Northern Poetry Review: Archived

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Interview: Rufo Quintavalle (2010)

Rufo Quintavalle was bornrufo q in London in 1978 and lives in Paris. He is the author of the chapbook, Make Nothing Happen (Oystercatcher Press, 2009), is on the editorial board of Upstairs at Duroc and is currently Acting Poetry Editor for the online magazine, Nthposition. His work has been widely published around the world and was recently nominated for a Puschcart Prize.

Alex Boyd interviewed Rufo Quintavalle in spring, 2010.

You’ve lived in the US, England and now Paris — how does the approach to literary life differ? Or are readings and book launches completely standard?

I spent three years in an American university town and what is more that town, Iowa City, is one with a very strong literary reputation so I’m not sure if my experiences there are in any way typical of the situation in the rest of the US. Likewise my encounters with poetry in the UK are mainly from my time at Oxford – I grew up in London but was not really aware of the poetry scene at the time. In both places there were plenty of events going on and they were well attended. I remember seeing Les Murray in Oxford and John Ashbery in Iowa City and both were reading to large audiences. Recently I went to see Adam Zagajewski read in Paris (where I have lived for the last five years) and was surprised to find only 30 people in the room. But this difference in audience size probably has as much to do with college town versus capital city as it does with Anglo-Saxon versus Gallic enthusiasm for poetry. Plus Zagaweski was reading in English in a non-English speaking city.

I was not aware of much of a performance poetry scene in Oxford but it’s a university with a somewhat conservative reputation. Which mirrored my tastes at the time I guess. In Iowa City I would occasionally go along to an open mic night in one of the bars. This was probably a little more tense than the equivalent night I attend in Paris (I think there was a fair bit of competition among the poets in the Writers’ Workshop) which tends to be a very laidback, good natured affair.

One thing that all three scenes have in common is that almost all events are free. I had always taken this as a given but lately it’s started to bother me. We pay to go to concerts and indeed would find it shocking if the musicians were not reimbursed in some way for their efforts. So why should poets be expected to do their stuff for free?

I have read my own work in England, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. The audience in Paris tends to be pretty quiet but they buy the most books. I don’t think this is just because I am a local writer. A friend of mine from Berlin said he sold far more copies at a reading we did together in Paris than he did at his official book launch back home.

Your chapbook of poems “Make Nothing Happen” appears to have a title drawn from the famous Auden quote.  What’s your feeling about that quote?

I found myself writing a lot of stuff that was either structurally minimalist or thematically concerned with the idea of nothingness. Then after a while I realized that what was really motivating this run of poems was not so much nothingness itself as the moment where something and nothing meet. The bare minimum one needs to tip the balance away from nihilism and into something more positive. The title of the collection came afterwards I think but seemed to sum up what I was doing.

That line from Auden “poetry makes nothing happen” is used either to belittle poetry or else to rarify it – to put it on a sacred pedestal above the realm of cause and effect, far from the messy world of action. I twisted it a little to try and turn the focus on something I think poetry can do that other more public or practical activities (the opposition is often between poetry and political activism) can’t – to make something out of nothing.

Milosz, who is probably more of an influence on that book than Auden is, says in A Treatise on Poetry:

Nothingness is so strong

We try to master it by thinking of the bones

Of pirates, the silky eyebrows of governors

On which the crabs feast.

That’s the crux for me. The possibility of there being nothing there is so awful that we have to fill that void. And when you do fill it you realize that there was something there after all – there really are bones and crabs beneath the sea – and the poetic act of creation finds an analogue in creation itself. The challenge Milosz accepts is to look nihilism and relativism hard in the face (they are the dominant philosophical positions of his and our time) and ultimately come down on the side of existence.

I like Auden but I wonder if sometimes he didn’t slightly shy away from all this. He was a very complicated figure both in his life and his poetry so one can almost certainly find lines that argue the opposite of what I am saying here but I feel there were moments when he put on the mask of the dandy when maybe he should have shouldered responsibilities more straightforwardly. “Poetry makes nothing happen” has a little too much of art for art’s sake for my liking. Poetry can make things happen and, paradoxically enough, one of the things it can shake into life is nothingness itself! You’ve got a book of poems out called Making Bones Walk; it’s a similar idea, right? Using our words to breathe life.

Your poems have a lot of philosophical musings.  Did you ever consider philosophy?  Is there are somewhat standard personality profile for a poet?

I never considered it as a career but as the previous answer suggest I consider philosophical ideas a fair bit when I’m writing or thinking about writing’s function. Sometimes poems come all at once and you write them down almost without thinking but the other kind of poem – the one you work at – requires a degree of intellectual effort and a degree of reflection that can’t be all that far from what a philosopher does for a living.

Having said that, poems have a physical presence owing to their shape on the page and a sensual presence too thanks to their music; this means that what a poem is saying can be at odds with the way in which it is saying it, and this allows for contradictions and contrapuntal effects that a work of “pure” philosophy would maybe not be able to achieve. When a philosophical poem works it’s better than philosophy. Richer at any rate. A kind of fleshed out philosophy.

Standard personality profile for a poet? Shy. Anxious. Asocial. Depressive. Based on a very small sample I’d say that the assertiveness of writing what you want in the way you want is often counterbalanced by a certain lack of confidence in real life. Sure there are colossal egos out there in the poetry world but I think they often conceal rather fragile people. That’s how it should be, no? When you’re writing poetry, when you’re at the coalface you’re regularly in touch with other writers who are better than you, or with ideas that you only partially understand. That makes (or ought to make) for a certain humility. The better you get the smaller you realize you are.

Your poem “Figs,” plainly states “Today the huge idea of money stopped.”  Do you have ideas about what changes you’d like to see in our society and our thinking?

I wrote that poem shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and out of a sense that an old paradigm was coming to an end. It’s not really a prescriptive statement, more of an observation so I’d be uncomfortable with predicting the future or laying down the law.

The world of finance is a fascinating one and for all that the two tend to be placed in opposition (the brokers “roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse”) I think it has many parallels with the world of poetry. Take leverage for instance – you’ve got a small sum of money but a big idea so you use that money to borrow more and put your idea in practice. If it works then great, if not you’re bankrupt which is what happened to borrowers (both private individuals and institutions) from Valladolid to Patras, from Akureyri to Skibbereen. It gets lambasted as greed but that initial wish – to achieve something great with limited means, to use an intervention in the present to change the future – is not all that far from the impulse to write.

But although finance is a fascinating way of seeing the world it is not the world itself. No more than poetry or philosophy are. It’s an idea, or what the French would call a système de pensée. But it got so big that people thought it was the thing itself.

Perhaps environmental ideas will take the place of financial ones as the dominant way of seeing the world and understanding our place in it? I’d be happy with that. But whatever comes next, the important thing is to remember that it is contingent and not absolute. No idea, not even the big ones like religion or evolution or money, is adequate to existence.

The chapbook you’ve published has no bio, do you feel it’s best if poets remain anonymous?

I think that was more of an editorial decision on the part of Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press. He seems to favour a pretty pared down aesthetic for his books and I don’t believe any of his chapbooks have much in the way of author bios or critical blurbs. Having said that, for quite a while I was into the whole New Critical invisible author thing. I’ve moved away from that a bit and have even started blogging which would have been anathema to me a year or two ago! We’ll all be invisible again once we’re dead but while we’re still around why not have a public presence? Besides who’s got the time to stay invisible in the internet age? Someone’s going to out you sooner or later!

What’s next for you?

I’m currently Acting Poetry Editor for the webzine nthposition while the founding editor, Todd Swift, takes a break to concentrate on his university work. I also help edit a literary magazine here in Paris called Upstairs at Duroc. So those are two ongoing projects. As far as my own writing goes I’m working on a long poem based on Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. I’m about halfway through that and am hoping when it’s finished it will be a book length work. Bits of it have been published online and I just heard recently that a major French poetry festival, the Biennale internationale des poètes en Val de Marne have commissioned a translation of the first eighteen sections.

