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Romanian Poetry Anthology–Of Gentle Wolves

December 19th, 2013 margento No comments


Martin Woodside traveled to Romania on a poetry Fulbright. In the bilingual collection Of Gentle Wolves, he captured a snapshot of the mosaic of trends and confluences that define Romanian poetry of the last few decades. As he suggests in his introduction to the volume, the biggest surprise was the difficulty in categorizing Romanian poets, a reflection of the “tumult and discord that’s characterized the last century of life in Romania, and life after the 1989 revolution” (vi). If anything, the common thread running through the various voices, some decades old, some fresh and pulsing with the blood of the new millennium, is the ambition of being the one to re-invent the poetic form while never severing the bonds with Romania’s literary past.

Yet the volume doesn’t lack unity or a sense of common purpose. There are subtle points of convergence that emerge as one journeys from one poet’s landscape to the next. One witnesses the struggles to place signifying mirrors before a history in the course of finding itself, and one sees the wider and wider spiral that travels away from a nationally defined inner space, and into the larger world of global conversations, only to circle back to the evolving Romanian consciousness, undefeated by half a century of communism, engaged with the present, eager for that ineffable re-definition.

One such thread that one can identify is the need for cultural anchoring—whether it be in the sturdy soil of European tradition, as we see in the poem by Romania’s not so long absconded giant, Marin Sorescu, who attributes to Shakespeare the powers of a Demiurge creating the world in seven days, then “tired to the bone,/He went off to die a little” (5), or the more eclectic allusions in a poem such as “Summa Ethilica” by Radu Vancu, who summons as his drinking buddies the shadows of Thomas Aquinas, Mihai Eminescu (Romania’s staple poet of the 19th century), and even Marx, to derive eternal wisdom from the never obsolete “40 percent liquid hell in iridescent light” (19). In a similar vein, Angela Marinescu sits at an imagined table with “many poets/ Mihai Draghici, Paul Vinicius, Eugen Suciu,/ with novelists Ioan Grosan and Alexandru Vlad/ and with a young woman, beautiful, quiet like a carnivorous plant in repose” (21), an indication that reaching self-awareness is a collective endeavor.

Earlier generation surrealist poet Gellu Naum returns to a mythical past of Romania’s almost unchanged countryside, where Alexander the Great is summoned by a local woman as he “passed one summer in his golden boat reading aloud and making small comments/…/ hey there comrade Alexander the Great she would tell us don’t pretend you can’t hear/ hey there Argonaut I’ll give you my golden fleece that is the law/ I’ll issue a receipt” (7). As if in response to this search through myths in Romania’s millennial soil, crisp-voiced poet Chris Tanasescu finds himself “between stone and stone/ between earth and earth” (57) with a book holding him together as he relives Romania’s myth of the creator’s sacrifice, and the continuous repetition of Genesis as art: “and the book is the only place here/ to enter/ the only place/ to find a way through/maybe this is how the world started/ I say to myself” (59).

It is as if the poets of change seek reassurance in a world that simply is, so that they can glimpse into the possible and venture into a world they can re-imagine. Unsurprisingly, there is also an abundance of references to Romania’s only partially healed wounds of anticommunist and postcommunist struggles. In O. Nimigean’s excerpt from Intermezzo, “ovidean nimigean/ weeps all over the page/ feeling pity/ for this golden age/ ovidean nimigean/ a childish old man/ fills with grief/ for the Romanian” (37), in a voice reminiscent of old ballads but snatching Romania’s old self from the past and dragging it with him into his own, amorphous moment in history. In Radu Vancu’s “Kapital,” the ghost of Marx still haunts the streets of cities and villages, where “in the pubs of Romania,” heavy drinking turns formerly complacent people into anarchists, until “you are already, in all likelihood, a perfect mystic/ with the appropriate set of regrets at hand./ It’s bad not to have guts. And much better, after the first shot of vodka” (17).

It appears that poets are still trying to shake off the shame of inaction that followed the intellectuals of the communist night into the chaos of a democracy still fighting the demons of the past. Chris Tanasescu’s poem “Envoy” reminds Romanians that the ills we bear can take our place if we leave too much room for tolerance of those ills. The lines “Today, tomorrow, she endured/ pitiful girl—shouldn’t be pitied!” (61) reveal the epitome of the fear that is no longer a good excuse.

It appears that many of today’s poets find the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those accustomed with suffering abhorrent, and look elsewhere for redemption. In Gabriel Decuble’s “Crippled Mutt,” the beaten dogs on the street become the city’s guardian angels, a sign that it is, perhaps, time to let the ghosts of oppression leave the country’s crippled body so that it can finally find a way to start anew: “particles rise yelping/ particles limping through the atmosphere/ light slobbered from the fierce staggering over the void/ dispersed/ you don’t hear them you don’t see them/ these microscopic particles in one in all/       damning them not to be damned/ so that they never end” (53).

What’s left after the purging of Romania’s collective sins are “the dead resurrected from rain” (43) in Robert Serban’s poem “I Hide.” In the “nearly empty” village where the sick and old of past generations still wait and watch for something—be it angels or pigeons—in Ioan Moldovan’s poem “In Fact,” and love finds ways to bring the flesh back to the doll-like bodies, in Dan Coman’s “Love Poem.”

It is a bizarre world where people are picking up the pieces after some bewildering cataclysm, but there is much hope in this scattered world. Artists believe in the power of their art to redeem and rebuild, which is why this volume sets itself apart from other contemporary productions as an on-going question whose answer is somewhere under the rubble of history, waiting to be unearthed.

—Liana Andreasen


[Of Gentle Wolves, an Anthology of Romanian Poetry

Translated and edited by Martin Woodside

Calypso Editions, 2011,

68 pages, soft cover, $12]

[A shorter version of this review was initially published in Atticus Review]


Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is originally from Romania, and currently lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She holds an MA from Salisbury University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic. She published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, Thunderdome, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, and upcoming in Scintilla, Weave Magazine, and Calliope. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).

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Joanne Dominique Dwyer–”Belle Laide”–If to Love Is to Inhabit

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments



One cannot but love a book that starts this way: “First my father Killing Me Softly with his Roberta Flack album./ Then my son Killing Me Softly with his Fugees CD” especially when those are the opening lines of an ars poetica—actually “Ars Poetica, or Keeper-of-the-Water.”  Contemporary young poets apparently feel a need to start their (first) books with ars poeticas, and some of them do it well.  Joanne Dominique Dwyer is one of those—while providing a relevant imago of the poet at work as being at home, since the metaphor in the title has to do with the frozen birdbath the birds peck on in the cold outside the speaker’s home.  The image gives her the opportunity to interrupt her own speech with a sharp aside in which she both scolds and… scalds herself: “Excuse me un mementino, while I boil/ water to pour on the ice.  Bullshit!/ you’re not going to take time to boil water/ when it scalds right from the tap.”  A quirky discourse of a restless poet who will not take bull from anybody, herself included.  And, like in other recent ars poeticas, she addresses the reader directly, but since other poets unwillingly prove to actually be afraid of the latter, or at least mistrustful, and try to compensate for that by showing off, she off-handedly invites them into her family, her home, her own body (of words), even calling them lover but also warning all the way about the deadly dangers of such togetherness “I can see why lovers commit suicide together./ And why you enter me with such abandon,” as the only one she’s actually afraid of seems to be herself and the cancer-like unstoppable expansion and inclusiveness of her verse : “On my shoulder a carcinoma that will eventually kill me—/ will eat my flesh, as I eat yours.”

But is this a Whitmanesque inclusiveness—not really, not at first at least, rather one centered on or starting from the familial, the interior, the bookish.  “I don’t get out much—socially, for adult pleasure./ But I read a lot” starts a captivating poem that takes us into the speaker’s extensive readings of Turkish harem accounts, and then to the speaker’s daughter’s ceramics class work, a conversation at a wedding party casually and awkwardly switching from horrid jail stories to deluxe breast jobs, and then back again to harems, Islam, ceramics, and a Persian hair removal kit recently that the speaker recently purchased but “has yet to use.”

