There's nothing quite as invigorating for a middle-aged dame as getting on the blower to shoot the breeze with a bunch of rookie upstarts about something as putatively useless as poetry.
"April was the kewlest month," at least as far as Ottawa's rob mclennan's concerned. He got lots of small-print exposure and almost managed his rent, heat, light, and water besides. And, he's okay with that, you know?
Yeah, the twenty-eight-year-old happens to be one wickedly photogenic specimen plus-as if that weren't enough-he also owns one of the most promising poetic voices to appear on the Canadian litscape in a good long while.
Natch, the soon-to-be-promoted mini-mogul of the 'zine lit-scene and small-press book fairs prefers talking poetry over farming, especially since Broken Jaw has just published young rob's first major collection, Notes on drowning, which will be followed up with a second major collection from ECW, bury me deep in the deep green wood, come Spring 1999.
So, what's all this to do with farming, anyhoo?
Well, mclennan sighs, "I was the oldest of two, the only boy on a dairy farm [in Maxville, Ont.]. My dad was, like, a fourth-generation farmer and that's the only reason they had me. It's very practical for a farmin' couple to have the boy take over the farm; and, I was announcing, at the age of four, I'm having no part of this. It's a quarter-century later, and, like, I think I'm still confusing them.
"My dad and I? I'm quite a lot like him; more than I would've admitted if I hadn't noticed how much our methods are the same. You know, that's an unspoken connection. My mom's glad I'm doing what I feel like I gotta be doing and, you know, I think she's mostly glad I'm doing it with some degree of success."
The semi-successful mclennan (who digs bp Nichol's work, hence the lower case) speaks of poetry as a vital art worth sharing with the world. To that end, he's a giddy-up-'n'-go dynamo who edits, prints, and compiles poetry as well as critical mags (Stanzas and Missing Jacket), chapbooks (by the likes of George Elliott Clarke, David McFadden, Stephanie Bolster, and jwcurry) for his tiny imprint, above/ground press, organizes Ottawa's bi-monthly Tree Reading Series, writes a lit column for Ottawa Xpress, and produces prodigious amounts of his own poetry which, from coast to coast, has captured the attention of those in the po-know (since rumour has it Vancouver's respectable Talonbooks has a mclennan manuscript topmost on the things-to-do list).
A self-described anti-romantic lyric poet, mclennan's a huge fan of Frank O'Hara, the wonderfully accessible and gifted American wordsmith of the 1960's who brought something like an optimistic resignation to the art and craft of making a beautiful thing.
"I like the way O'Hara, to a certain degree, mythologized the city. Same thing with bp [Nichol] and Toronto. The way they could use simply ordinary beautiful language to convey their reactions to the greatness and glory which can be found in the city as easily as other centuries found it in nature. Richard Brautigan, in the 60's, really described within that time; O'Hara is really of that place. And Jack Spicer, too. I discovered a lot of them because I was obsessive about everything George Bowering had ever written; and he wrote something about how it was a shame they were ignored by academics. So, kewl, I said, They're for me."
mclennan, who reads eighty percent Canadian poetry, wrote his first poem in Grade Two. A mash note, of course. (What else?) Rejected and dejected, he waited a decade before making his second poetic pitch (and that was only "after taking the creative-writing high-school class"). He says he's joined every organization that will accept him as a member so that he can move in, shake 'em up, and generally cause trouble. He also avers he holds high hopes for snagging the Governor General's Award by the time he turns thirty; but, if push comes to shove, he'll give himself "two or three more years".
Susan Elmslie, not to be outdone, insists, "I'm going to the top, man!" Elmslie is a Montreal doctoral candidate in English whose work I first encountered co-judging Windsor's Cranberry Tree Chapbook Competition. The thirty-year-old's entry, When Your Body Takes to Trembling, won the subsequent award, which included publication of her first perfect-bound chapbook, a handsome and compact volume containing irresistibly attractive poems, highly polished and viscerally effective.
"Um, I'm a little nervous," she confesses in a near-whisper, right off the top, "so don't mind me if I screw up. I haven't done that many interviews. And, I'm a sort of, I guess, shy or, at least, quiet, person. I'm not very good at making conversation. Sort of like talking about the weather, I'm still not very good at that.
"But when I was a really little kid, I wrote this kind of hate note to a friend of mine who was kind of a bully. It was way over the top in style and compared her to every dirty animal there was. Her parents phoned me and really gave me trouble for it. It was then I think I realized that words could not only be really beautiful, they could also really hurt people. The power of language dawned on me for the first time. I used to write notes to people instead of talking to them, because of the shyness; and, pretty soon, they'd kind of turned into poems and I guess I've been writing poetry ever since.
"When I was growing up, we didn't have money for dance and piano lessons; but I could write poems pretty cheaply. I could apprentice with my own hard work. I think it has to do with my belief, at some level, it's the only way I can really communicate really intensely. I really wanted people to hear what I was saying. In one sense, it's order out of chaos, I guess; but, yes, in another sense, it's also about self-expression and listening because, you know, people like me? We can't talk about the weather with too much confidence."
