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).
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.