November/December Reading Miscellany (Part Three)

Marilyn Irwin. little nothings. Ottawa ON: Self Published [“lovingly made for the Hallowe’en edition of Carleton University’s In/Words reading series], 2012.

Marilyn Irwin has a minimalist bent that I admire. She seems to draw her poetic from visual, sound, and lyric traditions. Attentive to the materiality of the letter on the page, her work has consistently made the most sense to me when I hear her read and can trace the emphases of her speaking voice. While these poems refuse to offer immediate coherence (and why should they), there is a lyric poet underneath her experiments. This is a beautifully produced chapbook, modest and clean in its production, full of joyful and sad poems. I’m thrilled to have number 17 of 18 copies.

full ink forward

the slowing of

the spinning of

a delicate word

full ink forward

singing fingertips

what heart can’t say




Phafours Press.

Pearl Pirie’s Phafours began producing tiny chapbooks, almost micro-chapbooks, for the summer installment of the Ottawa small press book fair in 2012 (as far I can tell). These playful little books consist of a single sheet, ingeniously folded to provide eight pages. Pearl’s writing is so consistently varied that it is wonderful to see her tastes and gleeful experimentation extend to her publishing projects (both in material form and in the work she is publishing). At the November book fair I picked up new tiny chapbooks in this series from Pearl, Gary Barwin, and Amanda Earl (to go with titles from Pearl and Gwendolyn Guth acquired in the summer).


Gary Barwin’s continues his investigations of the letter H, bpNichol’s favourite letter and a regular figure in Barwin’s visual and lyric work. My favourite poem of Gary’s from his 2010 Coach House title, The Porcupinity of the Stars, “Inside H,” ends with these perfect lines:


I say


because it is a pleasure and a surprise to breathe

The centre poem in his phafours title is my favourite of the bunch here:


Amanda Earl’s cluster of as continues the experimentation of her own visual leanings, overlaying patterns of the letter ‘a’ into a rich and beautiful abstraction:


I so often feel I lack the vocabulary to discuss visual poetry with any ability or understanding. These are beautiful poems and beautiful books. They remove these most basic units of compositions, letters, from familiar environments and force them into the rest of our mundane, lived experiences in startling and surprising ways.


Amanda Earl. Of The Body. Kingston ON: Puddles of Sky Press, 2012.

—. Sex First & Then A Sandwich. Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2012.

More of Amanda’s visual work found publication with Michael e. Casteels Kingston-based Puddles of Sky recently. Of The Body is a suite of elegant visual constructions forging connections between the curves of cursive script and the natural shapes of the human body. Amanda’s visual work has found a fair bit of success recently, also appearing in The Last Vispo Anthology, and appearing on the Paris Review Blog.


Sex First & Then A Sandwich (a great title!) was launched in August 2012 by above/ground press (Marilyn Irwin, Stephen Brockwell, and I also launched chapbooks in that round). It is an extended excerpt from Amanda’s ghazal manuscript, ghazals against the gradual demise, which is apparently finished. The ghazal is a good form for Amanda, “drunken and amatory” to quote Canada’s greatest ghazal practitioner John Thompson. Amanda’s humour shines through in these poems:

please no more poems of birds. no. more.

or tender flowers tossed about by rain


a friend has bedbugs again for the third time

picked up from a public library. the danger of reading


soon the Easter eggs will spoil in this heat

all the sweet green icing flowing down


on the Waltons yesterday, Elizabeth couldn’t walk

except by the end of the episode she did


you can learn a lot from Christian television

how to build, a crucifix, two towers


Puddles of Sky Press.

More on Puddles of Sky. Michael e. Casteels is doing alot of things right with Puddles of Sky. He is producing a ton of stuff, obviously full of the energy and belief that keeps the small press going in Canada. He is experimenting with book forms, stitching and stapling and sizes, fold out pages. He is publishing a range of people, mags and chapbooks, as well as producing a surprisingly large volume of his own work, visual and otherwise. We swapped some chapbooks through the mail recently, and I was overwhelmed by how much he sent me. I feel a bit bad, actually, I should really send him some more once I’ve got more.


Cave Paintings of the 21st Century includes an afterword in which Casteels discusses hearing sound poetry for the first time at a Paul Dutton performance. He writes, “I was pretty blown away, though not entirely sure what it meant, if it was meant to mean anything . . . [Dutton] said that in what he performs you could find parts of everyday conversation, simply magnified and brought out of context. This description really stuck with me. It made me understand, not only sound poetry, but all poetry (including my own) in a different way.” Casteels’ excitement about finding a new expanded framework within which to understand (and produce) poetry is an experience, I hope, familiar to all writers, but one that all too often seems to be confined to student days, or at least vaguely defined “earlier” days as writers and readers. I’m excited by the work I’ve talked about here because each writer, editor, and publisher seems to still be inhabiting that space of discovery and exploration, of active engagement with the mundane and the familiar in such a way that it continues to provoke and excite.



