Friday, April 18, 2014

Recent Reads: "The Uncertainty Principle: stories," by rob mclennan



Published by Chaudiere Books, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-9783428-8-3

Two springs ago I was listening to a talk on contemporary poetry when a fellow enthusiast asked rob mclennan what inspires him. “I don’t wait for inspiration,” he responded. “My father didn’t wait for inspiration. He milked the cows every day because he had to”. That no-frills answer sprung to mind midway through The Uncertainty Principle: stories,, an eclectic compendium of pocket-sized tales crafted from 2008 to 2011. The brevity and randomness of each story makes it tempting to view these as the crème de la crème of one of mclennan’s daily writing exercises. However these individual pieces transformed into a working manuscript – whether they were organized from the start or encountered a “eureka” moment along the way – mclennan’s bounty of ideas repeatedly underpins that day-in-day-out discipline.

Uncertainty plays a crucial part in the flow of so many mini-narratives. mclennan forgoes anchoring his characters with names and ambitions, instead letting pronouns contribute to a foggy tapestry of shared thoughts and concerns. Common themes converse and accumulate throughout, binding playful and contemplative experiences into a lifetime’s knowledge, some vague, communal whole. Recurring subjects in first person obviously lean toward the autobiographical, such as memories of one’s mother or fleeting moments around familiar Ottawa landmarks, while others belong firmly in the speculative.

Describing himself as an errorist, he spends
his day deliberately misspelling, otherwise the
copy-editor could be out of a job and he never
see her again.

The above example illustrates how mclennan populates the fictional side, using unidentified people as a means to observing poignant or funny sociological traits. This lens expands to feature some insightful pop culture commentary, including theories on Hollywood films, comic books, as well as an eerie parallel between two misfits of nuclear fallout – Godzilla and SpongeBob SquarePants. Broadening the humour, mclennan litters a few entries with the hashtag #IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp to offset the more intricate accounts.

I recently had a Doctor Who-style dream, set
in early twentieth-century Dublin, with you as
my faithful companion. We found James Joyce
and his house of infinite, hidden rooms, stalked
by some kind of vampire creature. Was this,
we began to suspect, something his own de-
mons had created, dark language made physi-
cal, an altered Nora Barnacle? I don’t recall a
conclusion or resolution. This is often the way
of dreams. Someone suggested I write out
what I can, to reinforce memory, flesh out the
scene. The front door of the house was green-
painted wood, with a peephole large enough to
see Joyce’s face, his round glasses. The foyer
had a soft wood paneling, brown and tan
wainscotting. He had been drafting a letter,
left out on the table. There was something we
wanted not to have known.

This dream recollection bridges the fantastical elements of The Uncertainty Principle with its more somber (but no less intriguing) realities. Besides capturing the fragmentary act of piecing together the unconscious, mclennan’s details settle around an omission that haunts the page. The same can be said for many of the best stories on offer, where an unknowable truth lingers just beyond (or somewhere within) the information made available. Whether oscillating between irreverent and astute or observational and tender, mclennan’s concise anecdotes are remarkable for opening so many doors without betraying their secrets. Here’s a lovely near-poem we can add to the “observational and tender” category:

We were stretched flat on the dark side of the
lawn, opposite the garage light and porch, star-
ing up at the sky. We were counting the stars. I
can’t believe you’ve never seen a shooting star,
she said, as common as goldfish. We remained
for a long time, sweeping our eyes across
Ontario sky, and I looked over, amazed at this
sprout of a child beside me, my ten-year-old
daughter. I was studying the shadowed shapes
of her developing profile, a sparkle in her eye.
There’s one, she pointed. I turned to look. It
had already vanished.

Thanks to mclennan’s discipline, our experience reading The Uncertainty Principle requires none. Organized to accommodate brief interactions (which, like the psychology behind bite-sized chocolate bars, results here in complete overindulgence), the book proves incessantly fresh, taken as a whole or in cursory, page-flipping handfuls. 

