Monday 30 June 2014

What is Perfect?

During a tête-à-tête with Adam Dickinson, Trillium-winner Souvankham Thammavongsa reveals some of the back-story to her poem "Perfect."
It took me a long time to write “Perfect.” Almost twenty years. I didn’t want it to be a confessional poem. Too easy. I didn’t want the emotional weight to carry the poem. Too easy. I didn’t want the event to be the point. Too easy and depressing. We read not because we want to feel guilty or terrible about our lives. I didn’t want to do that to a reader. It’s so narrow—it’s not what I hope for from literature or language.

For me, this poem is about what happens to the word perfect. What light does to the word perfect. As a title, it is the first thing we see. Perfect. What is perfect. We are in the dark about what is perfect here. We continue because we want to get to the part where things get better. We, as readers, hope for that. And it takes a long time before we see the word perfect again in the poem. By the time we get to it, we’ve been through the things the person in the poem has been through.

I started with the question, if you knew this would be your life, that this is what would happen to you, would you choose it if you could? The question is a hopeless one because we know you don’t get to choose like that. We don’t get to choose what has already taken place. This is where all the sadness takes place. It isn’t the event at all.

The people in the poem are in the dark about where their lives will go, what will happen to them, even the person who asks, “How’d you get perfect?” is in the dark but the person telling this story is not. She knows this moment in time means something. She knows what light she gets will be hers to use. Light as a tool, as knowledge, as understanding. 

The economy of the poem—the look of it, it’s dense with a lot of words, it’s visually heavy, it’s “rich” but what you read is actual poverty. It looks like a block of text and it blocks out light on the page. Not only do poverty and restriction form the structure of the book and the poem; they are also the very subject of this poem.

Sunday 29 June 2014

Sunday Poem

When I am fourteen, my father will quit
his job and sell our home. He will use the money
to start a sign-making business. He will start
by buying computers and big heavy equipment
and we will spend nights sleeping in the van.
I’ll try my best to sleep, to close my eyes
and feel warm in my wet socks and thin winter coat.
In the mornings, I’ll brush my teeth at school
and comb my hair so I’ll look like nothing is wrong
with me. I’ll wander the empty dark halls
before the students fill them, and sometimes
I’ll sing and dance like a star in a Broadway play.
When I see a teacher, I’ll sit quietly outside
a classroom door with a heavy book in my hand.
Moby-Dick. The only teacher to ask
is Ms. Irons. I will tell her that I’m just
so excited for school and I’m so happy to be here.
It’s not a lie. I’m happy that for the whole
of a day, I’ll be warm and I can be with my friends.
I don’t tell her all the other stuff. That this will be
the year my parents’ marriage will begin to fall apart.
That they’ll stop dancing in the living room
and that my mother will stop making me beautiful dresses
which match hers from leftover materials,
that the bottles full of colour and fragrances dry up.
I didn’t know it then so how could I tell her?
After school, my mother will pick me up and drive
for hours. She’ll sometimes stop at a lake somewhere
in cottage country and listen to the radio. She’ll walk
back and forth, never saying anything. And I
will bow my head and work out the math problems
in my homework. The math problems are easy.
They are always about some guy who had to get
to the other side. There’s always an answer, a sure thing.
You just have to work your way there. Everything
you need to know to solve it has already been given
to you. There is no secret but the answer,
shimmering alone without any signs around it.
I will keep my print small, filling up every blank space
I can find like a Captain plugging leaks in a sinking ship.
It will get dark and just as the sun sets,
the streetlamp will turn on. I will angle
my notebook to catch this light. This light.
I will go back to school and hand in my notebook
and it will be perfect. Perfect. It’s what I’ve earned.
A friend will lean in and announce my score,
and I’ll hear someone ask, “How’d you get perfect?”
I can’t begin to say what it took to get it that way.
It’s perfect. Perfect.
From Light (Pedlar Press, 2013) by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Saturday 28 June 2014

