Saturday, May 16, 2020

Heidi Greco, Ken Belford, Kim Goldberg, Bill Neumire + Christina Thatcher : Virtual reading series #18

a series of video recordings of contemporary poets reading from their work, prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellations, shut-downs and isolations; a reading series you can enjoy in the safety of your own protected space,

Heidi Greco : “Night Watch, Lunar,” “Period of Adjustment” and “My children still bring prizes for my birthday”

A writer and editor, Heidi Greco’s most recent poetry collections are Practical Anxiety (Inanna Publications, 2018) and Flightpaths: The Lost Journals of Amelia Earhart (Caitlin Press, 2017). In 2018, Otter Press published an anthology which she compiled and edited, From the Heart of It All: Ten Years of Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. More information, including links to her blogs, is at her website:

Ken Belford : excerpts from Slick Reckoning

Ken Belford (1946-2020) was born to a farming family in Alberta and grew up in Vancouver. For more than thirty years, he, along with his wife and daughter, operated a non-consumptive enterprise in the unroaded mountains at the vicinity of the headwaters of the Nass and Skeena Rivers. The “self-educated lan(d)guage” poet has said that living for decades in the “back country” has afforded him a unique relationship to language that rejects the colonial impulse to write about nature, but speaks from the regions of the other. “The conventional standards of narrative and lyric poetry give me nothing. The intention of the sequences I write is to assemble words that can be messaged to the habituated souls of the city from the land-aware that live outside city limits.” His eight books of poetry are Fireweed, The Post Electric Caveman, Pathways Into the Mountains, lan(d)guage, when snakes awaken, ecologue, Decompositions, Internodes, and slick reckoning. See the folio dedicated to Ken Belford and his work here.

Kim Goldberg : “Curtain Call,” “Arrival” and “Special Collection” from Devolution

Kim Goldberg is the author of eight books of poetry and nonfiction. Her latest is Devolution (Caitlin Press, 2020)—a collection of poems and fables of ecopocalypse. Her surreal and absurdist narratives have appeared in The Capilano Review, Prairie Fire, Literary Review of Canada and Dark Mountain Books. She lives on unceded Snuneymuxw territory (Nanaimo, BC), where she is known for creating poem galleries in vacant storefronts and staging guerrilla poetry happenings in weedy waysides.

Bill Neumire : “Abstract Therapy in the Natural World,” originally published in Tupelo Quarterly

Bill Neumire's second book of poems, #TheNewCrusades, which was a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize, will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. His first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award and was reviewed in the Georgia Review. He reviews poems for Vallum and for Verdad where he also serves as poetry editor.

Christina Thatcher : “Detox Passage,” “Relapse” and “Bad Things”

Christina Thatcher is a Creative Writing Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. She keeps busy off campus as Poetry Editor for The Cardiff Review, a tutor for The Poetry School, a member of the Literature Wales Management Board and as a freelance workshop facilitator across the UK. Her poetry and short stories have featured in over 50 publications including The London Magazine, North American Review, Planet Magazine, The Interpreter’s House and more. She has published two poetry collections with Parthian Books: More than you were (2017) and How to Carry Fire (2020). To learn more about Christina’s work please visit her website: or follow her on Twitter @writetoempower.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist 2020 interviews: Kaie Kellough

McClelland & Stewart

Kaie Kellough is a novelist, poet, and sound performer. He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, raised in Calgary, Alberta, and in 1998 moved to Montreal, Quebec where he now lives. He is the author of the novels Dominoes at the Crossroads, and Accordéon, which was a finalist for the First Novel Award, two books of poetry, Lettricity and Maple Leaf Rag, and two albums, Vox:Versus and Creole Continuum. He has performed and published internationally.

Magnetic Equator seems very much constructed as a book-length project. How did it originally begin, and what did you learn through the process?

Magnetic began as an assemblage of about a decade’s worth of fragments. It marked an end to a period when my poetry was almost completely based in sound and performance.

Looking at the fragments, I found that I had two categories of successful writing: one that was inspired by the poet Ai, that was narrative and used a longer line, and that looked at adolescence in Calgary in the 1980s, and another rooted in the work of poets like Kamau Brathwaite, M.Nourbese Philip, Mikey Smith, Dionne Brand, Martin Carter, and others, and that examined my Guyanese ancestry. Gradually, Magnetic became an attempt to grapple with two persistent questions: who am I, and how did I get here?

The book moves back and forth between South and North America, chapter by chapter, and each chapter is a long poem. The long poem, as well as the South-North movement emerged as the writing progressed. Magnetic became a conversation between experiences in both places, the book almost in argument with itself.

Recalling the Oka crisis, the Gulf War, police shootings of Black teens in Montréal, and police abuses of Indigenous youth on the prairie, meant that one of the major questions became: how does one write with anger? I didn’t think of writing through it, because the world has not resolved the problems that ignited it in the first place, so I knew there would be no emergence.

