson, pipelines, villanelles, and bad love poems. I hope you enjoy!

Jeff Steudel's smoulder cuts like a pipeline through your heart.


Rob: "Postcard" seems to be the "cover poem" of the book, as the cover of Foreign Park is a postcard of Mt. Robson and Berg Lake. I was quite drawn to the poem and the cover image, in part because I've hiked to Berg Lake myself, and been struck by both the mountain and that incredible reflection in the lake (I, too, wrote a poem while hiking at Berg, and a couple lines in the poem are devoted to the mountain's reflection). I was also struck at Berg Lake by how managed/manicured the park was - how for somewhere supposedly in the "middle of nowhere" human influences were everywhere: crushed gravel trails, pit toilets complete with hand sanitizer pumps, campers with cellphones and boomboxes, rangers policing the campgrounds like den mothers. I feel like you capture most every part of my experience of Berg in that poem - so congrats, and thanks! Could you speak a little about its composition?

Jeff: “Postcard” is the precipitate of many things I was thinking about. It is connected to the idea held by many people, myself included when I was growing up, that the Rockies are a pristine wilderness. Certainly, the Rockies seem to be emblematic of what we sell to tourists, and emblematic of the thinking that we have unlimited natural wealth; of course, we are obviously completely connected to all parts of the world. The mountain’s reflection on the lake got me thinking about the perceptions Canadians may have of their country, and the message, or the ‘postcards’ we would like others to have of us. When one first sees Mt. Robson, it is hard not to be impressed by its enormity, by the way it takes up so much space compared to the mountains around it, by its magic. The same goes for the magical reflection on the lake. Unfortunately, we have sullied so much of the ecosystem. Several years ago I read about scientists who discovered traces of DDT in The Rockies’ glaciers, and this was also on my mind as I was writing the poem.

Rob: More generally, what role has hiking played in your writing process? Do you write a lot during hiking trips, or after the fact?

Jeff: Most of the time I write at my desk or at the library. I sometimes take notes while I’m hiking or walking in the woods, but I spend a lot of time outdoors thinking through ideas for poems. I haven’t been to Berg Lake since I was a kid, and at that time my perception was that it was perfect in its natural beauty. I spent a lot of time looking at photos of Mt. Robson Park, but then eventually I had to head up there to see it, breath the air, touch the water, and attempt to capture something authentic.

Rob: You made a return trip, then? Can you tell us a bit about the trip? Did you take it just to do research for Foreign Park? Did you find what you expected to find?

Jeff: I took a road trip with my dog up to Prince George and then over to Mount Robson Provincial Park, a route that roughly follows the Fraser. I stopped a lot to walk along the river. It really is a grand river, so much spectacular scenery, so much volume and force. However, there are a lot of pollutants dumped into it, some of which can be seen and many of which cannot. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular on the trip. I wanted to take in details and a get a better feeling of the geography. I grew up close to the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton, and I think I get a feeling of home just being near a river. It's not a good feeling to see industrial effluent discharged into the water. It seems to disappear into the silt, the big mud, but it's still there.

Rob: On the subject of the Fraser, Foreign Park's five sections travel the length of the river, from "Headwaters" through "Hell's Gate" (everyone's favourite Lower Mainland tourist trap. Yeah, I said it, Capilano Suspension Bridge...) and finishing in Vancouver with "Mouth". Each section opens with a corresponding "river" themed poem, set aside from the others and italicized. What inspired this structure? Did structuring the book in this way affect which poems made it into the book?

Jeff: I wrote “Headwaters” many years ago, and “Confluence”, not long after, so this idea of river has been with me for a while. It made sense to me to have the theme of the physical body and physical environment run its course. I hesitated to use the idea of river as a structural theme because it has been done many times, but then, of course, so has falling in love. In the end it felt right because so many of the poems are set along the river. I decided to use the river poems as sections while thinking of an arc, a natural movement for the poems. The poems I cut out didn’t match the style I was going for, and in some cases, they just weren’t very good. At one point, pretty late in the stages of writing the book, I had all the poems that are now italicized in one section, but after some thought, I decided to italicize the poems quite simply to make them stand out from the rest, to say, in effect, that these poems belong together, even though they do not follow one right after the other.

Rob: Continuing on the theme of "structure," the shape of your individual poems seems important to you, too - particularly the consistency of stanza and line length within a poem: a page of couplets gives way to a page of tercets, gives way to a poem which looks less controlled, but then you count the lines and, yes indeed, each stanza has thirteen lines. The book includes many exceptions to this rule, but still it jumped out at me often enough.

At what point in the process of crafting a poem do you start considering shape? Do you find yourself sometimes thinking in couplets or quatrains, or does that sort of thing usually come later, in the editing room?

Jeff: I think of form as inextricably linked to rhythm, to cadence, and so, I usually begin thinking about a poem’s form after the first line. I stay with what my instinct tells me, and then I see how it works from there. I’m also interested in how a poem looks on the page, and so, even though, some poems lack a formal structure, I shape the poem to represent the idea. “Confluence”'s short last line "a shallow pool", is just that: a shallow pool, a mess of mud and water. “Qualifying Heat,” a villanelle, came about while I was reading In Fine Form, so the process of composing that poem was a little different. Certainly, form is often a result of massive edits. This kind of change happened with the prose poem “The Accident.” Initially it was in couplets and that meant some of the lines were different. I am happy with the way the block turned out: an accidental prose poem in a poetry book with a lot of short poems. It’s like a pipeline through a forest.

Rob: Speaking of pipelines, in reading Foreign Park I found myself wondering about the timeline of its composition, specifically how far you were into the writing of the book when the Northern Gateway Pipeline came along. Poems like "The Accident" speak directly of the pipeline, while other seem to reference it less directly ("The Oil Slick Approaches" with its lines "The pipeline's terminus lies beyond a dead-end / bridge", which I can't help but read as "A Dead Enbridge"). How did that project, and the opposition to it, affect the focus of your writing, and the ultimate shape of Foreign Park?

Jeff: I had a visceral reaction to The Northern Gateway Pipeline and Harper’s clear endorsement of it. Years ago, after I had protested things like highway expansion and supported politicians like Stephan Dion because of his a solid environmental plan, I decided that I would respond to issues through writing. At first I wrote letters to politicians, to newspapers; then it just felt natural to write poems about the issues, because, like I said before, it was, and is what I think about. I think many people do. The people in Likely, B.C. after the Mount Polley mine disaster and the Athabasca Chipewan First Nations who live near the tar sands must think about the environment. They might even feel like they are in a foreign park.

Rob: One thing I particularly enjoyed about Foreign Park, and which we've touched on a bit above, was the mixing of the environmental, the political and the personal. I developed the sense that I was reading the straight goods from the author - both his opinions on the world and the life he's lived in it, each leaning against, and strengthening the other. Often in themed "project" books I find you get one or the other - the political or the personal - and the book is weaker for it. Where did you start as a poet, with nature poems, or love poems, or political poems? Or were they always mixed together?

Jeff: I started with love poems, for sure, really bad ones, I think, but the long route to expression can be, and probably should be a messy one. I write where I feel the energy is in my life, and that has been in the last several years, kids, marriage, the environment and my own personal challenges.

Rob: Was writing and publishing this book useful for you in thinking about the vital and challenging parts of your life? Do you have any thoughts yet on book number two, both on what it might focus on, and on what you hope to gain from it?

Jeff: Writing and publishing the book definitely made me think about my life and my relationships in a deeper way. I have become more honest about how I was treating my own body, in particular how much and often I drink. The idea is totally connected to my environmental view. My next book is underway, and some of the poems will continue to be distillations of life experiences. At this point, though, many of the poems deal with the idea of consent, as it pertains to sex and other personal boundaries.


