December 16, 2015

Opening a Place: Ben Lerner in LRB

Back in the summer of 2015 when I still liked poetry, liked it idly, as I was gardening, say, or doing the dishes, that is, without thinking about it too much, I missed Ben Lerner's inviting consideration of poetry (and Poetry) in the London Review of Books (18 June 2015 issue).

Coming to it over coffee this morning with the first snow of the season melting from the deck, I experienced a renewal of sorts.

Here it is, in case you missed it too, or would simply like to return to it now.

December 1, 2015

Truth and Surfaces: Gabe Foreman In Conversation

Gabe Foreman makes poems that render little secrets in image and music; they often turn corners into the unexpected: streets, parks, neighbourhoods, backyards and byways of the adventuring psyche.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

GABE FOREMAN: I think that the writing of poetry first came to me on a school bus. When I was a teenager, I used to ride one of those big yellow buses with a friend and neighbour who went to a different school. She had been given an assignment to write a handful of love poems for her English class, for Valentines Day. When she asked me if I would write the poems for her, I agreed. I can't remember the content of the poems very well, but I do remember that it was liberating to write poems as somebody else. I had written things for my own courses, but something about ghost-writing poems for a friend made the process more relaxed, and more fun. I wasn't trying to make them too good, and that probably made the poems better. If I remember correctly, I think we got a satisfactory grade.

In terms of reading poetry, I remember enjoying the mix of darkness and humour in poets like Leonard Cohen, and T.S. Eliot, that I was assigned to read for my own creative writing course. I liked the darkness, and the surprising imagery, and the rhymes.

SG: I'm interested in what you say about ghost-writing -- not exactly in the voice of a persona, more like you-not-you. Do you still write this way? Is it one of the necessary conditions? What else have you carried forward from those formative experiences with poetry?

GF: I think that the 'you-not-you' observation makes sense. There is a personal core to a lot of what I write, but I'm more than happy to change the terms of the argument in the original draft for the sake of humour, imagery, sound, or some other aesthetic goal. I feel like the 'truth' of the original experience remains in some form, and the reader can detect it. Maybe that's false, but I think that starting poems from real experiences, or from ideas that I care about, makes a difference in how I write a poem, and adds an important element of contrast to the end result. Is the poem serious or is it a joke? I like absurdity and humour, but I feel like my favourite humour has a current of some 'serious' experience running underneath it, muddying the waters.

In 2003, I was at a talk by Margaret Avison where she said that when she was three years old, she went outside with a toy shovel to play in her sandbox, but was disappointed to find that the sand had frozen solid because winter was coming. No one had told her that the sand could do that. She told us that the devastation she felt at that moment was as real as any devastation she had felt since. Emotions do not age, she said. I thought that was wise and interesting and tried to apply this general principle to my first book. I wanted to keep the emotive core of the things I write about, the truth of the emotion, but play around with the surface details.

In A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People I tried to deploy a lot of vaguely universal places, nameless cities and lakes, so that the action was potentially taking place anywhere. I broke that rule more than once, and named specific places, but I wanted to use a host of generic Dick-and-Jane sort of names, so that the characters were somewhat interchangeable, cardboard cut-outs of you and me, on the assumption that our similarities may outweigh our differences. We've all experienced grief, love, disappointment, etc. A lot of the silliest poems in A Complete Encyclopdia are actually kind of personal. I write about failed and successful friendships, love, anger, insecurities, ideas, and more specifially, about my father's suicide, but I like to change things and have fun with language. I've changed names to protect the reality, to mimic encyclopedic objectivity, and at the same time, to poke fun at that objectivity. It's me, but it's not me.

Gabe Foreman grew up in Northwestern Ontario. His first collection, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House, 2011) was awarded the A.M. Klein Prize for poetry, and was shortlisted for the Concordia First Book Prize. More recently, he has read several poems as an on-air guest at the CBC Montreal morning show, Daybreak, and illustrated two books: Halifax Hal, by Nick Thran (Bayeux Arts) and The Rude Story of English, by Tom Howell (Random House). Gabe lives in Montreal where he manages a soup kitchen. Read his poem Mammoth here.

November 6, 2015

Gabe Foreman: A Poem

Gabe Foreman

At the point where individual talent breaks down
through the clouds, and intersects tradition with a flash,
T.S. Eliot is there in the flesh
exposing himself
to the hollowness of language.

Using words good, a linguist on the lake
howls at the smoky shore
until the author of The Waste Land appears
adjacent to the mud hut,
his cape of lightning flapping.

Hitting high and low notes nice
in the hut’s northeast corner,
two singers caress the sin tax
their lyrics owe to Prufrock.
Like Satan in his cathedral,
T.S. Eliot is other people
nobody’s him.

A pandemonium of subterranean caverns
flap and deflate at the whims of Eliot,
who spread verbal misdemeanors like mozzarella,
who fills awkward silences like saints fill days on the calendar.
Rhetorical devices sprint down the starless slope
flutter on their backs, fly up, thud against Orion’s Belt, explode.
‘I myself am language, nobody’s me,’ quotes the sky.
It’s what the thunder’s friend, a cave, once said,
according to the sea. According to the Earth,
the substance under everything we trust
is just a fossil tusk becoming dust
as all things must. 

Gabe Foreman grew up in Northwestern Ontario. His first collection, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House, 2011) was awarded the A.M. Klein Prize for poetry, and was shortlisted for the Concordia First Book Prize. More recently, he has read poems on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, and illustrated two books: Halifax Hal, by Nick Thran (Bayeux Arts) and The Rude Story of English, by Tom Howell (Random House). Gabe lives in Montreal where he manages a soup kitchen.

Image by Mirja Paljakka, courtesy of Red Edge Images

October 3, 2015

Nyla Matuk In Conversation

The night was chilly--cold even. The occasion was a reading at The Word Bookstore in Montreal. Nyla's voice held the room like a glass ornament, suspended.