I wanted anger to be felt in the sinew and curve of each letter, felt seething in the kerning. But I didn’t always want it at the surface of the poem. At times I wanted it to simmer below the surface. At other times I wanted to channel it into other moods.  Throughout the writing process, one major challenge was learning how to approach, think with, and write with anger.

How was it working with Dionne Brand as editor? Were there elements of working with her that intimidated?

We first spoke at the Niagara Arts Center in St. Catharines, Ontario, where Dionne was reading from a draft of The Blue Clerk. By that time, I had been reading Dionne for nearly 20 years. I first read Bread out of Stone in 1998, at 22, in Calgary. When my own writing entered the conversation, the boundary between literature and life seemed to dissolve.

This was the first time I’d worked with an editor who had extensive knowledge of Caribbean literature, and of Black writing in the Americas, who understood the cultural significance of certain historical figures, events, and poetic techniques, who likely knew all of the references I was making, and who could trace the lineage of the text.

Working with an editor who had that degree of cultural familiarity was ideal. It gave confidence, because it told me that someone who understood the tradition judged my work to be relevant to, and part of that tradition. It was a moving experience, and one I hope most writers can have at some point in their careers

I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a “spoken word poet,” but you work very much with print. How important is sound on the page as you work? Do you feel there is anything lost at all in sound or cadence through working on the page? What is the difference?

“The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”

The famous quote from Kamau Brathwaite emphasizes the importance of sound. Sound and cadence are shaped by our environment. They carry our culture, history, and identity. As a poet, it’s crucial to be aware of my voice, my riddim, my sound.

I’ve always loved hearing the solo voice raised in language. Staceyann Chin, Saul Williams, Lillian Allen, Sarah Jones, Clifton Joseph, d’bi young, Paul Dutton, Gary Barwin, Greg Betts, Tanya Evanson, Tanya Tagaq, Quincy Troupe, to name just a few, are remarkable to watch, to hear. Their performances awakened me to the ways different articulations resonate in the body. Their use of voice exposed me to the range of rhythms available, to the movement and force of those cadences, and taught me to transpose those qualities into writing.

Whatever register of language I’m using, I always consider an oral quality, a quality not necessarily of voice, but of identifiable cadence and movement, a characteristic speech pattern, one that indicates a temperament, mood, and attitude appropriate to the subject. A rhythm is an attitude, a way of moving through the world.

But there are major differences between written poetry and oral poetry. In writing, language is the instrument that you play. In oral performance, even if a text is present, voice is the instrument, sound is the medium, and the poem enters time. It becomes a physical, embodied act. The poem happens.

You mention that the pieces in Magnetic Equator were composed over an extended period. How did the book find its shape? Did the shape of the final manuscript emerge through the writing, or did you have a sense of it before you began?

The shape emerged gradually. Years before, I read a Québécois novel called Les Filles Bleues de l’Été, a strong debut by Mikella Nikol. It featured two narrators, and each chapter was told from the perspective of one or the other. That alternation allowed for more than one lead voice to be heard, for dialogue across chapters, for one narrator to challenge the other, for suspension and interposition, and for a renewal of the reader’s anticipation before each chapter. I was impressed by the way such a simple structure could transform the experience of reading a novel. It reminded me of a musical passage on the record Mingus at Antibes, in which Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin alternate solos. Each soloist establishes a unique voice, and the solos build a narrative in relation to one-another but also in relation to themselves. The alternation creates tension and establishes an internal dialogue.

As Magnetic developed I tried to impose a similar alternation, one that moved between places instead of between narrators. That structure allowed for characters and narrative currents to cross from one place-based consciousness into another, to fragment and migrate across the border between chapters. As the idea developed, I hoped it would allow the book to formally enact a kind of diasporic movement.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Magnetic Equator was completed? What have you been working on since?

I was writing Magnetic while working on a collection of short stories, Dominoes at the Crossroads, published in February 2020 with Véhicule Press. Dominoes and Magnetic are siblings. They draw from a similar cultural vocabulary, they look at similar issues of diaspora, place, and they both attempt to frame experience in Canada with cultural, familial, and historical connections to the Caribbean, but they differ in tone and approach. The short stories are more playful, more agile, always turning toward a particular becoming while turning away from it. The stories distort the elements of reality that they duplicate.

In terms of writing any poetry since Magnetic was published, I attempted one long poem for a collaboration with Oana Avasilichioaei, for the Festival Poesie Berlin, which we were both looking forward to, but which was cancelled in light of Covid-19. Oana was composing an electronic soundscape for the poem. The poem was a meditation on one of my ancestors, Charles Tanner Lam, who migrated from Hong Kong to Guyana, South America in the 19th century. I am very interested in his story, and in Chinese migration to the Caribbean, but I don’t know if poetry is the right medium for this work.