It’s been a good year for chapbook and small presses in Canada. Can’t wait to see 2013.


Jim Smith (November/December Reading Miscellany Part Two)

Mansfield Press rolled into Ottawa at the beginning of December with its Fall lineup. Mansfield has developed a consistently exciting list in recent years, balancing young poets (Leigh Nash, Jamie Forsythe) with elder statesmen (David McFadden, Nelson Ball) under the careful editorial stewardship of Stuart Ross and good sense and design sensibility of publisher Denis De Klerck. The most exciting Fall book, for my money, was Jim Smith’s Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra. I first read Jim’s work after Mansfield published his selected poems, Back Off, Assassin!, in 2009 (actually, Leigh Nash sold it to me at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair that year). Jim was in town shortly thereafter to launch another Mansfield title, Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament, on Parliament Hill.  Thereafter, I had the joy of publishing a small chapbook of Jim’s work through Apt. 9 Press in June 2011 (Exit Interviews).


Jim is a spectacular poet. He is one of a small handful of poets who I find consistently surprise me in their works. Back Off led me to his back catalogue, and it has been a joyful place to explore. He is a connoisseur of the list poem, a personal favourite of mine. In theory, lists sound absurd as poems, but they work, again and again. I think most often of Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, the sort of I-did-this-I-did-that list. Paul Carroll, discussing Frank O’Hara in The Poem In Its Skin, writes “my strong feeling is that ‘The Day Lady Died’ is excellent because of its trivia and ugliness . . . what makes ‘The Day Lady Died’ a poem, it seems to me, is the nerve evident in the very act of writing it” (159-163 emphasis original). There is a nerve to simply recording a catalogue of something, anything, and calling it a poem. At their best, as in O’Hara and Berrigan and Smith, the list balances the mundane and the remarkable, the tension between concision (ie. what to include in the list) and the impulse to be sprawling and messy. They are personal and particular but somehow transcend the apparent ego of writing them.


My favourite poem by Jim is “One Hundred Most Frightening Things,” from a book of the same title published by blewointment in 1985. The poem is precisely what it sounds like. Here is the first section:



Finding, waking, phone off hook

A man forcing her, getting rough

Rosedale ravine leapover impulse

Her crying mouth trembling unsure line

Blood in the toilet, paper red

Her loss of face

Men with suntans all over their bodies

Loss of all her papers I keep—yes

The loss of any sum of money at all

I never want to see you again

Jim balances the comic and the serious. Any one of these lines could stand as a jumping off point for a single poem of its own. The full catalogue is overwhelming. It is disturbing, hilarious, frightening—it feels like every available poem rolled into one. There is anxiety about writing, time, death, relationships, violence, love, the body, insufficiency, decomposition, failure. It is also joyful and affirmative. For all these things, there is the poet, still writing.

Exit Interviews, our Apt. 9 chapbook, was a joy to work on. The book describes itself as a series of “dictations.” Each poem is an elegy of sorts to dead poet, built from lines drawn from the poet (Exit Interviews has the most extensive set of notes of any Apt. 9 title so far, detailing the books from which each poem was drawn). I love these poems because they so plainly declare the important influences of Jim’s life, as well as show the depth of his own reading of each of these poets. They are careful poems that show understanding, not straight plunder. Jim’s manuscript also included a piece of text called “Postscript to Exit Interviews”, a game of sorts in which the reader was asked to match poets with the age at which they died and the manner of their deaths. We published this as a small leaflet, tucked into the back of the chapbook, surely the darkest game ever published in a book of Canadian poetry. Exit Interviews, though sold out as a chapbook, is included in Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, and the postscript is included too (though in a slightly altered form).

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Nicanor Parra also draws attention to Jim’s international and revolutionary bent. He has long been a poet invested in radical, left-wing politics, particularly in Latin America, perhaps most apparently in 1998 collection Leonel Roque, a consideration of Leonel Rugama and Roque Dalton.


In 1989 (I believe), Jim took Stuart Ross along on a trip to Nicaragua, where they hosted a Canadian booth at the Sandinistas’ International Book Fair (see Ross’s Dead Cars in Managua for his poetic response to the experience). There is a spiritual, though not necessarily aesthetic, kinship between this bent in Jim’s work and a similar impulse in Stephen Brockwell’s. Brockwell edited Rogue Stimulus with Stuart Ross, and his own ongoing Improbable Books project is a necessary voice of dissent in Canada. Between his tendency to list, his surrealism, his political consciousness, and his genuinely good heart, Jim Smith poems are just what Canada needs.