SUSAN GILLIS:  What brought you to poetry in the beginning?

NYLA MATUK: As a child, I learned the usual nursery rhymes and Edward Lear limericks and as a teenager would walk the halls of my high school with a fellow callous sophisticate, both of us having memorized large portions of T.S. Eliot (I knew all of “The Waste Land” and several of the early poems) and feeling the need to drop lines at people randomly, in our adolescent misanthropy. But poetry ended there, for almost 20 years. At 21, while reading Nabokov’s short stories, and early novels, I decided I wanted to be a fiction writer and I won a fiction prize at McGill, although I didn’t write or publish any short fiction for over 10 years after that. Then I realized in my mid-30s that I simply wasn’t all that committed or interested in creating fictional characters and (especially!) figuring out how to get them from A to B.

Sometime around 2002 or 2003 I started writing lines and short poems, and the first poem I wrote, I sent out to Greenboathouse Books, who published it on their website along with one other poem. Around that time, I started to read Elizabeth Bishop, Michael Hofmann, and a few others from the U.K. Grad school and my romance with fiction shut poetry out for a long time; but I could also say it just took me a very long time to figure out the way my creative energy really worked, and to find the confidence to try something new yet strangely familiar. My discovery of Wallace Stevens was a watershed, a few years later. It helped me acknowledge that language has always been such a charged centre of my being in the world: I learned French almost at the same time as I learned English, and I lived with ESL parents who aren’t particularly literary (though my father reading to me as a child was, and is clearly, a very important catalyst for this charged relationship to language, not to mention my hearing foreign languages spoken at home). By the time I was writing what was to be included in my first collection of poems, my writing life had become more about consciousness on the page, and less about using language wholly denotatively.

SG: You're also an excellent prose stylist, as the fascinating "Commentary" section of Sumptuary Laws reminds me, and there is no shortage of characters and stories in the poems. You have also written enjoyable and convincing essays on a variety of subjects. I would like to ask about genre in terms of the relation between thinking and writing. Do you think about genre conventions and differences as you write? How do you think about genre (sorry for the pun) generally?

NM: I’ve noticed an affinity between poetry and essays in my writing, and I consider the two genres to reside at the opposite end of the spectrum from fiction writing, which I’m far less drawn into. Essay and poem are two related aspects of my use of language, while fiction demands some other, thespian register. Often, I’m writing through a persona (not myself) when I write essays/prose, and certainly there was a stylized self behind the Commentary section in Sumptuary Laws, and in many of the essays I wrote for A given persona also speaks in several of the poems in Sumptuary Laws, but as I’ve developed since its publication, I’ve jettisoned the persona and begun to write poems from my own standpoint—not usually a confessional standpoint, but on occasion it might be. This isn’t to say my curiosity hasn’t been satisfied writing through a persona, but it’s possible I’m growing out of relying on her. I think of the essays on Ryeberg as kinds of lazy poetry, I suppose, where I was able to relax some of my aural inclinations—the ones I recruit when I’m writing poems.

A recent essay I wrote was rooted in my own lived experience, and appeared in Partisan magazine earlier this year; in those cases where the inquiry isn’t aesthetic, I would never write from a persona’s voice since I want to elucidate something autobiographically without overt self-irony.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days? And if I can add to that question, where do you look for poetry you haven’t encountered before?

NM: Curiously, I’ve returned to a preoccupation with the strange, which I had explored in my chapbook Oneiric. In those poems, however, it was about the uncanny—the familiar meeting the strange, as in dreams. Now I am mostly curious about self-estrangement and the undiscovered, as catalysts for curiosity and appetite. I think maybe a fitting inquiry for an almost-midlife book, which is what I might write next. It’s this quality of living in embodied space, and the way it’s unpredictable, unlike one’s constant label/identity, so much a part of online living. What happens outside that over-determined identity and audience-focused content? I look for new poetry based on what’s being reviewed in journals and the newspapers, or talked about online. And the recommendations or interests of friends. I must admit I return often to the same poets, or else I seek out books of theirs I haven’t read yet. Other ways I’m inspired just happen from reading, for instance, about art, or being in a certain situation (recently, a VIA train I was on struck and killed a pedestrian; the other day I wrote a poem after looking out my balcony on a July evening).

Nyla Matuk is the author of Sumptuary Laws (Vehicule Press, 2012) and a chapbook of poems, Oneiric (Frog Hollow Press, 2009). Sumptuary Laws was named a National Post best book of poetry in 2012 and nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Matuk received a Yaddo fellowship in 2014 and was the 2015 Reynolds Atelier Visiting Artist at McGill University. Her poems have appeared recently in PN Review, The Fiddlehead, and the New Poetries VI anthology published by Carcanet Press in 2015. Read her poem Gloriette here. 

August 28, 2015

Nyla Matuk: A Poem

Nyla Matuk

First of the year, we’re snowbound, in debt
to the city’s surpluses. Humble strips of flashing

discern corners between Prada and Burberry
espied by lorgnette, stretched by silver mirror,

or Mary’s soul magnifying our Lord.
Elegance is a glam accompanist, a buttery scroll,

the distanced pace before a gauntlet’s dropped, 
and a dish best served cold.

(from Sumptuary Laws [Signal, 2012]. Reproduced by permission)

Nyla Matuk's poems have appeared recently in PN Review, The Fiddlehead, and New Poetries VI.

Photo of mannequin head by Scarlet James, courtesy of Red Edge Images

August 20, 2015

Cassidy McFadzean in Conversation

Where would poetry be without talk about poets?  I first heard about Cassidy McFadzean in Arc ("the up-and-comers issue," #73), in a memorable introduction to her work by Medrie Purdham. You might remember Medrie from our conversation and her poem in this blog.