Dwyer is compared in a back cover presentation with Plath and Sexton, and indeed, her confessionalism and acted childishness every once in a while allows questionable traumas to surface menacingly (“my missing daughter returned by midday muted,/ having been held on a rooftop”), but the general tone is rather relaxed as she enjoys digressing and surfing her own stream of consciousness in more of an O’Harian style.  The ‘wild’ surprises occasioned by language ramifications, by the dark associative power of her unconsciousness, and sometimes by multiple voices (in “Barely a Body Comes Knocking” for instance the deceitful complaint about the lack of visitors veers at a certain point into a fantastic and funny Voodoo curse against possible thieves—“And my assistant ghosts will hex your virility/ And you will sit all your remaining days/ In a rocking chair like a ceramic troll on the porch/ Of the state home in Maine for old and demented alcoholic ship builders/ Because the home for old and alcoholic sailor is full// You think I’m semiserious/ I do my best work when hypnopompic…”—) may also remind one of Ashbery, with the significant difference that Dwyer wants and manages to convey a (multiple but) coherent image of the self that is propped by the consistent pursuit of memories and dreams, and by memorable self-definitions and metaphors, “keeper of the water,” “an encyclopedia salesman,” “ a footless repairer of huaraches and boots,” etc.

The second section persistently and sometimes manically pursues possible ‘definitions’ of love, ranging from “if love is to imagine” to “if love is a door,” “a mezzanine,” “to fall,” “to inhabit,” and eventually “to be thirsty in the night/ un-slacked in the day.”  Such ‘philosophical’ musings are actually as bodily and sensual as could be, and, what is absolutely remarkable in Dwyer compared to other contemporary poets, the erudite references, the mythologies and metaphysics, the asides and the detours do not slacken the passion and the emergency, but quite on the contrary, they keep mercilessly spilling fuel on the fire of the crescendos, while also adding a bite of inquisitiveness, sarcasm, and, of course, self-contradiction:

In the Louvre we saw the carved bit of ass

showing on the Venus of Milo.

Lift my dressing gown over my head,

or take it all the way down.

Look me in the eye when we make love

so I don’t mistake you for a blind man.

Don’t be afraid of my dark,

buy me a bird of my own—

spit on the candle in the corner.

“Request to a Lover”


The breathless 3 or 4-beat-per-line hurried complexities, intimations, and urges, make room at a certain point to a bluesy shorter piece, in which St Augustine (a recurrent reference, or rather character), Billie Holiday, sensuality & grimness, homelessness and glamour, death and a repressed knowledge of the spiritual powerfully converge.

A nagging question and potential problem in writing such poems would be (besides what if love were… [at all]), but how do I end this, and, if after all the deployed artillery I need a simpler or quieter ending, how can I make sure it’s not going to be flat or irrelevant.  Dwyer finds good or not so good answers to this question (among the most unfortunate ones are those that go like “You are intrigued with her/ and I hate her”) until she realizes it would be better to confront and testify for the lack of any solution and the confusion itself rather than improvise single-use surrogates.  That is what she does in the cosmic spectacular finale of “Bent,” the final poem in the second section, where a maddening maenad squeezes the love and… the life out of her lover, and then, a bacchant drunk on his “lake water,” she admits no reciprocity or communion in facing her own deepest uncertainty, and along with that, the demise of the sacred.

I am bent around the darkness of the sun

siphoning salt form your skin,

eating almonds from your cupboards,

drinking the last of the lake water

as the sails come to a halt on the sand.

I will never give back the lake its love!

It’s mine! It’s mine!—Loch Ness monster

or man on the shore carving canoe paddles,

I’m not certain.  It’s so ark without the moon,

difficult to find the far encampment—

the inward holy body.


This last note lingers into the third section, where Dwyer directly addresses her need for a spiritualism of her own and “an instance of devotion” for the sacred madness of maverick figures like Christina Mirabilis, for instance, whom the church has kept out “of the sanctioned canon of saints on the grounds/ that you are not the beau ideal to follow,” and who, spiritually speaking, is therefore an emblematic “beau laide.”

Paradoxically, the intensification of the search for the spiritual brings about more explicit confessional or maybe even autobiographical texture, and along with that, even more popular culture and consumerist ‘flavors’ than before, while pulling back a bit from the earlier grandiose metaphorical imagery and approaching the erotic much more directly.  But is that really paradoxical?  Not for a poet like Dwyer, who, while taking the customary American distance from institutionalized religion is relentlessly in search for an actual experience of the sacred, for the ‘real’ ([un]canonical) thing, which, of course, once reached, cannot but illuminate (through) the profane as well.

Profane in all senses, since in one of the most powerful poems in the collection (“Down-by-the-River”), the speaker takes “a shit behind skinny oaks” and asserts (more than elsewhere) an Irish-Catholic-pagan-Gypsy-outlandish-Mexican (non-)identity (“No Identity Crisis Here” reads another relevant title), fusing a Whitmanesque celebratory union-with-the-cosmos eroticism (“I long for the lightning/ of your ejaculate in my mouth, on my breasts/ between the folds and fabric of my flower./ Call it a pussy or a cunt, or the shores of an eel-infested river”) with her unmistakable sarcasm, fierce political/gender critique and brilliantly ironic associations (“Only do not […] pretend to care about the young girls/ who open their mouths like milking machines on dairy farms,/ or take it in the ass, all to remain immaculate until marriage./ I wiped my ass with dry oak leaves, and yes it scratched.”)

The poet’s deepest and most intense purpose always keeps its promise—and therefore the last poem in the collection is indeed an eschatological poem… “of sorts.”  And not in spite, but actually by means of self-irony as well (yet is this just self-irony?—“J. Dominique is certain that Christ will return soon/ […]/ as a guest at the wedding of two men madly in love/ and turn tap water into bubbly water”), the ardently mystical vibrates ever stronger, so much the more as it is (in the end as well as in the beginning) experienced strictly on a stripped corporeal level.  Listen to this crossover ballad-chant-lease-like ending; there is multifaceted irony here indeed, only that it aims beyond the traditional postmodernist paradigm, while still sounding postmodern (although it is not for the first time in the book that Dwyer euphonically pairs holy and body).  This is probably the greatest merit of this first collection and the major promise that Joanne Dominique Dwyer may represent:

And she’ll be ashamed for her ego-driven desire

to be listed among the holy,

and humbled into a hollow love for her body—

no matter how temporary the occupancy.


[Joanne Dominique Dwyer. Belle Laide. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2013]



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Shane McCrae’s “Blood”–The Unstoppable Epic

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments



“Probably the real story of race in the United States, […] an epic that spans three centuries,” reads Kathleen Ossip’s blurb on the back cover of Shane McCrae’s latest collection.  Terrance Hayes concurs with an accolade that sounds like an intersection of his own language and the author’s: “His disconcerting language tracks the estrangement and strangeness, the severance and severity of a Self seized by history.”

McCrae professes a poetics of capitalization and line breaks, where enjambments are not so much meant to amplify aesthetic quality and meaning-related complexity, but convey subversive messages and ensure survival while telling histories of massacre, abuse, and misfortune.

Some niggers isn’t and they is

Never gonna be and them I known

And I remember best

is niggers I seen dead                       / Remember even

the breaths they was

always breathing

(“Heads”—“2. Captured and Returned to His Master”)


The “niggers” both exist and do not exist, as they (sort of apophatically) are beyond the ‘grammar’ of the establishment and they endure in ways that elude the masters’ control.  The enjambment transforms an auxiliary verb into a main one asserting existence (and they is/ Never gonna be) and then further assertion is hidden behind the capitalized “Never.”  Bad grammar and typography thus renders unexpected value to the language distorted and translated by rebellion and by the gasping breath of the chased slave—ontology (“they is”), knowledge (“I known”) and cultural heritage (“I remember best”) are thus established and fiercely defended under the nose of “the Master” with the latter’s tools.

Slashes also play a shrewd role throughout the book.  In the quote above for instance the slash is placed ‘unnaturally’ far from the line break it feigns to accommodate, and acts like a hideout for the capitalized “Remember,” and for the way in which the slaves get “even” by never forgetting those who “was the breaths” of their culture.

In fact, McCrae accomplishes a lot with very few devices.  There is barely any description in the book yet the images (and the sounds) are unforgettable.  Complexity is reached by ellipsis, by clashing scenes, narratives, and voices, by speech that seems to be drowned out by other speeches, memories, and fears, but then resurfaces even stronger than before.  The poetry flux is a wave encountering particles of matter (of matter that matters, the one of life and death) and thus seems to be obnubilated, but actually nothing blocks it; in fact, it is exactly such brief (and horrific) episodes that render it perceptible.

Ranting, raging, rambling syncopated voices that seem to sound the same, cover in fact an impressive number of forms and styles—satire (“the silver [money] rattled as I ran it sounded like/ a chained dog jumping”), black (or rather cynic-horror) comedy (“he was barefoot in/ Shit when the white men found him     /[author’s slash] He stank so bad/ They couldn’t hang him didn’t want those feet/ over their heads// That’s why they burned him”), prophecy (“Our Savior comes disguised     /[author’s slash] Like a thief in the night/ […] down from the cross/ And he must set the cross on fire”), ballad/blues/farce (in “The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay”), elegy (“Brother it keep us like a pond keep leaves/ from trees on the pond they/ Rotting in the thing they lived on/ […]/ Brother our father me and him / [author’s slash] That’s how it love/ keep us together”), etc, etc.

