Thursday, November 19, 2015

Meet the Presses 2015; a recap

2015’s Meet the Presses was just the right calibration of different and yet familiar. There were a few new presses on hand, including the sparsely designed, women’s-only Canthius Journal and the eye-catching work of Desert Pets Press. But otherwise, a lot of stellar presses from last year were back with new wares: Mansfield Press, Anstruthers Press, BookThug, Coach House Books, Little Brother and Puddles of Sky Press, among others. I arrived a bit later this year and missed the announcement that Lissa Wolsak won the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Congrats!

Since much of my experience last year can be reapplied here, I'll save you the atmospherics and get right to the spoils. I picked up Catherine Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours... and had Wolsak & Wynn publisher Noelle Allen fill me in on some of the great readings I missed during Owen’s recent tour. I eagerly collected Nelson Ball’s new chapbook Small Waterways from Cameron Anstee and his Apt. 9 Press. I chatted with Will Kemp and Nicole Brewer about the hard work (and subsequent good fortune) that has transformed the words(on)pages table over the past twelve months. 

rob mclennan was on hand, representing both above/ground press (which received its second consecutive bpNichol Award nomination in collaboration with poet Jason Christie) and Chaudiere Books. Within a minute I was given three new Chaudiere titles: Tatterdemalion by Jennifer Londry, continua by Chris Turnbull and this by Andy Weaver. Many thanks! (Note: all three authors will be reading at the Toronto launch on Wednesday, December 2nd. You should go.) 

Less predictable than the presses in attendance were which writers I’d see roaming vendor tables. I was pleased to cross paths with Phoebe Wang almost immediately. After running into some lovely people I typically only correspond with via Twitter and seeing other familiar faces I hadn't the excuse to approach and make introductions with, I circled back for JC Bouchard’s Wool Water and then journeyed home. Now I'm ready to hibernate.

Monday, October 12, 2015

review: Five by smith, Blackman, Anstee, Million and Simpson

Five by jesslyn delia smith, Jeff Blackman, Cameron Anstee, Justin Million and Rachel Simpson (Apt. 9 Press, 2014)

When I chose to pair Five with my morning tea last Saturday, I didn’t intend to re-read all 60 pages, front to back. The collection, featuring work by Ottawa-related poets jesslyn delia smith, Jeff Blackman, Cameron Anstee, Justin Million and Rachael Simpson, seems like an ideal candidate for drop-in, drop-out reading, since each poet offers a small, chapbook sized taste of their best, recent work. Alas the convenience of navigating Five is almost too encouraging, as the spoils of one poet’s selections snowball into anticipation for what comes next.

All contributors pull their own weight, although the gravity naturally varies with each voice. jesslyn delia smith’s poems reach for equilibrium, cautiously outlining the stakes of intimacy. Her meditations are grounded by the dynamics of environment — the house she’s learning to share with someone — and orbit in tight proximity. Plainspoken and thoughtful, the bed-making ritual of “wait” captures her tone best:

the longing is fresh with the laundry
on clothespins, waiting to dry

i fold sheets alone
at the end of the day

each layer of cover from
rainfalls seeps into the next

each flight leaves the comfort of earth
without you in the plane,

But the heart of Five rests in its interstices, the contrasts between authors that keep each page fresh. Jeff Blackman’s eclectic manifestos “Whales In Popular Culture #2: Prove Me Wrong” and “The One World Government’s Behalf” present one such seismic shift, framing slivers of zeitgeist within our canted, collective dysfunction. Blackman’s exuberance leaves an indelible imprint on Five, in part because it’s a trait his colleagues don’t trade in (much, here, at least) but also he wields it in ways that are alternately funny and reflective. Both results apply to “Year of Well,” a freeform collage of impulses targeting the paralysis of working-class life: 

Hey CAPSLOCKER, hey faithful, hey newspaperman; tell me: what’s the 
command for love? Now it is time for someone to almost — BEHOLD THIS

Fierce workday of breath, I’m begging: what do I do now I’m in?

We look so poor arguing our ways towards the beer store. 7:28 another wet-
mare worke me: Omen. “Omen!” my mind gaped.

Me? I’m as I was as the day before: broke, though admittedly sheltered, clothed 
and fed, something else deficient I’m sure. 

We? We were targets once.    Now      hands hold &     the rest fray.

Calling out staples of North American culture, this poem relates feelings of inertia and restlessness almost subliminally, without dwelling in either. On the other hand, his “untitled bird poem for Kate” is tender and un-excerptible and you really need to read it.

