Friday, September 12, 2014

On Writing #39 : Peter Norman

Red Pen of Fury!
Peter Norman

For me, the bulk of poetry composition is editing. You write a poem once, but you rewrite or edit it up to hundreds of times. That initial surge of inspiration and excitement is important. But if it’s true that execution rather than content determines a poem’s quality, then it’s those obsessive hours of subsequent swabbing and polishing that make or break the poem.

On occasion, I have been lucky enough to have a poem pop out almost fully formed. In those cases, I would argue, some sort of internal editing was going on before pen touched paper. For example, a great many of those poems were sonnets or something close to sonnets. That kind of form does a lot of editing for you, both before you write and as you write. It has a dominant hand in shaping, structuring, guiding, eliding, pulling you back from one brink and nudging you off another. By contrast, none of my longer and more free-form poems came out ready to go.

It could also be suggested that the life you’ve lived up until you start writing a poem is a kind of editor. Experience—toiling at the craft, tinkering with the motor, making mistakes and trying to fix them—has the same guiding hand as I’ve described the sonnet form having. In which case a poem that I start today will be inherently better in its first draft than a poem I started twenty years ago. There may be a small bit of truth to this suggestion. But I recoil from it, because it sounds like an invitation to laziness. It’s not fun to watch older luminaries dribble bad simulacra of their brilliant early stuff, and it’s easy to imagine them using the “experience is editing” mantra to justify such sloppiness.

So back to those poems—the great majority—in which editing is the bulk of the work. By “editing” I mean everything from rewriting utterly to revising heavily to polishing lightly to rereading without changing a thing. (Sometimes I will reread a poem five or six times, and am just about to declare it done, before discovering one tiny improvement I’d missed before. So those were not just five or six vanity passes to luxuriate in a completed work; they were still part of the edit.)

I can hammer out a first version of a poem very quickly. It’s usually terrible. Maybe twenty percent of the time it shows promise. After one or two rewrites, I abandon maybe half of those promising ones; only about ten percent of my attempted poems make it through the end of the editing process. So in order to produce verse at any kind of reasonable pace, I have to take many swings and misses. (Lately I haven’t been swinging so much, and I wonder if my best at-bats are behind me. But these things come and go in inscrutable waves.)

If you’re lucky enough to end up published, you get the chance to work with an editor other than yourself. However obsessively you’ve picked over your own stuff, you have blind spots and you’ve overlooked certain flaws. Guaranteed. It’s been my privilege and joy to work with a superb editor (and literary hero of mine), Stuart Ross. And thanks to that process, I developed what’s become my current focus while self-editing: weeding out the overtly poetic.

Sometimes Stuart will flag a passage and say something like, “This isn’t working—it looks like you made this word choice because it ‘sounds poetic’” Not only is he right, but—to my horror—that mannered turn of phrase has been invisible to me! A blind spot, revealed. I’ve internalized some of the clichés of contemporary poetry to the point that they simply spew out of me, much as a lifelong executive might spout phrases like “core values” and “going forward” without realizing how corporate she sounds. So I’ve been trying to identify my go-to “poeticisms” and excise them. Like writing to a set form, this can be a fruitful restriction.

That’s my current particular editing focus, but it’s only one of many things the self-editor must look out for. Clunky phrases; unintended repetition; redundant words; forced rhymes; pointless stanzas; bone-headed lapses in logic or syntax; mulish adherence to the logic of syntax; muddy bogs in the musical landscape; too cleanly musical a landscape; sterility; muck; stupidity; the overly clever. They all need to be hunted vigilantly, excised ruthlessly—or tended better, given more space to breathe, incubated properly like the maggots that consume and thereby define the casu marzu cheese.

Writing a poem is nice; it’s a pleasant diversion and it can make you feel boss about yourself. Much joy can be had brandishing the fountain pen or stabbing at the keyboard. But then the real work begins. An angry red marker, a delete button worn smooth—these are the tools of the poet’s trade.

Peter Norman's first poetry collection, At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield, 2010) was a finalist for the Trillium Poetry Book Award. His new collection is Water Damage (Mansfield, 2013), and a third is forthcoming in 2015 from Goose Lane Editions. His novel, Emberton, was published this year by Douglas & McIntyre.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Recent Reads: THE RAIN OF THE ICE by Eric Baus


Published by above/ground press, 2014.