Living Essences

Russell Thornton elaborates on how becoming a father has helped keep his poetry grounded:
I think probably my being a parent has deepened and clarified for me what I felt when I started getting serious about poetry in my early or mid-20s—that authentic poetry accesses, illuminates, and enacts the elemental strata of what we call a human being. As time has gone on, I’ve realized the truth of the statement that there’s nothing new under the sun—even though poetry is presented as such at increasingly more frequent intervals in a kind of blind imitation of advertisement culture. The “new,” supposedly evident and necessary in the poems of the new millennium, for example, most often reminds me of new shoe styles or versions of iPhones. I find I can’t be truly interested in much writing that doesn’t call up and engage with what I believe to be abiding living essences; for me, parenthood is in the category of the essences.


"When I begin conjuring the material for a poem, I pretend I’m like a film camera, taking things in from different angles and perspectives. I’m a noticer; I like to turn things over and examine even the most superficially boring aspects of everyday life. Then, sometimes, something mystical and often outlandish enters the room and you get a poem, a real poem that works on different levels."
Alexandra Oliver explains why it takes a village to write a poem. 

Monday 23 June 2014

Poetic Gestures of Film

In her introduction to I Found it at The Movies, a new anthology of film poems, editor Ruth Roach Pierson describes how hard it can be to "draw a sharp line between movie and life":
On a car trip through the Canadian Shield some years ago, a friend of mine commented on how paintings by members of the Group of Seven organized her view of the landscape. I think the same could be said of the impact movies can have on our perceptions. One might say movies provide a prism through which we view our lives. In “Emerald City Blues,” Phoebe Tsang sees Hong Kong through remembered images from “The Wizard of Oz.” Barry Dempster, on his ramble through a Simcoe County forest, is visited by scenes of Russian birches from Tarkovsky’s "Ivan’s Childhood." If asked: “Which would you choose: movies or life?”, how many of us might answer, on some occasion or other: “Movies!” In the 1970s, after viewing, during a long Victoria Day Weekend, twenty-two films in four days at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Federation of Film Societies, I looked out the window of the train on which I was travelling and, thinking the take of passing landscape was going on far too long, caught myself just before crying out: “Cut!”
Jonathan Ball was under the sway of specific filmmakers—among them David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky—for his most recent book of poems, The Politics of Knives:
Lynch’s mastery comes from dramatic shifts in tone, his ability to move in an instant from a banal to a nightmarish realm. He continually sacrifices sense for tone, and in the course of this shift he creates strange, poetic worlds that we move through emotionally but which make little logical sense, although there is a poetic logic that underlies and gives order to Lynch’s worlds. I try to use language in a similar manner throughout the book, which has a sort of grammatical slipperiness. A sentence will begin as if describing a scene (“The mist dissolved…”) but then switch the grammar to describe an event (“The mist dissolved what it did not need”) with an alien actor (here, the mist becomes a sort of living force). Tarkovsky’s poetic approach to filmmaking, and his occasional use of genre material (horror and science fiction plots) have inspired me, but especially influential are his occasional, striking long takes. The book’s final poem, “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” is structured like a long film take—like a slow movement across a cultural wasteland, toward some inevitable terror.
In a 2011 interview, American poet D. A. Powell unpacks more of connections between the two arts:
I also think that, for my generation, we have learned so much of our poetic technique from the poetic gestures of film: fade, jump cut, montage, long shot, close up, match edit. I make no secret of the fact that I learned most of what I know about poetry by watching the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, and Robert Altman. Yes, the subjects of films are wonderfully engaging. But even more engaging is the way in which film can intercut between multiple narratives and splice together actions, reactions, balancing shots, non sequiturs. The way in which film allows the artist to move quickly, deftly, and intelligently through multiple frameworks without having to worry whether the spectator will catch up. We can rely upon our audience's ability to process and respond to a different palette of images, tones, and ideas.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Sunday Poem

