Category Archives: Poetry Reviews

Venera Fazio Weaves Five Generations into “The Fabric of My Soul”

my thoughts glide back and forth, back and forth/to the rhythm of my loom – Venera Fazio*

A snip of thread. A quilter’s knot. A running stitch. Canadian writer/editor/poet Venera Fazio uses her extraordinary patience and attention to detail to pull together her passions for fabric art and literature.

Attend a local writers’ workshop in Sarnia and you’ll find Fazio with her quilting supplies. As a quilter, she carefully threads the needle and hand-stitches all the fabric petals and leaves together while listening to her peers read. Step into her home and you’ll find quilts-in-progress on the kitchen island, across her dining room table and in her living room.  Several walls display her finished creations featuring vibrant and detailed patterns.

Using these same creative talents, she also meticulously works with words. As an editor, she has co-edited eight anthologies related to her Italian Canadian heritage including the bestselling Sweet Lemons I and Sweet Lemons II.

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The Fabric of My Soul (Longbridge Books, 2015) is Venera Fazio’s first solo trade publication.

More recently as a poet, she collected familial pieces (both past and present) and wove them together into her first solo trade book. The result was The Fabric of My Soul, a 64-page collection of poems, translations, photos, and short stories published by Montreal-based publisher Longbridge Books. The book resembles a family album, a memoir, and showcase of previously published work including poems from Philadelphia Poets and Italian Canadians at Table plus a short non-fiction piece from Accenti Magazine.

If you think the content of her book is all homespun goodness, it is and isn’t. Many of her peers were struck by her frankness. As Fazio reveals in her poem “Legacy”, “my mother wanted a daughter/to ribbon, stem and satin stitch/rather than me/my tangled French knots/inept fingers caressing books.” (p. 36)

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Venera Fazio is a Bright’s Grove editor/writer/poet known nationally for her work with the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW).

Despite the tough childhood and recently revealed secrets, Fazio’s love for family, friends and her culture prevails. “The perfume of the blossoms/sweetened my thoughts/helped me forget.” (p. 50). In the last three lines of her last poem “My hope is/with time, my friends/will be granted the same resilience.” (p. 57)

Soft-spoken and diplomatic with a gentle demeanor, Fazio works diligently and possesses strong organizational skills as evident in her role as a past-president of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW). Locally, she helped to coordinate Sarnia’s Books and Biscotti literary events both at the Dante Club and in her home plus was a dedicated committee member of Sarnia’s Bluewater Reading series.

To present an objective view of her first poetry collection, (I’ve known Venera for over a decade), below is a review of her book written by John Di Leonardo, co-editor of The Ontario Poetry Society’s Verse Afire.**

A cover photo by Dwayne O’Neill of the lush Sicilian hilltop village of Bafia is an apt image to set the stage for Fazio’s new collection of poems The Fabric of My Soul. Her words weave a tender tapestry of family history and the Italian immigrant experience. Fazio’s poems are laid out between a prologue “My Biography According to the Number Three” and the epilogue “I’ve Got a Secret” both great sections as introduction and conclusion to her poetry. These two segments in the book resonate deeply for anyone new to Canada, the millions of post-war southern Europeans like myself and the author who journeyed by ship from Naples to Pier 21 in Halifax, then onward by train to the various destinations to a better life, where many immigrants as Fazio states “nourished the body//while neglecting the spirit.”

These clear-eyed and intimate poems rise and fall with a lyrical flow to express a wide range of emotions associated with memory, hardships and death.

From the very first poem “Broken” we are guided through secret feelings of loss, as a “shimmering Sicilian sun/stretches/across your tombstone”…we locked your name/in our family closet/sealed it shut with silence,” to family tragedies “I am ashamed//I never visited you/in the psychiatric ward:…you loved your dead son/more than a living daughter.” The hardships are juxtaposed with flavours of new Canadians, “fingers inflamed from pickle factory brine/…At noon she served penne//the colour of family blood.”

Glimpses of self-discovery appear in “Each day of my vacation/in the village of my birth//I drew elixir from the well.” Finally in the last poem, “The Unexpected” a new vision of hope merges. “My hope is/with time, my friends/will be granted the same resilience”.

In the epilogue Fazio writes, “For years, I felt I had two identities, a Canadian one and an Italian one”. This identity crisis is aptly resolved by the inclusion of Italian passages and full (traduzione) translations by Elettra Bedon, for poems such as “Nonna Marie”, “Lasciar andare”, “Tributo”, and “Le mani di mia madre”. Reading these poems in the original thoroughly satisfies the ear for many Italian-Canadian hearts.

Last May, Fazio’s poetry collection was officially launched with Exploring Voice: Italian Canadian Female Writers, another anthology she co-edited with Delia De Santis. Last week, I asked Venera to share her thoughts about her writing process. Below are her responses:

Venera, as past president of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, you worked so hard to launch the careers of other writers. I was thrilled when I heard that your latest book focuses exclusively on your own work. Describe your new poetry book in a few sentences.

The book connects me with my family that raised me in Dundas, Ontario and the relatives that I only saw about six times in my life.

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Sharing laughter at a Books and Biscotti event in Sarnia, Ontario.

Which of the poems is your most favourite and why is it important to you?

The poem “Broken” is my favourite because it was written in memory of Zio Carlo Fazio (1922-1969). My uncle Carlo and his family didn’t speak to us for 50 years. The poem pulled us together. It is about forgiveness and how we can only live fully with each other.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? For example, you included black and white photos throughout your book.

I include a lot of history in this book. Some poets concentrate on the family and some just on history. I have melted the two together. And yes, I’ve also included photographs in the book.

Through your editing and volunteer work, you have been a cheerleader for Italian Canadian writers! What motivates you to work so hard for this special group?

When I was growing up, the Italians were frowned upon because of the war. Also they had these stereotypes of Italians being dirty and loud. They also ate smelly food like salami and garlic bread. As an Italian Canadian, I was always conscious of the underclass and so I wanted to focus on Italian Canadian writing. I wanted to let readers know that we weren’t like that. We were intelligent writers and it was my hope that it gave our culture a boost.

What inspires you and who are your mentors?

Quality of writing inspires me. I admire novelist Nino Ricci, author of Lives of the Saints plus poets Gianna Patriarca author of Ciao, Baby and Mary di Michele author of Tenor of Love.

Fazio’s work recently appeared in these two anthologies.

Describe your writing process.

I start with an idea, work at it and then decide it’s wrong. It takes me about ten “go-throughs” to be satisfied with the final product. I also like to go for walks. That’s when I get my ideas and thoughts for revisions. I usually create and edit my drafts straight onto the computer. My favourite place to write is in my downstairs office where it is quiet.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a chapbook of poems focusing on my cancer journey. So far I’ve completed seven poems and hope to do a few more.

The news of your medical condition came as quite a shock to many of your close friends. It is inspiring to see you back at your writing and to hear some of your new poems. Do you have any other plans for the future?

Yes, I’m going to do lots of travelling. I have several trips already planned. It gives me something to look forward to.

Venera, I look forward to reading more of your work as well as hearing news about your adventures. Thank you for welcoming me into your home and sharing your thoughts with me.

According to the back cover of her book: Venera Fazio was born in Sicily and now lives in Bright’s Grove, Ontario. Before dedicating herself to writing and editing, she worked as a social worker (MSW)…Her poetry and prose has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada and the United States.

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Exploring Voice: Italian Canadian Female Writers is the eighth anthology focusing on Italian Canadian culture that Venera has co-edited. Here, she and co-editor Delia De Santis are honoured for their contributions.

In April 2016, the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW) presented her and her writing/editing friend Delia De Santis with an award for their “extraordinary contributions to the Italian Canadian writing community and to Canadian literature.” See more info here.

An essay, “On Writing and Dreaming”, written by Fazio appears on the Gloria Pearson-Vasey website.

*from the poem “The Fabric of My Soul” published in the book The Fabric of My Soul (Longbridge Books, 2015) page 28. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright ©2015 Venera Fazio.
**John Di Leonardo’s review first appeared in the May to Sept. 2016 issue of Verse Afire. Reprinted with permission. Additional information about Di Leonardo can be found on his website.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.                                             

Pat Connors Flexes his Poetic Muscles in Part-Time Contemplative

You have turned the tip-tips and taps/and thump thumps and ba-pa-dumps/of disenfranchised nerdy young men//into something resembling music – Pat Connors*

 

Reading a Pat Connors’ poetry chapbook is like stepping inside a bar and eavesdropping on someone’s contemplations and daydreams. In fact, the first poem in his first Lyricalmyrical book Scarborough Songs is titled ‘Scarborough Bar’. It makes reference to the clichéd phrase “wildest dreams” and describes the antics of a “gap-toothed guy”, as well as “slow dancing with a beauty queen” and the reality of  “places I cannot go anymore”.

