a wayward weirdo

Rejection, interestingly, ended up being a useful teacher in the process. I would bundle three or four of what I considered to be my most well crafted poems and include a little weirdo to round out the submission batch. Most all of the poems were rejected most all of the time, but when one would find a home, it was often a wayward weirdo, a poem where I quite palpably did not know what I was doing. And in grappling with that bewilderment, I’d had to reach outside what I knew and write toward what I didn’t.

- Michael Bazzett, from his essay "How Fetishizing ‘Craft’ Can Get in the Way of a Good Poem" over at Literary Hub. You can read the whole thing here.


to be read by people for whom poetry is an unnatural word

I really am angry at poets - and there are enough of them around, and I try not to be one of them - whose poetry has to show their great learning, and whose poetry is continually moving away from the average person who might happen to pick up a book and begin leafing. I think many poets - and I could name them, but I won't - do a disservice to you or me or other people who might have the same sorts of ambitions... I would like to be read by people for whom poetry is an unnatural word. We've been talking about this, you and I, we know that there's a whole bunch of people - whom we don't look down at for it - for whom poetry is an alien concept, and they shake their heads and turn and look somewhere else. Fine... But I do want to allow that person whom one imagines is the "non-poetry reader" who randomly picks up the book, I don't want to have him or her turn away from it and put it down and say "Oh, I always knew I disliked poetry" and then start looking wherever they normally look.

- Don Coles, in discussion with Jay Ruzesky, from Ruzesky's short video "Don Coles: Fire to a Trail of Thought". You can watch the whole thing here, or in the embedded video below:

Don Coles: Fire to a Trail of Thought from Jay Ruzesky on Vimeo.


January Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch (Alice MacKay room) on January 14th, 2018, from 3-5 PM.

It will feature:

Richard Brautigan, read by Kelsey Klassen
Don Coles, read by Rob Taylor
Czesław Miłosz, read by Bethany Hindmarsh
Helene Rosenthal, read by Cynthia Flood

Attendance is free. Visit the DPRS website for more info on the series.

And yes, the Rob Taylor in the list above is me...

It's been almost five years since I last read at the series. I read Jack Gilbert in March 2013 (and wrote a little about Gilbert at the time here):

Me (Jack Gilbert), Aislinn Hunter (Marina Tsvetaeva) and Bren Simmers (Jane Kenyon)
When I thought of reading Don Coles' poetry this time around, the poems I would read came quickly. As with Gilbert, I've been a fan for a long, long time, with many a dog-eared book on my shelf. I've similarly admired Coles' interviews, most especially this long interview with Evan Jones, from the Manchester Review (from which I've twice quoted on this blog).

I was also very fortunate, in the last few years of his life, to get to know Don personally. He was as kind and encouraging to me as Richard Sanger described him in a recent Walrus profile, and I have so many good things to say for the role Don's poetry, interviews and friendship have played in my development as a writer. But, for now at least, I will save them for January.

I hope to see you there.


absorbed and shaken

You know, the day of the Forward Prizes in 2014, when I was there with my first-born, I had a cup of tea with another poet who had just become a parent too, and they told me that their editor, a very prominent and respected male poet, had told them not to write about becoming a parent - “allow yourself one or two” he’d said “but any more and it’s just embarrassing”. That story haunted me during my son’s first years although for a long time I felt ashamed rather than angry about it, because I believed it was true. I thought ‘Writing about this is the one thing keeping me alive, and it’s seen as embarrassing?’ Embarrassing! For who? Embarrassing to be a mother and to think about being a mother and to be absorbed by it and shaken by it? Embarrassing to make life, to make a creature with a soul, to have felt life and death move so closely?

- 2014 Forward Prize winner Liz Berry on writing about motherhood, in conversation with Natalya Anderson over at The Poetry Extension. You can read the whole thing here.


Poetry London Review of "The News"

This review of The News originally appeared on the Poetry London website in advance of my reading there in November 2017. I'm archiving it here. Great thanks to Katarina Meneses for her thoughtful read. 

You can find links to other reviews of The News on my website.


Delivering Big News Through Poetry: Rob Taylor’s The News
By Katarina Meneses

Rob Taylor’s The News is a collection of poems divided into the number of weeks of his wife’s pregnancy. On the surface, the collection of narrative poetry concerns itself with a soon-to-be father adjusting his life to prepare for his new child. However, it is a much deeper story that unexpectedly makes a connection to the reader with its down to earth plot. As each week passes, the narrator discusses topical events of that week, from having guests over for Christmas and discussing the famous cranberry sauce, to the devastating news of countless shootings due to persistent racism in North America:

Thirty-Eight Weeks

in the summer of your birth
“See You Again” topped the charts
and I lost track of the shootings.
By police. Of police…

When people discover that they will become new parents, many resort to a variety of parenting books to successfully raise their new child. Taylor, on the other hand, decided to write his own instead. The book is enjoyable as it makes connections to the real world with the news events that were happening, such as a policeman being shot, or more racism. The narrator discusses everything from accompanying his wife for her ultrasounds to experiencing anxiety over his child possibly having a disorder. The poems make each situation feel incredibly real through Taylor’s narrative voice, as it feels conversational. These are ordinary things that new parents go through and may be able to relate to:

Twenty Weeks

First thing in the door we pinned up
the scans, pass them from kitchen
to bathroom to bed. You could be
anyone, but we pause and insist –
you’re this one, this one.

The book not only tracks the progress of the unborn child; it also tracks the growth that both the husband and wife go through to prepare themselves for the life-changing moment when their child comes into the world. His wife’s name is finally revealed, a first for any of Taylor’s works, showing their relationship changing as they grow together.

It is interesting to note that Taylor has decided to take passages from other writers (such as Grace Paley, Rebecca Solnit, Albert Camus) and incorporates them into his work. At first it may seem odd because he is archiving his own experience with his first child, but delving deeper, readers can see how well it fits with his own work: ultimately, he is expressing how deep his experience is by making connections with others throughout history.

“Sixteen Weeks” contains a passage that illuminates the fear parents go through, wondering if their child will be healthy or will suffer complications. Taylor expresses his worries in each week, but week sixteen is the one that stands out the most as they go to the doctor’s office to get a checkup; even though they are given good news, Taylor always thinks there is that small chance that something could go wrong, as it always seems to be proven in the daily headlines.

Sixteen Weeks

The bloodwork is in –
a 1 in 20,000 chance
this will all go to hell
so we go to the phones
and you’re out…
…The technician’s
voice when she told us
our odds couldn’t be better –
all other numbers she delivers
are worse.

Overall, the collection is incredibly enjoyable as the poems seem realistic and relatable. Although the book may be most appealing to parents, the book is great for all, as it opens the minds of readers to realize the anxieties of welcoming a new life into the world, which is incredibly difficult as portrayed by Rob Taylor in The News.


a rule to which I was an exception

Do we need to muster the political will required to take the measures still available? Absolutely. But do we also need to consider how to encounter the reality of climate change, how to feel it, how to live with feeling it? I think we do, though it scares me. T.S. Eliot wrote in the opening to “Four Quartets” that “human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” I used to think he was writing about other people, about a rule to which I was an exception, but I’m humbler now and see myself in his words. I can handle only so much.

