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poetics.ca issue #1
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rob mclennan and Stephanie Bolster
in converstation
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Stephanie: Let’s begin with the title of your most recent book, The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh. In your poetry, you cite other writers more frequently and obviously than anyone I’ve read. Do you see this intertextuality as ongoing and essential to your writing? What are you saying to the writers whose lines you borrow? Why is influence — especially of your favourites, like Brautigan and George Bowering — so important to you?

rob: I didn’t realize I was doing it so “frequently and obviously”. I mean, I know it happens a lot. For me, the intertextuality is essential; since one cannot write or live in a vaccuum, I want to give homage. I want to take a point and move further from it, seeing how styles and phrases absorb into my own work. I’ve always seen what I do as a continuation in a long line of literature, and as my reading develops, so does, I think, my work. There are elements of Bowering, Brautigan, Donnell, Thesen, Newlove, et cetera that I’ve been picking up over the last few years, and absorbing into what I do, in a “I didn’t know a poem could do that” kind of way. In The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh, there was an emotional lightness and heaviness in his work that I wanted to play with in the poems. Notice, too, that beyond the title there are no interior references to him anywhere in the book. Colin Morton said he found more John Newlove in there than anything else, as I was reading The Night the Dog Smiled at the time (which is, I think, one of the finest Canadian books of the 80’s). But we all absorb and learn from influences differently. David McGimpsey says that his references to Ted Danson will outlive any of my literary ones, which is probably true. And yours, at least in the Two Bowls of Milk collection, seem heavily painterly, yet I’m sure you’ve pulled things out of the work of multiple writers. Ashbury being one of them, I know. When you write a poem, as much as thinking about what will be discussed, aren’t you aware of, however slightly, a model of how the piece will shape, and what you want to play with?

Stephanie: Form is one of the most intuitive, least intellectual elements of my writing. The first line usually defines the shape of the rest of the poem; it has a certain length (the Ashbery-influenced poems you mentioned come to me in long lines; the poems inspired by Jean Paul Lemieux’s paintings came in much briefer ones), which is partly defined by syntax and partly by the ideas I’m exploring. After the first few lines, I have a sense of the shape the stanzas will take, as well. Ten years ago, none of my stanzas were regular; now, I find that using a regular stanza, whether it’s in the first draft or in revisions, helps me focus and edit. I’ve benefited from having close friendships with poets, like Barbara Nickel, who write in strict forms. Critiquing their work has given me an enormous admiration for writers who are able to pull off sonnets, for example. While I, personally, find those constraints more limiting than productive, I’ve been influenced — and convinced — by them enough to set my own, looser, restrictions. I’ve also been infected by iambic rhythms, and if the first line of a poem I’m writing is iambic, chances are I’ll maintain that rhythm throughout, except for deliberate deviations. Several months ago, I began writing some free-verse sonnets; a couple of them were written in blank verse, but most were “sonnets” only insofar as they had 14 medium-length lines. After writing a few of these, I found, to my amazement, that my ideas for future poems in the series were “sonnet-sized.” That is, I began writing the poem, set the first line to a length that felt appropriate for a sonnet, and by the time I’d said all I had to say, I went back and counted the lines to find that I had 13 or 14. Robert Hass has an insightful essay on form (“One Body” in Twentieth Century Pleasures) in which he speaks of wonder and repetition as being defining factors. I rarely have an intellectual awareness of the form I’m writing in as I’m writing in it — and I almost never have this kind of awareness before I begin the poem, unless it’s part of a series — but in subsequent drafts I do become quite deliberate about making my revisions consistent with a particular form. In the creation, wonder comes first. What about you? Do you think before writing, or write before thinking? Can you give a percentage weighting to the importance of intellect and intuition in your writing? And, to continue from there, what is your writing process like? Obviously you produce poems quickly, but what do you do with them after the first draft? Do you revise them very much?

rob: I end up revising pretty heavily, some go through a process of up to thirty or forty drafts. Sure, it goes quick, &; can sometimes happen as quickly as a week or a few days, but there is pretty heavy editing going on. Although, unless the essence of the poem is there immediately, I usually don’t go back into it to completely gut. When I’m working on books, or even a series, I’m playing with certain themes or topics as well as trying to keep a stylistic flavour, depending on where my reading is at the time, or what I think I want to be accomplishing new in a poem. In the end, though, as I start a piece, all of this is in the back of the skull. I start a poem by writing, &; worry later. Title first, then piece. Then I go back to see what I’ve done. For me, it’s a completely intuitive form, &; its done when it feels right, no sooner. You say you’ve been playing with sonnets lately, that everything become “sonnet sized”. Do you worry about falling into that &; not being able to get out? I’ve been writing short poems the last eight months that fall into a particular rhythm that I can feel I have to shake off now, move in some other direction before it becomes a kind of self-parody. Now that I’m finished the collection of them, &; have my long poem in place, I’m hoping that by focusing on my novel, when I do come back to poetry, I won’t have the same kind of rhythmic baggage happening. But who knows. What I’m interested in is what was going on in your Japanese long poem, that you showed me in draft. how did you get started on such a thing? The length &; short sections seem a break from what you’ve done in your first two books, although one could argue that the alice poems were a long poem in itself, or even the painting pieces. This one seems more deliberate. What has been the process of going through this?

Stephanie: I’m constantly trying to avoid repeating myself, in terms of both form and subject matter. So although I’m continuing to explore aesthetic issues, I want to do so in new ways. My strength seems to be on the level of the poem series rather than the individual poem — at least as far as awards have indicated — so I thought that perhaps it was time to use a longer form in, as you say, a more deliberate way. I’m not entirely sure where the dividing line lies between poems-in-series and a long poem, but what interested me in the poem you mention (currently called “The Japanese Pavilion,” and still undergoing revisions) was looking at one idea — my lifelong fascination with Japanese aesthetics and culture — from many perspectives: some self-consciously lyrical, others irreverent; some imagistic, others narrative. I suppose I had two models here: the haiku, which is a very refined glimpse (and may itself be serious or irreverent); and contemporary French-Canadian poetry. I’ve noticed that most francophone writers in Canada do not write the kind of one-page lyrics that anglo-Canadians write. There is a far less active little magazine scene for francophone poets, as far as I’m aware, and an absence of contests like the League’s National Poetry Contest, and also, of course, a very different tradition. The result is that the francophone poets seem more interested in moving slowly through the permutations of an idea, and developing it in a way that at first struck me as irritatingly languid. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to see the value of that slow pace, that lack of a quick fix. A poem need not be a sound-bite. Most of the francophone books of poetry I’ve seen lately are in fact book-length poems, with a great deal of white space and perhaps four or five lines floating somewhere on each page. While I don’t want to go that far, that sense of individual moments or glimpses appeals to me. And what better place, I felt, to experiment with that than in writing about a culture that, for example, has such a spare and slow-motion ritual as the tea ceremony. As for fearing becoming trapped in the sonnet-like poems, of course I’m wary of overusing any form, but because I usually work on several series at a time  along with individual, unrelated poems — I’m able to maintain some sense of perspective. I do end up working on most of my projects past their expiry date, but because I don’t publish my work immediately I think I’m able to give myself enough distance to figure out when the form or material ceased to become interesting. But to get back to our talk of longer forms — most of your writing consists of series. Did this come from, initially, publishing your work in chapbooks? I know, too, that you’re writing a novel, maybe even several. What appeals to you about working in longer forms? And, to get just a bit academic, why do you think Canadians have a particular penchant for the long poem and the poem series, particularly many writers who I know you admire, such as Kiyooka, Thesen, Marlatt, Bowering, Ondaatje? Is it really just because of all that space you write about in Manitoba Highway Map?

rob: Canadians & long poems, I dunno. At least what I saw in the prairies, I could understand how something could more easily start & just keep going. It’s impossible not to be physically affected by landscape when you write, I think. That’s why I love writing travel pieces, or at least pieces written while travelling (which are two different things, I know). For me, yes, it is partially an interest in those writers, but I also like the sort of project that I can step into & stay immersed in for a while, as the mind absorbs & processes all of the information involved. I’ve always had a problem reading short stories for that reason, I want either something short, or long, no betweens. I like a novel I can live in for a week or two, as opposed to one sitting. Lately, even, I’ve been having a hard time watching films in one sitting; spent four days watching Wings of Desire simply for selfish ends, so I could absorb it all properly, & so there would still be some left, new for me, later on. My book-length interest in the poem is completely due to years of chapbook making. I like the idea of returning into a project day after day & living inside it for two, three, four years, even though I may be working on multiple projects such as, yes, three novels, two poetry manuscripts, a collaborative book & a collection of essays, apart from the two anthologies I’m working on, & possibly two more down the line. It’s the only way my brain functions. My last two manuscripts of poetry, a long poem, hazelnut, & a collection of short lyrics, paper hotel, both work from two sides of the same coin - the single shaped book made of increasingly abstract fragments. Since working on fiction I’ve noticed two things — 1) I’m beginning to dream in full sentences (including a great film script I dreamed last week, a thriller starring Michael Moriarty), & 2) my poems have become more abstract. I’m no longer feeling the need to tell stories, but move off into something beyond, those imaginative emotional scapes where the story pulls back, the setting, & even the author. Good thing, too, I was getting tired of those ‘I did this, I did that’ kind of poem I saw myself writing. But I can’t imagine working any other way, now. There are folk who build poetry collections as a continuous thread, once there are enough poems, there is a book, as opposed to clear definitions between one end cover & the next beginning. It’s interesting that you mention non-Anglo forms, whether francophone or haiku (although strange to discuss haiku as an influence on a long poem), as I am finding less & less for me as a reader of Canadian poetry. There just ain’t as much a challenge anymore, making me look toward other reading venues. I mean, they’re out there — Robert Budde, Sylvia Legris, Robert Kroetsch, Sharon Thesen, Don McKay, George Bowering, Lisa Robertson, Shane Rhodes et al — the sort of writing that makes me jealous, god damn! But it’s getting fewer & further between. I know you’re only a recent addition to the bilingual crowd, only over the last few years. How are you finding reading & being influenced by work not in your mother tongue? How has it affected the way you think about language, whether in your own work or beyond? Or has it?