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

CASSIDY MCFADZEAN: I didn’t read a lot of poetry growing up. I read a bit of E. E. Cummings in highschool, and wrote bad Cummings imitations, but my main interest was short stories and novels in translation, my favourites being Notes From Underground and Crime and Punishment. In University, I didn’t take a lot of poetry outside the requirements and certainly wasn’t writing it. In retrospect, I think that something had to click in my brain before I was ready for poetry. I didn’t understand that a poem was the effect of its form, sounds, and techniques on the page—that a good poem couldn’t be paraphrased without losing its magic. I didn’t get it.

This changed the last year of my undergrad when I took a creative writing workshop with Regina poet Medrie Purdham. Medrie’s love for poetry made the genre irresistible. I began to see that those things I loved in fiction—the rhythm of a line or an immediacy of language— could be even more heightened in poetry. I began reading contemporary Canadian poets and really thinking about the effects of form and sound for the first time. It was in this workshop that I also met my husband, Nathan, who was reading Canadian poets like Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, and Jeramy Dodds, as well as Americans like Frederick Seidel and Michael Robbins, poets whose work pays attention to rhyme and form but also the contemporary world, the strangeness of being alive. Poetry has been the main focus of my writing life since encountering these works.

SG: Your poems have the kind of formal control I associate with musical composition, certain kinds of photography, choreography. You describe that formal awareness clicking for you as though it’s making poetry spring open; what is the relation between form and subject for you?

CM: I hadn’t really thought about the formal control of those art forms, but I think you’re onto something. As an admirer of visual arts, music, and dance, I’m most moved by the tension between freedom of expression and constraint, an invisible charge that I can almost feel as an audience member or gallery-goer.

I think when I write, I strive for a similar balance between chaos and control, or—because my book deals so much with the classical world—the Dionysian and Apollonian. Sometimes my use of form gestures to subject matter, and I think the structure of a poem is another way of evoking the feeling, tone, or energy of a piece, another way to express its texture. Other times, a pattern develops that at first might be unconscious, but lends scaffolding to a poem that might otherwise become too unwieldy. As an artist, I am interested in using all the tools available to create the aesthetics of a piece. Form allows me to explore another element of a thing, and to look at ideas and images from another angle, one that isn’t so easily put into words but expressed through patterns and what’s below the surface of language.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?
Reading the news seems to be affecting me the most, especially on Twitter. It is impossible to read of police murdering another innocent black man or woman in the US, or the injustices uncovered by the TRC here in Canada, and not feel like my work must address it in some way.

SG: Where do you look for poetry by other writers?

I’ve found some of the most exciting work shared online by other writers. This is how I came upon Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong," which was shared by a bunch of poets a few weeks ago, with good reason.

Cassidy McFadzean is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015). She has been a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize, the Walrus Poetry Prize, and won second place in the 2014 Short Grain Contest. McFadzean lives in Regina and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Read her poem Stag Hunt Mosaic here.

August 3, 2015

Cassidy McFadzean: A Poem

Cassidy McFadzean

We return to places we’ve already been.
The path outside the city pulls us in.

Winter kept our footprints whole,
mud-covered fossils hidden under snow,

so walking on old steps weighs the negatives of who
we were against the imprints of what we’ve become.

This year, my body is locust-thwacked.
Their buzzing bodies struck my skin

and landed on tilled earth, whirling insects
like spinning tops animated from within. 

There’s an order to such tiny things.
Is our passage any less stupid or dizzy?

My fortune cookie promised
I’d meet a stranger on an unpaved road.

I found the blue jay with a cut wing in a tree.
His triangle gash shadow-painted branches.

Between two hills and the rusted tractors
abandoned in a straight line, we feel the weight of sky.

We’re a tin can crushed by the rubber of your shoe.
We’re the shell of a seed that splits in two.

We stand on red and yellow leaves,
the cloak of round petals peeled over ground

like mosaic tiles leading to the valley’s portico.
In smooth pebbles at the river’s bed

the stag emerges from still water,
his antlers, hands reaching from scattered stones.  

Cassidy McFadzean is the author of Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015). She has been a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize, the Walrus Poetry Prize, and won second place in the 2014 Short Grain Contest. Cassidy lives in Regina and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Read our conversation here.

Image by Mirja Paljakka/courtesy of Red Edge

July 15, 2015

So Awesomely Cheeky: In Conversation with Linda Besner

I met Linda Besner when we read Tolstoy out loud together one autumn in a small group. Things would bubble up through her reading: undercurrents in dialogue, subtle complexities of society and politics. We'd forget it was snowing, or late, or that we had work yet to do. That the same ebullience turns up in her poetry and her talk is not the least bit surprising, and a great delight.

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

LINDA BESNER: I didn’t get exposed to poetry much in school, but when I was a kid my family had a tonne of British story tapes—Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan—all read by actors. I think I got a lot of my interest in prosody from listening to those recitations over and over.

Then in Cégep I got interested in the Greeks—I still have my little copy of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Greek Lyrics with notes from when I was seventeen—“Opposes the heroic view of ‘Come back with your shield or on it’” and “I made it, screw the ideal.” Those are on Archilochus’ fragment 3:
     Some barbarian is waving my shield, since I was obliged to 
        leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind 
     under a bush. But I got away, so what does it matter? 
        Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

I think I was attracted to pieces like this for how direct and immediate they feel—there’s still something neat to me about being able to hear someone’s voice so clearly thousands of years later.

And it’s so awesomely cheeky! The ignominy of “under a bush” kills me.

SG: Voice, comedy, tragedy, their inter-relation--these elements are at the forefront of your work, at least in my reading of it, carrying me further into each poem. Is there a cast of characters bumbling and/or gliding through the poems' worlds, a dramatis personae through whom someone (perhaps you) is speaking, or something more like an omniscient maker, setting up the funny-odd, funny-ha-ha worlds your poems stage for us?

