Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Library loans: chapbooks by Leah Mol & Sandra Ridley

My library is not expansive, which to me is another way of saying it isn’t a chore. I have a bookshelf unit as tall as my 6’1” frame and, carrying the collected interests of both my wife and I, it’s jam-packed. I’m often confronted by the lurking temptation that, with a second unit or maybe a series of wall-secured shelves, I could vastly expand and re-organize my wares. But paper’s heavy and, frankly, we move too often.

So instead I lower a cup of tea and cushion to the floor and perform check-ups, usually once a year. Books make little towers and, for an hour or so, mix it up. A few don’t make it home. It’s the price of living light, or trying to: constant revision. A good cleanse usually frees up the space of four to five thick hardcovers but even lackluster check-ups – the sort that amounts to a dusting session – don’t feel like wasted time. It’s my garden, tucked against the apartment’s most generous wall. Here I’m tending to old friends.

With their thin and often wordless spines, chapbooks tend to hide the best. As I reorder and assemble some, I put others aside – their covers almost a surprise to lay eyes on! The first two are Leah Mol’s And I’ve Been Thinking Dangerously (2011) and Sandra Ridley’s Rest Cure (2009), both from Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press. I’m always sucked in by Mol’s first entry, “Certainties”:

"I can’t tell what’s real with you and what’s not.
Text message from M., to whom I lost my virginity"

One might mistake it as a preface but And I’ve Been Thinking Dangerously collects catharsis from a volatile assortment of untitled short stories, a one-off list of stimulating buzzwords and a diary entry from 1996. Though prone to a whimsy that strays into speculative character sketches, Mol’s stories tug from personal experience and usually end in reflection.

And I can’t help but see myself in the third person. I check my hair in shadows and see my reflection as a stranger. No look is unpracticed. I am so aware of others’ eyes that I no longer have my own.

Arriving at the tail end of a story about her neighbour, the above excerpt captures how Mol’s confessional style keeps her readers hooked. And I’ve Been Thinking Dangerously is surprising, a tad unstable and wholly deserving of its title.

In the spring of 2010 I contributed my first article to UnFolding, an Ottawa area magazine-cum-website that sent (and actually paid!) me to review a poetry workshop. Facilitated by Sandra Ridley, whose Rest Cure had just recently launched, the class covered structural choices, balancing the figurative and literal, being cryptic versus being clear, as well as advice for prepping one’s work for publication. Yes, I still have the handouts.

So I’d brought a few poems that, naturally, I thought were great. When it was my turn to read a working draft of choice, the experience was… deflating. Turns out I’d never read those poems aloud and, in doing so, spotted how clich├ęd and rhyme-dependent they sounded. Afterwards I remarked as much to Ridley, who consoled me by saying “rhymes are coming back”.

I mention that story because Rest Cure feels surgically divorced from her warm character and comprehensive notes. Fractured and sometimes nightmarish, Ridley gives a cautionary tale of lust, centered on a female protagonist whose yearning is subjected to repeated atrophies. Excerpt:

Tremors in her pulse as she is laid out again :
his hands pulling until she is lying along the length of it
& she is looking at a light, a light, a light & nothing is happening above her
& yesterday was lamb’s wool under her walking shirt
& wasn’t it or weren’t they
& didn’t she hold a piece of him when she came here
before she slipped listless & antiseptic.


Obsidian with mother-of-pearl.

It’s a fairly fatalistic text to revisit. Still, with her line breaks, which in some cases create large swathes of space, interrupting the consciousness of her narrative, Ridley’s poems take on full-bodied, romantic aching, only to be dissected with the most clinical language. I always find it a good challenge.

Sorting these titles back into place, I recognize that these bookshelf check-ups are less about managing space than soaking up the words I live with. Besides easing the buyer’s guilt attached to getting new books when you still have unread ones waiting at home, this practice keeps me grounded. The better familiar I am with the complexities of each rarely seen spine, the more likely my bookshelf will thrive with titles that widen my comfort zone. 