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Scarborough Poet Pat Connors

The cover photo (with an opened beer bottle between two hockey gloves) sets the tone not only for Connors’ sense of humour but the light and sporty sections of the book. Read on and you’ll also find numerous melancholy images as well as some heavy topics such as politics, faith, destiny, the future and one’s purpose in life. 

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Scarborough Songs is Connors’ first poetry chapbook published by Lyricalmyrical.

One of the strongest poems in the collection is called ‘In the House Where I Grew Up’. It uses a table as a metaphor for a dysfunctional family: “Came apart in the middle/Like so many ruined meals/And other realities hard to digest”.

 

Despite all the references to waiting and dreaming, the 36-page collection ends on a hopeful reflective note, “I will hold out for/The future/And trust in/What it brings”.

 

Connors’ second Lyricalmyrical chapbook, Part-Time Contemplative, continues with similar reflective themes from the first book. However, Connors’ style as a poet has changed and strengthened. Rather than beginning each line with a capital letter, he starts each line with a mix of upper and lower cases which makes the poems less formal and easier to read. He includes several haiku and short poems and uses more line structure and/or stanza consistency. The language is richer, although at times, it also leans toward abstract thought.

 

His best work stems from his narrative poems such as ‘Burby’ where he writes, “On Summer days too hot for baseball/or moving the lawn or digging post holes/we sweated and burned in the sun/to gain a small victory or live out a dream.” Sometimes, his poems remind me of a mantra, a prayer or a stream of consciousness. For example, “If I am to become the man I am to be become//I have to stop being the one others would have me be.”

 

Connors stresses that his poetry is intended for the general public versus an academic audience.

 

In his dedication, he acknowledges the support of Canadian poet and former Grain editor Mick Burrs, “who has helped me/to become a better poet and person.”

 

As Fran Figge, President of The Ontario Poetry Society, wrote in her review of Connor’s latest chapbook, “Pat Connors’ book is the poetry of discovery, finding one is “blessed beyond what I ever believed.” It is the rite of passage, “the sunrise after darkest night”.”

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Pat Connors in Cuba, January 2017. Photo courtesy of Lillian Allen.

In January, Connors travelled to Cuba as part of the launch of the bilingual anthology The Bottom of the Wine Jar. The Toronto launch of this book will be held this spring. Below are some of his thoughts about his writing and future projects.

 

Congratulations Pat! Please describe your latest Lyricalmyrical chapbook in a few sentences.

 

Thank you, Deb!  Part-Time Contemplative is very much the sequel to Scarborough Songs, released in 2013 by Lyricalmyrical Press, and charted on the Toronto Poetry MapIt is the continuation and  development of the themes from the first book, as well as my growth and development as a poet and as a person. 

 

Several of the poems from both chapbooks were either previously published or won awards. What is your favourite poem in your latest collection and why do you like it so much?

 

“The Beginning of Forever” had never been published before, although I certainly tried.  People have apparently been offended by the relatively innocuous expletive I use at the end of the first stanza.  But it is a warm and inviting and gentle piece aside from that one turn of phrase, which I wrote while going through a very challenging period.  The poem didn’t work the various times I tried to change that line.  It lost its honesty.

 

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

 

My work is more influenced by dub and spoken word, yet also by rock and roll, than most literary poets.  I don’t write for a niche audience, but rather to be read and heard by a wide variety of audiences, including ones which are non-literary.

 

Would you consider yourself a people’s poet? Why or why not?

 

I write poetry which I hope the man in the street can appreciate as much, or more, than the literary or academic circles.  I read at open mics which are largely musical, or for collectives like Scarborough Arts, or with groups of people who are not predominantly English-speaking, and check to see if my message comes through and rings true.

 

I write about experiences and themes which I have shared with a group of friends I have known since the 1970’s, and do so in a manner in which they could relate.  Robert Priest has described my style as “deceptively plain spoken”.  This is something to which I aspire, and have worked very hard to create.

 

Both of your chapbooks have a spiritual thread. The first chapbook is dedicated to The One who makes it possible, and the one I adore. The second chapbook is dedicated to Canadian poet Mick Burrs. Who are your poetry mentors and/or teachers and why do they mean so much to you?

 

The One who makes it possible is God.  I have nothing without God – no reason, no purpose, no life, no creativity.  My poetry is above all a celebration of that relationship.

 

Mick, as well as people such as Terry Barker and James Deahl, are great mentors and friends, who very much treat me as an equal, yet encourage me to expand myself, to go beyond what I have already done.

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Front cover image for the poetry chapbook Part-Time Contemplative by Pat Connors.

The cover of your second chapbook shows a cluttered desk. Describe your writing process including your favourite writing space.

 

The beginning of the process typically comes far away from my cluttered desk – the distillation of my experiences, the contemplation, the affirmation or evolution of my value systems.

 

The first draft is almost always with pen and paper.  The second (and usually third) draft is done at my desk, when things are – ironically – a little more organized.  Then, after a meeting with Mick, or Dane Swan, another great poet and friend, comes one or two more drafts.  At least.

 

What are you currently working on?

I have 18 poems in an anthology from the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (CCLA) called Bottom of the Wine JarThe world premiere was in Gibara, Cuba, at the end of January.  The Canadian launch should be in late Spring.

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Connors is one of four poets featured in this bilingual anthology Bottom of the Wine Jar.

What are your future plans?

 

A full manuscript to be released before my 50th birthday, which is in May, 2019.  A chapbook of poetry inspired by Psalm 40.  A novella and/or a book of short stories after that is completed.  A novel by the time I’m 60.

 

Wow, you have your writing plans all mapped out. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

 

I trust you will enjoy what I write and how I write it, and that you find the products to be genuine.  I hope this will inspire you in whatever defines and motivates you.  I believe this affects all facets of life, and makes the world a better place.

 

Thanks Pat for the interview. I look forward to reading more of your work.

 

Pat Connors first chapbook, Scarborough Songs, was published by Lyricalmyrical Press in 2013, and charted on the Toronto Poetry Map. He was literary juror of Big Art Book 2013, a digital project of Scarborough Arts. He has appeared in entities such as The Toronto Quarterly, Zouch Magazine & Miscellany, This Place Anthology, Northern Voices Journal, Poetry’Z Own Magazine, Chrysalis Zine, and was nominated for the 2011 Best of the Net contest. He recently published in: Canadian Stories; Big Pond Rumours; and Sharing Spaces, a joint project of York University and Antares Publications. Part-Time Contemplative is his second chapbook.  He is a manager for the Toronto Chapter of 100,000 Poets for Change.

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Pat Connors reads at the 2015 Edmonton Poetry Festival as part of the Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour

Additional information about Pat Connors can be found on LinkedIn and in an earlier post on this blog. Numerous videos of his performances appear on YouTube.

*epigraph from “The Professor” published in the book Part-Time Contemplative (Lyricalmyrical, 2016) Reprinted with the author’s permission. Copyright © Pat Connors, 2016.
This article represents the 100th post for Kites Without Strings. Browse this blog for previous literary articles or follow for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.

Poetry Review – Time Slip by John Oughton

Know the earth/through white toes/sail the earth/for all winter/and greet spring/forthcoming with soft/green applause – John Oughton

Seconds melt like snowflakes against a heated window. 2017 slips in. 2016 slips out. I yearn for the holidays to linger a few moments longer but time rests for no one. Another season of literary news unfolds but first…a glimpse back at John Oughton’s poetry collection Time Slip published by Guernica Editions in 2010.

Special thanks to Aeolus House poet Kate Rogers for gifting me this NEW review to kick start the New Year!

Time Slip                                               Reviewed by Kate Rogers

by John Oughton

Guernica Editions, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-55071-302-2

About twenty years ago I sat with John Oughton under the leafy canopy of a Toronto backyard with other poets workshopping our pieces. At that time I knew that John was a Professor at Centennial College, and taught writing, but I was unaware of the life events John describes in the introduction to the collection reviewed here–Time Slip. The collection spans his travels in Iraq and Egypt and around Asia; six months spent in Japan; and significant personal losses.

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Time Slip (Guernica Editions, 2010) by John Oughton

In fact, Time Slip includes thirty years of poetry by John Oughton–from poems about his travels, to persona poems from the perspective of spy and courtesan, Mata Hari. As a Canadian poet who has been teaching literature, creative writing and other subjects in Asia for 17 years, I can appreciate his poetic responses to Asian aesthetics and spiritual places.

In “For Yuan Mei”, an 18th century Chinese poet, Oughton’s words flow like calligraphy strokes: As a brush/ sublimes stone/and water to song (p. 29).