Stephanie: I should confess right away that I consider myself functionally, not fluently, bilingual. I can make myself understood in French and I can understand French, but this is dependent on my familiarity with the context. Opening up a poetry book midway through or — even more overwhelming — picking up a novel, still leaves me somewhat mystified, and  to an extent I treasure that sense of strangeness. It’s a little like overhearing a conversation while having a fever: much of the essence drifts by, but shreds of sense get through, and those resonate powerfully.

The year I spent in Quebec City was the first time in my life that I’ve dreaded, rather than delighted in, bookstores. The author’s names were not familiar; I resented that (I was too homesick to find the newness exciting), but, more still, I resented myself for not being familiar with the authors, and for not being able to read the books. Once I began learning (and re-learning) French through immersion, a bookstore was a place of possibility. During that time of full-time language learning, I wrote very little. I attempted one poem in French, about Jean Paul Lemieux (I was in the very early stages of writing “Deux personnages dans la nuit” at the time), and was surprised at the declarative, end-stopped sentences. I felt another person had written the poem. And, since then, as I’ve become more comfortable at conversing in French, I’ve come to believe that I am a different person when I live in that language. I suspect that, to others, I seem less intellectual and more emotional than I am in English, and certainly more infantile! I’m forced to stick to basics; apparently I even mumble less in French than I do in English.

When I’ve been speaking only French for a few days, I begin to dream in French, and that exhilirates me. And occasionally I’ve stumbled into accidental bilingual puns, like “He rests in Aylmer.” This makes me aware of how arbitrary our language is, and also of the rich interconnections between words, and of their etymologies.

Before moving to Quebec, I’d thought that learning a new language might make me a more linguistically experimental poet, but it hasn’t reall, at least not in any flashy way. It’s the emotional shifts that have come from the move that have transformed my work. Still, I’m quite enamoured of the way certain French expressions are part of the vocabulary of anglo-Quebeckers, and I suspect that, once I move to Montreal and am surrounded by Quebecois culture (though, paradoxically, I’ll hear French less in my working life at Concordia than I do now, at the National Gallery), more French phrases will come into my poems. The French Fragments in “Deux personnages” are there not to give an “exotic” flavour but because those phrases were the best way to express what I wanted to convey. I find myself, while speaking in English, using certain French words – like “chicane” rather than “argument” or “fiasco” — simply because they feel closer to the idea. There are other words — of course I can’t think of any right now! — which just don’t translate adequately into English. I may be co-translating, with Patrick, some French poems into English, and that’s part of the thrill and anxiety I feel when contemplating the project: how does one find the right words?

The more bilingual I become, the more inadequate the English language feels, and certainly the less absolute. This makes me wish I could read Rilke in German, Basho in Japanese. Even in the best translations, I sense that at least half the original poem — not necessarily the meaning, but the essence, and the aesthetic — is lost. With French, just entering that new world a little bit, and inhabiting another quadrant of my brain, opens up new possibilities.

How much French did you hear while growing up in Glengarry? Did it shape you in any important way? And, to shift from language to landscape, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that although you’ve written a great deal about where you’re from, your life, and the speakers of your poems, are very urban, full of references to neighbours, buses, cafes, bars, particular streets. Where is “home”? Do you feel, as I do, that you had to move away in order to write about that formative place?

To address your earlier remark, perhaps the influence haiku has on my sense of the long poem comes from my own home: Vancouver’s a Pacific Rim City, and also very cloistered — in some way, I think that the combined effects of towering conifers, mountains, and overcast skies, has made me feel at home in contained forms. But the mountains, trees, and ocean are all enormous, of course, and the vegetation is rampant, so I need more of these small poems to convey that abundance. Does the landscape of Eastern Ontario affect your sense of form?

rob: Je suis maudit englais. Beaucoup, beaucoup. The shift from language to lanscape & back has been pretty natural. Geez, I grew up in Ralph Connor country, reading the novels & being told where things from the books happened, the idea of the localized immediacy of literature. The Glengarry School Days ol’ swimmin’ hole was at Hugh Fisher’s farm on Highland Road, just north of Maxville by St. Elmo church, & a spit south of the former hamlet of Athol, where my dad’s mum was born, grew. Everything was right there. Torches Through The Bush, the novel he wrote about the religious revivals in the area in the 1860’s, & the church his father built & preached at; the one my family & I belong to —  my father is an elder, sang in the choir as his father did. I remember spending pre-teen days with my dad as he put the alarm system in & I played the pump organ, after the third St. Elmo robbery. The nature of literature didn’t seem foreign or faraway. Also, as the county was immersed in its own history, old Empire Loyalists & the like, & the Glengarry Highland Games, once I got over the push against that (the six years I spent writing _bury me deep in the green wood_ was my therapy, getting used to being from that place), it allowed me to see the world — life, love, history, family — as a continuous thread, & the effects that roll & run down the line.

Patrick [Leroux] once told me how he couldn’t write about a place until he was away from it; writing about home (I think it was), or Ottawa, when the two of you were in Quebec City. I work the other way around, writing where & what I’m in, such as the six days driving through the prairies & scribbling Manitoba Highway Map in a backseat notebook, suddenly realizing, as I typed it out on D.C. Reid’s computer in Victoria, B.C., that it was book-length.

As far as my sense of home, I’ve been in Ottawa since 1989; this is where I live & need to be, for now, surrounded by things & people & events & activity. Home is where the heart is, back in that greenspace of eastern Ontario, whether the house I grew or horizon view of Maxville, dving into Alexandria or the campground outside Apple Hill; where I started & might just end. I think home & here have both developed me to look further afield for influence, living in quieter places, yet attempting these last few days to be National in my awareness, as opposed to Regional.

Back to language, again, I know no french. By the time I heard it I didn’t care, & grade four french made no practical sense since there was no-one around who spoke it, apart from the french teacher. The high school, one principal, but two vice, one for each language/side, kept both of them pretty seperate. Patrick was literally the only french kid we knew, even though Ann-Marie was (& is) as french as one can get, but was on the english side, so spoke it infrequently with us — last name Sequin, dad Aldege, uncle Driva. I like the flavour of hearing it, though, & always love Montreal, or even Alexnadria, for that. It’s around, like coal dust in the air that you can’t get away from, but tastes so sweet to the tongue. I had the neatest interview a few years ago with Nicole Brossard, talking about the fact that I was reading a book that she didn’t necessarily write & how much was I missing, or the nature of translation giving her editions of her own novel that she couldn’t read, wondering if she still felt as though they were “hers”.

Your space must have (obviously) affected you too — just as my open space moved me more internal — growing up, as you’ve said before, in Burnaby malls (which is strange to me, since Talonbooks is out there too. I always think of you when I visit them...). But too, what started you in this long line of writing? & do you see yourself moving through other forms ie. fiction, non-fiction, children’s? Do you distinguish & play with, after & apart from notions of form/content (chicken/egg in many cases), the variations between the intellectual & emotional qualities inside a work?

Stephanie: Until I was about sixteen, I didn’t really, deeply, appreciate the place in which I lived. Burnaby is such a green place, I see now – and there are literary things going on there, Talonbooks being only one of  them — but my childhood, as I’ve told you before, was quintessentially suburban. Though I never thought of it as such until I’d grown up and moved away. When I was homesick in Quebec City, I went to a mall in suburban Sainte-Foy on an errand and felt a flicker of familiarity, and realized that the architecture of malls, for better or for worse, was a kind of home for me. I’ve been writing about domestic architecture and, in particular, about the house in which I grew up, and the ways in which I was shaped by it. My bedroom looked out onto a street that grew busier with time, and could have, except for a few trees or shrubs that might not grow elsewhere, been anywhere. My brother’s bedroom, though, looked out onto the lush backyard, with a grassy field behind it and enormous Douglas Firs and Sequoias obscuring the view of other houses. If the sky was clear and you stood in the right spot, you could see the Lions mountains between two trees. I stay in that room now when I go back home and I wonder whether I would have understood my place earlier if I’d had that view. What my tiny bedroom in a medium-sized house in a growing suburb may have given to my writing is an appreciation of domesticity, of contained spaces. A long poem written in haiku-like sections, rather than the sprawling lines I might have written if I’d been raised on the prairies.

As for my entry into literature, I can honestly say I’ve always written and always read. When I was about twelve, I wanted to write young adult novels, a la Judy Blume and Normal Klein. I think the only Canadian writer I was aware of, for that age group, was Gordon Korman, whose work didn’t especially impress me. That I was reading American writers and had never seen an author didn’t dissuade me from believing I could publish (I wrote in my diary at age twelve that I wanted to be an “author”; I considered myself a writer already, but I knew that I wanted my work to be published), but I know now that having a writer visit my school would have given me an enormous boost. That’s part of what I want to give to students when I go to their classes: I want them to know that writers are real, alive, and living in their community.

I always had many pen-pals, a few of whom were the literary sort, and it was through one of these that I discovered Sylvia Plath. Reading her journals, difficult as they were, confirmed that I was a writer: her torments were my torments, her joys my joys. And I had the faith to think that I could put all the pieces of my life together in a way that she wasn’t able to, living when she did and with whom she did. I read Plath during the summer after grade eleven, and that year I’d taken my school’s only creative writing class, which, though it wasn’t particularly well-taught, introduced me to some interesting people (some of whom are still friends) and legitimized writing in my life. It still wasn’t connected to place — I never had the sense, as you did, of “the localized immediacy of literature” — but it was at the centre of me.

From then on, it was just a matter of taking leaps: applying to major in creative writing, which went against all my practical instincts; sending my poems around; meeting other writers. My life as a writer has been a series of affirmations. Without those little gold stars, I think I’d still be writing, but I would probably be very bitter.

