Going to Banff for 5 weeks as of this weekend, for a writerly thing. I went once before, two years ago? On a week-long residency, which in retrospect I consider a bit of a dry run since A) I got nothing done and B) I at least, I hope, it’s enabled me to prepare mentally for this redux.

DreamhouseThe first time I went, I had high hopes that the town was going to = NORTHERN EXPOSURE (the only show I ever liked, BTW).

It didn’t, but there’s an amazing gem store I visited when I felt homesick (I collect gems). I also went to a mall with chain stores because it was generic enough that I could pretend I was with my sister in Scarborough, or shopping for Christmas or something; that one didn’t really help. Though I did buy a sweater at The Gap because the air had turned to ice and I knew it would be like a blender going up the mountain to the Banff Centre. And also one day I sat on the paving stone outside of a tattoo shop, listening to soft-rock being piped out of a loudspeaker because they were blaring a favourite, very nostalgic, Karaoke song (“Africa,” by Toto, if you must know. I JUST watched the video now, for the first time in my life, to link it. Watch it. It’s a totally righteous video without any bullcrap, because the song is so fine).

If the highlights of my first Banff trip are the meagre ways I eased my homesickness… then you can probably guess I’m a bit anxious about going back again. I keep telling myself it will be better. Bringing way more books, food, and also knitting. The thing with travel is you think it–no, YOU–will somehow be different. Like, last time I thought I’d take baths without them becoming tedious after 7 minutes and causing Catholic guilt over idleness, or I believed maybe I’d actually hand write in a journal by the Bow River without cringing from bugs and suppressing the OCD whispers that the wind was really a bear thrashing through leaves. The truth is, I will spend most of my time sleeping, eating, reading, and watching movies. A residency is like real life, minus everything/everyone you love!



Poem now out with Toronto Poetry Vendors

A poem of mine is included in the brand new release of poems by Toronto Poetry Vendors. Hopefully you’ve heard of them, because they’re great, but if not, here are the details:

Toronto Poetry Vendors is a mechanical poetry journal which operates out of refurbished gum vending machines. Produced twice yearly, issues consist of 10 single, hand-folded broadsides by 10 Toronto-based poets, which can be purchased from the machines for a toonie. TPV was founded in 2010 by Toronto poets and girls-about-town Elisabeth de Mariaffi and Carey Toane.

The vending machines are located at the Terragon Theatre, TYPE Books, Saving Gigi, and 3030 Dundas West. You never know what you’re going to get, but you can’t go wrong. The other poets included are fantastic: Lynn Crosbie, Natalie Zina Walschots, Jeramy Dodds, Sandy Pool, Paula Eisenstein, Gillian Savigny, Jacob Scheier, Mark Sampson.

Double-review for Quill and Quire: “The Ends of the Earth,” by Jacqueline Turner and “Letter from Brooklyn” by Jacob Scheier

Some of the best poetry I’ve ever encountered was not on the page, but heard at a spoken-word night at New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café. I was making a teenage pilgrimage in the sloshed footsteps of the Beats, but I found something more valuable there: poetry that was vital and thriving. A grandma brought the house down by reciting a sexually charged poem, and, later, a truck driver from Staten Island sitting beside me ground out tears on his cheek with his knucklebone. What has all this got to do with new books of poetry by Jacob Scheier and Jacqueline Turner, you ask? Everything and nothing, actually.

. . .

SheierYou may remember Scheier’s first book of poems, 2008’s More to Keep Us Warm, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award. There was some controversy over a juror’s perceived conflict of interest. In the time before and since, Scheier lived in New York, worked as a journalist and writing instructor, and produc

ed a follow-up collection. Letter from Brooklyn is a cross between a diary and an epistolary volume. There’s a strong confessional influence: Scheier quotes Lowell, but the poetry feels more like Sexton.

Confessional poets were masters of form as much as sentiment, but Scheier neglects the former to the detriment of the latter, and many of the poems would have benefited from greater intensity. Overall, the book holds back too much, which results in frustration. Jacqueline Turner, a poet with a lower profile but three previous collections to her credit, also has a new volume of poetry. Her book is concerned with some kind of nebulous apocalypse that’s part environmental, part technological.

The Ends of the Earth is a trite phrase, but in the context it fits. Although this book positions itself as avant-garde, it is shockingly conservative in its rigidity and judgment. Its apocalyptic vibe is downright religious in its convolutions. In a poem about “garbage island” (a reference to plastic that has collected in the ocean), Turner writes:

“plastic floats like islands on digital screens
everywhere somewhere in the ocean
it churns through tides like soup you
we care via Twitter or Paypal depending
on the day pack reusable latte cups”


imagesThe willful pettiness Turner displays in lines that rail against the suburbs, gated communities, businessmen, TV-show themes, and 40-year-old divorcees made me wonder: can one ever grind an axe artfully? Scheier is politicized too: he comes from a line of American Jewish Communists, so it’s in his genes. “The world-changing business,” he writes, “was the family business.” There are three tedious poems about the flatlined Occupy movement, and a fantastic piece about an older Communist reacting to the collapse of the Berlin Wall: “I  didn’t know / what ideology was, but I understood / you were against joy on principle.”

