Friday, December 19, 2014

2014; a review ~

Making lists can be fun but this year I've decided to ditch value scales, instead weaving my favourite books, poems and performances (as well as my top twenty records) into a loosely chronological recap of 2014. Where I've reviewed some books, there are links, and where I haven't, there may soon be. It's almost as messy as real time. Thanks for checking in and happy holidays.

January – March
"Keep a lease per spine, bookmarks unread, palms up instead of fists. There's so much to cup, spill over.
(excerpt: "A paradox wreath,")

The first book I review in our new apartment, in our new city, is Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press and I write it camped out on floorboards. Furniture is sparsely sent to corners; a lamp cord snakes into the center. From that anthology, Cameron Anstee's ode to abode Frank St. clears its throat.

Winter is a long strand of short days. I journey out with Julie Joosten’s Light Light (BookThug, 2013) and channel her disciplined selflessness in fogged-up coffeehouses. (Serendipitously I’m also reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and find that one really informs the other.) Offsetting that lush and transient zen is Chris Pannell's A Nervous City (Wolsak and Wynn, 2013), kicking up metropolis dust (from Hamilton and elsewhere) with narratives that stress and strengthen the human condition. 

The dominant record throughout this time is Broken Bells’ After the Disco, which we first hear on a sunny, Sunday morning before catching the band live a few weeks later. Otherwise Burial’s Rival Dealer and Mogwai’s Rave Tapes feel appropriate in the abyss of dark. An evening commute happens upon Indie88 playing the entirety of Kevin Drew's Darlings, with the songwriter himself discussing each track; I pick it up the next day. Snow finally recedes in all but the grooves of Badbadnotgood’s III and Ambrose Akinmusire’s The imagined savior is far easier to paint.

Instant-reaction poems: Sadie McCarney's "Steeltown Songs" (The Puritan, Issue 24), Chris Pannell's "Fear".

As March persists, I’m invited by Town Crier to cover a touring poetry panel, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry”, featuring Anita Lahey, Jason Guriel and Zachariah Wells. It's hands-down the best event I attend all year, testing my too-lenient position on criticism while introducing me to some important young voices in Canadian literature.

April – June
"This convulsion bath

you'd be so lucky to skip twice before
chipping an ice sheet.
(excerpt: "Agnostic spring")

April is a whirlwind. I spend the weekend of gritLIT alone, finishing drafts and listening to Real Estate’s Atlas non-stop. I learn how to open the windows of my ancient apartment, if only to air out an experiment with incense. The world exhales again, teeth clenched. On the Sunday, I meet Phoebe Wang outside the Art Gallery of Hamilton; we wander, get something warm to drink, join up with Liz Harmer and Brent vanStaalduinen and then catch Lit Live’s closing reading. Amanda Jernigan gives a vulnerable, memorable performance.

Days later and blocks away, Luke Cummins kicks off his Divergence music series while simultaneously releasing the debut issue of Sorry Zine. Fresh Snow gives a punishing post-rock performance, disguised in hoods. Shortly afterward, I take a midnight bus to Montreal with Orcas’ Yearling murmuring to my subconscious. When I arrive at 9am to my friend's empty, walk-up loft, I hear “Petrichor” (the album's first track) humming through the door. Over the next few days and in spite of a joyful Tycho performance, Yearling cements itself as 2014, microcosm'd.

Instant reaction poems: "Remover" by JM Francheteau (Peter F. Yacht Club #20), "Nox, New Jersey: 1998" by Sandy Pool (from Undark; Nightwood Editions, 2012), Jennifer Pederson's "Heat Wave" (In/Words Magazine Vol 13.2).

Top reads during this period include Elisa Gabbert's The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013), Dennis Tourbin’s THE STREAM and other poems (above/ground press, 2014and Anita Lahey’s The Mystery Shopping Cart; Essays on Poetry and Culture (Palimpsest Press, 2013). Some excellent spring-wanderings-slash-first-listens occur with Inventions' self-titled record in Cootes Paradise and Plaid's Reachy Prints along Hamilton Harbour. The Tower Poetry summer issue and launch are nice surprises.

