Al Purdy Poetry Night

I'm helping organize a wee fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-frame. As devoted Roll of Nickels readers know, I've long been a supporter of the project, and I was lucky enough to attend as a resident back in 2016 (hint: it was the best thing I've ever done as a writer). Now we're hoping to raise a bit of money to help make sure more British Columbians get to make the same trip.

The event, held on April 19th at Cottage Bistro in Vancouver, will be a celebration of the centenary of Al Purdy's birth. Hosted by Jean Baird, it will feature readings (of their own poetry, and Al's) by Joanne Arnott, George Bowering, Kate Braid, Kayla Czaga, Raoul Fernandes, Jane Munro, Danny Peart, Rhea Tregebov and myself.

$10 donation requested at the door, $5 for students. There will be books and memorabilia for sale. All proceeds to the A-frame Association.

If you can't attend the event, but would like to donate to the Association, you can do so here.

It will be a fun evening, and a very good thing all around. I hope to see you there!


a gift to myself: "This Will Be Good" by Mallory Tater

Loss is Loss - Mallory Tater
I used to tell Margaret I hated her because she was pretty. That kind of hate makes people listen. We wrote poetry on ailing computers that would turn our words to webdings, refuse to change them back. I loved how she barely loved anyone. Margaret had a mole beside her nose. We always referred to it as beauty, a small strawberry, a she. Surgically removed winter, our senior year. Benign. She told me that after the procedure, when the plastic surgeon rubbed Vaseline on her frozen face, somehow she thought of me. Margaret like-liked our poetry teacher who wrote a song about how empty we would one day be. The chorus: his wife and son folding socks, packing. The bridge: seeing them years later in the produce aisle, the son not letting go of a bag of lemons to shake his hand. That same teacher sat on an exercise ball and told us when his son was two weeks old, he almost died in his arms and until we experience this, how can we become writers. I still remember Margaret, with a comically bandaged face, in front of the girl’s room mirror, cupping water and the Pill to her mouth, saying loss is loss, isn’t that good enough.

from This Will Be Good
(Book*hug, 2018).
Reprinted with permission.


If there was a list of new, good things in the Vancouver writing world, Mallory Tater's fingerprints would be all over the top items. A recent UBC Creative Writing grad, she is the publisher of Rahila's Ghost Press (Vancouver's first new poetry chapbook publisher since David Zieroth set up the Alfred Gustav Press a decade ago) and the creator of Glamato: Stiff Drinks and Strong Women, an interview series with Vancouver's up-and-coming female writers.

This Will Be Good
Her latest contribution to the Vancouver writing world is her debut poetry collection This Will Be Good (Book*hug, 2018). The book tells the story of how a young woman's life is transformed by an eating disorder, her body become a site of control and chaos at once. "My body turns / to milk. My body turns on me" she writes in "Insomnia in Two Parts" (33), and then later "Body. It was once mine." (45).

In many ways closely mirroring Tater's own life, the story is told in a plain-spoken, direct manner: "Mum wanted me to fail / at bulimia, the losing. I used to love the losing" (47), she writes, her speaker's hips cramping "as though they have sinned" (55), her body waking "early, guilty / and simple" (57), her "bile fistfuls of autumn mums" (47). The result is haunting at times, reassuring at others, as we watch the speaker persist through her illness.

This Will Be Good joins a growing circle of Canadian poetry books on mental illnesses which have been published in recent years, including Jim Johnstone's The Chemical Life, Shane Neilson's Dysphoria, Kevin Spenst's Ignite, Marc di Saverio's Sanatorium Songs, and Book*hug's own Andrew McEwan's If Pressed. Like many of those books, This Will Be Good does great work in destigmatizing a disorder by bringing us deep into the world of a person living with it.

This Will Be Good launches in Vancouver on April 17th, alongside new books by Chelene Knight and Mallory's fiancee, Curtis Leblanc (they recently got engaged, and both have their debut collections coming out this Spring - revolting, I know!). The details:

Vancouver Launch: Mallory Tater, Chelene Knight & Curtis LeBlanc
Tuesday, April 17, 7:00 PM
The American
926 Main Street, Vancouver

In advance of the launch, I spoke with Mallory about the book, writing about eating disorders, great-great-grandmothers, and grotto holy water. I hope you enjoy!

Mallory Tater makes her addition to the "Poets on Staircases" collection.

Rob: The poems in This Will Be Good speak about, among other people, your three sisters to whom the book is dedicated (Monica, Meredith and Madeline - your parents were really into "M" names!). It feels, in that sense, like a book unequivocally about you, a "memoir in verse," of sorts. The book's back copy pulls that back a bit, saying the book is about "a young woman’s burgeoning femininity as it brushes up against an emerging eating disorder" [Emphasis mine]. Poetry books, of course, have the ability to live productively in a space between fiction and non-fiction. Could you speak a bit about why you chose to write this book as poetry, and not another genre? Do you think your choice of poetry changed what you chose to talk about, what you didn't, or what you learned about yourself in the process?

