December 21, 2013

The Slow Animal of Silence: Reading Emily Dickinson on the Winter Solstice

While it isn't exactly about the winter solstice, this poem by Emily Dickinson locks down the wintry silence that comes after a storm, a stillness that contains only the slightest shifts. It's this felt but not seen movement of heat, of life, that links me to the solstice moment, as the solar year turns toward longer, warmer days.

At the beginning of this short poem, we are outside a house after a storm, on a street that has been scoured by wind and snow. The house is battened down, but not quite perfectly; birds have gone into hiding; silence has moved in and occupied the whole place. By the poem's end, we are -- at least in our imaginations -- in the snug shelter of the cellar, where apples and presumably other foods are stored.

The rhythmic pattern is very balanced in this little 11-liner: a tense, regular beat of two-two-three, two-two-three, two-two-three, four-three, the tight rhyme on the end of each three-beat line making the final slant rhyme strange and enigmatic. As always with Dickinson, strict sound play gives room to potent and unusual ideas. The house is "hooked"--what? By the storm, or against the storm: it's not quite certain. Where we might expect to be comfortably observing things, wrapped up in an extra sweater, the storm gets its hooks in; meanwhile, out there in the cold, the sun sends out faint warm drafts as "deputies," representatives of the greater warmth inside, and the greater warmth to come later in the season. Do we feel these warm drafts, or just imagine them? Dickinson creates the environment and places us in it, bestowing on us the gift of heightened senses.

But what about this ample Steed that belongs to Silence? The word steed suggests spirit and swiftness, yet this Steed, in addition to being ample, generous, is plodding, that is heavy of movement, laborious. I'm not sure what to make of this apparent oxymoron. Is it a soft place in the poem, a not-quite-right moment? Even such a fleeting hint of a lapse in the Dickinson oeuvre sends me back to the poem, to dictionaries, to awareness of my own ignorance, to try and sort it out.

This is a workhorse kind of silence, a silence that overtakes by weight rather than speed, that goes everywhere the birds have been--that is, on the updrafts and air currents. The large, slow animal of silence moves in and takes over. What a conception! It is exactly what that post-storm feeling is like.

Meanwhile, in the cellar, in a basket of apples, one quietly shifts; look, says Emily, loosening the tension ever so slightly. The slant rhyme turns away from strictness, but toward what kind of play? How the apple is moving is in its slow decay.

(All images courtesy of Red Edge Images)

Emily Dickinson: A Poem

Because Solstice, because light and more light as we move into the hardest parts of winter, because Emily, a poem:

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street -
The House was hooked
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of Heat -
Where rode the Bird
The Silence tied
His ample - plodding Steed
The Apple in the Cellar snug
Was all the one that played.

courtesy of Red Edge Images

(Poem 1241, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin; also listed as poem 1252 in Thomas H. Johnson's edition of 1955)

And I don't normally do this on my blog, but here's a link to "Solstice Night," first published at Encore, later in The Rapids (Brick 2012) and Best Canadian Poetry 2012 (Tightrope Books).








December 16, 2013

In Conversation with Joe Rosenblatt

Joe Rosenblatt was one of my first poetry teachers, and the only one whose personal electrical force field was so powerful it once made the borrowed digital watch he was wearing go haywire. I recall him ripping the watch from his arm and placing it on the table; we all stared as the hours and minutes and seconds turned over at dizzying speed. I don't remember what happened next. Somehow we went on. Now Joe is about to celebrate his 80th birthday. He has generously shared some musings on poetry, painting and the spill between the two. Happy birthday, Joe!

Susan Gillis: What brought you to poetry -- or what brought poetry to you?

Joe Rosenblatt:  I was always the dreamer from Day One. In public school Mr. Scott my English teacher believed in Rudyard Kipling and I digested his poetry and of course the then British Empire and its virtues. If that's the right word. I guess the glory of the Empire. Canadian history wasn't in the curriculum back in the days when I was in public school. Suffice it to say I loved British poetry Tennyson, A.E. Housman and later in the Sixties, the iconic American poet Emily Dickinson was the centre of my poetic universe.