July – September
"Reverse beeps of dozers    shrill
in a room without furniture
I lose in the trees."
(excerpt: "The August Eye")

Tuesdays in the summer are spent workshopping with Catherine Graham at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies poetry class. Surrounded at this time by quality bookstores in the Annex, I get into P.K. Page and John Newlove. A chance opportunity to witness George Elliott Clarke perform at a nearby gallery proves one of the best cases of language literally bursting through the whole body.

Instant-reaction poems: "Full Stop" by Gary Barwin (Arc Poetry Magazine 74), "The Cloud People" by Phoebe Wang (Recaps Magazine), "Paris of the West, Venice of the East" by Cassidy McFadzean (Grain Magazine Vol. 41, 4).

I re-read Gillian Sze’s Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), in preparation for a dual-review, while listening to Richard Reed Parry's Music for Heart and Breath and Matthew Halsall's When the World Was One.

As the weather cools, I catch the one-two punch of Angie Abdou and Vivek Shraya, in town to support Between and She of the Mountain, respectively. (Both titles courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014). Normally I find fiction or non-fiction readings tricky, what with the need to provide context and a run-down of the characters in one quickly diminishing window of time, but Abdou spearheads the task in an excerpt that hints at the book's chief tensions without giving away pivotal moments (the likes of which reviewers seem exasperated having to keep to themselves). It's on my winter reading list. Shraya's performance, on the other hand, is half-song, half poetry-as-meditation on the physical self, and all memorized. The intensity of experiencing the text, off-page and brought to life like that, suspends the atmosphere of the room. 

Favourites on the edge of autumn include Nelson Ball’s In This Thin Rain (Mansfield Press, 2012), Amanda Jernigan's All the Daylight Hours (Cormorant Books, 2013) and new records by Ryan Adams (s/t), Simian Mobile Disco (Whorl), Marissa Nadler (July) and Aphex Twin (Syro).

October – December
orange cul-de-sacs, Zen's shadow lengthens."
(excerpt: work-in-progress) 

After summer's typical disconnect, a new wave of inspiration clicks into gear. Julie Joosten gives every bit the compassionate reading I’d expect at October's Lit Live Reading Series while Donato Mancini's inquisitive wit sets the bar for November's, reading from Loitersack (New Star Books, 2014). above/ground press really catches fire with a string of chapbooks that include Wintering Prairie by Megan KaminskiAbject Lessons by Jennifer Baker and Jason Christie's Cursed Objects.

Abject Lessons
Instant-reaction poems: Marilyn Irwin's "murder, old ottawa south" (Dusie's Tuesday poem #83), "The City Is a Good Place to Sleep" by Scott Alain (In/Words Magazine Vol 14.1), "five poems from Bloom and Martyr" by Helen Hajnoczky (Lemon Hound) and "Wild, Domestic" by Rachael Simpson (Five, Apt. 9 Press).

I visit Toronto three times within a two-week span: Ryan Adams at Massey Hall, Meet the Presses literary market and Caribou at Danforth Music Hall. (The mere thought of comparing these events is why I've ditched value judgments.) Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, The Weather Station's What Am I Going To Do with Everything I Know, Museum of Love's self-titled and A Winged Victory for the Sullen's Atomos are in constant rotation.

I race to finish a few books in December; the best of the bunch being bp: beginnings (BookThug, 2014), the early works of bpnichol compiled with obsessive detail by Stephen Cain, If suppose we are a fragment by rob mclennan (BuschekBooks, 2014) and An Accord of Poets' trade debut, Five (Apt. 9 Press). I look forward to writing further on these books in 2015, after I cocoon myself in New Hampshire for the holidays.

Thanks for a great year...

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review of "Light Light" on Lemon Hound

I first opened Light Light at the beginning of the great exhale, otherwise known as 2014. Newly settled in Hamilton, I was undertaking resolutions for my year of detachment when Julie Joosten’s poetry chimed in – not advocating detachment per se but nature's serene persuasion – provoking my awareness out of slumber. In various coffeehouses and parks around the lower city, I'd remind myself to stop cyclical thinking and instead feel every sensation, the way it is and should be.

Light Light is one of my favourite books of 2014 so I'm pleased to see it get some added attention this week on Lemon HoundI thank that publication and in particular Geneviève Robichaud, who immediately saw the philosophical/ poetic blurring point in Joosten's text and guided my review with many positive suggestions. Give it a read here!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Curious links for December 2014 (& beyond...)

