Wednesday, March 15, 2023

periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics : third anniversary : an editorial,





Odd to think that it was already three years ago this month that I put together the initial website for periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics. From the familiar vantage of my late mother’s armchair, I managed some five hundred solicitations across a matter of days, quickly launching a website and subsequent twitter account with information and a submissions call (I was equally quick to build and respond upon founding Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] back in the spring of 2014). I was spending another of my regular weekends with my widower father on the homestead, nearing the end of what would become a sixteen month period of his slow erosion from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was otherwise content and didn’t require much, beyond someone to simply be there, with the television on as perpetual background as he worked his puzzles, slept or looked up articles; for the bulk of my tenure, my attentions were my own.

I had thought for a while of working another online poetics journal. Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell and I had worked six issues of the online (2003-2007; with design/web assistances from Roland Prevost and AJ Dolman), a journal that attempted to open up a conversation of contemporary poetry. There simply isn’t enough conversation, honestly, and what there is becomes either so localized, or around the same small handful of authors. So much compelling work simply never gets covered (although I do attempt to keep a running tally of links to journals on the sidebar of periodicities that are working a variety of interesting conversations as well). When wound down in 2007, I responded by building up what became a dozen issues of a subsequent journal, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (2008-2018), with Roland Prevost and Monique Desnoyers assisting on design/web. Both journals managed to publish some incredible work, but some of the frustrations I had with both projects was the fact that I neither hosted nor designed, so there were elements of timing beyond my control. I certainly couldn’t make any demands of anyone’s time beyond what their generosities already allowed. When both journals fell off the internet somewhere in 2019 (as the friend who was hosting both sites had long sold his company, and no longer had the ability to get it back up if it slipped), it prompted me to start something new, and something I might actually have better control over. Now, instead of issues occurring twice a year or thereabouts (sometimes less, depending on the availability of particular web designers), I’m able to post multiple pieces across an array of days from the beginning of each month.

There was a lot I wished to accomplish. I had hoped for reviews as the backbone of the journal, but was also interested a variety of other simultaneous threads. Why not ask poets to write about their experiences doing writing residencies, or even writer-in-residence gigs? Most writers don’t even seem to understand what is involved with either of those things, so how could the public know? Why not ask poets to write short reports on the literary activities in their particular geographic location? There are so many communities that deserve a wider and broader attention. Why not request publishers, whether medium, small or smaller, to compose short write-ups on what it is that they’re working on, including upcoming publications, that particularly excite them? I mean, there’s an enormous amount of literary activity happening everywhere and all around, most of which seems not to be covered in any way. Why not attempt to open up some of those conversations? I sought out experimental works from multiple corners and a myriad of forms, from the visual to the lyric, the experimental to the more traditional. One conversation certainly doesn’t exclude another.

As the journal developed, I also realized that it was important to offer space for memorials, offering write-ups on poets who had passed, too many of which went too soon. As well, I thought it would be interesting to work on a sequence of folios, whether guest-edited or otherwise, shining spotlights on either certain communities or conversations, as a gathering-place around a particular subject or idea. There have been some amazing ones so far, from the Paul Celan centennial curated by Mark Goldstein and Amanda Earl’s long poem conversation through the lens of the visual poem, to SJ Fowler’s “engerland” folio and the since-late RM Vaughan’s Queer Poetry from New Brunswick. I’ve even curated memorial folios on the late Peter Ganick and Ken Belford, as well as one on the prose poem, as I find the form, as well as the very different origins and trajectories of the form across different communities and countries, quite fascinating (I’m slowly working to compile a second round of pieces on this particular form, as well as an ongoing thread around the Canadian long poem).

I had originally aimed for April 1, 2020 as my initial issue launch, but as the Covid lockdowns fell across those first weeks of soliciting, scheming and curating, it prompted me to launch the ‘virtual reading series’ as a way for those initial isolations to feel less isolating. We were all sent home from work, from school, from everything; away from events, friends and family. We’d agreed to shut down our tenth annual VERSeFest Poetry Festival within days of opening night. I cancelled my fiftieth birthday party, although the ‘virtual reading series’ announced the morning of the actual birthday. The isolations were anxiety-ridden, given how much we didn’t know or might not, as to what it all meant, how long it might last or just what or how we might finally emerge. Within a matter of days I was posting dozens of solicited and submitted videos by poets reading from their own work, whether through laptops or outside on their phones. I was posting twenty-five videos a week across those initial few weeks, from poets across North America and beyond, attempting to offset some of those isolations. We were all in the same storm, perhaps, but not all in the same boat. Outreach, during those days, seemed vital.

