December 31, 2014

...And Thanks!

To all you poets who generously contributed time and words, thank you.

To all you readers, to everyone who took the time to comment on posts and in messages, thank you.

To all of you who linked and re-posted, thank you.

To the good people at Red Edge for allowing your images to grace some of these posts, thank you. To the many editors and publishers who granted permission to reproduce work, thank you.

To those who are patiently waiting for the next questions in our conversations, thank you!

Thank you all for making Concrete & River a place worth returning to. See you in 2015.

Thanks for the picture, Terence Byrnes

A Few Favorite Things

Early winter, the light lengthening. The worst of hard weather is ahead, yet the sun is growing stronger and staying around longer. It's the time for year-end reviews: list-making, compiling bests and worsts, will-dos and won'ts, recounting things we'd return to or avoid. So, in no particular order, a few poets and poems I found memorable this year.

1. Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. There's no other poet I know of who could make me believe a pun was a good idea for a book title. But then, it's so much more than a pun. That night is fully alive! That night is menacing and fearsome as often as it's comforting. Reliable, yes, faithful, sure. It comes around after every day. Virtuous? Don't know yet. Loyal? Night betrays. I've just started, very slowly, reading each page several times. It takes my breath away. I can't get enough.

Sue Goyette
2. Sue Goyette's outskirts and Ocean. Poems about our times, and of our times, with a rambunctious vocabulary of event and account, as layered as Glück’s are stripped. I need both, the layered and the stripped; both make me more, not less, myself in the reading; more, not less, human, alive in the world.

3. Mary Ruefle's talks on poetry collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey. I no longer remember how I came to this book. I find it mentioned in correspondence with several poets a few years ago, but it doesn't appear in my reading notes till months, years even, later. It arrived like a ship on fire and has settled in my imagination with a cargo that yields something new every time I open it. And her poems! I've come to them more slowly; some of them just burn.

4. Xi Chuan's poems, as translated by Lucas Klein in Notes on the Mosquito. Never have I been so breathtaken by a book of poems (Glück notwithstanding). This I remember discovering exactly: a Google search of the term "anti-lyric" brought me to an article and handful of poems on the now-closed online journal Cerise Press. "Power Outage," a high-lyric poem of many endings, stabbed me with the force of an electrical current. Why I was searching "anti-lyric" I don't recall now; some idle passing interest sparked by something I read, I think; reading's like that, an event chain. Klein's short discussion of Xi Chuan's work was compelling; Notes on the Mosquito has become one of my go-to books, a sometimes impenetrable, always fascinating friend. Klein's blog of the same name is also fascinating and worthwhile.

5. Czeslaw Milosz, everything. Those poems! They can be so almost pat, almost trite, with their forests and legends, their stone and seas. And yet: they open to reveal something like the body's organs. Reading them is like unwrapping a flat parcel and finding a painting by Goya or Francis Bacon. Nothing in their vocabulary prepares me for the insight and richness I find when I put aside my resistance. A New Year's vow: I will try to bring this patience to my reading of certain other poets much admired by others I admire.


So there they are, a few of the things from 2014 I'll return to. It's not exhaustive, this list; I'll be digging again into Sina Queyras's MxT, for example, Amanda Jernigan, and more. Looking ahead, Stevie Howell's and Paul Vermeersch's new books are on the pile, along with Mary di Michele's The Montreal Book of the Dead from Vallum Press and David O'Meara's latest. I'm looking forward to, among other things, Pearl Pirie's new release from BookThug and Jeanette Lynes's book of John Clare poems. And there's writing to do! Happy 2015, Poetry. To your health.

December 18, 2014

Paul Vermeersch: A Poem

after “Utopia” by Lisa Robertson

In spring, a century buckles, pressed
into rusting bed frames, prosthetic legs,
and confused, windswept architecture.
The crows are an accidental beauty.

In autumn, the world was no longer
a phosphorescent empire, fragile
and finite. How simple the future is.
Everything already exists. The tree.

The sky. The elegance of the balustrade
in the hot, thin air. The little island
of beaches ringed in purple fields.

Beneath the structures, the summer
weeds deepen. In dry leaves, the remains
of a fallen figure — she was already ruined.

--Paul Vermeersch
from Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something
by permission of the author

Image by K Rayker

 Paul Vermeersch is the author of several poetry collections, including the Trillium-nominated The Reinvention of the Human Hand (M&S, 2010) and Don't Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something (ECW, 2014). He lives in Toronto and is Senior Editor for Wolsak & Wynn.

November 21, 2014

Gillian Sze in Conversation

Photo of Gillian Sze by Sofia Bohdanowicz
Sound, scent and the physical act of writing. That sensibility moving through the world, both exploratory and determined. Meet Gillian Sze.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?
GILLIAN SZE: Probably by accident, chance, and good timing. I think much of what I do now originates from a number of things: nursery rhymes, wisdom spouted by my parents in Chinese idioms, the sound of flipping pages, the smell of winter in my backyard, good penmanship, letter-writing, journaling, and reading.

SG: Is it fair to think of your work in terms of appetite and persistence? What role do these play in your work?
GS: Appetite, for sure – and quite literally in my last book where there’s an intense focus on food and eating. More broadly, I think appetite and persistence is a productive way of thinking about art, poetry, and creation. The appetite to understand, to express, to communicate and the dogged persistence to get it right, and to get it out there in the world. I hope always to be hungry. Anne Carson said it best when she wrote: “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime.”

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?
GS: The changing season, particularly the light this time of year. Planting tulips. Exploring my new neighbourhood. Teaching my students the villanelle.
Gillian Sze is the author of three poetry collections, including Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Originally from Winnipeg, Gillian now lives in Montreal where she writes and teaches. Read her poem "Eating Fruit" here.