LB: I’d say the latter. Some of the poems are set up as dramatic monologues (like Bathtub Showroom, which takes on the voice of a bathtub salesperson) but it seems to me that the personae of the poems are all essentially disguises, a set of false beards that barely hide the winking chin of the omniscient maker, so to speak. In that bathtub poem, the salesperson is him/herself making up characters—“A basin readymade for little Jim’s tadpoles, or Auntie Jean’s/ homemade gherkins”—who are themselves wraiths meant to conjure, half-sardonically, an ideal family life.

I think none of the speakers in this book are anything I would call real, even those closest to myself. I’m interested in the ideas and feelings that pull against each other, and this interest tends to militate against cohesion or consistency in the poems. At the same time, I hate the idea of randomness and meaninglessness! So I think the tragicomic note you’re hearing is me struggling to reconcile a seemingly cruelly random world with my own need for order and structure. If there is an omniscient maker of these poems, that speaker is still not omnipotent—-you can know a lot without being able to control much of anything. So the extent to which the maker can set up the world of a poem is limited by the inherent contrariness of reality and of language. I wouldn’t say that my poems stage a weirdness, exactly—I think the materials of life just *are* quite weird. The absurdity that reads as funny isn’t something that I’d say I go in search of—-it’s something I’d say I’m perpetually trying to wrestle into some kind of sense. I don’t see being funny as an end in itself.

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

LB:  I moved back to Montreal a year and a half ago (I'm from Quebec but have lived in New Brunswick, BC, and Ontario over the past 15 years or so), and being back in a francophone environment is pretty great. My French is far from perfect, but being reminded that I have access to a whole second language as well as a separate set of historical and cultural references is a huge boon.

I essentially want to answer this question like I'm listing Oprah's favourite things of the month: Crayola markers, Nancy Mitford, kites, street signs, Heather Christle, cucumber water, the LRB, the coming environmental apocalypse. Those are essentially all hovering, psychically or otherwise, on or near my desk right now. As well as a bunch of books in which I have been searching fruitlessly for guidance on journalistic ethics--seriously, I kind of wish there were some sort of exam you had to pass before they let an idiot like me go around reporting on other people's lives. I'm not sure if "inspiring" is quite the word, but I am awake at night thinking about that a lot--what the ethics are of my choosing to write about certain things, either as a journalist or a poet. Especially because (with poetry) I've recently been using text that I see in ads or online as a departure point, I'm aware that people who blog or otherwise post their thoughts online don't always understand the ramifications--that someone like me could come along and use their text in a way they didn't intend. I do it in a way that's legal, but is it fair? Does it matter when it's pretty much 99% certain that the person who wrote some tag line for a travel ad to Aruba will not see the poem I've written that uses their line as a title? What about if it's a line from a personal blog? I guess I'm wondering these days how I can write about what interests me--which is often, frankly, other people's experiences and generally a lot of things that are none of my business--without being a jerk in some respect.

Linda Besner’s first book of poetry, The Id Kid (Véhicule Press) was one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. She was a 2013 MacDowell Colony Fellow, and her poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely, including in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, Hazlitt, and Best Canadian Poetry 2012. She lives in Montreal where she works as a journalist. Read her poem Paris in the the Spring here

July 7, 2015

Linda Besner: A Poem

Linda Besner

We were orbiting the étoile of the Arc de Triomphe in its
its traffic circle. We drove our attention before us and in
in her silver heels she ran revolutions,
her braided mane lashing the reins
of our chariot. Maypoling
the neoclassically naked
men and angels, in our haste
to sightsee we swung past what
what we saw, kept losing
the Louvre, eliding the Élysées.
Like astronauts who,
sans gravity’s lorgnette, can’t
can’t tell a white vase from black faces.
Then a gap in traffic burst upon us
like a clock radio revival tent.
The parking meter,
an Eiffel smoothed flat, now
now sprang into view.
My father, the cognitive scientist,
was running alongside us.
He motioned that his hand was caught in
in the automatic window.
I hadn’t noticed. 

(from The Id Kid [Signal/Véhicule]. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

Linda Besner’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines across Canada, including The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, and Hazlitt, and been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry 2012. She lives in Montreal where she works as a journalist. The Id Kid was named on of the National Post's best poetry books of 2011.
(Photo by Rebecca Cozart. Reproduced by permission of Red Edge Images.)

June 17, 2015

My First Poem Was Jacked, Every Line: Larissa Andrusyshyn in Conversation

You have to be quick to catch up with Larissa Andrusyshyn . On any given day, she might be hosting the pub quiz in your neighbourhood, or animating poetry workshops with at-risk youth, or tending to rescue pets at the animal shelter, or riding elephants or dancing with monkeys or taking cooking classes in Thailand...well, you get the picture.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry--or how did poetry come to you? 

LARISSA ANDRUSYSHYN: My first poem was jacked, every line stolen, or fed to me by my mom for a father's day card, which you can see in the picture. My spelling has not improved.

When I was young I was obsessed with reading. I wrote on my mother's old electric typewriter, little stories, that kept getting erased or deleted. I was a morose little kid, in grade school I loved folk music; Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan, anything with sad lyrics. I remember memorizing and reciting some poetry that my mom loved (Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee") but not very much. But I had a particularly wonderful English teacher in grade 7, Mrs. Pryer, who led the class in a semester of poetry and  I wrote my first poem for her class, I still have it, about how I was like a dandelion. It was tough at that school; I was weirdo and did not relate to my classmates easily and they were all to happy to remind me of that. I just remember walking into class the morning it was due and reading it to her and a little crowd gathered around me. I felt something had changed for me right then. That poem was published in the school paper and shared at a parent/teacher meeting. I was suddenly existing, singled-out for something. I have never stopped writing since. I carried notebooks and filled them with angsty poems. I switched schools and was accused of plagiarism more than once (very flattering). I was never much good at anything else and nothing drew me like poetry did. 

