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.
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
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
it will not feed the cat
there is no gravy
no garlands or bright lights
if you have to write you will
make good choices
about what to read twice
I tell them that writing isn’t as important
as being a good person
they give me that look
like I’m holding something back
and then, like my critics
they leave unsatisfied
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
but what else could I do
I’m looking directly into the sun
and it’s more than this poor man can stand
now when people walk by
they see me wearing purple sunglasses
with almost mirror type lenses
and they think I’m doubly stupid
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
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