Why not brighten up someone's holiday season by hiking out and picking up a copy of Foreign Park? You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Anvil press website. Or, if you want to further sully our ecosystem, from Amazon.


Some Magazines to THANK

I've been delinquent in passing on my THANKS to a few magazines who have been generous enough to grant me some pages in 2015. They are:

Not the Spring 2015 issue.
Don't be fooled!
The Dalhousie Review, Spring 2015 Issue: "Ngorongoro" (Short Story)

TDR was the first Canadian magazine to publish a poem of mine based on Marta and my first stint living in Africa, so it's more than a little nifty that they are the first place to publish a story of mine based on our second stint living in Africa. THANKS, DALHOUSIE REVIEW!

Photo: Ruth Daniell
Grain, Spring 2015 Issue: "Success", "Gratitude" and "Of the Ways to Waste"

Many years ago I wrote a poem about the CFL. For some reason, I never thought to submit it to the Saskatchewan-based lit mag. This was foolish of me. You can now read my CFL poem, and a couple others, in the Spring 2015 issue of Grain. THANKS, GRAIN!

The Maynard, Fall 2015 Issue: "Twenty-Five Weeks"

The publication of "Twenty-Five Weeks" in The Maynard marked the beginning of my attempt to foist an endless stream of baby-gestation poems on an unsuspecting reading public. You can read the poem here. THANKS, MAYNARD!

The New Quarterly, Fall 2015 Issue: "Five Weeks" and "Strangers"

The New Quarterly was kind enough to award me an honourable mention in their Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest. The poems are (1) the very first baby-gestation poem I wrote, and (2) a poem I wrote for Elise Partridge soon after I heard of her cancer diagnosis. In other words, they both mean a hell of a lot to me, and I can think of few better places to see them published than in TNQ. THANKS, TNQ!


except for when I need an excuse to procrastinate

CV2 Magazine: When do you know it's time to cut and run - give up and start fresh?

Chimwemwe Undi: I'm not a big believer in visits from the muse, except for when I need an excuse to procrastinate, but if a poem does not need to be written, or isn't ready to be, then I take a break from it and try something that feels less like a root canal.

- Chimwemwe Undi, in interview with CV2 Magazine in their Fall/Winter 2015 issue.


I'd rather be difficult than deceptive

I, perhaps too naively, feel that everything I say is, in theory, accessible to everyone. Sure, a dictionary or the Internet (more realistically) may be needed for some of my poems. But I think that could be said for most poetry. Often references to philosophers or Greek gods or even the Bible are just as foreign to me as my scientific terms may be to some people. My education is also limited, you have to remember. What I wish for is that you can read these poems without having to know what the science is, but the more you know the richer your experience. To avoid putting my science into my poems would be deceptive and I'd rather be difficult than deceptive.

- Madhur Anand, in conversation with Paul Hamann about her debut, science-infused, collection A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes, in the Fall 2015 issue of The New Quarterly.


Mayor's Arts Awards

I'm wildly honoured to be receiving the 2015 Mayor's Arts Award for the Literary Arts (Emerging Artist) from the City of Vancouver (to keep things simple, I just call it the MAALA(EA)COV2015).

I'm especially appreciative because I was selected for the award by Kate Braid, this year's winner of the Mayor's Arts Award for Fully Emerged Literary Artists (not the actual title, thought it probably should be).

More than just about anyone, Kate has taught me how to live within, and give back to, the writing community, so taking the stage with her will mean a great deal to me. That Vancouver's dreamy mayor will be there, too, is all icing.

The awards will be presented tomorrow, November 12th, at the Roundhouse Community Centre (tickets are free, but appear to be "sold" out). The event will also feature the announcement of the City of Vancouver Book Award (whose short list includes Bren Simmers and Wayde Compton) and a reading from Vancouver Poet Laureate Rachel Rose. Hopefully no one will let the folks at the city know just how many poets they're letting into the party, or they won't put out any free snacks. *fingers crossed*

Thank you so much to the City of Vancouver, and to Kate Braid, for this honour!

live a big and thoughtful life

rob mclennan: When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Lucas Crawford: I’m with Junot Diaz on this one: the best way for me to be a writer is to try to live a big and thoughtful life, exposed to tons of ideas and people – not to scramble around looking for a muse and treating writing as an ultimate and forced goal. I imagine writers as people who have lived in such a way as to have things that they absolutely must communicate. If and when that urgency isn’t there, I’d rather do something else! Like watch food television, walk around Vancouver, make ugly crafts, or do some work.

- Lucas Crawford, answering rob mclennan's "12 or 20 Questions" over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


a hardness as a made object

I have always felt that poetry should transcend biography – that even if a poem is transparently autobiographical in origin, it should have a surface that takes it beyond the personal, a hardness as a made object, such that it ceases to be one’s own and becomes everybody’s – becomes public. There are many ways to do this, and I believe these constitute the art of poetry. A fellow poet, critiquing some of the new poems in The Touchstone, remarked in a letter to me that some readers might be disappointed at not being given “the whole story… plot, narrative, facts, emotions” behind the poems: she posited that the “expectation of gossip” is human, and legitimate in a reader of poetry. I wrote back that I distrusted the overly personal, or personally-specific, in poetry, and that instead of the whole story, I thought a poem should detach itself from the biographical facts and deliver the emotional essence of the experience as a distillate – through image, sound, metaphor, and whatever formal devices best serve the purpose – evoking mood and feeling in the way that a piece of music does. This view and practice may not always be appreciated by a reading public that has extended its hunger for confessional narrative beyond prose memoir to the personal lyric. But I must write from my own sense of what a poem is.

- Robyn Sarah, discussing her GG-winning collection My Shoes are Killing Me, over at ARC Poetry Magazine. You can read a longer excerpt here, and the whole thing in ARC's forthcoming Winter 2016 issue.

You can also read my interview with Robyn, about My Shoes are Killing Me and the five poems from the collection we ran in PRISM 53.2, here.


a distinction that too often gets forgotten

Art is a means of self-expression, obviously, but it’s also — perhaps most importantly — a way of making sense of our world. At its most basic, it is meant to entertain, enlighten, and enrich our lives. I think as upper-level arts students / critics / appreciators, we can sometimes forget this basic intention. Art does not need to be complex, challenging, heady, abstract, and deep to be “art.” It can be, but it doesn’t have to be — and in fact, art that is those things... runs the risk of being elitist and exclusionary. Art that is those things runs the risk of failing to do the very things we turn to art for.


I’m not saying all artists need to sell themselves out to a mass audience. We needn’t all be teenybopper pop stars with trendy hairdos and silly slogans. I’m also not even saying I think Stuart McLean is “the best” Canadian writer (whatever that even means). But I am saying he’s my favourite, and I think that’s a distinction that too often gets forgotten. It seems to me, too, that throughout my post-secondary education, I’ve been nudged towards works of art that profoundly affect the head, and have been discouraged away from works that profoundly affect the heart. Maybe the best works do both — probably the best works do both — but I’m not sure it’s fair to prioritize one effect over the other. What I do know is I’ve walked around this city, listening to Stuart McLean read the words he’s written, and have had tears roll down my cheeks. That is a more pronounced effect than any of the texts on any of my course syllabi have had on me.