The fragmentary epic seems to go full circle when in the last poem, the speaker sardonically acknowledges that “I thought// Who do I got to kill/ to get all the way free/ And it was     more people than it was/ alive in the world,” thus echoing as if from the other end of the world (and history) the oppressive image at the beginning of the book, with its ominous enjambment-puns: “The death in us was bigger than the life in us/

except for some of us        it seems like now/ And them the niggers got their heads cut off…”  The massacred rebels are still around (here and) “now,” moreover, they are the (atemporal?) here and now, they have become the matter history is made of (they are beheaded now and… them).  But if the victim, the enslaved, the exterminated want to be free (not to survive…), they’ll have to imagine a holocaust the world is not big enough for.  McCrae goes beyond the victim/victimizer overlap and reaches the negative (capability and) sublime of a poetry that, in order to be true, will have not only to account for but also reenact the endless horrors of his people’s history.

The characters’ confessions are truncated, contorted, distorted, stressed, compressed, pressed for time and space.  If it is an epic it is one of deeply subjective and incoherent voices that have no time or reverence neither for the ample Homeric meter and its circuitous rhetoric—the “niggers’ song” is not meant for ceremony or leisure—nor for the gluttonous Whitmanesque enumerations—since although they crave and recognize democracy (“The Yankees were/ Shaking hands” and calling the slaves by their names) they haven’t really enjoyed any justice or democracy yet.  The vision is not huge, but relentlessly ramified, not gigantic, but unstoppable.  That’s why—it gotta be continued…

[Shane McCrae, Blood, Mesilla Park, NM: Noemi Press, 2013]


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A.L. Nielsen–”A Brand New Beggar”–Open Tuning Poetry

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments
A.L. Nielsen’s new book is praised by Evie Shockley in one of the blurbs on the back cover, for the fireworks lit under its language, and the way in which it stitches together places, people, and moments.  Stitching al those things together is actually, in Nielsen’s case, like playing series of chords (with riffing and variation) on a (blues) guitar; only he uses an interesting and quite hard to master technique—open tuning.
“Seven Series,” for instance, is a poem that illustrates Nielsen’s preoccupation with seriality (whence the recurrent motifs of trains, train sets, traveling, slide-shows, etc, and whatever involves sequences or cycles or reformulations), which relates him to Spicer, but it would be a mistake to make of that a pervasive feature, as Nielson is actually related to so many and to nobody in particular.  (Apropos of Spicer, though, “Hidden Lake” is a funny but convoluted reprise of “Concord Hymn.”)  The first one of the seven series stands proof—“An end to all this// Eschatology”—a distich which, pardon my punning, should indeed make history.  Or is, in any way, an opening that promises a lot.  Nielsen chooses ‘not to deliver’ though, and so, what follows sounds (not like Spicer but) more like a sequence of Koch’s blandest surreal (yet metropolitan) jokes—“I have/ To hurry// Here// They close/ The dictionaries/ At seven” (5th series)—and after trying to compensate for the lightness with a ‘hard surrealist’ totally puzzling 6th series, the last one, like a Dadaist farce, confirms the closing of dictionaries “at seven”: the 7th series contains no words.
Many other ‘jokes’ in the book are actually much more relevant than that, such as “41” which is a “series” of mass media and political and everyday clichés in a crescendo where totally probable absurdities (“Continuous/ Breaking developments,” “We ran a touchdown/ And the enemy didn’t show up”) lead to a black humor cynicism that would make Frederick Seidel jealous: “We get more punch per bomb// A struggle to the last child.”
“Higher Math”—higher because it’s about wild geese flying up in the sky, and math because the shape of the flocks is equated with the greater/lesser than symbol in mathematics—describes the phases of a contest between the hunter and his game which reminds one of Charles Simic’s mathematical symbolisms of crows in winter, only now (depleted of the visionary tone and) humorously remixed by a laconic Billy Collins.  Still, Nielsen manages to compress there both ecological concerns and a subtle ars poetica—“I wait unlicensed/ In the caesura of their seasons/ Scrawling with my shotgun in mid-mud.”
After a number of such poems the reader realizes that there are apparently two poets taking turns in this collection (both of them versatile and alluding to quite a deal of contemporary writers, as already stated), one that writes song-like (and most of the times deceitfully) light poems, and another one that specializes in hard to follow, contorted syntax, nagging indeterminacy, and non sequiturs.  The former’s palette ranges from idiosyncratic limericks, “A is for an/ Other/ Part of our/ Name a/ Part…[etc]” (“Anna”), to emphatic blues poems, “Really doesn’t matter/ How hard I sing/ Night still/ Removes everything”) (“Small Song”), to political critique and creed, “Word arrives that Jesse Helms has died/ Tolson’s Africa shakes off a fly” (section IV, the best in the book), and the oracular (and therefore, political) poetry of place “There’s no/ Their there” (section II).  The ‘other poet’ often places his pieces right next to the first, letting the reader decide which poem is a make-up for which, as for instance, right before the above quoted “Small Song”, “Rivers” (meant to also be read as “reverse”?) deals with the same theme, only in a more complicated unnecessarily philosophical (and thus facile) way—“An idea/ Pitched in the rest//Taken up by the rest/ Rests.”  Compare the two finales, “The finite work of morning/ Refrains// Evening/ The score,” and “Really doesn’t matter/ What I might will/ Night/ Still.”
Nielsen sometimes acknowledges the ambivalence (“I hear voices/ From the other’s side/ As if someone wore/ Reading a Poem” (my emphasis)—he puns in a poem involving an ingenious typographical word-play, “Silence of the Iambs,” where the sparse irregular iambs are themselves the silenced… lambs), but the ‘less likable’ ‘other’ breaks loose in the last (and weakest) section, where he over-insists on the trite figure of the slide-show as disparate and sometimes painful or nostalgic memories.  When the jumbled enjambments and rumbling syntax seem to find a way of cohabitation and signification in “Zoo Slide,” the poet drops them altogether and switches to end stops and romance.  Still, the poem concluding the section and the book is an excellent one (and like most of the best poems, an instance of collaboration between the ‘two writers’ in the collection), a blues of strong rhythms, unexpected phrase turns, both sudden rhymes/puns and remote echoes fusing the personal and the political, “This suitcase intends/ A world/ Broke at the clasp/ Grasp// World gone wrong// […] These unintended/ Blues stones/ In my passway/ Cinders rasp/ In my draw/ Rail against the night/ Smokestacks steel strings/ Open tuning…”
Still, the book’s major contribution is its poetry of place.  In section II, “From Kansas,” which is actually just a short preview, and then in the full-throttle section IV, “From Ghana,” Nielsen writes an intriguing, both alluring and aloof, mysterious one-of-a-kind poetry of locality.  The complexity and immensity of a place and culture are made palpable not by erotic immersion or elated enumerations, but by what we gradually sense is being left out—as well as by the speaker’s own puzzlement and wonder.  Yet it is not primarily ellipsis that does the trick in these laconic poems, but the always fresh eye of the observer, and the refusal to categorize or generalize (mainly manifest in the amazing capacity to shift and turn and [still] be inclusive within draconic brevity).  These are poems in which the tools of imagist poetry are used to the opposite ends. As (perhaps) post-post-colonial poetry, such verse not only refuses the stance of the western colonist/traveler/tourist/orientalist, but, without professing the old news of postmodernist disenchantment, does not even consider the option (as it is strongly skeptical of the actual possibility) of description (while being, among other things, once in a while descriptive as well).  The result is a sequence of multifaceted puzzle pieces for us to (re)arrange and approximate the mystery(ies) of both the place and the speaker, and thus participate in the incomprehensible experience of being a contemporary inter-cultural person interacting on different levels with a certain place of wondrous culture and landscape marked by political injustice and tragic history/ies.  Just like in open tuning (a figure so relevantly employed by the poet in the above quoted blues), Nielsen does not bother to ‘fret’ the strings of the reality he encounters, but (apparently) plays them as they come, and the strong effect results from the order, frequency, and rhythm in which he chooses to pick or strike them.
Gratitude for such wary
Signage as
Sings to me
Each morning
Such as this
Muddy Waters pouring
From seaside speakers
Homecoming baptism
The echoes—sing/sign—of the speaker’s personal cultural background present on the public globalized speakers’ playlist represent signage for him to get back home every morning, but (the “gratitude” for) such experience is best expressed by an oxymoron—“homecoming baptism.”  Certain layers of American culture here (the icon of Muddy Waters but also the more recent blues and pop hits with lyrics celebrating being baptized in muddy water) gain unexpected relevance as the speaker, in Ghana, is baptized in the muddy water of his true “home,” African(-American) culture and literature which he has studied and celebrated for decades.
In dialoging with or evoking other major rock culture figures, the poet seems to almost forget about the place he’s supposed to ‘tell us about.’  In a poem referencing “[Frank]” he writes, “The/ Mothers// Of necessity// Sang// Kansas/ Kansas/ do-do-dun to-to// It was/ For them/ An invention,” being as ironic at Zappa just as the latter once was at everybody, but at the same time giving him credit as a major artist (of the ‘necessary’ proportion).  Moreover, the doo wop refrain, if heard as forms of the verb to do, unexpectedly renders the language, the politics (necessary and of “necessity”), and the politics of language… of Kansas (and not only).
Other times, the reader has more dots to connect as (in alluding to Nkrumah’s biography for instance or) in the poem concluding “From Ghana,” where the actor Omar Epps (who, we are not told, but presumably know, starred in Deadly Voyage, playing the part of a sole survivor of a group of stowaways from Ghana) introduces himself to the speaker “in the market” (‘here’, ‘there’?, what difference would it make?) and is “Surprised/ As I am/ To find himself/ Talking to Elvis” (my emphasis).  What we have here in the ways the poet references rock culture is a (long awaited) brilliant sequel to David Wojahn’s rock and roll sonnets (since, after all, both Wojahn and Nielsen share an interest in “mystery,” as well as in… all sorts of “trains”), while also bringing such a different approach and perspective.  And, at last (in the poetry trying to speak of place and history and identities by manipulating symbols of popular music and culture), such a different purpose.
[A.L. Nielsen. A Brand New Beggar. Bolder, CO, and Normal, IL: Steerage Press, 2013]
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Oliver de la Paz–Desert Ghosts: On Postcards, Presences, and Poetry Communities