As part of my degrees in creative writing at UBC, we had to take multiple genres; both the B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs have a three-genre requirement. So I took almost everything the department offered: short fiction for many years; writing for children; creative non-fiction; screenplay. Poetry wasn’t, in fact, my initial focus: I was torn between poetry and fiction for several years, and it was only when I wrote the poems that became the chapbook you published, “three bloody words,” that poetry won out. Still, I kept on writing fiction after that. Time constraints have made me put it aside for the past few years, but I’m moving back in that direction now. (While continuing to write poetry, of course. I can’t see myself ever abandoning it. Unless it abandons me.)

Non-fiction has always been an interest of mine, and a book like Merilyn Simonds’ “The Lion in the Room Next Door” shows me the fascinating literary possibilities of that form. I’d like to explore this area more. As for writing for children, I don’t think I quite have “it” yet; I probably need to have children first.

For me, intellect and emotion must be balanced. I always point to Robert Hass as my ideal example of this: most of his poems are quite accessible, and they’re often brutally honest, but they reward repeated readings; they make complex connections and, if one is to really get the most out of them, they require considerable thought. I’m distrustful of poetry that veers too far over to the side of intellect or the side of emotion, though lately I’ve been writing poems that feel surprisingly straightforward and are driven by emotion rather than intellectual thought. When I’ve read these, they’ve been well received, usually by people who don’t comment on my more complex work. So perhaps there is a place for this. I guess I would revise my earlier statement and say that, in a work as a whole, intellect and emotion must be balanced. Rilke did this, for example. Some poems or segments might be pure melodrama, but a later piece would require thought. I’m not particularly aware of this while I’m writing the poems, and I don’t want to be. But it comes into play afterwards, when I revise, and when I’m trying to sequence poems for a manuscript. George McWhirter, my teacher at UBC, spoke of “relief” poems: brief lyrics that would offer a necessary pause after a longer, more difficult poem. That’s partly why “Blackberries” follows “Come to the edge of the barn” in “Two Bowls of Milk.”

You’ve got me thinking about a different kind of balance writers have to deal with: between public and private. About a year ago, I felt myself in danger of talking about writing more than doing it, simply because people were paying attention to my work, and that hadn’t been the case before. In your case, I’m curious about what I see as a major discrepancy in your career. You use your personality to sell your work — peddling books on the street, on buses, etc. — but the work itself is usually quite difficult, not accessible to the average non-poetry reader. Do you agree? Have you thought about this tension? What do you make of it?


Also, your career is still more diversified by the fact that you publish other people and, until your own books were published by other presses, many people knew you as a publisher more than they knew you as a writer. Does this bother you? How do you keep the promoter and the writer separate?

rob: I would like to think that in everything I do, there is still something for the ‘average non-poetry reader’. I’ve never really considered my work especially difficult, although I have no interest in the lazy reader, either. It’s what attracts me to writing such as Stan Rogal, Judith Fitzgerald or bpNichol. As those, I’ve tried to give rewards for repeated readings, but also, tried to keep even fragments in their own units of understanding. In “paraphrasing don mckay”, the reader doesn’t have to know anything about don, or his work, but if you do, there are whole other elements to the poem; little references, or things that change the atmosphere of the piece (but still, without having the poem depend on them). It makes me wonder if there is such a thing as the perfect reader, apart from someone willing to give a piece the time it deserves, because half the poem will always be what the reader puts into it. (Ken Norris has found that his perfect reader is a waitress living in middle America.) I’ve just tried to leave the space where they can.

After worrying about all the work, I’ve spent much of my time working the publicity angle. You can write the best book in the world, but if no-one knows it exists, there seems little point. I see far too many writers afraid to tell anyone, but for other writers who can write like them. It seems odd hearing complaints from some of a lack of non-writerly audience, when the same people refuse to seek it. There seems something more pure, somehow, insomeone reading your work because they want to (& it’s poetry specifically I’m talking about here), & not because they have to. The writers’ eye is usually far too critical, or out to steal stuff. There are arguements against the “less informed reader”, but it just seems differently informed.

I find it frustrating to be considered as all those things first, before writer, whether publisher, editor, organizer, or whatnot, since I see myself as writer first, & everything else second. I write all day, every day (except Saturdays), & do all the other things in my “spare time”. So far I haven’t had to worry too much about talking more than doing; no one really asks me about what I’m doing. I’m usually left quite alone. I feel a strange lack of interest for what I do in Ottawa, even in the events I arrange, which make me wonder why. It’s only been in the last year that this abstract writers group idea has come about, after Clare Latremouille moved back here from Kamloops, & Stephen Brockwell resurfaced. It’s helped me quite a lot, & probably the first time I’ve been able to talk about what the hell I’m doing on any on-going basis with people who have an understanding of it. (My social group the last few years have been predominantly non-writerly.) & then of course, there’s jwcurry, literary mastermind.

It wasn’t until Dean Irvine spent a month in my house last summer (as he researched the Miriam Waddington papers at the Archives) that I noticed the lack, & how much I craved it. It’s probably part of the reason I was doing so many reviews for so long. Why bother making more work if no one talks about it?

As far as aesthetic issues, form & content as you mentioned before, what are you working on now, differently from what you did before, apart from The Japanese Pavilion? I know you’ve got another collection of shorter pieces in there somewhere (or is TJP part of that?) What are you currently trying to accomplish in your newer work?

Stephanie: Although I feel like Barton Fink in saying this (and thus like an evasive and paranoid cheat), I do find it difficult to talk about work in progress because by the time the work is published, it may bear no resemblance to its current state. But since you asked: yes, The Japanese Pavilion (working title, remember) is part of the manuscript on which I’m working now. It’s a collection of linked poems and longer poems, one of which is TJP, and the other of which is inspired by Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” also known as “Head of a Young Girl” — an image that has recurred already in several of my poems.This girl is a touchstone for other women writers I know, and what I want to write about is: what in her gaze so moves us? does she remind us of ourselves, or of something we’ve lost? what does it mean to have so unoriginal a muse? My previous poems about paintings have been fairly short lyrics, and I’m curious to see what develops when I run with a subject over many pages, tracking resonances. I say “develops” even though I “finished” the poem some time ago, because I discover more during revisions than I do during initial drafts.

As for shorter pieces, I’m working on several linked sections, on such subjects as the house in which I grew up, animals (particularly lost or extinct animals), dreams, the passing of time. A few months ago, I pulled together the “possible keeper” poems I’d written during the past couple of years — coinciding with the final stages of Two Bowls of Milk and subsequent to that — and shaped them into a manuscript, and after a month of working with that manuscript, I realized that it was about mortality. I’ve always been acutely aware of  the passage of time, and these particular poems, whatever their ostensible subjects, were all about that. To a certain extent, Two Bowls of Milk was about the loss of a place; this manuscript is more about the continual losses that living necessitates, and also about projected losses: of youth, of family members.

To anyone who knows my previous work, I imagine that this will all sound like more of the same, and perhaps it is, to a certain extent: in “White Stone,” I got at issues of transience and nostalgia through Dodgson’s fixation on “fixing” Alice in time. Obviously I was drawn to that subject matter, in part, because it resonated deeply within me. I think we’re all like that, though, as writers. We are who we are, whether we’re writing or brushing our teeth. My interests range widely but it’s not too difficult to discern a common thread. The writers I enjoy reading most — someone like Robert Hass, for example, or Charles Simic, or Eavan Boland  — experiment with form and venture into new territory in terms of content, but the poems are usually discernibly “theirs.” More than innovation for its own sake, I value evolution along a meaningful and deeply determined path.

So, technically, I’m not doing anything radically different in these new poems. But I see subtle differences: a willingness to leave more ragged edges, for example. I think some of the poems in Two Bowls of Milk were raw in terms of content but were formally very tight; in the newer poems, I’m trying to let go, to be less restrained. It’s tricky, because I don’t believe that “first thought” is necessarily “best thought,” and so I need to revise the poems not to tidy them up but to better reflect the actual emotions/insights/observations, rough or muddled as they may be.

I think there are more voices in this manuscript. In some sections, the poems have fairly define conclusions, where in others, particularly the poems inspired by dreams, I’m more willing to allow questions to remain unanswered and confusions to remain confused. Many of the poems are, I think, very accessible, and it’s difficult for me to trust that directness. It’s harder to write with apparently simplicity than to write with obvious complexity; think of Elizabeth Bishop.

On the subject of shorter poems, I do have many brief lyrics that sit well on their own but that won’t end up in this — or possibly any — book, because they exist alone, not in the context of others. Do you write any such poems? “Occasional poems,” I call them, though the occasion is rarely anything formal. As a reader, I prefer books that aren’t simply “collections” but cohere on a deeper level, and yet what room does such a view of the book leave for poems that are individually strong but not part of a series? I think you and I are stronger writers when judged on the level of the book than on the level of the individual poem, so I’m curious: what’s your perspective on poetry contests and the poems that win them? Do you think the growing number of such contests is affecting our sense of what makes a good poem? Who and what is being left behind?

rob: That’s interesting, what you say about our work, to potentially be judged better on books than bits. I’ve been writing full collections, not poems, for years, & it’s probably the reason why the leap to fiction wasn’t at big as I thought it would be. George Murray, when he was here for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, suggested that I can only be seen proper through groups of books, not individually. It seems the only problem with doing so much, readers start building immunities faster.

I’ve been twitching with some “occassionals” lately, now that I’ve finished with some other projects, but my occassionals always end up cohering into eventual manuscripts. The new ms is so-far called “ruins”, even though only one of the poems is finished. Between reading Creeley again the last few weeks, & maternal grandmother’s death & funeral the 2nd week of September, its touched off a whole series of things. Also, it will give me a coherent chunk of things to think & work on as I travel, six weeks of tour starting September 22nd, from Montreal to Windsor to Vancouver to Prince George, & all spots in-between. Such madness.