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Review: Joy Is So Exhausting

Joy Is So Exhausing, by Susan Holbrook

Reviewed by Lori A. May

Joy is exhausting. A pleasant demeanor and a gushing attitude can downright wipe a person out, and thus the title of Susan Holbrook’s second collection is a perfect comfort for those willing to admit happiness is hard work. Reading these poems is like hearing one’s thoughts aloud or, at times, not unlike the dialogue between lifelong friends over coffee, kvetching about life’s oddities, relating to one another’s idiosyncrasies. With Joy Is So Exhausting, Holbrook gives us humour, bluntness, shrugs of shoulders, and – – yes – – joy.

There is a great deal of humour revealed in Holbrook’s collection. In “Editing the Erotica Issue,” the visual cues and louder-than-the-page lines of dialogue take the reader behind the scenes, into the creases of the poem, to imagine the role of editor for a collection where writers-in-the-making beg for inclusion and quick-witted lines disrobe what may be behind closed doors. “Her skirt had a stuffed look, which could only mean she was wearing ruffled / panties.” Appearing early in the collection, this poem cues readers to the word play and imagination that follows.

In what appears to be an intimate confession of devotional love, “To Chocolate” reveals a love affair the reader should most certainly treat as serious, rather than comic. The narration dismisses those who believe chocolate is “some sort of cliché,” and offers every sort of experiential example of why chocolate heals, elevates, and even returns affection.  With the personification of chocolate, Holbrook writes, “nobody will / ever love you the way I do” after much conviction has been demonstrated, so much so that the reader has little choice but to acknowledge the power of chocolate’s embrace.

Holbrook’s voice really shines through in “Good Egg Bad Seed,” a long poem that reads like prose, or a speech somewhat reminiscent of Vonnegut’s commencement address. “There are people who only cry in private and people who only cry in public” is the first line of a nine page poem built upon comparisons and contrasts so true to life, so full of social truisms you have likely thought to yourself on more than one occasion, the reading will come off like a memory — it will seem familiar, intimate, and yet not the least bit trite. Holbrook’s offering is simply honest, at times joyful, and at times blunt with the observation that there are essentially two kinds of people in life: “You say ‘I love you’ or you say ‘I love you too.'”

It is such keenness for social dynamics where Holbrook won me over with “Memoirs of a Canada Council Visiting Writers Hostess.” Rife with tongue-in-cheek observation and brazen finger pointing, anyone who has ever attended a large-scale poetry reading will inhale this poem’s truth and willingly nod along in a been-there-survived-that agreement. Drawing us into the audience, placing us in the uncomfortable, stiff chair, Holbrook passes the spotlight from one iconic poet to the next. We learn about the poet “who drank water looking at the ceiling” and we remember the poet “who kept reminding us he had been ‘much anthologized’ as if / ‘anthologized’ meant ‘knighted.'” And, for those of us who have witnessed every beat in the countdown tick of the clock at a too-long reading event, Holbrook reminds us of that scene-specific feeling:

The one who said ‘I’ll be reading for approximately forty minutes’ and then

read for two hours and forty minutes, interpreting every thank-god-it’s-

over smattering of claps as encouragement to continue, the only exit

door tantalizingly behind her, her animated head obscuring the glow-

ing letters variously, EXI, XIT, IT, EX.

While Holbrook occasionally pokes fun at The Poet, and sometimes poetry itself, by no means is she picking on her art. Rather, everything is fair game for fun in this collection of comedy, satire, truth, and joy.

Just as the book title suggests, joy can be exhausting but we take the bad with the good, the exhaustion with the elation, as the joy we seek is simply worth it. The audience who sat for nearly three hours at a poetry reading did so by choice; they wanted to be there, just… maybe not for three hours. But, as the poem “Good Egg Bad Seed” reminds us, there is a counteraction for every action. With every joy there is pain. With Holbrook’s second collection, the poet offers us a great deal of poetic joy to counteract familiar, worldly pains.

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Interview: George Murray (2007)

George Murray’s three previous murraybooks of poetry include The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) and The Cottage Builder’s Letter (M&S, 2001). His poems, fiction and criticism have appeared in many publications in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, and Europe. Murray won the 2003 New York Festivals Radio and Television Gold Medal for Best Writing for his broadcast poem “Anniversary: A Personal Inventory” and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is the editor and publisher of the popular literary website and a contributing editor for several literary magazines, including Canadian Notes and Queries and The Drunken Boat. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Dani Couture interviewed George Murray in May 2007.

Your new book marks your return to the small press world. After publishing two books with McClelland and Stewart (chapbook with Frog Hollow Press aside), you are now with Nightwood. What were your reasons for making the jump?

Well, it’s long and complicated, but comes down to a change in my basic philosophy around the relationship between writing and publishing poetry.

When I first approached M&S in 2000, almost as a lark, with the manuscript that would become The Cottage Builder’s Letter, I was awestruck that they’d consider me, much less take me on. I had only been writing poetry for about four years at that point, and had been with Exile Editions for my first book, Carousel, and watched it rot in the publisher’s basement. So I was hoping to write a book that someone would have a chance to actually read. Needless to say, when M&S offered I was star-struck and jumped at the chance. It seemed at the time like a vindication of my work that I would be on the same list as some of my heroes like Don McKay.

The Cottage Builder’s Letter, while not necessarily my best work (being edited together from loose poems in about a month from the date of acceptance to handing in the proofs), had a gorgeous cover and paper. It was literally the prettiest book of poetry I’d ever seen. I was ecstatic.

I was living in New York City at the time, and shortly thereafter went through the whole 9/11 crap and ended up writing The Hunter, a much darker, crazier, fractured, but ultimately better work. Several small presses, including Nightwood approached me at this time with offers, but I stuck with M&S in part because they were my publisher and in part because the first book with them went so well.

That’s when things tanked slightly. Due to some publicity deficiencies and production problems, and my distance from the market I would normally sell to (ie, Canada or, more specifically, Toronto), the book was dead in the water sales-wise a month after it appeared. There were many reviews, and they were positive, even laudatory, but there just wasn’t a sales machine behind it.

This set me to thinking about what I wanted from both the art and business of writing poetry. I’m never going to make any money off this, surely. And it’s too early to tell whether I’ll end up on a few course lists one day. So what do I want? I want to write poems and occasionally send them out into the world to see what they do. Basically, I want a pretty book that gets into stores, is submitted properly for reviews and awards, and has at least some backing in the publicity department.

Nightwood publishes good, beautiful books and has a roster of exciting young poets. They also promote their books and support their authors. If I was going to leave the premier poetry publisher in Canada, it seemed a logical choice.

In a previous interview in The Danforth Review, you commented that “New York was breaking my concentration and disintegrating my thoughts. I was writing notes, but not composing poems.” Did you leave Toronto for Newfoundland for similar reasons? Have your writing habits changed since moving to Newfoundland?

In New York I craved and wallowed in anonymity. It was great to sit in a bar or cafe there and have no one recognize you. Of course, in Toronto this was less the case. Between friends, co-workers and neighbours, you had to keep switching watering holes to stay ahead of the crowd. In St. John’s I can’t even begin to expect to be anonymous. Even when I head to the corner store I have to expect to tack five to ten minutes of incidental chatting onto the walk. I wasn’t here a year when I’d had two interviews on CBC radio and a cover story on me and my work appeared in the newspaper. In what other city in the world does that happen? A poet on the front page. Above the fold, no less! Scandalous. So all this is to say that the physical and mental geography haven’t affected my writing, but I think the social geography eventually might.

Recently at the IV Lounge you mentioned that “The Rush to Here” is your “most overtly experimental” collection to date. Can you expand on that?