It's the perfect repository for the reclusive weirdo that I am. I can write about any little curiosity I like, I can lie and I can also tell the terrifying truth. I love that I hop from subject to subject. I can fixate  on every word, line break or speck of punctuation. I love the machinery of it in that way. Poems are complex little structures and you build as much as you tear down when you make them.

SG: Many of your poems connect something comic to a variety of emergencies, large and little. I’ve known you to build and tear down in great swathes as you work, almost as though the poem were living on a huge canvas, or as a spatial installation, and I’m wondering what role you would say that kind of compositional energy plays in the things you choose to write about.

LA: It's interesting to consider that subject would influence composition or vice versa. I definitely do build and destroy a lot when I write; I'm like a city planner and a Godzilla all at once, I suppose. I think when I get caught by something enough to need to write about it there's an exuberant, over-zealous energy I have. I get downright giddy when I have a new poem banging on the door. I write way too much, go off on tangents, follow dead leads and make a giant, confusing structure out of it. I research a lot and often get emotionally attached to the subject. I can't read about a dung beetle navigating the desert using the milky way without falling in love with it really, in that sick, mad and wandering the streets kind of way. I tend also to ruminate about new poems and sometimes a first, or last, line will occur to me later and I can go back and start to see where the real poem is supposed to be. I guess I just pile the paint on the canvass and wait until I figure out what the composition is really about. I do try to let it rest before I start to hack away at it though. But it's easier to pare down than it is to build up.

I think that the subjects that draw me are often a nice tangle of comic and tragic. I gravitate toward the whimsical and surprising and very often the natural world. If my writing style influences what I write about then I think it could account for why I write about things that are too 'big' for poems. 

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

I've been to so many readings and book launches lately. Some of them even had free wine. That's pretty inspiring. 

I'm also very affected by the work I do. I run creative writing workshops for incarcerated or at-risk youth through the QWF's 'Writers in the Community' program. I get to connect to kids who really need it and I see them learn to create something that is validating to them and I get to share in their process. It's enough to keep me renewing this vow of poverty I took with no regrets. 

Larissa Anrdusyshyn is a Montreal-based poet and educator. Read her poem Hieroglyphica here.

June 8, 2015

Larissa Andrusyshyn: A Poem

Larissa Andrusyshyn

No one suspects the scaly-winged pick pocket.

Night, dark with insect patter, proboscis—
a mouth like a straw that unfolds
into the eyes of sleeping birds.

The moth is turning a wound inside out,
release in the orchid and tree bark.
Stomach contents: grief and disaster.

In the dark forests of Madagascar
a transient in imago;
this Lepidoptera hunts the lacrimal.

Imagine the dry eyes of sparrows,
the slender-billed flufftail, the cuckoo,
all waking with a  sadness they can’t shake.

from Proof (DC Books, 2015). Reproduced by permission of the author.

May 20, 2015

Even Absurdity Can Take Itself Too Seriously: Pearl Pirie in Conversation

Photo  by Brian Pirie
I first heard Pearl Pirie's voice one warm summer day in a drafty, light-filled barn near Perth, Ontario. A healthy measure of the comical spiked with a pinch of gravitas marks it as hers, whether she's working the Japanese senryu, narrative exploration, lyric snapshot, or any of the many other modes she takes on. We talked about how she does it in a recent email exchange, where poetry may slide or sidle over to prose and back.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

PEARL PIRIE: Poetry was always there. Once, I was a wee tobogganer and after a particularly good run down the tractor-made pile of snow in the yard under the basswood, I ran indoors for a pencil stub —too short to be of any use, of which we had a canful— and paper pulled off from the roll of the adding machine, to capture the experience of sledding in free verse. I sat out there at the base of the run on my crazy carpet, mittenless hands stiff with cold, to not lose a thing. When I compiled my best-of the few years I copied it over into my stapled looseleaf book.

Poetry was and is everywhere. Anthologies in the house. In the school curriculum. It is children’s literature. In music. Some of my earliest memories are reading it, memorizing I Think Mice Are Rather Nice in grade 1 and reciting it to the class. And writing my own poems in school, reading them at home from Poems Children Will Sit Still For: A Selection for Primary Grades (Scholastic, 1969) which I bought for myself along with a doll tall as me with elastic bands on her feet so you could dance with her. That was at a yard sale up in some twisty road out by Jasper, or Lombardy.

Apparently my dad wrote poetry which I didn’t know until after he died, being told in the same breath that he had written poems up to the 60s and that he had destroyed them all. Which went to explain what happened a few years earlier when I quoted Purdy to him in conversation and started to explain he was a poet. There, one of the sharpest looks he’d ever thrown as he said, what kind of daft fool do you take me for. I course I know who Purdy is. I can’t remember how much of that was said with the the look and how much with the words.

Not that he’d ever mentioned Purdy or poetry. Robert Service had as permanent of spot on the shelf as the Bible or encyclopedias but I never saw a sign that any of them were opened except by me. My aunt self-published a book of her verses, but so far as Poets Out There there was Anthos magazine eventually. I submitted to that as a 14-or 15-year-old. Got a nice rejection letter back.

SG: You depict a kind of rambunctious attention in that early self. Many of your poems work this way, dancing and sitting still at the same time; they crack the surfaces of their subjects, freeing all kinds of things to jump out. Does your writing process also work this way? And however it works, how or when do you decide "here be poem"?

PP: I've recently thought I could make 2  books by dividing composition by time of day, the dense jumpy poems of the first 4 hours of a day's writing and the smoother simpler ones that tend to come when I'm over hour 6 or 8 for a day.

when is something a poem? devil of a word, poem, but we have to call  things something. capital P poem becomes needlessly contentious, divisive. would it be useful to have more terms? is it a term more useful for marketing?