What I have more of, are occassional chapbooks, not including those first few, from the last couple of years, such as “dead city radio”form 95 or 96, or “had i written a poem about Montreal / it would have looked / like this”, that I want to collect at some point. I’m not in a hurry. The one thing this business of writing has taught me, if nothing else, is patience, & timing. Some things can’t be rushed, & happen as & when they do. I do want to finish another section of it, tho, a chapbook I started as a gag over a year ago, but now quite like, “twenty-two short stories about Stuart Ross”, a demented sort of tribute, & seeing where I can go through his style. I want to do a rob-writes-Stuart-writes-rob piece as part of it. Also, I’ve got a leftover travel novel I wrote scraps of in 1997 (thanks to the Canada Council), with a handful of bits called “100 short stories about Edmonton” that would fit nicely. I was going to do 100, for the 100 streets & 100 avenues, but ended up doing only three.

I understand the paranoia, tho, about discussing new work. Half of any project is what you’re attempting with it, & the other half is where it decides to go. Who knows where a project will end up, but that’s the  thrill (to me, at least) of process — not knowing how the poems, novel, collection of whatever is gonna end until you’re there, or how you get there, even. None of these comments we make can be held against us later on, either — “but you said it would be called ________!”. It’s literature, not a building permit, & folks ain’t listenin’ half the time anywho. To be flexible, like the grass & go with where it goes. Be fluid.

I’m working on two stories I’d like to have become graphic novels, one about an Italian priest, & the other a Chinese folk tale, if Tom Fowler, illustrator, likes, draws & finds publishers for. Who knows.

I like hearing that you’re leaving more ‘rough stuff’ in your poems. You & Robin Hannah (bless her heart) both, I’ve seen, have tendencies to polish down to the bare, & then have nothing left but “craft”. I was quite excited when you gave me that Pavillion draft how long ago, months. It was good to see that there could be rough energy & appeal in you, not just finished product. Craft ain’t all its crackt up to be (see also: jazz).

When George Bowering read at the Writers Festival (sounds almost like a festival of Georges...), he made a comment about how he doesn’t think poetry books should have conclusions, endings, or things tied up, at the back. I tend to agree; think the openings are far more important. The questions far better than answers.

As for contests, a smart & competant reader, I’d like to think, goes toward those things that interest him/her, not glitter & glam, only”contest winners”. I think the more contests there are, the less its all going to mean, in the end. Folk will just enter for the money.

Really, every bloody magazine going has its own contest happening, & I rarely enter, unless I’m sure I can win. I don’t need a subscription to Arc, or The Fiddlehead. I subscribe to things I want to read, or wait for contributor’s copies (its the main reason I submit). I buy cereal for the prizes inside. The only magazine I subscribe to now is Queen Street Quarterly; I think it’s the best the country has to offer, for the kind of work it publishes. (Then comes Capilano, or Filling Station...)

I know people, like the aforementioned Robin Hannah, who only submit to contests, but don’t submit otherwise. It’s how she got her book published, winning the New Muse Award from Broken Jaw Press. What the hell does it all mean? I submit to grant deadlines, that’s all. At least they don’t have entry fees, tho they can sometimes feel just as arbitrary.

I’m toying with an eventual book of “translations”, going through the Norton Anthology & rewriting old standards, to see what older forms I’ve missed all this time, & to get out of my own style for a while. As the painter Diane Woodward says, when you learn how to do something, move on.

Do you find writing longer poems any different, really, than writing longer series of individual pieces? Do you feel a different kind of writer than you were, say, two years ago, or five? Do you see an eventual book of occasional verse happening? The only worry, of course, is that it comes out like George Elliott Clarke’s Lush Dreams, Blue Exile book from a few years back, basically proving why the poems never say other light; they weren’t very good.

Do you think all this email & internet has changed the way we read? The way we write?

Stephanie: Don’t get me started on e-mail! Given the extent to which it defines the way I spend my time, it’s almost inconceivable to me that I’ve had access for only six years. It so quickly became a given. I spend very little time on the internet itself, and have rarely looked at e-journals, so I can’t comment with any authority on that realm, though I know that it is there, more than in the realm of e-mail, that writing itself has been affected. I receive mailings from the trAce on-line writing community and it’s clear that entirely new forms are evolving as a result of the internet. The idea of hypertext, though, is so appealing because it speaks to the way our minds already work — it simply provides an outlet for that kind of “choose your own adventure” text, or a reflection of the way a conversation spirals off in all unexpected directions. This speaks, I think, to Bowering’s preference that poetry collections not end: hypertext presents multiple possibilities. In this sense, the internet has, I suppose, freed writing of many linear constraints. I sense that the quality of much of the poetry appearing on the internet is poor, and this troubles me — that because it is easier to publish an e-zine than a paper-zine (or is it? I assume so, once one has the knowledge), editorial standards are less rigorously applied. The internet is expanding to such an extent that it’s becoming nearly as difficult to find what you’re looking for there as in “the real world.” (And, of course, access depends on certain knowledge, and home access depends on a certain financial situation.) I, certainly, prefer the book or journal as a physical object. I don’t like scrolling through poems. (Though I could be challenged on this, since I write and revise on the computer, only printing out drafts periodically. Perhaps it’s that I associate the screen with my own unfinished work, so anything else I see on that same screen seems unfinished, or at least a valid target of criticism.)  E-mail has not affected my writing in any direct way, nor my reading, but the communication channels it has opened up, and kept open, have. I’ve critiqued poems sent by frantic friends the night before submission to a contest; I’ve received freshly finished poems from these same friends as surprise e-mails. Book recommendations, notices of readings, and, most importantly, a general level of contact with the literary community – all these happen more readily with e-mail than without. Many would argue that e-mail has led to significant lapses in the seriousness with which we take the act of writing, and I think this is true in many cases, but not my own; I’ve always adopted whatever style I deemed appropriate for the context, and am as chatty and prone to dashes and run-ons in print letters as on e-mail. E-mail, for me, offsets the solitude of a writing life. But now that my writing life is so social — with students and colleagues and readings to host — I wonder whether I’d be better off taking an e-mail vacation and simply working alone on my own writing. The e-mail discourse doesn’t directly contaminate my writing, but I suspect that the time I spend writing e-mail detracts from the time I spend writing. And reading. If I didn’t have e-mail, I’d arguably be more productive. Though perhaps not. Perhaps I’d simply watch more films, feel more alone. Your comment on my work being pared down to the point that all that remains is craft is interesting in this light, because my e-mail messages are, I think, the opposite: all content. Unpremeditated. Your point about refining is well-taken, though I still believe that craft can, in itself, be a statement. This is, I’m sure, a result of the time I spent in workshops, where we were encouraged (in fact, required) to comment on craft and not on content. This is something I’m trying to address in my own classes, as I realize that discussions of craft can easily end up “perfecting” a poem that’s flawed in its argument, or confusing in its conception — but no one is willing to say what they (mis?)understood when reading the poem, because they feel compelled to speak only about word choice and line-breaks. Perhaps because of this rigorous workshop background, I admire writers who allow a looseness, sometimes a rawness, into their work, and given that I agree with Diane’s statement that we should move on once we’ve learned how to do something, I’m trying to do just that. I’m still drawn to the brief lyric, but I want to see what happens when I let go of that. The trick, of course, is not to refine the spark out of existence. I know my concerns won’t change all that greatly through the course of my life, but at least the way I articulate them can. Hence my current longer projects. How is a long poem different from a series of shorter poems? Not all that much, at first glance. I realize that a great part of the definition of the work has to do with its placement on the page.


Currently, one of my longer poems runs about fifteen pages on the word processor, with five blank lines between each section. But if the sections were arranged on individual pages, the “poem” could be presented as a book of short lyrics. I would argue, though, that the difference does go deeper than that. In these longer poems, I feel more at liberty to include sections that might individually seem unjustified but that further the poem as a whole. To include fragments. And most of the sections aren’t titled, whereas I’ve never been one to leave individual poems, even in a series, untitled. That I’m describing this in terms of “to allow” and “to include” means that, for me, right now, the long poem is a liberating form, one in which, perhaps, I can allow myself to value content as much as craft.


So yes, of course I’m a different kind of writer now than I was two years ago. White Stone was written earlier than that, but I still felt I could speak with some authority about the book back then. Just two weeks ago, I read from the book to a class at York, and answered questions, and although it was an enjoyable and illuminating experience, I felt somewhat as though I was performing a past self, because the current me doesn’t much like those poems and wouldn’t write them. Of what does the difference consist? I’m not entirely sure; I won’t be able to articulate the present me until a few years down the road, when I’ve outgrown her. But I think I’m much more concerned with motive now. I’m willing to look deeper, though that’s not always for the best, since it makes the writing process much more conscious. I’m learning to trust simplicity, or at least apparent simplicity: the poem need not be superficially complex in order to be worth reading and re-reading. Simplicity — or perhaps I should say “directness” is, for me, far more different to write. I’m much more interested in the first-person voice than I used to be, both as a writer and as a reader. I’ve just been re-reading two of my favourite books of this year: Mark Sinnett’s Some Late Adventure of the Feelings and Mark Cochrane’s Change Room. Both very self-involved books, though also both tongue-in-cheek at various moments. But that kind of “I” no longer seems an extravagance or an embarrassment to me. Why shouldn’t poetry explore and expose a life? These books are so rich with joy and despair, love, doubt: real things, furthered rather than eliminated by craft or forced anonymity.