I have been to Buddhist temples and shrines in Kyoto, Japan, like the one Oughton describes with both humor and awe in “Taizo-In Rock Garden, Kyoto” (p. 31), …a waterfall for each ear/…carp chorus/gold and silver below the mirror/of the still pond

In fact, there are many strong pieces on other subjects—especially love. They are distinguished by tight writing, original metaphor, and visceral feeling.

His love poems are sensual and deeply felt: two examples are “Back Again for Mary” (p.25) and “For Jan Apart” (p.26) where beautiful lines such as this from the latter poem evoke the loved one, …/I don’t /sense you swimming in dreams/green or flying the kite/of your bright art on/the images singing through/your brain thunder…

His poems inspired by nature are often as visceral, and as taut. A good example is “Trees Two” (p.17): Know the earth/through white toes/sail the earth/for all winter/and greet spring/forthcoming with soft/green applause

In “The Boulder” (p.75), Oughton introduces landscape with visceral intensity in this first stanza, Near Riviere-du-Loup/above the sweeping St.Lawrence/a granite heart/taller than a man…

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Poet John Oughton is the author of five poetry books, several chapbooks, and a mystery novel.

Sound and rhythm are powerfully evoked In “That Line”, (p.19), I turn my life upside down/nothing falls out. No change/in the pockets of this train/six sprockets the head’s projector/unreels, grinding land through…

In “Training” (p.21), a similar rhythm pulls the reader along, But sight tows a zipper that shuts/the gap of where we were

There is much to praise about the poetry in Time Slip, but the collection is not without weaknesses. Time Slip appears to be a volume of “collected poems”—“selections” is the word used by Oughton in his introduction (p. 13)—therefore some of the poems were not written by the mature poet who penned the introduction. I can’t say how many poems from early in his poetic career were revised for inclusion in Time Slip, but my impression is that they were not revisited before publication in this volume. If that’s the case, I think that was a mistake. As British poet Billy Mills reflects in a piece on collected works in The Guardian*, even poets such as W.B. Yeats often revised old poems for collected works.

One example of a poem which is not Oughton’s most sensitive work is “Foreign”, set in Japan, (p.30). The poem starts well with the narrator effectively mocking himself: Beard like a brush that quit/painting and eloped with the ink But a false note is struck when the narrator quips near the end, Almond eyes seek the nut I am.

It is hard to know whether the reference to “almond eyes” is part of the self-mockery in this context. This kind of description would be seen by some contemporary critics as objectifying and exoticizing the locals strolling through Kyoto’s Botany Gardens.

In some respects, John Oughton’s collection Time Slip reminds me of one assembled by Australian peripatetic lecturer- poet Dennis Haskell which I reviewed six months ago for the Malaysian literary journal ASIATIC .** Oughton’s collection, Time Slip like Haskell’s collected poems, What Are You Doing Here? ,***spans decades of travel and long periods spent by the poet in other cultures. Both collections raise a question for me, namely: Is it wise to include early travel poems in unrevised form in a “Selected Poems”?

In Time Slip, “Xmas Pageant, 1961” (p.85), the narrator reflects on his travels as a teenager as he also recalls a Christmas pageant. The narrator’s glib tone makes the poem more told than seen. One example can be found at the start of the third stanza: I had spent the Christmas before in Iraq/the hills bleached and biblical…

Some of the other poems which seem too told are Mata Hari poems, such as “Typhoid Fever” (p.56), and “Debut at the Musee Guimet, Paris” (p.60). I understand the challenges of creating context and sharing history for the reader of persona poetry. Yet in the latter poem, Mata Hari’s life events are reduced to a list, as in the first three lines of the third stanza below:

The truth of dance animates me/I take my past, my grief, my marriage/my failure as wife, artist’s model, circus rider…

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Oughton will be a featured reader during the January 24, 2017 Art Bar Reading Series event.

The Mata Hari poem, “Salome” (p. 62-63), could have begun half way through with these powerful lines: When I dance Salome I’ll take their heads off/while the music cracks and thumps/like a soul forced back into flesh

Instead of with the opening stanza which tells, rather than shows: What Carmen only hints at, this opera shrieks/Women murder as well as they conceive/using all the power of mistress/mother harpy

In addition to further editing, Time Slip would have flowed better with transitions between the poems selected from several collections—especially in the case of the Mata Hari poems. Sub-sections would have given those poems more opportunity to breathe.

A second edition of John Oughton’s poetry collection, Mata Hari’s Lost Words, will be released in 2017. I look forward to reading those persona poems, because I appreciate how challenging it can be to fully inhabit a character on the page. I will be interested to see whether any of the Mata Hari poems which appeared in Time Slip have been revised.

John Oughton’s collection, Time Slip showcases a lot of strong writing from his thirty plus years as a poet. This reviewer has not chosen to comment on his poems of loss, and I have barely touched on his sense of humor. The latter makes regular appearances as in the aforementioned, “Foreign”, set in Japan, (p.30), where the narrator starts off by effectively mocking himself.

In “Canadian Love Song” (p.99), the narrator jokes about that emotion which inspires so much poetry: yearning, I have an itch/ which is you/calamine pink/mosquito blue…

Oughton’s poetry in Time Slip is funny, and ironic—even in its moments of grief—but also at times, deeply felt.  His writing is often taut and original. I recommend slipping into his time machine, and taking a trip.

*July 2009:  The Guardian article appears here.
** Literary Journal of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
***http://journals.iium.edu.my/asiatic/index.php/AJELL/article/viewFile/758/628

Additional information about featured poet John Oughton and his work:

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The second edition of John Oughton’s poetry collection, Mata Hari’s Lost Words, will be released by NeoPoiesis Press in 2017.

John Oughton lives in Toronto, Canada, and is about to retire as Professor Learning and Teaching at Centennial College. He attended York University and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. He is the author of five books of poetry, several chapbooks, a mystery novel titled Death by Triangulation, and close to 500 articles, blogs, reviews and interviews. Follow his website.

He is also a photographer. See his photography website.

Additional information about Time Slip (Guernica Editions, 2010) can be found here.

Additional information about his chapbook Vertex/Vertigo (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2016) can be found here and the second edition of Mata Hari’s Lost Words, (NeoPoiesis Press, 2017) here.

The Toronto launch for this second edition will be held Wednesday, February 1, 2017 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Free Times Café, 320 College Street. The launch will also include a performance by belly dancer Anjelica Scannura, and guest readings by writers Heather Babcock, Brenda Clews, and Kath MacLean. Admission is free.

Meet John Oughton at the Art Bar Poetry Reading series, Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 8 p.m. at Free Times Café, 320 College Street, Toronto. He will be a featured reader with Steve Venright and Stephen Humphrey. More information here.

On April 23, 2017 at 2 p.m., he will also be part of the 10th annual Arts and Poets Collaboration, an exhibition and reading which is at the Women’s Art Association of Canada, 23 Prince Arthur Avenue in Toronto.

About the reviewer:

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Special thanks to Kate Rogers for writing and sharing her review of John Oughton’s fifth poetry book Time Slip.

Kate Rogers’ new poetry collection, Out of Place will be published by Aeolus House in 2017. In the summer of 2016 Kate was a featured reader for the Toronto reading series, Hot Sauced Words, at the League of Canadian Poets new members reading, and at Artfest, in Kingston, Ontario. Kate’s poetry collection, Foreign Skin, debuted with Toronto’s Aeolus House Press in 2015.
Kate is co-editor of the OutLoud Too anthology (MCCM 2014), and the world poetry anthology, Not a Muse: the Inner Lives of Women (Haven 2009).
Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian; Quixotica; Eastlit; Asia Literary Review; Cha: an Asian Literary Journal; Morel; The Goose: a Journal of Arts, Environment and Culture; Kyoto Journal; ASIATIC: the Journal of the Islamic University of Malaysia; Many Mountains Moving; Orbis International and Contemporary Verse II.
Kate lectures in literature and media studies at the Community College of City University, Hong Kong.

Follow this blog for future book reviews and interviews with Canadian authors and poets.

Canadian Poet Allan Briesmaster Heightens Form in ‘River Neither’

“Or might I front, down steeper paths of thought,/some earthly light that verges on divine.” – Allan Briesmaster* 

The image of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker pops into my mind while reading Canadian poet Allan Briesmaster’s book River Neither.

Perhaps it is the way Briesmaster uses a more classical yet varied form of metre and rhyme that pulls me into the 19th Century or maybe it’s his concentration on nature, deep reflection, and abstract reasoning that challenges me and provokes additional study.