I suppose i gut know when something "has legs" once it gets to a stage where i know someone who would be amused by it or get it. (mostly the gut goes no, nah, nuh-huh, nope, next.)

when is it useful as a thought? if a poem sticks with you maybe it dazzles but doesn't do work. if it dazzles at first and doesn't unveil more with each subsequent read, maybe it efficiently made its change and propelled you to whatever's next.

I like the extraneous because nothing is as consistent as we think but that's in tension with liking a system that fits together as this utterance might not. feel free to ask where i've left out bridges. Narrative is dishonest with self and disrespectful to the listener. phatic nil content with the illusion of sense. I’d stand behind what Marshall Hryciuk said in petals in the dark (Catkin, 2015) “learn to avoid the cause-effect writing that is the backbone of plot” because such linear development is irrational. even absurdity can take itself too seriously. if you are too chaotic it is stressful but too much order and control is as well. I like devices that add back randomness to counter the automatic story/lie-making mind.

there’s the mind in it’s box. the more you think, the more serious. which is why actions speak stronger than words.

SG: What's inspiring you these days, outside of poetry?

PP: That word inspiring keeps coming. can't make head or tails if it; it comes from breath of god which is magical-thinking.

humhemhaw. downtime, uptime, publishing, radio show and social are all with poets. anything else is out of the top 10. (i clearly need more life balance. )

if we skip that word, inspiring, the question becomes existential or seeks endorsement of something.

inspire. what makes me breathe easier or faster? i get pleasure and anxiety from everything.

let's see. non-poetry. seed catalogues are there. eventually cycling will cycle back. we're browsing the internet for places to travel to. I'm pecking away at French and Mandarin, but again those intersect with poetry. i'm big on the Tang Dynasty this spring.

Pearl Pirie' most recent collection is the pet radish, shrunken (BookThug). Chapbooks include today's woods (above/ground) & polyphonic choral of civet tongues and manna (unarmed). She gives workshops and talks on poetry for various organizations,  hosts Literary Landscape on CKCU radio and has recently become president of KaDo, an national capital area group devoted to haiku and related asian forms.

May 8, 2015


Pearl Pirie

weeding, my hands come up
smelling of spearmint

its rhizomes go-go-gadgets
its spaghetti through the soil.

my mint shampoo
hints incognito/continuity.

something lands oddly.
I pat my head, stroke

the back of a bumblebee.
we each freeze, realize

the mistake in progress. each
takes the necessary actions

of distance. correct courses
dissolve into non-incident.

Pearl Pirie’s most recent collection is the pet radish, shrunken (BookThug). She lives in Ottawa.

April 16, 2015

A poem I've read dozens of times over the years suddenly appears as though I'd never seen it before. This is not unlike the effect of spring's first blossoms. Has the world ever seemed so charged? When the book fell open to "Elegy," I remembered this was the poem I'd been waiting for all my life.

Tomas Tranströmer
            (translated by Robin Fulton)

I open the first door.
It's a large sunlit room.
A heavy car goes past in the street
and makes the porcelain tremble.

I open door number two.
Friends! You drank the darkness
and became visible.

Door number three. A narrow hotel-room.
Outlook on a back street.
A lamp sparking on the asphalt.
Beautiful slag of experiences.

From Tomas Transtromer, New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton. Bloodaxe Books, 2011. Reproduced with kind permission of  the publisher.

(Girts Gailans, courtesy Red Edge Images)

April 7, 2015


Several years after hearing first murmurs, then exclamations, about Sandra Ridley's evocative poems, I discovered them for myself. We met one summer afternoon in Tamworth, in the garden of Robert and Lorie Wright's bookshop. Sandra had stopped to take in a poetry reading on her way to a month-long retreat in the woods.   

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

SANDRA RIDLEY: Poetry didn’t find me until I was in my twenties. Until then, I didn’t know what poetry could be, and even now, I can’t define it. Aside from “In Flanders Fields” and King Lear, I can’t remember reading any other poems in high school. Does that mean the curricula contained material that didn’t resonate with me or does that mean a faulty memory? I don’t know. The first poems I’m conscious of I came across while doing graduate work in Environmental Studies at York University. My thesis was on the sacredness of place. Part of my questioning at the time was how can we begin to save our spaces without first encountering the “sacred” within them—and, how can we express that in a meaningful way, outside the language of resource-based economics? That common kind of clear-cut language strips nature of its intrinsic value.

It was thrilling to read the work of nature poets like Annie Dillard, Diane Ackerman, Don McKay, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Thoreau, too, seemed a poet to me. I partnered their work with the philosophies of walking. The walking part was important for me to consider as well. How else can we understand and speak of place, urban or more ‘natural’, without walking within it? Solvitur ambulando.

I realize almost all of the poets I mentioned are American, which in hindsight, is strange and unfortunate. I began to look at Canadian contemporary poetry after completing the MES program, and the world opened up for me.

SG: Your poems and poem-chains, if I can call them that, unfold the way a walk unfolds, over terrain that’s varied yet consistent, of a place. We’re somewhere recognizable, yet also surprising and new. Where does a poem start for you, and how does it develop? Are you conscious of language calling to you the way a certain place might, or does it begin more often with a subject, an idea?

SR: Language is informed by landscape. I’d even say that language is a landscape—or the poem is. For me, a poem needs to contain a particular place and time. It needs to somehow embody it on the page. This becomes its atmosphere, its emotive space, which then creates the trajectory for the narrative of the work. This is a roundabout way of answering you question. I suppose I’m saying that, being tethered to each other, both language and place frame my work.  I don’t feel them to be separate at all.

Tangible subjects and ideas do become embedded in the landscape of a poem, but they’re secondary for me. Those are the surprising for me. In thinking about a 1950s farm on the prairie, or a remote tuberculosis sanatorium, or a room in a Victorian house, my starting point was to imagine the mood of those spaces before considering who might be there and what might be happening. Narrative can build with small, fragmentary moments, which gather and open large, but it’s the landscape’s language that is the frame.