Scheier sees himself as a populist poet, which creates some issues. The need to be accessible relies on the use of non-alienating language and imagery, but this tempering undermines many of the poems’ effects. In spots, the result is a simplistic corniness: “Maybe you were that kind of person, all along – / just waiting for me to deliver the perfect line. That’s what I like about movies.” As uneven as Letter from Brooklyn is, it is honest about love and loss in ways that are wise. Some of the most successful pieces, such as “Actual Pingpong” and “1989,” are about parents, expectations, and loss. Turner’s book moves into softer areas, too, including a series of poems that almost go Harlequin: “i want to translate your pain into beauty, want to inhale your longing and keep it safe within me. we are alone in this, but who is more connected than a sailor and a castaway.” The shift is jarring, and the scene described is emotionally  unmoving.

. . .

 I’m reminded yet again of how hard it can be to write something candid that’s not naked, definitive without being alienating, and passionate yet somehow fresh in expression. And I remind myself that it’s a good goal to want to write something honest and ferocious and tender enough, all at once, to make a truck driver bawl. Between these books, one seemed covered and smouldering, the other an unchecked open flame. If only Scheier had a bit of her fire, and Turner a bit of his heat.

Review for National Post: “The Truth About Luck” by Iain Reid

iainLast Saturday, my grandparents were sitting in the half-light of their awning-shaded, giant picture windowed, little bungalow living room. Kris Kristofferson was crackling from a boombox that used to live in the garage, and now rests on a chippendale-style side table. My grandparents were born in 1928; I’ll spare you the mental math: this makes them 85 years old. They were talking, yet again, of “down east”—an expansive term that actually refers to the microscopic abode of Blackville, New Brunswick, where they were born. But this day’s story was a brand new one, spurred by the recent death of Stompin’ Tom Connors: it turns out they knew and grew up surrounded by his entire extended family. Suddenly, the room was full of laughing reminiscences—how Stompin’ Tom looked just like (and was apparently named after) a certain uncle; how one family member, my grandfather exclaimed, told so many fibs he just  had to keel over. And so on. Spending time with your grandparents as an adult is different than as a child: it moves from all-comfort, to large-part revelation.

Iain Reid’s newest book, The Truth About Luck, rejoices in this blend of intergenerational familiarity and serendipity. He is from a close-knit family and has long-known his 92-year-old grandmother; this is in part what leads him to try and think of a meaningful gift for her fairly significant birthday. For a moment, he settles on a scented candle—everyone likes candles, right? But, in brainstorming with his brother, it dawns on him: why not, instead of buying things, spend time? From there, he decides to take Grandma on a trip, maybe a road trip. But the this idea contracts soon after the rush of discovery: Reid begins to reconsider the logistics—his beater of a car, his lack of funds—and scales back the idea back somewhat. He decides to bring Grandma from her town, Ottawa, to his, Kingston. That’s still a trip! This turns out to either be a prescient or genetically-motivated move: Grandma recounts how she and her husband George (now deceased) used to love to take micro trips—one time going only as far as a motel a few blocks away. Grandma is just as happy to go to Kingston as anywhere else.

When we write about older people, there can sometimes be that distancing “otherness” creeping in, or an obligatory nostalgia, or clichés about wisdom, but Reid avoids all of this shorthand precisely because he is so mindful and earnest. My heart clapped when he wrote: “Oldness wasn’t a negative. It was just a verity I was aware of. I didn’t fear or resent it.” While he frets about how to keep Grandma entertained or what he should cook, in his descriptions of her, you can feel his genuine love and respect. It’s is a far cry from, say, something cynical like S**t My Dad Says. The Truth About Luck has no sensationalism, no outrageous insensitivity that compels you laugh out of guilt. Just two people getting to know one another better, being considerate of one another, enjoying three square meals, and…reminiscing about adventures during the war?

It turns out, Grandma, for all her sweetness and amenability, has a decisively challenging—and impressive—backstory as a nurse on the frontlines. She speaks openly of missing her siblings in those tumultuous times (and now—she is the last surviving member of her siblings), and of her deceased husband, George. This is the heart of the book, really—Grandma’s memories (both before Iain, and of Iain), and her insights. Reid, for all his initial nervousness over silence between them or rain drowning his plans, begins to relax and starts prompting her to talk more about her life.

And there’s so much to be gained from spending time with Grandma. At one point, she advises that, with your partner, you must sometimes go to bed angry. But, there’s a workaround: “…[if] you’re mad at your wife, wait for a while, until she’s definitely fallen asleep. Give it a bit of time. Then roll over and just have a look at her. Then you’ll know how you feel. That’s the important part, the looking.” I was reminded slightly of a DeLillo line: “Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system.” Certainly, we should try to maintain this feeling—perhaps keep up this activity—through our lives. I did what Grandma said, after it made me tremble. And it worked.

Ian Reid, full disclosure, writes regularly for the National Post; I’ve never met him. But those of you who’ve read his articles, as I have, will recognize his trademarks—his unfussy language, his dry sense of humour, his sincerity. Many writers would probably agree with Grandma’s observation that the important part is the looking. That’s another outcome of this book: how inspiration emerges for a writer. Reid wasn’t looking for a book when he arranged this 5-day hangout with his grandmother. But by paying close attention, he realized how remarkable Grandma really was, that this deserved recording and sharing. That quote from Leonard Cohen, “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash” turns out to be true both for Grandma’s stories, and Reid’s book.


Posted March 21, 2013 at The National Post: