Michael Dennis – poems for jessica-flynn

In my last post, a reference was made to Michelle Desbarats’ poem “Peas” appearing in a shop window in the Glebe. This seems like a good moment to talk about another Ottawa poet who resided temporarily in a Glebe window.

Michael Dennis’ 1986 collection poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press) was written during a one month “residency” in the storefront window of the Avenue Bookshop on Fourth. According to the back of the book, it “was written between January 7th and February 7th, 1986 while the author was installed in the window.” The Avenue Bookshop was run by Rhys Knott, who also published the book.

Front Cover
Back Cover

In a career notable for its stubborn belief in writing a sort of poetry that is generally unfashionable and unlikely to yield awards or serious critical attention, Dennis has persisted. In a recent excellent interview with Bardia Sinaee, Dennis addressed the comparisons to Bukowski he is typically met with, as well as his lifelong commitment to writing:

Well the comparisons to Bukowski, I think, have more to do with the choice of content and approach to poetry, but there’s no real comparison to be made in terms of lifestyle. Other than [that] I embodied the idea of living as a poet and being a poet at a very early age, and I’ve lived in poverty.

His most recent trade collection, the excellent Coming Ashore on Fire (Ottawa: Burnt Wine, 2009), includes several poems that address his poetic career. Take these lines from “stealing from Bukowski” for example:

I publish in small magazines in small editions

and short press runs

mostly the critics ignore me

the others range from polite indifference

to ranting diatribe about my plebeian nature

the lack of music and grace

space

the young poets

they come to my door

so I pour them a glass

put Nyro or the Trane on low

listen to what they have to say

read their poems and then tell them

space

it will not feed the cat

there is no gravy

no garlands or bright lights

if you have to write you will

read everything

make good choices

about what to read twice

space

I tell them that writing isn’t as important

as being a good person

space

they give me that look

like I’m holding something back

and then, like my critics

they leave unsatisfied

as well

Sinaee also points to a wonderful piece by Maggie Helwig on Dennis from the Fall of 1986 in Quarry. Helwig writes:

Dennis never explicitly speaks of the terrible human reflex that rejects the possibility of love, but it is one of the themes that runs through his work. The craving for love is present, the potential joy, as well as the tragedy of love’s loss. These are familiar. But its not so common to write a poem entitled “it bothers me that skin can be so inviting,” which calls our attention to the pain and even the anger we feel at “the invitations of skin.” Perhaps only a strongly compassionate man can admit — on behalf of us all — how much he can wish to run away from love.

Helwig’s description of Dennis’ work from twenty six years ago could still be applied to the poems he is producing today. jessica-flynn was apparently originally to be titled Lunacy and Sorrow. These two words could perhaps be bluntly applied to his entire body of work, if one can also recognize the humour embedded in such a title.

jessica-flynn is one of his classic books. The store window is a notable presence in a series of eleven poems scattered throughout the book that declare their positions in space: “1st in a series of poems from a bookstore window,” “2nd in a series of poems from a bookstore window,” etc. These poems embody much of what makes Dennis an exciting poet. They are firmly embedded in his surrounding streets; they are without ornament; they are primarily lyric, almost stubbornly so; they are bluntly honest (or at least present themselves as being so); there is also an element of humour that is easy to overlook (especially when readings of his work focus on lazy comparisons to Bukowski and others).

3rd in a series of poems from a bookstore window

it is the second day of this project

and I’m back in the window

only this time I’m wearing sunglasses

and I know they look silly

really

but what else could I do

I’m looking directly into the sun

and it’s more than this poor man can stand

space

now when people walk by

they see me wearing purple sunglasses

with almost mirror type lenses

and they think I’m doubly stupid

space

as a matter of fact

there is a gentleman standing at the window now

he is reading the typed page

that is taped to the glass

and wondering what sort of idiot

would sit in a window

space

now he is reading the scattered poems

that litter the floor

and alternately smiling and frowning

generally having himself a good time

but then wondering

what the point of the venture is

wondering as he stops, looks, reads

There is experimentation in this book that is unique in his body of work. Several concrete poems built within the constraints of the typewriter stand out. Forgive the terrible scans below, I lose my nerve for fear of breaking the spine. The below scans are from This Day Full of Promise, which is less brittle than jessica-flynn.

An article from the Glebe Report in February 1986 profiled Dennis while installed in the window. Explaining the project to Joan Over, Dennis remarked “it was just a spontaneous idea for having something active in the window.” The working conditions, based on this photo, are poorer than I imagined. Dennis is crammed into a narrow space. A barely visible sign reads “Poets Hours” above his shoulder. The article positions Dennis’ project in a series of curated artist installations at the store. Dennis co-ordinated a series of exhibitions in the window from various visual artists, including Johanne Fleury, Dennis Tourbin, Marlene Creates, Dan Sharp and Bruce Deachman. Dennis’ project was the final installation.