Since the beginning of my career in poetry, I’ve written many works people would consider “experimental” or “avant garde”, but have declined to publish these for personal reasons. My books to this point have worked in a lyric and/or narrative vein, with The Hunter being the closest thing to overt experiment (and that is just really a fondness for American poets such as Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery).

My fourth book, the recently released The Rush to Here, is a set of 57 sonnets (four sections of 14, with a single poem “epilogue”) with about 140 beats to the 14 lines and usually incorporates a volte at line eight or so, and final, encapsulating couplet. The unique thing about these poems is that in place of a sonic rhyme at the end of a line, I’ve used what I call a “thought rhyme”. Thus instead of rhyming “night” with “fight”, I can “rhyme” it with any of a series of a associations. So, the synonym “evening”, the antonym “day”, the homonym “knight”, the anagram “thing”, a synonym of a homonym “soldier” (for “knight”), a homonym of an antonym “dais”, across phraseology and idiom “silent”, etc.

A bit of back-story before I go further: my third book, The Hunter, was a book of excess and ranting declamation. It was an apostrophic response to times I felt weren’t being responded to well. The poems were longer and jammed images and thoughts up against one another in a disconcerting fashion, sometimes several to a line. It was like a Hieronymous Bosch painting in words. It was, in essence, a Jeremiad. One reviewer referred to feeling slightly “hectored” by it, which was part of the point.

Anyway, when I finished the manuscript and handed in the pages in September of 2002, I found myself adrift. When I did write new poems, they seemed to be a continuation of The Hunter‘s voice and tone. I often liken it to Dustin Hoffman after his role as the autistic savant in Rain Man. Legend has it he had gone so deep into the character (in the way Stanislavski school actors seem to think one can go) that he couldn’t get out for a while after and was shuffling around for months, still playing the role long after the movie had opened and ended. I felt this way after The Hunter.

I’ve always prided myself on treading new ground and had sworn I would never write “the same” book twice. So I set myself a restriction. I could only write sonnets. The idea of 140 beats in 14 lines with only two thoughts and a couplet to work with seemed like a good antidote to the ranting poison of The Hunter. I found the formal constraints to be invigorating and generative. Every time I sat down to write, I was taken in some unexpected, but interesting new direction. But the more I wrote, the more I didn’t like the faux Elizabethan sing-song sound that comes from the linguistic acrobatics necessary to complete the rhyme contract.

At some point in this process, I was stuck for a rhyme with for something like “night” and I noticed that a placeholder word at the end of the corresponding line was something like “day”. I realized that while this wasn’t a sound rhyme, the concepts did “rhyme” in a way, through their associations. So I left it in. As I progressed, I started finding the thought rhymes not only more compelling than the sonic rhymes, but more successful poetically. That first poem was eventually discarded, as were all the other sound-based sonnets (about 45), and I started over writing totally in thought rhyme. And so, The Rush to Here was born.

At one point I even translated all of Canto XXIV (Thieves) from Inferno from 151 lines of end rhyme terza rima to ten sonnets in thought rhyme. (You’d be surprised how successful this was. Dante tends to end a thought every 15 lines, so they’re basically sonnets already…) I didn’t include it in the book because it didn’t jive thematically, but it was a real demonstration of the versatility of the form, and a vindication of what I was doing.

Ironically, it’s now hard to get out of the thought rhyme impulse. I’m seeing connections everywhere, and its getting a little schizophrenic.

You are the founding editor and publisher of Bookninja (, a Canadian literary site. The site has garnered quite a bit of attention over the past several years. How has your relationship with the website and your involvement with the literary community chanced since Bookninja’s humble beginnings?

Well, this is a tough one. I started Bookninja as a place for some friends to hang out, but it ended up becoming a pretty big thing that’s somewhat overshadowing my poetry career. It’s natural that more people would know my name through Bookninja, which reaches about 5,000+ people daily, than through poetry, but it still stings a little at times when people say, “Hey! It’s the Bookninja guy!” I don’t know how it will affect sales of The Rush to Here, which is the first volume of poetry I’ve released since Bookninja began. It’s too soon to tell, but I suspect the answer will be “not much”. Poetry sales are a depressing thing. Unless you get the backing of a powerful publicity machine and/or a powerful cadre of tastemakers and/or a powerful education system, you’re basically a nobody who’s famous among his friends.

People think of Bookninja as a clubhouse, I hope — a place for releasing steam and chatting in an off-handed way about things they hold dear. I enjoy providing that space and setting the tone. The character I pretend to be on Bookninja isn’t necessarily me. Sure, I make a lot of wisecracks here and there, but the acerbic, cynical, bitchy tone is something I do as a character. It’s funny and it takes the stuffing out of the seriousness of arts journalism and self-righteous author/publisher types. I don’t approach poetry or writing that way outside of Bookninja, mostly because I am dealing with it on a more personal level.

I’ve always been one of those people folks tell things to. Strangers confess life secrets to me in bars. Everyone tells me everything. I don’t know why. Sometimes it’s annoying, but generally I’m fascinated by it. But one of the things I regret about Bookninja becoming so central to the dissemination of lit info in Canada is that sometimes overly-cautious people seem to think that they can’t reveal things to me because it might appear on Bookninja, as though we’re some sort of gossip rag. I assure all and sundry that if it doesn’t come in through the website, I won’t post it. My personal correspondence and conversations stay personal.

What is one question that you wish an interviewer would ask you?

Do you mind if I don’t ask you about Bookninja in this interview but concentrate wholly on your poetry, which I think has matured greatly between books and deserves a rousing reception and a continent-wide readership?

Please answer said question.

Not at all. Go ahead. 🙂

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Review: Bones

Bones, by Mike Freeman

Reviewed by Susan Helwig


Mike Freeman’s latest poetry collection, Bones, lives up to the advertising of the title, that is, bare bones and clean to the bone. In fact, the opening poem, Gravity Zero, benefits from the added luft of love:

She rose up into the air and the jilted earth let out a sigh.

She rose up and the almond scent of her skin filled the breeze, then faded like a song.

She rose up past telephone poles and rooftops of houses where the earth-bound hid.

She rose up sleeker than the sparrows that swirled around her like a jubilant cyclone

She rose up, confounding Air Traffic Control with her unidentified, tiny red blip.

She rose up and scrunched her toes as though the sky beneath were a fresh-mown lawn.

She rose up and with a swish of her fingers parted storm clouds like a plastic bead curtain.

She rose up, shooting through the ozone with a tangerine shower of sparks. She rose up, past satellites and every cell phone down on earth rang out at once.

She rose up but remembered to politely wave goodbye…

The tide went out for half the world when she gently bumped her head against the moon.

Stars got caught in her weightless, dirty-blonde hair.

The “dirty-blond” adjective in the last line brings the reader crashing back down to earth, but Freeman soars up again, however, with some amazing, playful work. It’s hard to believe the energy found in Therefore nevertheless moreover is produced without a single noun or verb:

but what is more in addition besides

still furthermore likewise & more to the point

yet equally however on the other hand

& in view of that accordingly

Likewise My threadbare black armband makes do with only the verb “to be”:

is is

& always will be is

My quibble about the “armband” poem is the title — or is the poet just being obtuse?

Freeman is really in flight with excerpt from The Genealogy:

Cocker Spaniel begat Infamy.


Infamy begat Toast.


Toast begat Postal Worker.

Postal Worker begat Grain of Sand.

Now it’s just nouns and the verb “beget” that he’s working with, but what nouns they turn out to be, cleverly coupled (pardon the pun) with the Biblical “begat.” I can live without the periods at the end of every line, but maybe that’s just Freeman staying in Biblical format.

Hard to believe that a bright little piece like Home in my pocket — “There is a little here / in every there” comes from the same poet who flips the “home” coin and gives us a rather leaden “Losing home.”

The concrete poems — for example, Spadina Food Market and TXT MSGS 2 MRCL DCHMP — are high-octane additions to this collection. Impossible to quote here, but do have a look. They’re a feast for the eyes.

