July/August Reading Miscellany

In between course work reading and comp reading, I’ve managed to find a bit of time for pleasure reading in the last couple months. Here are some incomplete notes on what I’ve been enjoying.

Mark Truscott. Said Like Reeds or Things. Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004.

I found Mark Truscott’s Said Like Reeds or Things at Benjamin Books in Ottawa. I was drawn to the slim book by its odd title and the familiar Coach House logo. A quick scan through the book showed that it was built from minimal and concrete concerns. I was sold when I saw who had blurbed the book: Lisa Jarnot, Stuart Ross, and Nelson Ball. I don’t typically lend too much weight to blurbs, but when Nelson Ball feels a book is deserving, only a fool would ignore it. Nelson writes, “Mark Truscott’s poems bore to the centre of poetic process. These concise, cerebral poems surprise and challenge at every turn, questioning how we think and perceive. They’ll make you think about how you think. They are difficult but rewarding.”

The book is 77 pages, but with barely five words, and often fewer, on many of the pages, it is a quick read. Ball is correct though, these are not simple poems, they are ‘difficult’ and ‘rewarding.’ The book demands rereading. And rereading. And rereading. It is a great joy to find a book from a practicing poet whose work you are not familiar with, but you immediately feel an affinity with. Page after page of this book is full of poems that I wish, desperately, that I’d written. The four part poem, “Eights,” one of the longest in the book at a whole thirty two lines, felt immediately familiar. It was a poem I had been trying to write, and failing to write, for years. And here it was, complete and published.

I’m late to this book; it was published eight years ago to massive acclaim (as massive as acclaim comes in Canadian poetry, at least). Ron Silliman sang its praises; Sina Queyras loved it; Jonathan Jones gave it a long and thoughtful review. I could spend the day typing out its poems and posting them here, madly jealous that Truscott wrote them, but there are many typed up in those three reviews to give you a taste of the book. Truscott brings to mind Aram Saroyan’s minimal experiments from the 1960s and 1970s (available in 2007’s Complete Minimal Poems), the minimal aesthetic of Nelson Ball, or the experiments of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery.

Truscott published a second book in 2010 with BookThug, Nature, followed by the chapbook Form in 2011. It is frustrating to find someone writing precisely the poems you wish to be writing, but also comforting to know that someone is doing it right. Look for this book, and follow Mark Truscott if you’re not already.

Mark, thanks for writing Said Like Reeds of Things.

Open Letter, Sixth Series, No. 4: Spring 1986. The Barbara Caruso Issue.

Barbara Caruso passed away in December 2009. Barbara was a phenomenal painter, an important small press publisher, and wife of poet, publisher and bookseller Nelson Ball. I never corresponded with her directly, but she generously sent me copies of her memoirs in the summer of 2009 via Nelson while I was performing research during my M.A. Her two volumes of memoirs, A Painter’s Journey, are hugely important documents in the history of Canadian art. She documents not only the difficult and often painful process of being a professional artist in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, but also the horrifying sexism she faced as a professional woman artist. She also documents the founding of her own Seripress, an important outlet for experimental and concrete-visual poetry in Canada in the 1970s. Moreover, she was active illustrating and designing books from Nelson Ball’s seminal Weed/Flower Press. Their interactions with poets like Michael Ondaatje, William Hawkins, and John Newlove recapped unselfconsciously by Barbara are worth the cover price alone.

This issue of Open Letter, edited by bpNichol in 1986, is a loving document of Barbara’s place in Canadian art and publishing. I purchased it recently from jwcurry at room 3o2 books (who, incidentally, has a new installment of Messagio Galore forthcoming on Friday August 10). It includes interviews, bibliographies, lists of exhibitions, as well as statements from Barbara herself on her artistic practices. She writes with care and clarity about her visual art. I admire artists of any medium who are able to express clearly their thoughts on the artistic process. For example, Barbara writes, “Even when I made no attempt to create darker or lighter lines, in fact attempted to maintain a sameness of pressure, variations occurred. The body tires, the hand tires, the mind tires and the line will tell of this” (8). It is easy to identify with Barbara’s writing here. As a poet, as a publisher, as a student writing essays, her attention to available materials and the myriad ways to organize and construct them is wonderful and accurate. She cares deeply. I wish I had had the opportunity to meet her in person.

Christine McNair. Conflict. Toronto ON: BookThug, 2012.

Eagerly anticipated and well-deserved, Christine McNair’s first trade collection is a joy. At 130 pages, Conflict is a substantial first statement from the poet, and a book to read over several sittings. My favourite dimension of Christine’s work is the way that she is attentive to the letter as the basic unit of composition. Her work as a book conservator, her experience at Gaspereau Press, and her own forays into design and publishing inform her poetic. Christine knows how to set type, she understands the material weight of letters, the care that goes into each imprint of each word. One gets the sense reading Conflict, despite its size, that Christine is an economical poet and rarely frivolous. To celebrate her recent acquisition of a letterpress, now housed in her basement, Christine set and printed three of the best lines from Conflict’s “A Fool’s Grace”:

Conflict is a book of startling variety: lyrics, concrete-visual poems, conceptual pieces, prose-poems. It is a confident and assured debut, published in a typically beautiful edition by BookThug. I can’t wait to see what Christine does next, and am looking forward to spending more time with this book.

rob mclennnan. The stone-boat heart: letters to Andrew Suknaski. Ottawa ON: Apostrophe Press, 2012.