Joe Rosenblatt, Sexy Tree 2. "This is not a bad drawing," said Joe in his email. 

SG: When I think about the many things I enjoy in your work--sound, colour, surprise among them--the one I want to ask you about is the line. You work the line over time, as language in poems, and over space, as a visual element in your paintings and drawings.  How and where do you draw it between poetry and painting--or do you draw it at all?

JR:  I was so influenced by Emily, especially her bee poems, that I started an experimental series on bees, capturing their sounds and sights in Allan Gardens in Toronto back in 1962. Now I am a conservative technician in terms of metre in poetry, having studied Louise Bogan, the American poet and her handbook of poetic terms. I was also influenced by W.B. Yeats and need I mention William Blake. You see I am much of a magpie stealing cadences and poetic concepts from the Immortal bards of the English language. I must also mention that the Canadian poet and a close friend of mine Gwendolyn MacEwen influenced my style of writing poetry, her mystical explorations into the Unknown especially captured my muse. Which brings me to my visual art: for me the tones, hot and cold in colours of my paintings, state that painting is another way of expressing poetic concepts and my visual art and poetry meld together as all the characters in my bestiary in my poems spill over to the canvas of my paintings.

Joe Rosenblatt, Gatorpals
SG: What's inspiring you these days?

JR: I am working on a prose work, an experimental novel titled Snake City. The hero is a snake and the humans are a despicable lot. And of course I am painting away. This is my old age poem (read it here). I shall be eighty on Boxing Day.

Joe Rosenblatt, Happy
Toronto-born, BC-based poet-painter Joe Rosenblatt has written more than 20 books, and his poems have appeared in many anthologies of Canadian poetry and in translation in Italy. His awards include the Governor General's award for poetry and the BC Book Prize.  His art works are represented by the Qualicum Frameworks Gallery in Qualicum Beach, Artfitterz in Nanaimo and the Rouge Gallery in Saskatoon. His drawings and paintings are represented in many private and public collections in Canada. His most recent book , Dark Fish & Other Infernos (Black Moss, 2011), is a savagely satirical epistolary exchange with Vancouver poet Catherine Owen.

Joe Rosenblatt: A Poem

Joe Rosenblatt

Shadows are lurking in the daylight.
Tentacles of my being stir and touch
mottled spirits congealed in a wound.

Old age is a tree with decaying bark
where voices trapped in cellulose
rage at sprouting rootlets in the earth.


Among unseen spores adrift in mildewed air
I’d be reborn, nourished by the forest floor:
I could become a child to some spongy mother


A hawk-eyed Horus awaits us in these woods.
This bird of the Highest Order is in his roost.
He’s there to snatch my soul and skyward bolt.


Shadows are lurking in the daylight.
Elfin spirits stir under decaying leaves.
We serve as food for famished fungi.


Or I could be mould on a crooked branch
where woodpeckers drumming for grubs
lay frantic claim to the same living tree.
Yellow tailed warblers gossip by a brook
where spores of drifting memory desire
Oyster mushrooms on a soggy tree trunk.

Read my conversation with Joe Rosenblatt here


December 4, 2013

When the City Goes Dark: Xi Chuan's "Power Outage"

Morning, pearly-skied. A light snow marks branches, rooflines, overhead wires and hydro poles. Bright lights are twinkling in the distance over the elevated highway where it approaches the crumbling Turcotte Interchange. Traffic is gathering.