The Space Opera


Nicanor appears in the southern sky, growing every second.

A coup happens. A coup unhappens.

Deep beneath the Atacama Desert, lair of the rebels.

North America occupies 90% of the sky above Santiago.

The indigenous people are aliens.

The only way out of La Moneda is suicide.

Every night, a gun rises in the east, sets in the west.

A small fishing boat rescues flop-eared Jesus, drunk to the gills.

Jesus is a mercenary with a dark, dark past.

Nicanor points to the eventual heat death of the universe.


Gumby in uniform, clay gun at the ready.

Pinochet flees into old age.

Chile smells itself.

Nicanor sings softly in the nearest cafe.

This was intended to be a review of Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra, but it has turned into something of a hero-worship blog post. That’s ok. Jim is great, one of our best. Here is the review I intended to write reduced to a single sentence: Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra is a wonderful book full of poems I wish that I had written and that I wish you would read.


There is a long and thoughtful interview with and reading by Jim available to listen to here, with Bruce Kauffman. There is an interview at Open Book: Toronto here. Watch him read here. Go buy Jim’s books from Mansfield, and keep your eyes open at used book stores. When you find backlist things, buy them for me (or yourself), just don’t let them languish unread and ignored. Talk to Jim about poems when you get a chance, he’s read a hell of a lot, he knows (and knew) a load of poets, and is a great storyteller.

Thanks for the new poems, Jim, and thanks to Mansfield for doing them up so nicely.

November/December Reading Miscellany (Part One)

Some notes on books acquired at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, and other places, during the Fall that I have finally been able to sit down with and give a bit of time. Expect more of these posts over the next couple weeks.

Nelson Ball. Orphans. Paris ON: Rubblestone Press, 2012.

—. The Continuous Present. Cobourg ON: Proper Tales Press, 2012.

Nelson Ball continues to be Canada’s greatest practicing minimalist poet. Part of me feels, sincerely, that it would do a disservice to his work to spend hundreds or thousands of words taking apart his carefully constructed poems that refuse to waste even a syllable. A different part of me feels that he so desperately deserves close attention and reading and wider recognition of his accomplishments. Please, someone with the resources, publish a collected poems of Nelson Ball that gives the poems room to breathe on the page. Though it would run, I would guess, well over a thousand pages, these are poems that deserve to be read one to a page.

The most coherent statement on Nelson Ball’s work I’ve yet read comes from jwcurry, quoted from 1cent on the back of Nelson’s With Issa: Poems 1964-1971: “…his is a highly personal gesture, opening up a world’s worth of nuance with an absolute minimum of referents, Nelson quietly standing in the middle saying ‘see?’”

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I received an unexpected package from Ball recently containing these two chapbooks, one from his own Rubblestone Press and one from Stuart Ross’s stalwart Proper Tales. Both are part of an engaging project wherein Nelson is quietly but steadily excavating his own poetic archive, a sort-or self-archaeology, pre-empting future editors and academics. The Continuous Present is a book of poems “not in any of my previous books and chapbooks.” Orphans collects poems “not chosen for The Continuous Present.” Nelson has done this before, lots. Nine Poems, also from his own Rubblestone, collects poems “omitted from In This Thin Rain” (Mansfield, 2012). With Held (Laurel Reed Books, 2004) collected poems withheld from With Issa (ECW, 1991), Bird Tracks on Hard Snow (ECW, 1994), Concrete Air (Mercury Press, 1996), Almost Spring (Mercury Press, 1999), and At the Edge of the Frog Pond (Mercury Press, 2004).Concrete Air gathered unpublished work from 1971 and 1972. And, well, I think you get the picture. (as an aside, I was just pulling that link to the ECW website for With Issa, and see that both of his ECW titles are in stock and cost only $12.00. Buy them if you don’t have them!).

Orphans comes with a lovely dedication to William Hawkins and Christopher Wells: “With gratitude to Ottawa poet and singer/songwriter Bill Hawkins who, although he probably won’t remember this, directed me towards imagist poetry. And to his friend artist Christ Wells who, with his wife Peg, oversaw with generosity and sensitivity the marriage of Barbara and me that snow January in 1965.” Nelson published Bill’s classic Ottawa Poems in 1966. Orphans, in its production, brings to mind Nelson’s designed work (with wife Barbara) at weed/flower in the 1960s.

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Nelson Ball poems (and chapbooks, and books) are just so refreshing. So much noise is stripped away. He is attentive to both the sounds and the material constructions of letters on a minute scale. He plays between lyric and sound, concrete and found poetry. His love poems are simply the best going. He’s funny and he’s sad and has continued to do all these things for over fifty years now. I’m going to stop talking about his work now, because it really should be read. Here is an absolutely perfect love poem from The Continuous Present.