- Ryan Gaio, from his post "In Defence of Stuart McLean" on The Fiddlehead's blog. You can read the whole thing here.


lake chains in the tennis courts - "Hastings-Sunrise" by Bren Simmers

from Hastings-Sunrise (p. 26) - Bren Simmers

The building next door has bedbugs 
   again. A trio of mattresses by the dumpster.
Wide berth as we walk past. Touch wood—
   though once they’re in, wood won’t stop them. 
Touch steel then. On the Bedbug Registry, 
   a cluster of red dots surrounds our apartment 
like front lines or angry bears. Hundreds 
   exterminated this year for being hungry, 
dumpster diving near suburban homes built for 
   Goldilocks. We, who crave a yard, itch.

from Hastings-Sunrise
(Nightwood Editions, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


High on my (seemingly endless) list of blogging failures is my practice of publishing interviews for "new" books 6+ months after their original release date. But sometimes dragging your heels getting interview questions to authors works out - like when, say, your interviewee goes and gets nominated for The City of Vancouver Book Award. That's right, people, I'm about to give you a live-breaking interview with a talk-of-the-town award nominee! ***flashbulbs, etc.***

Bren Simmers' second collection, Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood Editions, 2015), certainly deserves the praise and attention it's receiving. It's a book length poem in which Bren explores Vancouver's Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood, and in the process untangles her own feelings on place and belonging. Hastings-Sunrise does its work deceptively - at times seeming almost scientific in its analysis, and only slowly revealing the big, beating heart of the speaker/author that's busy at work right under the surface.

Bren is no stranger to awards (or long poems) - she's won the Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year competition and was a finalist for The Malahat Review's Long Poem Prize - so she ought to be taking all this in stride. She certainly didn't go full diva on me at any point in the interview (though "full diva" for poets usually means going back for thirds at the complimentary book launch cheese plate), and we had a wonderful conversation about Hastings-Sunrise, Vancouver poet merit badges, and why she really does love Vancouver (no, really!) even though she moved away the first chance she got.

Bren Simmers at a... museum? Flea market? Community centre?
Why is there a mural of a pool table on the wall? This is all very confusing.
Let's just say it's somewhere in Hastings-Sunrise and move on.


Rob: Hastings-Sunrise will be read differently by those who are or are not familiar with the Vancouver neighbourhood. One I suspect will crave some level of accuracy, will want to see themselves and their world in the poems, while the other will be looking to understand, to be "let in", in a sense. And many, like myself, who know the neighbourhood fairly well, but have never lived in it, will find themselves somewhere in between. Did you consider these various readers while composing the poems? Or perhaps later, during editing? If so, how did it affect the writing and shaping of the book?

Bren: While writing Hastings-Sunrise, I tried to capture the feel of the neighbourhood at a particular time. Hastings-Sunrise in 2011 was a different place than it is today. So in a way, the book is a time capsule. Readers who know the neighbourhood might have different experiences than me, but my hope is that something essential about that place is communicated. In the editing process, I did step back and tried to look at it from an outsider’s view. I asked writers from different parts of the country to offer feedback on any contextual gaps that readers familiar with the hood would fill in, but those unfamiliar with Hastings-Sunrise might be left wondering about. Ultimately, I wanted the details to evoke a specific place, but I also wanted there to be enough room for readers to see their own neighbourhoods in these pages.

Rob: I think you hit that balance very well. That said, as much as your book explores a specific place, at its core I think of it as exploring the speaker's (I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "your") own hopes, fears and desires for the future. Not only do you ask "When will I / belong to the city I was born in?" (p. 25) but in the asking you reveal "the parts of myself / I cover up or reject" (p. 14). On the one hand this is surprising, as the book takes a sometimes near-scientific look at the neighbourhood (logging days; mapping open doors, neighbourhood swings; tracing out walking routes), and on the other it makes perfect sense: you gave yourself enough distance to see the city you were living in, and in the process were able to see yourself from a new, outside perspective. Could you speak a bit about your intentions for this project at its inception? Were you meaning from the beginning to explore yourself as much as you did, or did that element of the book sneak up on you?

Bren: I worked on this book for four years, and it evolved continuously. It started out as a much smaller project: to pay attention to seasonal changes in my neighbourhood over the course of a year. I was working in parks at the time, and like a lot of people who work full-time, I felt like I was living weekend to weekend. I wanted to slow my life down and pay the same kind of attention to my urban surroundings that I did to the natural surroundings where I worked. Through observing my life, larger themes of home and belonging became apparent.

I actually wrote an entire draft of the manuscript that was very different from what ended up being published; it was almost completely observational in tone. While working on that manuscript with Barbara Klar through the Banff Wired Writing Studio, she encouraged me to dig deeper and put myself into these poems. I am grateful for that guidance because I think it’s a more personal and a more human book, but I struggled for a long time with finding a balance between being too confessional and being too reticent.

Rob: That's interesting that the book started as a small project tracking seasonal change - it certainly grew from there! One vestigial remnant of that original project, then, seems to be the section openings in Hastings-Sunrise. Each section opens with a series of one-line epigraphs, each labeled with a date, as in a diary. Some of my favourites: "Trees fill in their dance cards / April 7", "All the leisure a paycheque can afford / July 11", "Lake chains form in the tennis courts / Nov 6" (Nothing says "Vancouver in November" like lake chains in the tennis courts!). These serve to give the whole book a notebook-like feel, and also to set us in the various seasons (if the dates of the entries are to be trusted, the book was written over a 14-month period). Could you speak about these epigraphs a bit? Are they remnants of that original project, or scraps from unused poems, or (as suggested) actual diary entries, or?

Bren: These are phenological entries that I recorded during dozens of neighbourhood walks over the course of a year; phenology is the practice of observing periodically recurring events in the natural world. Over a second year, I revisited these observations to see how accurately they reflected each seasonal moment. Yes, these entries come from my "original project," my goal being to create a phenology calendar of East Vancouver. These entries also draw inspiration from ancient Chinese calendars that have two-week micro-seasons. I wanted to capture that same kind of detail in an urban neighbourhood.

Rob: More generally, do you keep a diary/journal, or have a practice of daily notetaking, or was that special for this project? If you write one, how do you find it influences your poems - both what you write and how you write it?

Bren: I do keep a pen and paper journal, though usually its entries are erratic. Sometimes I journal every few days, sometimes an entire month goes by. Writing on paper feels more fluid than typing on a screen. I can’t erase the trajectory of my thoughts with a single click. If I lose the incoming transmission, I can more easily retrace my thoughts back to where I stopped receiving and started over-thinking. Many of my first drafts of poems come from these handwritten scrawls, and it’s only in the editing process that I move to a computer.

Rob: "I can’t erase the trajectory of my thoughts with a single click." Yes - I like that! I'm very much the same. I can't start anything on the computer, and am usually a number of drafts in before I type a poem up.

In writing about a Vancouver neighbourhood you've earned (and well earned!) your "Vancouver Poet" badge, alongside poets like George Bowering (Kerrisdale Elegies), Michael Turner (Kingsway), Daphne Marlatt (Vancouver Poems, Steveston), George Stanley (Vancouver: A Poem), Sachiko Murikami (Rebuild, The Invisibility Exhibit), etc. etc. etc. etc. It's kind of nuts how many books we've written about our city over the years. Which books about Vancouver you drew on for inspiration in your own project? Books about other cities or neighbourhoods?

Bren: Let’s get badges made up. That would be fantastic! I have read many of these books over the years and feel proud to be listed as part of that lineage. When I’m working on a project I tend to seek out books that help me to solve specific problems. In this project, the big issue to tackle was form; it’s a book length poem. So, I spent a lot of time studying the long poems of C.D. Wright and re-reading John Steffler’s The Grey Islands and Alayna Munce’s When We Were Young and In Our Prime, two of my favourite books.