As for a book of occasional verse, I’m not sure that’s in the cards for me. Certainly not in the near future. Although I do find it limiting, once having published a book, to find myself thinking of the success or failure of poems in terms of their ultimate placement in a book, I’m also willing to accept that one-off poems can find homes in journals and end their journey there. Sometimes, as you say, the poems just don’t stand up to further scrutiny. Other times, they do, but they don’t gain any force from the company in which they’d find themselves in a book. My own preference is for the book as a conversation, not a series of monologues. Since we’ve just been looking back at how we’ve evolved as writers, what about answering this: Where do you want to be with your writing ten years from now? I think that you and I have been very lucky, in that we’ve set goals for ourselves in terms of publications and awards, and many of those goals — more than I would have expected, certainly, for myself – have been achieved. So what comes next, both in terms of career, and in terms of the work? And on the former note, why do you think you’ve been able to achieve what you’ve achieved. Persistence aside, what do you think it is about your work that has appealed to your publishers, to the Air Canada Award jury, to the editors of the over 100 literary magazines in which your work has appeared.


This year, I asked my undergrad students to do presentations on contemporary North American poets, and one of my students chose you as the writer she most wanted to introduce to the class. You, in the context of presentations that have included Frank O’Hara, Nicole Brossard, Sharon Olds, Frank Bidart, Dionne Brand. So why do you think you’ve made it this far? 

Finally — and this doesn’t arise immediately out of this conversation but out of my own recent musings — what’s more important, process or product? 

rob: I’m always hesitant to talk about how I think I’m being read, between what I think I do, & have achieved in my writing. That’s for others to decide. I know what I think I’m trying to do, & what elements fall into the work, but because of the deliberate abstractness of certain pieces, it’s hard to tell what readers will get out of it. Even to use such personally loaded words like “home” will evooke a whole slew of different images from each reader, & all of that falls into their individual reading. It’s that kind of stuff I want to play with, give the reader room to explore, in the subconscious.

I’ve always tried to have every work evoke a different flavour, both in content & style; there’s no point in being repetitive, tho I probably am. I like putting in lots of different kinds of references, & leaving them incomplete. If the brain can fill in, why should I? Jump on to something else instead. I like the idea of leaving the reader with an altered point of view on familiar terrain. Much like watching television with a baby, what I used to do with Kate —  lying on the floor, you had no idea how big the living room could look. I mean, its huge from down there.

I presume that the Canadian Authors Association/Air Canada Award jury was overwhelmed by sheer volume; I told them about everything I was working on at the time. I like the elements of “language” writing, & play with parts of that, but work much more emotionally than, say, the kootenay school folk, or coach housers, tho I can’t pretend to be near even the same level.

Apparently, from the Archibald Lampman jury (the year you won, for Two Bowls of Milk), Linda Rogers leaned toward my The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh collection for its “passion”.

Also, I’ve done my research. Stephen Brockwell claims that I’m probably more aware of my position in CantLit than almost any poet, although I find that difficult to believe. I’m aware of influences, sure, but my position aims a lot more fluid than fixed. I don’t want to stay still for long, or be pegged so I can be ignored. Lately, I’ve been engaged with the Phillytalks series from Philadelphia, run by former Ottawan Louis Cabri that I found on-line — Ron Silliman, Fred Wah, Bruce Andrews, Rod Smith, Dan Farrell, Jeff Derkson, et al. It’s a reading & discussion series focusing on mostly American language poets & poetry, but it does have some Canadian overlap into Calgary.

In terms of career? I want to be known as a novelist & poet & visual artist, & in more than one country; not just the poet who does other stuff on the side. I want my point-of-view to mean something – when I publish someone else’s chapbook, actually sell more than three copies, without needing validation by an outside source. I’ve been doing this long enough. I mean, it was cool to sell fifty of your Three Bloody Words when you won the GG, but I had only made 300, & they should have all been gone. They were, what, nearly three years old when you won? Ten years from now, maybe a selected poems (working title: Certain Bones). Maybe I’ll finally get a works-in-progress grant from The Ontario Arts Council, or an A grant from The Region of Ottawa-Carleton, or Ottawa supercity, whatever. A book or two of essays, various fiction, a few more anthologies, a few more art shows.

For me the process is far more important, certainly. I want to try new things, & see where it takes me.

I want to worry less about money, & spent more energy on the work. (How can I be the best there is at what I do if I spend all this time scrambling for pennies?)

Glad you mentioned Mark Cochrane. I was blown away by that book. It’s one of those rare collections that make me embarrassed for what the hell I’m doing, make me question & re-evaluate whole reams of it, challenging these notions I have of what the hell, art. It’s becoming fewer & further between, such bursts. I had the same impression reading Rob Budde’s “traffick” last fall, or Fred Wah’s recent collection of essay from NeWest. On smaller scales, having my ears tweak reading new work by Karen I. Press, old Robert Kroetsch essays, Ron Silliman poems, the chapbooks of Jason Dewinetz, rereading Roy Kiyooka, again & again & again.

So I’ll put it to you, too: what do you see readers getting out of what you do? & where do you see yourself, in terms of career, in ten short years?

Stephanie: I keep coming back to the fact that I write primarily for myself. Not for myself only, but for myself first. This sounds terribly selfish, but I don’t think it’s all that unusual. The gist of the recent discussion on the League’s listserv, concerning poetry and readership, indicated that this is one area where most of us agree — the “fame” to be derived from writing poetry is so minimal that anyone who goes into the field with delusions of grandeur will soon be disappointed. I think it’s the most intimate of the arts, and the most minimalist.


That said, as I mentioned earlier, I knew from an early age that I wanted not just to write but to be published, so clearly I do feel I have something to say. That “something” would be better characterized as “how” or “why,” not “what.” At least to date, my writing has been about perception — and, in particular, about ways of looking. To quote Robert Hass again (who’s been in my mind all year, since we’ve been reading essays from his “Twentieth-Century Pleasures” in my classes) my life’s been “a long slow hurtle through the forms of things.” Though my work is of necessity situated along the trajectory of my own hurtle, my intent is to make readers aware of *their* personal perspective. If I can make a reader discover the extraordinary within the ordinary of his/her own life, then I’ve achieved something. That intent, though unconscious, hasn’t changed for me, and probably won’t — those young adult novels I wanted to write when I was a pre-teen were all about finding value in one’s own life, and I loved most the ones that seemed to understand me and, by doing so, transform my life into something larger. When a teacher at a school I visited told me that my “Blackberries” poem brought back the sensation of picking blackberries during her childhood in Ireland, and that she would never have considered writing a poem about such an experience but now saw it as meaningful, I knew I was achieving a goal I hadn’t known I’d had.

That I’ve learned about my writing from the critical response it has received, and from conversations and correspondence with individual readers, shows me that not only am I communicating something in the work, but it is communicating back. Not facts, nothing as specific as that, but stances. It was other writers who made me realize the extent to which both White Stone and Two Bowls were about perception. I know that observation seems obvious, but I suppose what I’m getting at is that I hadn’t realized this was a distinguishing feature of my work, and an (indeed, the) important connection between the two books. I hadn’t realized I had anything to say on this topic that was distinctively mine. I thought all poets wrote about how they saw things, how they literally saw things.


But you’re also asking about “career,” which is another issue entirely. Writing and career were deeply intertwined for me until I had some semblance of a career, after which point I realized that the two involve very different elements of the self, and that too much attention to the latter can make the former very difficult. When I began writing seriously, I set career goals; now, I set writing goals. Within the next ten years, I want to publish at least one novel (in-progress, though slow progress, as I write this); I want to publish more collections of poetry. I’d like to see my work translated into other languages — French being of the most interest to me at this point, given that I’m in Montreal — and published in other countries. I’d like to editing a book or two: Carmine Starnino and I have plans to edit a collection of essays, and I’d be interested in editing an anthology somewhere along the line. I’d like to publish a poem in Poetry. A McArthur Foundation genius grant would be nice; as Kate Sterns, who teaches with me, said, “why don’t they give out moderately bright grants?” Would I want the fame of someone like Anne Carson? On the one hand: of course. On the other: not if it interfered with my actually getting work done. I think I’m someone for whom the public can get in the way of the private. I’m more drawn to emulating someone like Don Coles, who’s been writing excellent work for decades and who’s deeply respected, particularly by writers. Although the general public does seem to like my work, as much as one can say that the general public likes poetry, I still feel I’m a writer’s writer. At the moment, that doesn’t bother me. Ask me in ten years.


I should add that, given that I’ve felt committed to teaching for several years now, and that I’m now at Concordia, I see that role a significant part of my career. I want to teach well, to attract good emerging writers to the department. That Concordia’s creative writing programme is part of the English department excites me because it allows me to spend time with academics, and I suspect that during the next decade I’ll write more about writing — about my own work and that of others.


A decade from now, I’ll probably be surprised at how my career has evolved — as I’m surprised now at how things have progressed during the past ten years — but I don’t think I’ll be surprised at what my work has evolved into. I think the foundation I’ve set now will prove to be solid; my commitment to building on it certainly is.


Talking about reputation and the future brings to mind a question I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time now: why are you so prolific? This is a multi-part question, really, and by asking it I’m asking both why you write so much (many full-time writers end up with far less “output” than you do) and why you publish so much? You once told me that it doesn’t trouble you that books go out of print, as you feel that, by the time a book’s sold out, the author will have a new one to sell, and that’s as it should be. You set yourself goals of publishing multiple collections in a period of mere months, and seem disappointed in writers whose publications are far less frequent. And you admire writers, like Bowering, who are known for the bulk of their output. You must have thought about your motivations, and I’m curious to hear what they are. Are you trying to prove something? And, if so, what, and to whom?


Another lingering query: why do you use phonetic spelling? This might seem a minor issue, but to any reader of your work it’s a distinguishing trait. Is this a means of identification, like the “name-dropping” with which we began the interview? Do you still feel there’s a point to be made by calling attention to the arbitrariness and inconsistencies of English spelling? Or has this become more of a habit?


Finally, I’ll close off my questioning with one big question. You told me once that Karl Siegler at Talonbooks knows what it is that you’re trying to do. Can you tell me, in a few sentences, what that is? What is it that he understands that you feel few others do?

rob: I guess I am rather prolific; really, I have no interest in the “Canadian standard” of poetry publishing, a book out every five years. Things come as they come, but it’s simply the speed at which I work. Still, it’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve felt as though I’ve been getting closer to achieving some of those far-off eventual goals in new work, the kind of writing I want to be doing. In the last two years, with manuscripts such as paper hotel, red earth, or ruins (a book of absences, I think I’ve become more interesting as a writer, with the directions I’ve been taking, doing, attempting. 