- Sue Sinclair, from her essay "As the World Ends, Has the Time for Grieving Arrived?", originally published in Brick. You can read the whole thing, republished on Lit Hub, here.


"Oh Not So Great" Giveaway

This title sure does lead to some awkward post titles...

Leading up to the January 20th Vancouver Book Launch of "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project, I will be giving away two copies of the book over at Goodreads. The contest is free to enter - all you need is a Goodreads account.

Just click the button below to enter. Good luck!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

"Oh Not So Great" by Rob  Taylor

"Oh Not So Great"

by Rob Taylor

Giveaway ends January 19, 2018.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


Reading Tour Report

As per tradition, here's a photo of the foolishly large pile of books I came back with from my recent book tour. Eighteen in total, up from last year's twelve, though still better than 2011's twenty-four. And technically five of them came with me from Vancouver, with the goal of getting them signed by the authors (a success with Chris Banks, a spectacular "forgotten-in-Hamilton" failure with Roo Borson).

Here they are, with notes on their city of acquisition:

The Essential Richard Outram, ed. Amanda Jernigan (Hamilton)
Cardinal in the Eastern White Cedar, Roo Borson (London)
Descent of Man, TC Boyle (Toronto)
Wherever We Mean to Be, Robyn Sarah (Toronto)
Personal History, Roo Borson (Vancouver)
Rain; road; an open boat, Roo Borson (Vancouver)
Night Walk, Roo Borson (Vancouver)
Short Journey Upriver toward Oishida, Roo Borson (Toronto)
The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory, Chris Banks (Vancouver)
Englishing, Dominique Bernier-Cormier (Toronto)
The Celery Forest, Catherine Graham (Toronto)
Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, Catherine Graham (Toronto)
Bonfires, Chris Banks (Toronto)
Earth and Heaven: An Anthology of Myth Poetry, ed. Amanda Jernigan (Hamilton)
A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory, ed. Robert Finley (Toronto)
Retreats, Karen Solie (Toronto)
Variations on a Grapple, John Haney and Amanda Jernigan (Hamilton)
Living in the Orchard: the poetry of Peter Sanger, Amanda Jernigan (Hamilton)

I stayed rather disciplined until I arrived at Knife Fork Book in Toronto, and then everything went to hell. What a lovely shop and reading space, and now home (hopefully only temporarily) to a couple copies of The News and "Oh Not So Great".

Knife Fork Book, Toronto
A highlight of the trip was a really wonderful reading in Cobourg with my good friend Liz Ross, who is much-of-the-way pregnant and who had someone approach her after the reading and say "I thought to myself, 'She'd better read first or there's going to be poetry all over the floor!'", which was the grossest and most delightful thing I heard all trip.

Liz Ross, Cobourg

Reading in Toronto with two poets I deeply admire, Chris Banks and Catherine Graham, was another highlight, as was a reading at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, complete with CanLit caricatures on the wall!

Art Bar in Toronto!

Lashing Lenny...

and Little Red Peggy.

After that I forgot to take pictures, but the readings just kept getting better. London and Hamilton were so good to me they made me blush.

Thanks to everyone who came out to my readings, bought books, didn't actively heckle throughout my sets, etc. etc. And to the organizers of the various series' - a deep thank you, and: wow! We don't have our act together out here on the West Coast, not compared to you. It was amazing to see how communities rally around their series' and the touring authors who come through. Something to work toward out here.


"Oh Not So Great" Vancouver Book Launch

The launch itself will be oh yes so great, of course.

I'm excited to announce the Vancouver launch of "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project!

The event will be a first for me - a collaboration between poets and doctors to create an evening focused on the intersection of mental health and art, with the book's poems at its centre. The evening will be hosted by Fiona Tinwei Lam, whose anthology The Bright Well: Contemporary Canadian Poems on Facing Cancer, also published by Leaf Press, very much inspired my choice to send the "Oh Not So Great" manuscript to Leaf.

Before my reading, short introductions to the book and the research behind it will be presented by Dr. Alan Bates, President of the BC Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Patricia Gabriel, who dreamed up the depression project and recruited me back in 2011 to join her as the project's resident poet.

Following the reading a short panel discussion will take place among all the participants. The whole thing will take around an hour and there will be more-than-enough free snacks and plenty of very affordable books for you to take home. Our hope is the event will appeal to poetry fans, physicians and people living with, or curious about, depression, alike.

The details:

“Oh Not So Great”: Poems from the Depression Project Vancouver Book Launch
UBC Medical Student Alumni Centre (MSAC)
January 20th, 2018
7 PM Doors, 7:30 PM Start
2750 Heather Street, Vancouver (Next to VGH)
Hosted by Fiona Tinwei Lam
Introductions by Dr. Alan Bates and Dr. Patricia Gabriel, and a panel discussion to follow.
Free, and free appetizers!
Books for sale!

You can RSVP via the Facebook event page here.

I hope to see you there!


collapsed into something coherent - "The Habitual Be" by Chimwemwe Undi

listing (V.) - Chimwemwe Undi
in dog years, I am dead. in Black years, alive.
so: exceptional, increasingly so. I ask strangers
for directions on pocket scraps & build myself
a map home as cohesive as a litany
i am having trouble remembering.
i am having trouble remembering
there are too many bodies in this room built for bodies
we are magic typecast as disappearing acts. history
whispered into memories.
& easier things:
1. the prime ministers in chronological order,
2. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos,
3. the angle at which the earth leans, shaking us off like water
there is too much to say
for this mouth built for praying
there are too many names to unhear
so I don’t have to remember
or truly, repeat to meaninglessness
or truly, forget them,
outrage a poor mnemonic device
I am having trouble remembering
I am forgetting & that is the worst part
I cannot hold a name long enough
to know it. even the faces are growing statistical,
the write ups into archives. I know guilt better
than grief, as well as a restlessness,
better than a Black body breathing still

from The Habitual Be
(Akashic Books/APBF, 2017).
Reprinted with permission.

The Habitual Be
by Chimwemwe Undi
Last year I interviewed Ngwatilo Mawiyoo about her poetry chapbook Dagoretti Corner, which appeared as part of the 2016 incarnation of the New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set. Ngwatilo was living in Vancouver at the time, and it was a great joy this year to see that another poet with Canadian connections, Winnipeg's own Chimwemwe Undi, is featured in the 2017 edition.

The series, helmed by poets Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, is now in its fourth year and continues to grow (this year's edition features ten chapbooks, up from eight in 2016). It's one of the best, most eclectic, most engaging reads you'll have each year, and I can't recommend it enough.

This goes doubly for Chimwemwe Undi's The Habitual Be. The chapbook is equal parts personal and political: its politics infused into its intimate relationships; its relationships anchoring its politics in real bodies and lives. Its poems explore what we can learn from one another (across cultures, across histories, across the disparate parts of ourselves), and the limitations of that learning, be the subject apartheid, Indigenous reconciliation, romantic relationships, or religious faith.

"These are poems to break a spell," says Tsitsi Jaji in her introduction to the chapbook, and I couldn't agree with her more. But also, they cast their own. New spells, better ones. Songs, really. Full of doubt and limitations and hopeful, good thought.

