Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ongoing notes: Meet the Presses’ Indie Literary Market (part three,

[myself and prior bpNichol Chapbook Award co-winner Gil McElroy] Further to my previous sets of notes (and, see, I’m writing about the ottawa small press book fair as well), here are some other items I picked up at the most recent edition of Toronto’s Indie Literary Market:

Toronto ON: Toronto poet, fiction writer and editor Margaret Christakos’ latest title is the chapbook SOCIAL MEDEA vs VIRTUAL MEDUSA (Toronto ON: Gap Riot Press, 2017).

A A A A a all although any are as as at
catapulted coin common crowd
feces first
haze horror
I in intentional if if in into is is it
language look
Marble may me money my
of of of of of On out
point proceed push
sides single speed starting stem straight
that there this this throw to to truck
was we

I’ve long been fond of Christakos’ engagement with language, regularly constructing manuscripts that play with sampling lines, phrases and entire poems from within (the above piece is reminiscent of that poet who reworked Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as a sound poem, reading all the words of the poem in alphabetical order, included in PRISM International’s sound poetry issue somewhere around 1990 or so; who was it who did that?). A number of the phrases and short stanzas read as familiar, whether taken directly from her own social media postings or simply a further element of the same project in which she has been critiquing social media via social media platforms, and what social implications the growth of such mediums actually have. As she writes: “in a single horror / intentional although I / into a crowd. / is a language // Look at me [.]” Where might this project (somehow, this feels part of a larger, ongoing project, as opposed to a stand-alone chapbook-length work) end up?

[a post-fair group that included (at least in this photo) Stuart Ross, Paul Dutton and Andrew Faulkner, among others] 

Cobourg ON: I’ve been finding it curious lately to realize the amount of first chapbooks that Stuart Ross’ Proper Tales Press has been producing lately, from last year’s Those problems by Sarah Moses [see my review of such here] to more recent titles such as Allison Chisholm’s On The Count of One [see my review of such here] and London, Ontario/Victoria British Columbia poet Tom Prime’s a strange hospital (2017) (all three of whom, as well, he included in the first and last issue of his The Northern Testicle Review [see my review of such here]). Given the ways in which Ross releases chapbooks into the world, predominantly mentioning only on his blog and appearing at small press book fairs in Toronto and Ottawa (among others), it feels like the sort of thing that hasn’t yet been given due credit or attention (not that chapbooks are usually or often allowed either).


there is a
hole in
the side of my
head. I pick at it and
it grows—

it has
grown so large

there are trees,

so large, a
moon orbits

What is interesting in this collection of sixteen short lyric poems is the hair’s-breath difference between the poems that work well enough, and the poems that move beyond that, as though there is nearly something intangible he manages to slip into certain poems, causing them to cling to the attention, bearing repeated readings. While this chapbook is a bit uneven, I am certainly curious to see what he might do next.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

basement update :

In case you missed my earlier post, we had some water in our basement just prior to Hallowe’en, immediately forced to strip our finished basement of everything—books, bookshelves, furniture, kid’s toys, closets and archive—for the sake of tearing out wet carpet. Bah. It has knocked out most of our attentions over the past month-plus, but at least, over the past week, the reconstruction has begun.

Coinciding with a couple of other matters we’ve discovered, or simply decided to finally deal with, we’ve had multiple workers through our house lately, from house movers to the handyman, Keith (who is working the reconstruction), to the window guy, the Ontario power saver guy (who checked our house for heat-leaks), the property assessment guy, the foundation guy and two different plumbers. Whew. Sometimes there would be two or even three people wandering around our wee house checking this or that or whatever (I just stay out of the way).

But this week, Keith has been putting in our brand-new floor, which makes us enormously happy.

Apparently we will have our basement back, but the whole project might not be complete (for a variety of reasons) until the end of January.

And did I mention everything that used to be in our basement is now in storage? Whether storage unit, Christine's office or our sunroom. Sigh.

Friday, December 08, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sam Shelstad

Sam Shelstad lives in Toronto, Ontario. His first book of short stories, Cop House, was released by Nightwood Editions this October. His stories have appeared in The New Quarterly, Joyland, Prism International, Carousel, The Puritan, Grain, The Fiddlehead, The Feathertale Review, The Dalhousie Review, and The Rusty Toque. He contributes to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book came out one week ago, so not much has changed yet. No one has recognized me on the subway. No has tried to “Misery” me.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I started writing fiction because that’s mostly what I read. When I walk into a bookstore, I head directly to the fiction section and spent most of my time there. I actually did write a series of poems in high school and they were terrible. So, so terrible. They were supposed to be funny and they were absolutely not. I wrote them on my computer and then that computer stopped working. I’m so glad those “funny poems” are dead and gone. Oh God.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It varies. Every time I write something I want it to be easy and quick. I want to discover a perfect story formula so that once I have an idea I can just sit down and complete the formula, then move on to the next idea. It never works like that though—I always have to figure out how to write a story all over again, as if each one I write is my first. I think it gets harder to write stories, the longer I’ve been writing them. So sometimes it takes forever, sometimes it’s quick. Sometimes I meticulously plan everything out before I write and sometimes I dive right in. Some stories take months and months of editing and some come out exactly how I want them in one sitting. I don’t know what I’m doing.