I missed the famous ice storm that paralyzed Montreal in 1998, but still hear stories about how it brought people together in communities of friends, neighbours and strangers. I hear other stories too, about rivalry and greed, exploitation, isolation, but these aren't the ones that make it into the conventional accounts of the hushed beauty that lasted weeks and acts of generosity large and small. One thing that does come up, though, in any telling, is the sobering insight into just how dependent we are on the electrical power grid.
Living in the city, I depend on all the public services: snow clearing, garbage collection, clean water, heat and electricity. Paradoxically, the shared enterprise that provides them, the political and economic entity, allows us city-dwellers to live as though we're independent. What connects us allows our disconnection; we can remain strangers. We can go around in our cars, in line-ups, anywhere there is the stress of numbers, without much regard for strangers, for one another, as though our disregard doesn't matter.

Until the shared enterprise fails, and it does.

What got me thinking about this recently was a poem by Chinese poet Xi Chuan, "Power Outage," translated by Lucas Klein. (Read more about Xi Chuan and Lucas Klein's work here.)

How did I not know abut this poet Xi Chuan until now? As so often happens, I came across his work, and Klein's commentary on it, accidentally, in the archives of the now-defunct Cerise Press, while looking for something else. I forget what; Xi Chuan's poems have entirely replaced it.

Recently in conversation Phil Hall pointed to a source of continuing interest in lyric poetry: that the personal is political. This poem reminds me the reverse is also true.

There's no happy discovery at the end of Xi Chuan's poem such as there is in my sentimental framing of the ice storm stories. When the power goes out, the poem-speaker is cast into a disordered state. The darkness reveals small sounds far and near, traces of human presence in "wind chimes and a cat's footbeats," an engine that stops and a song that goes on. Loneliness and isolation are almost palpable.

Then "time turns back," and darkness takes on a deeper tone, as living crows converge around a plate of crow meat, and blackness engulfs the poem's speaker entirely. Despair acquires an odour and a name: power outage. The poem-speaker is pitched into an impossible, subsuming blackness. All he can do is summon a frustrated mutter as he recognizes his own wordless shadow.

I don't think Xi Chuan's poem is primarily about urban alienation, the paradox I first responded to in it. The failure of shared enterprise has deep resonance in the years after the Tian'anmen Square protests. This poem was published in 1992, three years after those protests were crushed. I'm aware that I'm reading it from cultural and aesthetic perspectives that are not the same as those it was written from. Yet it reaches across that gap, and connects me to these strangers, and to this desolation, with such bright power I can't stop thinking about it.

Images courtesy of Lucas Klein, rgbstock and stock.xchng


 Xi Chuan translated by Lucas Klein

A sudden power outage, and I’m convinced
I live in a developing nation

a nation where people read by moonlight
a nation that abolished imperial exams

a sudden power outage, and I hear
wind chimes and a cat’s footbeats upstairs

in the distance an engine stops with a thud
the battery-powered radio beside me still singing

once the power’s out, time turns back quickly:
candles light up the little eateries

the fat kid munching on crow meat notices
crows gathering on trees

and the pitch blackness before me
like a seaswell womb

a mother hangs herself from rafters
each room its own special odor

Power outage. I touch a slipper
but mutter: “Quit hiding, matches!”

in the candlelight, I see my own
great big wordless shadow cast upon the wall

from Xi, Chuan. Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, translated by Lucas Klein. (NY: New Directions, 2012) By permission of the translator and New Directions Publishing.

November 27, 2013

Sadiqa de Meijer: YES

Sadiqa de Meijer

I said. The wind
lifted the word and blew it
through the birches into smaller yeses
that dispersed.

Hitched bicycle ride, my hands
on your waist, soles skimming the road
in the bends.

What we wore will be one of those tellings
that even a latent, erasing disease
never steals. In tune like a robin and robin, a doorbell
and creak of the stairs.

Say love is the ship coming in.
Say the grave eyes of the birch trees
watched us go. How long

had we stood on the pier? Gulls squalled.
We’d outgrown what we packed.

Read my interview with Sadiqa de Meijer here

In Conversation with Sadiqa de Meijer

Sadiqa de Meijer's having a busy year. She took a break to talk with me about goosebumps and awe as the sky got darker, earlier.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry in the first place?