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Canadian poet Allan Briesmaster is inspired by music, visual art, poetry and other writing from all historical periods and world literature, natural phenomena, and people who are close to him. Photo by Peter Rowe used with permission.

In his author’s notes, he states, “It is my cautious hope that, at a time when the creation, production and reading of poetry tends to be increasingly fragmented and over-specialized, and when in some quarters traditional form is deemed archaic or obsolete, a few discerning readers will set preconceptions aside and simply enjoy the journey along River Neither – one that will lead them to discoveries of their own.”

For me, the serendipitous moment arrives when I discover that Rodin originally called his famous sculpture, The Poet. It was also speculated that Rodin’s work was inspired by Dante Alighieri and his literary masterpiece The Divine Comedy, which outlines “a soul’s journey towards God or some spiritual realm.”

Similar to Dante’s complex quest, Briesmaster’s poetry dares the reader to slow down, pause, re-read passages, and reflect. I find it necessary to not only embrace the poem’s layered meaning but to examine the structure and other poetic elements that make the work strong.

I also love how Briesmaster takes me down a path and then when I get lost, his use of language challenges me to get up and seek the philosopher’s stone. It reminds me of hiking through a dense forest and how each trip reveals additional details and insights to reward the patient traveller.

This exploratory and poetic journey is the metaphorical river that follows through the collection.

For example, his 90-page book published by Aeolus House in 2015 begins with “Absence From An Eden”, a 14 poem section that drifts from paradise to a state of yearning, transitions, and uncertain familial relationships.

In the section “Greenrise”, nature takes the stage with seasonal spring and summer accounts such as “draw an inch more of green scent down your lungs./Maybe now see the tree-branch’s rungs/on an ascent that isn’t any steeper.”

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Allan Briesmaster’s newest book ‘River Neither’ (Aeolus House, 2015) is “a concentrated exploration of poetic form: traditional, modified, and invented”.

 

In the section “Onward Turnings” the journey continues through autumn and winter where reflections of ageing and death end with “Fine farewell glow, revert me to the dawn/of rapture at leaf-motion, on the fly,/tugging the heart afresh like that bird-wing/flashed from a bare branch in sun’s orange eye.”

The last section “Flight Home” is an inward reflection. In the poem “Age and Solitude”, Briesmaster makes reference to the Chinese poet Tu Fu and writes “A solitary gull is all I am,/borne off between earth and the heavens.”

In keeping with his philosophical viewpoint, he often asks questions, to challenge himself and the reader. For example, in his poem “A Sagittarian Tension”, he writes “Has he a compass-point by which to steer,/predefined mission, fore-cast destiny?” In his last poem “Not I” (a variation of a sonnet), he offers “Of its own will, I can become the vessel/bearing the fluent force that pours through me.”

Humble in his thoughts and actions, Briesmaster is a major force in the Canadian literary scene. He is the author of seven full-length books and eight chapbooks and shorter books. According to the League of Canadian Poets website: “In 1986-90 Allan led Phoenix, Toronto’s longest-running poetry workshop. He was one of the chief organizers of the weekly Art Bar Poetry Reading Series from 1991 until 2002: playing a central role as it grew into the largest series of its kind in Canada.”

Unfortunately, I missed his recent featured reading at the Art Bar series in Toronto. However, earlier in November, I asked him to share his thoughts about his new book and writing process. Below are his responses:

Your first collection of poetry was published in 1998. River Neither is your 7th full trade book. Describe this poetry collection in a few sentences and mention how it is similar to and different from your other books.

Yes, my first book of poetry, Weighted Light, came out some 18 years ago. Since then I’ve had six other full-length books and eight smaller ones published. River Neither differs from the previous books in consisting entirely of short poems, almost all in strict forms. Many are sonnets and variations on the sonnet, and the rest also use formal constraints like metre and rhyme. There were quite a few “formal” poems in the earlier books, coexisting with an equal or greater number in open forms.

In a sense, River Neither is a concentrated exploration of poetic form: traditional, modified, and invented. It is “about” form itself and what form can uniquely accomplish, while, of course, being about much else besides. The series of poems on my late parents is something new, as is the writing about the early and later stages of life’s journey in the first and last of the book’s four parts, though some of this was initiated in the book that preceded this one. The poems set outdoors that celebrate and reflect on nature, the seasons, and ecology have themes which will be familiar to readers of my other books.

In your author’s notes, you wrote, “form can actually serve to liberate and open up paths to new discoveries of all kinds.” When did you first start working with such formal principles as metre and rhyme and how difficult is it to focus on and market such traditional forms in a poetic community that appears to value more open and experimental work?

I have always enjoyed reading classic poems that had metre and rhyme. Formalist poetry was out of favour when I first began writing seriously, but I remained intrigued by it. There are quite a few formal poems in my first book. While I am well aware of literary fashions (and there has been a considerable revival of formalist poetry in some circles in the past 20 years), I don’t ever consciously fall in line with them. Although I want people to enjoy my writing style, and to understand and be moved by the content, I need to write in the ways that are given to me and that most deeply challenge and satisfy.

I do not actively “market” my books, partly because the audience for poetry is rather fragmented and diffuse, and also because I favour readings and occasional radio programs as the best way for people to discover my work. As well, I am a publisher and editor and much of my time is dedicated to helping promote the books with which I’m involved. Which is not to say that I don’t have any aspirations for my work to be more widely read, or that I don’t think it has lasting value.

In any case, I would insist that the poetry in River Neither is not merely traditional. It has an innovative dimension, and it aims to extend and refresh forms and formal principles that are by no means obsolescent but offer perennial possibilities. For instance, I have sonnets with 13 and 15 lines, and ones with four or six end-rhymes instead of the standard five or seven. It’s gratifying that, when I give readings, a wide range of listeners respond very favourably, even when their usual taste in poetry is for something different.

Many of your poems in this collection are philosophical, nature-based or relationship themed. There is often a depth, a richness of language and intrigue that forces the reader to either slow down and concentrate on the printed words or to re-read the work several times to grasp and appreciate both the structure and meaning. What do you feel is the role of poetry in today’s society?

Thank you for this very complimentary characterization of my writing. It is certainly important to me to create poems that make readers slow down and think. I’m convinced that much, if not all, of the poetry most worth reading – that is most fully rewarding and most durable – is itself a mode of thinking: one which invites and encourages reflection and cogitation on the reader’s part.

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Allan Briesmaster is a major force in the Canadian literary scene.

 

I believe that poetry’s social role can and should be much the same as it has always been, despite the encroachments on its old domain by the electronic media that tend to make it appear outmoded. That age-old role is multiple and manifold, and poetry’s protean nature is one of the most remarkable things about it. It means to be enjoyed, producing a certain, very special artistic pleasure, and at the same time it extends our emotional, intellectual and spiritual horizons. It does not necessarily do so comfortably and reassuringly, but works to deepen our understanding of who we are, whence we came, and in what directions we may be heading as individuals and as social beings. It had better not simply confirm our prejudices or preach to the converted. It should open eyes, minds and hearts to new perspectives and other avenues besides what we’re accustomed to. It should remind us of the delight and the power language holds for us if treated with artful care.

What inspires you and who are your mentors?

A list of all the sources of inspiration would be long. High on it would be music (classical, jazz, and contemporary in particular) and visual art, a mostly indirect but vital influence nonetheless. I don’t mean writing in response to specific artworks, although I have done some of that, but just being given hope and confidence that I could approach something equivalent in my own medium. Then I am challenged by and induced to respond to a very wide array of poetry and other writing from all historical periods and world literature, including some in translation. Natural phenomena I encounter near where I live in Thornhill and throughout Southern Ontario call to me for responses more compellingly than do domestic and urban scenes. People who are close to me or otherwise make a powerful impression also spur me to write, sometimes in response to their remarks, pointed or casual – more so than items in the news. I have constant concern about political and social justice issues, but have not yet found ways of writing about them to my satisfaction, though some of this awareness does inevitably seep into my work.

I never had what I would call a mentor. I suppose I got the equivalent of mentoring, when I was young, from reading literature for pleasure and from having closely studied the classics when I majored in English. I had some good teachers but they did not directly influence my early aspirations to write, which came straight out of what I was reading: the English Romantic poets, for instance. Later, my participation in poetry workshops was helpful in learning about “the craft,” but still there was no individual who took me under his or her wing.

Describe your writing process.