I was lucky enough to chat with Chimwemwe about her chapbook this fall, and the conversation touched on the aforementioned politics, the inspirations for her poems, how spoken word has shaped her page poetry, and much more. I hope you enjoy!

Chimwemwe Undi doesn't ever have scraps of paper falling out of her pockets
because she carries five laptops with her at all times.
Photo: Derek Ford Studios.

Rob: The opening lines of The Habitual Be's first poem, "listing (V.)", are as arresting as any opening lines I've read in quite some. How did they come to you, and at what point in the process of writing the poem? More generally, would you say there is a common way in which you "build" your poems out? Do you usually start with an idea, an image, a line?

Chimwemwe: This poem is a big example of how coming up through spoken word has influenced my writing. That little bait-and-switch at the beginning elicits audience laughter and then, usually, a sigh or murmur exactly when their guard is down. The first line of this poem, I saw on a hat at a truck stop, bizarrely enough, and jotted down in my smartphone notepad. Most of my poems are born like that, from disconnected ideas found and gathered over the course of living, and then eventually woven together or rather, like, collapsed into something coherent.

My writing style is about 90% scavenging. I imagine if I was living and writing before the time of the smartphone, I’d be that caricatural poet with scraps of paper falling out of their pockets.

Rob: In her introduction to your chapbook, poet and academic Tsitsi Jaji notes that "These poems... bear witness to Southern Africans' deep history of itinerate being." And your bio attests to this, listing Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Manitoba (both "Treaty 1 territory" and "Winnipeg") as places of personal grounding. The poems themselves move between Africa and Canada, often quite fluidly ("My father says (laughing) that Anishinaabe sounds African"). How do you think place shapes a person?

Chimwemwe: Reading Tsitsi’s incredibly generous intro to my chapbook is one of the greatest joys I have experienced as a writer, I will say that. I’m an immigrant who has never really called another place home. I’ve always had a Canadian passport, but lived much of my life in southern African countries that are not the countries my parents grew up in. I have a name and a body that a lot of people read as a neon sign indicating I am not truly from here, and that has, to an extent, been true everywhere I have been. Place has shaped me and my work a huge amount, but more often by rejecting some part of me than by really grounding me in any way.

Rob: "I’m an immigrant who has never really called another place home" - that's a striking thought, and connects a bit with your poem "Mzungu". The poem is about a young interracial relationship gone bad, and it takes ideas of "the other" and grounds them in the personal, and in the body. The title itself (a word used in many East and Southern African languages to refer to white people, but which technically means something more along the lines of "wanderer" or "foreigner") feels particularly apt. Who, or what, is being addressed by the title (the boy's whiteness, his gender, or the speaker's own foreignness in the situation) seems to shift around as the poem advances. How, and when in the process or writing the poem, did you come to that title? What does the word mzungu mean to you now, writing it in Winnipeg outside of the context of its usual usage, as an "immigrant who has never really called another place home"?

Chimwemwe: The context of this poem has changed, as has its referent. I will say the piece is less about a specific relationship than about unlearning to pursue the stereotypical white male protagonist as dictated by heteronormativity and white supremacy and, like, the Disney Channel. Mzungu, by itself, to me, has always been as much adjective as noun, and uttered in isolation, describes a sense of both cluelessness and entitlement that is magnified when that mzungu is on their home turf, so to speak.

Rob: Speaking of your "home turf" of Winnipeg/Treay 1 Territory, The Habitual Be features a number of poems which touch in one way or another on Indigenous issues in Canada, most explicitly "Sangena", where you compare South African apartheid with Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples. You write, "and why should it be different? / What is different?", then later "Suddenly we are turning two blind eyes and pretending that they are blue." How has your background shaped your thinking on the politics around Indigenous issues in Canada? And vice versa, how has your awareness of Indigenous issues affected your thinking about Southern African politics and history?

Chimwemwe: My understanding of southern African history, and indeed of Canadian history, is emerging, and consists of a lot of unlearning and assessing what I feel I already know. My master’s thesis dealt partially with the South African government’s attempt to foster reconciliation without fully and critically acknowledging what was being reconciled and why. This is something I see here in Canada: an attempt to decolonize without unmaking the colony, and I’m frustrated by and fascinated with these tensions and the ways that colonialism imitates itself as it makes nations and spreads across them. This shows up in my poetry, in my activism and teaching, and probably in my water cooler banter.

Rob: Ha! And "decolonize without unmaking the colony" - yes, exactly!

Most of the poems in The Habitual Be are lineated, while "Sangena" is largely a prose poem, and "A History of Houses Built Out of Spite" is, strikingly, a lineated poem presented as prose, but with slashes to mark the intended line breaks. Could you speak a bit about your feelings around lineated v. prose poems, and the choice you made in "A History of Houses..." to straddle the two? How do you think each influences the reader's experience of the poem?

Chimwemwe: It might be a result of not having any formal training in poetics, but I don’t necessarily have strong and consistent feelings about form. I’m not attached to any structure or even genre, necessarily. I don’t think of myself as primarily a spoken word artist, but I’m as driven by sound as even the most dedicated performance poet. The vast majority of my poems are read aloud again and again, in private and in front of audiences, before a single non-me reads the poems, so, often, the music of the work is in my body before I think seriously about how to represent it on the page, and when I think about form earlier than that, it’s to remind myself what the poem should sound like when I read it next.

Rob: Could you speak more general about the influence spoken word has had on your page poetry, both the poems themselves and the way you present them on the page?

Chimwemwe: Eve Ewing tweeted “They lied to you about what poetry is” and I was like, true, they did. Spoken word exposed me to new truths about what poems can be, and the contemporary class of poets, especially American poets of colour who are openly and proudly influenced by spoken word and hip hop, constantly remind me that there are many, many truths about what poems can be, and look like, and feel like, and make me feel.

As far as the page, specifically, I think attending slams and going to spoken word shows, and seeing dynamic features drove home, for me, how switching up the form can surprise an audience, or a reader, into paying better attention. In 2014, I saw my friend Sabrina Benaim surprise an audience into hearing a familiar story in a new way, by dancing through it, displacing her voice and silencing herself in a poem about silencing, and I don’t think that kind of innovation should be or can be limited to the stage.

Rob: Near the end of the chapbook you write poems "after" Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde. Could you speak about the influence these two writers have had on your work?

Chimwemwe: Every single poem I write, or at least every choice I make within it, is “after” someone, whether I realize it or not. An explicit aftering, for me, is placing my poem across the table from the mentioned poet’s poem, or in the case of the poem written after Audre, with her lifetime of work. Audre Lorde is one of my favourite poets. We live close by in terms of the intersections of our identities, and for that and other reasons, her work resonates deeply with me.

"won’t you celebrate with me", the Lucille Clifton poem, is one that haunted me - if haunting can be lovely - for about 3 months, showing up in my inbox, in podcasts, in a workshop, on my walk home. I thought that, maybe, it was placing itself in front of me so often because it wanted to be a lens.