November 14, 2014

Gillian Sze: A Poem

"Oriental Market" by sjtoh

Gillian Sze

While you are writing to me about the first snow, I am in a van bumping along the backbone of Malaysia, stopping only at roadside stands to buy durian, soursop, dragon fruit. In my mother’s language, if one does not have a taste for a food, one does not know it, as in to comprehend, or have the knowledge of how to eat. Eating has become a test of intimacy, to gauge the extent a mouth can work around a seed. In the evenings, after dinner, we eat fruits, and with each newly encountered fruit, my family watches, waits for my reaction. At first, the spikes of the rambutans warned me not to touch, but I did, and they slackened beneath my fingers, turned lissom like new grass. And dragon fruit, chemical-pink, shone with tiny black seeds. But a brailled slice tasted subtle as melon, as if its flavour dimmed at the close of my lips. So while you are writing to me about snow, I am driving to Bahau, past streaming fields of pitaya cacti. Through the window, I imagine the palette of your November washing the landscape monochrome. You ask when I will return, if I am ever coming back. When I do, I will bring with me and show you the persuasion of pulasans. The maybeness of roseapples.

Gillian Sze is the author of three poetry collections, including Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Originally from Winnipeg, Gillian now lives in Montreal where she writes and teaches. 

October 27, 2014

In Conversation with MEDRIE PURDHAM

A small, smoky basement cafe (in the not-so-distant past when cafes could be smoky). Singing (Esma, Queen of the Gypsies) and poetry (various, with throat-clearing and shouts and whispers). I was introduced to a quiet young woman along the back wall, whose smile made me feel I could say anything. I'd heard about her poems -- luminous, resonant -- but hadn't read any. And I wasn't going to hear any that night, because she was there to listen. That's Medrie. She really listens. And when she speaks, in poetry or conversation, the most wonderful things come out.

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

MEDRIE PURDHAM: When I was eleven, I got a daily paper route. It had to be completed by 7 a.m., which meant that for the greater part of the year, it had to be done in the pre-dawn dark, in the long shadows of our quiet suburban streets. My mother let me do this route only as long as I didn't come home through the park, even though it was a shortcut, which persuaded me that I was doing something totally hazardous every day. I had bought myself an old anthology of poetry from the used bookstore near our house, and I read it from cover to cover, mainly because it smelled amazing: I have never known paper to decay more sweetly. I started deliberately memorizing poems that I could recite to myself on my paper route, for no other reason than to keep myself company in the morning and to give myself something to think about other than what was lurking in the park. By the time I gave up my route (at thirteen), I had an enormous repertoire of memorized poems, and, looking back, I think that somewhere in my mind there was an association consolidated in my mind between reading a poem and walking out into the wide and dangerous world. I still make an effort to learn my favourite poems by heart because I feel that internalizing poetry completely is what made me want to write in the first place.

SG: The rhythms and feel of poetic language--it seems you internalized
these, by memorizing and reciting, and externalized them, as you
walked your paper route. In fact, paper itself seems to carry some
weight in your poetic engagement. Reading your poems I often hear a careful,
thoughtful calibration as they develop. Could you talk about structure
and pacing in your work—how you approach it, how conscious you are of
it, whether it’s something you feel your way through or deliberately
engineer, and/or any other thoughts on the subject?

MP: Thank you for that observation. Your question has got me thinking
that I should start taking poems for walks again for rhythmic control or
respectable leash-training. I do really appreciate fine rhythms and
sonic effects in the poetry I read, because poetic rhythms and other
internal patterns underline that poetry is a temporal and moving thing.
That's how these effects help us love and mourn what the poem wants us
to love and mourn. Sound is where the intuition of the poet meets with
the body and life of the reader. For me, achieving a suitable sound
and pacing is the hardest part of poetic composition, and I have to do
it both by "feeling my way through" and by conscious arrangement after
the fact.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

MP: There's a particularly random antique store here in town where a
person can get lots of inspiration and up to three accordions.

Medrie Purdham is a former Montrealer who lives and writes in Regina. Read her poem "You Call Your Next Child" here.

October 16, 2014

Medrie Purdham: A Poem

Image by Angela King-Jones, courtesy of Red Edge Images

Medrie Purdham

Yes, work now at pinning matter to spirit; do it
even if you think it’s just a quibble with the wind.

If it would make something happen, you’d
jettison this poem into space. You’d moor it
in the hollowed bone of an animal you’d spoken to softly.
You’d say it by rote in the presence of celibates.
You’d mar it in the May fires; you’d burn it to bits.

       Your first son, two years old, says time is not angry.
       He thinks numbers are girls, he thinks he’s a vowel.
       A forkful of cake makes him think he’s turned three.
       The compulsive priest of his own magic, he
       alters even his own likeness in a slow cascade.

Listen, we all know better than to name the thing we want.
The year is moving like treacle. All its birds are ghosts.

Is there a way to invite that other body? Throw a stone
from a cairn but save its replica. Plant a pear-tree in
the shade, as a life-index, maybe. Take an umbrella
into the shower and try not to sing. These are the rules of
the mind’s personal longing. These are the
rattles in which the green heart’s all stitched up.

First broadcast on CBC Radio's Sound XChange with Kelley Jo Burke, a show now sadly defunct. reproduced by permission of the author.

Medrie Purdham is a former Montrealer who lives and writes in Regina.

October 2, 2014

Karen Enns in Conversation

When Karen Enns took the stage to read from Ordinary Hours, her newest book, in a small bookshop in Montreal on a hot evening--or was it cold? That's what happens when Karen Enns takes the stage with her newest book, and it's anything but ordinary.

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

KAREN ENNS: I think reading or writing a poem is a way of savouring some very elusive, very private tension. That’s probably what drew me in when I was young, although I wouldn’t have articulated it in quite the same way. You could really live in that small space, it seemed to me. The tension was partly a musical one, something to do with consonance and dissonance, but it was also connected with the way words worked on the page. What was included and what was left out.

