Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Capilano Review 3.34 (Winter 2018)

It is uncommon on this unceded Coast Salish land called “Vancouver” to see the radiant faces of so many black people in one room; more familiar are we with those rare, unexpected moments when we see another solitary “i” in this city, as Ian Williams so aptly notes in “Our eyes meet across yet another room,” that the on-stage dialogue last June between Dionne Brand, Christina Sharpe, and David Chariandy felt like a long-awaited gift. We left invigorated. What was the work of words for us as students, activists, creators? David Chariandy—our professor for only three months that summer but someone we now envision as a lifelong mentor—encouraged us to follow this thread. He connected us with The Capilano Review’s former editor, Andrea Actis, another new mentor, and thus this special issue of TCR on “the work of words” was born.
            When we began to curate this issue, we were unsure of how the submissions might come together, as might be the case with any collaborative venture. We’d invited contributors with the prompt What is “the work of words” for black creators now? and excitedly awaited their interpretations of the question. Despite our uncertainty, we were awestruck by the conversation that we saw between the pieces. This issue is not just held together by blackness, nor does it attempt to provide a definition of blackness. These pieces capture a multiplicity of black joy, fear, desire, communion, sorrow, and life. (Emmanuelle Andrews and Katrina Sellinger, “Editors’ Note”)

Guest-edited by Emmanuelle Andrews and Katrina Sellinger, The Capilano Review 3.34 (Winter 2018) centres itself around, as the editors suggest, the “work of words” for black creators, including works by a wide range of contemporary writers and artists including Sonnet L’Abbé, Emmanuelle Andrews, Phanuel Antwi, Juliane Okot Bitek, Deanna Bowen, David Bradford, Dionne Brand, Lila Bristol, David Chariandy, Wayde Compton, Pedro Daher, Caleb Femi, Jalen Frizzell, Joy Gyamfi, Aisha Sasha John, Lucia Lorenzi, Canisia Lubrin, Cecily Nicholson, Katrina Sellinger, Christina Sharpe, Ian Williams and Mariko Yeo. One of the highlights has to be a conversation between Brand, and Sharpe after they delivered the 2017Shadbolt Lecture at Simon Fraser University on June 9, 2017, “an edited excerpt from their onstage dialogue moderated by David Chariandy”:

DC: Earlier, Christina was generous enough to visit my class. Some of my students are here right now. And there was a moment in which you invited us—in this powerful way—to contemplate what is the weather like here, how do particular ecologies of anti-Blackness work out in specific sites of the African diaspora?

CS: Right. How do you have microclimates where you can actually get something else done, so that there are lateral moves where you have a kind of microclimate. You’re working toward liberation, but you have these micro-moments—like in Bail Out Black Mamas in the US. You’re working toward prison abolition, and you’re working toward the end of cash bail. But you have these moments where, in the midst of working toward that, you also do this other thing, I think of those as microclimates within a larger climate of violence in which you try to create a sustainable life. In which you don’t accede to everything that would try to suffocate you, to all of the forces that are intent on that kind of suffocation.

DC: Which is why, I must say, I find work written by both of you so profoundly important in that you allow us to chart those connection between those microclimates, those different spaces, landscapes, and geographies. Your projects have never been confined to specific national or regional spaces. They prove themselves global in orientation while demonstrating close attention to specific places.

DB: I also think that just writing, itself, is that. It creates those microclimates, if you will. Because to make a poem, for me, is to create the space where not only the vulgar and brutal exists but language opens places where someone might actually recognize themselves outside of the short instrumental stereotypic location that in public they occupy—or in the public they occupy. So, I think writing is in itself a space where that happens or can happen.

When Drake hosted Saturday Night Live in 2016, he appeared in the sketch “Black Jeopardy,” which attempted to highlight the fact that American “Blackness” can be a very different thing than Canadian “Blackness,” in part due to an entirely different set of experiences, references and ideas, despite whatever commonalities might exist. And yet, this is something that seems less obvious than the fact that a myriad, even a cornucopia and potential series of contradictions, of “Blackness” exist within each country, much of which is still being articulated, whether by Morgan Parker, Eve L. Ewing, Tonya M. Foster, Shane McCrae, Danez Smith and multiple others in and across the United States, and by Canadian writers including those in the current issue, as well as Kaie Kellough, JustJamaal the Poet and George Elliott Clarke (and so many, many others). This is a small part of a large, evolving and ongoing conversation, and one that I am pleased to engage with, as both reader and listener. As Ian Williams writes as part of his poem “Where are you really from”:

While a white man waits for me to answer he is searching
his inner Wikipedia for a fact or a current event about the
island or continent I am. Carnival, genocide, pirates, cruise
lines, a woman he used to work with, blood diamonds on
the soles of her shoes, a-wa a-wa. The list could be longer.
He knows a lot about where I am from whether I am from
there or not.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ploughshares : an interview w/ Joshua Whitehead

My latest post for the Ploughshares blog is now online! an interview with Joshua Whitehead.