1) Check out who Lit Live Reading Series is hosting this Sunday, December 7th: Jean Rae Baxter, John Terpstra, Waheed Rabbani, Stuart Ross, David Lee and Marilyn Gear Pilling. A typically great roster of eclectic voices and local talent, Lit Live kicks off at 7:30pm at Homegrown Hamilton. Get there early!

2) On December 1st, writer and publisher Catina Noble shared the winners of her Poetry Contest. The three finalists, in order, are as follows: “Continuum” by Maria Campbell Smith, “Nightmares” by Ruth Latta and “Early November, A Walk in the Forest” by Jason Lamantia. Honourable mentions went to “Blanca” by Kala Kaline and “Huron Sheets Clinic” by me. Keep an eye on Catina Noble’s blog for the publication of the winning poems.

3) Sometimes, when a beloved website falls off of your radar, the upside is re-discovering why you enjoyed it so much in the first place. The Town Crier has been firing on all cylinders lately, covering a wide variety of events, interviews, opinions and reviews. New additions to the collective are really pulling their weight; I recommend Julienne Isaacs' "A Warning to Toronto Writers: Networks Don't Make Literature" as a jumping-off point. It'll resonate no matter which city, town or field you're writing out of.

4) Though not until January, The Hamilton Literary Awards deserve some well-in-advance notice because every category is just too close to call. Consider the Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award finalists for Poetry, Non-Fiction, Fiction and The Kerry Schooley Award here. The winners will be announced January 5th, 2015 in the Norman and Louise Haac Studio Theatre at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts. RSVP here!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Meet the Presses 2014; a recap

Residential or reading area?
Upon entering the Tranzac and veering left as per the signage, I was stricken by an acute pang of disappointment. The half dozen press tables, corralling three or four wanderers around a quiet semi-circle, had me temporarily blanking on the details of Meet the Pressesnot to mention the layout of this art-space I’d visited only once before. Did I seriously blow this out of proportion in my mind? Luckily, that first small room – which I happened to catch on a lull – led into an impressive T-shaped hall full of local and far-off Canadian presses. Yes, Meet the Presses was happening!

It kills me that I continue posting photos from...
I'd arrived at 1:30, meaning we were about thirty minutes shy of discovering this year’s bpNichol Chapbook Award winner, and chatter from the main hall was beginning to travel. Still I hung back in the smaller room, talking with Nicole Brewer and William Kemp of words(on)pages about their growing number of projects, including (parenthetical), already on issue #4. Really good vibes from the start. I also met Terence Go from OUTwrites and got a peek at his 2007 title UNgh, the first of many items I tried to mentally bookmark but failed to come back for.

Wading into the Indie Literary Market’s deep end, I spent some time marveling at BookThug’s glossy and limited chapbooks written by the likes of Lisa Robertson and Nelson Ball. (My plan to snag these titles also went amiss, although I hear they’re throwing quite the sale for Black Friday…) Mansfield Press’ table had its share of surprises as well, brandishing new titles that had arrived just two days prior. In a moment of psychic connection, Stuart Ross handed me a micro-chapbook I’d been curious about, called 4 Tiny Poems I Wrote on March 15, 2014. The immediacy of this two-fold sheet of paper, with its concealed (and yes, tiny) abstractions, resonated my own urge to publish on impulse!

After a series of introductions that had Hazel Millar, Paul Dutton and Jim Smith grace the podium, the bpNichol Chapbook Award went to Christine Leclerc’s Oilywood (as well as its publisher, Nomados Press). Onlookers around me seemed to support the decision. I’d wager a bit of excitement was lost on account of neither author nor publisher making the unreasonable trip from British Columbia, but Leclerc’s friend and fellow author Liz Ross accepted on their behalf. After a thoughtful speech, some applause and photos, the crowds returned to their rooting ways. iPhone when you can barely discern faces..
One of the day’s highlights was checking out serif of nottingham editions and Gary Barwin’s visual poetry. We discussed the limitations of language, or perhaps just a collective inexperience, when attempting to verbalize the ideas that vispo can conjure. I picked up an issue of Xerolage dedicated to Barwin’s the wild & unfathomable always. (You can watch visuals from the project here.)