Rob: Your chapbook appears as one of ten in this year's New Generation African Poets chapbook box set. The box set is designed to introduce readers to African poets they most likely wouldn't encounter otherwise. Likewise, I'd like to end this interview by giving you the space to recommend an African poet with whom North American readers are likely unfamiliar. Who is exciting you right now in the world of African poetry, and why?

Chimwemwe: Gbenga Adesina is a previous winner of the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, for which I was shortlisted and through which I was selected for the box set. His work is remarkably tactile and eloquent, and remarkably sticky, by which I mean, months after first encountering it, I found myself recalling it and thinking it had popped up in a conversation with a particularly bright friend. That is, to me, high praise and a strong recommendation.


As someone who's now read a whole bunch of Chimwemwe Undi's poetry, I can tell you it's as sticky as it gets. You can pick up a copy of The Habitual Be, as part of the New Generation African Poets (Nne) box set via the Akashic Books website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


Ontario Reading Sprint

I'm doing five readings in four days in Southern Ontario next week. I'll sleep on the plane? I'll sleep on the plane.

I'm very excited for this mini-tour, the last hurrah for The News as well as a pre-hurrah for "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project, which arrived on my doorstop only yesterday!

Soooo many elephants!

I won't be launching "Oh Not So Great" in Vancouver until January (stay tuned for details), so folks in Ontario be sure to bootleg copies and make your millions selling them across the border.

I'm really thrilled to be able to do all these readings (my first time reading in each city, save Toronto), all the more so because of the far-more-talented-than-me poets who I get to read beside: Liz Ross, Chris Banks, Catherine Graham and Roo Borson:

I am half as intelligent as Roo, hence my head being half as large in the poster.

Roo Borson! Only one of my poetry idols, whose Night Walk was one of the first great Canadian poetry books I read, and whose Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida remains one of my favourite poetry collections of the 21st Century. I'm going to keep it cool. Cool cool cool cool cool. After I get her to sign all my books, of course.

The details on all the readings:

Say It! Reading Series
Monday, November 20th, 2017
7:30 p.m. (doors open 7 p.m.)
The Human Bean
80 King Street West
Cobourg, Ontario
Reading with: Liz Ross and Rachel Revoy

Art Bar Reading Series

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
8:00 p.m.
Free Times Cafe
320 College Street
Toronto, Ontario
Reading with: Catherine Graham and Chris Banks

Poetry London
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
7:30 p.m.
London Public Library, Landon Branch
167 Wortley Road
London, Ontario
Reading with: Roo Borson

Redeemer University College Reading
Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
4:30 p.m.
777 Garner Road East
Ancaster, Ontario

Hamilton Poetry Centre

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
7:15 p.m.
Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton
1060 King Street West
Hamilton, Ontario

If you're in the region, I'd love to see you at one of these readings. And if I see you on two different nights I'll give you a free book for your unreasonable loyalty!


a Tyrannosaur’s metabolism

I’ve heard some people say, upon winning some honour or another, that their satisfaction lies in the knowledge that more people will read their work. And, yeah, sure, that’s cool (I guess). I’ve heard others say that they don’t care about awards at all. To me, the latter are like those skinny folks with a Tyrannosaur’s metabolism who brag they can eat whatever they want without gaining a pound; blind to their own good fortune, deaf to how obnoxious their virtuous indifference sounds. What a privilege to be above such things! What luck to find yourself in that elite, enlightened class, so deeply connected to your art that you can practice it completely independent of how it has impressed itself upon the world.

- Jared Young, on thinking his book just maybe might have possibly been longlisted for the Giller Prize, over at Canadian Notes & Queries. You can read the whole silly thing here.


there is nothing else to say

James Baldwin: Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know the effort is

Interviewer: Can you discern talent in someone?

Baldwin: Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.

- James Baldwin, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


"Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project - Out Soon!

I'm very excited to announce that my new poetry book, "Oh Not So Great": Poems from the Depression Project, will be published in the coming weeks from Leaf Press!

The book is the result of a 5+ year medical research project on physician empathy. The poems were inspired by, or drawn from, focus group discussions with people living with depression. Some of the poems are found poems, drawn directly from the focus group transcripts, while others are less restrained responses to the content of the discussions. I've posted some samples on my website, and you can read them here:

Since I Was a Very Young Child
To Do
Tomorrow I’m Not Here

This is book #3 for me, but it's an entirely new venture in so many ways. One small one: it's my first book with blurbs! This one, from Sandy Shreve, describes the project so well that it serves as the introduction to the book on the back cover:

"These poems are the result of a years-long project designed to create for physicians a doorway to empathy with patients who suffer from mental illness. As it turns out, they open that door wide for us all. Here are people speaking from deep within the isolating world of depression, their stories transformed into poetry by Rob Taylor’s considerable talents. From the heart-rending admission to a friend in the first poem (“It’s the one gift / I do give you, every day / I don’t call"), to the final lines (“You walk alone / across the room, sit by the fire, / and wait there for the longest time”), this collection unveils a reality lived by far too many people, one most of us don’t know how to handle – not when we experience it ourselves, not when loved ones are going through it. Read this book. It will help."

If you're interested in getting a copy of the book, you can pre-order one via the Leaf Press website right now. And if you're in Vancouver, we'll be launching the book in January. More info to come!

Until then, please do help spread the word to any and all who may be interested in the project. I'd love to get the elephant out to as many readers as possible.


throwing a little light on it - "Short Takes on the Apocalypse" by Patricia Young

Marc Chagall - "Over the Town"

Chagall's Lovers - Patricia Young
Have faith, not cynicism. - Erica Jong
Why up there, young lovers, helium heads floating above the village? Herringbone sky and forest of spires, pointy church steeples... How dare you fall in love when the world’s falling apart. Down here death combs the countryside. Every minstrel’s donkey’s splattered in blood. Come down right now. Your mother’s sick as a goat. Your father’s marching into a century of slaughter. Today is no one’s birthday. That cake is proof of nothing. Such wedding shoes! Such light! Where’s it all coming from? Can’t keep your feet on the ground. Can’t keep your hands off each other. Can’t stop blowing upside down kisses. Why so ebullient, illogical, lobster-headed, topsy-turvied? Fine... okay... stay up there clucking Yiddish, barnyard babble. Hey... I’m talking to you too blue fan. I’m talking to you checked tablecloth. I’m talking to you the colour red.

from Short Takes on the Apocalypse
(Biblioasis, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.

Marc Chagall - "Birthday"

Do I need to introduce Victoria poet Patricia Young? Even if you haven't read her work, her name and writing are everywhere you turn in the Canadian literary world. The author of nine books of poetry and a collection of short stories (Airstream), Young's writing has also won or been a finalist for just about every damn literary competition in the country (including two GG award shortlistings and back-to-back years winning the ARC Magazine Poems of the Year). Most recently, her latest poetry collection, Short Takes on the Apocalypse (Biblioasis, 2016), was named a finalist for the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize, a prize usually dedicated to fiction. They're having to get creative to find new things to nominated her for...