SADIQA DE MEIJER: It’s been with me from the near-beginning – in children’s books, and also in the occasional verses that my grandfather wrote for birthdays and other celebrations. He encouraged me to contribute: it didn’t have the feeling of an art so much as a game, like chess or something – you had to try for consistent meter, clever rhymes, puns. It gave me a start in exercising those kinds of skills.

Poems really got to me – they seemed to hold such concentrated power. When they were read out loud in high school, I always had a weird suspicion that they affected me far beyond what was typical – goosebumps and awe. Writing-wise, there was the predictable next stage: poems of adolescent melodrama. And when that resolved, I continued writing, and reading. It’s probably the latter thing that fuels the writing – seeing the range that poetry encompasses, the differences in approach between poets. And figuring out how their writing works.

SG: Many of your poems take the reader on journeys of surprise, in that almost every line turns a slightly new or unexpected corner. How deliberate is this as a strategy, and more generally, how do you think about ‘the line’ in poetry?

SdM: How deliberate is that effect of surprise ? – I would say, somewhat. I mean, I do consider the obvious when I’m writing or revising: that I don’t want to use predictable images or phrases. I think they have a numbing effect. But I also agree with this excerpt from a poem by Alice Fulton, from the back of last month’s Poetry Magazine:

                  It will be new

  whether you make it new
  or not

What that suggests to me is, if you give a subject (whether inward or outwardly located) your attention, and then try to report what you’ve observed, the result will probably not duplicate what exists. It may be close, it may be in tune with other work, but it will also be distinct--because that's inherent in the encounter between one consciousness and the world. I feel like that effort – the attention and the recording – takes lifelong practice. I’m only at the edge of it. But I do think it differs from the approach (that I also employ, but less cheerfully) of going back and crossing out clichés and wondering what to replace them with – i.e. making it new.

When I look at the poems in Leaving Howe Island, I think I’ve used the line as a unit of various things: breath, thought, speech. And sometimes with the image of the poem on the page in mind.

My other thought, at this question, is whether some of the surprise has to do with culture. I’m of mixed race and cultural background, and an immigrant – those elements are embedded in my perspective, and inevitably determine some of what my speakers take for granted. It depends on the reader: some may experience surprise when the text diverges from what they are culturally inclined to assume.

And my last take on this, is that having a first language other than English could be a factor. I’ve been comfortable in English for a long time – but it wasn’t the language of my nursery rhymes and earliest conversations. I wouldn’t be surprised if that affects my syntax and diction to some degree.

SG: What have you read lately that has excited you?

SdM: Jason Heroux’s poetry is amazing: his latest work is the chapbook In Defence of the Attacked Center Pawn. Such levity and darkness in the small space of the poems. I’ve been reading Sara Peters’ 1996 with admiration – the poems are so lucid and startling and well-crafted.  And I guess I re-read a lot: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, which I love, and Annie Dillard’s essay, The Death of the Moth.

Sadiqa de Meijer was born in Amsterdam and moved to Canada as a child. Her poetry, short stories and essays have been published in a range of journals and anthologies, including The Malahat Review, Geist, Riddle Fence and Poetry Magazine. Her first book of poems is Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan Books). A selection from the manuscript won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. Read her poem Yes, here.

November 20, 2013

In Conversation with Phil Hall

 Phil Hall. Portrait by geffo
I would love to be a fly on Phil Hall's desk. A fly with ears.  I think Phil's desk is a swatter-free zone. A deeply generous zone. Here he is, on raw decorum and other songs. 

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place?

PHIL HALL: I was desperate for order. Shelter. I built hidden forts everywhere. I needed—and still do—a musical place to keep my only and tiny authority. 

A musical need—the jarring, discordant, random ugliness of childhood would not let up.

Only—powerlessness can be underwear the dead wore first. But—only screwed-up me made this / using the little I know.