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments





I’ve been working on a series of prose poems for the past five years. The series started through collaborations with poets from the Kundiman retreat. Timothy Yu, one of the fellows from the annual Asian American poetry retreat, presented the idea that all of the fellows and staff members for that particular year send each other poems on postcards for a whole month. So, for the entire month of August I’d write and receive postcards with little poems on them. I wound up continuing a series of prose poems that initially started as small scraps of images but grew into a larger series of epistolary poems. What made the process joyous was that I was writing each postcard for someone I knew. I also knew that they were doing the same for me. Every day of that August, I felt like someone was wrapping a small precious stone in cellophane after having carefully plucked it from a stream and sending it to me.


What’s always been useful to my writing process is envisioning the recipient of the poem–someone who will receive the poem after I’ve written it as though it were a gift. My early understanding of poems and the act of making poetry is that one’s attention must be granted wholeheartedly towards the other person who will be participating in the poem’s creation, whether he or she is aware of their participation or not. That person needn’t be a full flesh-and-blood person in front of you. Rather, that person or those persons could be like the images one sees along an interstate in the distance during the high sun of the summer. The waves of heat creating the illusion that there is someone walking along the road just ahead of you–forever just ahead of you.


Some of the earliest picture postcards in history depicted war emblems. In the 1870′s a picture of armaments adorned the face of one of the first printed postcards to commemorate the Franco-Prussian war. Later, advertising appeared in postcards. Some of the early postcards in the United States were called “penny postcards” and were used as expedient means of communication. And for their size, the postcard is an ideal mode for expediency in communication. The picture does much of the talking. The text can enhance the picture, be enhanced by the picture, or can remain autonomous. There is a distance suggested by the postcard–the sender is somewhere far off. The sender is wishing the recipient were there, but also the sender acknowledges that he or she is in a place that could generate envy in the recipient. “Wish you were here.” “Having a wonderful time.” “I miss you.” The picture is shorthand for the shorthand. There is also the acknowledgment that the distance between recipient and sender is great, and that the sender is in a place where the normal rules of time do not allow him the luxury of a long engagement. The message must be as quick as a synaptic flash.


I’m constantly worried about these new poems.  How they’d be received outside of the immediate poetry community that assisted in their creation. There is something intensely sacred for me about these poems–I feel, in some regards, like they are not poems of my body, but rather, they are poems of a collective. Within each page, the words of some other poet climb out of the margins.


My family moved to the desert of Eastern Oregon when I was a young boy. There were no other Filipino families there. It was the 70′s and the Vietnam War had “ended” three years prior. Many of the soldiers who had returned from the war lived around the periphery of Ontario, Oregon, the town where we settled. I would sometimes see them when I was out with my mother, dressed in torn fatigues, coming into town for tractor parts or for groceries. They would look at us for a minute, as if they were reaching for something that had dropped into a deep and ever narrowing tube. Then they would snap out of their reveries and return to the business at hand. Their expressions always showed a bit of surprise, as if they were discovering something new as they shopped along the cereal aisle or as they filled their trucks with gas. I wanted to know who these men were. I wanted to follow them as they insisted on the ordinariness of the lives that had been returned to them. My concepts of distance and community were formed through these chance glances. I recognized the “othering” glare, but I also recognized that the glare saw something within itself that it did not know had existed.


Each poem of this series begins with a salutation: “Dear Empire”. Am I the ghost of this Empire figure or is the Empire figure the ghost of the poem? Throughout the poems there are ruins. There are ruins atop ruins and there are people who live among the ruins who are real people and not ghosts. My mind has lived among them for five years and I have to be considerate of their needs. A respectful distance cannot be maintained when one lives among the ruins and ghosts. But an understanding can be reached. For example, I know when I must leave the room. I know when the ghosts have been disturbed, when I have torn back the seams.


When I lived in Arizona, I’d frequently get lost. I’d be driving down a long road and everything would look the same. Building after building, the same stucco would rocket past me, blurring into the very landscape as though each wall were a part of the soil. I was always amazed at the sudden oasis of an apartment complex as one would spring up out of the landscape, its manmade lake and geyser issuing forth a burst of water into the air that would immediately evaporate. Some of my “Dear Empire” poems return me to this landscape. The audacity of it. The deep veins of a dry riverbed is always near these structures, the fissures deep and dusty.


I am writing about Empire because I want to understand Empire. Wherever Empire goes, there are many ghosts that follow. When I first began writing the series, he was an innocent enough character. I’m getting to know him. There are places, though, where he has yet to take me. I want to understand Empire’s wake, knowing that I travel in Empire’s wake. Such perspective is difficult to glean within the confines of its very walls. In order to understand a community, you have to leave that community. You have to wander into a different desert.


My son keeps jumping out of his bed during naptime. He is crying. He says that there are ghosts in his room. I scoop him up into my arms and carry him down the long hallway, back into his bed. I assure him that there are no such things as ghosts. That the world is filled with tangible things. That there are no apparitions. No phantoms possibly materializing in his room, the closet, on the other side of the door.


The veteran’s assembly hall was across the street from my Catholic elementary school. During recess, we’d see young men step out of their pick-up trucks and head inside. This happened quite often and in the middle of the day, and I wondered whether any of them worked like my parents. Whether they had any place to be. The world, as far as I knew, was full of duties–the expected places our bodies must go in order to fulfill some larger contract which I did not understand. I wondered what sort of agreement these men had made.


There were early controversies with postcards as a new medium. In some countries, certain images were illegal to send across international  (and even national) borders. For example, there were a series of early seaside postcards that contained images of nude bathers. Such seaside postcards were never received by people in these countries since they violated the country’s morality codes. Every community has its taboos, and every community has its way of skirting them. The postcards poems that I am writing are not themselves taboo, nor are the subjects contained within them taboo. However, I can’t help but feel like I am sharing a secret which I should not be sharing. I can’t help but feel like I’m saying something I shouldn’t say—as though I am breaking the bounds of some decorum.


Once the postcard prose poems were removed from the Kundiman community that assisted in their creation, they became longer pieces, as though I were writing to an audience who did not understand their context. In some ways, more exposition crept in which I would later cut. I sometimes wonder what it takes to have someone understand my poems. What words need to fit? How can I show you? If I show you, will you still be here? Therein lies the value of a community—you don’t have to explain yourself, your context. You can just be. The planes that define your body’s outline line-up with the community’s understanding of what it means to be. Your histories can remain your histories without any justification. Without any back story.


One of my favorite postcards that I received is that of a young Japanese schoolgirl looking out the window of a bullet train in Tokyo as the city’s light reflects in the glass. It looks as though her body is slowly dematerializing, the molecules of her dress, her skin, slowly twirling away from her as the train pushes forward through the evening air. In the photograph, she looks distracted, as though she is talking over her shoulder to someone holding on to a pole to keep themselves steady. It’s as though she too feels she is talking to someone who is slowly disappearing.