Now, I know what you're thinking: winning so many awards in this country must mean your writing is about preparing for the coming winter in your Ontario village which is far enough away from Toronto to be exotic, but not so far that you can't drive there in an afternoon. And generally, yes, of course, you're right. But not in this case. Patricia Young's poems are full of sex, pop culture, and jokes (jokes, people!). The poems in Short Takes on the Apocalypse shift about in theme and subject, anchored together only by the common use of an opening epigraph, but the through-line of them all is an energy: bouncing, playful, with just enough hints of darkness to keep you grounded (as I first read the book, I wrote in my notebook that the poems reminded me of Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh, which says more about my toddler-warped-brain than anything, but feels accurate nonetheless). Reading Patricia Young's books is fun.

I had the pleasure of asking Patricia a few questions about Short Takes on the Apocalypse and its award-winning poems, along with broader questions about rule breaking, poetry as "project," and what the heck she's doing taking so much time between short story collections. I hope you enjoy!

Patricia Young's earrings are nearly as formidable as her poems.


Rob: Every poem in Short Takes on the Apocalypse opens with, and in some way speaks to, an epigraph. The book originated "as a response to Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing"", though you only confront/break one of Leonard's ten rules in the book ("1. Never open a book with weather"), in your poem "Tornado in the Bible Belt". Have you always felt the desire to break rules as a writer? How do you think the sense of rebellion and mischief that originated this book filtered out and affected the poems that followed?

Patricia: Yes, mischief. My first-year Creative Writing teacher back in the seventies gave the class a list of words we were not to use in our poems – soul, moon, sadness, tears, love, etc. So I wrote a poem using all those words. Nothing came of the poem but I did enjoy writing it.

In the case of Short Takes on the Apocalypse, I didn’t set out to write a book of poems that all began with epigraphs. The book just evolved that way. I remember laughing when I read Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing” and though I agreed with them I liked the idea of trying to write poems that contradicted the rules in some way. I wrote a number of poems that argued with Leonard’s advice or did exactly the opposite of what he advised but most didn’t make it into the manuscript. But that little exercise generated the idea of pairing epigraphs with poems.

Rob: Well, if you stumbled into the idea, you stumbled into it thoroughly! Short Takes features 66 epigraphs from a wide array of people ("from Leonardo Da Vinci to Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood to Jimmy Kimmel" reads the back jacket copy). Only four contributors appear more than once: Kurt Vonnegut, Groucho Marx, Erica Jong, and everyone's favourite writer, Anonymous. That's one hell of a dinner party! How did you go about collecting the quotes? An active search, or just opening yourself to the universe, or? Were you surprised by the quotes that you were drawn to, and was there any pattern to the quotes that worked (or didn't) as epigraphs?

Marc Chagall - "Nature morte
à la nappe quadrillée"
Patricia: I like the way you put that – yes, I did search and I also opened myself to “the universe.” Once I’d written a number of mostly unsuccessful poems triggered by Elmore Leonard, I started looking for other writers “rules” or advice because it was fun playing with people’s words. I was always interested in seeing where the epigraphs would lead. Of course, that’s generally why we write poems – to find out where an image or thought or line will take us. The poem you’ve highlighted, “Chagall’s Lovers,” was the result of viewing Chagall’s paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery and coming across Erica Jong’s rules. I liked her point about writing and optimism. And optimism is exactly what Chagall’s art also seems to embody, despite the fact he was painting during the First and Second World Wars, a horrendous and bloody time in history.

The Guardian published a number of writers’ rules that I drew on. I also read interviews of writers and pulled out quotes of things they’d said. Sometimes a piece of advice triggered a poem; other times I just wrote a poem (as one does) and then sought out an epigraph that I felt added something to the poem, either by contradicting the epigraph or by throwing light on it or supporting some element of the poem.

Rob: Did you have to leave quotes you loved on the table because a poem wouldn't come (and if so, do you want to share them here)?

Patricia: Yes, I did leave hundreds of quotes on the table. Pages of them. You can imagine the amazing and funny and even profound things writers have said over the years about the craft, business and process of writing. Here are a couple of examples of those left behind:

“As a writer you are free. You are about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you have bought with your solitude, your loneliness.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

“If I lose the light of the sun, I will write by candlelight, moonlight, no light. If I lose paper and ink, I will write in blood on forgotten walls. I will write always. I will capture lights all over the world and bring them to you.”
– Henry Rollins

I did write a poem triggered by the Henry Rollins quote but in the end cut it from the manuscript. Any response seemed inadequate to his words.

Rob: Though your poems are seldom purely humorous, most are speckled with jokes and winks. Is this a conscious choice of yours, or simply how you think and write? Does humour work its way into your poems differently than in your daily life?

Patricia: I don’t consciously write poems that have humourous undertones (or overtones!) but I do gravitate toward poets whose work is often wry and displays wit and humour. I’m thinking of David McFadden’s poetry, for example, or the American poets, James Tate and Mark Halliday. The “big” subjects can sometimes be best explored when a little levity is introduced.

Rob: Your debut short fiction collection, Airstream, was published by Biblioasis in 2006 to critical acclaim (including being named a Globe and Mail Book of the Year). In the eleven years since you've published five new books of poetry, but no further fiction. What's up, Patricia?

Patricia: Hell if I know! I wrote Airstream at a time when I couldn’t write poetry. I was stumped by poetry. It made no sense to me. I couldn’t read or write it. Also I was tired of poetry written from the first person, my own particularly. Fiction seemed a way out of the first person trap. I’d always loved short stories but around 2000 I began to read them not in a casual way but in a determined, I’m-going-to-figure-this-out sort of way. I went through old New Yorkers, years of them (my husband refuses to throw them out), and read all the short fiction. I also read the Journey Prize Anthologies and many collections of short fiction. Joy Williams was (and is) a favourite and inspiration. Though I’d written poetry forever, writing short stories was a huge learning experience. I know people say short fiction is like poetry in that both are condensed, every word matters and so on, but for me, writing fiction was a totally different process. Character, plot, dialogue, psychology, arc, etc. -- all those things are not required of a poem. But after publishing Airstream I was keen to write poetry again, perhaps because I’d been away from it for five years.

Rob: Those long times away from each genre are interesting, especially because the movement between lineated poem and prose poem in Short Takes is very fluid. Has the prose poem allowed you to move what drew you to short fiction into your poetry; to explore both at once?

Patricia: Often I come across poetry that reads like cut-up prose. When I find myself writing “cut-up prose” I shift to prose, to the short paragraph, to see how the piece works. My feeling is: if you’re writing sentences, acknowledge that, let your sentences have their day and be what they are.

As for the prose poem – I love the form and find myself writing prose poetry more and more lately. In a prose poem there is absolutely no room for excessive words. I like the sentence, I like narrative, the surreal leaps and huge scope of the prose poem, the sometimes upside-down world contained in a very short space. When I say “upside down” I’m thinking of Russel Edson’s prose poetry, for example, which Donald Hall describes as “fanciful” and “funny” but “carries discomfort with it, like all serious humor.”

There it is again: serious humour.

Rob: You've worked with a number of editors over the years: Michael Kenyon for some time, and also Dawn Kresan and, for this book, Anita Lahey. Could you talk about what these editors have brought to your work, and how it's shaped the final products?