Tiny—inside the making of poems, the authority I find has to be easy to hide—it has to eat its flourishes, or risk the crime of showing-off—I wasn’t doing anything, just humming to myself, plotting transformation…

Outsider artists know something that is glaringly obvious—something that we educated types deny in favour of critical acumen: inside the act of assembly, you can’t make a mistake.

This becomes more true, the more we realize it—let the choosing of the next bit, next word, be instantaneous—and your quick choice will often reveal itself as most discerning, even beautiful.

Our quirks & errors are radiant, if we accept them. Of course, we’ve been taught differently.  And certainly the lesson of my raising was that I stank, had nothing to offer, could not give.

I came to poetry thanks to Shame & Absurdity. My henchmen!

SG: Many of your poems mine personal experience as they speak to the human condition more generally. You’re also an engaged reader of both poetry and poetics. What, to you, as poet and reader, marks the difference between the personal and the private, and is it a difference that matters?

PH: The classical answer is: a poem can be embarrassing to read if the poet’s desperation has not passed into some pattern, if the poet has used no devices to distance her personal anguish from the reader.

Otherwise, there is no—I use Wendell Berry’s word here—decorum. It is a matter of choosing the right insulation against the raw.

But we also get uncomfortable when a poem does what we haven’t seen a poem do before, or if it describes something we haven’t heard talked about in a poem before.

Who wants to consider the broken glass between “the back wings” of the hospital?  William Carlos Williams did.

Seeing only what we have already seen makes the whole world seem personal.
The unfamiliar is perhaps not alien, but private.

I guess I think of “private” as more crucial than “personal.” They are country mouse and city mouse—one hungry, one nervous.

What is gross about the slimy Alien is not its voracious design, but its nightwater sex dirt echoes. We would shut the door. The book. The cosmos.

I like raw. I like decorum. I like to know that the poem isn’t just someone swearing at me or lulling me with clever imagery.

Francis Bacon said he believed in "a deeply ordered chaos."

Or in Alice Notley’s long works I witness what might be called a “raw decorum.” She is singing. It’s complicated, but she is singing. Her rough band plays Caring For Us All beautifully.

The Lyric would interest me less if I didn’t still believe to be true our old slogan—the personal is political. This means that privacy can be where the revolution starts.

I will trust you with a hard secret / this little tune that many have told / I change myself by telling / you are changed by hearing / all is changed / nothing is sold.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

Well, on good days, I inspire the next syllable by remembering Raymond Carver’s best bit of advice: no cheap tricks.

I’ve been relishing the essays of Peter Quartermain—Disjunctive Poetics (1992), and now I’m reading his new book, Stubborn Poetics (2013).

Frank Bidart floors me! Lara Glenum’s new book, Pop Corpse, is wild—it uses sexual grotesqueries to defy misogyny.  Alice Oswald I find equally tremendous, tame, tracking the English rivers…repeating the names of the dead Greeks…

Robert Duncan continues to be my Master. And I am reading through J M Coetzee’s novels—coming to them embarrassingly late…

Phil Hall’s most recent book, X,  is a deluxe limited edition from Thee Hellbox Press of Kingston, a collaboration with the book artist/printer Hugh Barclay, and the visual artist, Michèle LaRose. He is currently mentoring in the Wired Writing Program, Banff Centre for the Arts. Read his poem from "Lake's End" here.

Phil Hall: A New Poem

Phil Hall
from Lake’s End

 Early     can still catch     out     writing at its oldest posture

to set down care alone     & quiet matters     personal defiant fleet
 to dare from self-loathing     the eternal     & then erase it

I want little more     have always wanted      the littles     more    
 now than     another morning to say     what’s been said     already

another morning     to waste     figuring out     uselessly     how to
 stick in somewhere here     screws for dragon-fly lights     (a note I found)    

I want this in my poem     is all     & ruin at bay     for my loved ones

Read my interview with Phil Hall here

November 12, 2013

In Conversation with Katia Grubisic

photo by J. Parr
A few weeks ago I caught up with Katia Grubisic over a beverage at one of our favorite drinkeries. We talked between bites of extravagantly delicious cheese and bread.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

KATIA GRUBISIC: I only heard this story a few years ago, long after my apparent début. Apparently, when I was about three, I marched into the living room, planted myself there and declaimed “La nuit est noire. La nuit / est noire.” The line break is my father’s recollection, or addition. Observed detail with figurative implications, the undermining and expanding of repetition…. Ta-dah!