Mallory: This book is based off my life but I am not the speaker in full. It is autobiographical in many ways but to write and heal, I believe that that creative distance is important and enables moments to be pulled back or pushed harder emotionally and also admits that memory brims with each individual's unique perception. Poetry has the ability to hold a range of emotions in very dense, evocative ways. I think I wanted the sense of vignettes, as opposed to a more succinct creative non-fiction essay, to explore mental illness. Poetry also acts as a kind of scrapbook which suits the “coming of age-ness” in regards to the speaker. I think poetry enabled me to navigate the surreal detachedness experienced by the speaker and provided me with a more wandering lens as well as the ability to delve into dream and metaphor to explore anorexia.

I learned through writing this book that I held onto a lot of feelings of self-doubt, especially with the few poems that tackle intimidation and childhood bullying. I can’t go back in time to give myself a hug and a good, encouraging conversation (which I wished for a lot of the time before I wrote the book.) What I could do was re-experience those feelings. It was a form of adult-young self-conversation. It may seem weird, but I know my childhood self would find motivation in this book to keep working toward self-love.

Rob: No, not weird at all. So much effort is put into how to “reach” people who are dealing with mental health issues, when a great deal of what people need is just to be listened to, and to see their experience reflected in the world. I think many people will see their lives reflected in your book.

"Loss is Loss" touches on an element of that need for reflection: that question, "am I worthy?" (of treatment, support, love). We know that so many people struggle with their mental health in one way or another, yet there is still so much silence, so much looking over the fence at our neighbours, wondering and judging and comparing. You mentioned that writing these poems was a way to heal - were you always comfortable writing about anorexia? Could you talk a bit about your journey toward putting your experiences into these poems? How do Margaret's sentiments resonate with you, looking back on "Loss is Loss" now?

Mallory: I wasn’t always comfortable about writing about the body, celebratory or otherwise, and I think it took me a while to learn that even bodily shame, discomfort and disordered eating hold stories and are worth writing about, and could even become cathartic to write about.

I think “Loss is Loss” attempts to capture the idea of not feeling worthy enough as a young person due to limited life experiences. But young people experience joy, pain, trauma and hardship as much as adults do and the speaker’s friend, Margaret, shows she does have valid thoughts and life experience although she doesn’t seem to believe it herself. She loses her birthmark on her face, which feels strange for her, and she is on birth control for the first time. She also wants to be a writer but feels voiceless and discouraged. A big part of writing this book was going back into my adolescent mind-frame and seeing what I believed no one to care about, a time when maybe I felt voiceless, and subverting that as a sort of gift to myself and my childhood friends.

Rob: I like that idea of a book as a gift to yourself and your friends – an empowering reimagining. It speaks, though, to the trickiness in writing a book that lives in that space between autobiography and fiction: once the book is published, readers often assuming everything they read is (unsubverted) fact. I remember, after my first book came out, someone consoling me over a poem I'd written - about a loved one dying in a hospital - which was completely fictional. I didn't have the heart to correct them!

Do you have any trepidation in how people might respond to this book, especially people you grew up with, for those reasons (and compounded with the stigma still abounds around eating disorders)? If people have seen the book already, have any of their responses surprised you?

Mallory: I am fortunate to have so many strong women and supporters around me who are relieved, excited and supportive that I’ve tried to navigate the body and eating disorders in this book. I guess the most interesting note I’ve received from my friends in the way of feedback is that they didn’t realize how sad the book would be—how sad the speaker feels in their own skin on her journey to body acceptance and reclamation. I’ve made some people close to me well up with certain poems, but they’ve also expressed needing an outlet for those particular tears in regards to bodily dissatisfaction, adolescence and early sexuality.

Rob: Isn’t it amazing how sad “sad” can feel when it’s spoken honestly, without any propping up? We all experience it inside ourselves, to greater or lesser effect at various times, but it still shocks when we encounter it laid out plainly on the page.

It’s encouraging to see that more and more people are willing to write openly and truthfully about mental health in the way you have in This Will Be Good. It feels like we’re currently experiencing a wave of new books in this area. Did you have any inspirations or models (books or otherwise) in pursuing the themes in This Will Be Good? What role do you hope the book will serve for readers who might be struggling in similar ways?

Mallory: A book of poetry that moves me that explores mental health is Broom Broom by Brecken Hancock. I also love Binary Star, a novel by Sarah Gerard that explores anorexia and substance abuse. They’re both brilliant, raw and exciting works.

If anyone struggling with disordered eating, anxiety, self-doubt or self-hatred reads my collection, I hope they feel a sense of being held by a like-minded speaker, and encouraged to find their own personal avenue to seek healing. I hope it motivates more women and young girls to write their truth through poetry.