I produce poems in various ways. There is no predominant “method,” and I do not have a single place or regular time when I do my writing, though I spend at least a part of an hour on it almost every day, at home, on a park bench, in a café, even once in a while on the subway; and I devote much more time to revising than raw creating. A poem could arise through an abrupt recollection of an emotionally-charged experience; out of an on-the-spot observation (I always carry a notebook around); as a response to a text I have just read that excites or annoys me; or from an image, a phrase or even a rhythm that springs to mind spontaneously from no definite source. I might jot down a promising line or two and return to it later, or I might be able to persist and, within minutes, end up with a partial sketch or entire first draft. Only rarely is the poem finished when I reach the last line of the first version. The majority of poems need at least several drafts, with possibly a substantial rewrite or two, usually across a minimum of a few days, sometimes over a week or more. The first couple of drafts are hand-written, and revision almost always continues when I enter the text on my computer. Some poems take many weeks or even months before I feel ready to show them to anyone else.

There is no time when I do not have two or more poems under development in these ways. In the later stages, I often get useful feedback from friends and the writing groups I attend, which prompts me to do further fine-tuning and sometimes come up with still more revisions. Publication in a magazine or anthology does not necessarily mean a poem is finally finished either. And when I come to prepare a book, I call on multiple readers and/or an editor to advise me.

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Briesmaster’s first book of poetry, ‘Weighted Light’ was launched 18 years ago. To date, he has seven full-length books  and eight smaller ones published. Above is a small sample of his work.

In addition to being a poet, you are one of two Executive Directors for Quattro Books and the publisher of the micro-press Aeolus House. You were also the main literary editor of Seraphim Editions and since 1998 you have assisted with the production of over 200 books. What advice would you give to a poet who is currently seeking publication of his/her first trade book?

No matter how far along a writer thinks the manuscript has come, it is highly desirable to seek the input of trusted friends or perhaps even hire a qualified editor, so that its chances of favourably impressing a publisher are maximized. In choosing which publishers to submit to, be sure that the kind of poetry you have is suited to their particular aesthetics, and, of course, check their submissions guidelines.

What are you currently working on?

I am in the early stages of what will become my next book of poetry. As always, I also have several book-editing and freelance-editing projects underway, amidst my ongoing responsibilities with Quattro Books.

What are your future plans?

I would like to do more traveling in future years than I’ve managed in the past. I’ll have time next year, after the two books of poetry I’m editing for Quattro are published in March.

Is there anything else you would like to add or share?

My writing may appear to some readers to be cerebral and constrained, but to me it is passionate as well. It comes out of a mixture of anxiety, rage, awe, and gratitude. Also of fundamental importance for my poetry is musicality (the sound, rhythm, and architecture of the words together with the pauses between them); a rootedness in physical being and the senses, not just the mind; having a basic element of play; that it wants to be enjoyed, not merely admired; and that it is a thoroughly social art, created in a spirit of generosity: with the hope that any extra effort and attention given back to it will be well rewarded, and that many poems will retain their freshness and their strangeness on successive readings, with no “best before” date attached.

Thanks Allan for the interview and for taking time from your busy schedule to answer my questions. I wish you continued success.

Additional information about Briesmaster appears on the “Members page” section of The Ontario Poetry Society and The League of Canadian Poets websites.

Information about his books can be found at Aeolus House, Hidden Brook Press, Seraphim Editions, and Quattro Books.

*from the sonnet “Octobering” published in the book River Neither (Aeolus House, 2015) page 56. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Allan Briesmaster 2015.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.

Look At Her – Vanessa Shields, a Gutsy Poetic Crusader

With each poem I write, I am less afraid – Vanessa Shields*

Call her a poetic crusader: a woman waving a feminist flag with a capital C for “Courage” and “Conviction ” pressed against her breast. In her new book Look at Her, Windsor poet/editor Vanessa Shields belts out poem after poem after poem of raw emotion focusing on four major themes: Body, Motherhood, Family, and Power.

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Windsor poet/editor Vanessa Shields is currently on tour with her second poetry collection, LOOK AT HER (Black Moss Press, 2016). Photo by Eveline Csomor

Intimate, almost always expressed in the first person point of view, her second poetry collection exposes private details that should or shouldn’t be shared depending on where you sit on the comfort scale. Liberal-minded readers will love it. “Don’t be afraid to have an opinion.” Conservative thinkers may turn away and insist they’d sooner not read: “My vagina is not a haystack/Yet I can feel a needle in her centre.”

Her powerful writing reminds me of feminist songwriter Helen Reddy’s 1972 billboard chart hit “I Am Woman” where the refrain roars, emphasizing a woman’s importance in being wise, strong and invincible. She’s all that and more…

And yet, Shields admits to a woman’s vulnerability as hinted in her words “my teenage self a sloppy poem under his nose”, “bruised buildings oozing too much feeling” and “she hopes the bruises don’t show through.” 

For me, her strongest writing evolves around the memories of family. In ‘Kitchen Dancing’, she writes, “My aunt scoops me up in her long strong arms and spins me/around like I’m a table cloth in the washing machine.” In the same poem, “he’d never use/a broom in that kitchen not when he could be sweeping her/sweeping us into his quiet devotion.”

Her writing style is very much her own. As she writes ‘In The Silence’, the last poem of the book: “I am muddy water pounding over rocks/searching for land….I won’t be afraid.”

Tomorrow (Friday, October 14, 2016), Vanessa Shields stops in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada as part of her current book tour.

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Vanessa Shields joins local poets for a special reading, Friday, October 14 at the Blackwater Coffee Co. in Sarnia, Ontario.

Curious about this energetic poet/editor? Pull up a chair for this enlightening conversation with Shields following her return from Ottawa.

Congratulations Vanessa!  Your second poetry collection  Look At Her published by Black Moss Press is like a sequel to your first collection I Am That Woman. Please describe your new book in a few sentences.

Thank you! Yes, many of the poems in Look At Her are responsorial to the poems in I Am That Woman. What I believe is at the heart of Look At Her is a conversation in poetry between my different experiences of ‘self’ as well as a conversation between myself and the people around me. I want to challenge myself, and readers to look within, and to look around and be honest about how we feel about ourselves and the world, how we treat ourselves and each other, and, essentially, how we communicate with ourselves and each other. A raw honesty is at the heart of this collection.

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Vanessa Shields’ first poetry collection I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press, 2013) ‘turned the themes of femininity and motherhood upside down.’

Both books are gutsy, written mainly from a first person point of view, and address some of the grittier aspects of being a woman in today’s society. I noticed your second book has less swearing but you’ve turned up the heat with more sexual references, and have pushed deeper into such issues as divorce, dysfunctional relationships, and power struggles. What lessons, if any, would you like the readers to walk away with?

Good question. One lesson, for sure, is that we are always learning and growing as human beings. The effect of our learning (in ‘life lesson’ form) is that our relationships, our beliefs, our abilities to love and be loved shift and, potentially, change. I think it’s my job as a poet to pay attention to how we treat ourselves, and each other, and to write about how I push through my own challenges. One lesson I’m constantly working on is being brave – as a writer that means having an opinion. Of course, we all have opinions, but it takes a certain something to put those opinions out of your head and onto paper for others to read, receive and respond to. On one level, there are lessons about parenting, sex, relationships, spirituality, family and forgiveness, but beneath that, I think the lessons have to do with the underlying goal of humanity – to love, to be able to love and be loved. No matter how I think through any human experiences, it always results in something related to love.

What is your favourite poem in the collection and why do you like it so much?

Another good question! There are many poems that really come to a different ‘life’ when I perform them. I often write knowing that I’ll get to read the work out loud to an audience, and that affects the theme and energy of the piece. So with ‘performance’ in mind, I really love ‘Doggy Style’ and ‘The First Time I Watched Porn’. Likely the poems that are more edgy and envelope pushing are the ones that have a good performance power to them. I also really love ‘If I Listen’ and ‘Not The Only Woman’. They hold the heart of ‘me’ in them. It’s hard to choose just one! Each of them is special to me.

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Look at Her by Vanessa Shields continues to push the boundaries.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

Well, as this book is shared and I get feedback from other writers, I find that they compare me to writers they’ve read that makes them feel the way my poems make them feel. Recently, I’ve been compared to Sharon Olds and Molly Peacock. I hadn’t heard of these poets before (I don’t like to admit it, but there you have it!), and wouldn’t you know, the day after I heard about Sharon Olds, there she was in my inbox in a newsletter that Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner send out called Lenny Letter. Olds wrote an incredible poem about breasts. I immediately went online to purchase books by both Olds and Peacock. I do think that we write from the same feminist place. But the truth is, I often feel like my work is just different enough that it’s not really like any other poetry.

I read a lot of poetry, and I don’t often find work that feels like mine. Not sure what that means…but when I get compared to writers, I always do research and read to see if there is a similarity. I think there is with Susan Olds, for sure. Eve Ensler, maybe too. I think, though, that I’m just at the beginning of this poetic frontier where I’m less afraid to write about how I feel about ‘big’ things…and that shows up in Look At Her. I’m certainly not the first poet to write about sex and body parts. I won’t be the last, but I do hope that there’s something about my work that stands out, and compels people to read poetry, and provokes them to talk about the themes/subjects I write about.