Patricia: A good editor can save you from yourself. He or she sees the stories or poems (and the manuscript) from the outside and lets you know when you’re being self-indulgent or unfocused, what ought to be cut or what needs a serious re-write. I belong to a women’s writers group so I get feedback from them, but the editors you mention were the final readers and extremely helpful in all ways.

Rob: Short Takes sits in an interesting place when it comes to the current movement in Canadian poetry towards themed "projects" and away from general collections: it feels at once to be on trend, and pushing against the trend. It's a "project" united by a common technique, and yet the poems seem utterly disparate, their subject matter going wherever the epigraphs lead them. What are your thoughts on poetry books as themed projects? What do you see as the pluses and minuses to this approach?

Patricia: I enjoyed writing this book of poems because I could follow my nose, so to speak. The connection between poems is simply the epigraphs, though that is some sort of link. At one point I thought about cutting all the epigraphs and publishing the poems without them but couldn’t bear to part with so many wonderful words by other people.

I have written a few themed collections or collections of linked poems but mostly I tend to write what I call “miscellaneous” poems, poems that have no unifying theme, poems written one at a time, that are influenced by whatever I’m thinking about or reading or hear in conversation. The joy of writing a themed collection obviously is that you have a sense of what you’re going to be working on when you sit down to write. You can pick up where you left off the day before. When writing a general collection you have to face the blank screen after every poem. As a reader, I like both: miscellaneous poems because each one is a world unto itself and themed collections because they tell an extended story.

Rob: Speaking of facing the blank screen do you have a desire to "start fresh" from project to project (in theme, in style, in approach), and if so do you find it hard to shake your previous themes and techniques? Does something from one linger and move into the next? If so, what from previous books lingers in Short Takes, and what from Short Takes might linger in the next?

Patricia: Airstream was definitely a fresh project. I knew nothing about writing fiction. The first story I wrote was from the first person point of view, which was familiar because I’d written so many first person pov poems. The second story I wrote had multiple points of view, which my husband pointed out was amateurish and revealed that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no clue about the mechanics of writing fiction until I tried to write it. I really had to start from scratch but lately, with poetry, the “fresh start” never seems to happen because while a manuscript is being put together I am writing poems which become the genesis of the next collection. Goose Lane Editions is publishing my next book of poems (tentatively titled "“Amateurs at Love") and it truly is a miscellaneous collection in that there are six distinct sections, though the sections themselves are in some sense organized around a theme. I would love to write another book of short fiction, another “fresh start” (though I have about five stories toward that fresh start). Just talking about it with you may well be the impetus I need to get on with it.


While you're waiting for book of fiction #2, be sure to pick up a copy of Short Takes on the Apocalypse. You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Biblioasis website. Or, if you want to break the "Ten Rules of Responsible Book Buying", from Amazon.


Interview with Oscar Martens

Oscar Martens, staring down
yet another interviewee
Burnaby-based author Oscar Martens is on a quest to figure out how best to write and promote books in the modern age. He's set up a "Media Whore" blog as part of his website, where he asks writers about their thoughts and strategies around self-promotion, productivity, responsibility to community, and more. He's previously interviewed Sarah Taggart, Lucas Crawford, Richard Kelly Kemick, among others.

Today it was me. Though I mostly ramble on about curtains, I also talk about a good number of subjects "around" the writing itself: the community, this blog, the reading series, the interviews, etc. etc. with it all pointing toward the larger question "How should a writer be?"

You can read my answers here:

Rob Taylor, a blatant self-promoter since 2006

Kudos to Oscar for referencing the Roll of Nickel's tagline in the interview title, and thank you, to him, for all the good questions.

You can read more of Oscar's interviews here.

And while we're on the subject, you can read all of my interviews with other writers here.


November Dead Poets Lineup

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on November 12th, 2017, from 3-5 PM. It will feature:

Lucille Clifton (1936 - 2010), read by Ian Williams
Connie Fife (1961 - 2017), read by Joanne Arnott
Sylvia Plath (1932 - 1963), read by Natasha Sanders-Kay
James Welch (1940 - 2003), read by Pamela Bentley
Richard Wilbur (1921 - 2017), read by Christopher Levenson

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

I hope to see you on November 12th for a 100% 20th-Century (a rarity for us) poetry love fest!


Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food

I'm very pleased to have a poem in the new anthology Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food. Edited by Rachel Rose as part of her work as Vancouver's poet laureate (as Yvonne Blomer's Refugium was part of her term as Victoria Poet Laureate), the anthology is one element of her term's wider focus on food, which has included food-themed poetry readings, the presence of poets at local farmers markets, and much more.

My poem is "Seven Weeks" from The News (the "cranberry sauce" poem, if you're familiar with the book).

Sustenance will be launched this Sunday, October 22nd as part of the Vancouver Writers Festival (which is happening right now - go, you damn fools!). The details:

Sustenance: A Feast of Voices
Sunday, October 22nd, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM
Revue Stage
1601 Johnston St.
Featuring: Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Thomas Haas, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Jami Macarty, Billeh Nickerson, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Annie Ross, Karen Shklanka, Kevin Spenst, Russell Thornton, and Ayelet Tsabari.

If you can't make the main event, there will be two more (free!) launches of the book: November 4th, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM at the VPL's Kitsilano Branch and December 2nd, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM at the VPL's Strathcona Branch.

I'm planning on being there Sunday, and I'd love to see you there as well. And regardless of the launches, I hope you find a way to pick up a copy of the book - it should be a good one.


special dogs

For me, it’s the same for both reviews and dogs: even when I’m frustrated with them, I’m happy with them. And, to continue the identification of reviews with dogs: when I look at my dog, I learn something about my dog, certainly, but also something about myself. Sometimes, something about my expectations. Certainly, something about our relationship.


However, I would like to take this opportunity... to thank those who have never bought or never heard of my books — all those on this planet and all those lifeforms extant in other places of the present, past, and all possible universes. You help make my books mysterious, unknown, a sanctuary for initiates and cognoscenti. You maintain the notion of my books as places of infinite possibility, as thought-and-feeling machines of limitless potential energy. You make special dogs of those who have dog-eared my work, those who have actually read it.

- Gary Barwin going full-Gary-Barwin (or at least 3/4s) in an essay on reviewing and readership over at the Hamilton Review of Books. You can read the whole thing here.


Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Vancouver launch this Thursday!)

I'll be reading at the Vancouver launch of Refugium: Poems for the Pacific this Thursday, which will take place in the recently-opened nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona Branch of the Vancouver Public Library.

The details:

Refugium Book Launch
Woo Soon Mary Lee Chan Room
October 19, 2017, 6:00 PM
nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona Branch
730 East Hastings St.
Featuring: Ann Hopkinson, Jo Lilley, Jeremy Pataky, Heidi Greco, Lee Beavington, Anne Simpson, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Miranda Pearson, Luther Allen, Lorin Medley, Terri Brandmueller, Nancy Pagh, Betsy Warland, Kate Braid, Stephen Collis, David Pimm, Barbara Pelman, Cornelia Hoogland, and me.

A lovely lineup, if ever I've seen one. And the book is all the more impressive, with poems by the poets listed above, as well as Steven Heighton, Anita Lahey, Jan Zwicky, Lorna Crozier, Patricia Young and many more (not to mention musicians Bruce Cockburn and Dan Mangan!).