The motivation behind collecting – anything, really – can be likened to filling a blank horizon with inspired muses; the desire to create a richer lens to look at life through. Hopefully I'll find some spare time to share more of these older titles as the weather cools. I owe them as much.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fisher Small Press Fair; a recap

I arrived at St Catharines’ terminal half an hour early. By the time the chartered vessel docked at my curb, all of the rainfall I’d read about on Twitter from contacts in Toronto and Hamilton had touched down there as well. It mattered little: the trip by bus would span almost two hours and with the rainclouds tracking their way south, I anticipated a dry arrival on University Ave.

Not so. The conditions in Toronto proceeded to pepper down as I made my way onto Beverley and delighted further in my whim to detour down Spadina – a complete jump from Beverley’s beeline into U of T territory – for the sake of walking Chinatown. I’d packed light: just a spring jacket and a satchel, purposefully empty for storing any treasures the 1st Fisher Small Press Fair might offer. After a bite of lunch I breached the university gates, passing crowds outside of the campus bookstore and a slow-moving snake of cars inching forward, bumper-to-bumper. Frosh-week, right. Lots of pamphleteering, face-painting and sing-alongs. My pace quickened.

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is located within Robarts Library; initially, I mistook them as one and the same. After shaking off some rain pellets under the fluorescent glow of Robarts’ uniformly grey lobby, I turned to see a thin entrance to a darkened catacomb. Ah, much better. Upon entering, a secretary asked if I was here for the Small Press Fair. She pointed toward an elevator and then down. Once at the base of the library, I’d reached my destination.

Several people I spoke to on Saturday, September 7th mentioned that it was a strange time to hold a book fair but agreed “why not?” Besides coinciding with the exhibition A Death Greatly Exaggerated, publishers who traveled from Parry Sound, Kingston, Merrickville as well as small townships orbiting Toronto enjoyed a consistent flow of people hovering their book counters.

A kind representative I failed to ask the name of showed me some beautiful Coach House titles and recommended Need Machine by Andrew Faulkner. I spent some time deliberating between Matthew Tierney’s Probably Inevitable, from which he gave a memorable reading at last fall’s Grey Borders Reading Series, and Gary Barwin’s The Porcupinity of the Stars.

Jay MillAr, who I somehow failed to recognize despite seeing many photos on many blogs  from many readings over the years, introduced me to the work of Joseph Massey. Thought to be out of print, several copies of Massey’s chapbook Exit North (BookThug) were found shortly before the Fair – much to my benefit. It was an easy sell.

After perusing intricate, handcrafted items from outfits like Shanty Bay and Greyweathers Press, I spotted familiar faces – plus some familiar chapbooks – at the above/ground and Chaudiere Books table. It was great to chat with rob mclennan and Christine McNair, who at present time have a zillion things going on but still journeyed down from Ottawa. Among new above/ground press titles by the likes of Marthe Reed, Wanda O’Connor, Marcus McCann and Monty Reid, there were also fresh rumblings from the Chaudiere camp. I picked up mclennan’s new book Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies Press) and managed to leave without bankrupting myself.

Spoils safely tucked away, I walked back toward the station. Despite dry skies, Toronto's overcast had gathered a humid staleness no doubt compounded by the idling exhaust pipes of downtown gridlock, dazed commuters exhaling sharply. I climbed onto the upper level of my MegaBus, picked a window seat and reached blindly into my satchel. I was home in a flash.

A few extra shots, including a handwritten, early draft of Margaret Atwood's poem "The Moment" under glass. I sort of geeked out over that one.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Curious things for September 2013...