Freeman’s prose pieces do not seem to fit in with the general brilliance of this collection. I don’t know how Wish Fulfillment, The Note and The Sun is Dead were included in this book. You could say I’ve got a real bone to pick when it comes to prose poems that read like paragraphs.

By and large, however, this book tickled my fancy (and my funnybone).

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Review: Soft Where

Soft Where, by Marcus McCann

Reviewed by Alex Boyd


Let’s be honest. The trouble with reviewing books of poetry is that I can take a few lines like “Heat like a sacred / plaza rocks us,” (the first few lines of a Marcus McCann poem) and either argue it’s an awkward image with no emotional resonance (a plaza is not sacred) or brilliantly postmodern, jarring us into an awareness of misleading modern perspectives.

Marcus McCann, in publishing his first full-length book of poems, has written a book that’s vibrant in its playful approach language, but most of the poems here appear to take an avant-garde approach. A reference to Stephen Cain (I do wish poets wouldn’t do that, it can’t help but make the poetry world feel remarkably small) in “Force quit,” would seem to suggest this as well. And while I enjoy the musicality of “We caught the gauche / gettogether on film’s digital / sister,” to be found in the poem “Red eye,” or “Dance up those bladders, dinosaur daughter,” to be found in “Kinder riffs,” the reader should be advised that there is some impenetrable stuff here, in terms of narrative structure. For me at least, “Heat like a sacred / plaza rocks us,” is too disparate a combination of images and proposed sensation. I get the potential links between words like heat and rocks, but they’re too plain to bloom in the mind in a way that’s tangible and allows the words to connect, even in the loose way poetry is allowed to form connections. Lines like “Is this what you remember?, send,” repeated throughout “Memory Parity Error” have a modern flavour and freshness not often found in poetry today, but other lines in the same poem, such as “A call to intrigue’s / best friend,” sit lamely around without enough connecting tissue between them for any measurable effect.

But with just a little more connectivity between lines, McCann proves his talent. In a poem like “Hanlan Point,” lines like “We were pets, optimistic / like beech trees, teeth, like the soft part of a promise.” And in “Cavity” he precisely and hilariously captures our collective anxiety over our looks with a couple of lines that exclaim “You’ll never get a job in retail, sad face, sad face.” Curiously, there’s also one poem that work extremely well as a lyric poem, and that’s “Shed.”

We stuck the beefy crock pot box

and other hollow parcels, (what

what we got came in) dragging

shredded paper on packing tape,

on top of the gardening bobs where

mom had unsheathed the plastic


tree from. We couldn’t go there since we

went and got smacked. But now

sent in mid-knee boots, we unslatted

the particleboard. I climbed up

to tuck the nearly trash into storage.

Gas-smell pooled; there I was crawling


on a spectacular present — the sitdown

mower we were warned about

wanting to see. A metal playfort,

I was standing on a furnace. I knew

how it coughed, knew between its

gumrubbers was a metal lump


like nads and under, two foot knives.

Jeff in the door, his visible breath

kudos, waited to see how like the one

armed mall ride it would be, where

an undersized racecar shuffles

left to right for a quarter.

Suddenly, in a book that has many original but frustrating half-statements, and images that can’t quite seem connect up and gather momentum, here’s a tangible, breathing poem that isn’t saccharine — McCann simply links his original voice and considerable talent up with greater coherence. It isn’t that poems need to be overly emotional, nostalgic, or driven by narrative, but poets can at least exist indirectly in their poems, and without mincing phrases into oblivion. McCann may consider himself a language poet, or simply an individual who isn’t afraid to experiment stylistically. Regardless, he provides many lines like “Iron proper, see him win / mad semen, a man sweating / a lake,” for those who enjoy it. Personally, I hope we’ll see a little more of McCann the next time we see more of McCann.

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Interview: David Clink (2009)

David Livingstone Clink clinkis the Artistic Director of the Rowers Pub Reading Series, and the webmaster of David’s poetry has appeared recently in Existere: Journal of Arts and Literature, All Rights Reserved, Echolocation, The Literary Review of Canada, and in the anthologies I.V. Lounge Nights, The 2008 Rhysling Anthology, and Imagination in Action. His first book of poetry, Eating Fruit Out of Season was published by Tightrope Books in 2008. 

Alex Boyd interviewed David Clink in spring, 2009.

I catch themes in your book about time and change, a sense that you’re looking at the larger picture, noting “the certainty of endings.” And there’s also a sense of struggle against this, when you note “I want to leave something permanent,” and “Every piece of marble holds an animal in stasis.” Although you don’t talk directly about poetry in your book, do you believe it’s the best shot you can take at immortality?

Immortality, through poetry, is an interesting question! I have missed a chance at immortality by other means — at some point technology will overtake death, that last immutability. Immortality will be for our children and /or our grandchildren. Imagine if this future technology existed in Shakespeare’s time! Imagine what he would have written in the last 400 years! And today’s generation would be able to go see him read in person, probably at sold out stadiums, a la J.K. Rowling!

There are certain poems that have sustained a form of immortality by continually being in print. These poems are talked about, they are covered in schools. Who can’t remember discussing innocence vs. experience in Blake? There are reasons why poems like, “My Last Duchess”, and, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” are classics. Generally, the poems that have become “immortal” are ones that are deserving of their circumstance. I think that if it weren’t for libraries, bookstores, and the poetry being taught in schools, a lot of poetry would be forgotten.

If my best shot at immortality is through the poems I have written, or will write, I would have to say that a poem titled “My Latest Poem,” found in my first book, Eating Fruit Out of Season would be the one I will be remembered for.

In a similar way, “The Loss of Detail,” is a particularly chilling poem. Would you like a hug?

Hugs are good. Money is better. Small denominations, no sequential serial numbers, and no dye packs, please!

Yes, I seem to return to themes, like time and change, and it is about time I changed that! There is nothing like a memory sprouting full-grown in your mind, brought there from the recall of a scent or sound. When this happens you are transported through time. You have become a time traveler.

“My Latest Poem” irreverently talks about stereotypes on poetry, and then invents original, hybrid lines like “Take me in your arms / And tell me you didn’t lose the receipt.” Finally, the poem ends on an unexpected note of unabashed tenderness. Was this a hard one to write? I imagine it required turning off the internal censor.

Mary Oliver said in her book, A Poetry Handbook, “Poems must, of course, be written in emotional freedom.” I think, for poetry, if one wants the reader to be emotionally engaged with the poem, it must be written with the freedom that turning off the internal censor provides.

“My Latest Poem,” the version in the book, took 5 years to write, so I guess it was difficult to get it into the shape it is today. It began by my writing down a bunch of ideas, phrases, lines, observations, and humorous asides, and taking these scraps (there were about 50 of them) and trying to put them all into one poem, and make the resulting poem make sense. It took a few months to have a first draft of the poem. I read it for the first time at a reading series called GrabbaPoem! in January of 2003. Sometime in the summer of 2007 I made a major reordering of the poem, and I think the poem flows better now. Note: I think you needed to add “spoiler alert” before the last question you asked!

“Flowers on a one-way street” is the first of the list poems you have throughout the book. What inspires these, and are they difficult to write?