I did also feel part of a zeitgeist with visual artists who were capturing similar ideas of changing urban spaces through drawings and photographs. Two books about Toronto that lived on my desk for a while were Full Frontal T.O. by Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micallef and Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes by Michael Cho.

Rob: I'm glad you touched on the challenge of writing a book length poem. As such, Hastings-Sunrise is quite a departure from your debut, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010), which was more of a traditional collection of discrete poems. That said, Night Gears included both a long poem ("Northern Postcards") and a sequence ("Weather Observation Record") which, in hindsight, hinted at the direction of your second book. When you think of the two books, what do you think of as the major differences and similarities? In approaching Hastings-Sunrise, did you make conscious decisions to do anything differently with Book #2?

Bren: Hastings-Sunrise feels like a natural progression from my work in the long poem form of my first book. I think the long poems in Night Gears are especially strong parts of the book because, while each section in the book explores a different place, the long poems allowed me the space and breadth to investigate conflicting ideas. In writing a second book, I wanted to take on the challenge of a book-length sequence in order to tell a story that was sustained and interconnected, not just a collection of individual ideas. Turned out it was a lot harder than I thought! Many poems I wrote didn’t make the cut because they were too similar in theme to another poem or they didn’t fit with the larger themes of seasonal changes, gentrification, belonging, and community that I was working with. I spent a lot of time playing Tetris with poems taped on the wall until the sequence felt right.

Rob: Hasting-Sunrise maps out your push-pull desires to live in the city and also get away, to "Go find your cabin in the woods." (p. 61). A string of poems near the end of the book, for instance, involve your dreaming of the fictional small town "Saska-Wollop", which is everything Vancouver isn't. Soon after you finished this book you moved to small (and be-wooded) Squamish, and upon knowing that it's hard not to read this book as a sort of goodbye letter to Vancouver (one of the "it's not you, it's me" variety). If/how did going through the process of writing this book influence your thinking about both Vancouver and its alternatives? Would you have ended up where you did, when you did, without the book?

Bren: Sometimes we need to fully embrace a place before we can let go of it. Vancouver is a great city to live in, if you want to live in a city. [Editor's Note: Nice save, City of Vancouver Book Award Finalist!] And that was the question I was exploring while writing this book. What recipe of family, friends, natural spaces, community, and art did I need to make a home in Vancouver, and in what proportions?

While I was working on revisions, the opportunity to move to Squamish presented itself and I jumped, which made writing the ending for this book tricky. Did I end the book with the move to Saska-Wollup, or did I end the book with trying to make a home in Hastings-Sunrise? I chose to end the book with trying to put down roots in the neighbourhood, which ultimately we do anywhere we live. I also feel it makes for a better story for the reader.

Rob: Official ending aside, Squamish seems like the perfect place for the speaker in this book. Close enough to Vancouver that you can dip back in from time to time, but far enough away that you can be away. How are you finding it? Is it everything you hoped it would be? And how long until we get your Squamish collection?

Bren: Squamish is a great place to live. I find the quiet and access to natural spaces deeply restorative. There’s a much slower pace here and one that lends itself to holing up in the house in front of the fire and writing. At the same time, I love being able to hop in the car and head into the city for readings or concerts or gallery openings. I have started to write some poems about Howe Sound as I get a better understanding of its history and community, though another book is a long ways off.


I'm officially starting the "Bring Bren Back" campaign - obviously, we're going to need to raise a lot of dough to get her back in Vancouver. The best way to contribute is to buy a copy of Hastings-Sunrise! You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the Harbour Publishing website, or, if you want to erase the trajectory of your thoughts with a single click, from Amazon.


Dead Poets Reading Series November Lineup Announced!

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch, Alice MacKay room, on November 8th, 2015, from 3-5 PM.

The lineup:

Edgar Allen Poe (1809 - 1849), read by Susan McCaslin
Earle Birney (1904 - 1995), read by Kate Braid
Sveva Caetani (1917 - 1994), read by Daphne Marlatt
Paul Éluard (1895 - 1952), read by Gillian Jerome
Dan Pagis (1930 - 1986), read by Barbara Pelman

Attendance is free. For more info, visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you there!


let your inner Dude out (or, "What if your bong could talk?") - "Jabbering with Bing Bong" by Kevin Spenst

Death Star Trash Compactor - Kevin Spenst

When Luke, Han and Leah shout for joy,
the droids think they’re in agony. In grade six
I was dumbfounded by Saudi Arabia. How
many grains of sand? How much past and present?
We learn something; it’s barreled into words,
shipped off. My room in Lumsden has a crack
down one wall. Saskatchewan is shifting. Everyone
is coming for oil. I know about OPEC and the Star
Wars marketing of plastic toys. Decades crushed
together. I want to squeeze you in. My new love,
so far away. Your ex-boyfriends compiled into
one rockabilly wannabe with songs about smashing
the rebellion of women who want to be more than
a pinup on a bicep. You quip like Han. I flutter
like Leah. Is there no Empire we cannot escape?

from Jabbering with Bing Bong
(Anvil Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


What do Judy Bloom, Kool-Aid Man, Archie Bunker, Jack Tripper, Kevin Arnold, David Lynch, Goombas, and Han Solo have in common? And no, they haven't all having smashed through a brick wall bellowing "Oh Yeah!" - not even figuratively - if that's what you're thinking...

The correct answer is that they all share close-quarters in the opening section of Kevin Spenst's debut poetry collection, Jabbering with Bing Bong (Anvil Press, 2015). The book, which in large part explores Spenst's early influences (family, community, religion, and a healthy dose of pop culture) is shot through with energy and humour. But for all their fun, the poems in Jabbering are also weighty things, dealing with themes of loss, love, alienation and illness.

Like the bidet which "jolts [you] / with joy everyday atop our fount of civilization" ("Jabbering with Bing Bong", 70), these poems please, shock and cleanse all at once, and aren't afraid to get a little dirty. It's a delightful book, and one I can't recommend enough.

I sat down with Kevin in the living room of his childhood home in Surrey, BC, where we played with Star Wars toys and I watched him complete a flawless game of Super Mario. Eventually, we settled into our interview, which was as weird and funny and thoughtful as I'd expected it would be. I hope you enjoy it!

Up to date on your child's learning? Kevin is.
And he's stolen their glasses.


Rob: You're known for your live performances, which are often so enthusiastic they make Christian Bök sound like Napoleon Dynamite on Nyquil (feel free to compare here). At many points in reading Jabbering with Bing Bong, it was hard for me not to hear your voice galloping along, bellowing out the lines. It some ways that doesn't seem unreasonable, as your attention to rhythm, pacing and rhyme are clearly written into the poems themselves, and not simply part of the performance - but it does make me wonder how this book would "sound" to someone unacquainted with your readings. How do you feel about your book being out in the world without you there providing the audio?

Kevin: There are a number of gearshifts through Jabbering with Bing Bong. While the first section consists of Jackpine sonnets, the style moves from lyric to mashups of prayers with TV theme songs to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E-L-I-T-E experiments in sonic association. (There’s no jump from Napoleon Dynamite to Christian Bök but that might be in some future book.) I hope that through these different RPMs, the reader is inspired to let his or her imagination cut loose (or put his or her imaginative pedal to the metal). In an alternate reality, I can easily imagine myself selling Jabbering door to door, pitching the book with a half hour lesson on how to speak in funny voices. I would minister to shut-ins on the importance of projection and stoned video-gamers on the value of letting your inner Dude out. Really, it’s all in the stance that you take. What sounds come from what postures? What if your bong could talk?