My son is slowly sinking into the sheets as I read him a story. There are pictures of our family in the Philippines, lining his shelf: his cousins, his aunts and uncles, their images rest atop a turquoise-painted bookshelf. It’s as though the sea were between them.


I remember when the director of my graduate school first met with all of the new creative writing graduate students for orientation. She looked at each one of us earnestly and urged us to embrace our time together and that our time together was finite. That we’d all be slowly moving away from each other like galaxies.


In the desert, you can hear things. If you are quiet, you can hear the skirt of sand pass over the rocks with a small gust. You can hear the feet of the lizards pad across the rocks. There are so many palpable ghosts in the desert–the little threads of sweat twisting their way through the cloth. The rodents tucked under the roots of a saguaro. I came to the desert years ago to find a writing community, but more importantly, I came to the desert to understand my ghosts. I needed to find a place where I could hear them. A place where I could give them my full attention.


Little postcards are lining up along my wall, and I am running out of room for them, so I begin taking photographs of the front and the back and then tucking them away in a shoe box. A postcard is such a useful thing–it doesn’t have the length of a letter, so there are details that get left off. So much of the language in a postcard can be substituted by the image on the front of the postcard. There is the expectation that the recipient will understand the image and, when coupled with the few words on the back, perhaps an understanding can be reached. Maybe envy. Maybe loss. What’s also useful is that the postcard takes up space. It is, itself, a body. It is not the same as an e-mail note–rather, because the postcard is a body, it occupies an area the size of its height and its width. I, myself, have no more room for all these selves, so I must put them away. My office is littered with presences.


In the local Phoenix news, a horse and rider had somehow ascended Camelback Mountain but had no way of descending the mountain. So the newscasters were constantly talking over the footage of a helicopter carrying a horse in a harness, dangling from a cable over the city of Phoenix as the purplish dusks of the desert eased their way into the lenses. The horse’s head was slumped down–it was obviously sedated, and the apparitions of the city’s lights veered this way and that as the camera’s tried to steady their shots.


I have written over 100 “Dear Empire” poems and see no end to them. They fill my hard drive. I write them with a strange ease, as though someone were controlling my hand. As though someone were cradling my arm in a harness and dragging my limp wrists over the keyboard. They are easy for me to write because they are ongoing conversations. And while that conversation was initially prompted in the midst of a community of Asian American poets, I’ve maintained that conversation. I am having that conversation with my son, telling him about the painted rocks, the little gems of postcards arriving in the mail. I’m telling him about the desert monsoons. The way water so quickly vanishes before it touches the ground.


I was driving from New Mexico. The rocks there were like the veins on the back of the hands; there was a near-fibrous quality to them. The colors streaming out of them like ribbons around a gift. The road was clear, except for the yellow dashes of the highway divider, blurring into a single line with my car’s speed. I was leaving Arizona for my first job, carrying behind me all my books, my clothes, furniture. I could feel the weight of it all drag the U-Haul down a bit, especially as I drove up the hills. It was August in the desert, which was a terrible and unpredictable time in the Southwest. Not only was it hot, but there was also the possibility of flash flood. In my side mirrors, I could see the thick-headed thunder clouds bearing up on me. The desert can play tricks like that–clouds suddenly appear and disappear as you turn your head, or squint. Up ahead, the apparitions of figures arc and dance off the blacktop.


My poetic process has continued to be a dialogic one. Even before the postcard project with my Kundiman cohorts, I wrote poems for someone or for the idea of someone. For the longest time, my private poems were written for an unrequited love, my father, mother, for me. The act of writing a poem has to be one of the most compassionate things someone can do, for within that act, you are ultimately declaring you are here before a ready listener, preparing to say something that will reveal an emotional state–yours, regardless of the illusion of distance. And in that emotional state, we as speaker and listener are vulnerable.


The truth is, when I decided to go to Arizona State University for graduate study in creative writing, I wanted to return to the desert because it was the closest thing to a home landscape that I had ever had. And though I never felt that I had established a community within the desert landscape, I felt a sureness walking on the ground within that landscape. Certain ideas of home are difficult for me to process, since I have had many homes–while I lived in the desert of Eastern Oregon for the longest duration of my life, I never felt I was a part of that place. Once, during a break from college, I purchased postcards from a local mini-mart. The postcards had pictures of cowboys, jackalopes, pheasants, and dusty covered wagons bouncing along the trails. Some of the postcards celebrated the pioneering spirit of the West. Some of them mocked the “redneck” lifestyle. I sent these postcards to friends in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, aware that they’d find novelty in the cards. I imagine the postcards pinned to someone’s refrigerator with a brightly colored magnet. The image of a cowboy rising up with the arch of a horse’s back as it attempts to kick its rider, lifted high above the kitchen tiles and faded pictures of cousins and uncles.


I’m writing these “Dear Empire” poems because I’m trying to define my community in them. They also depict my struggle to identify myself within a community. There are ghosts throughout their sentences. Whole paragraphs can be heard without bodies attached to them. They pass through walls. There are spaces that are embodied within the words. There are gaps within the prose poems’ narrative memories. I am writing many of these poems because I am searching for something that a single prose poem cannot find. The act of writing these pieces is the act of driving through the desert–the veterans’ facilities, the strip malls, the saguaro and the sage brush all blur by in my mind’s search for something, a single locus that I can call here. That I can call home. Somewhere, high above the skyline, I imagine the body of a horse being lifted from a mountain, dangling from a harness above the cityscape. Its legs hang limply and it looks like a spent rag, heavy with the wet weight at its tips.


This is a postcard for you. I am here at my desk and the world is behind the door. The world is outside, lining up toy cars and trains.  Sound parts the barrier. He is sorting colors and shapes and I can hear his mother talk calmly to him as his voice rises with the high excitement of young joy. There are so many other things to tell you–the sun has come out, finally. The cedars flat needles turn silver in the shine. I am about to open my door. I am about to walk down the hall past the portraits of my family and friends, far away from this place. I am about to step out into the brightness of the afternoon.


Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: NAMES ABOVE HOUSES, FURIOUS LULLABY, REQUIEM FOR THE ORCHARD, and the forthcoming POST SUBJECT: A FABLE, which is a collection of epistolary prose poems. He is the co-editor of A FACE TO MEET THE FACES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PERSONA POETRY, and the co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. He is the music editor for AT LENGTH and teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

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Peter Joseph Gloviczki—From Contorted Ars Poeticas to the Funny Banal and Back

December 2nd, 2013 margento No comments


“And what will the ricochet/ of my ankle be worth […] this bony puzzle/ in the window doubling,/ now, as a mirror: the person/ I was before I kicked gravity/ hard in the abdomen.  Laugh,/ babe, that’s what you told me […]

… those taller/ versions of yourself when they/ appear between the boundaries/ of what that old architect let in/ when he said: Put it here,/ yes, that’s it, now we’re home.”

These are excerpts from the intriguing opening poem, “Door,” from Peter Joseph Gloviczki’s Kicking Gravity.  The architecture of the poem (and of the book) is thus laid down by an “old” architect—most likely of form and tradition that draws boundaries and gives directions—in this poem.  He’s not the only character in the poem though—“babe/you” is another one who actually speaks when we think the speaker does, since when half way through the poem, when we believe we just heard the (indeed) contorted lyrical confession of the speaker, we find out it (or at least part of it) is actually what that “you” answered the speaker when the latter asked for advice regarding dealing with the former’s “taller versions”.  This is self-referential and it develops an (at least apparently) complex allegory of the writing of a poem involving deceitful rhetoric, recurrent indeterminacy (“what will it be worth,” “what you told me,” “what the architect let in,” etc.) and masterful enjambment.

The few following prose poems that follow are far from being that complicated though.  It is as if after expelling the “taller versions [expectations?]” of the reader, the poet relaxed and started telling anecdotes from his childhood, about an aunt “we” like to call “Lefty,” and soft-surrealist Simickian mixes of blurry memories, oneiric fears or eroticism, and submerged personal mythologies—

Sara taught me where all the doors where; I loved the ones inside her elbows.  I learned how to open those first; how they connected to other openings in her body, wired one to another like a burglar alarm (“Wired”),

but unlike the Serbian-American master, he either overdoes it by adding unnecessary ‘strong surprises’, or dismisses any possible richer meaning by settling either for a sentimental conclusion or a joke.

The prose poems in the first section are interrupted by a funny and captivating “Sonnet for Anne” written after Stephen Dobyn’s “How to Like It”—

… to make Anne

blush.  Her cheeks become cherries: fresh, ripe Bing,

the kind that would have been painted by Rembrandt.