SG: Words on the page: the space they make, and living in it--what you say here resonates with how I read your poems. They feel like rooms with good proportions. There's a spaciousness, a kind of generosity, at play in poems like Yellow Chair, Suite for Tools, William Street Elegies, to name just a few.  How do you go about designing and constructing that space?

KE: I wish I had something really breathtaking to offer as a response but your question has me thinking about my years working as a chamber musician. Often in rehearsals, someone in the group would try to explain a way of shaping a particular phrase or line until someone else would break in and say, “Just play it the way you want it so we can hear what you mean.” Everyone would listen and nod, put a few marks in their scores, and the rehearsal would continue. As far as explanations go, it was a humbling experience.

Although poetry wraps itself around language, there’s always a mysterious space, it seems to me, a kind of no-man’s land, between the two. Translation is very active in that gap, just as it is between notes on the page and actual music-making. There’s a certain amount of chaos that doesn’t always lend itself to explanation. Lines of poetry, good solid lines, are something to hold onto, as is the shape of the poem and its momentum. I'm aware of these structures as grounding when I approach a poem and also as a wonderfully distracting way of dealing with the real poem in the middle of it all. I think there’s a bit of force involved, at least sometimes, in the translative wrestling. Or maybe a better word is simply energy; making the undefined thing into a defined thing takes a real charge. I wonder if this period of sorting through the complications non-verbally (and sorting and sorting) stays in the poem somehow and becomes the quality we can't quite define or reproduce but we can hear.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

KE: I’ve been reading the poetry of Tomasz Rozycki and Francis Ponge, and riding my bike around Victoria. All very inspiring.

Karen Enns has published two books of poetry with Brick Books, That Other Beauty (2010)  nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award, and Ordinary Hours, released in the spring of 2014. She lives in Victoria. Read her poem "At First" here.

September 23, 2014

Karen Enns: A Poem

Image by Girts Gailans, courtesy Red Edge Images

Karen Enns

At first I wanted anonymity,
to be lost in concrete halls and elevators,
markets and cathedrals, city squares.
I wanted music on buses and trains to change me
and tell no one. I wanted to be poor.
But shadows fell and lifted,
a few good measures bloomed.
The stone-white tone that held its pitch
beyond the traffic noise and barking dogs,
the keys rattling in the locks,
began to fade.
Skaters circled the bandshell in the park
early in the afternoons.
There were choirs sometimes,
sometimes a thin resonance.
Gorgeous broken lines of light
slashed the outskirts of the city.

from Ordinary Hours, Brick 2014. Used with permission.

Karen Enns has published two books of poetry with Brick Books, That Other Beauty (2010),  nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award, and Ordinary Hours, released in the spring of 2014. She lives in Victoria. Read our recent conversation here.

September 12, 2014

Now and then a book review or commentary or interview with the writer comes along that makes me not only want to read the book, but actually go out and get it, right now. This is one of those. Thanks, Poetry Foundation, for hosting and posting this conversation.

 “My first book without struggle and without despair,” says Louise Glück, describing her new collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night. Indeed, the poems and bits of prose collected in Glück’s 13th book of poetry are dreamy, even ethereal, but as absorbing and intensely experienced as ever. Glück hardly needs an introduction—she has so many prizes and honors to her name that she seems to be the first and final word in contemporary American poetry—so suffice it to say that in this new volume, she has compiled a series of otherworldly poems that manage to represent all things Glück: they’re intimate, seductive, spellbinding. And yet this book is in many ways a rebirth for her, an attempt at imagining something new.

September 3, 2014

Stepping Inside the Waves: Jeanette Lynes in Conversation

photo of Jeanette Lynes by Deb Cragg
You're as likely to meet Jeanette Lynes while you're haunting a thrift store as visiting the book table at a literary festival. And when you do, the conversation is likely to take surprising turns.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry--or, if you prefer, how did poetry come to you?

JEANETTE LYNES: Poetry came to me in waves. The first wave was church hymns during my rural childhood. I always thought hymns were beautiful and poetic, profound, and often sad. My poetry-loving mother was a key influence, too. The second wave happened during university, an undergraduate course I took called ‘Introduction to Poetry’. Again, as with the hymns, I had this sense of an encounter with something profound. The poetry course showed me that poetry could work on so many levels, emotional for sure, but philosophical as well. I took more poetry courses in graduate school – the next wave - and added theoretical, conceptual, and experimental to the levels on which poetry could work. Then I taught poetry – yet another wave that brought its own challenges and joys. After becoming disenchanted with academic writing in the mid-1990s, I began writing poetry. This proved to be the most satisfying poetic engagement of all. I felt like I was leaving the sidelines, no longer being just a spectator, but stepping inside poetry. Entering a big room that offered the opportunity to meet live poets (as opposed to dead ones studied in university), and become part of the astonishing community of practicing poets in Canada and beyond. This community included my mentors and peers in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. I continue to write, read, listen to, and teach poetry, a great honour.

SG:Many of your poems tell stories through unexpected and comedic events. Reading them, I'm often aware of sweeps of movement: little crescendos, slides and leaps. Do the waves of poetic discovery you describe apply to how you write poems, too?

JL: Great question. To be honest, I really struggle with narrative poetry, the whole concept. I mean, If I love stories so much, why do I not just write fiction? I *do* write fiction, but I love how poems accommodate stories, too, and even anecdotes. One of Canada's great anecdotal poets was Al Purdy. Another was Bronwen Wallace. There are others. I like the idea of carrying on an anecdotal tradition. But I worry that narrative/story/anecdote is at the expense of the compression that poetry is known for - maybe this is all an enabling angst. but sometimes it's just an angst, and not in a good way (smile). But there's no question I love how poetry may accommodate the discursive, in other words, the story, the 'talky' poem. But then is it still poetry? I'm not sure. My poems are ragged for sure. I guess we just have to be the poets we are. I'd rather be lots of other things - ie. cool, edgy, experimental - but I'm not. I've never told anyone this (smile again).