All this is to say that, yes, I’m a bit of a control freak. There’s a fascinating little ficcione by Robert Szend about a man who divides into two every time he’s confronted with a decision. While I am still in that stunned state of having a book in the world, the control freak part of me would like to divide for every copy of my book so that I could read it to each and every one of my readers. (Which isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination if we put this in terms of poetry book sales.) I’m open enough to allow for whatever interpretation they want so long as they hear the book in my voice. I don’t know how all those other Kevins would survive in the world though. Vancouver’s expensive enough for the first version.

Kevin lecturing on the importance of projection.
("The Biology of Belief", from Jabbering)

Rob: Now you've got me wondering how you learned to let your inner Dude out, and get your bong to talk... Could you speak about the development of your performance and writing styles? Did one come first, informing and shaping the other, or did they develop in tandem?

Kevin: After “jean jacket or mac?” the next tough decision I had to make in grade eight was between art and acting. I chose the acting route and that made all the difference through my high school years. It helped release and stretch all the characters and voices in my imagination. After graduating from SFU in English Literature (I believe that was your major and alma mater, n’est pas?) [Editor's Note: alma mater, yes; major, no - keep guessing!] I moved to Vancouver, next door to a theater student who encouraged me to audition for a play at the Jericho Arts center. I ended up acting for five years in various productions around town and it allowed me to explore literature from the inside. Instead of analyzing Stoppard’s lines in search of some thesis, I was embodying the character of Rosencrantz. The first poems that I wrote in 2006 and 2007 were very rooted in a dramatis persona, a voice that controlled the content.

These days, a poem might start from a phrase in my head as I bike to work or a line in response to something I’m reading. As I tease out more language, a distinct voice might emerge, but usually it comes from the performance side of reading. Being in front of a bunch of people produces a lot of performative zap and my muscle memory wrenches me into acting mode. That’s where I’ve discovered the “outerwear” of the poems. One might say that when you read a poem silently to yourself it’s naked, but when it’s read out loud it’s dressed in a parka or a minister’s suit. So, here we end at the beginning: T.S. Eliot in a jean jacket or mac?

Rob: Ah, the eternal question. Speaking of beginnings, the first section of Jabbering with Bing Bong, "Nonesuch Surrey" - most of which was first published in your chapbooks Surrey Sonnets (Jackpine Press, 2014) and Pray Goodbye (Alfred Gustav Press, 2013) - is a series of loose sonnets (sonnets in shape and length, if not in rhyme scheme and metre). The sections that follow feature more loose sonnets, prose poems, and poems with consistent stanza lengths. Then, near the end of the book, comes one of its strongest and most formally creative, "Spaces", which uses looping thematic repetition (a "thought rhyme" of sorts, in well-masked quatrains) to drill down into its subject matter. All of this speaks to an interest you appear to have in the controlled (dare I say "restrained"?) use of space on the page, which seems to bump up against your free-wheeling performances (and often-free-wheeling subject matter). Could you speak a bit about your interest in, and resistance to, formal or traditional (looking and/or sounding) poetry?

Kevin: Behind the scenes, my poetry might be seen as tradition-bound in that my work often begins in a feeling or metaphor. A feeling is often a hazy hunch that some idea or image is nearby. A metaphor gives shape to this intuition. This morning, for example, on my ride to work, I realized that I spend too much time in a vulnerable state at work. I’ve been teaching ESL for twenty years, but my feelings still fluctuate wildly from joy to despair. “I leave the door to my heart open all day long, which is just downright ridiculous and lazy,” were the words that came to mind. Metaphors speak to me in some very clear and helpful ways. There are more experimental writers who might equate metaphors with tea cosies, but they’re vital to me as an individual and writer.

“Spaces” got a lot of help from Ken Babstock who, when he heard me say, “The first time I took acid was to understand my dad,” suggested I write a poem with that as a first line. The chiasmic pattern grew out of the tension between memory as it is felt and as it is observed. The pattern also holds together the wildness of its subject matter: schizophrenia and drugs.

It seems to me that the form of any poem is itself a kind of buried metaphor. The compact space of a sonnet brings to mind the quick love poem (an extended pickup line) or some metaphysical argument by John Donne packed with wit. Any repetitive form (villanelle or pantoum) suggests a certain obsessiveness, a turning of words over and over in your mind. (“Spaces” is a kind of repetitive form in my mind.) You can work within the constraints of those forms or try to bust loose. Growing up on heavy-metal, punk rock, and then more experimental music, I’ve learned to enjoy the sound of building and smashing.

Rob: Hey now, that's some pretty dismissive talk about tea cosies. You don't want to fall afoul of Big Cosy, what with all them sharp knitting needles...

In "Nintendo 64" you describe a magic trick (involving an N64 and a VCR) the speaker pulls on his nephews was a "feat that secularized wonder" (p. 32). That line resonated for me - as a minister's son who found himself drawn to poetry instead of the clergy - as speaking to much more than VCR tricks. Do you think there's a connection between your religious upbringing and your current interest in poetry? Do you think of poetry as a "feat that secularizes wonder"?

Kevin, performing miracles.
Kevin: Even before we articulate the wonders of the world, we’re stuck by the fact that language is an invisible technology that evolved out of our mouths. Wonders abound in every direction. In growing up in a church, I learned a language that expressed some of this awe, but in an organized religion’s more fundamental iteration, it’s blind to the gob-smacking wonders of something like evolution. In “Nintendo 64” I take “secularizes wonder” to mean that the VCR trick brings something amazing into my nephew’s ordinary world. It doesn’t flatten wonder, but makes it more available. Yes, poetry is a place open to all kinds of miraculous performances (or at least that’s what I aspire towards).

Rob: A good number of the poems in Jabbering with Bing Bong are set in, or reference, Lumsden (Saskatchewan) and the Sage Hill Writing Experience, which you attended on two occasions: clearly you were very productive during your stays! At the back of the book you thank all of the teachers and participants in both sessions, as well as a few of your teachers and fellow classmates at UBC, where you completed an MFA in Creative Writing. How did attending Sage Hill shape or transform your writing? How do you think this book would have been different if you hadn't attended Sage Hill? And how did it compare with the UBC MFA program?

Kevin: This book wouldn’t exist without my two stays at Sage Hill. Ken Babstock kicked off my sonnet spree and Don McKay led me towards Fenris wolf (a central character in the middle of Jabbering). I have them to thank for so much along with Phil Hall for helping to create such an open atmosphere. It felt like anything was possible. Also, the environment was astonishingly beautiful and allowed for the easy emergence of new ideas and approaches.

UBC was foundational. I had only been writing poetry for a couple of years when I got into the program. (Recently, reading at Salt Spring Island’s wonderful monthly series in their library, a friend in attendance suggested that I’d been writing poetry in the form of flash fiction from 2003 to 2007 and maybe he’s right, but I never thought of it in terms of any poetic tradition.) The first poem I heard at UBC was from Keith Malliard, who read us some John Berryman on the first day of poetry. At the end of the puzzling poem, Keith looked up and laughed, “I mean, what is this?!”

Rob: Jabbering with Bing Bong closes with a series of poems about your father, focused largely on his schizophrenia ("Incompletes", "Spaces", "Living on Borderblur"...). Knowing that you already have a book in the works for 2016 (Ignite, also from Anvil Press) entirely devoted to writing about your father, this left me wondering why these poems were in this book and not the next. How do these poems differ from what's to come in 2016? And, more generally, what can we anticipate from your next book?

Kevin: Jabbering is a kind of bildungsroman, a coming of poetic age and so in order to give a complete picture, I needed to include those poems about my father, but Ignite consists largely of poems written during my MFA at UBC and it’s more focused on my dad as a character, our relationship and schizophrenia itself. Rhea Tregebov, an amazingly big-hearted and brilliant thesis advisor, helped me gain access to medical records of his various stays at Riverview, which I explore through a variety of poetic strategies. With this next book, I have the double role of writer and advocate for mental health issues.