People like John Sobol, a Montrealer who now makes his home in Toronto, and is one of the AWOL Love Vibe performance trio's members, loves to talk about the weather, and feels particularly confident about the kind the highly articulate Sobol calls "the social weather, what's really going on out there.
"Our very first time we worked together, at a slam in San Francisco, 1992, we hated it. We found ourselves bummed out at the corner of Haight-Ashbury, just checking it out, the glory days of the past. Yeah. There was a Ben & Jerry's on one corner and a Gap on the other and we were, like, gawd, where's the love vibe? And, we kinda felt it had gone AWOL and then we became the AWOL Love Vibe."
The trio, comprised of Kedrick James (a producer for Electronica Poetica in Vancouver), the Vancouver-based playwright, Alex Ferguson, and Sobol, installed itself in a monastery in Western Bohemia for a month during the summer of 1995, eschewing all printed language (including menus) and living up to its newly sworn vow of orality for this particular experiment in the performative art of the spoken word.
"Each of us has a unique background as a performing artist," explains Sobol, a saxophonist who believes oral and written poetry share zip in common. "I'm a musician; Alex is an actor; and Kedrick is probably the born poet who's also into the performative, political, personal, and aesthetic understanding of poetry.
"We wanted to engage with the world and each other on a purely verbal level to see where that would get us poetically. Throughout that month we were forced to devise poems without paper. We practised improvising and retelling each other's poems. Giving our own spin to it, of course. We'd experimented a little with sound poetry; but improvising with words was not something we had done in a serious way."
One of a handful of groups of white male poets in a popular poetic culture dominated by dub and rap rhythms, AWOL Love Vibe's spokesguy acknowledges the group takes its influences and mentors where it finds them (from bill bissett, Zap Momma!, and the Four Horsemen to various elements of "different cultures and subcultures from all over the place".) A subsequent experience produced the Extatic Almanac, recently published by Insomniac Press with an optional CD included in its attractive packaging.
"I believe," allows Sobol, "oral poetry and written poetry are very different practices; but the idea of doing a book was intriguing, even if it immediately presented a problem in that we had to figure out how to do it without betraying our artistic principles. So, we improvised to contextualize the poetry and provide it with a location in time and space. We created the book in the bookstore over three days and came up with the idea of the almanac as a device to anchor it in time and place. Each of us recorded the poems that we improvised on cassette players. So, at the end of the session, we each had 122 poems. We all went away and edited our work and then got together to put it together."
Sobol says the experience was taxing (since all three are in their thirties), but laughs off the old saw about suffering for art's sake. "What we were trying to explore, in terms of ecstasy, is the notion of endurance, which is one of the primary avenues people use to reach ecstatic states. Of course, the drug has a sibling relationship with the title; but there's lots of graphic everything because we were just scraping out the insides of our brains and bodies to come up with something remotely interesting to say. It works. The business of being a poet is a pretty goddamned crazy business; but if you judge it by business standards, we're doing okay. People really like us."
Readers (and editors) also really like the work of kath macLean, who, at thirty-three, has just won first prize in The New Muse's Chapbook Competition for her edgy, ironic, and plangent collection, for a cappuccino on Bloor. It's a stunning achievement, a highly polished series of exquisitely shaped poems and sequences, which, like mclennan's work, resonates with the glorious overtones of the gritty and grainy everyday.
macLean, a Torontonian now living and studying in Edmonton, doesn't see herself as an academic (unlike Elmslie, who wants to teach in a university); rather, she believes poetry is for everybody, an attitude she no doubt acquired thanks in part to the influence of one of her advisers, Douglas Barbour, "a great writer who's taught me so much". She also salutes Kristjana Gunnars, another Canadian she describes as "a tough, no-bullshit mentor who taught me the virtues of revision". Among her faves, she cites Emily Dickinson and confesses, quite candidly, she had quite a hot love affair-so to imaginatively speak-with Dylan Thomas during her mid-teens. "Oh, totally, I just couldn't get enough of him."
As far as the award goes, macLean confesses it came "at just the right time in my really rotten life; so, it was a kind of wonderful boost."
Currently putting the finishing touches on her dissertation-an anthology with annotated bibliography on love and erotica in the work of Canadian women writers-macLean believes "a good poem always tells a story, not the whole story, but enough of it that it shapes a narrative. Fractured and coherent, I guess is what I mean."
Fractured yet coherent? Order out of contemporary chaos? This crazy business of being a poet? Collectively, this gifted chorus of comin' uppers represents one of the freshest directions Canadian poetry's taken this past decade; and although not well-known in the name-game yet, their first efforts will go a long way towards rectifying that as well as revivifying the appreciation of that utterly useless beautiful thing called poetry, injecting it with its own kind of wonderful boost.
Judith Fitzgerald is an award-winning poet, critic, and music journalist. Her long poem, The Worlds That Came Between Us, will be published by Oberon Press.