I’m as attuned to Eric Baus’ past work as I am to surrealism or Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Institute, which is another way of saying I’m curious. Both practices, which seek transcendence through the dismantling of context, dutifully serve Baus’ approach on THE RAIN OF THE ICE. As such, these fourteen, conservative-in-structure prose poems are suspended in a volatile, imaginary world where creation is seething and smothered. Each entry acts as an origin but with subjects that often carry over; horses and pupae, like totems, reappear as distorted symbols in a codependent transformation. Attaching meaning to any of it is a daunting proposition, lest you run into a piece like this:


There is no wind, no blood, no sun. There is no sleep.
Not water. Not air. No capital, corpse, or crops. There
are no wolves or waves. No negative rain. Nor blue.
Nor birds. No bodies.

Given that surrealism and deep listening practices better define what isn’t than what is, it makes sense that Baus would snatch up the last assumptions we readers could cling to. And with "ECHO SOLVENT", the storm that has raged in elements and animals throughout much of this chapbook is suddenly sucked into a pinprick on white, a vacuum of lifelessness. What’s left in lieu of context? What represents absence? Clearly the vague summary I’ve gathered for the purposes of this review will only get me so far. The good news is our groundlessness allows Baus’ crisp language to stimulate us more acutely and from unsuspecting angles.


The injured octopus commandeered my limbs. It
furrowed a crown of iron from its sponge dome but I
felt no cruelty in the creature’s cage. The wall of its
body was more an annoyed wave. I was being guided,
rained into a room where a tiny moon arose. I was
being aired out, not raided. I touched the closest
tentacle and felt a burned down candle. We were
sharing an urn that was groomed for the cliffs. Mute
and molting, we grabbed talons. We were born in a
town around the block from our remains. We felt sad
for our hands. We had loved our lost moat.

Each time I read "LOST MOAT" I come away with something new. Does it weave in and out of metaphor or subsist on several, metaphoric skins? Does it really matter? The uneven physicality and iridescent mood of Baus’ struggle proves that his surrealist streak treads with intent, discipline. There's compassion amid the violence, too. Another selection that resists obvious meaning but relishes the journey’s poetic choices is "ALPHA VAULT":

The pupa condensed its peels with plumage. It
unpacked an ambushed breath. It hid in the densest
passage, wearing out the ether inside a downed cloud.

There’s a metamorphosis happening, in all its damp and sour stages, and that’s the draw; the assonance, alliteration and partial rhymes, not whether the transformation pans out. In this regard, THE RAIN OF THE ICE argues for the separation between a strong voice and strong statement. Baus’ engagement is so authoritative, it seems secondary that many of his details fail to coalesce into anything definitive. (Definitive would be missing the point.) Those who crave a tidy conclusion at the bottom of each page may find the indistinctness frustrating but others will delight in the dreamlike manipulation lurking these unassuming skins. 

Recent Reads: Braking and Blather by Emily Ursuliak

Braking and Blather by Emily Ursuliak

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Emily Ursuliak’s new chapbook can be described as slim, even by above/ground press’ standards, but that does not make it slight. The single long poem, set in the vastness of British Colombia’s Mt. Swanzy, seems intent on contrasting expectations of space, stretching over pages in tight, vertical lines of rolling sentences. There’s contraction and expansion happening simultaneously, which compliments the ebb and flow account of two young women being toured around by a boisterous local.

His plump thumbs
are paper weights,
pinning the map,
the heft
of his barrel body
thrown forward,
as his index finger
etches possible routes.

The map
is more for Anne and Phyl
than for him:
Mr. Richter, their savior,
every goat track
and clear-cut path
is a memory woven
within a synapse.

The trio’s antics sound lackadaisical when reduced to a sentence and lend a carefree feel to whole sections of the poem. But with each spin and detour through the Rockies, Ursuliak’s detached voice gives rise to a sharper consciousness that, ever so subtly, casts doubt on the unfolding events. Mr. Richter seems affable enough for a stranger, but his inappropriate stories and suspicious “errands” make him a questionable guide for a night-drive in the wilderness. The language used to introduce Mr. Richter – “plump thumbs” “pinning the map” and “the heft of his barrel body” – doesn’t help, nor does his knowledge of the area which, combined, tips the scale of power squarely in the driver’s seat. This puts the reader in the passenger seat, and not because he or she is oblivious to the tale’s direction. Ursuliak is pitting the reader’s vigilance against the denial that discards worry as paranoia, and that mind game steers the tension.

A ranger lookout,
dwarfed by distance,
perches on a pine ridge
across the valley.
A fulvous glow haunts
its many windows.
The three clink beers
to celebrate the view.