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

JL: Other poets inspire me now - what a great community we are- I mean, yes, there are factions and some unpleasantness around that (ahem,witness certain recent blog posts by poets who shall remain unnamed) but even with our differences I think we share more in common than not. I went to the Purdy picnic at the A-frame in Ameliasburg this summer and that event inspired me and made me think of the first time I became aware of Canadian poetry, and what a revelation. My students inspire me. Poets I read inspire me. I have heard some young poets read and have read their work and I am blown away - I think the future of Canadian poetry is very healthy. And things I read inspire me hugely. I've been reading a lot of John Ashbery this summer. And Mary Ruefle, American poet. And Lucy Brock-Broido. But my fellow Canadian poets always inspire me, too. The idea that poetry can even continue to exist in this country of ours, given the current state power apparatus, inspires me to keep going.

Jeanette Lynes is the author of six collections of poetry and one
novel. Her seventh book of poems,
Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare
, will be published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2015. Jeanette is
coordinator of the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan.

Read her poem "John Clare in Love" here.

August 26, 2014

Jeanette Lynes: A Poem

Image by Amanda Elwell, courtesy Red Edge Images

Jeanette Lynes

He first saw her from afar –
tramping across the field, a kind of moving statue,
a girl heavy in good places.

He scrambled up a pollarded tree to mark her shape
and direction. He’d fallen from trees before. This time
despite the ale, he hung on.

Even from a distance he knew she’d look
fine milking cows. Her sturdy form, those hands
would draw the milk, would work the teats.

High in the tree, he was more besotted than a bird,
and happier. His eyes followed her vanishing
over the grassed horizon. He climbed to earth,

penned two poems to her beauty. Anyone in love
will recognize this, the heart’s highest moment, this ledge
of clock before the beloved’s mouth

opens and awry things go and go until the end of time.
But there’d be buckets to fill with wildflowers,
the greensward to harvest, before that befell them,

her name to discover. Could she love a lime-burner?
Like any decent girl she’d send him away.
But he’d return. Until then, in his choking

shifts at the kiln she’d cross that pasture in his mind
a thousand times and what he began to think was,
she walked like someone who could read. 

(First published in The New Quarterly)


Jeanette Lynes is the author of six collections of poetry and one novel. Her seventh book of poems, Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems, will be published by Wolsak and Wynn in 2015. Jeanette is coordinator of the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Read my conversation with Jeanette Lynes here.

August 13, 2014

In Conversation with Amanda Jernigan

Photo by Patrik Jandak
The Atwater library in downtown Montreal, housed in an early 20th century building designated a National Historic Site, has hosted excellent poetry readings for several years now. Recently I heard Amanda Jernigan there. The light that came slanting in as she read -- well, it came in through the high arched windows, but might as well have come from her poems.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry—or, if you prefer, brought poetry to you—in the first place?

AMANDA JERNIGAN: Poetry and family have always been intertwined, for me. My maternal grandfather loved to recite poems, and to read them aloud. I associate my earliest experiences of poetry with his and my grandmother’s house in Virginia: a magical place, full of his books, her dioramas and collections (she was an installation-artist manqué). And also with a family camp in northern Wisconsin, where my grandfather’s mother (this vein runs generations deep) had painted on the cabin rafters lines from Ralph Hodgson (‘Time, you old gipsy man …’) and George Borrow (‘Life is sweet, brother …’: a passage from Borrow’s prose-work Lavengro, but one that became, out of context, a short poem).

SG: Your poems seek, and find, the echo-chambers of their language, so that your subjects resonate musically as much as imagistically. Would you say that sound is what instigates a poem, is where the poem comes from, or is it something that develops as you work up the seeds of an idea into its eventual form?

AJ: Your wording seems to me apt: sound in my poems is ‘something that develops as [I] work up the seeds of an idea into its eventual form.’ Which is to say that, usually, the ‘idea’ (a nexus of images, a pattern that connects) comes first. And yet: it usually becomes clear to me at some point, when I am working on the poem, that I have a certain aural ‘shape’ in mind; finishing the poem becomes a matter of listening to it, and then of rendering it as accurately as I can on the page, using the tools of syntax and prosody. So, in this sense, perhaps sound does come first, if only at some pre-conscious level. As Northrop Frye says, many writers compose in such a way that they are filling out a rhythm, one internally heard in advance of the words that will come to comprise it. Such rhythms tend to bubble up out of deep wells. In an interview in the current issue of Canadian Notes & Queries, Michael Harris says that his taste in poetry is in no small measure a function of the Scottish speech- and song-rhythms he absorbed from his father, while young.

I tend to feel that the form of a poem (and when I say ‘a poem,’ I really mean, ‘one of my poems’ — this is a personal, not a general, prescription) should be aurally implicit: a listener should be able to ‘hear’ the shape of a poem, in the absence of any typographical cues. (Not all of my poems work this way, but many of them do.) I suppose this means that I am in some way, at root, an oral poet — for all that I love the look of words on a page, the shapes of letters, words, and stanzas.

And I should say that I am drawn to rhyme and meter for reasons mnemonic as well as aesthetic: I like to make poems that a reader (or the writer) can carry around in her mind — poems that can go back into the world of recitation, out of which, it seems, poetry first came to me.

SG: What is inspiring your work these days? 