I’m always reading poetry (right now the latest quartet from McClelland and Stewart: Nancy Lee, Canisia Lubrin, Noor Naga, Michael Prior), and the thought of writing poetry is always there, even when the practice isn’t.

Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist 2020 interviews: Chantal Gibson

Caitlin Press

Chantal Gibson is an artist-educator living in Vancouver with ancestral roots in Nova Scotia. Her visual art collection Historical In(ter)ventions, a series of altered history book sculptures, dismantles text to highlight language as a colonial mechanism of oppression. How She Read is another altered book, a genre-blurring extension of her artistic practice. Sculpting black text against a white page, her poems forge new spaces that challenge historic representations of Black womanhood and Otherness in the Canadian cultural imagination. How She Read is Gibson’s debut book of poetry. An award-winning teacher, she teaches writing and visual communication in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at Simon Fraser University.

How She Read is obviously constructed as a book-length project. How did it originally begin, and what did you learn through the process?

How She Read is about the representation of Black women across the Canadian cultural landscape and about the ways we learn to read—words, sentences, books, bodies, images, lessons and ideologies—in a colonial education system.  It has many beginnings…

It starts with my mother Lorraine Gibson, who was born in Nova Scotia. She was my first book.  Her first-grade photo is on the front cover. She was the only Black woman in our Oshawa neighbourhoods, the only Black woman in our tiny Northern BC town.  Visible and invisible at the same time. I watched her watching people watching her.  I learned her smile, her laugh, and how to navigate the daily grind of microaggressions. She died when I was 18.

It starts with my primary, secondary and post-secondary education in Canada. I don’t remember seeing people like my mom, like me, in my school books, while I was eagerly spelling _ngl_sh  w_rds. I don’t remember writing about a Black person until I chose to write a grade 11 research paper on Idi Amin—only because I kept hearing about him in the news. I didn’t see Black authors on my university syllabi at UBC until I met Toni Morrison in third-year Am Lit, Pecola Breedlove, The Bluest Eye. The only Black character I met in CanLit was “the black wench” a nameless stereotype bashed and tossed around in The Stepsure Letters, by Thomas McCulloch.

How She Read is the book I wish I had in school. It is the outcome of a reflective process of looking back, circling back, and retrieving what I’d missed. The writing process started with language experiments that got me thinking about how I learned and what I learned—the un/intended lessons. Poetry became a tool for me to think through the rules and conventions of reading and writing in English, the very same rules I’ve asked my own undergrad students to follow for the last twenty years.  I learned how I had come to accept and embody the language and the rules in my composition spellers without question, how I became a good citizen of English who missed the holes, silences and erasures on the page in front of me as I filled in the ______s.

How She Read is described a “genre-blurring extension” of your ongoing artistic practice. Given this collection is your poetry debut, what made you decide to explore this through poetry? What did you feel was possible through this project in poetry that might not have been possible otherwise?

Over the years, I’ve created a collection of Historical In(ter)ventions, a series of altered history book sculptures that use mixed-media to imagine and make visible BIPOC voices that have been omitted, silenced, erased. In most cases, I am using my materials to investigate the book as a container, unpacking hegemonic structures and the ideological assumptions inside the cover. For example, “My First Janson,” (2019) is a reimagining of my first art history textbook purchased in 1991—the canonical History of Art by WH Janson. Cut in half, pages torn and bound together with knotted black thread, this work is a meditation on what’s missing or misrepresented in the cannon of Western Art.

In How She Read, I wanted to write about the mis/representation of Black women, but in non-academic ways, and, more importantly, I wanted the women in the book to speak loudly, to discuss their representation in specific contexts—to talk back to institutional power.  For me, as a visual thinker and craft enthusiast, poetry was the perfect vehicle to convey the many layered voices and ideas communicated across the book. 

Poetry is sculpture made of marks and spaces, inclusions and omissions. Poetic form can be rigid, bound by rules and conventions. Poetry can be flexible, pliable, blurred with other genres of writing. Poetry allowed Harriet Tubman to talk back to the writer of a Historica Canada online encyclopedic entry, to fill in the _______s in her sassy oratorical style. Poetry allowed beautician-semiotician Viola Desmond to write a ‘cease n deist letter’ to Canada Post, to school them on what’s not included in her iconic smiling postage stamp. Poetry allowed Delia and Marie Thérèse, two naked slave women to hold the space at the center of the book, to speak from a painting and a photograph, not as exploited subjects or pornographic objects, but as philosophers dialoging about the art and science.