Rob: The poems in This Will Be Good touch upon the speaker being raised in a religious household (notably, the father importing holy water from a grotto and building a special dispenser for it in their house). Were you raised in a religious household? If so, what impact do you think that had on your interest in poetry, and on the nature of this book and its central themes?

Mallory: I was raised in a very Catholic household and have since become an atheist. I think being raised in a certain belief system and constantly questioning that system led me to poetry. Poetry helped me raise my doubts and navigate where my personal, true values lie while still maintaining a sense of remembrance, and to my surprise, nostalgia at times, for the faith foundation in my childhood household. I am a ritual-oriented person and although I prefer poetry as my own ritual now, practicing faith was an encircling act in my early childhood that connected me to my family, whether or not I truly deeply believed in the prayers or concepts.

Rob: The poem "Rahila Corches" tells the story of the speaker looking for her great-great-grandmother's grave - Rahila Corches being your real great-great-grandmother, after whom your new chapbook press, Rahila's Ghost Press, is named. Why were you drawn to her, and her story, of those of all your ancestors? Why did you choose to name your new chapbook press after her?

Mallory: My partner, Curtis LeBlanc, and I travelled to Saskatchewan a couple of years ago. He was researching his novel in Wilcox and I was researching my Romanian ancestry in Dysart. Through family history anthologies, I got really attached to Rahila Corches, my great-great-grandmother. She came to Canada with her husband and children in 1900. She died when she was twenty-six years old from unknown causes. In the St. George Romanian Orthodox Cemetery in Dysart SK, her death is recorded in the parish registry as "extraordinary." Her body isn’t in the cemetery despite claims to the contrary on all the cemetery records I researched. It isn’t there. I want to honour her and my ancestral routes with creation. The press isn’t necessarily about her but my story lies with her.

Rob: Speaking of the press, what do you have coming down the pipe over at RGP? And what might we expect next from you, in your own writing?

Mallory: Rahila’s Ghost Press is in the process of publishing our second set of amazing authors — Ramna Safeer, Molly Cross-Blanchard and Meghan Harrison. Stay tuned!

Myself, I just signed with an agency for my novel, The Birth Yard, so I am looking forward to switching gears into fiction as the project evolves. (But, I am still writing poems.) I also have some vows to write for my and Curtis LeBlanc’s Fall wedding!


Get in the marrying spirit and hitch yourself to a copy of This Will be Good. You can pick one up at your local bookstore, or via the Book*hug website or, I suppose, from Amazon.


a soul as well as a history

Antaeus magazine wanted me to write a piece for their issue about nature. I told them I couldn't write about nature but that I'd write them a little piece about getting lost and all the profoundly good aspects of being lost—the immense fresh feeling of really being lost. I said there that my definition of magic in the human personality, in fiction and in poetry, is the ultimate level of attentiveness. Nearly everyone goes through life with the same potential perceptions and baggage, whether it's marriage, children, education, or unhappy childhoods, whatever; and when I say attentiveness I don't mean just to reality, but to what's exponentially possible in reality. I don't think, for instance, that Márquez is pushing it in One Hundred Years of Solitude — that was simply his sense of reality. The critics call this magic realism, but they don't understand the Latin world at all. Just take a trip to Brazil. Go into the jungle and take a look around. This old Chippewa I know — he's about seventy-five years old—said to me, "Did you know that there are people who don't know that every tree is different from every other tree?" This amazed him. Or don't know that a nation has a soul as well as a history, or that the ground has ghosts that stay in one area. All this is true, but why are people incapable of ascribing to the natural world the kind of mystery that they think they are somehow deserving of but have never reached? This attentiveness is your main tool in life, and in fiction, or else you're going to be boring. As Rimbaud said, which I believed very much when I was nineteen and which now I've come back to, for our purposes as artists, everything we are taught is false — everything.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


run your head into it

Paris Review: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

Jim Harrison: Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years? And don't neglect music. I suspect that music can contribute to it as much as anything else. Tend to keep distant from religious, political, and social obligations. And I would think that you shouldn't give up until it's plainly and totally impossible. Like the Dostoyevskian image — when you see the wall you're suppose to put your hands at your sides and run your head into it over and over again. And finally I would warn them that democracy doesn't apply to the arts. Such a small percentage of people get everything and all the rest get virtually nothing.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


your best weapon is vertigo

Paris Review: Do literary prizes mean anything to you—say, winning a Pulitzer Prize?

Jim Harrison: No, not really. Any kind of prize is pleasant — especially to your mom, your wife, and kids — but I never got one. After you've written novels or books of poetry for a long time, your concerns become very different. That's just what you do, you've given your entire life over to it, and luckily it's panned out to the point that they're printing your books. So as far as reputation goes, I'm not interested in any reputation that has to be sought. If there's anything more gruesome than Republican politics, it's literary politics.