Almost as curious is why I’m still so fascinated with the above/ground press table, manned by rob mclennan, when I can recreate much of his display at home. It isn’t just the visual appeal of seeing a rainbow of chapbooks draped over the table like a quilt, but picking out squares and revisiting favourites, unknowns. Arguably the most eye-catching of the latter category was mclennan's new book of poetry, If suppose we are a fragment (Buschek Books, 2014), which had me hooked within a few pages.

Across the room from above/ground press sat two other Ottawa outfits: phafours press and Apt. 9 Press. Pearl Pirie’s phafoursprofiled recently in Open Book Ontario, had Fall 2014 sets of micro chapbooks ready for sale, bundling brief, new titles by Phil Hall, Sanita Fejzic, Avonlea Fotheringham and Pirie herself at the no-brainer price of $4. I also caught a look at the much-talked-about design of Monty Reid’s Kissing Bug, its cover a decorated shaving of wood. (It felt as much like wood as it did paper, giving the chapbook a nice presence without much weight.) Next door, Cameron Anstee (whom I finally, formally met) sold me his first trade collection Five (shared between the five poets who toured in October as “An Accord of Poets”) and kindly offered me a chapbook of my choosing to review. Despite the Audubon-esque art that graces Dave Currie’s Bird Facts, I went with my gut and my gut said Ben Ladouceur’s Poem About the Train.

...or a crisp sense of environment beyond the haze...
If the occasion felt lacking in one regard, it was the absence of a reading attached before or after the market itself. As much fun as it is to network and leaf through each other’s hard work, it would’ve been special to have each press elect one of their authors, put their names in a hat, and draw a shortlist of ten or so readers. I’d be surprised if most presses didn’t have at least a few writers living in the GTA and willing to participate. Having said that, it’s clear that a lot of labour went into Meet the Presses as it was, and I’m sure the publishers who carried boxes and drove various distances were more than happy to call it a day.

Meet the Presses added a heaping of poetry and imaginative fiction to an otherwise rainy, windy Saturday. And although most of my purchases were planned in advance from a pool of already admired presses, I became familiar with other publishers I'd heard of only in passing. All of this is to say, the event more than lived up to its name.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Quiddity nominates "Vulture Bay" for Pushcart Prize!

Update (11/26/14): “Vulture Bay” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Heartfelt thanks to Managing Editor Jim Warner, Assistant Editor John McCarthy and the entire Quiddity team for believing in this poem. 

Way back in February I shared news that Quiddity International Literary Journal would be publishing two of my poems, and that occasion has arrived. “Just in time for Thanksgiving,” Quiddity announced yesterday while revealing the above image on Twitter, and it got me thinking: Thanksgiving? Oh, right… this is the most significant publication I’ve had in the USA so far.

The excitement of being in an American journal is like being nonchalantly lost and bemused by how few signposts you see. As this issue first churned its way out of pulp and revealed a list of author biographies, it felt strange not to know any fellow contributors. After all, part of getting published in Canada is geeking out over who you're sharing paper with. But with Vol 7.2 now imminent, I’m emboldened to seek out some emerging, international poets.

Copies of Quiddity can be ordered via their website. Alternately you can subscribe or order single issues through this PDF. Watch these spaces over the coming weeks for Vol 7.2, in which “Vulture Bay” and “The Smyth Ave Nightly Migration” are set to appear.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

T-minus one week until Meet the Presses!

Meet the Presses is a collective of volunteers who write, publish and read. In a week’s time, they will hold their annual Indie Literary Market at the Tranzac Club in Toronto. If ”Indie Literary Market” reads like frilly synonyms for "small press fair", it’s for a good reason: this will not be your typical small press fair.

The forty or so presses gathering on Saturday, November 22nd have been selected by the collective, which not only ensures a certain benchmark for quality but for variety as well. Influential publishers such as Mansfield Press, BookThug and Coach House Books will share wares with emerging outfits like Apt. 9 Press, words(on)pages and Cough

The event will also reveal the winner of the bpNichol Chapbook Award from a shortlist featuring Jason Christie (above/ground press), Mat Laporte (Odourless Press), Christine McNair (Apt. 9 Press), matt robinson (Gaspereau Press), Christine Leclerc (Nomados) and Phil Hall (Thee Hellbox Press). The prize this year has doubled to $4,000, with the publisher of the winning chapbook also receiving $500. The judges are Sandra Ridley and Kevin McPherson Eckhoff.