SG: What is inspiring you these days?

SR: The quiet of snow? To be honest, it’s been a rough couple of years with death and illness. And our planet is quickly turning into a dystopia. Inspired? I’m not feeling it these days but I’m looking for it, wanting to acknowledge it in its rare moments and to allow it in. I’ve been in a deep fallow period. No doubt some inspiration is here, but it’s impossible to recognize. I’ve been reading and thinking—walking and daydreaming. I may not be actively writing, but a thematic frame for a new serial work is slowly coming together. The collecting phase can be a long one.

Consider the interior landscape, the atmosphere, of a waxworks museum. Inside is a locked cabinet of curios. If you could open it, you’d find seemingly disparate ideas and objects: a handbook of ciphers; vintage images of Nikola Tesla’s Magnifying Transmitter for electrical power, fata morganas and St. Elmo’s fire; the Cottingley Fairies; diagrams of automaton clocks and windup toys; photos of Victorian séances and diaries of the scientist sceptics within the Society of Psychical Research; the spiritualist essays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and the head of Edward Mordrake, a 19th century nobleman born with two faces, his own and that of a woman who would whisper hauntings to him at night, bringing on his madness. The trick for me is to figure out how or why they were all placed in the cabinet together. That’s the key to the lock. If I can find the key, and with the atmosphere of the waxworks museum already set, the poems will start to write themselves. 

Sandra Ridley is the author of three books of poetry: Fallout (Hagios Press), Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press), and most recently, The Counting House (BookThug). She has taught poetry at Carleton University and has mentored poets through Ottawa Salus and Artswells’ “Footprints to Recovery” program for people living with mental illness. Sandra has also facilitated poetry workshops for the City of Ottawa, Ottawa Public Library, and the Tree Reading series. Read an excerpt of her long poem Vigil/Vestige here.

March 25, 2015


Priska Wettstein, courtesy of Red Edge Images

From Vigil/Vestige

and liable to rapture
in the hours before dawn.

We’re beckoned to the lake
to the ruin.

An omen.

Our salvage—shivering by the weeds.

Revenant, we falter toward the good—
for the smallest amount of the most worthless thing.

and with shy sweats
and the cold we’re night-blind by.

After-dream terrors
of a slaughterhouse—
or a labyrinth
to a slaughterhouse.


One by one.

Our frights
and nerves.

Sandra Ridley is the author of three books of poetry: Fallout (Hagios Press), Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press), and most recently, The Counting House (BookThug). She knows how to use a compass. Read our conversation on landscape, language and poetry here.

March 18, 2015

See You in Departures: Nick Thran in Conversation

Nick Thran photographed by Peter Sinclair
Shortly before he moved to Montreal, Nick and I -- strangers then -- exchanged emails about prospects for work in the city. By the time we met, several months later on a leafy green twilit evening at The Word Bookstore, it seemed he'd always been here. 

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

NICK THRAN: Two things: good teachers who enthusiastically introduced me to good work, and moving around a zillion times with my family. The latter seems more and more key to me in retrospect: growing up, any identity I was constructing about myself that was too attached to a specific place, situation or other person was quickly scuttled. I don’t say this to be maudlin. Starting out, I just gravitated to writing that was less reliant on a slow, intricately developed narrative. I sought out words that kicked up as much dust when they arrived as when they left. Poems had them.

SG: You’ve moved around a fair bit as an adult as well. Is it reasonable to say that your poetic practice springs from that deep well of arrival and departure? The poem "Three Trees" arises from time spent with your family at Al Purdy's place, a time of slowing down, of repeated looking and listening, and conveys (at least to me) a strong sense of place. Your time there was also temporary. Now that you are a father, are you seeing differences in your poetic practice in terms of this relation between arrival and departure?

NT: I’m happy to hear the poem conveys a strong sense of place for you. A lot of the poems I wrote over our three-month stay in Ameliasburgh are, like “Three Trees”, set at the A-frame and in the surrounding county. As far as it being “a time of slowing down,” that wasn’t really my experience: It was a dance to divide the day between two poets (myself and Sue Sinclair) who needed to work, and then to both put equal time into caring for our infant daughter. Add to this the obligation that I felt to delve into Purdy’s own work and life. I wanted to understand his early influence on me, to repay the hospitality of the residency itself, and to figure out how I may have been occupying his and Eurithe’s space differently—through my own work and by my own circumstances.

Broadly speaking, how to occupy someone else’s space differently is an idea that’s always had a pull on me. Some of that has to do with moving around a lot in my life. Some of that also comes from consciously trying to situate myself in a poetic tradition. There are so many places to move around in that tradition! And, both physically and in poetry, I feel compelled to move. I’ll say that I think I now have a much clearer understanding of the ways Purdy’s poems succeeded for me, as well as a more nuanced understanding of where I think they failed. And to sit in Al’s chair and look out his window as I read his Collected Poems was a bizarre and intimate experience. I loved it. But reading and writing have always been, for me, activities that promise guiltless, even encouraged, departures. I think that the most destructive works of literature are probably the ones that insist we don’t leave. 

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?
NT: Music: Charlie Parr and Angel Olsen. Books: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, [sharps] by Stevie Howell. I also seem to digest a lot of stand-up comedy these days. And three men died recently whose work has been very important to me: Mark Strand, whose poems are my best company during melancholy; Philip Levine, whose poems first explained to me that work isn’t money (and vice versa); and Tomaž Šalamun, whose poems teach me to have a good laugh – between sighs – at the absurdity of ambitions to power. It’s inspiring to me that they all wrote well into their twilight years. Rereading their books. 