What inspired these? Strangely enough, Library of Congress Subject Headings on microfiche! Back in the mid-1980s I shelved these. Each fiche had hundreds if not thousands of subject headings on them, but each fiche had the first subject heading that was on the fiche printed in larger letters at the top of the fiche, as a guide, that you can read without the aid of a fiche reader. I noticed that some of these subject headings were intriguing, and I thought at the time, some of these could be titles of poems, or, I could take a bunch of them and have them as the poem. Here are some examples of LC subject headings (some of these are made up):

Flushing, Michigan – – Social life and customs
Middle-finger gesture – – humor

Teenage Beatnik Behavior

Judgment Day

Tree felling in literature

Human-animal relationships – – art

The other inspiration was the index of poem titles at the back of Raymond Carver’s book of collected poetry, All of Us. I noticed that large sections of it actually worked as a poem! I have been working since 2003 on a poem that will use all 350 first lines of Raymond Carver’s poetry, and hope to have this finished in 2010. Here is a sample of some of the titles from the index that look like they could form a poem:

Waking before sunrise, in a house

not my own,

Walking around on our first day,
Water perfectly calm. Perfectly


we have been looking at cars lately,
We press our lips to the enameled

rim of the cups,

We sipped tea. Politely musing,

In 2006 Allan Briesmaster asked me to submit a poem for a flower anthology, and I remembered the LC Subject Headings fiche, and All of Us, and I thought, this was an opportunity to finally write a list poem of titles. I thought, why not?

The list poems are one of the more difficult forms for me, at least, the version of the form I employ. It takes several weeks of intense effort to write each poem. The flower one was my first attempt, and it came out in the anthology Garden Variety. Recently another one came out in December 2008 in the Literary Review of Canada, titled “Darkness Then a Blown Kiss.” And another one in the anthology I.V. Lounge Nights, which you edited (along with Myna Wallin), called “The Time of the Young Soldiers.” Of the four list poems, I think the one in the book, Eating Fruit Out of Season, called “Now it can be told” is the best one. Maurice Mierau, in his review of my book for the Winnipeg Free Press, describes two of the list poems: “He often invokes emotion through simple syntactical variations in poems such as Flowers on a One-Way Street and the moving Now It Can Be Told.” What I do to create these list poems, I begin with one word, for example, “Now”, or “Dark, or “Moon.” I search the York University library catalog for all titles that begin with the word. Sometimes there are as many as a few thousand titles. I go through these titles and select the best 100 or 200. I keep the list in order, and essentially edit it down further so it will fit on one page of a journal, or a poetry book, so lines aren’t longer than 4 inches, and the length of a poem is about 28 lines. I want the list to be in title order, so care is taken in selecting the final line, and if done right, a number of the lines in leading up to the end will be on theme, whatever theme results from the lines selected. When I workshop the poems, I provide alternate lines — I have the 28 line poem, pretty much the way I like it, and I pick the next best 10 lines, and in some cases, based on feedback, I may use a few of these, and drop some others. The repetition of the words adds to the momentum of the poem, the music of it. The variety of the titles runs the gamut, which speaks “volumes” of the breadth and depth of the York collection.

Who are your favourite Canadian poets, and do you think there’s any particular way to summarize Canadian poetry, as compared to other countries?

I will categorize my answer, and say, my favourite living established Canadian poets are, from the male side, A. F. Moritz and Patrick Lane. From the female side, Lorna Crozier and Molly Peacock. My favourite living up-and-coming Canadian poets are, from the male side, Nick Thran and Jacob Scheier, and from the female side, Souvankham Thammavongsa and Sandra Kasturi. For those who are no longer living, my favourites include Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Pauline Johnson, and Dorothy Livesay.

Canadian poetry compares favourably with its counterpart in the U.S. now that Tightrope Books is publishing an annual Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology, one can compare it to its American counterpart, fairly easily. I would have to say, that with a population ~9 times larger than Canada (estimated 308 million U.S. citizens by 2010, vs. 33 million Canadians in 2010), the U.S. has many more poets than Canada, a larger pool, so to speak. Even though our very best poets can write at a level similar to Philip Levine, the sheer numbers make this an uphill battle. I think we are closing the gap, if you will allow me to generalize. But why compare? Each country has its own distinct voices, and as long as these voices don’t promote hate, these voices should be celebrated.

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Review: Sunday, the locusts and Proofs & Equational Love

Sunday, the locusts, by Jim Johnstone and Julienne Lottering

Proofs & Equational Love, by Jason Guriel & Shane Neilson

Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig


Since books are not written and do not exist in a vacuum, since they form a continuum, the best way to gain perspective on a writer’s work is to view it as a whole, as well as within the broader historical and contemporary context. Give the nature of these two books, however, I chose to approach them as if they stand alone, in order to determine how much each reveals and enlightens.

Sunday, the locusts is a small, square, 86-page, black and white volume of image and text. Described by its publisher, Tightrope Books, as “fragments of verse and hybrid-media collage,” it is a collaborative effort that combines a long poem written by Toronto poet Jim Johnstone with illustrations created by visual artist Julienne Lottering in response to or in tandem with the written work (the book does not specify which). As with illuminated Medieval texts, Japanese haiga, and any number of examples of illustrated books that have come before, the combining of text and image is meant to enrich the experience of each medium involved, by setting up resonance that would not exist if each component stood alone. It is certainly one of the goals of this volume.

What next becomes clear with Sunday, the locusts (Johnstone’s third book) is that it is a work not easily entered into or followed. The book’s five sections comprise a labyrinth built of allusion, textual fragments, erasures, tangled images, nomenclature, geographic coordinates, scientific equations, and even genetic coding. At the outset, Johnstone provides a couple of keys which help to direct the reader — the first is a quote from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus: “ …These locusts were once men, before the birth of the Muses, and when the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died.” This notional thread weaves in and out of the collection, as do various other sources of inspiration and texts referenced in endnotes.

Found more than halfway along in the book, one of the most engaging segments (whose title, upon closer inspection, is the geographic coordinates for Crete) encapsulates the tone of the whole project:

(35.21˚N 24.91˚E)

Our steps curve upon themselves. Escher’s infinities leave us widowed, bound to inward vectors. No longer seeking breadth, iron-flecked winds strain against our legs, tessellate and interlock. We came to the morass as wayfarers, architects trafficking in illusion. Our own faces everywhere, we hungered to build a veneer, shut ourselves behind walls resilient enough to house Achilles. In time our frames have evolved – the cold heaving quills of lead through our veins.

It is as if an intriguing view, maybe even a truth, has been glimpsed out the corner of the eye, yet it’s never allowed to materialize fully. Mystery and questions coexist alongside elements of visual and aural clarity. One moment, the reader tackles “walls resilient enough to house / Achilles”, then tries to envision “[c]old heaving quills of lead through our veins,” wondering at some missed or missing association. And the next moment, the images created by “Escher’s / infinities leave us widowed” and “architects trafficking in illusion” (a particularly juicy phrase for this former practitioner) transfix the reader, along with the delicious sounds of “vectors,” “tessellate,” “morass,” and “trafficking.”

Something mythic, near religious, is also happening here:

I wake in the ash and the wind

of the night, breathless.


Forsaken by a flood

of ships

I scull forward —


gills unsettled, body a knot

in the current’s


labyrinth of applause …

The atmosphere thickens with foreboding, abandonment, and bewilderment. And while Johnstone’s choice of “labyrinth of applause” must be deliberate, it’s also an example of the type of momentary distraction that causes the reader to stop and try to nail down the image. Granted, not everything has to make sense; sometimes sound alone is reason enough, sometimes a riddle is a riddle is a riddle. But it’s this elusive quality that extends to Sunday the locusts in its entirety.

In terms of the purely visual aesthetic, a book rarely does full justice to any work of art, due to limits of size, format, and materials. Though Lottering’s visual pieces may originally have been rendered in colour, they are reproduced here in greyscale, and the largest is only five by five inches. In this sense, they too only hint at what reality or truth might be. On the exterior, magnified splatter details from the art featured inside are reproduced on the cover and section header pages, evoking the locusts of the title. Inside, each work is a collage assembled from rough-hewn sketches, sweeps and splatters of ink / paint, torn images, segments of handwriting, and cut-and-paste typeface. The technique reflects the text, in that it is graffiti-like and sets a raw, desolate mood. Sketched images include a windmill paired with a heart (drawn in cross-section and filled with shreds of printed pages) which convincingly play off the facing page’s poem. And later, a vague seascape (overlaid with handwritten notes, typescript, and a thin, vine-like flourish linking sea and sky) juxtaposes “Clothed in lightning, an opera / of fat sparks, // you’re the first blooded / creature // I touch. // Albumin, urea, silk. // Hemocytes // leaving / and returning / changed.” While these moments resonate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the oblique, unpolished, childlike execution and “post-apocalyptic” (quote from publisher) tone is somehow too familiar overall. The act of revisiting — whether it be revisiting styles, images, ideas, or myths — might be the whole point, but it is not enough in and of itself.