I haven’t spoiled anything, story-wise, because Ursuliak’s tone leaves much to the reader’s interpretation. Internally I even scolded myself on first read, wondering from where was I receiving this perverse anticipation of wrongdoing, but the sense of unease is real. Run-ins with locals reduce the setting to small town familiarity, where otherness can be taken advantage of, and a shift in power, late in the poem, helps Anne and Phyl assert themselves, whether or not they're aware of it. Signs of danger may ultimately go unproven in the text but they’re hardly unfounded, which is why Braking and Blather creates such an impression: it conveys this worm of a worry, surfacing and submerging with each bend in the poem.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

On Writing #38 : Rupert Loydell

Intricately Entangled
Rupert Loydell

For the last decade or so my main way of writing has been to assemble phrases into a poem. These phrases come from my own notebooks, from books I am reading at the time (sometimes almost grabbed at random; at other times phrases I’ve jotted down whilst reading), from songs and CD covers, from newspaper and magazines, from in my head… a kind of ongoing diary of experience, reading and observations catalysed and changed by writing processes and my own creative and editorial process, which works towards poems that ask more questions than give answers, using collage and procedural writing as well as more traditional inspiration and personal confession.

Charles Bernstein has suggested that ‘Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that’s what I want from it… It leaves things unsettled, unresolved – leave you knowing less than you did when you started’, and my poems explore the world by association and analogy: the ‘voices’ or polyglossolalia of my work are present in the way the poems have been constructed, they accumulate meaning by juxtaposition and ordering; ‘conversation’ and ‘conference’ are inherent in the way themes may continue through sequences, series or individual poems. Joseph Conte suggests that ‘Serial and procedural forms provide alternative and complementary responses to postmodernity. […] The divine order as a single voice of authority has withdrawn to be replaced by a cacophony of channelled voices, or by no voice at all […]’

Themes emerge, tentatively appear and disappear in my poems. I try to keep my vocabulary everyday and readable, but distort syntax and linearity to make surprises, jumps, leaps of the imagination. What I read, see and engage with around me often gets directly collaged into poems, so it’s very personal. It’s my voice because I made it, the process is much more refined than ‘collage’ or ‘cut-up’.

This does, of course, means the reader has work to do, not least in relating their own reality to the poems presented to them. The poet Dean Young has an interesting response to an interview question about the possibilities of misunderstanding:

Do you think your poems are defined by misunderstanding?

I think they’re very much about misunderstanding.  ... I think to tie meaning too closely to understanding misses the point.

This misunderstanding is also about the discrepancy between language and reality, or object, which Ann Lauterbach has written about:

The world, for many poets, is apprehended as language; language is the material of the world. Every object is simultaneously itself and its word. For some poets, the word has more significance than the thing itself; for others, the thing takes priority over its word, and for still others, neither word nor thing has precedence. Although this might be seen as a mere matter of shift in focus, the consequences, in terms of the poet’s form, its construction, can be profound. Poets move around in the shadowy space between a word and its object, sometimes wanting to make the difference between the two appear seamless, and sometimes calling attention to the distinctions between them.

Not only this shadowy space is usable by poets, but the many diverse and specialist languages and objects the world offers are available as subjects. Dean Young responds to his interviewer asking about how he uses ‘the physicality of the world’ by referring to:

The junk of the world, which is maddening and wonderful. One great thing about the twentieth century is that any discourse can be poetic. [...] For instance in... I used mangled quotes from technical journals, which is not that experimental – it just allows tones to confront each other. That kind of collage is fun because it can really undercut what I’m doing. At some point I have to know what I'm doing, but that should be pretty far into the process.

In 1995 Robert Sheppard categorized his poem sequence thus: ‘The project Twentieth Century Blues is a “net/(k)not work”. One of its current aims is to link the unlinkable’, which is perhaps what Joe Amato means when he writes about the idea of ‘[e]verything in dialogue with everything else’. He also discusses this in another way:

Some poets stitch a kind of linguistic web between sites of picturing (description) and sites of telling (narration); some poets make clusters of sound which do neither and both at once, calling attention to the constellating properties of language, its capacity to confound temporal and spatial reality into a third thing: an event which participates in the construction of that reality. The idea that a poem can be granted the status of an event that shifts the course of cause and effect in a writer’s or reader’s life, has little to do with the idea of a poem as a bauble of verbal expressivity.