The Uncertainty Principle: stories, will officially launch on May 10, 2014 as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series at the Manx Pub in Ottawa. It is now available to buy at Chaudiere Books' website.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Writing #27 : Lola Lemire Tostevin



What’s in a name?
Lola Lemire Tostevin

From a very early age I assumed I would be an actress.  It might have had something to do with my name, or so the story goes.  As a young woman, my mother had determined to name her first daughter “Lola” after some character she’d heard of by the name of Lola Montez. Because it was such an unusual name considering the small French-Canadian community in which we lived, the explanation was repeated many times.  As my mother learned more about Lola Montez’s notorious background, she would invariably follow the story with a laugh and add, “My daughter was named after a dancer who couldn’t dance.”  To this day, when I get writer’s block, I paraphrase with: “I’m a writer who can’t write.”  I am also reminded of the advice Alfred Hitchcock gave Ingrid Bergman once when she complained that she was not feeling the character she was playing. “Well,” Hitchcock replied, “Fake it, my dear. Fake it.”       
            Other than the Montez story, I first heard my name in the 1959 American version of The Blue Angel, a remake of the original von Sternberg film starring Marlene Dietrich. The American version wasn’t very good, but it did alert me to the German version which I had heard was a classic and which I eventually viewed at a cinemateque.  It was my impression that Dietrich’s character was given the double moniker, Lola-Lola, to emphasize the violence and cruelty of the vamp she portrayed.  It wouldn’t be the only time my name would be associated with such intrinsic worth.
 Nabokov’s novel Lolita, differs greatly from the film. In the novel, the twelve-year old is always referred to as “Lola” by everyone except for Humbert Humbert who has given her his own personal pet name, “Lolita.”  It is clearly a strategy to deny Lola her subjectivity as the novel follows, from Humbert’s perspective, his obsession with prepubescent girls. The movie, however, omits Humbert’s history and Lolita is portrayed as a fourteen-year-old nymphet seducer. Hollywood’s switch from Nabokov’s uncompromising and disturbing insights into a middle-aged man’s aberrant obsessions to sensational and titillating pabulum taught me, for the first time but not the last, the difference between art as exploration and exhibitionism disguised as art.
            While my ambitions of becoming an actress waned, I still maintained a lively interest in films, but a greater one in literature. Through movies and books I learned the role of self-invention, how easily the self can be reduced to a sign, and how easily this sign determines who you are in the eyes of viewers or readers.  Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein fascinated me mainly because the novel is based on a memory of Lol, the “a” of her name missing because it is not a complete characterization since it is based on absence.  Jacques Demy’s film title, Lola, masterpiece of the French New Wave, is a stage pseudonym for a dancer whose real name is Cécile. Shot in the sixties, the plot and the characters’ destinies rely on missed opportunities and anticipate Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run whose characters’ fates also depend totally on chance.  Franka Potente who plays the title role is portrayed in the opening credits as a larger-than-life cartoon character which struck me as a kind of de-facement of both the character and the real-life person. 
   Fassbinder’s Lola stars the incredible actress, Barbara Sukowa, in which she plays a singer in a brothel whose real name is Marie-Louise.   Sukowa recently appeared in Hannah based on an episode in Hannah Arendt’s life and while the film didn’t have any characters bearing my name, Sukowa did win a Lola, the German Oscar, for her portrayal of Arendt, one of my personal heroes. 
In a holiday apartment I once rented I discovered a collection of stories for children written by a grandmother, Lola Basyang, which I later discovered was an alias of Severino Reyes.  It is a refreshing reversal from when women used male pseudonyms in order to have their writing published.
            Do all these references sound inordinately narcissistic? I suppose they would if they were based on a consistent, unchanging reality instead of the imaginary’s ability to create an ongoing and changeable chain of doublings as in films and writing.   If my story of how I became a writer was constituted of a discourse that “I” completely mastered.  Alas, not unlike the character, Lola, in Ian McEwen’s Atonement, I am a casualty whose destiny depends mainly on misrepresentation. 
Asking a writer to write about her origins is akin to asking an actor to explain how the many characters she has played correspond to who she is.  It reduces the diffusion and complexity of different roles to a self-absorbed confinement.  Realism in literature is nothing more than its own imitation.
               So, please believe me when I write that I may be the Devil’s assistant in the Broadway musical, Damn Yankees, and Lola always gets what Lola wants.  Or perhaps I am the transvestite of a song by The Kinks and I walk like a woman and talk like a man.  Am I Barry Manilow’s showgirl?   Or perhaps I began to write simply because I liked the idea of my name appearing on a book cover.  
Writers are fictional characters of their own making. They expand the imagination and give writers and readers access to a world of appearances in order to explore the many sides of human beings in relation to an unpredictable, diverse and ever changing world.  Our fictional selves are our true birth certificates.