As the flurry of press made clear surrounding this book and last fall’s An Accord of Poets multi-city reading tour, these five writers are also friends. It makes sense that similar themes will pop up but less expected that they prove advantageous, helping to distinguish these voices as they deal with rites of domestic passage. Cameron Anstee’s approach to sharing a home is less specific than smith’s but more cerebral, his stanzas whittled down to essential imagery around the existential question: what effect will our experiences leave on the tangible place?

the house advances and remains, extends
the casual arrangement of what we bring and find

the house is limited only by our capacity to imagine it differently

the house is telling and re-telling

the house suddenly has been years

In “The House”, excerpted above, Anstee translates the weight of brick and mortar permanence against his perspective as a transient resident, passing from one margin to another. “Late January” is another poem that should stop readers in their tracks, a sort-of hymnal to Ottawa winters I remember vividly from its appearance in a Peter F.  Yacht Club issue. But just as Five contracts around Anstee’s quiet awareness, it’s about to push outwards again — this time into Justin Million’s acreage of freeform exorcisms. His poems are the most free-wheeling and volatile of the bunch; yet unlike many who take on Al Purdy’s beat-slash-confessional tone, Million’s excesses never spill into self indulgence. 

turn 30

have the balls to be 
presumptuous about 60

or trumpet what’s happening to you

your own decade long god,
that toughest first two thirds
of the nail 

hammered and ten years broke and its failure of women and I feel two
decades ambered. Oh beauty, don’t move —

It’s hard to cut Million off when he’s on a tear and each of his four poems peddle that go-for-broke energy. “60/30”, partially excerpted above, barrels toward self-loathing at a clip most readers might find clumsy, if not for the precision with which Million inserts external narrative to alleviate bouts of self-analysis. “Simple Villain’s Hero” and “a bird or what’s worse in the house” are likewise populated with gazes beyond that of our inebriated protagonist, either sympathizing or enabling the many ‘brown lights in gut’. He skims from one tarnished insight to another, often disassociating from a subject altogether before running into a parallel, complimentary tangent, but his style is realized, unique. 

Five closes with Rachael Simpson and, perhaps unintentionally, fulfills the collection’s fluctuating pulse from resting heart rate (of composed, traditional verse) to palpitations (of excited freeform) and back again. Simpson writes after the rustic, inspired by wild tansy, carved up sheds and skillets hung from nails. The imagery is tightly framed and borderless, either captured in the city or perhaps one of Ottawa’s vista-rich, outer townships. But when such visual textures get strung up in her knack for rhythm, stationary poems like “Skillet” and “Pitch” take on a robust and auditory life. From the former:

How gratefully you receive them, 
reach for what you’re given:

eggs broken gently whole,
the last sprouted onion. 

There’s an ease about your hands
as you have for any tool. 

Better yet is “Corrode”, where the organic rephrasing of grass “creeping up and through the half-rolled window” carries a stark but kinaesthetic effect on an abandoned scene. “Wild, domestic” ends this collection with a memorable gut-punch, and is one of my favourite poems of last year.

As with any multi-authored work, Five teases and pulls the reader’s attention around sections that become intimately dog-eared. But that unevenness is tempered by a keen understanding of how each writer differs and thusly, how best to sequence their work. Thematically Five captures the unevenness of approaching thirty, the critical age these writers all hover around. Decisions become deliberations, relationships carry sharper wreckage and passions struggle to align with some semblance of a career. Well after Simpson's last poem, I find myself anticipating what comes next. 

Serendipitous post-script: This review coincides with the anniversary of Five's release and Apt. 9 Press is selling copies for 50% off! That's crazy. Pick one up here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A night at The Factory Reading Series

Well I'm back home after an extended weekend in Ottawa and man, that city. The past few days have been so fluid in travel and tranquility, I've barely had a chance to reflect on Friday night's Factory Reading Series.

I walked into The Carleton Tavern acutely aware that I was by myself and left with the warm buzz of feeling connected (if only peripherally) to one of Canada's great poetry scenes. There are a handful of factors that help Factory Reading Series stand out and many of them can be broadly categorized under the heading group dynamics. rob mclennan's style as host could best be described as organized troublemaker, poking holes in writers' bios and calling out members of the audience. His casual approach was mirrored by a crowd at ease in each others' company and aware of each others' work. At other reading series I've frequented, tables become islands where people cling to their seats. But here the crowd spread out during intermission and after readings, catching up with colleagues and ordering drinks. I spent the majority of my evening at a table cluster with Amanda Earl, her husband Charles, Monty Reid, Roland Prevost and Janice Tokar, although almost every time I met someone new...:

"Hi Chris... Oh, you're Chris Johnson!"

"Nice to meet you, Janice... Wait, you're Janice Tokar!"

It went on like this, as though I was living that dream where your Twitter followers throw you either a party or intervention. I was also lucky to meet poets Jason Christie, Marilyn Irwin and Jeff Blackman; all of whom could've said it's Friday night, it's been a long week, I'm staying in but didn't. And they were treated to a reading that had its own rapport, one chiefly of transition. Cameron Anstee delved into forthcoming Baseline Press chapbook Consider Each Possibility and some William Hawkins erasures; Monty Reid offered a portion of his unfinished but allegedly mammoth manuscript Intelligence; and Roland Prevost read from his brand new above/ground press chapbook Culls, as well as some older work. Sensory impressions I recall in the following order: awareness, wit and warmth. For my part I jumped from Impermanence, Ontario poems to Cannot transform myth material and back. People responded kindly and/or cordially. I have little to no photographic evidence of the evening. Anyone? 

rob was kind enough to give me an envelope full of the latest above/ground chapbooks, including his own recent work, The Rose Concordance. I also picked up Marilyn Irwin's Apt. 9 Press chapbook the blue, blue thereOver many conversations, the internal mantra it will not be another two years before I revisit Ottawa shaped like a compulsive tic in my mind. Thanks to all of you for imbedding it.