Finally, poetry allowed me to engage directly with my literary heroes.  The work is buttressed by Black women writers, Canadian and American, past and present, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison, Afua Cooper, M. NourbeSe Philip, Rita Dove, Lorena Gale, Canisia Lubrin and Chelene Knight, to name a few. I am indebted to the brilliant women in this book—all of them.

Much of what makes the book so vibrant is a particular kind of fearlessness when it comes to language and visual expression. How important is the visual to the way you write poems?

For me, poems are text sculptures, so the visual is integral to my writing process, especially for How She Read, where the shape of each poem is informed by the content.  The cool thing about poetry is that the genre has so many forms—all kinds of shapes, and rules and conventions.  Once I know the story I’m trying to tell, crafting the visual aspect of the poem helps me think through the content.

For example, in the Grammar of Loss section, Homonyms is about the final interactions between a dying mother and her teenage daughter.  It’s a reflection on missed opportunities by an “unfinished woman.” I thought of the mother and daughter as two words that sound the same but are spelled differently—so the sestina seemed like a good choice in terms of poetic form. But, after writing the poem in the conventional sestina form, fixing the repeated words at the end of each line, the poem looked long and clunky. Visually it was screaming, “And now for the crafty sestina portion of this book…” So, to capture the loss and unpredictability in the story, the cutting, the scratching, the snapping, I chipped away at the poem and removed all the unnecessary words. That meant the homonyms no longer landed at the ends of lines.  This resulted in a poem that looks and feels like an unfinished sestina.

Reciprocal Pronouns is another kind of visual poem. It is comprised of three circular stanzas that overlay each other. You can start anywhere. It can be read clockwise and counter-clockwise. This is a poem about seeing, about subjectivity, about reading. It’s a different poem when read silently in your head and when read aloud.  The experience of reading the poem, the meditative undulating way the reader is pulled into the work, has everything to do with its visual form.  If the poem was written in vertical stanzas—the poem would have a linear form, a beginning, an end, and the reader (me included) has less agency.   

I’m not interested in word tricks. I love craft, I love form. It took me years to write Homonyms. It was shelved many times until I figured out what I had to do to make it work. The cool thing about learning craft and breaking rules and conventions is that I can hopefully create compelling interactions for the reader.

How She Read reconciles some magnificent distances between erasure and reclamation, able to simultaneously articulate loss and presence. How did the book first find its shape? Did the shape of the final manuscript emerge through the writing, or did you have a sense of it before you began?

Great question.  The book emerged through a what feels like a circular, iterative process of working with holes, in words, in sentences, in stories, in voices, in ancestry, in space, in time, in logic. It sounds so weird when I say it here, but that’s how it felt, the writing. Every pass was a process of asking—What’s here now? What needs erasing? And what needs filling in?

From the beginning, I knew I was writing a book about decolonizing language (how we learn to read and write words in English) and about how knowledge is produced and re-produce across a culture (how we learn to read and interpret everyday objects, images and signs).

So I started with a section about rules for language, a section about ways of reading visual images, and a section about the experiences beyond the words and image—what Roland Barthes called the punctum—the thoughts, feelings, memories triggered by imagery. I also knew that the book would move from childhood experiences of engaging with words and stories in primary school readers to more academic engagements with critical and theoretical concepts and ideas—that the “first person” I at the beginning would be transformed into the decolonized i at the end.

As I worked through iterations, moments from the broken language experiments in the first section were woven and sometimes repeated throughout the rest of the book as markers, as touchstones, as meditations.  I had to go back through the work and think about who was speaking. That meant keeping track of my subjects and giving voice to all the women who were speaking in my head—who started talking to each other across the pages. This is where working with a great editor comes in very handy.  Canisia Lubrin hovered over all the poems, while I sorted out the details. She asked questions after each pass of the final few drafts to ensure every move was intentional.

During this entire process, I thought about what couldn’t be said in words—utterances, gestures—what was not meant to be read but perhaps felt by the reader.  For example, the aubade written by the mother in “dangling modifiers” in the Afterword of the book.  The ‘shorthand’ or graphic mark-making in Aubade (Sonnet Crown) is the outcome of an iterative process of deconstructing my handwriting down to its essential marks and strokes. For months I wrote and erased letters, words, lines and stanzas into a palimpsest of fourteen stanzas—an opaque block of indelible black ink.  Now we  have circled back to the visual aspect of the book again—How She Reads ends with a death--with broken language, with a question, with blackness, with silence—with a new beginning.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since How She Read was completed? What have you been working on since?

I have this file on my desktop labeled “wtf”.  It’s filled with images and stories sent to me by friends and colleagues. “Have you seen this?”  “Thought you might find this interesting.”

 So, I am working on a collection of poems that look at the poetics of racist imagery that circulates across Internet news and social media.  I won’t say it’s a follow up to How She Read, but my first book left me with a set of questions and writing strategies to explore!

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