Lola Lemire Tostevin is the author of a collection of critical essays, three novels, eight collections of poetry including, Singed Wings, published in 2013 by Talonbooks.  She is presently preparing a second collection of essays.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Recent Reads: Dennis Tourbin and Camille Martin


THE STREAM and other poems by Dennis Tourbin
Sugar Beach by Camille Martin

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

In 2012, some fourteen years after his passing, Dennis Tourbin was honoured with two, long-overdue exhibitions: a three-venue celebration in his hometown of St Catharines and a cubist-focused show in the Ottawa Art Gallery. Now that the former (and larger) showcase of his collagist oeuvre, entitled The Language of Visual Poetry, has relocated to the Carleton University Art Gallery, continued interest in Tourbin peaks again with newly published, previously unseen poetry. THE STREAM and other poems collects three margin-hugging entries that touch on familiar Tourbin muses from within a dream-like travelogue.
  
The title poem details fishing for brown trout near Millbrook, Ontario, but as each summer finds the stream undergoing certain changes (and therefore imposing new fishing strategies), Tourbin recognizes in it an overlooked universe. The current holds fish but also the memories we harvest through language:

A body of water.
A wondrous sound.
The water, like static,
the stream continuing on,
into eternity,
non stop,
everlasting,
trying to discover
the meaning of
infinity…

This idyllic current, resuscitated from the past, acts as the first of a few carriers that replenish their meanings; Millbrook as memory, water as static. The train in “Morning in Paris” proves another conduit capable of skipping the divide, traversing the gulf between France’s media-occupied capital and the more sensory-illuminated countryside. Imagining an alternate reality wherein Algerian terrorists succeeded in detonating Air France Flight 8969 doesn’t influence Tourbin’s escape to Deauville as much as the endlessly replayed news clips prepped to entail either outcome. As his train basks in the green and grey landscape, Tourbin feels the strain dissipate:

On the train
French lovers kiss,
touch each other lovingly,
no thought,
just the passion.
The News has not yet
reached them.
The rain has not
wet their lips.

In time all the News
will be catalogued,
become meaningless,
just another bullet
to the head
of another
innocent passenger
going who knows where…

Keep in mind, Tourbin wrote this poem in 1994. Pre-Internet, if you recall such a time. We can neither chalk that last stanza up to broad cynicism nor read it as a byproduct of the lassitude we greet headlines with twenty years on.

Closing poem “In Her Apartment in Paris” offers “the stream” yet another meaning: of routine street happenings Tourbin watched replenish themselves on a daily basis. That repetition transforms the window glass into a television screen as well as a mirror, occasionally reflecting on the author’s own uncertain mortality. Layered but plainspoken, “In Her Apartment in Paris” hinges on an explosive moment that deserves to be experienced, not narrated. That said, THE STREAM and other poems creates a small whirlpool of Tourbin’s most celebrated preoccupations: terrorism, media, identity and, yes, fishing.

Never one to forget the individual gaze amid complex, national calamities, Tourbin’s vision is being posthumously celebrated at a time we miss him most – this “media age” of phone-tapping governments and lingering terrorism fears. These are adventure poems, seeking out beginnings and endings that no science or language has come to terms with. What THE STREAM and other poems accomplishes in Tourbin’s absence is a sense of finality, an eventuality he knowingly snuck within the static.


Occasionally I read too much into a title and end up rewinding my own assumptions; that happened with Sugar Beach, Camille Martin’s new chapbook. As it turns out, Sugar Beach isn’t especially concerned with one of Toronto’s newest recreational hangouts. The title poem’s cold, streamlined setting conjures the industrial backdrop but with an air of fantasy the author entertains, then vanquishes. As outdoor scenes from whimsical French paintings come face to face with “now’s black pigeon, head jerking across white sand”, Martin’s voice unearths juicy angles wherein gruff realities lie dormant. Or, as “Sugar Beach” puts it:

[…] – lady and slipper
freeze-framed at the apex of symbolic order
before gravity once more kicks in […] 

That voice of cynicism acts as the unifying principle in a collection made up from two separate manuscripts (R Is the Artichoke of Rose and Blueshift Road). For each hint of levity, there’s an instinctive, gravitational response. Many of these poems take a crack at constructs or wave their hand through illusions. “Doppelganger’s Lament” reads like a poetic verdict handed down to some middle-aged reflection, guilty of imagining an alternate life. “Endless Regression of Heavens”, reprinted below, alternately looks at global warming through the amassing recurrence of chicory blues:

Glaciers dribble foreign rocks
as dawn releases chicory blue.
Its fickle hues waltz round equator,
spool, top, dizzy moon, gainly

as the patter of millipedes ruffling
toward a country with no flag
but fields of chicory blue. Horizon,
chromatic with moments. What

of the next and the next, plunging
into myth evolving in the deeps?
Haunting the deeps while manning
the crow’s nest? With each finite

duration we arrive closer by half
to a famished constellation,
blinking beast perpetually devouring
a platter of chicory blue.