Vagrant dewdrop drips
along elongated head feathers
as wings press air. A great quiet
thudding, trickle of marshy feet
rising up out of reeds.
There in the space between—
breath and sigh; sunlight
and fire: transcendence in flight:
tawny-orange goes sudden-white
and beyond shallow water, nothing
but sky, and sky, and this
crested bird’s rough calling cry.
From As if a Raven (Palimpsest, 2014) by Yvonne Blomer

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Metatron Q&A

Curious to know more about Montreal-based publisher Metatron and their poetry booklets, I asked Guillaume Morissette—whose novel, New Tab, was recently published by Véhicule Press—to interview Ashley Opheim, Metatron’s managing editor. Guillaume and Ashley are good friends and frequently collaborate on various projects - Carmine

Metatron started a year ago when Ashley Opheim, Sarah Brunning, Jane Penny, Matthew E. Duffy, Rebecca Storm and Claire Milbrath, all Montreal-based writers, artists or designers, successfully applied for funding from Emploi Québec’s Young Volunteer Program. Since then, they’ve put together and released six poetry pocketbooks. Two are by members of the collective, one is by Ashley and another is by Matthew Duffy, and the last four are by Montreal writers Laura Broadbent, Roland Pemberton (also known as the rapper Cadence Weapon), Jay Winston Ritchie and Ali Pinkney. The booklets look great, but more importantly, they embody and communicate Montreal’s youthful energy and hyper-collaborative spirit.

Guillaume: What’s Metatron? Well, obviously, I know what it is, but I mean, could you just talk a little about what it is to you, and how you view the poetry pocketbooks that you’ve put out?

Ashley: Metatron was founded after a long, depressing period of post-grad unemployment. Applying for jobs in the publishing world proved to be an exhausting feat. I spent months researching the industry, writing unique cover letters and applying for jobs at every publisher that excited me in Eastern Canada. I don’t think I heard back from one job I applied for. Nothing. Not even a thanks, but no thanks. I found this immensely annoying and frustrating, and found myself falling deeper and deeper into a “I’m not good enough” mindset that is probably common with many post-graduates.

Instead of giving up, I decided to join forces with five other active Montreal-based curators and artists and begin Metatron. Under the mentorship of David McGimpsey, we managed to secure the largest grant the Young Volunteers program offers.

It’s no secret the publishing industry is male-dominated, and that poetry sells poorly, but that makes Metatron and our pursuits that much more important. Five of the six members of Metatron’s editorial team are women, and half of the poets we published with the first books are women. My grandmother, who has been honored with numerous awards for her work in drug education including the Order of Canada (1991) and the YWCA Woman of the Year Award (1985), often says, “undertake challenging activities instead of easy ones” and that has really resonated with me. So for me it’s worth the struggle because both women and poetry are incredibly important to our society and, I feel, largely under-represented.

When I hold the Metatron books in my hands or see them in bookstores, I get a tingly feeling inside that is the opposite of depression: it’s joy.

Guillaume: I like how you guys all have your own projects. Claire Milbrath and Rebecca Storm from Metatron also do a magazine called The Editorial together. Sarah Brunning curates Weijia Quarterly. Even the covers for your poetry booklets seem to be collaborative in nature. Anjela Freyja, who’s an absurdly talented graphic designer, did yours. One of Rachel Shaw’s paintings is on the cover of Rollie Pemberton’s pocketbook. That seems very true to Montreal to me, these constant transactions of skills to put together various projects. Does that make sense to you?

Ashley: When we first secured the grant, I was really pushing for us to do something completely collaborative, like start a new publication with a new name and somehow collapse all of our projects into it. This quickly proved to be against our nature. We were all very independent and personally devoted to our own projects. Instead of collapsing the projects into one, we embraced disparity. The funny thing is that in embracing our disparity we created a space for collaboration to happen organically and not forcibly. It’s funny how things work like that.