A visit to the Dennis household in Ottawa evidences his interactions with these and innumerable other artists. It is a house bursting with books and art: sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, various installation items. It is a story of a life lived in the service of art. He recalls bartering meals and odd jobs in exchange for various pieces. These interactions can be traced in other places as well. Tourbin’s art graces the cover of Dennis’ 2002 selected poems This Day Full of Promise (Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press). Tourbin was a poet himself. His excellent book In Hitler’s Window (Ottawa: The Tellem Press, 1991) includes the poem “Brussels (First Version) dedicated to “Mike Dennis.” Tourbin, who died in 1998, will have an exhibition of his work this Fall at the Ottawa Art Gallery starting at the end of August.

The project was reproduced one decade later when rob mclennan spent a month sitting in the window of Octopus Books while writing his chapbook we live at the end of the twentieth century (Ottawa: above/ground press, 1996). This tradition can be traced in a further spin-off to iterations of Joe Blades’ “casemate poems,” written during various public residences in Fredericton, and collected in the recent Casemate Poems (Collected) (Ottawa: Chaudiere Books, 2011). Note also Blades’ Prison Songs and Storefront Poetry (Victoria BC: Ekstasis Editions, 2010) written partly “during a storefront residency in The Rabbit Hole Book Store, Grande Prairie, Alberta, September 2008.”

Following this project, Dennis went on to write a three-day novel in a bookstore in Peterborough (most likely in 1988). At one time a scan of an article from a Peterborough newspaper existed online to document this. Look for a future update to this post with a scan of that article once it is discovered.

This Day Full of Promise was a welcome selection of Dennis’ work, but at only 84 pages it is a decidedly preliminary volume given that he has been publishing since 1979 and has produced several dozen books and chapbooks. He is due a proper selection, something representative of his accomplishments, in some obscenely gorgeous format (since Bukowski has already come up, think Black Sparrow publishing Bukowski in his prime). I have had the privilege of twice publishing Michael through Apt. 9 Press—the chapbook how are you she innocently asked (2010) and the broadside there was a man who loved to murder (2011)—and hope to have the opportunity to do so again. Michael has shown a remarkable commitment to the world of small press publishing throughout his career, and his willingness to publish with tiny outfits like Apt. 9 is a testament to his support for new generations of writers and publishers. His reading at the inaugural VerseFest in 2011 was supposedly his final public reading (there was a video of this reading on the Versefest website, but I can’t locate it anymore). We can only hope that he’ll give another. He is one of the best readers in the country—disarming, funny and devastating in turn, unadorned—his is a model to aspire to.

Ask Dennis about the jessica-flynn project and he’ll bring up the multiple bookstores that then existed in the Glebe. Today those numbers have dwindled and are in threat of declining further. Ottawa has lost some wonderful independent bookstores in recent years, with others engaged in a constant struggle. Black Squirrel Books north of the Queensway on Bank is a welcome new addition. Octopus Books has also opened a second location at the exciting Under One Roof space (go visit!). poems for jessica-flynn evokes sadness in hindsight for the stores that have been lost. Get out to an independent bookstore, and stop in at the small press book fair on June 30. It will be a sad day if we find ourselves with only Chapters and Indigo remaining, where in Ottawa, at least, “Literature” is consigned to the second floor to make room for increased stocks of pillows, scented candles, and other items necessary to a vibrant, fertile literary community in this country. With the recent news of LPG losing federal funding, it is more urgent than ever that you buy books from these presses. Go to your local, order something from the LPG catalogue, and make it a habit.  Things may look very poor a year or two from now if we don’t act now to support these vital community spaces.

11th in a series of poems from a bookstore window

I have been sitting behind the glass

for almost three weeks now

and today someone wrote me a note

and left it on the window

I was out for a few minutes

to get a cheeseburger

the note said that she was unsure

whether I was watching them

or they were watching me

I’m not sure either

except that now I know

at least one person

is watching

Michelle Desbarats: A (sort-of) Interim Finding Aid

Michelle Desbarats is a widely appreciated, if arguably under-published, poet in Ottawa. Her first and only trade collection, Last Child to Come Inside, was published in 1998 by the Harbinger Poetry Series at the Carleton University Press. For years now her working biography for readings, magazines, and anthology appearances has declared some variation of the statement that she is presently working on a second manuscript/collection. We should only be so lucky to see new work from her available in print in the near future. In the meantime, I wanted to point to some of her material scattered in a small handful of other places from the last fifteen years or so.

Michelle’s work is quiet, unassuming, often hilarious, always controlled, and deeply thought-provoking. In addition, she is simply one of the nicest women you will have the chance to meet. Take this short poem, “If,” a favourite at her readings for one example:

If

If you don’t know what something

eats, try feeding it anything and

see if it starts to die.