Sometimes it feels that writers must push the boundaries to be noticed. We can’t all be ax murders, former junkies, prostitutes, bank robbers, forensic scientists or even trans-genders. No disrespect, of course, but is there still room for poets who fall through those cracks and live what may be considered boring, stable lives or those who are more introverted and less flamboyant? What advice would you have for those who have a quieter voice?

A writer must write her truth. I think that my words, and often my performance of those words, affect people in a way that causes them to put me in the ‘push the boundaries’ list of writers. But I don’t really feel that way about my work. I think my aim is to jar or rattle the soul. For some people, hearing (talking about) sex does this. For others, it’s themes of war or rape. I believe with all my heart that everyone is creative. That each of us lives a life that is sharable and teachable through some form of creative expression. I don’t believe that life is ever ‘boring or stable’. I think that’s story we tell ourselves. I am extremely introverted much of the time. That is where these poems are born. I am quiet and pensive and often times, very shy. I’ve just learned and lived through the practice of writing how to express myself as a poet. Flamboyant? Perhaps, but that’s all part of performance for me. In the end, it’s a reader and the words. If she hears my literal voice as she reads, great, but mostly I don’t think that’s the case. The words and the meanings standalone like a line-up. The reader brings her own beliefs and life experience to the words and reacts. This is why I write – to reach people on deep levels.

I guess; I’m not sure that writers consciously write to push boundaries to be noticed. It’s not that simple. Maybe I’m naïve? I think that writers, if they are writing their truth, just write – and the results show up in reader responses that say ‘this writer pushes boundaries’ – but not to be noticed as a writer (the person) but as the words to provoke or make a point or cause change or chaos or whatever the message(s) entail.

Describe your writing process.

Consistently inconsistent. Hurried, yet calm. Disciplined, mostly. I write at various times during the day and night. Sometimes I have up to 2 hours of writing time, while mostly I have chunks of 30-45 minutes. I write poetry by hand on paper first. I carry notebooks everywhere I go so I always have something to write on. I love to type on keyboards that are clackety – I have one with my desktop computer in my office. I also write ‘out and about’ – in restaurants, bookstores, cafes, bars. I can write anywhere, it doesn’t matter if there’s plenty of noise or none. When I’m writing poetry, the first drafts, it can happen anywhere. When I’m working on my novel (or longer forms of writing), I do like to have a bit of quiet. Sometimes I write to music, but nothing with words or else I sing along! When it comes time for editing and revising, however, I find I need quiet. I like to edit at my home either at my dining room table or in my office (if it’s clean!). A messy office begs for me to clean it, and that’s totally distracting! I write every day. And everything counts – emails, hand-written letters, poetry, ideas, etc. I can say with pride that I’ve put in my 10,000 hours of writing practice and I feel confident calling myself a professional writer/expert! Writers write, and I get that, and I live that.

What are you currently working on?

I’m touring my new book so a lot of time is spent on promotions, marketing and travel. I wasn’t writing anything new for a few months, but now, I’m finding poetry is flowing through me again. I’m working on a collection of poetry about my Metis ancestry and my family’s ancestry in general. I am planning on getting back to my YA novel for what I hope is the last re-write. I’m super excited (giddy!) about working on this again. I think I might do NaNoWriMo again this year to help motivate me to write with discipline every day. I’m also working with Windsor’ Poet Laureate and my publisher, Marty Gervais, and 6 other local poets, on an anthology of poetry about Windsor’s history. I’m reading and choosing poetry for the next two Windsor Review volumes. I’m working on a panel presentation for the League of Canadian Poets Feminist Caucus…and now that I think about it, I need to write another blog for the League…Oh my. There is no shortage of writing work to be done!

What are your future plans?

Hmm. Well, in 3 -5 years, my dream is to open Gertrude’s Literary Café. A space for creative writing, book launches, reading series, storytelling series, reading…with delicious coffees/teas and fresh pastries. I have no idea how to life this dream to life, but it’s there and very real in my mind. Before that, I’d like to see what happens with my YA novel(s). It’d be incredible to get an agent and a book(s) deal. It would be great to continue to get my poetry published…but in the end, I want roots in a space so I can do all the things I love to do in one location – and invite everyone to share the space with me!

In addition to writing non-fiction and completing a young adult novel, you are a former editor for Black Moss Press and the current poetry editor for the Environmental issue of The Windsor Review. Based on your experience, what advice (or secrets) would you share with a new poet in search of a publisher?

I wish there was a secret! I’d have to say, write with confidence. Submit with patience. Keep writing. Keep reading. Before you submit to a literary magazine, read what they’ve already published to see if your work fits. This goes for sending out full manuscripts as well. There are many great publishers I love, but I know that my writing doesn’t fit their publishing style. I have to accept that. Use Facebook groups and the Internet to find out where to send your work. There are literally thousands of contests and submission calls. Don’t be afraid to reach out to local writers for information about writing. I’ve learned about many amazing contests/publishers by simply asking writers for guidance. And the biggie – you must have someone else read your work before you submit a manuscript. Hire an editor. Revise. Read your work out loud. Then submit. When you get rejected – keep the rejection. File it. Start a collection. I keep mine and the stacks keep me humble and motivated…cry if you have to cry when you really wanted to get that poem published. I feel you. But…don’t give up. Wipe your face. Blow your nose. And get back to work.

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Vanessa Shields’ Selfie – “I Won’t be afraid”

It appears that the role of the writer has changed. Not only must writers create strong poems but they must also be experienced marketers. You have mastered that skill. How important are marketing skills for a writer? Can a writer still succeed in this highly competitive environment without touring, attending readings, blogging, and interacting on social media?  Why or why not?

This is a loaded question. I ask myself this question sooo often. In short, yes. A writer can survive without being a force of marketing/social media madness. The way the writer can survive is through her work. If the work is strong and resonates, readers will buy the book. It happens all the time. In the beginning, the power is in the words, the story. If a writer’s work becomes successful then she will likely have to do readings, plug-in and show up off the pages…but it is possible for the work to stand-alone.

However, I think that many of us enjoy the sharing part. The readings, the travel, the blogging, the interviews – whatever we can get to talk about our work and share it. There is so much great writing in the world. Sometimes, we get impatient and lose confidence in the time it takes for people to read our work. And, if want to be read a lot, sell loads of books, win awards, we simply must put ourselves out there – or work with our publishers to get us out there. I think you have to ask yourself what you want out of the industry. If you want to be known, be read, make noise – then you have to get out there and try to make it happen. I say try because although I market myself, promote myself, submit to contests/etc…I haven’t reached my own ‘pinnacle’ of ‘this-is-what-it-means-for-me-to-be-successful’.

I get frustrated A LOT. I cry about what’s not happening all the time. I have to calm myself down when I see that what feels like ‘everyone else but me’ is getting her work in the places I wish mine would be. It’s a dangerous place, this ‘why not me’ zone. You have to figure out what ‘success’ means to you. Based on that, you move forward and see if you can be the definition you have in your head and heart. I’ve had much success. I’ve felt the heat of a fiery, passionate reading where I’m floating afterwards. I’ve had many incredible conversations with readers that burst my heart. But I haven’t been reviewed by the Globe & Mail. I can’t seem to get Quill & Quire to notice me. I haven’t received a big-money grant….all of these things are part of my ‘success’ definition.

I’m constantly having to re-align and re-define what ‘success’ means because I’m very hard on myself and my work. And I compare my writing to everyone else’s. I want the success that others have – at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Again, the danger is that in doing so, I lose the beauty and love that is happening with my work. I am getting it out there. I am touring it. I am reading and selling books. Why do I make all of this joy not ‘count’ because the Globe & Mail hasn’t written a review? Sheesh. I wish I had an answer…but I don’t! Except…to make everything ‘count’.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

I think…yes. Think about what you love to do. Do that. A little every day. See what happens. And…if you read my book(s)…please take the time to go on Goodreads or Amazon and rate me or write a review or do both! This counts – for my heart, and for me to feel ‘successful’! Even if you didn’t like it. Everyone counts!

Thanks Vanessa for sharing your views today! I love your enthusiasm, your generous words of encouragement!

For future tour dates, readings and insights follow Shields on her blog.

Additional information about Vanessa Shields’ books is posted on the Black Moss Press website.

*from “Acknowledgements” published in the book Look At Her (Black Moss Press, 2016) page 105. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Vanessa Shields, 2016

DISCLOSURE: Vanessa Shields was my editor for my first poetry collection Tarnished Trophies (Black Moss Press, 2014). While I have maintained my objectivity in this blog post to the best of my ability (I even purchased my own review copy.),  I highly recommend that readers form their own opinions about the poet and her books. Better yet.  Attend one of her readings and meet her in person. 