Collaboration is at the heart of Metatron, and, I believe, at the heart of the Montreal arts experience. All the artists that have been involved with Metatron since its inception are trying to do good, meaningful things with their time here on Earth. It’s not a selfish community. We all want each other to succeed. We make each other better and help one another achieve things that would be impossible alone. It’s non-competitive collaboration.

Guillaume: Non-competitive collaboration, that’s a great way to put it. I feel like we should talk a little more about each pocketbook. We’re friends, so I am probably not an impartial observer, but I liked reading I Am Here, your pocketbook with Metatron, and I really admire what it’s doing. It feels like a mix of wonder, bliss, longing and a kind of contemporary confusion, and it reminds me of work by writers like Melissa Broder or Ariana Reines. Could you talk about the other five booklets maybe, like a brief description or maybe other books that they remind you of?

Ashley: Ali Pinkney’s book Tampion is the one I feel closest to as an editor. Putting Tampion together was the most challenging of all the books, but in turn also the most rewarding. Ali and I debated content, order and edits literally until the last possible moment. She challenged every decision I made, which really strengthened me as an editor. This book is wrought with emotion and sentiment and is ominous, unique and captivating. It would fit well with readers who enjoy Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath.

Laura Broadbent is the only writer of the bunch who had previously had a book published. Her manuscript Oh There You Are I Can’t See You Is It Raining? won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Fiction in 2012 and was subsequently published by Invisible Publishing. The book captivated me. When Laura sent me the Interviews manuscript I tore through it as quickly as my eyes and mind would allow me. When I finished reading, it felt like my heart and mind were soaring as one. It’s an amazingly coherent book. I would compare her writing to writers like Clarice Lispector and Anne Carson.

Magnetic Days is a collection of poetry from Roland Pemberton that reveals another side to his character. For someone who is known for his award-nominated lyricism [Polaris Prize] and who fulfilled the role of Edmonton’s Poet Laureate for 2 years [2009-2011], how had he never published a book? His writing exercises wisdom, restraint, humour and vision and covers topics like race, class, history, social politics, leisure and love.

The longest and most experimental of the books is by Matthew E Duffy. Les Oeuvres Selected was composed using prose and poetry that Duffy had emailed me [as a friend] over the 3 years I have known him. It is a book that makes use of a new language composed of broken English, French and Arabic, and is packed full of footnotes. His writing is charged with beauty, mysticism and a passionate aggression. It does not exist in the realm of instant gratification; its essence must be earned through careful reading and re-reading. I would say that Duffy’s writing has aspects of deconstructionism and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry present in it.

Jay Winston Ritchie is an undeniable literary force. He has his first book of fiction coming out with Insomniac Press soon called Something You Were, Might Have Been or Have Come to Represent. In the few years I’ve known Jay I’ve witnessed him develop into a very seriously talented writer and reader. His writing is clear-headed, earnest and funny and would fend well with fans of Frank O’Hara or Irving Layton. I will always be honored that I was the first to publish him with his book of poems How to Remain Perfectly Indifferent While Crying on the Inside.

Guillaume: You also organize readings and aren’t afraid to experiment. Last year, you put on a “Skype” reading, where authors from all over North America were reading their works live on Skype for a Montreal audience. What would be your “dream” reading? If you could choose any author currently alive, who would you book? What kind of venue would you get?

Ashley: I would love to do a reading at a spa, where people are hanging out getting hot stone massages, chilling in steam rooms and swimming in warm pools of colorful light. I would want Ariana Reines there, James Franco, Miranda July, Tao Lin… And to bypass your requirement of living writers, I would want holograms of Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin and Rumi present.

Guillaume: I like how you’ve been updating Metatron’s blog lately, showcasing stuff by Montreal artists of various disciplines. You have poems, music videos, photos, art, etc, which really makes it feels like a thriving community. What’s next for Metatron? Where should people go if they want to find out more about Metatron and their pocketbooks?