I could very well have become a Duke of Hazzard, and now be recounting the family lore in which Katia refused to get in or out of the car except through the window. But I’ve had that little, inexplicable poetry elf whispering in my ear for as long as I can remember: lines, ways of looking at the world. I also recall that first awareness that there exists such a thing as craft, or editing—in high school, I had an a-ha moment when a teacher suggested a thesaurus and white space, and, later, reading closely and separating the self from the object of the poem, which open up exciting edits. Who does the poem want to be? Where does it want to go?

SG: You are fluent or comfortable in more than a couple of languages. How does this linguistic flexibility shape and influence your poems?

KG: Living in multiple languages can’t help but change not just the way we write, but the way we are, though it’s impossible to know our different, multiple selves. Professionally speaking, I run into it all the time—fighting for a borrowed neologism in an article, trying to convince myself that a gallicism will be understood in a translation when I’m really just being lazy, forgetting words at readings because another language clearly does it better… I try not to dissect the genesis of poems, but I think the multiple linguistic layers are most present at the early stages, when opposite meanings, similar words, or even just echoes that only I apparently hear, pop up. In What if red ran out, for instance, there is a poem called “Loose Rope Tantrum,” about a tightrope walker. In Spanish, cuerda floja literally means loose rope, which got me, and the poem’s tightrope walker, going. Of course, you don’t have to actually speak a language to have meaning sparked that way, and, in any event, most of those sparks are indiscernible by the time a poem is fully on fire.

SG: What are you reading now?

KG: My pile includes a Williams Carlos Williams selected to which I’ve kept returning, and Steven Heighton’s recent collection of short stories, The Dead Are More Visible. And I love, love Colum McCann, but for some reason haven’t really been able to get into his last novel TransAtlantic. Also a bunch of books on torture, violence and martyrdom.

Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator. Her work has appeared in various Canadian and international publications, and her collection of poems What if red ran out won the Gerald Lampert award for best first book. Read her poem "Paradise, Dam, North Shore" here.


Katia Grubisic

It prods with its beak
the heaving flanks, lets the fish wait
for death. The heron too waits. Its feet wrap the rock
like gnarled lichen and its breath rises
and ends someplace deep and slow. Desire
is a vertiginous warmth spread slowly;

has it really to do with hunger? I trace
circles on the shale, my scratch
in this ordinary riparian melodrama: the dammed river,
the rapids’ patient frenzy, the black-capped night herons
lined up on the shore, poised, eager and pathetic

but the one who gets it is the great grey-blue,
who dips in and spears the carp,
forces the skin apart, slits it like a mouth
before swallowing it whole. There is no forethought
to concupiscence. We are thinking

of paradise, which is not thinking at all.
We like the enfolding conflagration, we like
swallowing it whole. Later I will barely recall
that moment’s mindless hunt
as I push against my lover, not telling
of the flat, fat, silvery body
pulsing at the mouth of its captor.

from What if red ran out. Goose Lane Editions, 2008. First published in The Fiddlehead, 235.

Read my conversation with Katia Grubisic here.

November 11, 2013

So Many Someones: Wislawa Szymborska's The End and the Beginning

The Last Post, the moment of silence (smell of Dustbane in the school auditorium, soft breathing nearby, a throat cleared, stiff rustle of wool sleeves, the gym floor creaking lightly), the act of remembrance.

"In Flanders Fields" again instead of Wilfred Owen. A felt poppy on a collar. The rows of shining medals, the poppy as badge,  ceremonies that celebrate it all, glorification of war as itself, as enterprise.