Help us overpopulate the world with Kevins by buying a copy of Jabbering with Bing Bong! You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the Anvil press website, or, if you want to be blind to the gob-smacking wonders of the world, from Amazon.


the logical leap fulcrumed on that conjunction

In his introduction, Thompson writes, “The ghazal proceeds by couplets which (and here, perhaps, is the great interest in the form for Western writers) have no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.” Emphasis mine. I read on: “The ghazal is immediately distinguishable from the classical, architectural, rhetorically and logically shaped English sonnet.” Classical, architectural, rhetorically and logically shaped: this was the poetic world in which I felt comfortable. I like sonnets.

I remembered my professor’s description of the ghazal: the links between the couplets should be “intuitive,” she said, suggested not by story or argument but by “nuance and tone.”

What did this mean?

I thought about the pickup line once administered to me by a young man in the campus pub: “I know you’re a great poet,” he said, “but [but?] would you like to come and smoke a joint in the graveyard with me?”

The logical leap fulcrumed on that conjunction seemed to me to be exactly the sort of thing the ghazal form demanded.

I did not go to smoke a joint in the graveyard. I did not take to the ghazal form.

- Luke Hathaway (formerly Amanda Jernigan), on learning to love John Thompson, in his essay "Under the Influence" over at Partisan. You can read the whole thing here.


each poem, hopefully, has its own drive

Roger Ebert called the cinema an “empathy machine,” and all forms of art have that capacity. I’d say empathy, and outrage, are essential for writing. They’re as essential to writing as they are to living.

But talking about a function that applies to all my poems, or to make it mechanistic, it’s like how adults stress kids out by asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You know, hopefully each one of them gets some kind of gainful employment and doesn’t wind up with the first drip who’s got a Firebird? Each poem, hopefully, has its own drive.

- Stevie Howell, in interview with Kayla Czaga over at PRISM international. You can read the whole thing here.


desk blog count: here comes fourteen!

Oh goodness, it's Christmas in September!

There have been moments when I thought it was over, that the internet was fully saturated and never again would it bless us with another desk blog. And lo, it took me more than a year to find another. But fear not, Deskblogmaniacs, we have found another.

Terri Brandmueller's glasses
Desk blog #14, like #13 before it, is brought to us by a storied Canadian literary magazine: Room (formally Room of One's Own).

Funny, ain't it, that it took Room this long to get in on the writing room photo business? They really should have started things off. What would Virginia think?

Still, it's wonderful to have them on board with the catchily named "3 Room Editors Share Their Writing Rooms With Us", which features the desks of Taryn Hubbard, Terri Brandmueller and Rose Morris.

Here are the mellifluous fourteen:

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 (The New Quarterly)

3 Room Editors Share Their Writing Rooms With Us (Room Magazine)

Is fourteen enough? Of course not! I am really, really nuts for pictures of people's desks.

Keep hunting for more, Deskblogmaniacs! Fifteen is but a web editor's brainstorm away!


your silaron guide to WORD Vancouver 2015

WORD Vancouver is this weekend! Nothing says fall is upon us like nervously wondering if a flash storm will take out all the tents on Homer Street...

The festival has a stellar lineup this year. I will be making my home at the BC Book Prizes table and in the Poetry Bus, where I will be hosting back-to-back readings at the end of the afternoon:

A TWIST OF NATURE (Host: Rob Taylor, Poet)
3:45 pm Jeff Steudel (Adopted by: CUPE)
Foreign Park (Anvil Press $18.00)
4:00 pm Elena Johnson
Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra (Gaspereau Press $17.95)
4:15 pm John Pass (Adopted by: Pulpfiction Books)
Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970–1990) (Harbour Publishing $18.95)

4:30 pm Dead Poets Reading Series
With Evelyn Lau, Sandy Shreve, and Fiona Tinwei Lam. Hosted by Rob Taylor.

I'm also very excited to see the PRISM international reading at 1:30 PM in the Magazine Words "tent" (which I'm pretty sure is a Blenz Coffee?). The reading will feature three poets I published in the Summer 2015 issue, which was my last as poetry editor. The readers are: Aislinn Hunter, Jessie Jones and Laura Matwichuk. It should be fantastic!

Beyond that, there are so many fantastic readings, featuring so many friends-o-silaron, that it's hard to select one or two to highlight. Instead, I decided to pick out the readings featuring folks I've interviewed on the blog over the years.

This way you can do your homework and get a bit of a sense of what you can expect before you walk into the tent... or bus... or maybe Blenz coffee?

11:30 am - Poetry Bus - The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them (Anvil Press $18.00)
With Daniela Elza, Mercedes Eng, Mariner Janes, and Cecily Nicholson. Hosted by Renée Sarojini Saklikar.

12:10 pm - Magazine Words - Room Magazine with Daniela Elza and Meaghan Rondeau
Presented by Room Magazine. Hosted by Bonnie Nish.

12:30 pm - Poetry Bus - Sandy Shreve
Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan Books $19.95)

12:40 pm - Authors' Words - Aislinn Hunter (Adopted by: Monty Reid)
The World Before Us (Anchor Canada $21.00)

1:00 pm - Poetry Bus - Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli (Adopted by: Department of English, SFU)
Rom Com (Talonbooks $17.95)

1:15 pm - Poetry Bus - Raoul Fernandes
Transmitter and Receiver (Nightwood Editions $18.95)

2:00 pm - Poetry Bus - Poetry in Transit
With Beth Kope, Miranda Pearson, Pamela Porter, Michael Kenyon, Kayla Czaga, and Russell Thornton. Hosted by Evelyn Lau.

2:10 pm - Magazine Words - Writing from Life with Ricepaper Magazine
Presented by Ricepaper Magazine. With Fred Wah, Fiona Tinwei Lam, and Leanne Dunic. Hosted by Anna Ling Kaye.

4:00 pm - Poetry Bus - Elena Johnson
Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra (Gaspereau Press $17.95)

Whatever you pick, you really can't go wrong. I could have included so many more excellent readings (new books by Catherine Owen and Charlie Demers, for instance). You can read the whole schedule here.

I hope to see you on Sunday!


paint-by-number artwork

When I first began getting poems in magazines, I knew my poems looked a little more formal than most of the things I saw around, especially in west coast publications. I was using quatrains, counting syllables, and so on. Around the same time, of course, “formalism” was beginning to display force in Canada. But I’ve never been interested in form for form’s sake, or for trying to show off, or for trying to gain false authority. A lot of contemporary formal poetry reminds me of paint-by-number artwork. It’s unnatural, laboured, and empty. I’ve always been attracted to authentic heightened natural speech. I think adept use of form can help with that — but certainly not always. At the very least, poetic form can serve as somewhere to hang one’s hat, so to speak. It can aid in the control that is a basic principle in poetry. In my own case, I’ve been profoundly affected by my discovering that emotion can usher me into form without my initially dictating that form. It’s a humbling experience. Do you know that incredible poem by Emily Dickinson? The first line is “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”. The emotion is foremost. There’s that Ezra Pound pronouncement: “Only emotion endures.” If you happen to start with form, and emotion, thought, and imaginative energy don’t take over pretty quickly, form is nothing.

- Russell Thornton, in interview with Catherine Graham over at The Rusty Toque. You can read the whole thing here.