There will be much to celebrate. Check out full details on the poster above and let me know if you’ll be attending!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Parting Shots" to appear in Tower Poetry

Nobody has been kinder to me this Fall than Hamilton’s literary scene. With a poem in Time and Place’s latest issue, a featured spot at Lit Live Reading Series and another poem forthcoming from a brand new journal (more on that soon…), I’ve immensely enjoyed the past few weeks.

This unusual streak looks to culminate with news that poem “Parting Shots” will be published in Tower Poetry’s Winter Issue. Updates to follow. As you may recall from the piece I wrote for Town Crier this summer, Tower Poetry is Hamilton’s longest-running literary journal and I'm happy to see a poem of mine accepted.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Curious links for November 2014...

1) See the poster up above? That's happening tomorrow, November 2nd. You should really come out.

2) For those of you missing Canzine (which is happening today), Meet the Presses is the next big "indie literary market" that'll take place on November 22nd in Toronto. The winners of the bpNichol Chapbook Award will be announced and so many presses will be in attendance. Definitely go.

3) above/ground press has opened their subscription service for 2015. Although I think it’s possible to sign up year-round, a reminder is certainly overdue. With Jason Christie’s Government making the shortlist for the bpNichol Chapbook Award and a number of really engaging titles arriving over the past month (from the likes of Jennifer Baker, Gregory Betts and Megan Kaminski), the above/ground press subscription service is really one of the best presents you can give yourself.

4) Sticking with Ottawa for two more unrequested plugs: Our nation’s capital will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair on November 8th. As is customary, the Factory Reading Series will host a reading the night before, with Jennifer Baker, Anita Dolman, Frances Boyle, Dave Currie and Stuart Ross.

Finally, Ottawa’s CKCU radio station is running their annual funding drive to keep quality, community-minded programming on the air (as it has been, 100% indie, since 1975). Please consider donating to keep programs like Literary Landscapes going. (Sidenote: Pearl Pirie has offered up some fun trivia about her year as co-host.)

5) Here’s something you don’t want to miss: The Puritan’s annual soiree BLACK FRIDAY 2014 will go down on November 28th at Loft404 in Toronto. As both an occasion to celebrate the winners of the Third Annual Thomas Morton Memorial Prize as well as launch Issue 27: Fall 2014, this BLACK FRIDAY will also host a bang-up series of readers (including Jonathan Bennett, Stevie Howell, Helen Guri, Jay MillAr, Sarah Pinder and many more). Plan an all-nighter for this one.

6) And now back to Hamilton: on Thursday, November 20th, Montreal poet Gillian Sze will be reading at Bryan Prince Bookseller. Her latest book, Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press) has been shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and is quite good. (I’m pushing to have a review of it published by 2015.) Cancelled, apparently.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Time and Place launch | Issue #4 launch

This spread of chapbooks greeted me upon entering Homegrown Hamilton last night, where Ninth Floor Press was launching their latest issue. It was fun to see Issue #1 again and reminisce, for a moment, about finding it at Mixed Media that first December morning as a Hamiltonian. Almost a year in town, now. It was great to meet Ed Shaw and Nancy Benoy, the friendly couple responsible for gathering, binding, shipping to the printers and showcasing their city’s local artisans. The evening’s mood reflected that labour of love, with friends of the press and contributors sharing in stories, songs and visual art that often touched on Hamilton as muse.

This is virtually where my photos of the evening end, with Shaw discussing the chapbook’s focus, although some better shots are popping up on Ninth Floor Press' Twitter.

I didn’t necessarily expect to see familiar faces, as the list of contributors hadn’t been shared in advance, but spotting Hamilton Spectator’s Jeff Mahoney and jack-of-all-trades artist Tor Lukasik-Foss gave me high hopes – and neither disappointed. Mahoney led the way with a casual but perceptive story from his boyhood days in Montreal while Lukasik-Foss’ “Banana Bread” recipe was hands-down the comedic highlight of the evening. (Note: we were all pretty fortunate to have a professional like Mahoney start things off, as he didn’t hesitate to comment on two patrons who had continued to chat loudly in spite of the fact that everyone else there was trying to listen. The couple soon moved on.)