There have been more than eight hundred posts (and counting) over the past three years, including book and chapbook reviews, interviews, poems, features, folios, translations, manifestos, conversations, commentaries, podcast episodes, residency reports, bibliographic offerings, reading and conference reports, chapbook self-write-ups, process notes and more than one hundred videos of poets reading in the ‘virtual reading series.’ The site has been fortunate enough to post some absolutely, devastatingly, incredible work, and I would highly recommend you move through the archive on the sidebar just to see what there has been (click on the link for each month to see that months’ postings). One could mention how Regina-based poet, translator and critic Jérôme Melançon has not only been regularly reviewing poetry books published in French, but working translation from French to English as part of those reviews. Northern Ontario poet and critic Kim Fahner has provided a whole slew of reviews, as have a handful of other reviewers, from the occasional to the accidental. Toronto poet, academic and publisher Dani Spinosa worked a series of interviews with visual poets, and Michigan poet, editor and small press publisher Michael Sikkema has interviewed more than a dozen poets working from within and across the small press realm. Minnesota poet, editor, translator and critic David Hadbawnik offered a fantastic series of podcasts, through which he conducted interviews (I’m hoping he might be able to return to this at some point). There was a whole series of essays that British Columbia-based poet and critic Dale Tracy had written on individual poems, the series of essays that Ottawa poet, publisher and reviewer Dessa Bayrock composed on individual poems, or the online reprints of poems, interviews and other critical materials from the more than a dozen “Report from the Society” series of festschrifts that above/ground press began publishing a year or so back. I’ve conducted interviews with each of the shortlisted poets for at least a couple of lists for the Griffin Poetry Prize, as well as the bpNichol Chapbook Award and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry (it would be fun to get the National Book Award shortlist, but I haven’t quite managed that yet). Given the nature of blogger, the site can move quick, and be reactive, responsive. One can turn on a dime, even.

Unlike many of my variety of other schemes, this project is more overtly an extension of the work I’ve been doing since founding above/ground press back in the summer of 1993 (with the 2006-2016 Chaudiere Books publishing activity being, in function, the trade publishing arm of the press), allowing more obvious linkages between the chapbook publishing and the online poetics journal. I mean, why not? And the scope of the press has always run pretty wide, from the emerging to the well-established, the experimental to the more traditional. To understand the centre, I would say, one has to better understand the edges, yes?

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include the poetry collections the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022) and World’s End, (ARP Books, 2023), and a suite of pandemic essays, essays in the face of uncertainties (Mansfield Press, 2022). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics and Touch the Donkey. He is editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. In spring 2020, he won ‘best pandemic beard’ from Coach House Books via Twitter, of which he is extremely proud (and mentions constantly). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Monday, March 6, 2023

William Vallières : Preface: Poor Rutebeuf, translated by William Vallières





Little is known of Rutebeuf. Born in 1245 in Champagne, dead in Paris forty years later, he was most likely a juggler by trade, with probably some training as a cleric, since his Latin was good. The details of his life are gleaned from his poems—a source which can reflect reality as accurately as a funhouse mirror. But since the simplest solution tends to be the best, it might just be easier to take him at his word.

          First, there’s the name: “Rute,” in Old French, means both “crude” or “coarse”; and “Beuf” means “ox” or “bull,” the “boeuf” of modern French. The name, regardless of whether it was given to him by someone else or bestowed by the poet upon his own brow, is fitting, since his poetry is lumbering, thumpy, and stubborn, like the ox of medieval farms.