AJ: I have a two-year-old, and another child on the way. Given the proliferation of mombooks on the market, you might think motherhood an exhausted subject — for books, if not for poetry. But if you think about the poems that have come down to us in English, the great body of them are written by men (in the fifth ed. of The Norton Anthology of Poetry — the table of contents of which represents decades of scholarly excavation, to retrieve the works of female poets — still only a fifth of the poems are by women). This is not to say there have not been great poems of motherhood, written by both men and women. But I feel that there are many unexplored possibilities here, still, both thematic and formal. (It is tempting to say, ‘The great poem of motherhood has yet to be written.’ But that’s really just a pep-talk to myself. And, lately I’ve been wondering if in fact the great poem of motherhood has been written, and it’s Janet Lewis’s ‘A Lullaby’.)

I was reading recently Dan Chiasson’s review of new work by the American poet Rachel Zucker, in The New Yorker. He talks about her work as that rare thing, a poetry of motherhood that gives the effect of having been actually ‘written … under the conditions it describes.’ I’m still not often able to write under the conditions of early motherhood, all-consuming as it is: there just isn’t the time to work up an idea, often, even when the idea is there. Which often, it isn’t: so much of early motherhood is averbal. One tends to think in ways that are other than linguistic. But, then, great poems are made as much out of silence as they are out of speech, and I tell myself that the way to new poems is to immerse myself more deeply in this seeming interruption, rather than to bridle at it.

Motherhood does make me read the old stories, Christian and Classical, in new ways. So there is, as often in my work, an element of reading/rereading, in those new poems that I have managed to write. ‘[D]eath also / can still propose the old labors,’ Robert Creeley writes in his poem ‘Heroes’; it turns out that life can still propose the old labours (and the old labour), too.

Amanda Jernigan lived for many years on the east coast of Canada, and now lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with her husband, the artist John Haney, and their growing family. She is the author of two books of poems, Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours, and of the monograph Living in the Orchard: The Poetry of Peter Sanger. She edited The Essential Richard Outram, and is currently at work on a critical edition of Outram's poems. Read her poem "Stille" here.

August 6, 2014


Amanda Jernigan

There’s always this interval between
when you arrive — so easily,
it seems, though from so very far away —
and when we do, exhausted, footsore,
dusty from the road, though we
come only from before, and come
to think of it it’s marvellous
that we catch up with you at all,
or that we’re granted this brief Stille,
time touching time in some out-of-the-way place.
We had to invent angels, to notice.

(first published in the Atlanta Review)

Image by Girts Gailans, courtesy of Red Edge

Amanda Jernigan lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with her husband (artist John Haney) and their growing family. She is the author of two books of poems (Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours) and of the monograph Living in the Orchard: The Poetry of Peter Sanger. She edited The Essential Richard Outram, and is currently at work on a critical edition of Outram's poems. Read my conversation with Amanda Jernigan here.

July 29, 2014

A Spectator to the Wild: In Conversation with Carolyn Smart

Carolyn Smart introducing the Bronwen Wallace Award in Toronto, May 2014
A garden, a shade tree, a summer afternoon, a great bookshop, food and wine, music and poetry ... that's Tamworth, where I recently met up with Carolyn Smart as she read from her forthcoming book Careen.
SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry?

CAROLYN SMART: I grew up in a highly competitive literary family: my father was a Commonwealth Scholar who studied with Robert Frost at Harvard; my mother’s tutor for her “Reading and Writing” program at Sarah Lawrence College was Joseph Campbell. She read ee cummings aloud to me when I was a young girl and I fell in love with the power of language very early on. I found myself writing Harlequin Romance-type short stories while in a freezing cold boarding school on the Sussex coast of England. It wasn’t until I discovered the poetry of Leonard Cohen when I was 16 that I turned my hand to poetry, and have rarely looked back. I owe so much to a superb high school teacher named Elizabeth Stimpson who literally changed my life by encouraging my writing and submitting my poems to an anthology of student work. My first publication hooked me forever.

SG: Your work is often dramatic; characters come to life through voice, especially in Hooked (Brick, 2009) and Careen (Brick, 2015), and in fact Hooked has been adapted for the stage. How does the “power of language” you describe falling in love with play out on the stage of your poetry?

CS: I think I wore out my need for “witnessing” through my memoir, At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press, 2001) so what I have written since then has been less personal, but certainly geared towards the sound of the written word, the effect that the words have aurally as well as visually. Hooked took on a life of its own through the wonderful character actor Nicky Guadagni who I trust implicitly with the understanding of what it is I was trying to project with the seven women in the book. And my new collection, Careen, is an attempt at a conversation between the characters and the reader or audience. It consists of poems that tell a story ranging over a period of four years, sometimes more, involving several people who didn’t get the chance for formal schooling but had a serious education elsewhere.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

CS: Nowadays I am trying not to think of a specific project but have returned to a more personal look at a time in my childhood when things changed on a radical scale. I’m writing about the year 1963, in which much of Western society was on the cusp of a shift that at the age of 11 I took personally. That’s what I’m thinking and writing about, loosely.

I take great solace in the natural world around me: I live in the midst of 93 wooded acres and feel honoured to be a spectator to the wild world, most recently, the tattered luna moth I watched last night drifting among the Queen Anne’s Lace, looking for a place to take its final rest. I’ve been reading non-fiction, notably The Seachers- The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, and Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk, and the major poetry anthologies Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, and Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman. I read fiction constantly, like filler, so can’t even start on where that’s going, but it’s been a great year for reading.

Carolyn Smart has published five collections of poetry, most recently Hooked - Seven Poems (Brick, 2009), and a memoir, At the End of the Day (Penumbra Press, 2001). Founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, she has taught poetry at the Banff Centre and since 1989 has been Professor of Creative Writing at Queen's University. Her forthcoming collection Careen (Brick, 2015) tells the story of the Barrow Gang. Read her poem "Shelter" here.

July 24, 2014

Carolyn Smart: A Poem

Carolyn Smart

My 11 year old self is walking on the playing field
towards the rhododendron woods, the edge
of my boarding-school grounds.

To my right is the single swing where the Lady Caroline
explained to me how her mother was a Countess, dark hair
parting open then closed on her freckled, anxious face.

Why do you not go back to America,
the girls ask, that place where the President was shot,
is that not where people who talk like you should be?

But that is not where I live, nor do I live in Canada now, for
my parents have sailed away, taking their arguments with them.
They do not write to tell me of our future. They do not write at all.

Inside the rhodo woods the older girls build shelters.
We sweep our tree house spotless every day,
brooms of leaves, bent boughs as seats.

It is only children here and we are kinder
in a way to one another, in the woods.
We are a sort of family, and briefly unafraid.

It is important who we let inside our shelter.
This small one standing eager at the entrance:
she might change everything.

From time to time I glance behind to
the far side of the trees and the high grey wooden fence.
Beyond that is the road, the world, the sea.

(Ian Barber, courtesy Red Edge Images)

Carolyn Smart is the founder of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and since 1989 has been Professor of Creative Writing at Queen's University. Hooked - Seven Poems has become a performance piece, featured at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2013 and upcoming at Theatre Passe Muraille in the spring of 2015. Her forthcoming poetry collection Careen (Brick Books, fall 2015) tells the story of the Barrow Gang. Read my conversation with Carolyn Smart here.

June 23, 2014

BEWARE, TYRANT: Czeslaw Milosz's "You Who Wronged"

Over and over it happens: I read a Czeslaw Milosz poem I find a bit stolid, maybe even bland, in its imagery and language, and then discover in it crystalline forms, flakes, shards, layers of insight and poetic knowing that just floor me.

A recent example of this is "You Who Wronged" (from the Ecco Press Collected). As I followed what it was saying--warning a powerful despot about his wrong actions and the eventual inevitable consequences; revealing the motivation of those who serve and uphold him; indicting him in a severe judgment at the end--I found myself asking, how can a poem whose language and images are largely generic, even clichéd, amass such chilling force?

This question compels me for several reasons. For one thing, the poem presents an immediately recognizable political type, in strokes so broad and accurate they could be caricature. For another, it serves as a reminder of the risks we face when we surrender power to those who eat it up with such zeal. And it makes poetry itself, in the form of the poet, witness and eternal archivist of the political.

Gdansk monument inscribed with Milosz's lines 
     Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
     You can kill one, but another is born.
     The words are written down, the deed, the date.


So how does it work? One line short of a sonnet, rhythmically regular and rhymed slant, the poem reads at first like a darkly comic fairy tale. The clownish accuracy of the portrait, spare as it is, is unsparing. The poet both depicts and addresses this figure. It's direct, but not specific: the cliché "pack of fools" surrounding the generic you "who wronged a simple man"-- it happens everywhere, every day, the powerful taking advantage of the powerless. "Bursting into laughter at the crime"--the depiction is cartoonish. What is the crime? Who are the people? We can surmise, but all that's named in the poem is their relation: power in relation to simplicity, arrogance to victimhood. We aren't shown the wronged man at all, only the tyrant's callous pleasure in his power. The poet accuses, calling the act a "crime," and my sense is that the tyrant wouldn't deny it, or recognize the name, or care. In levelling the accusation, the poet allies himself with the wronged man, speaking for him individually and by extension collectively, for all the wronged, himself included.

The portrait builds: the tyrant does injury and laughs about it, and surrounds himself with lackeys -- the "pack of fools," the poet's bitterly dismissive term -- to do the dirty work, to "mix good and evil, to blur the line," a wonderfully almost Miltonic description of what we might now call spin, though the implications run deep. There is something of the set piece about this first stanza; the mixing and blurring also bring to mind scenes from Macbeth, adding kinetic and allusive heft to the generic portrait.

The next stanza introduces a limiting clause, complicating what is still a single sentence. The despot and his actions fully acknowledged, now comes a caution, a condition. The list of attributes is as generic as those of the first stanza: "everyone" bestows honour on him, medals carry his likeness, but the last line shifts focus, as it makes it clear that the people pander to him because they fear him; they have bought their lives and paid for it with their freedom.

And the poet knows it, and says it. The third stanza opens with an imperative, the engine of this eight-and-a-half-line sentence: "Do not feel safe." You can suppress a dissenting voice, the poet warns, but another will rise in its place, to record your actions and call you to account.

And he is uncompromising in judgement. Particulars are named in the closing stanza: "you'd have done better with a winter dawn,/A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight." The generic is elevated; the poem stuns.


According to Nicholas Wroe, writing in The Guardian (10 November 2001), "Milosz wrote these lines in 1950 when working in the Polish diplomatic embassy in Washington....The final, bitter stanza ... leaves little doubt as to his profound and angry disillusionment with what had become Stalinism, even though it was not a poem written for publication. 'I was following the situation in Poland and I was quite desperate,' [Milosz] now says. 'But it was written for myself, for my drawer. It had to wait 30 years for its moment.' "

Read "You Who Wronged" here.

All photos courtesy of Stock Xchg

June 5, 2014


It's minus-25 and stormy in Newfoundland. We're in the last leg of the week-long March Hare festival of words and music, the ice so thick on the ground you can't walk anywhere, not even to the nearest Tim's, but Welsh poet Jemma L. King is far too busy observing the details of this strange new place to even shiver in her entirely-inadequate faux-fur jacket.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry—or, if you prefer, how did poetry first come to you?

JEMMA L. KING: I’ve always loved wordplay and when I was small I’d borrow limerick books from the school library. I loved memorising them and reciting them to my dad, who found them as funny as I did. But by the time I was a teenager, poetry had become so dull. In school we went over and over “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love”. All this twee pastoral rubbish. I had no idea of the explosive potential of the medium – that it can just hotwire you to somebody else’s consciousness. That came later, in two formative leaps. Firstly, there was Keats, whose masterpiece Lamia had me drawing all sorts of weird abstract creatures in my notebook as the teacher read it to us. So the floodgates of Romanticism opened to me with all of its myths and politics. 