Anne turns that cold Pepsi to sweet Riesling.

She sends Catholic school girls into a jealous rant.


One would picture the poet’s imaginary audience hollering and asking for more, but Gloviczki prefers to go back to the less appealing puzzling prose pieces.

The second section seems to start off the same kind of scenario as the first one, a first rather twisted abstract poem, a possible ars poetica (“(i) can’t stand” “the mechanisms which facilitate hands opening and closing […]” etc) followed by a couple of seemingly biographical notations, but then a couple of sparse poems with scattered short lines fortunately change the pace.  “The Tornado Sequence” captures well the experience of potentially devastating weather by stitching together apparently unrelated fragments, thus suggestive of the effects of a tornado—“the guy whose tractor/ trapped him,/ the woman thrown against her fence./ I bought a lottery ticket, he [the speaker’s brother] says,/ on my drive home” which unfortunately the author chooses to spoil (in this one once again?) with a flat joke: “I’ve been fooled by light before,/ never by wind—/ even my best chair failed me” (as above, the poet’s emphasis here as well).

Gloviczki’s travel poems, which are praised in one of the blurbs for their “listening with a journalist’s ear” are not travel poems.  But unlike in A.L. Nielsen’s Ghana or Kansas sequences where there is no ‘travel poetry’ because the genre along with certain capital assumptions in modern poetics are challenged and reshaped in remarkably relevant ways, here what we get is scenes and/or reflections that hardly have any relevance or efficacy in describing (let alone enacting) a relationship between a problematic speaker and the elusive alterity of a place or community.  The bad English of a cab driver, for instance, who takes a circuitous route most likely in order to rip off a speaker who doesn’t resist because of his stomach flu hardly tells us anything interesting about the latter’s experience of visiting Budapest.

In the third section, some more family poems draw a few good sketchy portraits or scenes, while certain images successfully circumscribe unclear but persistently haunting events from the past.  In “Breakfast,” for instance, the speaker’s mother apparently thinks the former could have but did not prevent somebody’s death.  She then sets a knife on the table and starts spinning it “with a sure hand.”  A number of ‘advice’ or ‘instruction’ poems are both funny and convincing.  In one addressed to (or spoken by?) a groundskeeper, the various thoughts, pieces of advice, and everyday tidbits make room, at a certain point, to the surprise of a couple of very good lines taking some unexpected turns: “Sure,/ the evening light always visits and windy doors know to slam shut./ Love, write my number on your hand./ Call me with my digits against your flesh.”

[Peter Joseph Gloviczki. Kicking Gravity. Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2013]


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Norma Dunning–The Writing of My Poems

November 25th, 2013 margento No comments




There is something so delicious in the placing of a chocolate covered ice cream bar between your teeth and onto your tongue. There is something so delicious in the way your tongue happily accepts this act and how all of this deliciousness, and calorie-filled, mixture slides down your eager throat. You feel it freeze your intestines in the process, and shock your system into what is called, ‘a brain freeze’—this is how you know that this cold delightfulness is truly very chilling. It’s so very pleasing that you hear your throat involuntarily murmur in the near sensuous delight of it all. It’s fun.

This is also the way mainstream citizens related to the chocolate covered ice cream bar called, “Eskimo Pie.” This is not how I react to anything beginning or containing the word ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Esquimaux’ or any of the words that mainstream societies use to bring into the minds of their people, that image of an Inuit person, dressed in a fur-ringed parka, harpoon in hand, waiting with silent patience over a seal breathing hole. This is the image, which is super-glued into the consciousness of non-Inuit people, globally.

When I wrote ‘Eskimo Pie I” and a year later, ‘Eskimo Pie II’, I was asking myself, how many Inuit would have ever eaten such a thing? I was thinking of all the government-driven policy that removed from the Inuit of Canada traditional drum dancing and tattooing. I was thinking of all the Inuit who had their traditional names and naming systems removed by the Eskimo Identification Canada system, which in turn effected how Inuit view not only the continuing of life but also the ceremony involved in death. The E-number system was followed by Project Surname and later Project Correction, because having a singular, non-gendered name in Canada was prohibited.

I was thinking, most of all, about all the little Inuit children who were forced into residential schools in order to be able to ‘blend in’ or assimilate with the dominant Canadian society. Unless you are the child of a residential school survivor, you truly don’t know what was taken away from you because of the experience of your parent. So when I even see the words, “Eskimo Pie” I see humiliation, degradation and the demeaning of my peoples.

I see just another example of expropriation of my culture and the way the representation of the Inuit lingers on, into present day, as a smiling, innocently-stupid type of peoples who remain unable to care for or manage themselves in a way that’s meets the fur-ringed standards of the majority of Canadian society. For every bite of ‘Eskimo Pie’ by mainstream society, another attempt by an Inuit person to be more than the mainstream image, is chewed up and swallowed and dissolved into mush. All of the things that were slowly trying to imprison the Inuit, while the rest of North America was enjoying a treat, called “Eskimo Pie”. Good for them.

While an entrepreneur in the US was making and marketing a tasty, summertime delicacy Inuit children were being taught that their language, their beliefs and mainly, their very existences were of no true value unless they became a whiter shade of Eskimo. Therein lays the irony of it all, the pain and the hard truth that most Canadians don’t want to acknowledge and that is all I ever ask for, acknowledgement. So much time has stumbled past us all that it is too late for blame, or finger pointing or further repression, it is only time for Tukitaaqtuq, an Inuktitut word meaning, “they explain to one another, reach understanding.” It was my hope in the writing of ‘Eskimo Pie’ that the other side of a ice cream bar is explained and perhaps, understood.

The poem, “Mamaqtuq” was a different experience for me. I had written a paper on traditional Inuit hunting methods and found myself thinking, I can’t recall ever getting out of bed on any morning and saying to myself, “What am I going to kill for supper tonight?” Like everyone, I just drive over to a local meat counter and review what’s freezing up in it and take it home to thaw and later cook up.

I had read and written on the planning, the care, the building of cairns, and the waiting and waiting and waiting for that one sideways, shimmering, shadow on the horizon—the caribou herds. All of the preparation of arrowheads, the tightening of bows, the practice throws of spears spinning in the air, all of this done days and months in advance of this one small flash in time. All the work that goes into one meal, while at home the women who were not participating in the hunt went out and threw small stones at tiny birds to make sure their babies had something to eat today—just in case. Just in case that one moment in time didn’t pan out today or not at all, just in case they had to mentally prepare for another hungry winter.

But as all of this is going on, while skin tents are going up and water is being boiled, there lingers within every camp member that one hope, that on the wind they would smell them and that smell will be good and later it will taste good too. This is the one constant in traditional Inuit life, the never knowing. The one thing that kept us together, that made us share, that made us laugh, and together, way back then and into today—we survive.

This is the one thing that no one—Inuit or non—can take away from me—the memories that lie deep within my blood and stay fresh within my being. Although, the non-Inuit try through their words to claim what is mine—they can’t, not now, not ever. They don’t live it, they don’t roll out of their hides in the morning and put their feet onto the ground, knowing that there is someone out there who is going to try and tell you that they know you better than you do. They don’t own it. I do, and I forever will be ilnautuq.


Read “Eskimo Pie I” and “Eskimo Pie II” by Norma Dunning here


Norma Dunning is a beneficiary of Nunavut and currently is a 2nd-year MA student in the inaugural class with the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She has been awarded The James Patrick Follinsbee Prize for Creative Writing (2011) and the Stephen Kapalka Memorial Prize for Creative Writing (2012) through the U of A. Both prose pieces were written in an urban Inuit genre. Norma continues to write and explore poetry and prose from this vantage point—and always will.

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Joan Houlihan–Language and Community

November 17th, 2013 margento No comments



Some say language creates the world. A well-known hypothesis of language learning (1)

states that after around five years old, deprived of the conditions leading to language

development—overhearing and interacting with speakers—children can no longer learn

how to form syntactical structures, they can only memorize individual words and their

definitions. The relationship between words cannot be formed. But what is the world if not a

relationship between, among, to and for?


