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.