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.

 

From England to the Yukon: Joanna Lilley Infuses a Magical Dimension into her Poetry

What if the dotted line/of the Arctic Circle just above me//on the map is a perforation?/What if the piece of the world/I’m on tears off? Joanna Lilley*

In a quiet space called imagination, a magical trail of ink flows from Joanna Lilley’s words and seeps inside my head. It swirls and stirs like eddies in a remote stream and my admiration deepens for the lyrical work of this award-winning Yukon-based and UK-born poet.

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Yukon-based poet Joanna Lilley’s second poetry collection will be published by Turnstone Press in the Spring 2017.

Not all poetry books speak to me, but Lilley’s debut collection, The Fleece Era, ranks high with my favourites: North End Love Songs (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2012) by Katherena Vermette and The Shunning (Turnstone Press, 1980) by Patrick Friesen.

Published by Brick Books in 2014, her 96-page book has garnered many positive reviews including one by the current Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke who wrote in The Chronicle Herald: “I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s semi-mystical, epigrammatic lyrics, but also Elizabeth Bishop’s pointillist portraiture—the exquisite image and restrained emotion.”

For me, it’s Lilley’s gripping first line: “They could look down/on me from Google Earth” that draws me into her narrative plus the way she describes the northern community of Whitehorse where “aspen shadows dress/the snow in long blue ribbons” that gently nets me like an Arctic Grayling.

I’m on the edge of her poetic wilderness, turning each page, discovering new (and sometimes surreal) ways of looking at everyday living. For example, she writes: “I’m climbing the clay/looking for the steel/that holds up the clouds”. I applaud her dry wit where “cows/are the shape of the United States”.

Divided into four sections (A Riddle, Emotional Expenditure, At Each Exhale, and Nobody Else Dies), this book of 64 poems explores such common themes as familial relationships, (“you were a white-bread brother/in a brown bread house”) childlessness, the breaking away, the wanderer, environmental concerns (“my brain was a net/of dripping dead fish”), regrets, grief, and her move to the Yukon where “A mezzanine of mountains/surround this basement town”. However, what makes the book outstanding and worthy of a five-star rating on Goodreads is the simple yet beautiful language she uses and the way these themes are infused with original and enthralling metaphors.

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The Fleece Era by Joanna Lilley received rave reviews and a five-star ranking by this blogger on Goodreads.

In her favourite poem “Earth Twin”, she writes: “If anyone asks whether I believe/in life on other planets, I say yes/right away.”

I love how she stretches the boundaries of her imagination and leaves the reader holding another strong and magical image.

In anticipation of her new book to be released by Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press in the spring 2017, I asked Lilley about her writing process. Below is her response:

Congratulations Joanna on your first poetry book The Fleece Era published by Brick Books. Please describe your book in a few sentences.

The Fleece Era is my first collection of poems and so I think it has its origins in many different stages of my life. The common theme for me is the awkwardness and difficulty of everyday living. The poems are very personal, though not to say autobiographical. They wrestle with the guilt that so many of us feel, from the detrimental impact we’re having on the planet to the pain we cause our families and others we love. I’ve been told the theme of childlessness is rather strong too which for me is very much connected to environmental worries.

What is your favourite poem in the collection and why do you like it so much?

That’s a difficult question! It varies, I think, depending on what’s going on in the world and in my current writing. I seem to like including “Earth Twin” when I give readings. It’s the last poem in the book and I like sharing it because it came out of such an ordinary, everyday activity, namely doing the dishes and listening to the radio. I love how we can find poetry in absolutely everything. That’s why poetry is magical for me. I love how everything from doing the dusting to, say, designing a space ship is all part of the human experience.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

I don’t think my writing achieves anything special in terms of form or subject matter. I think it’s more about content. My poems emerge entirely out of my individual experience. I’m the only person who has led my life just as you’re the only person who has led yours. Each of our lives is a unique configuration of possibilities, probabilities and inevitabilities. Only I could have written the poems I write, just as other poets could only have written theirs.

I have introduced you as a Yukon-based poet but you were actually born in Newmarket, Suffolk [in England] and according to your bio, you lived in England, Wales and Scotland before you moved to Whitehorse, Yukon about ten years ago. How important is travelling and living in different cities and countries to a writer? Where do your loyalties live? Would you consider yourself a Canadian or European writer? Or does it matter whether you are associated with a certain locale?

I think for me personally, travelling and moving has been very important for my writing but that’s not to say it’s important for every writer. I think you could live in one place all your life as a writer and perhaps even be a better writer because of it, as you’re delving deeper and deeper into your subject matter and paying more and more attention to the same, familiar surroundings.

For me, moving to Canada helped my writing a great deal as it enabled me to step out from under at least some of the weight of being brought up in a country with a very glorious and yet intimidating literary history. Canada has a rich literary history too, of course, but it wasn’t telling me from my childhood onwards that it was ridiculous and presumptuous for me to even imagine I could be part of the literary world.

joanna-lilley-reads-at-the-edmonton-poetry-festival-april-2015

Joanna Lilley reads from The Fleece Era during the Edmonton Poetry Festival in April 2015.

I find that geography inspires me, which is why moving around and living in different places has always been important to me. I find it easier to be an observer when I’m in a new setting and I admit I enjoy that role, although I also use the same observer device when I’m in a place that’s very familiar to me as it helps me be mindful and present.

As for loyalties, well, they’re certainly split. I feel very privileged that I can consider myself a citizen of two countries. I’ll always be English but I hope I’m considered as a Canadian writer too, especially as my books have been published by Canadian presses. I’ve never really felt European because growing up in Britain, Europe was across the sea. Europe was Abroad. However, I was very saddened by the Brexit decision when Britain voted to leave the European Union. Thats a mistake as far as I’m concerned.

I also feel lucky that within Canada I’m considered a Yukon writer. The Whitehorse community has been very welcoming to me and I’m grateful for that. I’m always happy to chat to people who want to know more about life in the north.

I understand Brick Books encouraged and supported you on your first book tour. Can you provide some details in a couple of lines? What did you like best about the experience? What did you like the least?

Kitty Lewis at Brick Books had the amazing idea of four of their poets, including me, doing a trans-Canada reading tour. The four of us – me with Karen Enns, Jane Munro and Arleen Pare – read all across the country coast to coast from Victoria to Fredericton. Brick Books provided some of the funding and so did the Government of Yukon’s Touring Artist Fund and the League of Canadian Poets.

It was the most amazing experience. I’d been trying to get a book published for so long, it was a dream come true. What I enjoyed most was reading with such amazing authors in such a variety of cities. What did I like the least? Well, at the very first reading, in Victoria, where the four of us had only just met a few minutes earlier, I, as the rookie poet with just one book, had to stand up and read first. So I had to read in front of a hundred people without having heard any of the others read which was terrifying. Thankfully everyone was very supportive and kind and I got through it and even had fun.

the_birthday-books_j_lilley

The Birthday Books (Hagios Press, 2015) is Joanna Lilley’s first short story collection.

Brick Books published your poetry collection in 2014 and in 2015, your short story collection The Birthday Books was published by Hagios Press in their Strike Fire New Authors Collection. That’s quite an accomplishment to be proficient in two different literary disciplines. How do you juggle your writing schedule to accommodate the two different writing disciplines?

I’ve been writing for a long, long time and so I suppose over the years you build up quite a bit of work even if you’re writing in different disciplines. And then, if you’re lucky and a miracle happens, you get published. I’ve always worked full-time and fitted my writing around that in the evenings and weekends. I’m usually either focusing on poetry or fiction at any one time. It’s hard to do both on the same day because I seem to go to a different part of my brain for each one. I see poetry and fiction though as part of the same rainbow, as it were; they might be at different ends or they might be different colours, but they’re all the same thing really.

Describe your writing process.

When I write I need silence and I need to be relaxed. Writing when I first wake up is lovely if I can manage it because I’m in a dreamy state and my editing hat is hopefully where I left it in another room. I need to know I have time to write slotted into my schedule or I get jittery. I can’t just write for five minutes, although if that was all I had then I would because not writing at all wouldn’t be an option. I aim to write every day and I admit I get rather grumpy if I have to go more than a day without writing.

What inspires you? Who are your mentors?

As someone who didn’t have a book published until later in life, I’m always inspired by hearing about writers who persevere and write what’s true to their heart. My most recent mentor was Gail Anderson-Dargatz. I did a novel mentorship program with her earlier this year which was an enormous help. She asks such powerful, probing questions and is so encouraging and inspiring.

joanna-lilley-in-vancouver-april-2015-as-part-of-the-great-canadian-poetrain-tour

Joanna Lilley in Vancouver’s Stanley Park during the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour Celebrations.