I included the whole poem for two reasons: Martin regularly dangles a line between stanzas that I’d rather not scissor, but also, “Endless Regression of Heavens” finds her language, rhythm and tone wholly at peace together. Wonder and tragedy fastened in an ouroboric cycle, rendering the epic concise.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the poems that leave the more lasting impression – I’ve mentioned a few already – each consist of couplets, triplets or quatrains. This structural foresight lets Martin’s loaded language breathe while giving the reader a more hospitable passageway in. Otherwise we tangle with “No Such Identical Horses” and “More Jars Than Lids”, single chunks of verse that escalate in figurative leaps (the latter piece, even after several approaches, I have only a shaky handle on). These poems trace Martin’s deductions and you can sense a developing logic but the brawniness of communication feels coded. In other words, I suspect the author’s stance on a scenario without ever learning the details. 

It’s possible that those vague boundaries are intentional. After all, Sugar Beach has oblique poems which open doors as well. The same could-have-beens that paint “Doppelganger’s Lament” into a corner hover unspoken and strangely on “Blink”:

            Light is not
    inevitable. Overshot it
        or not yet there.
       Nothing, for that
     matter. In any case,
    not arrived. Anything
       could have been
           otherwise.

As with the other, more minimalist poems that I believe stem from R Is the Artichoke of Rose, “Blink” floats free of margin and context. Yet the plain speech Martin utilizes here allows the poem to connect on a number of levels. The trajectory in question, the ominous object of “light” and the beckoning negative space of “otherwise” are consistent with Martin’s gruff lens – always seeing the conveyor belt behind the pixie dust – but there’s room for intuitive analysis, too.

For its variety alone, Sugar Beach is a noteworthy collection. It finds an eclectic balance between Martin’s interests and offers a sneak peak at potential, future titles. My preference for certain pieces over others can be partially attributed to its mixed bag foundation but mostly I found the best poems were those that let readers roam her observations and branch off. Martin’s an original voice; that’s clear across selections from both manuscripts. But too often those observations feel hedged in, predetermined by an oppressive gravity.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

On Writing #26 : Kevin Spenst


On Writing
Kevin Spenst

Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
    Wallace Stevens

     Paul Valery writes about the creation of a poem beginning with the gift of a first line - une ligne donnee given by god, nature or the particular placement of a baguette - a line through which you pull the rest of the poem. It's a beautiful notion but how do you get to that ligne donnee, and really, how do you pull the rabbit of a poem out of the slit of a single line?

   There are ten essential slight-of-hand tricks to writing poetry and nobody knows what they are.  If our goal is to write poems that really take people's heads off, then we need to dwell in the mysterious realms of religion, art, theater, Resident Evil 6 (or something equally intense to you.) No, but seriously. 

     Long after some spasmodic bursts of teen angst poetry, I found my way back into the realms of the literary sublime through the most circuitous of routes: acting lead to making my own short films which lead to scripting plot ideas which lead to becoming serious about fiction which lead to an MFA where I focused on poetry. My head is still spinning.

     For me, writing starts with poetic attention that exists in an open alertness to the world. On my bike ride home from work the other day, I tried to look at the entire road in front of me - from the ongoing rush of the asphalt beneath my front tire to the slow movement of the coming distance. There was no stuttering middle ground dragging my gaze down and then up, but it was all one gestalt. It felt different for a couple seconds. Who doesn't want to live with the possibilities of the mundane being filled with the new? I love poetry for its potential to open up spaces in my day-to-day life. (For the record, I don’t pay poetic attention to anything while drinking and operating heavy machinery.)

      In October of 2003 I started writing a story everyday. I’d been living amidst a growing heap of half-fished journals and motivational writing quotes, but none of my resolutions to take writing seriously solidified into a consistent practice. A friend, the supremely talented Paul Pratte, offered to help me design a website. The crux of the site was to be a short-short story everyday. Making a promise with a mostly imaginary online audience was what got me into the practice of writing.

    Poetry itself feels like the apex of potential. Poetry is game for invading any other discourse. Poetry raps: gratitude is the only attitude. Poetry plunders in wonder. Poetry is high-tech primitivism. Poetry runs the gamut of great ideals and taboo filth straight into the ground beneath our feet and plants something hybrid. Poetry is confessional and denialistic. (de-nihilistic?)As far as my poetics are concerned, poetry is language at play with the core plasticity of the self.