Strangers became familiar in no time, too. I met photographer Dave Pijuan-Nomura who, in a nut-shell I’m sure, shared the three-year “upheaval” that ended with his family moving from Toronto. His photo published in Time and Place contains two major reasons for their move: his son and Hamilton’s vast green-space. Amanda Dudnik and Sonya de Laat also spoke eloquently about the personal motivations behind their visual work, enhancing my appreciation for craft in different mediums.

I read the featured poem "A homecoming," and also "The Smyth Ave Nightly Migration", which is due to appear in Quiddity. It was my first time reading in a year!

Aided by the chapbook’s meaty concept of when and where, the launch welcomed artists to bond over their creative impulses. It was a rare reading to walk out of, feeling as though I now knew these contributors as everyday people beyond the guise of their art. 

The new issue of Time and Place is for sale at bookstores and lit-friendly shoppes around Hamilton. For more details, check out this previous post.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

New poems coming from In/Words Magazine

I’m pleased to mention the forthcoming issue of In/Words Magazine, which will not only be the first sold in stores (online and otherwise), but also mark the first release from the magazine’s new team of co-editors. On top of that, In/Words Vol. 14.1 will feature “Near misses” and “Heathen Canadian”, both low pressure death poems pulled from the manuscript-in-progress "A green horseshoe,". 

The launch is set for Friday, November 14th at Black Squirrel Books (7pm). Until then, why not get caught up with Vol. 13.2?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Time and Place launch issue, reading

Photo courtesy of Ninth Floor Press

Time and Place, the gorgeously hand-bound cultural quarterly put out by Ninth Floor Press, will celebrate the launch of a new issue on Wednesday October 29th. The poster, with full details, is below. Founders Ed Shaw and Nancy Benoy manage a low-key presence online but their journals are a regular fixture in several downtown Hamilton shops, including Mixed Media, J. H. Gordon Books, James Street Bookseller, The Hamilton Store, the James North General Store, etc. Here’s a great article on the origins of Time and Place, courtesy of Hamilton Spectator’s lit-minded Amy Kenny.

The new issue will contain a poem of mine – which one, I’m still unsure Updated 10/21/14: "A homecoming," – and some requisite chatter about when and where it formed. I’ll be reading at the launch and taking in the other contributions from local writers, songwriters and visual artists. It should be a great evening; why not come out? 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Upcoming: I'm reading at Lit Live

On Sunday, November 2nd, I’ll be sharing some recent work at Hamilton's long-running Lit Live Reading Series. As one of two “Emerging Writers”, I get to read alongside Katerina Fretwell, dee Hobsbawn-Smith, Donato Mancini, angela rawlings, Stan Rogal, and the also-emerging Laura Clarke. Wanna come? Homegrown Hamilton, 7:30pm. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Curious links for October 2014...

1) bpNichol would’ve celebrated his 70th birthday on September 30th and a number of artists and journals have marked the occasion. Coach House Books gathered a number of insights and anecdotes from colleagues, Lemon Hound created a slideshow of his Steve McCaffery assisted visual poetry and many gave tributes over social media (including Gregory Betts and Gary Barwin). Personally, the day served as a reminder that I still need to pick up bp: beginnings by bpnichol.

2) Through her bookgaga website, Vicki Ziegler has taken on the task of compiling a current list of online, Canadian publications that seek new poetry. Such a task may seem redundant, given how many literary indexes exist on the web, but most of them are littered with outdated information and dead links. If you’ve ever read about a promising journal only to discover that their homepage reverts to a page, you’ll know to bookmark Vicki’s growing list (and maybe offer a tip to help her expand it).

3) I don’t often talk about the wilderness that is American poetry because I have so few bearings, but Joseph Massey is one of my rare trail markers. Ever since picking up Exit North (BookThug, 2010), I’ve been keeping an eye out for the Massachusetts-via-California poet's next release. Well, that’s To Keep Time, which will be out October 15th with Omnidawn Publishing, and they've conducted an interview with Massey about the book’s themes and design. What that means for my overwhelmingly Canadian readership – Russian bots notwithstanding – is, if you enjoy Nelson Ball, check out Joseph Massey.