The Revolving City

I'm very pleased to have a poem in the new poetry anthology The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them (ed. Renee Saklikar and Wayde Compton. Anvil Press, 2015). The anthology is a celebration of the work of poets who have read at SFU's Lunch Poems reading series, which is a pretty damn neat way to celebrate a reading series (something I think we don't do nearly enough of here in Vancouver). Poets who'd previously read as part of the series were invited to submit poems (mine is "The Wailing Machines" from The Other Side of Ourselves) and short commentaries on their composition.

The list of contributors is pretty wonderful:

Jordan Abel, Joanne Arnott, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Dennis E. Bolen, George Bowering, Tim Bowling, Colin Browne, Stephen Collis, Wayde Compton, Peter Culley, Jen Currin, Phinder Dulai, Daniela Elza, Mercedes Eng, Maxine Gadd, Heidi Greco, Heather Haley, Ray Hsu, Aislinn Hunter, Mariner Janes, Reg Johanson, Wanda John-Kehewin, Rahat Kurd, Sonnet L’Abbé, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Evelyn Lau, Christine Leclerc, Donato Mancini, Daphne Marlatt, Susan McCaslin, Kim Minkus, Cecily Nicholson, Billeh Nickerson, Juliane Okot Bitek, Catherine Owen, Miranda Pearson, Meredith Quartermain, Jamie Reid, Rachel Rose, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Jordan Scott, Sandy Shreve, George Stanley, Rob Taylor, Jacqueline Turner, Fred Wah, Betsy Warland, Calvin Wharton, Rita Wong, Changming Yuan, and Daniel Zomparelli.

If you're interested in picking up a copy, the anthology is being launched this Wednesday at 5:45 PM at SFU Harbour Centre. You can get all the details here.

The anthology will also be featured at WORD Vancouver this Sunday, with an 11:30 AM spot on the Poetry Bus. You can read the whole WORD schedule here.

Thank you so much to Renee, Wayde and the rest of the Lunch Poems/Anvil Press team for making this anthology happen, and for letting me slip a poem in there!


as much as the world is willing to offer

Looking back, I think I was too green to have more than an inkling of what I was reading. But that intimation — naive, inarticulate, confounding — approached the mystical. And I’m still after that as a reader, the place where meaning shimmers like a heat-haze over the world’s everyday presence; seeming, at once, to rise from the details of our lives and to exist beyond them; to almost and nearly say who we are, and why. Which seems to be as much as the world is willing to offer by way of explanation.

- Michael Crummey, on his first encounters with poetry, from his essay "Afterwords: An Introduction to Poetry" in the Spring 2015 issue (#134) of The New Quarterly. You can read the whole (retitled) thing here.


bassackwards and geezly and paralyzed - "Waiting for the Albatross" by Sandy (and Jack) Shreve

May Day - Sandy (and Jack) Shreve

I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.
The “storm petrels” I saw yesterday lived up to their name
and we’re rolling all over the ocean.

We got that damned rice for dessert, and stewed prunes
but the officers got apple dumplings and fancy biscuits.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.

In the water alongside us, a huge shark was rolling back
and forth and every once in a while turned belly up
as we rolled all over the ocean.

Told steward about the maggots we found in our biscuits. “Fresh
meat” as they call it or no, I’d sooner starve than eat that filthy food.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.

We’ve been taking some pretty bad rolls. Got a snap
of the Bon Scot heeled right over and dipping her starboard rails
with her infernal tossing and rolling.

We’ve taken several seas and lots of spray; I got caught
in one and was washed to the side.
I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day
while we’re rolling all over the ocean.

from Waiting for the Albatross
(Oolichan Books, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.


Interview #23 (!) on this blog and I've finally begun repeating myself. With interviewees, that is. I've been repeating the same half-baked questions for quite a while...

I couldn't think of a better person to return to than Interviewee #7 Sandy Shreve, who I first spoke with back in 2012 about an American anthology of villanelles which included one of her poems. At that point, Sandy was already well at work on what would become her fifth poetry collection, Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan Books, 2015).

Waiting for the Albatross is a book of found poems drawn out of her father Jack Shreve's diary from his five-month trip working aboard the freighter Canadian Scottish. In it Sandy and Jack drop us into a world of depression-era hard labour, featuring fist fights and exotic ports-of-call to break up the day-to-day drudgery.

Part history, part memoir, and all poetry, Waiting for the Albatross is quite a book. Though all the words are Jack's, Sandy's style works its way in there, and you find yourself hearing two voices at once, separated by almost eighty years. A father and daughter reunited.

Sandy has two readings scheduled for WORD Vancouver (September 27th, Library Square, Vancouver):

12:30 PM, Waiting for the Albatross reading, Poetry Bus

4:30 PM, Dead Poets Reading Series reading (Reading PK Page), Poetry Bus

Full schedule here.

In anticipation of the WORD events, Sandy and I sat down to chat on all things Albatross. I hope you enjoy the result!

Sandy Shreve, with trees, auditioning to be the next Minnesota Timberwolves mascot.

Rob: When I first interviewed you in Spring 2012, for the Villanelles anthology, you mentioned then that you'd written a number of villanelles as part of “a sequence of 22 found-poems I crafted using fragments from a journal my father kept while working on a freighter in 1936.” And now, three years later, here you are with Waiting for the Albatross, a book of 37 found poems from your father's journal. Can you walk us through the journey from diary to sequence to book, and from 0 to 22 to 37? At what point in the process did Oolichan become involved?

Sandy: I first got the idea for the found poems when I was transcribing the diary for what turned into a family project. I produced a typed-up version of the diary that included the photos from the trip and information about Dad’s life later on, as well as tons of annotations, which I added to explain passing references to things like ‘Daddy Neptune’ (a crossing-the-equator ‘ceremony’), a supposed ‘man-eating monster’ (actually giant tortoises – that are herbivores) of the Galapagos, and so on. This got to be pretty long, so I decided to divide it into chapters – and at some point it occurred to me it might be fun to start each one with a poem I’d write using words, phrases, etc., from that particular section. In the end, I had 11 chapters and 11 poems. I sent the finished product off to everyone in the family, they all loved it, and I thought I was done.

Until a few months later, when I started getting ideas for more found poems – and another 11 poured out. What to do? I’d already printed and distributed the annotated diary… So I made a little chapbook – just 30 copies – and gave it to friends and some family members who one way or another had helped me with the family project. Now, I was done!

Except. A few months later, still more poems came knocking. In the end I had another 10 (five of the pieces in Waiting for the Albatross are prose excerpts taken straight from Dad’s journal).

Then serendipity took over. I got to talking with Randal MacNair at Word on the Street [ed. note: since renamed WORD Vancouver] that year (2012), and he told me he was starting to publish books combining poetry and photos. When I told him about what I had, he asked me to send it to him. I did, he accepted it and Oolichan produced this beautiful book.

Rob: Yes, isn't it inconveniently wonderful when the poems keep knocking? In reading Waiting for the Albatross I was struck by a sense that poems (or prose, in his case) kept knocking for your father, too. Throughout the book he always seems like the writer in the room, surrounded by drinking, womanizing, and drudgery – participating sometimes, but always right back into his room to record it all, often with a good deal of style. Were you doing the same at his age, filling notebooks with observations?

Sandy: At his age – 21 – I was on the cusp of a five-year writer’s block! But up to then I’d always written poems – terrible, teen-aged angst poems for the most part, but I was devoted to poetry and bad as the poems were, I was learning a lot about the craft from those efforts. I was never a diarist, though I’ve always had notebooks in which I scribble random thoughts and ideas that might get used in poems at some point.

Rob: Did reading the diary change the way you thought about your dad, or your relationship with him?