The poet Brian Louis Pearce asked me in an interview ‘How do you pattern your mosaic? Order your (found) dislocation?’ to which I replied ‘Same as all poets do. By theme, association, sound, rhyme, assonance, word count, syllable counts, visually, intuition.’ I would also agree with Dean Young , who suggests that at a certain point:

the poem takes on some kind of density, and it starts to coalesce. I may feel like there's a particular trace in it – like a narrative trace – that I can highlight a bit, to establish enough of a center of gravity so that other materials can be organized around it. Then I make selections in terms of musicality and measure.

I also like the fact that, as David Shields states, ‘collage teaches the reader to understand that the movements of the writer’s mind  are intricately entangled with the work’s meaning. Forget “intricately entangled with the work’s meaning”: are the work’s meaning.’

Rupert Loydell is Senior Lecturer in English with Creative Writing at Falmouth University, and the editor of Stride and With magazines. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Wildlife and Ballads of the Alone both published by Shearsman Books. An artist’s book-in-a-box, The Tower of Babel, was published by Like This Press; and Encouraging Signs, a book of essays, articles and interviews by Shearsman. He edited Smartarse for Knives Forks & Spoons Press, From Hepworth’s Garden Out: poems about painters and St. Ives for Shearsman, and Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh, an anthology of manifestos and unmanifestos, for Salt. He lives in a village in Cornwall, UK, with his family and far too many CDs and books, and is currently working on a series of collaborative papers and chapters about the musician Brian Eno, as well as a number of interviews for the academic journal Punk & Post-Punk.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On Writing #37 : M.A.C. Farrant

Eternity Delayed
M.A.C. Farrant

It’s a different story this year.  You don’t run away from it.  You arrive on time for your annual deviation from the norm.  You are ready. 
           You have trained in the uses of the dream-catcher, as did Joseph Cornell.  But it’s taking a lot out of you.  It’s like being boxed with a stuffed canary, an hourglass, a piece of string, and a blue egg.  The air’s so rare.  Outside chatter has ceased to exist.      
          Even so, you are still basically an awkward kid.  Your visits to the desk are often noxious though, now and then, weak good-will flows your way.  Clichés and money arrive unbidden.  This is health!
            Your only worry is whether or not your characters will show up for duty.  They seldom do.  You’ll be their stand-in again.
           Your only hope is that the word police will keep mountains from falling on your vigilance.  That people will think of champagne and Liza Minnelli when they read you.

M.A.C. Farrant is the author of over a dozen works of fiction, non-fiction, and memoir, including The Strange Truth About Us – A Novel of Absence, which was selected as a Globe & Mail Best Book for 2012, and the just released, The World Afloat- Miniatures, both from Talonbooks.  Her play, My Turquoise Years premiered with the Arts Club Theatre of Vancouver in 2013.  She writes reviews for the Vancouver Sun and the Globe & Mail.

She has taught writing at the University of Victoria, the Victoria School of Writing, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and was Writer-In-Residence at Macquarie University, Sydney Australia.

Monday, August 04, 2014

On Writing #36 : Gil McElroy

Building a Background
Gil McElroy


A normal reading of words offers, at best, timid glances down Newtonian successions of corridors. The cause-and-effect of letters and newspapers following  one upon the other is an idea devoted to reproduction (or to what exclamations really look like).

Handfuls of order are measured in such a way. We want a custodian, a hired perspective, lbs. of absolute and everlasting solidity. (Resilience is indeed considered a perfectly reasonable way to total ruin.)

In a place so organized, the container of traditional questions, answers, and achievements daily exemplified by names comes to seem incontrovertible.

But the membrane of metaphor is permeable. First of all, one must fit.


The present grammar has rocking chair meanings. The little maelstroms of poems wrinkle of conversation and the humpty-dumpty of things. Entire utterances devour the smaller things that move (the mere sensations of language, the unpointed vowels, the asylums of syllables...), swallowing each pregnant bulge of creatures.

This world is new and unalloyed, but in any geometry something is always given.

Here, it is in a diminishing that readers, all with parallax, have the anatomy to attack: a cone, the base of which is given to the more widely used dimensions, the apex a point somewhere sudden and intrusive amongst the very basic clumps correlated outside of the teeth* , letters typically and tightly buttoned by words.


Raw and quivering to the touch, these comparisons (so made) are invented in a manner I can only describe with all the inadequacy that words, sailing down without context, can imply: we write, posturing some arguable ideas; we read, embodying an upright condition.

We have these definitions retained in parallel, but we have the accidental in common (the same water of escape).

A stone can dive no deeper.

*Though the palate brings us their names.

Gil McElroy is a poet, visual artist, independent curator, and critic living in the village of Colborne, Ontario. He provided the introduction to Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press, 2003-2013 (2013).