Nick Thran’s new collection of poetry, Mayor Snow, will appear in 2015 with Nightwood Editions. His previous collection, Earworm, won the 2012 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Read his poem "Three Trees" here.

March 3, 2015

Widen the Space

What a hard winter it has been, new losses in the poetry community nearly weekly -- Miller Williams, Elise Partridge, Philip Levine -- and just two weeks ago Kingston's Joanne Page, clear-minded fierce generous spirit, who showed me more than once how to stay the course.

My city is falling apart. Atrocities all over the world crowd the news.

At the same time, life surges forward: births, new books, and just last week two jays feeding each other sunflower seeds in the shrubs under the tall spruce.

What a thing it would be, if we all could fly.
But to rise on air does not make you a bird

I missed Ouyang Jianghe's poem "The Burning Kite" when it first appeared in Poetry in June 2011, translated by Austin Woerner. But I'm very glad to have discovered it today, together with the translator's notes:

" 'The Burning Kite' strikes me as a prime example of [what Jianghe calls] an 'empty' poem—bare architecture inviting the reader to fill it with the furniture of her thoughts. My goal as translator is to replicate this architecture, widen the space within."

Image by

February 5, 2015

Dear Elise,

Elise Partridge, 1958-2015
I first met Elise Partridge in the early 2000s. She was hosting a meeting of Vancouver's Poetry Dogs and graciously included me, at Stephanie Bolster's suggestion, while I was visiting the city. What an evening! Everyone brought a poem (by someone else, canonical or not) to talk about, wonder over, appreciate, take apart and put back together. Elise and I stayed in touch; like so many others, I was the recipient of her warmth and generosity over and over, in many forms. We were mid-conversation for this blog when she became unable to continue; her response to my question about how she first came to poetry (below) romps through wonderfully playful territory as she considers successive "illuminations"--her term for the phases of her discovery of poetry: its gifts and hers in it. Her last letter about the project came in the middle of December, telling me she was making notes on the subject of voice and hoped to have an answer ready soon.

Dear Elise, your answer is already here, and has been all along: in your own brilliant voice, in your poems and your life. 

Anansi, Spring 2015
"In Grade Three, a friend -- she's still a dear friend -- gave me a book of nonsense poetry for my birthday. I was so taken with it that I brought it to Show and Tell, stood up at the blackboard and read aloud from it for quite some time. My friend's mother happened to be our Grade Three homeroom teacher, and one of the marvelous things she did for our class was read stories to us every week, so maybe I was taking my cues partly from her. I was shy and this was something very unusual for me to do, but I guess I hoped my classmates would be as amused as I was by the poem about a tarsier waiter who splattered obnoxious customers with oyster bisque or served them rice pudding stuffed in a sock; by the depiction, in bouncy couplets, of a party guest named Sir Smashum Uppe, who destroyed his hostess's teacups accidentally and went on to splintering her Queen Anne chairs; and by a free-verse curiosity that began 'What a wonderful bird the frog are.' The poems were subversive and funny and must have spoken to something I needed in the third grade. 

"A couple of years later, a scholarly uncle who had discovered I loved to read sent me my first adult modern poetry anthology, a collection called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle

"The next illumination came when I was in Grade Six or so and the minister at our church gave a series of sermons based on W.H. Auden's 'A Christmas Oratorio.' This minister was the first person I ever encountered outside of school who loved poetry -- he was an enthusiastic member of the Browning Society all his life, and once told me his favorite George Herbert poem was 'Bitter-Sweet'; he knew it by heart and recited it to me. I remember him also quoting from 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats':

      Follow, poet, follow right
      To the bottom of the night,
      With your unconstraining voice
      Still persuade us to rejoice.... 

"This minister's Oratorio sermons were the first time I'd heard Auden's name, and after that I sought out Auden's work. When I discovered his 'The Unknown Citizen,' it made a deep impression on me. I memorized it for a recitation contest at school. Though I stumbled a bit in the declamation and two other girls had prepared a spectacular co-presentation of 'Casey at the Bat,' to my surprise the contest judges gave me the prize, I think mostly because I'd chosen such a good poem.

"And then during my high-school years, I had a remarkable teacher who introduced us to Prufrock, Donne, Lear and many others. One day she gave us an assignment to write a poem, and I turned in something awful about a dead seagull. This teacher was a very tough grader who didn't hesitate to flunk students, and when she handed my effort back, I saw she had written at the bottom in red ink, 'I recognize poetry here.' I thought she was being sardonic, but when we next met she said no, she thought I had a gift. She encouraged me for years afterward, until she died much too young of cancer." 

--Elise Partridge, on how she first came to poetry, in conversation with Susan Gillis, November 2014.

Read about Elise Partridge at Quill and Quire and The Globe and Mail. More, including some of her poems, is available at The Poetry Foundation.

January 27, 2015

Nick Thran: A Poem

Mirja Paljakka, courtesy Red Edge Images

Nick Thran

The aspen, maple and willow gathered one morning for coffee. 
“I don’t know how to properly measure my limited hours
against the excess of love that I feel for my fellow aspen,”
lamented the aspen. “There’s just this constant sense of having
let down my own kind.” “My husband is unreachable,”
said the maple. “He is too many tiny, stacked logs.
A part of him is always away in some fire or the other.”
“The plight of the ant makes me weep,” said the willow.
“And the plight of the grass. And the nasty things humans
will sometimes call one another as they glide by in canoes.”
Their conversation sounded like a day would sound in its entirety.
They pressed their foreheads together at night and otherwise
did not touch, though something was surely going on
under the soil, among roots that only the agilest bugs could see.
How many seasons passed like that before our family arrived?
How many years? Morning. A pot of hot coffee.
At the edge of the lake, three trees. 

Nick Thran's collection Earworm won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2012. He recently spent several months in residence at Purdy House in Ontario; this poem comes from his time there. Read more about Nick and his work in our conversation.