Artistic collaborations, where one medium juxtaposes or interweaves with another, seek to enrich and enhance the experience of each form. They constitute deliberate acts of engagement, reflection, re-evaluation, and response that aim to set up resonance through harmonies and tensions, and to provide an impact greater than the mere sum of the parts. The reader / viewer, once entering the picture, should be rewarded for sharing the journey, by extracting something of significance, even if it is only a powerful contradiction. As both book and work of art, Sunday, the locusts achieves this on some level, even though it detours around clear meaning and travels a less common route. As a collaboration, it is at its best when the images, conjured visually and linguistically, strike a chord with each other and the reader. It intrigues, coaxes along, and while the reader may well close the book feeling as if he hasn’t grasped it altogether, it does offer up glimpses of something beautiful and near-tangible lurking in the shadows, and in lines such as: “I offer my voice to the moon, return to land after / years at sea and still the locusts sing.” Even if its Escheresque journey elicits more questions than answers, Johnstone and Lottering’s Sunday, the locusts imprints the reader with mood and a sense of having gleaned an understanding of our own myth-making.


If sharing a particular understanding of a writer’s work is one of the goals of critical essays, other aims include introducing the work to new readers and setting it in perspective with the larger context of its contemporaries and predecessors. Proofs & Equational Love — The Poetry of Jim Johnstone, the second limited edition Literary Criticism Monograph published by Frog Hollow Press (2011), consists of two essays written by Jason Guriel and Shane Neilson respectively. The slim volume opens with Guriel’s “Proofs,” in which he states that he “was invited to say something about Jim Johnstone’s collection of poems, Patternicity (Johnstone’s second collection of poems, published by Nightwood Editions in 2010)…” and has dealt “with the, quote, pure poetry of the book,” while poet and critic Shane Neilson has handled “the science.”

“Proofs”’ focus, though narrow, also tackles the visual component of Johnstone’s work, pointing out the science at work in poems which occasionally “function like equations.” Some of them even reproduce equations as epigraphs…” and can be enjoyed (if not understood) on the level of “how they look on the page; […] to the extent that they remain unreadable, like well-executed graffiti or characters in a different alphabet,” yet they are also “physical shapes that speak for themselves.” Guriel pronounces, rather cryptically, that “[a]s Patternicity demonstrates, the better visual poetry is usually accidental; the better poetry, rarely visual.”

He goes on to cite examples of Johnstone’s preoccupations with science and math, and the Canadian-ness that surfaces in poems such as “Saturn’s Witness” with its road hockey scene. The examination’s direction allows a brief opportunity in which Guriel places the poet in limited context: “Indeed, Johnstone belongs to a generation of Canadian poets […] who may have found, in science and math, a subject, but who can also elucidate the inexplicable.” Such provocative statements (that raise more questions than they answer: e.g. Can the inexplicable be elucidated? Isn’t attempting to do so the task of any poet?) sit alongside those that do clarify: “It may be that Johnstone has an advantage, a knack for picking out patterns and proving connections.”

As indicated at the outset, the essay does not reach beyond the scope of Johnstone’s second collection of poems. The broader brushstrokes of influences, his development as a poet, his first collection The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions, 2008), are not examined here. And Guriel only details certain facets of several poems in Patternicity. The reader, without having read Johnstone’s first book, gains little insight into the big picture of “The Poetry” suggested by the chapbook’s subtitle. Further, the reader who has not even read Patternicity cannot forge any real connection with the essay’s subject matter. What Guriel’s brief study of the poet’s work does do is to merely whet the reader’s curiosity.

In his “Equational Love” essay, however, Neilson taps into both first and second books, The Velocity of Escape and Patternicity, and draws a little deeper. He, too, does not explore the broader context in which Johnstone’s work resides. Rather, he elaborates on the importance of science, math, and metaphor in Johnstone’s poetry, and how each informs and shapes it over the course of both collections. “Equations matter to Johnstone; they refine his approach to poetry, they anchor his ideas, they offer him a way into poetry.” Neilson then offers some “sense-making within the lines” in a detailed examination of metaphors employed and how the reader might unlock meaning in the first collection, based on its science: “The equation is simple: ѵe = square root (2GM)/r. This means, that for an object to escape the earth, for example, it needs to have a constant multiplied by the force of gravity and the object’s mass divided by its radius. The poem uses these principles without explicitly naming them — assuming we’re conversant.” As an explanation, it seems too much and too little, at the same time.

Neilson goes on to discuss how Johnstone revisits a science-and-poetry fusion in Patternicity. He writes: “It would be accurate to say that Johnstone is writing poems firstly, and is letting the science take care of itself, as opposed to writing didactically and hoping that poetry somehow happens.” While that might sound reasonable, no doubt the process is more complex and, one would hope, more deliberate than that. Then he says, “Thankfully, too, some of the equations in the book […] are beyond the casual reader.” What exactly is the reader to glean from this? How can such a feature be an asset? Surely, connections made during the reading are important, and if few occur, the impact of the experience is less than it might have been. Yet, in summary, Neilson offers only this convoluted reprise:

The applicability of these equational poems is opaque to me. But there are a handful of other poems where the science is understated but definitely there, giving the poems a valency, an other-life, that they would not otherwise have had if there was not a science-trained brain straddling science with that other-training, poetry, and the resultant charge on the electron is higher, the electron is hurtling faster, than if there were simply straightforward lyric poetry being written.

Finally, given that Johnstone’s body of work currently consists of three books (with the most recent, Sunday, the locusts, a poem sequence rather than a full collection) one has to ask: does it yet warrant this sort of attention and critical study? Proofs & Equational Love — The Poetry of Jim Johnstone may not quite be myth-making in progress, but it certainly verges on it, and the exercise is arguably premature. Together, the essays only offer a handful of observations, rousing enough curiosity to nudge the reader toward visiting, or revisiting, Johnstone’s first two books. The reader will ultimately benefit most by engaging with the poems themselves, and by digging a bit deeper, will begin to gain an understanding of the poet’s work.

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Review: The Flower of Youth: Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems

The Flower of Youth: Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems, by Mary di Michele

Reviewed by Alessandro Porco

In May of 2004, Canadian poet Mary di Michele travelled to Italy officially to attend the “Beyond History” conference at the University of Udine’s Center for Canadian Culture. Unofficially, while in Italy, di Michele also planned to make the literary pilgrimage to Casarsa delle Delizia, a small village “at the very edge of existence” in the Fruili region. It is where (in)famous Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini spent his summers as a child and where Pasolini, as a young man, returned to live — and to love — during the Second World War.

In Casarsa delle Delizia, on her quest to “find Pasolini,” di Michele books a room in the hotel Al Posta, “tak[ing] tea in the garden, at a table shaded by a tree.” She visits Pasolini’s grave, placing “two springs of lavender” on his grave. She visits his childhood home, where he wrote the dialect poems known as La nuova gioventú. She takes in “the vineyards all around”– it’s Italy after all, or at least a romantic version of it. She even dreams of Pasolini.

Most importantly, di Michele has a mystical experience, an interface with the Muse, his ghost, who dictates poetry to her:

On a bench shaded by cypress, weeping for a man I have never met, I sit to write these notes and a voice whispers in Italian I don’t know how to write.