I know I’ve had that heavy push behind me of achieving as much as I can, which has made for much of the production. I refuse to be one of those forty-or-fifty-somethings who say, “I could have, if I only. . . “ As well, when you watch a parent slowly deteriorate, never knowing if she’ll live or die another day for thirteen years, which was basically me until I moved out at nineteen, you get a sense of failed & sideswept goals, through events completely beyond a body’s control. You get a sense of how fragile aspects of time can be, & how much, or how little, certain things really mean.

She’s mostly better now, but I have a hard time even going near hospitals, feel the rush of terror flood back, twisting the insides of my stomach. & it makes me wonder (although it’s not the kind of thing I’d ask) about the things she might have wanted to do with her life, that she couldn’t do, spending much of the 1980’s in hospital beds.

I have a lot to do, & I see no point in waiting to do any of it.

I must say, I’ve been impressed at your level-headedness throughout the last couple of years, with a GG at Book #1, & such grandiose attention from media & literary types. There were mumblings around that it would direct your work in negative ways, with everyone watching. Completely other, I find you’re becoming looser & more interesting as you go further with more emotional content in your unpublished work than earlier things (which is what I go for). Really, with all that earlier accolade, this is where you should go completely unexpected & risk-ridden. Lift up for skirt & let your work show a bit of leg.

I am able to process great amounts of information at once (I multi-task well), so I’m always looking for new things, wanting new work by Barry McKinnon, Sylvia Legris, Michael Holmes, Patrick Friesen, et al, or going through used bookstores scouring for different strains to pick up on, as well as simply re-re-reading things already sitting on my shelves. (I recently picked up an old Muriel Rukeyser chapbook when I was in Montreal. ) I’m very excited about the new collections this spring by Erin

Mouré, Michael Redhill, Ryan Knighton, Stephen Cain, David McGimpsey. It gives me more to play with, & I’m really interested in what they’re doing.

I’m a fan, I guess. 

As far as spelling goes, its poetry. If I were working in full sentences, proper grammar & spelling, I’d be writing fiction, or journalism. You can do anything with the poem, & I find it more interesting, really. I’m always surprised & a bit confused when a reviewer or someone else will give me grief for it. I mean, who says I can’t? There’s historical precedence, too, all over. Whether stylistic point or habit, it’s a little bit of both, learning the differences of where certain things are appropriate or not, each piece defining its own internal structure. Bowering wrote once that he argued with an M&S editor who wanted consistant rules throughout a collection, & George wanted to leave them as they were, as written.

Rules of structure are suggestions, not sweeping generalizations. 

What does Karl understand? Much more than he lets on, certainly. He’s been one of those gods of the industry, out on the left coast. I don’t have to explain anything to him, he probably knows more of what I’m doing than I do. It was the same when Judith Fitzgerald edited bagne, or Criteria for Heaven. They both know the forms I’m working with. I mean, Karl has published, edited or read my main stylistic influences – George Bowering, Artie Gold, Sharon Thesen, bpNichol, all Talon authors. This is a man who, every 18 months since before I was born, edits a stack of bill bissett poems into a book. I can’t imagine editing bill. It would probably drive me mad. Karl goes into my writing, & sees how well I’m doing with forms he knows, & knows well.

I once sat in on a creative writing class at Carleton years ago, & they insisted I present a piece for them to work, so I did. Instead of them looking at what the piece was doing, I was having to defend stylistic aspects that the students had never seen before — phonetic spellings, ampersands, & w/. The best anyone could do was compare me to ee cummings. The piece itself never got discussed. Sadly, I don’t see the working knowledge of many poets being different, having been compared to cummings more than once in reviews written by publishing Canadian poets. How sad is that? Not only had I not read his work until lately (so wasn’t initially influenced), but do none of us understand forty years of Canadian literary history, completely unkown writers working in the same vein? I shouldn’t have to be compared to a dead American working between the wars. 
A couple of years ago I published a small chapbook of visual piece by Calgary housepress publisher & former filling station editor Derek beaulieu. He’s heavily influenced by bpNichol, Nelson Ball, Steve McCaffery, et al. Broken Pencil responded in review by saying that any eight-year-old with a crayon could get a chapbook with above/ground press, basically (& deliberately) ignoring a history of Canadian concrete & visual poetry going back to the early 60’s. With Karl, I don’t have to defend any of my strange movements, just how well I’m doing any of it. It’s part of why I think I do better with the Canada Council, as far as writing grants, than anything closer. What I do doesn’t really correspond with what goes on around here, & I’m not part of any “in groups” in Toronto. 

I’ve felt my whole life on the outside of things, which works both ways, in the writing life. Good in the long term, but bloody frustrating in the short.

I’m still wary of answering a “what am I accomplishing” kind of question, about my work. It feels like a trap. I know what I’m trying – to move language around in ways that feel fresh, to put emotional qualities in language work, to write full books, finding different ways to fragment the pieces. In _paper hotel_, it was a matter of my first full book of poems without sections, fragmenting a whole in one break instead of two. In _hazelnut_, it was a long poem, broken down into long, continuous & fragmenting sections. Each somehow feels like a full piece, & an arrangement of fragments, but approached completely differently.

I like the idea of reoving beginnings, & endings. There has been a suggestion that storytelling is essentially arbitrary, that there is simply a place where you begin telling the story, & another place where you end. The universe is built upon long-term evolution, & movements, so why put an arbitrary start & stop on a poem, pretending that its otherwise? Although, Stephen Brockwell, in his wisdom, suggests that for writers like himself, who produce much less & have fewer opportunities to sit down & write, the individual poems become much more important, which could also account for how I work in fragments, each individual book is my structural basis.

& too, going back to amount of output, the obvious which still should be said — to make each book stronger than the previous, but different as well. If there is no progression or evolution, then what, perhaps, the point?

The “foundation” metaphor you use. Do you ever worry about ending up working on an infinite number of rooms, all with a pre-existing structure & size, because of the original plans? Don’t you have to rip out foundations to include an indoor pool? Me, I’d consider buying the empty lot next door, & start over every so often.

It seems odd to me that you’d even point out that you write primarily for yourself; it seems like one of those obvious statements. I mean, what other are the options? If we’re doing it for any other reason, we’re in the wrong business. Write for ourselves, & publish for other people.

You ask me about prolific, I ask you this: why are you so careful, deliberate? You said once, when I suggested perhaps a second chapbook, that you didn’t want two publications out in one year. Why not? Certainly audience will overlap, but different audiences are attracted to different publishing forms as much as different writing forms I think.

As I write of writing, you do of painting. What is it that attracts you to writing about the image? & do you ever worry about writing poems that need the paintings there to make sense? Now that you’re teaching, at Concordia instead of editing at the National Gallery in Ottawa, how does that affect the way you think about writing, whether your own or other people’s? Has instructing folk who work in different directions made your work lean in different ways?

Stephanie: Even when I was working at the Gallery I was teaching here and there, so my work at Concordia is a decisive move in a direction in which I’ve been heading for some time. And a direction I’d always planned to head in — during those “what do you want to be” surveys in elementary school, “teacher” was always my answer. From my first experience of the workshop process at UBC, I knew that the kind of facilitating that needed to be done to make a workshop function was something I could do and would want to do. I believe in workshops — they’re not for everyone, but I believe that most gain a great deal from them. I certainly did. The process sped up my development as a writer by making me conscious of what I was doing as a writer and how I could do it more effectively. So the way I think about writing now, as a teacher, is really an extension of the way I began to think about writing as a student.

The fear most people have about teaching writing is that all reading (and, indeed, all reading) will cease to be pleasurable and will become work, that the critiquing part of the brain will no longer be able to be shut off. I don’t find that. Admittedly, it can be difficult to have no time to read current publications because reading student work is so time-consuming, but — and maybe it’s beginner’s luck — I’ve found that I genuinely enjoy my students’ work. If anything, seeing their writing has made me have more faith in that nebulous thing called “the future of Canadian poetry.” They’re smart, inspired, funny, diligent, complex writers. I can honestly say that I saw work, even in my intro class, that’s better than work I’ve seen in published collections. So, so far at least, teaching full-time has made me more hopeful, less cynical, about the writing world.

How has teaching full-time affected the way I think about my own work? It’s reminded me how much writing matters. It’s easy, after living a writing life for a few years (by this I mean associating with other writers, writing on a regular basis, publishing), to take it all for granted. To forget how exhilirating it all was, at the beginning. So the students restore my own excitement about poetry. They also remind me that one must continually work hard. I must admit that I envy some of the poems they write, so it’s hard not to look again at my own work and think, well, this could be better. They’re, many of them, such sharp critics — even though my own work isn’t, of course, up for discussion in class, my revisions do benefit from their insights. And, yes, the fact that their voices range so widely is inspiring and instructive for me. However subtly, those voices creep in. A word here, a staccato sentence there. I’ve always maintained that one must attempt to critique each poem on its own terms — so my poetics have definitely expanded since starting this job. I’m very grateful for that.

That teaching consumes a great deal of my time makes me use my writing time more effectively. I can focus more quickly once I settle in to writing, and leap more easily, since my writing muscles are already in shape.

The workshop experience ties in to your question about being “so careful” in writing and in publishing. I’ve always been a perfectionist, so I was an ideal workshop participant, since I was willing, from the start, to accept that the poems I brought in could be improved — and that, once some improvements had been made, I could take them to additional readers and “improve” them still more. The poems in White Stone went through a great many readers, and each had helpful suggestions to make. It’s very seductive: one begins to think that every reader’s responses can be absorbed into the manuscript, making it stronger still. And that’s true, to a point. I learned so much while working on that book. But there’s the danger of ending up with lowest-common-denominator poetry. The well-made but empty vase. I don’t think White Stone consists of such poetry, but I do think that it lost some of its spark through excessive revisions. So in that respect I agree with your implicit warning that care can be an enemy of good poetry.