To Barbara


I sit on the toilet seat

warmed by your bum


a comfort

this cold winter day

Spencer Gordon. Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! Toronto ON: Ferno House, 2012.

Andrew Faulkner. Mean Matt and Other Shitty People. Toronto ON: Ferno House, 2012.

Toronto’s Ferno House (Editors Spencer Gordon and Mat Laporte, Designer Arnaud Brassard) continues to be infuriating. It is difficult to describe how beautifully produced their books are. I don’t know if there are many chapbook or micro-presses in the country who can keep up with them these days. Their perfect bound (hand bound) efforts are stunning (the For Crying Out Loud anthologies and the wonderfully bizarre Dinosaur Porn). Their chapbooks, as Spencer’s title indicate, look good and feel great (ugh, apologies for that). Pictures of both books below have been scanned with the covers open and flat, so you’re seeing front and back covers plus spine.

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Spencer Gordon is having one hell of a year. Feel Good! was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award, while his first trade collection, Cosmo, was published by Coach House. I’m not sure what more you could ask for as a young writer in this country. I’m still working through Cosmo, so I won’t talk about it here, but Feel Good! is an exciting, fast-paced set of poems steeped (as Cosmo is) in contemporary pop culture (Gordon would simply say culture). His acknowledgements point to these influences: “Thanks to the musicians and bands whose song lyrics I’ve cribbed—The Black-Eyed Peas, The Melodians, KISS, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Zwan, and Leonard Cohen—and to those whom I mention or allude too—Lady Gaga, The Goo Goo Dolls, Bon Jovi, Shania Twain, Chantal Kreviazuk, Bob Dylan, Hall and Oates, Toto, and Night Ranger.” These are not wholly ironic and insincere poems, however. Gordon can write lines like  “Life is a long time grieving, especially the first time. / The second time you try, and it’s alright, there’s less tears; / it’s a reunion you never thought would happen.”  These lines hit, they work, they touch that weird little space between humour and sadness that we need more of in our poetry.

These are poems from a young poet wrestling with being a young poet in a cultural moment in which, on the one hand, poetry seems obsolete and unimportant on a national scale, but that at the same time offers more and greater opportunities to publish and be published and construct for oneself a place in Canada’s literary community. Gordon’s Ferno House and The Puritan are perfect examples of a new, young generation embracing the technology available to publish in print and online, and to foster the development of their peers. His energy is admirable, and his writing is good and getting better.

Andrew Faulkner is poised at the same precipice Gordon has just jumped from. He runs, along with partner Leigh Nash, the Toronto based chapbook press The Emergency Response Unit. TERU is as good as Ferno House. These are beautiful books, produced lovingly with respect for the work and the book object. Dinosaur Porn was a co-production between Ferno House and TERU. His 2008 chapbook, Useful Knots and How to Tie Them (TERU), was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. He had a poem in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011. He has a debut trade collection forthcoming from Coach House in 2013. I think that over the next couple years we’ll be seeing debut collections from a group who will become increasingly important, both as writers and as editors during the next decade. I would add Jeremy Hanson-Finger (of Dragnet Mag), Ben Ladouceur, and Bardia Sinaee (all recent Ottawa ex-pats relocated to Toronto) to this list from my own little community. Leigh Nash is already there with her own writing, TERU, and her work at Coach House. I keep hearing great things about the work Jess Taylor is doing with the Emerging Writers Reading Series in Toronto. Michael e. Casteels in Kingston with his wicked Puddles of Sky Press. Amanda Earl in Ottawa with her vital work at AngelHouse, Bywords, and myriad other projects. Pearl Pirie also with Phafours, her tireless blogging, and her work organizing workshops for the Tree Reading Series in Ottawa (Pearl has had two trade collections published in the last couple years). There are countless others, this could go on all day. And this is only the tiny Ottawa-Toronto corridor. What else is happening around the country?

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Faulkner’s Mean Matt and Other Shitty People, in addition to having an awesome cover and predictably beautiful production values, achieves a similar balance to Gordon’s Feel Good! between pop culture, humour, and sincere emotion. In “Notes on a Theme” Faulkner pulls off these lines that, to my ear, reference Beautiful Losers and The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The theme of this party is the digital age / and I am pleasuring myself with a fiber optic dildo. / The theme of this party is body shots / and as I drank I aged hideously.” The tension between the first three lines and the final sustain this fairly long poem, and speak to the strengths of the chapbook as a whole. I can’t wait to see what Faulkner does with a trade collection.

When you get a chance, buy books from Ferno House and TERU. Maybe it isn’t too late to buy them as Christmas gifts?