Sandy: When I read the diary – the first time and every time after – I recognized my father. His handwriting. His voice – oh, that voice – I could hear him, absolutely, in every word and turn of phrase. But this was a much younger version of the man I knew. I recognized his argumentative, opinionated, side; the outdoorsman; the man who loved desserts and sweets; the smoker; the storyteller – absolutely, the storyteller! But I didn’t recognize the naïve and somewhat ‘green’, young guy who was so easily shocked by the behaviour of the crew, frightened by the rough side of life on the docks, intensely shy around women… (Speaking of women – I found it interesting that he almost always used the word ‘woman’, and rarely ‘girl’. Today it’s the other way round… a lot of men seem much more comfortable with ‘girl’ than ‘woman’…)

Sandy and Jack, 1952
I know you know that losing a parent when you’re young can be tough (my Dad died when I was 14). For me, it’s been a lifelong journey, coming to terms with that loss. I’ve gone from rage at my Dad for dying – and thinking of him as an awful person – to embracing him as all but perfect. None of this is part of Waiting for the Albatross – but definitely, reading the journal did change how I thought about him. It helped me put him into perspective, get some kind of balanced view of who he really was (though I suspect I still lean toward over-admiration, toward being overly proud of him). I wrote about this aspect of the diary’s impact on me in a long poem, “Heartbeat”, in my 3rd book (Belonging, Sono Nis: 1997). That poem ends, “There is no villain here, and no saint // I touch my fingers to paper / feel at last the pulse of the ordinary human heart / of my father.”

Rob: That's really beautiful. I'll have to seek that poem out (speaking of 14, I was that age when "Heartbeat" was published. Far more "boy" than "man," that's for sure!). And yes, I agree, both about the lifelong journey and the inevitable leaning towards over-admiration. But I think we're both in a good place when we can over-admire. Others aren't so lucky.

Continuing on this theme of "looking back", I'd like to talk for a moment about the "old" forms you use in Waiting for the Albatross. As mentioned above, the book features a number of villanelles, but also a great number of other forms, especially repetitive forms. In 2012 you noted “I wanted to use [forms featuring refrains] because they seemed to me to reflect the recurring routines of life on a freighter and thus, the repetitions in Dad’s journal.” The forms were certainly successful in this regard.

Beyond the mechanics of the forms themselves, though, I felt the use of traditional forms in itself reinforced the book's project – to revive and restore a moment in history. Old forms brought forward into the present bearing old words brought forward into the present. Was this important to you?

Sandy: Oh, bringing forward those ‘old’ words and expressions Dad used – some he made up, others very much of that era – is crucial. They’re a big part of what brings the story to life. Words like “bassackwards” and “geezly” and “paralyzed” (meaning drunk); expressions like “have a look-see” and “Blue Hades”; “absolutely daffy,” “dinky die” (from New Zealand) and “jumped right clear” (still very much a Maritimes turn of phrase) – it was pure joy to work with such vivid language.

I’d like to say something, too, about the mechanics of those forms. I wasn’t really conscious of this in the writing – but more than one reader, after finishing the book, has told me that all those refrains make the poems sound very colloquial; they are so like the way people tell their stories – with lots of repetition. I love it, that the forms strike readers that way!

Rob: Do you think similar impulses drive your interest in traditional forms and your interest in history, specifically your family history?

Sandy: I’ve never made a connection between my interests – history and form poetry – so if there is a link, I’m not sure I could identify it. When I was young I almost always wrote rhymed and metred stanzas or sonnets. When I started writing poems again in the mid-70s, it was usually in free verse. My renewed interest in traditional forms didn’t really pick up again until the late 80s, when Kirsten Emmott brought a pantoum she’d written to a meeting of the Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union. From that moment on, I was hooked.

As to history, I’ve always been interested in it (it was my major in university), especially Canadian history. And I’ve always been drawn to what’s old; the older the better. So the minute I first picked up my Dad’s diary and letters, I loved holding them – the feel and smell of that fragile, sepia paper;
the aqua and blue fountain-pen ink, the handwriting. Partly, of course, that’s because they were my Dad’s; but also, it was just their age…

As for family history – I’m probably no more or less drawn to this than the next person; like anyone, I get pretty excited when I run across a good family story! But I don’t think of this book as family history so much as I consider it oral history from a particular era – the ‘dirty thirties’. We generally hear more, I think, about the unemployed during those years than we do about the employed. So it feels to me like an important addition to the history of that time.

Rob: I completely agree - it certainly gave a lens to a time and place that were very unfamiliar to me.

As we've been exploring, this book is not just a suite of poems, but is also a history book and a memoir. Obviously, a book of poems can be all these things simultaneously, it doesn't have to be one or another. Still, in the composition and editing process you must have faced any number of forks in the road (Do I keep something in for historical purposes, even if it clunks up the line a bit?), and now when you're on the marketing end questions must abound about where and how to promote the book. Could you talk a bit about the push and pull between poetic and historical goals? Did it feel like a tug-of-war, or was it generally more harmonious?

Sandy A bit of both, actually, Rob. At first, I wanted to include every intriguing nugget in the poems. For example, Dad or one of the crew frequently would mention, in passing, something that led me to go research it (such as workers’ deaths during the construction of the Panama Canal or the League of Nations’ oil embargo on Italy in response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia). The historian in me wanted to include it all – but I just wasn’t able to make compelling poetry out of everything. And then, there was the question of focus for the book. I think partly the reason I wasn’t able to ‘mine’ every detail that fascinated me, was that to include everything would create too many tangents, start to turn the book into a bit of a hodgepodge. So, in the end I decided to focus on what the diary itself dives into most deeply – the work the men did, the conditions they lived in, and their often volatile relationships… as I’ve said elsewhere, it covers everything ‘from sing-alongs on the poop deck to fist-fights in the foc’sle.’ Beyond that, I included a few pieces that provide context (poems like “News,” “Cargo,” “Souvenirs,” and “Stamps” for instance).

Having made that decision, it became easier to decide what to include or not based on the amount of detail Dad did or didn’t give. I wanted the poems and stories to be all in his words, his voice. So if, to make sense of a reference to something, I’d have to add my own words to his in the poem – then it didn’t make the cut. On the other hand, if I could fill in the gap with a simple note to the poem, or with a glossary entry (both are at the back of the book), then I’d try to fit it in – but even then, I wasn’t always able to come up with a poem that was good enough to keep.

Rob: When you were young, did your father ever talk about any of the people he sailed with? "Wheeler" or "William" or the Bos'n? If he did, did it help shape an image of them in your mind, and did that image clash at all with the characters as you found described in the journal?

Sandy: Really, all I remember was that he said he had this diary, and offered to let me read it. I wasn’t interested! In my fifties, when I finally did read it, I wished I’d taken him up on that offer. Had I read his diary when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have found ‘boys’ so alien and, frankly, terrifying.

Rob: Ha! I would have thought it would have had the opposite effect on you, reading about all those boys womanizing and boxing each other around the head. We all read things differently, I guess!

Speaking of which, in what ways do you think a reader's sense of your father and his time on the Canadian Scottish would be different if they read his diary directly, instead of Waiting for the Albatross? In what ways do you think it would be the same?

Sandy: I hope, essentially, there wouldn’t be a big difference. Mostly, reading the diary, readers would find out about all kinds of details, from the movies and monuments they saw while ashore to the novels they read at sea, that I couldn’t, or decided not to, include in this book. As to my father – I’m pretty sure the man you meet in Waiting for the Albatross is the same man you meet in the diary.


You'd be really bassackwards if you didn't pick up a copy of Waiting for the Albatross. You can do so at your local bookstore, or, if you want that albatross hanging around your neck, from Amazon.