“Peas” is another oft-cited favourite. During the two years I spent working at Octopus Books from 2009-2011, it was pasted in the window of the grocery store between Third and Second in a display of “Glebe Poets.” It always gave me a smile; the poem seemed somehow a bit too perversely dark to be in the window of a store that sold peas.

Peas

I like the idea of eating peas

after they’ve been used to kill someone

because it just goes without saying

it would take a lot of peas

to snuff someone,

finally after a constant

bombardment, they go crazy, die

and I like peas, sitting down

with a whole mound of them, hot

butter making them slippery.

Maybe someone could kill someone

with one pea shot hard and fast to

a crucial area on the neck

or forehead

one deadly pea,

but I wouldn’t be interested in

getting to know that person,

they wouldn’t have a sense of the

abundance of things.

She had a chapbook published the same year as Last Child to Come Inside through above/ground press titled Eve’n Adam (1998).

later on she said that the little things counted

every little thing, they all mattered

he said no, they did not, he said that was a way

to insanity

I don’t know if this is still in print, but the full-text of the chapbook is available in the anthology Groundswell: the best of above/ground press 1993-2003. This is a great anthology, and a great document of ten years of one of the most astonishingly active chapbook presses in Canada. rob can usually be counted on to have a few copies for sale at the Ottawa small press book fair (coming up on June 30). You could likely even send rob an email and he’d be sure to bring one along if you were interested.

In 1997, one year before Last Child to Come Inside, Michelle appeared in the anthology Speak! Six OmniGothic NeoFuturists (Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 1997). I found this book in a small shop in Halifax for $6.50. It seemed an appropriate book to find on the East Coast given that it was published by Broken Jaw (who, incidentally, also published Groundswell). The other “OmniGothic NeoFuturists” are Jim Larwill, Craig Carpenter, Sean Johnston, Rocco Paoletti, and Malcolm Todd. Carpenter’s forward identifies the NeoFuturists as simply a local writing group who “although intrigued by nomenclature . . . have no set theory of poetry.” Jim Larwill is the only other of the group that I know immediately. I recall hearing him read for the first time at TREE in an open-set several years ago where he identified himself immediately as an OmniGothic NeoFuturist. Larwill has done some important and interesting things over his career as a poet (several minutes of a recent reading can be seen over at Pesbo). His son, Alastair Larwill, is becoming active these days as well, performing in various iterations of jwcurry’s Messagio Galore, giving his own sound poetry performances and, I believe, currently running the Sasquatch Reading Series.

Michelle has fifteen poems in Speak!. According to the acknowledgements in Last Child to Come Inside, only “Choosing a Counter” is repeated in both collections.  Her biography declares that she is working on a manuscript titled “More Like Us”—perhaps this became Last Child to Come Inside?

She had a poem included in the second run of the OC Transpo Transpoetry project in 2006 along with Stephen Brockwell and others. Her poem was “Skating”:

Skating

It only happens rarely that the line between
fall and winter is a single sheet
snap frozen on the lake no snow or
wind to mar the surface. Trees black-feather
the low border of grey sky. The ice a clear glass
and the shallow pebbled bottom of the
lake passing below me as if I’m flying.
The sudden darkness of this land dropping away,
my breath catching, and fish appearing beneath my feet,
a muscled brightness that I begin to follow.

Michelle can also be found in Decalogue: Ten Ottawa Poets (Ottawa: Chaudiere, 2006) with nine poems under the title “Drift.”

The anthology is built in such a way that it reads like a collection of chapbooks. Each of the ten poets is given 10-20 pages under a title.

Waiting

What people do to pass the time

between when things happen of account,

those long lonely nights and

the hands must do something

with sharp instruments onto

surfaces; incise micro-thin lines

called decoration that recount

tales of past adventure.

Beneath only the light of stars, maybe a

moon, expanses used to

lay down history and then

the night’s ink rubbed in

so while they sleep you can read

what you’ve drawn and see

the great ships again, the vast

whales and oceans,

then leave

for others to find and polish

your scrimshaw people.

Michelle was also a finalist in the CBC Literary Awards in 2005, though I’m unable to find a useful link for that year of the contest.

This material collected is likely between thirty and forty pages of poems in addition to Last Child to Come Inside. This represents only what I was able to find on my bookshelves immediately. I suspect there is more to be found. Leave a comment or send me an email if you have other material and I’ll amend it to this post.

While there are many people who desperately want more new work from Michelle, this is enough to recognize that she has not been silent. She reads fairly regularly in Ottawa, she teaches a poetry workshop at Carleton University occasionally, and also likely appears at least irregularly in literary magazines when editors are able to successfully get new work from her. The point is, we have more than enough of Michelle’s work to recognize how lucky we are to have any at all. We can only hope to see more in the future, but to have as much as we already do is a wonderful thing. Go seek it out!