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.


Two Purdy Updates

Two announcements on the Al Purdy A-frame front!

First off, the A-frame trust is now accepting applications for 2017 Residencies! Applications must be postmarked by October 16th. Click here for all the info.

Also, Al Purdy Was Here, the new Purdy/A-frame documentary from Brian Johnson, is set to premiere in Toronto at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shows will be on Tuesday, September 15th and Thursday, September 17th. More details here.

All of us poor bastards living outside Toronto will have to wait for our chance to see it. For now, maybe the trailer will tide us over? It's got Margaret Atwood playing pool, Pamela Wallin doing something other than walking in or out of a courtroom, and some good old fashioned deck scrubbing. What more could we need?


timor mortis

The knowledge that we will all die is a strange dark flower on the long history of human cognitive evolution. It may be the concept that more than anything else - more than the language we use to express it, more than the emotional capacity to grieve it and the episodic memory we use to recall it - marks the decisive branching of homo sapiens sapiens from our hominid ancestors. Death is what came into the garden when we ate the apple of knowledge. It came to us not as a punishment, but simply because it is the unavoidable consequence of having a certain capacity to know, to travel in time and see that we will not be alive forever. Whatever that final tweak of cognitive capacity was, we have spent the millenia since trying to incorporate the knowledge and manage the dilemma that results. How do you live a meaningful life when you know it's going to end?


Certainly, as a way of coping with the thought of death, we often turn to thoughts about other 'bigger' structures that may be immune to it. But we don't do this simply to bury our fear under a cortical carpet and stomp the rug down. The response is not entirely about suppression, about stopping yourself thinking about something unpleasant. It is an active response in order to resolve a situation, take control of it - because you must take steps to deal, not just with the present fear but also the future reality. The tiger will get you, so what are you going to do about it if you are not to remain paralyzed?

So some people write poems.

- Alice Major, from her essay "The Wide and Starry Sky: Falling in Love with the Poem" in the Summer 2015 (#135) issue of The New Quarterly.