1) Two articles in as many days have caught my eye, the likes of which should inspire any stalled writing projects you might have underway. The first, “What Editors Want; a Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines” by Lynne Barrett, offers a thorough checklist of how one should research, submit and manage their submissions, plus keen insights from the editors’ end with regards to rejection letters, etc. The second article, “25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer” by Jocelyn K. Glei, busies itself in the creative process through the hand-me-down quotations of well-known writers. It’s a nice shot in the arm when you catch yourself merely thinking about writing.

2) I’ve never called attention to rob mclennan’s long-running “12 or 20 questions” but I’m an avid reader all the same. A lot of newly published writers tend to get the spotlight and their names stick in my mind because the questions usually elicit insightful, funny and honest responses. The most recent entry focuses on Jeff Blackman – never mind, now it's SpringGun Press. Anyway check both of them out and then slide backwards down the rabbit hole.

3) Count on The Steel Chisel for another issue of quality writing. All of the authors’ names this month are new to me but Matthew Walsh’s poem “Open Air” and Tyler Gabrysh’s short story “Here at Zoe’s Wedding” are great places to dive in.

4) This morning I posted reviews of Otherwise Smooth by Rosmarie Waldrop and The creeks, by rob mclennan on Ottawa Poetry Newsletter. Both chapbooks further my suspicion that above/ground press is making the very most of its twentieth anniversary, which was celebrated recently in a party/reading/launch chronicled here by Pearl Pirie.

5) This is the last week you can sponsor someone in the Ottawa AIDS Walk. At the time of this writing, the initiative has collected only 27% of its goal. All donations go toward services that prevent, educate and alleviate the burden of living with AIDS. If you have a few bucks, they could really benefit. The Bywords team is once again taking part.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The "Impermanence, Ontario" Diaries | #2

This spring I began reminiscing about Toronto, which isn’t unusual. Ever since moving to High Park with my girlfriend in the spring of 07, I pretty much expect a few sunny days each May to induce the excitement and confusion of that first season in Hogtown.

One thing nobody tells you about Toronto – although everyone probably assumes you’re ready for it – is that by moving there, you’re admitting yourself into the chaos of the world. And that chaos, brought on by the infinite gears churning big city life, isn’t hard to find. You can’t commute to work without sidestepping it or look out your window without spotting it. Headphones and books and Sudoku can’t block it out.

Unlike smaller cities and towns that abide by a vague expectation of conformity, a place like Toronto is teeming with cogs and denizens. Most of them aren't troublemakers; they’re simply living unencumbered by said expectation. It’s an unspoken birthright for city folk: what’s unpredictable should be liberating, too.

As a newcomer, that spontaneity felt invigorating and dangerous. Going for summer evening walks, visiting friends and even shopping for a shower curtain became minor adventures – who knew what we’d stumble upon next? And that sense of possibility didn’t stay on the streets; it echoed up our high-rise at night in howls and bus moans, always keen to remind us where we were breathing.

You get out of a city what you give, as far as I’m concerned. The only reason to complain about any bustling, world-class city is that you suck at living there. And looking back, me at twenty-seven would’ve sucked at living just about anywhere. I was out of work, depressed and uninterested in doing anything beyond contributing music reviews and drinking wine. Nowadays Toronto feels like a brand new city; I can visit jazz clubs, catch seminars on everything from philosophy to religion to art and peruse the many bookstores throughout its labyrinthine neighbourhoods.

A year spent in St Catharines has given me no shortage of space and quiet to reassess the nature of urban life. I'll visit Toronto but a day-trip confirms that my time there is through. It’s too hectic and compressed to offer any sense of ownership, any moment’s peace. On the other hand there’ll always be St Catharines, where you can own a suburban acre and live free of any culture or community. 

Still I think about the Big Smoke in springtime because it taught me that embracing a city’s chaos can make a true citizen out of you. A pioneer, even. There are compromises living anywhere but perks, too. Sometimes you need to leave a place to recognize what you could’ve forfeited, what you had to gain. Sometimes you need to retrace your steps between two extremes to find the sweet middle-ground, a city wall in which your name fits proudly amongst the carvings.