     When I read fiction or poetry, I don’t tend to see anything the first time through. I have to put effort into witnessing a scene unfold. It makes sense that I fell in love with poetry. The French Symbolists wrote with musicality in mind and there’s a mellifluous strain that runs through a lot of poetries. Certainly, we all have varying degrees of sensitivity towards language. Nabokov saw words accompanied by colours and presumably there are other synaesthetes who experience words with other sensory qualities. “’The Sublime smells like an aardvark to me,” someone might have once said.

     We speak from a place of flesh and blood and our “voice” is physically determined, but our culture and personality shape how we use it. A man growing up with four brothers who’s significantly shorter than the rest might compensate by speaking in the deep voice of a six-foot powerhouse. When I edit my poems, I listen for the quirks of a voice that may be hiding something. I let the poem keep its secrets as long as it’s willing to share something of greater interest.

     Language is at home in our mouths and the page is a strange fiction we all agree to take for fact.

     Poetry is an ideal, a place where the senses and abstractions are united. Nowhere is this interplay of modalities more dynamic than the work of Ken Babstock. Amanda Earl does a meticulous job of scratching at the paint and colours present in his first two books in “A Catalogue of Colour, Texture & Shiny Things in Ken Babstock's Poetry-Part One.” She explores the tone created through colour choices, drawing our attention to brush-stroked lines:

this year's open mouth looks like a red room of your own
heart; tin icebox; bloody plush at his chest (Waiting on a Transplant)

     What does this year, this month, this week, this day, this hour, this second look like to you?

     Last piece of advice: set up win-win situations for yourself. Write for yourself and for others. Think about your ideal writing circumstances. Imagine your dream audience. Think about how you want to feel when you write. Your warm coffee, the morning sun singling out the tip of your nose. What might seem drudgery can take on the quiet beauty of meditation. Through your editing and rewrites, listen carefully to determine what you’ve written for yourself and what might be of interest to others. Practice so that you can get to the place where you are simultaneously writing for yourself and others. Even if your poem doesn’t win the $50, 000 Montreal poetry prize, you’ll have grown from that time on your own.

    To sum things up in the BASIC programming language.

10 PRINT “Live”;
20 PRINT “Read everything from chapbooks to Chaucer”;
30 PRINT “Write”;
40 PRINT “Laugh at your mistakes”;
50 GOTO 10 



In addition to the UK, the United States, Austria and India, Kevin Spenst’s poetry has appeared in over a dozen Canadian literary publications such as Freefall, Prairie Fire, CV2, Dandelion, filling Station, qwerty, and Poetry is Dead. His work has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and his manuscript Ignite has come in as a finalist for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. In 2011, he won the Lush Triumphant Award for Poetry. In 2014 he is going to do a 100-venue reading tour across Canada with his chapbooks Pray Goodbye (the Alfred Gustav Press, 2013), Retractable (the serif of nottingham, 2013), Happy Hollow and the Surrey Suite (self-published, 2012), What the Frag Meant (100 tetes press, 2014) and Surrey Sonnets (JackPine press, 2014). Follow the chapbook tour at kevinspenst.com

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

EARL & STEADMAN - A B Series Celebrates National Poetry Month!


A B Series Celebrates National Poetry Month!

Readings by AMANDA EARL & DEAN STEADMAN!

With a performance of Après Satie: Four Two and Four Hands by Dean Steadman, Lesley Strutt, Frances Boyle and Alastair Larwill. Après Satie: Four Two and Four Hands is a work by Dean Steadman for multiple voices inspired by Erik Satie's piano composition.

7pm
Thursday, April 3, 2014

Auditorium
Main Branch
Ottawa Public Library
120 Metcalfe Street
Ottawa, Ont.

Free
A hat will be passed.

More info abseries.org

AMANDA EARL is the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the publisher of AngelHousePress, including its transgressive prose imprint, DevilHouse. She is the author of several chapbooks. Her first poetry book will be published by Chaudiere Books in the fall of 2014. Her poems have also appeared in literary journals both on line and in print in Australia, Canada, England, France, Ireland and the USA. Amanda has received funding from the City of Ottawa and the Ontario Arts Council.

DEAN STEADMAN’s work has been published in Canadian journals and e-zines, as well as in the anthology Pith and Wry: Canadian Poetry (Scrivener Press, 2010). His poem, ‘Crime Passionnel’ (Descant 144, Spring 2009), was selected by Lorna Crozier as one of the top 100 poems in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2010 (Tightrope Books). He was a finalist in the 2011 Ottawa Book Awards for his poetry collection their blue drowning (Frog Hollow Press, 2010). His chapbook, Portrait w/tulips, was published by Leaf Editions in 2013.