I’m also part of a small writing group in Whitehorse which really helps me keep going. The other writers in the group are incredibly inspiring and we support each other through the inevitable ups and downs.

Every time I read a novel or a poem that I love I feel inspired – and envious of course! It was because I loved reading so much that I dreamed of being a writer. I remember a time when I didn’t really know any writers and now I feel so fortunate that I have friendships and connections with quite a few. It’s not easy being a writer and dealing with the frustrations of the writing process and all the rejections but I also feel blessed that I love writing so much and that I’m in that world.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a collection, hopefully, of poems about extinct animals. I’m also working on a novel.

What are your future plans?

I’m keen to keep working on the animal poems and the novel. My second poetry collection is coming out with Turnstone Press in spring 2017 so I’m absolutely delighted about that.

Do you have any special events this month where readers may hear your work?

As it happens I’m reading at The Word on the Street in Saskatoon on 18 September. I’m reading and talking about short stories with Donna Besel. There are some details here. I also put details of my upcoming readings on my website so that’s a good place to check for future events.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

I’ve mentioned it already but I’m so grateful that I have writing in my life. It’s helped me so much through life’s difficulties. Just as there’s magic in reading, there’s magic in the process of writing itself and it brings me so much joy.

Thanks Joanna for the interview. I can’t wait to read your next book. Please keep in touch.

Find out more about Joanna at www.joannalilley.com

Information about The Fleece Era can be found on the Brick Books website.

Information about The Birthday Books can be found on the Hagios Press website.

*from the poem “Earth Crack” published in the book The Fleece Era (Brick Books, 2014) page 87. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright ©2014 Joanna Lilley

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.

Poet Profile: Marsha Barber Reflects on All The Lovely Broken People

This is a poem/for when you are broken…Marsha Barber*

The front cover of Marsha Barber’s latest book includes a snapshot of a rag doll with its head tilted and severed at the neck. Symbolically, it reminds me of childhood innocence and how easily it is lost.

book launch photo 2 for invitation with shadow

All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) is the latest poetry collection by Ryerson journalism faculty member Marsha Barber.

At some point we all break and need to find a way to ease the pain.

As an award-winning Canadian poet, Barber cradles this universal theme of family ties, loss, brokenness, and grief and through poetry tries to make sense of it all.

For example, in her first poetry collection What is the Sound of Someone Unravelling (Borealis Press, 2011) she introduces the reader to the joys and tragedies of life and death. As she writes in her introduction, the book “begins with the suicide of someone else’s father and ends with the death of my own father.” It is her way of “trying to understand both the small and enormous losses that make up all our lives.” Her 62 poems are divided into three sections: Remembrance, Graveyard in Summer, and Watching My Father Rest.

This unravelling of emotions continues with her second book All The Lovely Broken People released by Borealis Press in 2015. The 98-page collection includes 64 poems divided into five sections: Inside the House, Difficult Journey, Swimming for My Father, Guided Tour, and Small Joys.

As a journalist and a documentarian, Barber hones in close to her subject matter and writes in a clear and accessible manner. In her poem, “Photo of the Doomed Man”, she examines the struggle between the journalist’s need to share the news and to protect the victims. At one point, she writes: “We’re inured/to gutting open/the fragile moments between/life and/death/like a Halloween pumpkin.”**

Marsha Barber photo from Ryerson website

Canadian Poet Marsha Barber writes about grief and healing in her two poetry collections published by Borealis Press. Photo Credit: Gary Gould

Her work is deep: both analytical and close to the heart. Of particular note is her use of the five senses, especially the sense of smell: “Inhale the smell of coffee and damp coats/still flecked with snow, like white icing.”***

In a Verse Afire review****, Canadian poet John B. Lee wrote: “Marsha Barber’s poems are consoling in their beauty and fortifying in their faith in the quality of a good life well lived and also in the purposefulness of dying well. She writes of loss and of the pain resulting from the terrifying awful things we humans are capable of inflicting at our worst reminding this particular reader of Yeats’ line “…the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” And she confesses more than once in these poems that she does not always understand. And it is that lack of understanding that renders her insights all the more luminous. Her poems are more than an anodyne to soothe the troubled mind. They often kick sideways into the dark realm of true experience.”

By the end of the book, Barber offers the reader hope: “This is a poem to sew those torn pieces/into ribbons//and eventually/into kites.”*

A few weeks ago, I asked Barber about her writing process. Below is her response:

Congratulations Marsha on your latest work. Describe your new book. What inspired you to write it?

I write about what’s important to me and this book was inspired by needing to write about themes that range from the intimate and personal, to events unfolding in the wider world. The poems are my attempt to make sense of those worlds.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps they’re more accessible than some. I love words and form, and have written experimental poems, but for me the real test of a poem is whether it will move readers. Will they relate to it? Will they laugh, or cry, or pause to think? Perhaps that comes from a deep desire to communicate with each person who is reading my book or hearing my words.

 

poems book cover McNally Robinson

What is the Sound of Someone Unravelling (Borealis Press, 2011) was Marsha Barber’s debut poetry collection.

 

You were a journalist first. How has your documentary experience influenced your poetry writing?

As a journalist, my goal is to tell an interesting story to an audience. That’s made me very aware of the power of narrative and storytelling. Just as journalism uncovers truth, I aim to get to the heart and inner truth of what I write about. Also, I’ve been told my work appeals to the senses, including the visual. Perhaps that stems from my work as a documentary maker. And finally, the best broadcast writing is clear and concise and words are chosen carefully. I’ve learned from that, I think.

 What inspires you and who are your mentors?

Good poetry inspires me. I’m a traditionalist in my tastes, so books of poetry by Keats and Yeats are never far from my bedside. I love the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and Jane Kenyon and Dorothy Livesay, among many others. The Canadian poetry community, which is wonderfully generous, is full of people who have been inspirations and mentors.

Describe your writing process.

I write my first drafts late at night. Usually I sit on the bed with my Hilroy notebook and start to write. I always complete my first draft in long hand and I write fast. Revisions are a different matter. Usually I type out the draft and revise as soon as I wake up in the morning. Reading the poem aloud helps with that. Then I let time pass before I return to the poem so I can see it with a fresh eye before I do additional revising.

 What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my third poetry book. This spring I was in Europe on sabbatical and some of the poems were written overseas. It was inspiring to write in a new setting in the middle of intense new sensory experiences.

What are your future plans?

More writing. I’ve written since I could hold a pencil so I imagine I’ll continue until I can’t hold a pen anymore. I think the impulse to create is as powerful as the impulse to draw breath. For me, it’s largely what makes life worthwhile.

Thanks Marsha for the interview and for allowing me to share a reprint of one of your poems. I look forward to reading your future work.

The Condolence Call

By Marsha Barber*****

I cradle the phone gently.
You are so far away.

Your grief surrounds you now
like a moat full
of dark water.

I cannot reach
far enough to comfort you.

My words flit around, useless
as flies.
What, after all, can be said?

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, you say.

I imagine I would have howled.
I imagine I would have rolled on the floor.
But in the end, I cannot begin to imagine.

I’ll be okay, you say,

but your voice is so remote as if
you’ve left us all
behind,
for a bleaker planet

where the air is charred,
and you cannot find the path
that leads
back home.

Marsha Barber’s next reading will be at the 100,000 Poets for Change event, Saturday, September 17, 2016, 5 to 8 p.m. at Mây Restaurant, 876 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario. Hosted by Pat Connors and Steve O’Brien, the event will also include readings by Mahlikah Awe:ri, Sharon Berg, Luciano Iacobelli, Donna Langevin, Max Layton, Jeannine Pitas, Robert Priest, Dane Swan, and Anna Yin. More information here.

Marsha reading on train

Barber shares her work during the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour.

Additional information about Marsha Barber can be found on The Ontario Poetry Society website.

Descriptions about her books are located on the Borealis Press website.

*from the poem “All the Lovely Broken People” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) pages 94 and 95. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

**from the poem “Photo of the Doomed Man” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 69. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

***from the poem “Writing in Cafés” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 82. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

****The full book review by John B. Lee appears in Verse Afire, A Tri-Annual Publication of The Ontario Poetry Society, Jan. to Apr. 2016 issue. Reprinted with permission.

*****“The Condolence Call” originally published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 26. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Marsha Barber, 2015  Please note due to formatting limitations of this blog, the phrase “as flies” in the fourth verse could not be indented as it should be. My apologies to the author and Borealis Press.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles. 

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