4) The Hamilton Public Library is preparing The New Writing Workshop, a sign-up group for writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and experimental forms. Running from October 9th through early January, the workshops will be led by Chris Pannell with the goal of developing individuals’ works-in-progress. For details and contact information, click on the below poster.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Redacted: notes on an open mic reading


As far as I know, Hamilton does not have an exclusively literary open mic night. There are sign-up slam competitions, amateur comedy sets and even an anything-goes Thursday night podium at Homegrown Hamilton, but no public means for writers (young or old, masters or novices) to try out new material for a committed audience. This absence, in a city otherwise blessed with talented writers and selfless volunteers, seems temporary, a glitch just waiting to be fixed. I’ve even heard some established authors mull over the promise and challenges of putting together a sustainable open mic night. My position was one of why not until a reading this summer in Toronto, where I saw those challenges personified in the open mic portion of a reading at XXXX. Now, I understand my colleagues' trepidation. Now it's more a question of how.

Firstly, I should note that said venue was packed: several rows of occupied chairs all the way back to sofas that lined the gallery walls, with many people crowded next to the refreshments area. The space was small, which made the collective energy all the better. Comedian/writer Shane Murphy and I missed the first forty or so minutes, intentionally I’ll admit, and walked in at the beginning of XXXX’s set under the assumption that open mic period was over. But the order of readers for the evening, always something of a mystery, proved quite telling: the two featured readers, XXXX and XXXX, were sandwiched in the middle of two open mic stretches.

I balked at this, anticipating that half of the audience would bail as soon as XXXX wrapped his set. And sure enough, a number of seats were vacated once the two headliners had finished. But I don’t blame the organizers or those who left. I can't even blame the open mic readers, many of whom also took off once their five minutes were up. Shane and I stuck around (as did XXXX, in a show of respect) for an experience that helped me better understand just how perilous open mic can be.

Now far be it from me to tell anyone what poetry should be – all participants were in their rights to read anything they wanted – but, as an audience member, I can critique that when the material suffered, it wasn't due to creative dullness but a lack of personal awareness. For every poet who shared narratives of humour, hard-fought clarity or compassion, I reckon there were three trying to get monkeys off of their backs. Yes, the arts can bring personal or political strife into an inventive and meaningful conversation, but that conversation acknowledges a second party – in this case the audience. Many participants seemed unaware of this engagement, using the opportunity to air grievances about the Middle East, men and other suspicious generalities. When a reading lacked subtlety, there was an enormous imprint where it could have been, trampled over by venomous f-bombs and acoustic guitar abuse. Even if the unwieldy emotions on display were measured as a quality of performance, the work itself neglected listeners’ imaginations in order to satisfy personal itches. Polarizing can be progressive, I kept reminding myself, but there was little to interpret with any rose-tinted reaching. 

I know how judgmental my criticisms sound but reflect on them openly anyway, hoping to pinpoint what felt so abusive about being on the receiving end of some readers' emotions. I'm not assessing this one, isolated open mic event to determine should such an event exist in Hamilton but on the more practical grounds of who would attend it. I mean, more than once. I’m grateful to XXXX, host XXXX, the XXXX team and yes, the participants for putting together such a memorable night. But “memorable” doesn’t mean I remember a lot of it fondly. 

I wonder if Hamilton can do better. However tantalizing the idea is of assembling an unpredictable line-up of diverse voices and taking the ride, I now see how a screening process helps to establish an artistic benchmark. (The term “screening process” sounds monstrous, like the first blind step toward segregation, but bear in mind: as an unknown writer with no book publications to his name and only a handful of reading engagements to speak of, I would be buzzing about the screen as well.) And maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe being solicited, having to adhere to a predetermined theme for each event or auditioning your text in advance instills that micro-sized awareness of decorum. There’s room for subversion, depravity and strong opinions but it has to serve literature before ego. Otherwise the line separating open mic from group therapy tends to blur. 

Stepping into the light rain, Shane and I struggled to hurdle separate poles of awe; our minds buzzed from the magnetic featured readers but our jaws slack, almost shell-shocked, from the open mic wilderness. While exchanging highlights and moments of exasperation, we all but forgot the real unknown talents, those several poets that represented themselves and their crafts well but had no stature in such a chaotic arena. That's the group of writers an open mic in Hamilton should give voice to!