The second important step was Sylvia Plath. We didn’t have one female poet on our syllabus – ever, so I made it my mission to find one. One lunchtime, I crept into the English room and found a dusty pile of copies of Ariel at the back of the room. I took one home and discovered that I actually had a latent (but totally buried) understanding of how we all connect to one another and the world around us, but nobody had articulated this to me before. Suddenly, everything that had gone before was questioned and challenged. I tried to work my own way into the white space that constitutes normal life. I tried to get in-between the atoms in the way that Plath does so elegantly. Suddenly I understood so much more, and yet had about a hundred million questions. It felt spiritual, like speaking to God.

SG: Your new book centers on Victorian pornography and the act, and art, of looking. Folded into this are considerations of how we look, in both senses: the act of looking at anything, and the self-consciousness of how one appears to others. There is also the matter of seduction, of tensions between what concealed and what is revealed. The word “play” comes to mind, in that sense of a space for movement between opposing points. Could you talk about how these ideas play out in the poems?

JLK: Seduction and play are key to the new volume. The Undressed is, as you say, based on a cache of antique pornography (and risqué photographs from the period that were not necessarily pornography too), so I’ve had to account for their original intent. That’s honestly very difficult because I know some readers will want as much sex as is humanly possible. That is why they will buy the book. Others will be like, “God, enough of the sex already. Who are these women?” So it was a fine line and I was always fluorescently aware of it. But I wasn’t drawn to the surface layer initially. I was drawn to the anonymity of the women. Who were they? There is tragedy embedded in these photographs but a lot of that it projected. They make us sad simply because they are dead. But they might’ve been having a ball at the time. My approach was to “listen” to them in the same way that Alice Walker claims to have listened to the characters in her seminal novel, The Color Purple. It was almost clairvoyancy. I just sat there asking the photograph “who are you? What’s the context to you being here?” After collecting all my primary research I went to visit a historian to further narrow down what I’d discovered. I was quite spooked by some of what he had to say as I’d guessed almost precisely who this person, or that person, was. Betty Blythe, a forgotten silver screen actress, was amongst these. Finding her was like the proverbial needle in a haystack and yet it was as direct as water dousing, I unpeeled several layers of history without trying, I was always led in the right direction. I can’t explain that. 

But getting back to your point about “self-consciousness of how one appears to others” – I was initially inspired by a stand of Victorian pornography on a street in Paris. The shapes of the bodies was, for me, the fascinating detail. These women were almost exclusively pear shaped, some quite exaggeratedly so, and yet that is the exact opposite of our physical aspirations as women today. It made me think of a lot of complicated socio-political things, such as the role of plastic surgery and how it sculpts young girl’s perspective on how they should look. And of course, what is, in its natural state, the female body? How should it look? Are we so far removed from nature with our over-saturation of body-fascist media that we don’t know what we are supposed to look like? I think whether you are bothered by your physical appearance or not, we are all victims of this fascism, especially in the era of social media in which prominent women get ripped apart for not participating in this idiocy. There have been some high profile cases of this in the UK and I can see, on the back of that, that another wave of feminism is breaking and boy is it overdue. The women in these photographs look so carefree in their “natural states”. They are not pouting or narrowing their eyes in faux-sexual arousal in the same way that women uniformly do now in everything from cat-food commercials to selfies. God I hate selfies. No, the women in these antique photographs are smiling. Well, mostly. 

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

JLK: The world! I’m on the road quite a bit these days and I usually come away from a country or city with new material. Landscapes that are alien to me inspire me a lot because I’m trying to relate to them, understand them and the people that inhabit them. I’ve recently come back from Canada/ Newfoundland, and the extreme wildness found its way into a poem, “Edith”, that is in my new collection. I’ve used my Newfoundland jottings to explore the perspective of a woman on this side of the Atlantic who is waiting for her husband to return from overseas. The village that my mother’s family comes from has a cemetery with so many empty graves because the men who should be in them died overseas. I’m from that sea-faring tradition so I named the poem after my grandmother and she is the woman in the poem, but the poem came directly from my Newfoundland experiences. Also, I’m writing a novel at the moment and certainly the European-wide swing to the far-right, and additionally the increase in misogyny – those two things are staying at the front of my mind when I’m writing. I write about things that I feel need addressing and these two developments are a constant source of concern, and therefore, inspiration.


Jemma L. King is a poet and critic from the UK. Her debut collection, The Shape of the Forest, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Wales Book of the Year Prize and the Roland Mathias. In 2011, she won the Terry Hetherington Young Welsh Writer of the Year Award. Her second collection, The Undressed, is due to be released at the end of June 2014.
Read Jemma's poem "The End" here.

Jemma L. King: A Poem


And then the world turned didn’t it.
With every second that swam past, an invisible
river that grew, unmistakably,
to a sea, an ocean
with every second

her cells grew smaller, shrank their protean mass
until one day, as she combed her hair and saw
with every second that her skin looked thinner

and then there were children.
And then the children had children.
And one day the bells rang and she was at last framed,
contained, a masterpiece
of once-charged limbs, unclocked and sinking
inwards. Ashes to ashes
dust to dust.
And then the world turned didn’t it.
Songs were still bellowed in the ale-houses, but they changed
as children threw off their playclothes,
played little emperors and baby-makers on
streets where ancestral atoms once

danced and fought and fucked.
And then somebody held the four corners of the globe,
pulled them taut
so that everybody slid,
tumbled shrieking into
a big, bloody mess in the middle
tangling horribly
on barbed wire and deformed
by a fast repetition of taps, each
hole punching family trees back to the great sift
of the earth’s fabric.