Ashley You know how the ancient Egyptians carved their stories into the walls of their temples? My initial intention with the site was to create a space to both feature and archive the art that is being created within my reach. In doing so, I hope to create a space that people feel excited about being a part of.

I am currently planning a new video series I hope to launch by the end of the summer that features local poets. I am also working on solidifying our Fall 2014 titles. I know Claire and Sarah are working on the next issues of The Editorial and Weijia Quarterly, so all I can say right now is to expect some exciting new titles from us by fall 2014! In the meantime, keep in touch via our website, which we will be continually updating with unique content.

Monday 16 June 2014


Jason Guriel argues that poets need to start believing in the existence of real readers with real needs:
Poetry lacks a critical mass of readers who aren’t themselves also poets. In other words, most of the people who consume poetry are the ones producing the stuff. They can take for granted the needs of their audience because the audience is full of ringers—other poets!—who will applaud on principle or, at the very least, stay mum if the stuff’s no good. We depend on food critics to block the door to bad restaurants. We depend on movie critics to save us the money we might’ve otherwise wasted at the multiplex. But most of us aren’t restaurant owners or movie makers. So no one much wrings their hands over the way we talk about restaurants or movies. In the insular poetry world, we’re all over-invested. We tend to boo the few critics who, by delivering a tough review to one of us, put a pin to the collective delusion. You asked about literary community; that’s one use for it—policing how we talk. I try, then, to write for a reader who has no investment in poetry, who approaches books the way I approach movies or records: as a paying customer who wants to be entertained but who’s also demanding. If such a reader is a fantasy, it’s still one worth believing in.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Sunday Poem

The years had stacked.
This route between two points left him perplexed:
which path was true? Thus at a loss, appalled
(he'd always liked things neat, exact:
loose pennies rolled
in tidy wrappers, weed-free gardens walled,
addresses Rolodexed,
each day appraised, accounted for, controlled), 
last night he thought
he'd catalogue his cars and toys. They all
appeared: the old Suburban and of course
the brand-new Buick Skylark bought
in sixty-five,
his Comet sled, his wooden hobby horse,
but he could not recall
the Saturn Astra parked out in the drive. 
He'd tabulate
the names of every person he had met
at every stage along his fourscore life—
the one's he'd loved or chanced to hate—
and he would limn
Brick Bradford in detail, but not his wife,
though he could not forget
the music box she'd purchased on a whim. 
Another dawn
has slipped through window blinds to find him still
attempting to remember parables,
a nephew's face, the word chiffon,
the Seven Seas;
to place at last the ordered variables,
those nested n's that fill
the space between his dark parentheses.
From Glad and Sorry Seasons (Biblioasis, 2014) by Catherine Chandler

Saturday 14 June 2014

Pleasure in Accuracy

Kevin McNeilly discovers Elise Partridges' 2008 collection Chameleon Hours, and admires what he dubs her mixture of "the serendipitous and the exacting":
Most of the poems in Chameleon Hours are elegies: meditations on loss, on the art of losing. They draw their passing, brief intensities from a heightened awareness of lived material detail, of “small things,” that comes in the wake of absence. Robert Pinsky praises this practice as her “art of noticing”: “Absence and failure are described [in Elise Partridge’s poetry] in a way that takes pleasure in accuracy: a considerable and original accomplishment.” Her poems, for me, evoke much more than mere pleasure, much more than an enjoyment of pretty craft, and her accomplishment is more than considerable: the crisp particularity of her characteristic line engenders a keen pathos in restraint, and unflinchingly confronts the hard expressive limits of her own mortality—“pretty or not,” as she puts it. In “Chemo Side Effects: Vision,” one of her pieces that Pinsky singles out for praise, she notes how there are “So many small things I still want to see”; the modulating vowels distilled from the long-I—the withdrawing, observant subject at the heart of this particular line attenuated into phonemic shivers, i becoming ah-ee, then lightly drawled into aw and i and braided through commonplace consonants, s’s and m’s and t’s—produce a palpable set of articulated, glassy shards on the teeth and tongue, small bursts of sense. Vatic wonder, under Elise Partridge’s pen, doesn’t so much diminish as gain a tensile acuity, a closeness.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