To consider relationships between words is to also consider relationships between

people—parent and child, siblings, friends, couples, groups, cities and nations—in short,

community. While the pronoun “us” gave rise to my imagined community of hunter gatherers

in The Us, and while discovering and uncovering the life of this particular

community, line by line, in each poem, I discovered/uncovered the essential truths of any

community: food, warmth, safety, and belonging (“Us nest fine a weather long / between

the heat of kin / the least of us in huts / built round with stones.”) It seemed to me then, while

writing the poems, as it seems to me now, reflecting on them, that the language itself both made

and served the group. Saying “us” created an us, and each time the us speak as one in a collective

voice they confirm themselves anew. They state their existence as a community. In The Us,

language creates a world of relationships: between words (syntax) and between people



Furthermore, because I wanted to portray the group as always at the threshold of

language (and thus civilization), I felt their language needed to be as simple as possible,

directly concerned with immediate surroundings, basic transactions of need, and without

adornment. Because the natural world of the group was close and dangerous, sometimes

awe-inspiring, in its very nearness this world became almost a member of the group itself

and therefore had to be treated as an entity, another sentient life-form (“From dirt, a stir

put forth its mix, smell / of weed and green-held bud, deep cups / sweet and sharp.

Warmer started day. / Sun lay wider where us walked.”)


The concerns of this imagined group are the concerns of any community, and The Us

functions as an allegory of community, especially in the group’s drive to find a home—a

physical location free from attack by enemies (“thems”) and able to sustain life (hunting

and/or farming). As with so many migratory or diaspora groups, the us are forced to

keep moving under harsh conditions (“Froze by winter blast / us could not grip on meat

or crust, / ours fingers blackened down to all the hand”), and the resting place they find

is an island untouched by civilization, in a time when all relationships, including those

between humans and animals, exist before the community of all living things is shattered

and splintered. (“Then horses low and red / came slow for us to ride / necks

outstretched for hands, / eye cast down and soft / and nuzzled forth and bent for us to



The idea of community then, is a central concern of the book, and I examine this idea in

two main ways: first, through the viewpoint of the collective “us,” and second, through

the viewpoint of a separate consciousness formed by the independent action of one

member (“ay”). The emergence of a separate member’s viewpoint parallels the emergence of

individuality through separation: ay sees his mother suffering and being left behind by

the group, and he therefore must choose to act separately from the us (“ay am hers son

and could not leave her colding.”). This loyalty to a first “community” (the bond between

child and mother) supersedes the bond to the later community (the us).

When his mother dies, and ay experiences the further trauma of being captured by the

“thems” and enslaved to them, his separation/individuation continues. He has lost his

primary relationships (father, mother) and his community (the us). The ultimate trauma

is an experience of violence (an attack by one of the us, who is called greb, leaves ay

brain-injured and unable to move or speak), and he is driven into internal dialogue, his

sole relationship residing within himself, as he literally talks to himself (thinks).


In the final sections of the book, ay explores his thoughts through rhetorical questions

and interior monologue (“When hurt stops the mouth / what talks on?”) as he is forced to

struggle with ideas of his own origin and purpose:


Rain made me here. What would speak me

have a noise? Even bird would fold

and pleat then leaf-stirred make its cry

and go. How could winter matter touched rattling

to a tree, holding white and close

another sleep? Ay could not tell.

Ay came back simple, milded, felled.


Displaced by his injury into a mute state, ay develops a heightened connection with self

(or god–mind–spirit), the only connection left to him, one that does not require exterior

speech or response. In his speechless state, immobilized and dependent on being lifted,

carried, and fed by the us, ay returns to a primary bond, that of the infant and mother, as

the us tend and protect him as a collective mother.


In the process of taking care and looking out for ay, the us re-forms the community

around him, embedding him, healing the piece of the collective that has been wounded so

that unity can be regained. (“Lifted like a brae, soft-turned by hands, / murmured on,

wrapped in cloth, ay were / still. The us made a shade to lay me down”).

The progression or movement from inner silence (pre-language) to connection with

another human (language) enacted through the infant’s pre-lingual connection to the

mother and later, through language, to a family and wider community, is one that I

attempted to recreate through the injury to the ay and his loss of language as



“Mother tongue”—the phrase is apt, as language is not merely a means to (or result of) a

primal bond, but the keeping together of those in the same family, tribe, citizenry, nation;

not only a tool of creating community, but a reelection and expression of the community as it

knows itself, its identity. In this sense, the language of a community is an action, an enactment of

bond, and the language itself, in its syntactical relations, forms its most useful and harmonious

arrangement of parts, a community of words.


(1) Eric Heinz Lenneberg. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1967.


Joan Houlihan is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Ay (Tupelo Press, 2014). Her other books are: The Us (Massachusetts Center for the Book’s “must-read” book of 2009) The Mending Worm (Green Rose Award from New Issues Press), and Hand-Held Executions. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry–Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press). She is a contributing critic for the Contemporary Poetry Review and author of a series of essays on contemporary American poetry archived online at bostoncomment.com. She has taught at Columbia University and Emerson College and currently teaches in the Lesley University Low-Residency MFA Program and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Houlihan is founder and director of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.




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Garry Thomas Morse–The Beethoven Frieze

November 3rd, 2013 margento No comments



I should preface by stating that in terms of my work, I believe that the most dominant factors relating to my personal heritage, or the ones I would wish to lay claim to, are Celtic, Jewish, and Native. Jerome Rothenberg has pointed out that he doubts whether radical poetic practice can be thought of as “distinctly Jewish” although once in a while, I wonder if there is a particular intellectual tradition that makes this practice attractive to some exceptional poets of Jewish heritage. I can no more label “alienation literature” as “Jewish”, although there is a Germanic or Viennese schism that casts a long shadow through much of my writing. The Celtic is more a fantasy of being associated with a hyper-intellectual Swiftian gift of the Blarney, thinking of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and Iris Murdoch, whose work has all informed my own.

The more I try to reconcile what I believe to be my Native character, most of all in the aesthetic sense, with any preconception of “Nation,” the more isolated I find myself, which is to say out of keeping with the national dialogue perpetually seeking to define and frame whatever it can define as “First Nations.” To use terms in the Kwak’wala language, I do believe there is a way of being in the world so that you can be lakhsa – showing the necessary rigour and willingness to be initiated into the ways of the main spirit of the hamatsa ritual. Generally, it is more common to be wikhsa, one of those who have only leaned against his walls. This is but one of a number of specific cultural ideas that have informed what I consider my own artistic principles. One is put in the position of being a West Coast Native trying to import what are deemed foreign beliefs into a Western framework. I am not seeking a parcel of land, rights to minerals, or pomp and ceremony. I am seeking this rigour of attention and cultivation that leads to deeper intimacy, engagement, and ultimately understanding. These days, that is a precious commodity.

As with other communities in relation to artistic pursuits, the concept of a First Nations community appears to be even more anachronistic—the term not only erases the unsavoury history of the Indian Act but also attempts to unite what are in themselves many disparate Nations with their own belief systems and rituals. To delve into any one particular of a people would only be to go against the grain of branding history as a hieratic totemic tchotchke of a souvenir. I use ‘souvenir’ deliberately to indicate a congealed form of memory in a gift shop, since the original form of the living document was in atavistic memory and through the oral tradition of Native peoples. To reduce this to treaties and bureaucratic quorums may not be shocking to some, and yet for many, it involves such a paradigmatic shift in terms of culture and in terms of consciousness that what is gained can only result in loss, and what is lost is that vital aesthetic sublimation that Western culture has more or less dismissed or neglected in favour of commercial interest.

Barbara Olins Alpert has suggested that a culture as accepting of syncretism as that of the “American Indian” has demonstrated a unique ability to express their own belief systems as well as those of interlopers in what appears to be a workable unity, and that “this ability to layer metaphor upon metaphor probably increases a symbol’s power and mystery.” I find that theses notions of syncretism and layering speak to my own methodology of late. When faced with overweening conceptual reductionism, minimalism, and mechanization, modes that are sometimes interesting but not applicable to my own expressionistic yearnings, I resort to a “primitive” instinct for exaggeration and a decadent mode of expression. It is the blazon in the caves that resonates with the blazing bright colours of my ancestors as their great canoes came into view.

Most of my work at present involves a type of deconstructivism that manifests itself in the form of fragmentary text-based superstructures, with their own verbal and linguistic resonances—in some ways, these are grotesqueries in continual correspondence via their hyperdecadent patois, resulting in poetry and prose that do not so much approach the condition of music but rather draw intricate analogies to particular histories and examples of music and opera, as with the poetic lyric voice voix à voix classical tonality as it approaches the continual threat of silence and incoherence. I refer to my intensive reworking of texts as my “Stravinskian method,” and I have reached the point where it feels necessary to communicate such a layered polyphony in visual form, one that establishes correlations through artistic paraphrases that exist well before or at least about the global interstices of domineering Nationhood.

Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze is the best existing model for my latest poetry project, which due to its absurdist ideals (attempting to find cultural reconciliation and aesthetic identity through “primitive” art and classical music instead of politics and in the process reaching for a conceptually driven expressionism that engages Paleolithic cave renderings, Native petroglyphs, modern art, and Canadian vispo) may also suffer accusations of “unclear ideas through unclear forms” and the poem in question is something of an off-kilter thesis and a transitional bridge in which the history of the symphonic shift from instruments to human vocalization forms an analogy with the poetic shift from lyric undulations to the visual exposition that awaits.