4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I always start with a rough, vague idea and I’m not sure at first what it will be. It will be a word or sentence or concept, something small, and I usually write it in my phone or notebook. I think about it until eventually a story starts to shape itself around the idea, and I can usually tell early on whether it’s a short story or something larger, like a novel. For example, I have a note in my phone that just says “mannequin fingers”. That probably won’t amount to anything. What am I supposed to do with “mannequin fingers”? But the phrase popped into my head and seemed significant enough for me to write it down, so who knows. Look out for Mannequin Fingers next spring!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They can definitely be part of the process. I’ve found that I’m much more ruthless an editor of my work if I’m getting ready to read in front of an audience than if I’m preparing to submit a story to a magazine. Not sure why. Also, reading your work out loud while you prepare for a public reading gives you a better sense of the rhythm of the writing, which is definitely helpful. I do enjoy reading in public. I like talking into microphones.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
No real theoretical concerns. I just write stories, try to make them interesting, and then meaning sort of forms itself in the background. I’m not really conscious of the questions my writing is asking or answering until I’ve finished a draft. I’ve tried writing stories with a theoretical objective from the outset and these have always fallen flat.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I like what Barack Obama said about how reading novels helps you empathize with people that are different from you. Fiction allows you to slow down and really think about other perspectives as you move through various crises with the characters you’re reading about in a book.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Whenever I get notes back from an editor, I always look at their comments quickly and then walk away for a few days.  My ego gets insulted that the editor has the gall to criticize my amazing story. They don’t understand my genius! When I go back to the editor’s notes later, my ego has calmed down and I realize they’re right about everything and that they actually understand my story better than I do. My writing would be much, much worse without the editors I’ve worked with stepping in and reigning in my bad habits.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I started a new job in high school and one day I came home from work upset. I hated everything about it and wanted to quit. My dad told me to give it two weeks, because it takes two weeks to get used to a new thing. So I waited two weeks, got used to the job, and ended up loving it. Now I always give new things two weeks.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
The hardest part of writing a novel is that it takes so long, which means there’s this incredible pressure to make it great. While working on a novel, I constantly second-guess myself and wonder if I should scrap everything and start over with a better idea. With a short story, you’re free to write a bad story because it’s not as big a deal to waste a week or two writing something awful. But to spend a few years crafting a bad novel seems depressing. The only way around this is to learn to ignore the enormous pressure and just write the thing. Hopefully it turns out okay, but there’s no way to guarantee that it will be. Anyway, you’ll learn something from it and so what if you wasted all that time on a bad book? What else were you going to do? You would’ve wasted that time some other way, trust me.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Ideally, I write in the morning as soon as I get up. I try and write for two-to-three hours. If I have the afternoon free as well, I might go for another couple of hours. I write at the kitchen table, and occasionally at the library down the street. I listen to music (on headphones at the library) and take breaks to pace around the room. At night I sometimes look over what I’ve been working on and make notes.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I lose energy or inspiration and can’t seem to write anything, I step back for a while and focus on other things. It’s happened a few times and I’ve found it’s impossible to force productivity when I’m in that state. I try and be patient. I kick a piece of garbage around the neighborhood until my creative powers return.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cat litter.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Definitely. The mood captured by a painting can inform the tone of a story I’m working on, or I might try to capture the energy of a song with a scene. One of the stories in my book is about a lonely man who starts a letter writing campaign to keep the show Friends on the air, because I was watching the show Friends at the time and needed a place to direct all of that “Friends energy” I was soaking up.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are so many important writers and writings in my life, but off the top of my head: Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, John Fante, Lydia Davis, Don Delillo, Ottessa Moshfegh, Roberto Bolano

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Get my driver’s license.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
When I was a kid I was obsessed with private detectives. My friend Jeremy and I had a detective agency and we’d meet in a treehouse that stood in the yard of an unoccupied home. We put up a flyer in the local convenience store. That obsession is quieter now, but it’s still there. So I think I’d like to be a private detective, but somewhere quiet and pleasant where the cases would be non-violent and charming.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is unique in that you don’t need a lot of equipment or tools to get the job done. The act is beautifully simple. You can write a novel with a pencil and paper. And you’re in control of everything—you don’t need to find a decent bass player or hire a lighting assistant. I like having total freedom to make whatever I want with words.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: Cesar Aira’s Ghosts, about a night watchman and his family who live in a luxury condo building that’s under construction. And there are ghosts.