You can see links to all of my Ploughshares posts here, including interviews with literary book designer Kate Hargreaves, Montreal poet Susan Elmslie, Ottawa-area poet and fiction writer Michael Blouin, Erín Moure on translation, Montreal writer Jacob Wren, Toronto poet Marcus McCann, founder/editor Robin Richardson on Minola Review: a journal of women's writing, Toronto poet Emily Izsak, Ottawa poet Faizal Deen, Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, editor/critic Erin Wunker, Arc Poetry Magazine Poetry Editor Rhonda Douglas, editor/publisher Leigh Nash on Invisible Publishing, Cobourg, Ontario poet, editor, fiction writer and small press publisher Stuart Ross, Toronto novelist Ken Sparling, Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen and Toronto poet Soraya Peerbaye.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Chase Berggrun, R E D

I was thirsty

I was a country of queer force

rushing east to see the strangest side of twilight

I was a woman                        in the usual way

I had no language            but distress and duty

I have been taught to doubt my mother and fear tradition

but my queer tongue       would not     could not shut up (“CHAPTER I”)

I am very taken by this new erasure by New York poet and editor Chase Berggrun, their debut collection R E D (Minneapolis, New York, Raleigh: Birds, LLC.: 2018), a follow-up to the chapbook Discontent and Its Civilizations: Poems of Erasure, published by jubilat in 2012. And yet, to describe this book as purely an erasure would be to reduce, or even misunderstand it, as R E D is as much a book of reconstruction, of rebuilding, as Berggrun writes in “A Note on Process,” to open the collection:

R E D consists of twenty-seven erasure poems. They were produced using a system of formal constrains: text was erased while preserving the word order of the original source, with no words altered or added, according to a strict set of self-imposed rules. The poems use as a source the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.

As the text of Dracula, a classic Victorian-era horror novel soaked with a disdain of femininity and the misogyny of its time, is erased, a new story is told, in which the narrator takes back the agency stolen from her predecessors.

This work was written at the same time its author had begun their own gender transition. As they were discovering and attempting to define their own womanhood, the narrator of these poems traveled alongside them.

I’m fascinated by the idea that such a book could emerge from a Victorian novel (one might presume that seeking the counterpoint against such repression would be an obvious target), especially Dracula, a book reworked and re-envisioned by multiple writers, including Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, who riffed off vampires and blood in his own Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003). Berggrun’s project, on their part, is a far more intimate revision, writing on and through their own reconstruction, including their own gender transition; writing out a story of a narrator rebuilding their whole self from the ground up, utilizing the remains of the old self, and both eliminating and repurposing materials as required. In an interview conducted by Dan Brady, posted in November 2017 at Barrelhouse, Berggrun describes some of their thoughts on erasure:

I’ve been intensely studying poetic appropriation, and erasure in particular, for kind of a long time, and it seriously terrifies me. It scares me how easily it can become violent, and how often people use it in a violent way. It’s a poetic form, certainly, but it’s inherent politicality is both potent and dangerous, in a different way than, say, a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Not to say that any formal device is apolitical, but the way erasing interacts with another person’s work is an especially risky enterprise. Solmaz Sharif wrote a brilliant and important essay on this: required reading for anyone considering using erasure. This Robin Coste Lewis lecture is also incredibly necessary.

I tried to engage with Dracula in many other ways before I started to erase it: erasure was my last resort. Erasure is undeniably connected to the tools of white supremacy. It’s very, very easy to fuck up. I don’t believe, and never have believed, that every artist has a right to alter, appropriate, or work with any text they want: we’ve seen the racist result of this kind of mindset again and again. Kenneth Goldsmith, a person whose work and attitude I deeply abhor, is a product of that kind of thinking. John Gosslee’s erasures of Hoa Nguyen’s work, et cetera, et cetera. Examples are everywhere.

Berggrun’s language is staggered, direct and intimate, even as they use Stoker’s original words, in his original order. One can’t imagine Stoker writing, as Berggrun reveals in their own “CHAPTER XV,” such lines as: “I was surprised when unconsciously I imagined // the way his sperm dropped in white patches / which congealed as it touched my body [.]” I’m startled by how rich and how strong this collection is, and how deeply personal and intimate, which allow for such powerful results. And curious how Dracula, again, became the source material instead of any other particular title, although Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1823), another book of creation, might miss the point, being a book of creation out of dead parts, instead of a book that simply revealed what had already been there, albeit hidden or repressed. R E D is a book of declaration that forces “I am here,” even as we witness this stunning and revealing metamorphosis.

One time I tried to take a human life

I tried to kill my own body      through prayer

I left behind        a brain

a brain that a man fashioned for me

determined to destroy this woman’s nerve

I found in his absence a silence

like a blush-bright smile (“CHAPTER XVIII”)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ongoing notes: late May, 2018

[I made a gazpacho the other day, as the wee girls made birthday cards for their Oma]

I’m behind on everything, but utilizing part of the long weekend to catch up on some reviews. Christine took the girls to her mother’s cottage, allowing me nearly two full days of work. Huzzah!