Vado furoi del paese e il cielo è scoperto,

Il mondo più grande che ho pensato,

Dove non c’è nessuno le stelle son miliardo

It’s this mystical encounter with the Muse, or the spectral presence of Pasolini, which inspires di Michele to write a “novel-in-verse” documenting Pasolini’s war-time experience in Casarsa delle Delizia — in particular, his love affairs with young men, and the oppositional forces of homosexual desire and (Catholic) guilt that propel Pasolini into the state of internal conflict central to the lyric tradition.

di Michele communicates all of the above in seven-page prologue / travelogue that makes up part I of di Michele’s Flower of Youth. Part II, titled “Impure Acts,” makes up the bulk of the book, and it includes a series of one or two page lyrics organized in Sapphic stanzas and composed in the voice of a still-developing — emotionally, politically, and creatively — Pasolini circa 1943-47. He returns home from university studies in Bologna to avoid the air-raids, and there he helps his mother run a school for village children.

In other words, this ain’t quite yet the Pasolini of Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom.

There is much to like (but not love) and respect (but not gushingly admire) in di Michele novel-in-verse. For example, there are passages that do well to communicate Pasolini’s physical desire for his “boys” (“I felt such thirst I could have lapped / the run-off from his body” or “his shirt was drenched with rain and sweat, his / trousers mud-splattered, his dark // curls matted, and this made him all the more / desirable to me”) as well as the emotional pangs — especially jealousy — that accompany such desire:

I felt an

orgy of emotion, tears I dared not

let fall for a boy on the bridge, body

against the railing, plaintively


calling to some unseen companion, and not

to me.

di Michele provides well-crafted descriptions of war’s toll: “The whole [bombed] house shook, lurched / to one side; it seemed to groan then fall on / one knee”; “bloated clouds lay an expanse of ruin, / the smell of smoldering coal, the smell of charred / bodies stoking our fears”; “the bombs might have been petals / dropping thickly from above.” But there is also a formulaic, over-aestheticized quality to such descriptions that make them somewhat impotent — a little cringe worthy, even.

di Michele emphasizes a series of oppositional forces, symbols, and desires (including — but not limited to — homosexuality and Catholicism) that are set in motion within Pasolini’s tortured self: “It was the happiest, the saddest time in / my life, the glory of love, the horror / of war. The future was the past.” Accordingly, Pasolini’s “angels” of love (i.e., Pasolini’s various students, crushes, and sexual partners) are knotted with the “angels of death” (i.e., bombers). In Casarsa, “everything / smells of gunpowder and shit // but the Earth’s a bitch flowering anyway … in blossoms, blue and yellow.” Homosexual love blossoms, too, literally and figuratively, amidst the “shit,” as di Michele seems to be channeling into Yeats’s “Love has pitched his mansion / In the place of excrement.” She does well to capture Pasolini’s difficulty in reconciling the real and reel: “mesmerized by the mythic, / that amorphous image I had formed of him, / I failed to see the boy.” And there is that pervasive push and pull of self-hate and self-acceptance: “I knelt at the feet // of the status of the Madonna … to plead for forgiveness, / to pray to change, to / pray to be like other men — upstanding…”

I’ve seen and heard these conflicts played out before with far greater invention in terms of conceit, diction, scenario (e.g., di Michele underuses Pasolini’s brother and mother, as well as Pina, a local woman who unwittingly pines for the gay Pasolini), and especially prosody, which is uniform throughout and, as such, simply carries the narrative forward rather than adducing and expressing its intellectual and emotional dramatics, what di Michele describes as “the historical and personal vortex that shaped [Pasolini’s] identity.” Where is the energia of that vortex?

di Michele’s novel-in-verse fairs far more interesting (that is to say, open to serious debate) when di Michele embroils Pasolini’s erotic conflicts and intrigues in a discussion of the value of poetry — and art more generally — in a time of war. After all, the book begins with this epigraph from Virgil’s Eclogues: “… but what can poetry do / against marching armies?” It’s an important question, one that hangs — in all its permutations — over the entire collection.

Is poetry a mode of witness? Is it a means of protest? Can it speak back to power, i.e. those “marching armies” of Virgil, without becoming complicit in the very power-mongering it contests? I’m not entirely comfortable with di Michele’s response: she proposes that poetry, as a genre, and art as an experience, inherently possess some degree of moral and aesthetic exception that distinguish them from the language and violence of war.

History suggests otherwise.

The novel-in-verse also fairs far more interesting when Pasolini’s homosexuality converges with a WWII-specific discourse of encryption, ciphers, and secrecy / espionage: “to kiss / unseen, safely to kiss,” to quote from “Postscript(s).” Pasolini’s young male lovers are granted code names, in the form of single letters: B., N., G., and F– a very clever touch by di Michele. In “My First Date,” Pasolini recalls, “B. worried about secrecy even / more than I did… the better concealed, the more / open his lust.” Pasolini keeps his homosexuality (“what I could tell no one”) a secret from his female “companion” and “soulmate,” Pina. And in “My False Faith,” Pasolini writes his “confessions” of homosexual love as well as his momentary (and false) renunciation of it “in Greek in the margins of my notebook / so that no one could read them.” It is only as part of this discourse of encryption and ciphers, which complicates the concept of “truth,” that di Michele’s defense of poetry becomes imbricated with desire and sexuality and thus takes on a more compelling aspect: “the open vowels, the sibilants, fricative, / strangely familiar inflections, flowering, / deflowering my ear. A feeling / everywhere and inexpressible.”

My overall disappointment with The Flower of Youth: Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems, however, is that the paratextual materials around the central narrative raise important questions that are elided rather than investigated. This ensures the surface of the narrative stays smooth — perfectly competent and crafted — but also kind of ho-hum and forgettable.

For example, in the prologue, di Michele observes that “the pink house” Pasolini lived in during those war years “has been renovated, turned into a museum” known as The Pier Paolo Pasolini Study Center. The museum has a permanent exhibit of materials (e.g. first editions, drawings, and family photographs), and hosts tours for students and travellers. It’s part educational, part tourist trap.

Museums are, by their nature, sentimental institutions; and to borrow from Jed Rasula, they are “underwritten by custodial sponsors who have surreptitiously turned down the volume on certain voices, and simulated a voice-over for certain others.” How, then, can we reconcile the museum and study center with the fact that “in his lifetime [Pasolini] was reviled in the town, and he did not return again except in a coffin” — the relationship between voice, reception, and institutions should be foundational to a project like The Flower of Youth, shaping a more ethically complex lyrical practice. Otherwise, as is the case here, the poems risk reproducing the logic of the museum: consumption of art no different than the taking of tea in the garden.

Similarly, in her epilogue, di Michele observes that

The book that launched Pier Paolo Pasolini as a writer was La Meglio Gioventú. The Flower of Youth, usually translated as The Best of Youth, was a volume of verse written in dialect and self-published in 1942 ….. That he should continue to work on these poems throughout his life speaks to their centrality to his poetic project.

… to write poems in dialect in a country where the ministry of culture outlawed the use of dialects was a form of resistance in itself.

The dialect is “something / untouchable.” It is “tough music, / music with heft, broad-shouldered.” It has no “purpose” — rather, it “purr[s].” And, as expected within the pastoral tradition, it is naturalized: it “need[s] / no primers, no prosodies” because it is a song shared with the “cuckoo, oriole, [and] wren.” Yet, the linguistic tension between dialect and Italian proper, the political tension between minority subjects (i.e., peasants) and power, and the cultural tension between the pastoral and the city are not formally manifest in the equence — and because these tensions are inextricable from Pasolini’s “tortured struggles with his sexuality,” it always feels like there’s something lacking.

Finally, di Michele writes, “I translated La Meglio Gioventú for myself as a preparation to write this book, translation being, I believe, the closest a writer can come to another writer.” di Michele only includes three permutations of one Pasolini poem, “The Day of My Death” (these comprise the book’s short third section):

In some city, Trieste or Udine,

on an avenue of lindens,

when leaves changed colour . . .

he lived

with the vigour of a young man,

in the midst of things,

and he gave, to the few

men he knew, everything.