From rob mclennan’s occasional Apostrophe Press comes a chapbook of one-sided correspondence between mclennan and the late Andrew Suknaski. I have to confess my general ignorance of Suknaski’s work. I know him from occasional anthologies, and by reputation, but I have never seen his books available in used book stores and as a result have never been able to dedicate his work the time it evidently deserves. I’ve been aware of the perpetually forthcoming selected poems from mclennnan’s Chaudiere Books, but given Suknaski’s recent death I suspect that publication will find itself further delayed by a new landscape of legal complications.

What I like about mclennan’s project is the way that it foregrounds the act of reading. These letters chart the experience of reading and rereading an admired poet, a gradual process of developing a relationship with their words. mclennan writes, “I feel like an archeologist, digging through your past.” He reads poems, essays, and gathers stories from friends and colleagues. One of the most interesting dimensions of the book is how it gestures towards the experience of reading as a relationship, but a predominantly one-sided one. mclennan was in contact with Suknaski, as his editing of the selected poems makes clear, but by presenting one side of the conversation he acknowledges that reading and research can often foster a sense of intimacy with a person that is most likely not shared.

In Andrew Sukanski mclennan finds a person of whom he can ask questions of literary friendships, the creative process and creative silence, place, vernacular, family history. Is this is a book of correspondence? An essay? A brief biography built from fragments? mclennan has a history of writing about his own past in his poetic and non-fiction (most recently Glengarry included an afterword titles “The green-wood essay: a little autobiographical dictionary”). Much of what he says to Sukanski also reads like a reflection on his own practice: “Almost any writer, it could be said, is searching for their own way home; searching for a sense of self through the pain, and sometimes, being ruined by it. You left home and then longed for it; and by the time you returned it was gone.” I hope we see There Is No Mountain someday soon. I hope I find his books available in the meantime.

Monty Reid. Garden (dec unit). France: Corrupt Press, 2012.

Monty is one of my favourite poets writing in Canada. His serial poems are grossly underappreciated by the majority of the country. I’ve had the privilege of publishing two of them in the last few years. His books are often constructed of a series of sequences or stand as a single book-length poem. He has embarked on a massively ambitious project in the last couple years, writing twelve installments of his Garden Unit series. Installments have been published by above/ground press, Laurel Reed Books, The Red Ceilings Press, grey borders, Obvious Epiphanies, and now Corrupt Press from France. There is clarity to these poems, a clean line that Monty has been developing since his earliest work in the late 1970s, that shines.

5. April

Thaw

space

has a boundary

and an unmarked space excluded by the boundary.

space

It is not art, but everything

splits the real world into a real world and an imaginary world.

space

A shovel, for instance.

I was reading recently about Richard Brautigan’s Please Plant This Book, a book published in 1968. Brautigan wrote eight poems, one each about California Native Flowers, Calendula, Carrots, Lettuce, Sweet Alyssum Royal Carpet, Squash, Shasta Daisy and Parsley. The poems were printed on seed packages, and the reader was encouraged, as per the title, to plant the poems. Monty’s project seems to develop out of a similar impulse. The garden is material, one works it with one’s hands, it is an ongoing process, it produces growth and decay, it is never static. Monty’s catalogue of epigraphs (this installment uses Phyllis Webb) is a great document of writers thinking about gardens. I am enjoying collecting and reading these chapbooks, and I hope that there is a publisher in Canada smart enough to go after the entire manuscript and publish it in an edition deserving of the poems.

Details: Reading, Chapbook, Interviews

The full details of the upcoming above/ground press 19th Anniversary and chapbook launch have emerged. I will have the pleasure of reading alongside Stephen Brockwell, Amanda Earl, and Marilyn Irwin.

Stephen Brockwell is one of the most careful and thoughtful poets writing in Ottawa. I’ve discussed his ongoing Impossible Books project on the blog previously. I’ve never read with Stephen before and it should be a joy. Amanda is one of the most adventurous poets in Canada. I know few other writers as willing to take risks and try new things as Amanda–concrete, lyric, critical, reflective, erotic. You can always count on Amanda to surprise you. Additionally, she is an incredibly active and supportive editor/publisher, with Bywords and AngelHousePress. Marilyn and I read together a few years ago at an above/ground event, and I can’t wait to see where her work has gone in the last couple years. She is incredibly attentive to words and syllables as her units of composition, working from sound and texture primarily (at least in my reading of her work). It will be a privilege to read with these three, and I hope you can make it out. Stephen, Amanda and Marilyn deserve an audience.

My chapbook is titled Regarding Renewal (abandoned titles include Mostly Intact and Somewhat Unstable). It includes twelve fairly brief poems that feel a bit different for me, but I’ll leave that up to readers to decide. I’m excited to read from it properly for the first time. The book has three epigraphs, the first of which I’ll share here.

How can we arrange everything so that everything is great? –Ron Padgett

rob mclennan has got his powerful above/ground media machine running, finding interviews for the four of us. rob appeared on CKCU’s Literary Landscapes with Dave Currie last thursday, discussing the history of the press and including readings by myself and Amanda Earl. rob, Marilyn, and myself will be on CKCU Friday Morning Special Blend with Susan Johnston tomorrow morning at 7am. And there is a series of interviews at Open Book: Ontario in the works. Amanda answered the Proust Questionnaire here. My own responses are forthcoming.

That’s it for now. Hope to see as many out at the Mercury Lounge as possible next Thursday!