I can’t decide if this poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska makes me want to wear a poppy (“But already there are those nearby/starting to mill about/ who will find it dull”) or not wear a poppy (“Those who knew /what was going on here /must make way for/ those who know little”). 

It's recognizable Szymborska: the typical direct-seeming understatement underpinned by sharp images, at moments brutal in their straightforwardness. I find it heavier-handed than many of her poems. The wagons, the scum, the unsevered head; the dragging, the glazing, the rehanging of doors. A galvanizing moment, the one instance of passive voice in this poem: "sleeves will go ragged /from being rolled up."

Those rusted-out arguments that keep being unearthed.

The grass and sky. The silent contemplation of.

The End and the Beginning
Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak


Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak 

After every war

someone has to clean up.

Things won’t

straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble

to the side of the road,

so the corpse-filled wagons

can pass.

Someone has to get mired

in scum and ashes,

sofa springs,

splintered glass,

and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder

to prop up a wall.

Someone has to glaze a window,

rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,

and takes years.

All the cameras have left

for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,

and new railway stations.

Sleeves will go ragged

from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,

still recalls the way it was.

Someone else listens

and nods with unsevered head.

But already there are those nearby

starting to mill about

who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes

sometimes someone still unearths

rusted-out arguments

and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew

what was going on here

must make way for

those who know little.

And less than little.

And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown

causes and effects,

someone must be stretched out

blade of grass in his mouth

gazing at the clouds.

November 5, 2013


Franz Wright
after Picasso

It is the little girl
guiding the minotaur
with her free hand--
that devourer

and all the terror he's accustomed to
effortlessly emanating,
his ability to paralyze
merely by becoming present,

entranced somehow, and transformed
into a bewildered
and who knows, grateful

and with the other hand
lifting her lamp.


Courtesy of RGBStock Images

Did it just start raining, or did I just start seeing it?

Morning, early, and I'm at my study window, thinking about the way parts of a poem come forward as I read or listen, while other parts recede.

When I was very young my father took me to an exhibition of giant images projected on a screen that broke into huge moving blocks, sliding forward and back silently, a precursor of 3D pixelation, of holography, that terrified me. The world was breaking up before my eyes!

It was a terror that fascinated me. I have little memory of the images themselves. Was there a story? I don't recall; it was a pastiche, full of unpredictable life and movement.

Diapolyecran, Czechoslovakia Pavilion, Expo 67

In poems, the advance-and-recede effect creates a quality I want to handle. Not texture, but pliability. Pattern that isn't decoration. Pattern that is its own structure.

In "Depiction of Childhood," Franz Wright guides us through the details, pausing now on one, now another, speaking about them with a conversational yet tightly-strung air that grips and sends shivers through me.

A few days ago I opened the curtains to a sky so dark and clear I could see constellations, even here in the heart of the city. The day before, puffball clouds hung like abandoned hornets' nests in a cartoon sky.

The morning I write this, darkness itself is cloudy. The street lamp's orange glow sinks into branches, electrical wires; breaks into threads of rain, gathers again. Way off over the expressway, a slice of sky appears under the cloud line, a deep blue I want to hold against my skin. Did the cloud cover lift, or did I just start seeing it?

Courtesy of Red Edge Images

October 31, 2013


A little Emily Dickinson for this Hallowe'en, from Bartleby. I've seen it punctuated differently -- dashes mid-line, dashes at line ends, and so on -- but the creepy mood remains. Has moss ever seemed more sinister?

I DIED for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?        5
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,        10
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

October 23, 2013

In Conversation with Stephanie Bolster

I've enjoyed Stephanie Bolster’s poetry and conversation for a long time. She spoke with me in Montreal about about-ness and other matters while the leaves were still on the trees.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry?