It’s a long way, to Tipperary,
it’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way, to Tipperary,
to the sweetest girl I know.
And for the most part they were forgotten,
un-existed, their collective millenia
mulched and pulped, flattened

for their children’s feet. Their children’s children’s feet.
And the world burst into colour,
grew capillaries and screens,
making everyone special, those billion
loveless pouty stares.
And then the world turned didn’t it.
Goodbye Piccadilly, 
farewell Leicester Square, 
it’s a long way to Tipperary, 
but my heart’s still there.

--from The Undressed, Jemma L. King. By permission of the author.
Jemma L. King is a poet and critic from the UK. Her debut collection, The Shape of the Forest, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Wales Book of the Year Prize and the Roland Mathias. In 2011, she won the Terry Hetherington Young Welsh Writer of the Year Award. Her second collection, The Undressed, is due to be released at the end of June 2014.  Read my conversation with Jemma here.

May 21, 2014


Several poets in this series of conversations have spoken of the importance of witness, the personal as political (and vice versa), and the aim to write about, or from, our times. Here, Tim Lilburn takes the poetry conversation for a walk through a landscape of history, identity and politics.

SUSAN GILLIS: What first brought you to poetry? Or, if you prefer, what first brought poetry to you?

TIM LILBURN: Tomaz Salamun, the Slovenian poet, and I were part of a large reading at the National Library in Beijing in 2008. I think the conference was called “China and the World,” something like that, so sinologists from all over the globe and Chinese academics were there, giving talks and glad-handing in the massive, Russian-designed, Soviet-era hall. The poets weren’t part of that conference – we had been doing something rather different, discussing poetics and poetry’s relation to a broadly understood politics, in a rural hotel in Anhui Province, a gathering Xi Chuan had put together – but the Beijing conference organizers had invited the poets to come and close their event with a reading. There were about ten of us from Europe, North America and, of course, the Chinese mainland. Tomaz read before me and after I read, he leaned over to me and asked if poetry had saved my life. This didn’t sound quite right to me, but my sense was that it had saved his. Clearly poetry is important to me, but Salamun’s formulation hadn’t quite caught the nature of this significance.

So how would I put it? Poetry has taught me how to think, how to be in the world, how to walk alongside things, how to love things. That it might have this power and gift has dawned on me slowly since my early thirties, from the time when I started to branch a little from (without giving it up) the formal academic study of philosophy. I’ve been writing poems since my pre-teen years but things really started to take off later.

SG: You’ve been listening closely for some 20 years to a number of Chinese poets, including Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming, whose work you write about eloquently in “A Mandelstamian Generation in China” (Brick 92). In your essay, there emerges the sense that these poet’s poetics, or styles, arise from their being alive in a particular time and place, and that this shared experience unites them in some way. I am interested here in the interplay between I and we, and what we might call (whoever we are, wherever we are) our times. How has your engagement with this generation of Chinese poets influenced the poetry you write of, or from, your time and place?

TL: First of all, as I say in the Brick piece, I believe Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming, along with a handful of others like Ouyang Jianghe, Wang Jiaxin, Duo Duo, Bei Dao and Lan Lan, make up a truly great poetic generation, comparable to the pre-revolutionary Acmeists in Russia (Mandelstam, Akhamatova, etc.), the Milosz-Herbert-Watt group in Poland after World War II and the Spanish speaking poets like Lorca, Vallejo, Jimenez, Neruda who sprang up around the upheaval of Republican Spain. I couldn’t believe my good luck when I met them in the mid-Nineties in Beijing, and of course I was all ears around them. We stayed up night after night, talking. All of the Chinese poets I mentioned grew up during the Cultural Revolution and witnessed, in some way or other, the Tiananmen massacre – after a sufficient number of beers more than a few of them took out what looked to be police photos of crowds in the square, pointing themselves out to me.  Now they behold the current period of staggering economic expansion. Xi Chuan says somewhere that he doesn’t so much pursue a style but hopes that his times, with their convulsion, speed and violence, will shape the form of his writing. He pretty well vanished as a writer after the events of 1989, reappearing later with a commitment to “bad poetry.” The implication, in his case, is that gorgeous, craft-rich, largely Romantic work would be an assist to the regime, a tip of the hat to the status quo, tamed and useful. Like the Chilean generals trying to make Neruda into Theocritus.

What would it be to write in a way that was symmetrical and permeable to our times here in Canada? Everyone will answer this for herself or himself, or dismiss the matter as ludicrous, but for me it involves an alertness to First Nations’ efforts at self-determination; a re-examination of settler culture’s cheery narrative of continuous development; and the marooned helplessness of objects made weightless, insubstantial, by utilitarian rationality. I am not saying work must be topical but why wouldn’t you want it to be available to a deeper form of the zeitgeist, that huge energy source?

SG: Besides things literary, what is inspiring you these days?

TL: We live in a dark time – climate change, Harperism’s suspicion of the intellectual life and the rule of law; a tendency to place aggressive promotion of one’s group or style where thinking usually is. Not a great deal frankly, either within literary culture or outside it, in Canada now inspires me. I am amazed, though by the regeneration of some First Nations’ languages; I am braced by how writers like Ouyang Jianghe or Poland’s Tomasz Rozycki try to lift up the hurt and ill-definition of their cultures, to let those forces speak through their work. Here is genuine depth and generous imagination. I am also interested in what visual artists like Sandra Meigs (in her basement panorama series), Kent Monkman, Marlene Creates and Heather Benning now are doing. There seems so much more ambition, risk and reach in their work than in most of the North American writing I read. 

Tim Lilburn's work has been translated into French, Chinese, Serbian, and Polish. In addition to the Governor General’s Award, his work has received the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award, and the Saskatchewan Nonfiction Award. His most recent book of poetry is Assiniboia (M&S, 2012).