          The poems I have translated here are taken from Les poèmes de l’infortune, and as the title suggests, the furrow being repeatedly plowed here has everything to do with Rutebeuf’s luck, or lack of it: poverty, gambling debts, a doomed marriage, writer’s block, his inability to put food on the table, partial blindness (possibly afflicted by a rival), and his marginal status in a society increasingly ruled by money and greed. The inclusion of minute biographical details in his poems, real or ornamented, was unique among the trouvères, who, like their contemporaries, the troubadours of the south, were busy plugging away at the abstractions of courtly love.

          While the accounts of his trials are no doubt seasoned with hyperbole, there’s reason to accept some truth in them—perhaps not so much in the immediate details, but in the harrowing need to express them. He talks of going shoeless in the summer and logless in the winter, which might be something he actually lived through, or just symbols of his destitution (or both: in the end, the poems accommodate both possibilities.) What rings true is his rage against the absurdity of his situation, the contempt he has for his poverty. That it can exist in the first place.

          If his poems are to be believed, Rutebeuf was probably working on the fly, producing poems quickly (“reels” he called them, which is just another word for the blues), keenly noticing what the public liked—what sold—and immediately beginning the hustle anew. There’s a great air of improvisation, or arbitrariness, in his choice of rhymes, which lends the whole thing a giddy joy; it all feels like a juggler juggling, scrambling not to drop any elements. The tension between that joy and the hardships being represented in the poems themselves is where irony may or may not come into play in Rutebeuf’s work. I say ‘may or may not’ because, nestled in that irony, there are genuinely beautiful lyrical moments that cut through the rhetorical bombast, delivering real emotion:

What have my friends come to be
that I held so close to me
and cherished so?
They seem to be all scatter-sown
and I have starved the soil;
I have failed them.
But these friends too weren’t hardy friends
for since I’ve suffered God’s avenge
from all sides,
none have come to sit and bide.
I think the wind has taken mine;
gladness is gone:
it’s the wind that sweeps the friends along
and it was windy at my door.

          So why Rutebeuf, and why now? Apart from the fact that it was fun to translate these poems, and challenging, both because of their formal elements and the theatricality of their style, it was the cry of woe in the darkness that spoke to me; the presence of a confounded and wounded ‘I’ recoiling at the degradations imposed on an innocent, bodily ‘me’. The poems are constantly leaping between these two poles. Perhaps this speaks to Rutebeuf having possibly dwelt on both sides of the class divide; of having perhaps once lived at court (there’s mention of a wetnurse in one of the poems), and later, among the poor and dispossessed. (Or maybe the ‘I’ has always been aristocratic, and the ‘me’, bawdy?) In any case, it was refreshing to read poetry that didn’t come from the main shapers of literature at the time—the rich and powerful—and by extension, not having to endure their universalized ‘problems’ and ‘preoccupations’; what would be reified, in the following centuries, as ‘literary concerns’. Why should we care about what a lord thought was right? Truth is, most of us are just one or two major fuckups away from Rutebeuf’s predicament, a predicament that, still today, is largely the byproduct of our political organization. Any poet who had to make their meals stretch or scramble to make rent, amidst a sea of irredeemable abundance, knows what Rutebeuf is talking about: the game is rigged, power is a swindle, life is hard, words are just words. Art runs alongside our struggles, surely; but it can’t, in the final hour, resolve this kind of problem.        

          A final note on Old French. I only really started to enjoy Rutebeuf when I turned to the original Old French, rather than the modern French translation on the opposite page of my edition. The moment I jettisoned the over-literal modern translation, I began to be fascinated and deeply enticed by the compression and double-jointed syntax of Old French. Things weren’t so set in stone yet; it was all still malleable. I tried to keep some of the spirit of that Old French, not only syntactically, but in how it reasons with humour, always chuckling in the face of some immensity, some unalterable destiny decided long before the individual arrives on stage. In our global, streamlined world, the truly foreign resides increasingly in the past, accessible only through layers of sedimented language and troves of forgotten but once-meaningful images. I have attempted to let some of that chime here.


W.V., Montréal, November 2022




William Vallières is a Montreal poet. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Best Canadian Poetry, Grain, and Event, among other places. His chapbook Poor Rutebeuf, a translation of the French medieval poet Rutebeuf, just appeared with above/ground press. His first book of poems, Versus, is out with Véhicule Press.

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