But I also believe that one has an obligation to oneself, and to one’s readers, to make each poem as strong as it can be. It’s rare for a poem to emerge fully-formed. There is always something that could be removed, clarified, a word that could be changed for better sonic echoes. Once a few changes are made, and the poem is recognizably improved, it’s hard to stop there. Diana Brebner said to me many times that going the extra mile always makes for a better poem. This was true in her experience and I’ve found it true in mine, whether that extra mile involves background research (spending days in the National Gallery archives going through the Lemieux clippings files in search of some quote from his wife that would show that she’d given up painting for his sake — the quote turned up and a poem gelled around it), refusing to move on to a new poem until the right word has been found, attending to each little world (“is it ‘the’ or ‘a’ or ‘this’?”).

Revision is where I rip up the plans, build the pool, convert the garage, then decide to move to a loft. Sure, I work deliberately, but I’m also brutal once I get to the revising stage. Sections, poems, stanzas, lines, get thrown out. New stuff finds its place. I just split up a section of my current manuscript and interspersed the poems throughout the book. Maybe I’ll keep this new organization, maybe not. But, regardless, I hope never to be so married to my idea of a book that I can’t see what’s actually there, the form it needs to take.

A colleague said recently, when I was talking about the difficulty of finishing up a project, that a book, once published, stays on the shelf forever. I don’t think we consider that often enough, with our griping about the lack of readership for poetry, about the rapidity with which books go out of print. One can always revise the published poems, as Don Coles does, but the earlier versions do come back to haunt. That doesn’t mean that a poem must be perfect before it’s published — although I just described myself as a perfectionist, I’m a strong believer in the impossibility of perfection — but it must be as good as it can be at the time it’s published.

Or — and this is something new for me to admit — good enough. Meaning that sometimes a poem must remain messy in order to be honest. And sometimes it’s better to move on, to let that messy poem reflect part of the process rather than simply be an end product. Let the reader see the struggle, the evolution.

As for our conversation years back about my publishing an additional chapbook, I still stand by my remarks. That different readers will be drawn to different publications by the same author is an entirely valid point, and one of which I wasn’t entirely convinced at the time of our conversation — since then, I’ve published two books, and seen how different people respond to the two, and have chapbooks draw a different readership — but I still believe that most readers, given a choice between a couple of books/chapbooks in one year, will make the choice. That is, they’ll buy/read only one of them. That’s not a tragedy, but, just as you don’t want to feel you’re wasting your time in idling around, not writing and publishing, so I don’t want to feel I’m wasting my time publishing work that won’t be read

I have to admit to a skepticism of productivity in many writers, which doesn’t surprise you, I’m sure. I don’t think it’s envy, because I can churn out poems myself. But I know, when I look back at them after the fact, that they are not equally good. It’s not just a question of taste — I *know* that some are better than others. And I don’t see why I should publish weaker poems when I could publish only the stronger ones. Sure, maybe the weaker poems are essential to the whole — then it’s my responsibility to make them better, if I can. (If I can’t, well, then maybe the “good enough” rule holds and the poem goes into the book. But this is the exception, not the rule. And, in the past, I’ve usually regretted such choices.)

Maybe it’s all a marketing thing. Maybe, as a consumer, I like the idea of looking forward to a book by someone, knowing that it has been a long time in coming. If so-and-so publishes a book a year, or even two, where’s the excitement? Now, you’ve dealt with that by constantly evolving, by catching us by surprise, and I admire that. But not everyone can evolve that quickly. I know I can’t. And I don’t see much point in publishing a new book that’s simply more of the same in all respects. I know we’re agreed there.

I should also add that part of the reason I haven’t published more books during a shorter period of time is, simply, time. Or lack thereof. I did have a period when grants allowed me to write full-time, and during that period I finished and published White Stone, and finished Two Bowls of Milk, and began the current manuscript, “Shutter.” But the more I work, whether it’s editing or teaching, the less time remains for writing, and I simply cannot produce as much.

Which leads me to one of my final questions to you: When, how, and why did you decide not to take a “paying job” so that you could devote yourself to writing? We all know how difficult it is to make a living as a writer in this country — how impossible, as a poet — so why take on that risk? You mention that in the future you’d like to worry less about money. For me, the freedom from worrying about money is well worth the responsibility of a full-time job. (Not any full-time job, I admit.) At least now, when I do have time to write, I can do so without concerns about paying the bills. That’s a choice I’ve made; you’ve made a very different one, and I’m curious as to why. Is it simply a question of, as Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale, “freedom to” versus “freedom from”?

As to what attracts me to writing about the image — and we began by discussing such things (your literary sources, my visual arts sources) months back — it’s partly because writing is my only means of rendering an image. Since childhood, I’ve been unable to draw anything vaguely resembling the thing I’m trying to replicate. (I’ve been told by artists that I shouldn’t be so self-deprecating, that anyone can draw/paint if (s)he tries. But I’m not interested in simply doing it. I want to be good, or not do it at all.)

I think, too — and this is still a half-baked idea, despite my having been thinking about it quite intensely for the past month, since seeing the “Vermeer and the Delft School” show in New York — that painting is a higher art form than writing. Maybe not “higher.” Maybe more sophisticated. Also more immediate. Those crowds at the Met were in awe before those paintings. It wasn’t just hype. It was a genuinely spiritual experience. These days, a great percentage of the general population (though still not enough) is literate. So what we do as writers is a specialized form of something most people do. Painting is different. Fewer people can draw even moderately well than write moderately well. At least I’m pretty confident of that. So my writing about paintings is a way of paying homage, but also of trying to understand what the painter does, how the painter communicates.

But the real question is, why this interest in the visual. And my response is that I’ve always been primarily an observer.This isn’t something I regret, it’s simply who I am. I look at what’s going on, distill, draw conclusions. Sure, I do this in my nature poems as much as in my poems about visual art, but writing about paintings makes the process more conscious. And I’m interested in writing from others’ renditions, because it makes the writing less solitary. My Vermeer poems are part of a conversation with him, and with others who’ve written about his paintings, forged paintings under his name, written books of art criticism on his work.

Vermeer’s paintings are so familiar to most people that the danger of the poem requiring the painting in order to be fully understood is a minor one. With other poems, though, I must be more careful. I would’ve been delighted to see the Lemieux poems published alongside reproductions of those paintings, but the fact is that most poetry publishers can’t undertake such an expense, so I knew from the outset that the poems would have to stand alone. In their original incarnations, they didn’t. Or, they did, but only by describing the paintings so that no one would need to see them. But I’m not interested in writing poems that translate paintings. That’s, in part, why I drew those Lemieux ones into a series, and made the project about my engagement with and disengagement from Lemieux vis a vis the questions of home and landscape. Readers who know the paintings will probably enjoy the poems more — or maybe not; maybe they’ll feel I haven’t done justice to them — but I do believe the poems stand alone. In many cases, the reference to the image of the painting is tenuous anyway. In the poem “Deux personnages dans la nuit,” I imagine myself sitting with Lemieux’s wife drinking wine. She’s not in the painting, nor is wine, and I’m certainly not there. But I spun out to that image from the painting, and from its title. Sometimes, yes, I engage with the title as much as with the work.

Now for my last question. I just checked my files, and I see that we began this interview precisely one year ago today — 30 April 2000. Reading back over our exchange, I can track all the things that have occurred in our lives: new projects begun, publications (how many for you?!), your Lampman nomination, my Concordia job. A year in the life. I see, too, how our responses became longer and longer, our questions multiplied, as we realized just how much there was to discuss, to ask. We’ve both said that determining an end-point has been rather arbitrary, as we could keep on with this exchange for the rest of our lives. So this leads me to ask about the role of community in your work. Not simply the community of poets you read, but the community of poets with whom you converse, in cafes, bars, at readings, over e-mail. How do you balance the poles of solitude and community (I’m thinking of you sitting in the Royal Oak Pub, writing alone, looking up sometimes to wave at a friend passing by on Bank Street)? Do the two nourish each other, or does each distract from the other? Has the relationship between these two poles shifted since you began writing, and do you foresee further shifts? And has our exchange made you more conscious of anything about your writing life or process, or just given an outlet for musings you would have undergone anyway?

rob: Every new piece is an attempt at a further shift. I don't think our exchange has brought me any surprises about myself, but instead highlighted certain things that I've been thinking. It's been more illuminating for the differences & similarities that exist between the two of us, how we consider & relate to our own work, & each others work, & positionings. Remembering the original premise: the two of us in the same city, same age, starting to book publish at the same time, & doing completely different things. Almost opposing, depending on how you looked at it. I'm thrilled at your comment, at how my work has been "constantly evolving ... catching us by surprise", & subsequent claim of admiration. It means that some of my goals these last few years have been met, & that I can breathe for a few seconds with a smile, before leaping off into some other mad unknown.

Really, living in Ottawa, I'm honestly surprised (there's that word again) when I meet someone & they say they've actually read what it is I do. I still exist under the presumption that the imaginary audience out there is just that. It keeps me from getting cocky, perhaps. The "what to do next" notion is a constant one, & eternally reworked. The "paper hotel" ms is the next level up from all previous, & current "aubade — a song of mo(u)rning" attempts the next step of the same, tho I see the plateaus becoming shorter & shorter with each step (hopefully).

Why do I not "work", ie. employment? Aw, I don't have time. I considered long ago, about 1991, when Kate was born, that if I was going to do this writing thing at all, I had better do it properly, or not bother. Atwood once wrote, if you want full time out of it, you have to put full time into it. I honestly don't see how I can be the best there is at what I do, unless I focus on it.