STEPHANIE BOLSTER: First, an immediacy. A means of talking to myself that got to the heart of things, and that I imagined I could share with others. Like many children, I was brought to poetry very early on, as a reader and in grade two I had my first vivid experience of making, through haiku. That I remember my little poem shows that it was important, as I don't remember much else about that year, or most years of elementary school, for that matter. But the image of the garden in my poem (“My mini garden / of crocuses and snowdrops. / Tiny though lovely”) was real, compelling in the way a dream image is. And it was mine. As a shy child who spoke a lot at home but not much in public, I appreciated the intimacy of poetry (and, I see now, the smallness of both that garden and that poem).

When, in my mid-teens, I began to write poetry more seriously, what drew me was the heightened sense of sound and image, the emphasis on mood, and the primacy of the lyric speaker. Intuition over intellect. I was a teenager, after all.

I wrote poetry and fiction concurrently for many years, often feeling that I should choose between them and not wanting to, but by grad school I'd realized that my thesis would be in poetry. Critiques of my fiction praised the language while pointing out deficiencies in character and plot development; poetry came more naturally to me, and more easily. It was – it seemed then – less work, more play. More – to come back to that term – immediate and authentic.

SG: Many of your poems achieve an inner tension that seems to be as much what the poem is about as is its overt subject. How do you regard subject matter and the about-ness, if I can call it that, of poetry?

SB: I'm led by subject matter to a greater extent than many writers. From midway through my BFA, I began to work in series, to choose (or feel myself chosen by) a subject rich enough to pursue over the course of several or many poems. I feel that my strongest work exists in a larger framework, not the individual poem but the series or the book. So there is a strong "about-ness" initially, though there are also, inevitably, many poems written in an attempt to find a sustaining subject, and many poems written in response to nothing in particular, that may or may not find a home in journals and books later on. 

Having found a subject, perversely, liberates me from being beholden to it. While I worked on my first book, the most fun
Alice poems to write were those in which I put Alice into a contemporary setting, made her my own. The aboutness of the project required me to do my homework, reading around the historical Alice's life and around interpretations of Carroll's books, but ultimately the poems came alive only when I transcended that research. 

In class, whenever I find myself using the word “about,” I step back and critique what I've just said. I don't think it's useful to think of a poem or even a book as being "about" anything. I could say, and have in fact probably said, that the poems in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth are about zoos, but what I mean is that I wrote many of them in response to thinking about, visiting, or looking at images of, zoos. What the poems are about is for them, and for the readers, to figure out. Richard Hugo’s essay, “Writing Off the Subject,” delineates a crucial distinction between what he calls the “triggering subject” and the eventual or true subject of a poem. It’s pretty much a truism that all poems are about their own making. My current project is pretty much about everything.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

SB: For the past several years I’ve been working on what I think will be a book-length poem inspired by, among other things, Robert Polidori’s photographs of such post-disaster sites as New Orleans and Chernobyl. That such disturbing subject matter “inspires” me is in part what propels the project; I’m interested in examining what draws me, and him, to such devastated spaces devoid of human beings. The subject is vast, complex, at once specific and diffuse, and full of resonances.

I’m inspired, too, by writers whose innovations are far bolder and stranger than mine, such as Margaret Christakos and Juliana Spahr. Early in my development as a writer, I read poets who seemed to me like-minded but whose craft far exceeded mine. These days, I find I learn more from reading writers whose work comes from a different aesthetic, writers who surprise and sometimes baffle me, whose innovations are far bolder and stranger than mine. Margaret Christakos and Juliana Spahr come to mind at the moment. Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey, is brilliant, and her poetry’s full of mystery.

And I’m ongoingly inspired by other art forms: photographs, paintings, installations, music, films, architecture. A poem’s actually more likely to be sparked by one of these media than by something I’ve read. Perhaps because teaching writing means that I spend a lot of time with the written word, I need to look farther afield for that pulse of interest, for something that speaks to me but that is resoundingly Other.

Stephanie Bolster’s most recent book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award, and an excerpt from her current project was a CBC/Canada Writes finalist in 2012. She teaches creative writing at Concordia University. Read her poem "Tapestry, the Cloisters" here.