I am pleased to have a poem, "&", in the anthology, and doubly-pleased because my poem was selected by Refugium's cover artist, Sharon Montgomery, as the subject of an "artist response" painting, entitled "Hitched" (you can see the title of my poem on the bottom-right side!):

"Hitched" by Sharon Montgomery

I mean, how lucky can you get, right?

The painting is part of a gallery show of artist responses to Refugium poems, which will be on display at the Victoria Maritime Museum until December 17th. You can view a video tour of the show here:

Though the art won't be on display on Thursday, the poets will, and that's almost as good?

I hope to see you there!


between nostalgia and mainstream unease - "The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory" by Chris Banks

Panic Room - Chris Banks
It is seven in the morning and I can see the couple
     next door heading to work. People pull coats
around themselves, scrape frost from windshields. No
     one acknowledges anyone else, which makes it
hard to believe people are still making love, but I know
      they are, for their children are heading to school, too.
Perhaps it is like Chekhov said. When you are in love,
      it shows a person who he should be. But this world’s
day-to-day living makes mockery of such vulnerabilities
     so we stuff emotions with self-loathing, gastro pubs,
online shopping, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, social media,
     anything, really, so as not to feel human and alive. The
weather, of course, is not helping. The cold winter air
     steals our breath so we seal ourselves deeper in a living
slowly wearing people out. No one likes to talk about it,
      especially in poetry. Write about childhood or politics,
your dog or your ex, but not about the invisible fires
     of existence. When asked why he always wore black,
Chekhov said he was mourning his life. How many
     deny doing this? We watch cat videos and zombies
on television, or rail about the latest national scandal
     meant to keep us preoccupied and not thinking about
the world’s clock near midnight. A sliver of moon
     hangs like a silver scar in the morning sky. I can only
drink so much coffee before admitting I am trying
     to avoid panic attacks through apathy. Somewhere,
my children are smiling, going to school blissfully
     unaware of consciousness’s cold depths. What to do
with such thoughts? In California, a lake has fallen
     off a cliff, and still there are droughts. The Philippines
is sinking. I ask myself what am I going to do today?
     The answer is always the same: something is not right.
Time is out of joint so Prince Hamlet keeps cursing
     his wretched spoiled existence, while twenty years on,
I keep trying to celebrate all the varieties of experience
     through a few words that will break the wall grown up
between the subjective and the objective, the self
     and the other. I keep looking for release. The angels
in the high cradle we built for them mock me. So be it.
     Maybe all we are is random acts of kindness between
strangers. Maybe it is my job to hear the pain singing
     in every particle of my flesh. Maybe it means nothing.
I have probably said too much. Certainly the couple
     who smile at me when we chance meet at the mailbox
are not thinking about any of this. They are thinking
     about their ten-year anniversary and novelty lingerie
and perhaps what wine to pair with tonight’s dinner.
     Soon I will rouse myself, throw on clothes, then write
this all down. It will sound vaguely like a panic room.
     Like I have built a secret place out of my fears and joys
to linger in a while, biding what is left of my time until
     you who happen by, hearing me, throw open a door.

from The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory
(ECW Press, 2017).
Reprinted with permission.


I've been a fan of Chris Bank's work for some time now. In 2011, I stumbled on a copy of his 2003 debut Bonfires (Nightwood Editions) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I quickly bought his second and third books, The Cold Panes of Surfaces (Nightwood Editions, 2006) and Winter Cranes (ECW Press, 2011), and was happy to find his poems only kept getting better. A student of poets like Jack Gilbert and Larry Levis, Banks has mastered the art of carefully and artfully describing a short scene and then (or simultaneously) cracking it wide open to reveal the tender beating heart of the thing, the part of the poem most are too hesitant or cool or unaware to plunge into. I was hooked. Then I waited... and waited... and waited... for book number four.

To keep me occupied during what turned out to be a six year wait, Chris provided regular insights (in poems, in essays) on his Table Music blog. His subjects ranged from praise for poets he admired, to thoughts on poetry, to short personal essays and poems on mental health, loss and other topics. Table Music was one of the sites that gave me inspiration to keep Roll of Nickels going well past the expiry date of most blogs: I knew the impact his blogging had on me, and I hoped I could provide a fraction of the same for others.

So for more than one reason I was thrilled to see Chris' new book The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (ECW Press, 2017) come out, and jumped at the opportunity to interview him here.

If you've read Banks' work before, you'll have noticed that the poem excerpted above ("Panic Room") differs from the poems in Banks' previous books. Unlike the shorter, meditative lyrics of his first three books, the poems that loom largest in TCVGUT sprawl, often wildly. They seem to be unraveling and gathering at once, bringing more and more of the world into them and spilling it back out, somehow transformed. They are unruly poems for our unruly moment.

The Sankofa Bird
And while this book is certainly "of our moment" it also is not. It is steeped in the past as much as the future. In reading it I was reminded of the West African Sankofa bird - the image of a bird pointed forward, but looking backward. Like the Sankofa bird this book presses always onward while stretching back for a past it can't quite reach. It makes for a an emotionally compelling, thought-provoking read.

Our interview touched on the major themes of the book: nostalgia, our current political and cultural "moment", mental health, modern poetics, Chris' writing role models, and more. I hope you enjoy it!

Some say the Grand Unification Theory is a model in particle physics in which the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, or forces, are merged into one single force. But I say it explains how Chris Banks can combine "flannel" and "pirate" so seamlessly.


Rob: The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (TCVGUT) is steeped in youthful nostalgia, opening with an epigraph from Larry Levis' "Boy in Video Arcade", followed by your "All-Night Arcade" and moving out from there to cover corner stores, bush parties, punk bars, even the 1914 death of the last passenger pigeon. And yet TCVGUT is also very forward looking, concerned with suicide bombers and climate change and the world to come.

The title poem in TCVGUT opens "I am not asking for anything except a little wisdom / from this life." What role does nostalgia play in gaining that "little wisdom", for you? Or is it more of a pure escape than I am allowing it to be?

Chris: When I started writing this book, I thought it was going to be a book about the Eighties and nostalgia and youth. Nostalgia is an idealized version of the past. It appeals to our wish to return to a simpler time. An Edenic place. I think this is very seductive for writers. The idea you can revisit the past and change it. To make your personal history meaningful in the way a myth is meaningful. Nostalgia leads you to the gates of the sacred home. Perhaps you can’t live there, but you can see through to the strange terrain of the past even if the present moment bars the way.

Rob: "The strange terrain of the past" - yes! Your interest in navigating that nostalgic path feels like a through-line which strings together not just this book, but all of your books (Winter Cranes, for instance, opens with a reminiscence of driving home from a barn dance, "Stand by Me" on the radio). But in TCVGUT your memories seem fractured, disjointed, jumbled in with the cultural and political noise of the here and now. It's less a telling of linear stories than a piling on, and up, of everything.

In many ways this feels like a development in keeping with our times - both our internet age of endless-link-Wikipedia-wormholes, and our current poetry, where stacking and swirling many images and scenes into wild little diamonds is increasingly popular - but I don't want to presume the "why" of these developments in your own writing. Could you speak a bit about how your writing style, and your thinking behind it, changed in the six years between Winter Cranes and TCVGUT?