Judith Fitzgerald taught me, or at least reinforced, that there is no point in aiming for anything but the best there is at what you do. It's something I think I originally learned from watching my dad, as farmer guy. He was/is the best. Skills in carpentry, electrical, welding, whatever was needed. Part of me not farming was the intimidation factor, that he was the best, & I couldn't compare, but the considerations endure. I'm not quite sure what he thinks of my applications of his example. Whether I have money in my pocket, I write. Whether I have a grant or not, I write. Whether I have food in my belly, heat in my apartment, or even a place to live.

I'm constantly going through books, journals, & whatever else, to see what other options exist, & see what there is, currently reading KSW's W#4, dANDelion, & Orange magazine (both out of U of Calgary), & Stephen Cain's Torontology, from ECW Press. Since my nearly five years at the Ottawa X-Press, a weekly column reviewing three books per, I've been going into other areas for my reading, such as history, philosophy (as Erin Mouré once told me, read "ideas" not just "writing"), my continuous comic book fetish, daily newspapers, near obsessive television.

I am about to write the phrase "there is so much, still, I do not understand" in a poem.

When I sat my month in Octopus Books' window in 1995, writing the eventual chapbook we live at the end of the 20th century, I'd been turned down for a grant to do it, but did it anyway. I lost a pile of money on that thing, but it wasn't why I was doing it. It accomplished ashift in how I wrote, & how I approached writing, moving from longhand rewritten edits briefly into typescript. Each letter becomes more deliberate on a 50 year old typewriter, so the poems changed in the process.

Really, I've had whole manuscripts completely unfunded. Most of them, whether from timing or rejection. It's the way it goes.

All of this makes me consider things I hadn't thought about in a while, or at all, about what I do, & why. It's an intuitive art (to me),after all.

What you say about teaching, & how you always wanted to. Envious, that, of always knowing. I've never really been able to fix into anything, just focus on certain ideas for a while. (Although my "a while" has been getting longer) Once, I wanted to be a chef  have my own restaurant in Maxville, when I was about 10. I even knew where (they've since  built a   Scotiabank on the site, last year. I have to admit I was disappointed.) Once, I wanted to be a journalist, or own a bed & breakfast. Most of what I knew was what I didn't want to do: farming.

There is always the fear, in teaching, that one's own writing will become secondary, but it's not always the way. Some claim that Seymour Mayne disappeared when he got his U of Ottawa job in the late 60's, but it hasn't affected such as nicole markotic, George Bowering, Fred Wah. Various people have their own speed & focus, that would remain unchanged no matter what they do.

I'm glad in hindsight to have workshops that didn't help in what I did, but in how often. I was always much more wary, got more stylistic questions than actual use, having to defend the use of ampersands, or comparisons to ee cummings, who I hadn't actually read. I had early workshops from Mark Frutkin & Gary Geddes, wh's poetry couldn't be more different than mine, (& lived to tell the tale).

I still ike parts of what they both do, but they had nothing to do with what I was working on, & latched onto – Bowering, Cohen, Brautigan. I've always been the belligerant sort, working quietly in the corner, & going off in my own directions, when no one else was looking.

It is interesting, all the process of this interview, from a start where you mentioned The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh as my most recent, since publishing the Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets anthology, bagne, or Criteria for Heaven, a small boatload of chapbooks, & the new book for this fall, harvest: a book of signifiers. I've started &

finished projects in the time, too. Poetry ms galore, including "paper hotel" & "hazelnut, or touchstone", wrote "red earth" & "ruins (a book of  absences", & started another large ms, a series of sequences, "aubade – a song of mo(u)rning", as well as various fiction & editing projects, books, parts, scribblings. A memoir? & as you mention as to poles of solitude & community – I need solitude to work, & community to continue, to feed, whether influence, energy, ideas. Acknowledgement. Can't live in a vaccuum. I like getting email from folk such as Andy Weaver, derek beaulieu, you, lori
emerson, Sue Elmslie, George Murray, George Bowering, "uncle Dave" McFadden, Ken Norris, etc., to find out what's going on, happening, what you've all been doing. To exist in a community, you have to be aware, & work on it, & be willing to give as good as you get. It's like a marriage.

I'm slowly in my shift adapting to writing at home, after years of public service, scribbling six years of poems in a donut shop window, & my novel in the pub. The work & the attitudes toward it all begin to change. All in its own time

[30 April 2000 — 15 June 2001]


 

rob mclennan's details...



poetry collections

harvest: a book of signifiers (2001, Talonbooks)
bagne, or Criteria for Heaven (2000, Broken Jaw Press)
The Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh (1999, Talonbooks)
Manitoba highway map (1999, Broken Jaw Press)
bury me deep in the green wood (1999, ECW Press)
Notes on drowning (1998, Broken Jaw Press)

selected chapbooks

some breaths (2001, Staccato)
sex at 31 (2001, above/ground press)
An Affair, or within (2000, above/ground press)
it doesn't matter (2000, hmspress)
harvest (2000, Black Squirrel Press)

editor

side/lines: A Poetics (2002, Insomniac Press)
YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (with Andy Brown, 2001, Vehicule Press)
Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (2000, cauldron books #1, Broken Jaw Press)
Written in the Skin (1998, Insomniac Press)
The FREE VERSE Anthology (1993, above/ground press)

 

Poems by rob mclennan


in the darkness of that same century

 (for diana brebner

what thru the stony ground, elevates, a need
or consideration

it speaks to the same, what you think
you are thinking of

is this the best or the worst time for smalltalk

delivering packages to the nurse when yr
sound asleep, not  
what a memory is for

this is still, & still a place for  
what the heart goes out to

sharing a pack of earth, whether carrying
a sachel, or walks w/ a cane, still takes
the same #14 bus, still talks a while

we know where this is heading

& borders thru archways, the tremble
of past lives & present neath yr feet

& ishar gate, astarte, the goddess of, youd so long been searching, love

april 01, ottawa

paraphrasing don mckay

                    there should always be a house
we never live in, michelle says, paraphrasing
    & perhaps even ruining, she worries.

listening is not the same
as learning, i know. a letter in the newspaper writes,
"you dont understand anything" & perhaps i never will.

            its nearly forty years since they flooded out
the ste lawrence seaway, & my
ears are still ringing, putting
a whole community underwater. my exwifes father
part of the construction crew following orders.

he died a few years ago when his insides failed,
a genetic theme my daughter may have heard,
    like a musical tone, sounding thru her too,
& wondering what the chances are.

when we drive the dirt roads over
the raisin river, all she wants to do
    is look at herself in the rearview,
see if cars are following,

suspicious of everyone, everything.

    (from Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets, Broken Jaw Press, 2000)


milk

the carcass of the old house after she moved
to the apartment. damp,
& rot. was the only one i knew who made
tomato soup w/

milk, the cloudy white stirrd in

slowly, continuous. uncle bob crushing premium plus
w/ his spoon. renovated the kitchen & the back after

husband died, his winter body brought in
after discovery in the snow, lay there cold
& stiff on the table

until the ambulance arrived, knowing
they neednt hurry. this much

is sure, is what

i know, how long

years can reach out thru, from
behind, & grab

at your neck like you were seven a second time,
scanning magazines in the wrong part

of another uncles house, black marks

over the parts of the female anatomy you knew,
even then, were interesting.

    (originally appeared as an above/ground press broadside)


Stephanie Bolster's details...

Poems by Stephanie Bolster

Many Have Written Poems about Blackberries

But few have gotten at the multiplicity of them, how each berry
composes itself of many dark notes, spherical,
swollen, fragile as a world. A blackberry is the colour of a painful
bruise on the upper arm, some internal organ
as yet unnamed. It is shaped to fit
the tip of the tongue, to be a thimble, a dunce cap
for a small mouse. Sometimes it is home to a secret green worm
seeking safety and the power of surprise. Sometimes it plunks
into a river and takes on water.
Fishes nibble it.
 
The bushes themselves ramble like a grandmother's sentences,
giving birth to their own sharpness. Picking the berries
must be a tactful conversation
of gloved hands. Otherwise your fingers will bleed
the berries' purple tongue; otherwise thorns
will pierce your own blank skin. Best to be on the safe side,
the outside of the bush. Inside might lurk
nests of yellowjackets; rabid bats; other,
larger hands on the same search.
 
The flavour is its own reward, like kissing the whole world
at once, rivers, willows, bugs and all, until your swollen
lips tingle. It's like waking up
to discover the language you used to speak
is gibberish, and you have never really
loved. But this does not matter because you have
married this fruit, mellifluous, brutal, and ripe.

from Two Bowls of Milk by Stephanie Bolster
Used by permission, McClelland & Stewart Ltd. The Canadian Publishers

 

Two Bowls of Milk
 
Are two bowls of milk. They are round
and white and have nothing to do
 
with the moon. They have no implications
of blindness, or sight. They wait
 
on the doorstep like bowls
or like things that closely resemble
 
bowls in their stillness. The bowls do not
foreshadow cats. There are two
 
because two hands set them out
and each wanted to hold something.

Milk because not water. The curve of
milk against the curve of bowl. 

from Two Bowls of Milk by Stephanie Bolster
Used by permission, McClelland & Stewart Ltd. The Canadian Publishers

 

Window
 
This is the window I grew up inside.
This is the Japanese maple that grew beyond it
and still does, obscuring the view. It is
the view. These are the leaves of the Japanese
split-leafed maple, red except
when autumn puckers them to rust.
This is the glass: between branches the small
patch of lawn we owned, and the sidewalk,
and the house across the street, and farther
houses. Fogged in winter, it made ethereal
the place I didn’t call suburb until after
it took three hours
for the boat to circle Manhattan.
The frame of the retina
cracked. When I returned,
the view had flattened to a stamp.
This is the stamp I kept when I left,
the stamp to which I sent my letters.
Stuck every night under eyelids.
These are the roots that extend
from the tree outside the window I grew up
inside. When I left, they kept on growing
into the foundations.

from Pavilion by Stephanie Bolster

Used by permission, McClelland & Stewart Ltd. The Canadian Publishers

 

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