Film: Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Super funny, super scary. Brilliant concept.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel set in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Joshua Whitehead, Full-Metal Indigiqueer


there are brief moments
when the television cuts out
usually during commercials
between segments of seinfeld
that looming break

elaines offering: a cigar store ndn

its now
i see myself
in that blackened shiny eye
refracted fractal fractions
was i right[questionmark]
(this chaos
a special
kind of silliness
i reserve
for you)
i must have been
i am a funny man

jerrys retort: lets bury the hatchet

im gone
simple really
that really knocks me out

Calgary-based storyteller and academic Joshua Whitehead’s first trade collection of poems is Full-Metal Indigiqueer (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2017), a spirited collection of text that “focuses on a hybridized Indigiqueer Trickster character named Zoa who brings together the organic (the protozoan) and the technologic (the binary) in order to re-beautify and re-member queer Indigeneity.” Exploring Indigenous representations and mis-representations through blending pop culture references up against those images, Whitehead’s Full-Metal Indigiqueer shifts and spins, smashing preconceptions from within and without his immediate vicinity. As part of a recent interview over at CBC Books, Whitehead responds:

I didn’t realize that the poems were all connected at first. I thought this was just going to be a collection of poems that I could call a book. But as I started working on these poems, I noticed a thread that was binding them all. It was all about disruption, ruptures, breakages and just straight up revisionism. I wanted to recentre Indigenous characters in canonical texts. I’ve always played with the idea of Indigeneity, whether outright or not. The way to do this is by bringing in the character of the Trickster — someone who can shapeshift, mould and form, and almost envelope, consume and redigest these types of stories.

Fiercely intelligent, the poems in this collection move at a pretty high speed, playing with narrative, visual and concrete poetry structures and image, and includes a list of sources at the end some three pages long, from Seinfeld reruns to The Faerie Queene and A Christmas Carol, King Lear, Mean Girls, Richard Van Camp, Zora Neale Hurston, Leanne Simpson, Annie Proulx, Larissa Lai and Harry Potter. Even with all of the research and reference, there is a heavy performance and narrative aspect throughout, akin to the stripped-down narrative of Michael Turner’s original Hard Core Logo (a title originally produced as a poetry title, since republished as a novel), which makes one wonder if an adaptation for this work might also be possible?

i am the liberal project for a happy hour experiment;
i wonder if he feels like jake gyllenhaal in that bathroom
james franco[questionmark]
sean penn[questionmark]

when the waitress brings our feers
i down one, sip the other
think about what jack twist means in a town like this
& channel my inner ennis:
“i wish ii knew how to quit you –
i do

After hearing him perform recent as part of the Arc Poetry Magazine “Oh Canada, We Have Issues” launch at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, it became unmistakable that his work has a considerable weight, utilizing some significant word-play and a wide array of cultural knowledge to craft a body of poem-essays on identity, exploring what Indigeneity and queer-ness means, both individually and together. This is an impressive work, and a writer very much worth paying attention to.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf


and of course he’s beautiful
goosebumps over his ribs
like tiny fists under a thin sheet      the sheet
all mudwet and taste of walnut

and of course I’m afraid of him
of the way keeping him a secret will make him
inevitable      I will do anything to avoid
getting carried away      sleep nightly with coins

over my eyes      set fire to an entire
zodiac      mecca is a moth
chewing holes in a shirt I left
at a lover’s house      a body loudly

consumes days and awaits the slow
fibrillation of its heart      a lightning rod
sits in silence until finally      the storm
now the boy is scooping up minnows

and swallowing them like a heron
I’m done trying to make sense
of any of this      no one will believe anything
that comes out of a mouth like mine

Tehran-born Florida poet and editor Kaveh Akbar’s first full-length poetry collection is Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Farmington ME: Alice James Books, 2017), a book of lush lyrics and critical meditations concurrently composed as urgent narratives, personal exclamations and heartfelt prayers. There is something sensual and even slippery to Akbar’s lyrics, managing to couple a wonderful music with deceptively straightforward narratives, looping and swirling through a text of incredibly precise lines. As he writes to close the two-page “RIMROCK”: “As long as the earth continues / its stony breathing, I will breathe. // When it stops, I will shatter back / into gravity. Into quartz.”

There is something reminiscent in Akbar’s lyrics and subtle gymnastics, as well as echoes of content, of Toronto poet Marcus McCann. Setting aside McCann’s more overt language-play, there is a bounce and lyric spin that echoes between the two poets, and Akbar’s lyricism also manages to balance very well between a musical and linguistic swirling and a steady precision, as well as multiple intimacies and hard-won wisdoms, all of which accumulate toward a series of profound discoveries. Listen to the first half of Akbar’s poem “PORTRAIT OF THE ALCOHOLIC WITH HOME / INVADER AND HOUSEFLY,” a poem that plays with a light and dark akin to McCann’s own sensibilities:

It felt larger than it was, the knife
that pushed through my cheek.

Immediately I began leaking:
blood and saliva, soft as smoke. I had been asleep,

safe from sad news, dreaming
of my irradiated hairless mother

pulling a thorn from the eye of a dog.
I woke from that into a blade. Everything

seemed cast in lapis and spinning light,
like an ancient frieze in Damascus.