Working on reviews, short fiction and an essay on the (so far) twenty-five years of above/ground press

Portland OR: I’m going through Cincinnati poet Caylin Capra-Thomas’ second poetry chapbook, Inside My Electric City (YesYesBooks, 2017), a follow-up to her The Marilyn Letters (dancing girl press, 2013). Gracefully produced as a square, softbound title, “A Vinyl 45,” I like the quiet hesitations in Capra-Thomas’ poems, composed as a staccato series of small gestures, from the observational to the more intimate breath. Given that 2018 sees her as the writer-in-residence at The Studios of Key West, as well as the Vermont Studio Center, where she was awarded a fellowship, I’m hoping that one doesn’t have to wait another few years for a third selection of poems; might a full-length collection be in the works?


            was a gesture towards                          the post-magnificent.
Courting gleam                                    we swallow them
in the copper afternoon.                      Our necks bulge
            like kingsnakes                                    with mousedeath.
We are not choking.
                                    We are settling our accounts.

Toronto ON: Montreal poet (by way of Ottawa) Lauren Turner’s debut chapbook is We’re Not Going To Do Better Next Time (2018), produced by Kirby’s infamous knife|fork|book, a press and bookstore focused on poetry and poets. Another softbound chapbook, gracefully produced, I’m intrigued at the increase in chapbooks produced as softcover, whether YesYes, knife|fork|book or Vancouver’s Rahlia’s Ghost Press, moving a direction separate from the hand-sewn items by, say, Cameron Anstee’s Apt 9 Press, or those presses that hold to the classic folded and stapled. The poems in Turner’s debut write on disillusionment, with both love and the body, and the narrator Delilah, who manages, despite herself, to be completely overcome, writing from that in-between of belief and disbelief, fully aware, or even forced to finally admit, that either is entirely possible.


There was intoxication at first. A love to be regulated
to rooms made dark by smoke and other people’s limbs.
Those are exciting places. Where nights go to stagger.
Hours drain away with the lowballs. They’re pressed close
as twinned thieves, magnetic in their newness. He’s soft
with the hands and god his neck smells good. Buoyant in gin,
in hunger, she needs it all to kill so delicately. They meet
on a Sunday and left their phones for dead, no sick notes
forged to bosses or paramours. A love to repel outward.
They cluster in his bedding like a shared lung until dusk
air expels them. Mornings spent picking the bones of his
cupboards, whiskey in nescafé. The world, a silhouette
on the curtains. Delilah washes her dress in bath water.
Wants to wear what he does. Mimics her lilac hair
into a man bun and laughs. It’s so nice, everything.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

rob reads w Tanis MacDonald at Ottawa's TREE Reading Series, June 12, 2018

In case you haven't heard. I'll most likely be reading snow day, the prose poetry sequence I composed from January to March, which also appeared as a chapbook (I had originally aimed to launch my new Salmon title, but the book has been delayed). Might we see you? Everything begins at 8pm (open set, featured readers). See the link to further information via The TREE Reading Series website here.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Annick MacAskill, No Meeting Without Body


One hungry afternoon
I ate an entire orange peel,
told my sister it tasted like the sun.
The neighbor gave birth to twins
and my mother returned with blood under her nails.
As crass as a teenager, my grandmother
moved in. Her moonlit flower-picking
became an escape attempt
that failed. We made six apple pies
one weekend. No one
could say no. I implored the skies,
tied my hair in twists
every night so it would curl.
Every morning the curls fell limp,
an argument I couldn’t win.

Lyric precision and lyric polish aren’t, as I might not really need to explain, the same thing. And while my interest in the lyric doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards the polish of a more straightforward line, there is something about the poems in Halifax poet Annick MacAskill’s debut, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), that compel my attention. Her poems are narrative, sure, but hardly straightforward, achieving an accumulation of thoughts and movement, as well as the occasional narrative disjunction and disruption, composed as polished poems both precise and slightly jagged, slightly off; punchy and visceral. She knows how to compose poems that suggest one purpose, and provide something slightly different (such as her attempts to twist certain Canadian standards), all while moving through a series of meditative, first-person lyric narratives. The poems in No Meeting Without Body range from good to compelling, and often with such a nebulous difference between that it becomes difficult to articulate. Needless to say, there are a couple of poems here that left me breathless.


Cortege of Ukrainian pontiffs and delis
and storefronts boasting embryonic
commercial success and water pooling

where tawny leaves blocked the drains.
You were asking why we call the month
September, coming back from a friend’s

Apartment and kissing me as if you expected
answers along my gums.
I tracked the whale sounds

of your indifference and the ways crowds
lifted their feet for us to follow. A man
on the sidewalk held a sign that said

Will Poet for Food. You referenced your treatise
on disappointment with a hand
on the small of my back, your eyes

on what you swore was a cormorant
hanging in a butcher’s window. Later
I lost three years and the sight of you

to a bottle of Shiraz. But fall, that’s permanent.
I was on your street at the wrong hour
and you smelled of pine.