PR: So you don't feel any pressure at this stage in your career to write the Big Book?

JH: I feel absolutely no pressure of any kind. People don't realize how irrational and decadent an act of literature is in the first place, and to feel pressure in a literary sense is hopeless. I always think of an artist in terms of his best work, which I think is what he deserves. If he can do this, if he's taken the trouble, then this is what I think of him. The before and after is always there, but so what?...


PR: Do you feel any sense of competition with other writers?

JH: I don't know what that would be for. I can't see the art processes as being a sack race. I've thought that over as part of the idea that when people whom you love very much die, why would you get in a sack race over the novel? And I think sometimes that bitterness of competition leads people to write the wrong kind of novel, the kind of novel they wouldn't otherwise write. I think Keats is still right in that the most valuable thing for a writer to have is a negative capability.

PR: In what sense?

JH: Just to be able to hold at bay hundreds of conflicting emotions and ideas. That's what makes good literature, whereas opinions don't, and the urge to be right is hopeless. Think of the kind of material Rilke dealt with all his life. It's stupefying. Did you read Stephen Mitchell's new translation of The Sonnets to Orpheus? You see that the depth of his art is so dissociated from what we think of as literary existence. Your best weapon is your vertigo.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


contemporary poetry’s logical end point

Writers like Watts and Roberts draw attention to the flat, direct style that has made [Rupi] Kaur so successful in order to argue that she is not a “real” poet. But the voices saying Kaur doesn’t fit in contemporary poetry are so insistent, it’s hard not to wonder if she might fit there all too neatly, and if that is why many are so eager to exclude her. If you look at it in the context of English literary history, what’s actually striking about Kaur’s work is not how different it is, but how closely it follows almost all the conventions of mainstream contemporary poetry. There is the total abandonment of rhyme and metre, obviously; the use of the first-person voice (does any word occur more frequently in Kaur’s poems than “i”?); and the recounting of incidents and feelings from the poet’s own life (you could almost construct her biography from milk & honey). She has simply dropped the overheated language—and, curiously, this choice could be seen as an element of the Wordsworthian aesthetic; the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads also talks about abandoning the “gaudiness” of poetic language. Kaur has jettisoned the last vestige of the “poetic” from her work (figurative language), and maintained only the bare minimum required to qualify it as poetry (line breaks). That is why it is so tempting—and so easy—to dismiss her work; it invites the criticism that what she is writing isn’t really poetry, it just looks like it is.


No one seems to want to do it, but it really isn’t that difficult to draw a line from the Romantics to Kaur and argue that she isn’t a bizarre, aberrant phenomenon that has sprung up in the vicinity of contemporary poetry, but contemporary poetry’s logical end point — its entropic collapse into the black hole of solipsism that it has been flirting with for so long. Stripped of rhyme, stripped of metre, stripped of any figurative language beyond the most jejune simile and imagery, Kaur reveals the essential barrenness of the subject matter behind the hyped-up language of contemporary poetry: banal statements about how the poet is doing today. Poetry as status updates.

- Brooke Clark, from her essay "Rupi Kaur, Apotheosis of Contemporary Poetry" over at The Puritan. You can read the whole thing here.


The New West Festival of Words - Reading and Workshop!

I'm really please to be involved in two events at this year's New West Festival of Words in mid-April - a gala reading on the Friday night, and a Workshop the next morning.

The details:

The New West Festival of Words Friday Evening Gala
Friday, April 13, 2018, 7:00 PM (Meet and Greet Starts a 6 PM)
Inn at the Quay
900 Quayside Drive
New Westminster, BC
Reading and a Q+A with: Gail Anderson-Dargatz, JJ Lee, Roberta Rich, and Rob Taylor
Get tickets here.

The New West Festival of Words Workshop with Rob Taylor
Saturday April 14, 2018, 9:30 AM - 12:00 PM
Hyack Room South, Inn at the Quay
900 Quayside Drive
New Westminster, BC
Get tickets here.

The workshop will focus on taking unexpected leaps in your poetry and prose - jumping from one idea or scene to another, whose connection isn't immediately apparent, and trusting your reader to follow along. As part of the workshop we will look at poems and short stories from around the world, focusing especially on poetic forms which require associative leaps, and how those leaps help create striking and lasting works of art.

The full description of the workshop:

Associative Leaps in Poetry (and how to use them in your prose) with Rob Taylor

By looking at traditional poetic forms from around the world, participants will consider how we jump, as readers and writers alike, from one sound, image or scene to the next, and will explore ways to open up both their poetry and prose to greater movement and risk. This workshop will involve handouts and short writing exercises, so please come prepared with pen and pencil. Limited to 36.

Registration for both events is now open. You can get tickets here.

I hope to see you there!