The Anti-flâneur

Evan Jones describes Karen Solie as a poet "piqued by the anxiety of having too many options":
Solie is no city poet. She is a sort of anti-flâneur, watching the world pass from motorised vehicles. A poet of the modern, cross-country journey, conveyed by bus, locomotive, rental car. For Solie, there's nervousness and anxiety not in the destination but in the space between departure and arrival: a place where there's time to think and do little else but stare at the details.

Monday 9 June 2014

Throwing The Fight

Reviewing what he calls poptimism's "major text," Jason Guriel thinks Let’s Talk About Love—in which Carl Wilson undergoes a taste experiment and develops a grudging respect for Celine Dion's music—is too "overdetermined" to be trusted.
Even more predictable is a tendency to suddenly reverse course on an argument. Wilson is always doubling back, as if anticipating your objection; he’s always armed with yet another study, another counterargument. You shouldn’t enjoy that shot at Oprah Winfrey for long; several pages later, Wilson will call attention to his snobbiness, implicating your own. Nor should you entertain the thought that there’s something snobby in his anti-snobbery; Wilson will soon enough interview a fan who, well, has “a streak of snobbery in her anti-snobbery.” Nor should you be entirely shaken by his account of how sociology explains your taste; after burning up 10 pages on it, he confesses he only half-believes the stuff. The dead-ends and reversals wouldn’t be so annoying if one didn’t suspect he already had the destination in mind. In short, Wilson’s book could never have ended with the critic doubling down on his snobbery; the needs of his project demanded otherwise. A mere page after declaring, “Maybe if hating Celine Dion is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” he’s already wondering if he won’t find something “human” in Dion’s work after all. While a messily self-reflexive writer like David Foster Wallace truly wrestles with himself—with predilections, prejudices—Wilson bets on his fuzzy side, and throws the fight.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Sunday Poem

I drive the kids to preschool past two snow-covered tennis courts.
Sometimes, there are people at the bus stop, the cue split in two: 
those who seem fine, those who might be from a halfway house
near here. They gesture and mutter, as though they’re split in two 
different people, each half arguing with the other. I see your brother,
once the regions’s best tennis player until the year when he split in two, 
though that’s a dated and simplified explanation, you once told me.
It took years for diagnosis and wasn’t as simple as being split in two— 
the older brother you adored and the one you feared. The strain
may have caused your mother’s early stroke which split her in two, 
the taut coil of woman who snapped and yelled and her dual self
who unravelled and cracked with sexual innuendo. Split in two, 
just like I am—she and I share a birthday, born under the sign of twins.
You and I broke up, the phrase implying more than being split in two— 
rather, space between the shards of life lived, the one longed for.
In two years, I would marry and two after that I would be split in two 
by the birth of my first child, his labour straddling two days before
he opened me as light bled into the dawn of my birthday, split in two, 
now mine and his. Childbirth tore me open but I’m beyond broken,
more a puzzle with so many pieces that I simply can’t be split in two. 
I was with my husband and kids on the ski hill, when I remembered
a run with you, and there you were, in the present, past split in two: 
the one that ended, the one that carried on down parallel courses.
You were with your brother and his wide grin split his face in two. 
It was winter and we were insulated in down, flanked by family,
but part of me was back in that summer, under a tree, split in two. 
The third person was always me, the poet. I just want to feel the joy
of playing the ball so the net that splits the court in two disappears.
From Pluck (Nightwood, 2014) by Laisha Rosnau