The presence of such sensitive translations — and the presence of a discussion of translation theory and practice (especially vexed when dialect is involved) — could have interrupted the book’s monological quest “to find Pasolini,” introducing a degree of dramatic reflexivity and narrative tension into the sequence.

Instead, The Flower of Youth is too much about being Pasolini (mastery and mimesis) and not enough about being with Pasolini (conversation and methexis). I hope, given di Michele’s admirable skills as a poet, we get to see those translations sooner rather than later.

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Interview: Lisa Robertson (2012)

Lisa Robertson just LisaRobertsonpublished a new book of essays, Nilling, with Bookthug. Her most recent books of poetry are R’s Boat,  (University of California Press) and Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip, (Coach House), which was selected by the New York Times as one of the top 100 books of 2010. She lives in France, and supports herself as a freelance teacher, lecturer and arts essayist.

Lisa was interviewed by Carmelo Militano in July, 2012.

Your chapbook ‘On Physical Real Beginning and What Happens Next’ casts a wide net.  It begins with notions of measuring time (How to measure time? Where to begin to measure time? Stop? Who says so?), the connections between love and desire and political speech-making (as opposed to love-making) which ‘lusts for public light by engorged rivers by populated foliage…’ and the Epicurean idea of the greatest good in contrast to Marx’s idea of the greatest good, in other words, pleasure vs materialism, and the mystery of Lucretius himself. Now my question: Is the poem an attempt to show how all these activities (including the mystery of Lucretius’ biography) and feelings are not separate but in fact shape and influence understanding and maybe even our political behavior.

All these activities together are the sensational season we call Spring. That’s when it all begins — Printemps d’érable, Printemps Arabe, Mai ’68, the return of growth and desire. Where there is no desire there can’t be politics either. Time is the only medium for having a body, extending a voice, acting towards others. Lucretius, who was an Epicurean, begins his poem On the Nature of Things with an invocation of Venus as Spring. Spring is an opening in time. He needs her to calm down the political situation so he can have the peace to write. Maybe now we need to heat up the political situation so we can write. The festival of desire can erupt anywhere. Marx, who was also an Epicurean, said in his dissertation on the atomist philosophers “Since according to Epicurus time is change as change, the reflection of appearance in itself, the nature of appearance is justly posited as objective, sensation is made the real criterion of concrete nature. . .” I love that statement: sensation is made the real criterion of concrete nature. That’s a good definition of both desire and politics.

Your chapbook, perhaps all written and published poems by their mere presence, challenges and pushes at boundaries of what we call poetry and how poets write poetry. I am thinking, for example, how your chapbook ends. It pretty much reads like a small essay on what we know about the life of Lucretius except for the way the line and paragraph breaks work. Can you comment on how you see your poetry working in this instance?

I am compelled towards boundaries, not away from them. I don’t feel much of a difference between poems and essays. The marrying of the two began with Montaigne; when I first read him, maybe in the mid-nineties (I come late to everything!) whatever residual institutional walls that might have persisted between genres just imploded. Then Adorno’s essay called The Essay as Form confirmed my implosion-sensation. He says “For the essay perceives that the longing for strict definitions has long offered, through fixating manipulations of the meanings of concepts, to eliminate the irritating and dangerous elements of things that live within concepts” For me the poem as essay and the essay as poem are liberators of these irritating and dangerous elements. I want to get at these “things that live within concepts.”

I like or am very much attracted to the idea expressed in your poem of thinking as a kind of sensuous activity. Can we see this notion as part of what the poem is trying to express?

Yes, all thought is sensual. I think this is what the poem is living, rather than expressing. Has there ever been a bodiless thought? Why else would we fear death?

Wallace Stevens writes — I am paraphrasing — that good poetry is often almost comprehensible. In other words, poetry is often suggestive and evocative in the way it creates meaning. Would you say that is part of your poetic aesthetic in this chapbook? How would you describe your poetic aesthetic?

I just try to make a poem that can think its own thoughts. Which is to say that the poem’s language sets relationships in sensual movement, and this movement can’t be arrested by an interpretation. Any reading, any interpretation, adds its particular life or grain to the movement. There’s a shimmer, a surge, a twist, as words, images, sounds, greet one another and transform. My own experience is not prior to this motion. I want the poem to be a creator of experience rather than a record.

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Review: Point No Point

Point No Point, by Jane Munro

Reviewed by Michael Goodfellow


Described on the back copy as a poetry of “witness,” the poems in Point No Point are not styled in the genre of Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness, which acts as a recording of political massacres and the like, and is found in Forché’s The Angel of History and her anthology Against Forgetting: A Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. Rather, Point No Point mourns the poet’s father (her previous collection mourned her mother) through descriptions of adult and childhood memories often involving the father. Munro’s book is a mundane representation of a topic which itself marks depreciation from the usual “poetry of witness” subject. I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing poetry about one’s dead relatives, such as Fred Wah and George Elliott Clarke have done, but there seems to be feeling among some Canadian poets that their ancestors must be automatically interesting to Canadian readers. Yet whatever the inherent value of the subject Munro chose, the mundane result in Point No Point is the problem: the sometimes free verse, sometimes prose descriptions are minutely detailed but without actual clarity or emotion.

Many of the poems contain descriptions of events and places that are not presented in a coherent way and that do not contribute to the meaning of the poems they are found in. Apparent memories from the poet’s childhood for example, “She sent me for eggs / to the black house by the interurban tracks / where the mother let her children play inside, / but no sliding on the linoleum,” carry little meaning or imminence. The word choice of certain poems creates temporal confusion: a speaker is at one point a small child who uses words like “Mother” but in the same poem the speaker uses adult words like “flounced” and “convalescence.” These speakers do not relay an adequate sense of place. Places are introduced with a lack of information: “When I wanted to be alone, / I climbed the rise to the vacant lot / and sank into its high weeds.” The reader has no sense of where the vacant lot is. A description of a boat launch as seen by the poet as a young girl, “Now they’d hoisted [the boat] from the cradle / and set her at the top of the slip,” is emotionless and materially unclear. The words “Now” and “they” and “had” relate the experience indirectly. And the reader wonders why he or she is being told about the ship launch.

When the poems in Point No Point are emotional, I’m sad to say the emotion is a simple one. As in “False Lilly-of-the-Valley,” where it is simply summed in the clichéd last line: “false to no one, true to itself.” The assertion that a flower has been arrogantly named is an idea too simple to form a poem.

Some poems are enchanting, such as “Frog.” Rather than minutely detailed memories, these poems contain forceful and interesting feelings, like the “need to put my finger on / a frog hidden in my heart — / feel it, struggling, in my palm.” But “Frog” is rendered lame by clichéd lines such as “overhead / the Big Dipper slowly stirs the constellations, / keeping them from sticking.” These lines in “Frog” do not seem to have any relevance to the poem, and the Big Dipper metaphor is too obvious to be effective at conveying anything. What is probably the most powerful line in the book, “Yes, the past was good, and yes, much I’ve learned by heart proves transitory,” comes at the end of the first poem.

Munro attempts to present the relationship of situation in time (her family’s past) and situation in place (where she lives, a point that does not look like a point from one side and from which the collection takes its name). But the artifice is told rather than shown in the collection, such as in the final poem, “Moving to a Colder Climate”: “Moving to Point No Point / was coming home to / a hand-built house, / to woods redolent of childhood. / Is death / also a surveyor’s term, a point / when viewed from life, but no point, / seen from the other side?” In these poems, when they are not speaking in a telling or clichéd way as noted above, the tense and speakers and the setting are vague and confused as noted further above. Yet the most pressing matter is that the work simply does not summon the force Munro wishes.