The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory
Chris: I wrote a third of the new book the way I always had, very meditative and narrative, but suddenly this other voice started to make demands which was exciting and a little frightening. Up to this point, I had honed my poetic voice by mining the past. However, new poems started coming out in this disjointed rapid-fire anxious stream of images and thoughts. We live in turbulent times. I guess I was wondering how do you make sense of art in a Youtube universe where climate change is a regular feature on television news? New poems embraced these challenges but I think nostalgia is still there as a buffer, as a way to retreat a little from our modern times. For me, my favorite poems ride that edge between nostalgia and mainstream unease.

Rob: Yes, I agree. The best poems in the book pull in and balance everything (the "then", the "now", the political, the personal). In "Reality Check" you write "Yes, I am leaving parts out of the frame" and throughout TCVGUT we get glimpses of your personal life amidst the nostalgia-and-politics-stacking. But they are only these little flashes. Lines like these, from "Selfie with 10,000 Things":

No one has ever told you this, but the self, the soul, 
burns brightest with a bomb strapped to its back -- 
   illness, say, or a doomed relationship. Alcoholism. 
The hell we made."

That very last "we", and all it opens up.

A subtler shift comes between books, with poems about "my wife" in Winter Cranes replaced by poems about "my ex-wife" in TCVGUT. Beyond the book, in 2014 on your wonderful blog, Table Music, you spoke very thoughtfully about your recurring struggles with depression. Not to go all Barbara Walters on you, but it doesn't feel like a stretch to say the book was written in, or out of, a very trying time in your life.

How much do you see that time, and the person you were, in these poems (how much are they "in the frame", for you)? Or were the poems a way to escape, or transcend, a very difficult period in your life?

Chris: I live with recurrent major depression and I am also recovering from alcohol dependence. I have been sober for a few years now. Both were factors in my marriage ending, but as painful as it can be to talk about such things, keeping secrets is far worse for someone living in recovery. I basically had a nervous breakdown during the writing of this book and I think my anxiety became far worse after I stop medicating with alcohol, which is one reason these new poems emerged. I am very friendly with my ex and she is proud of my progress. If I can help others through writing about such experiences, I am very happy to add what little I can to the conversation around mental health.

Rob: I really appreciate your saying, and doing that, both now and in the past on your blog. It makes a bigger difference than your know.

Shifting gears: very few of the poems in TCVGUT were published in traditional literary magazines (though a number did come out in your Anstruther Press chapbook Invaders). Most were published, slowly and steadily, on Table Music. Why did you make this decision, and would you recommend it to others? More generally, do you think your maintenance of Table Music has shaped your poems, and your thinking about poetry, in any way? If so, how?

Chris: I wrote a third of the book over the course of several years. The next two-thirds I wrote in an anxious rush over four manic months. I think you write the poem that is in front of you and sometimes that takes time to figure out. Other times it is necessary to write even if you don’t have a subject in mind. For me, the time had come for me to write poems very quickly to help reduce the anxiety affecting me. The blog is helpful in that I can put poems up on it and I can immediately see their flaws. It makes for very rapid editing. I am trying to get more poems out to magazines lately but the blog has always been important in helping me to share my ideas about imagery, or time, in poetry, or any other topic of interest that catches my fancy.

Rob: Sticking with the blog, one of my favourite things about Table Music has been how it's introduced me to new writers, most notably Larry Levis, and how it's deepened my appreciation of others, most notably Jack Gilbert. Then I open this book and those two poets are everywhere, from TCVGUT's aforementioned Levis epigraph, to the book's third poem ("I was / pen pals with Jack Gilbert. Larry Levis too."), to the excerpted poem above ("Panic Room"), which notes that we avoid writing about "the invisible fires of existence" (which feels, to me, like a nod to Gilbert's The Great Fires, and everything he aimed to do in that book). Could you speak about the role of these two writers in your life, in general, and specifically how they helped you shape and think about the poems in this book?

Chris: One of the things I wanted to do with my blog was to pay homage to those poets who have been great teachers for me. I think anyone who has come across the poetry of Jack Gilbert or Larry Levis knows their work is truly remarkable. Their poetry has been an incredible gift in my life. Both were very serious poets who did not worry about their critical reception and, in the case of Gilbert, actively stayed out of poetry circles. I live in Waterloo, Ontario, so I only have a very marginal relationship with the larger poetry communities in Toronto and Hamilton. It has helped me reading both of these gentlemen to know one can write fine poetry without being immediately dropped into a large literary community. Gilbert was a master lyric poet. Levis’s grand vision elevated every place he grew up or visited. Both have taught me more than I can say.

Rob: Speaking of relating to the larger literary community, those "invisible fires" lines in "Panic Room" also serve as a good example of how you directly inject your opinions on modern poetry into these poems ("Write about childhood or politics, / your dog or your ex, but not about the invisible fires / of existence."). Another favourite of mine, from the title poem: "Maybe I'm being / greedy wanting art to be more than a bowl of fruit, / wanting there to be answers."

Reading lines like these reminded me of a quote by Zach Wells, from a Maisonneuve interview many moons ago:

"There’s a way in which just about any poem a person writes can be interpreted as a statement of poetics. Ideally, I think, that’s actually the way it should be: i.e. poems should be the means by which a person — whether poet or reader — arrives at poetics, as opposed to poetics being the way one arrives at poems."

I was wondering about your thoughts on this quote; on poetics coming out of poems and not vice-versa. When you come to an opinion about poetry, do you usually desire first to channel it into a poem, or a blog post, or a conversation with a friend (in Toronto or Hamilton or otherwise), or?

Chris: I think I come to ideas about poetics very slowly but then, yes, they filter through my practise in the ways you have suggested above. I absolutely love the nostalgic poems in Winter Cranes but then with this new book I am also saying nostalgia is not enough. It won’t save you. In fact, in “All Night Arcade” I mention “Nostalgia is a verdict for not living well” which ghostly echoes Leonard Cohen who said poetry was a verdict. So yes, poems are about poetics and vice-versa.

Rob: On a more practical level, with all the stacking going on in these poems (of political events, personal anecdotes, one-liner observations on society, poetics, etc.), how do you gather the individual bits together? Do you have a notebook where you keep smaller thoughts before collaging them together, or do you pull them from the ether as you write a new poem?

Chris: Sometimes I will keep lines that didn’t work in a previous poem but mainly I try to write my poems very quickly and not edit too much when I am writing. I think because I wrote so slowly for five years, I had this reservoir of images, things I needed to say, just under the surface which is why, when I “broke free”, the rest of the book was finished so quickly.

Rob: Are you writing now (and at a similar clip?), or are you going to make us wait another six years for the next book?

Chris: I have finished another manuscript already called The Book Of The Dead For Dummies which should come out with ECW Press in about two years. Again, I am writing very quickly for whatever reason. I am just following where the poems lead me.


Buy The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory quick, or Chris will go and write five more books while you dawdle. You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the ECW Press website. Or, if you want to burn in the invisible fires for eternity, from Amazon.