The Beethoven Frieze

(quasi una Fantasia)


where the poet no longer chooses the aesthetic Form but it is imposed by the inner vision of the Idea itself in the view of trichromate primates those Old World monkeys with three opsins & the hard eyes of Typheus although I was offended at this & explained that I did not play for money or lascivious Hostile Forces clinging to the edges of Klinger’s naked polychromy in the middle of signing a compound ‘potty-mouth’ Washoe the chimp shared the preference of Louise Bourgeois meaning RED upon concave effect to accent heartwarming plosives in the hollows akin to kettledrum scherzo in the wake of shamanistic representational theory—picture dots in trance states or red elemental lines or thick dactylograms meaning RED blowing through mouth & breathing life onto cave walls where the poet inclines toward the plastic artist with such Gestalten when hung up on Anschauung—that ‘thing in itself’ with symphonic phosphemes in exclusive aboriginal eyes warning: a graphic depicition of spiritual matters although Beethoven might die before I had earned a reputation by galops & potpourris turning over the leaves of this score utterly deaf to the immense applause when waging art not war with such Schreckensfanfaren that echo in the cacophonic lines & goldleaf travesties of Klimt aching for a hint of expressionism in the striate cortex where visual space is charted for the swells then he tore himself from me with such force that he left one of his coat-skirts in my hand fumbling to find in Music an Idea of the world a word or a sword for a haptic Mahler on his apocryphal quest to the very


of tonality amid those ephemeral figures floating over the head of Poetry coddling her cithara like a Tondichter not a Tonsetzer for apes prefer these symmetrical apses to asymmetrical tritones & in the Hebrew adawah beneath the feet of supplicants tugging gifts to ochre mine custodians or to bronze paraphrase of the swells & hollows of the body according to Bernini these erotic paraphases like the heavy eyelids of Adele Bloch-Bauer in the paparazzi scuffle of Judith moved to the right by Alma when the superficial sensuousness of the Viennese seemed the fresh warmth of life the postilion blew his horn into the hidden walls of the wealthy turned inside-out as the sudden flash of RED is drawn out of light ratios just before the clusterfuck of hypothalamus hippocampus anterior cingulate amygdala & so on to the point that everything got awfully monochromatic & his gloomy repellent expression did not tend to allay my confusion & there was a decided feeling of awkwardness; no one spoke

—“Write; I cannot hear.”

—he could not hear!

back to the Black Frieze at Pech-Merle & its foveal mammoths & horses or any embossment that turns bison when the animal in us cocks its head to hear the music of the right hemisphere’s fusiform gyrus in recognitions over time that beckon stalagmos as Sappho says over drip holes for vulvas in Chauvet & petroglyphs for penises forming load-bearing enormity for cloud terraces elsewhere when not cinched about the waist of certain trickster figures before they were formerly institutionalized as Paleolithic aesthetics of accumulation piggyback tone bursts upon the world of waking as they come to see a poor musician as they would go tomorrow to look at some rare animal as they hear too much wretched stuff every day to be always in the mood to take an earnest interest in anything serious yes in the gentlest fluctuations of one ground-colour beneath the feet of bird-headed women hey genius what if that blazon were neither hoof-trap nor accounting system but instead an act of disassemblage where the implicit obliteration of the figurative through intensified non-figuration is paradoxically indicative of desired sanctity something like chucking out all of Rilke’s angels when not stalled in temporal-parietal-occipital junction due to cross-modal abstraction plaguing the wonky eye & long hypersensitive ears of that shamanic figure O let us slake our bright passions in the depths of sensuousness was not even muttered when Goethe & Beethoven avoided one another like bosses or when Wagner wrote galops to pay for his pilgrimage to see the latter in another apocryphal moment the torch passing of the human voice conducted by our Jewish knight to Viennese boos & hisses & the slow clap & growing booyah of a rubbish painter & future Führer in sore need of role models from the flying leap of a misunderstood horse to the Kwakwaka’wakw wolf with two tails that devours the world to the supernatural puppets dallying to the mosquito sparks that consume the chief cannibal spirit Baxbaxwalanuksiwe come winter to sacrificial stone that heralds spring on the West Coast according to Morse mythology if I should make an opera according to my own conception the people would absolutely flee from it with the liquefaction of boundaries touching a nerve in the academic body accusing Klimt of Verschwommene Gedanken durch verschwommene Formen & we certainly don’t want that blurring the expectations of our pretty young things not to mention the rats that rectify rectangles that mean food or Duchamp’s elaborate changes in order to bring out an idea implicit in the original coined as ‘rectified ready-made’ after the initial startle reflex over objets d’art akin to unrolling bog paper in the scherzo of the artistic milieu the rush of acetylcholine toning it down for swallows of song-line mnemonics about to enter distorted imagery adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo the second Kandinsky finds a forgotten work upside-down & the whole non-objective thing begins to the spasmodic booms of those irresistible tympana or even the encouragement of that dusty basso continuo yes let those wild primal emotions that stretch out into the infinite that are represented by instruments be contrasted with the clear definite emotions of the human heart represented by the human voice in the early stages of anamorphism where the poet falls prey to neurons forever networking into metaphors like the three-note call of quail or two-note call of cuckoo in that dwindling eclogue between our ears pressed against the phallic breasts of Bourgeois or deep within the Venus of Willendorf with the red weathered away & beside that gaunt figure of gnawing grief Xeuxis tries to lift the painted curtain of Parrhasius & Cimabue tries to flick away the painted bug of his pupil & naked in bronze marble onyx ivory & other gewgaws Beethoven tries to drown out the elusive influence of Haydn where poetry must stand aside for words are too weak for this task in the final movement emerging as usual from the nethers in low rumbling murmurs & rising through an interrogative fog of deconstructed motives & this is a nervous break-

down of form as we know it O friends no more of these

sounds let us rouse ones more pleasant

& joyful


Freu – de              schö-ner                Göt-ter-fun-ken                   Toch-ter aus          E-

ly-si-um                wir be-tre-ten       feu-er-trun-ken                    Himm-li-sche        dein

Hei-lig-tum          Dei-ne                   Au-ber                                  bin-den                  wie-der

was die_______Mo-de                   streng ge-teilt                      al – le                    Men-schen

wer-den                Brü – der              wo dein                               sanf-ter                Flü-gel weilt

where the poet foolheartedly with feet in mouth

longs for such long unfoldings of ecstasy

this lovely celestial spark

this crazed kiss

for the whole freaking world




Garry Thomas Morse is the author of four books of poetry, including Discovery Passages, the first book of poetry about his ancestral Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, and finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Award and the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Along with his first collection of stories Death in Vancouver, his experimental speculative fiction series The Chaos! Quincunx comprises Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus, Rogue Cells / Carbon Harbour, and Minor Expectations (Fall 2014), all available from Talonbooks. Morse’s work is studied at various Canadian universities, including SFU and UBC, and he defiantly resides in Regina, Saskatchewan.

(tag: Louise Bourgeois)

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Betsy Warland–Saving a Seat for the Reader

October 29th, 2013 margento No comments

Saving a Seat for the Reader (an essay for Margento)




I stopped writing poetry a dozen years ago. What follows is an essay on why I shouldn’t be writing this essay but am.

I “grew up” as a poet in the United States during the ’60s and ’70s when writing, publishing and reading poetry were at the visionary core of the feminist, anti-racists and anti-war activist communities I was involved in. When I immigrated to Canada in the early ’70s, Canadian literature was igniting. During this time, a number of remarkable women poets (Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Livesay, P.K.Page, Nicole Brossard and Phyllis Webb among others) attracted wide readership. Alongside the evolution of feminist writing and thinking that continued to inform me, the vibrant Toronto poetry scene became my new training ground. At that time, the education of emerging poets was mostly the domain of the male poets. This became problematic when feminist thinking and theory opened up new subject matter which male poets frequently considered unworthy. An adjacent community was needed.

In 1973, I initiated the Toronto Women’s Writing Collective. We offered peer-led writing workshops, organized conferences, published anthologies, and with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, hosted for three years an annual event that featured U.S. and Canadian feminist writers (such as Adrienne Rich and Nicole Brossard) in dialogue with one another. These dialogues attracted full houses of 500 people.

In the early ’80s, I moved to Vancouver with the burning idea of organizing a national conference that would bring together women involved with all aspects of the literary written word. This 1983 three-day conference and festival, Women and Words/Les femme et les mots was a watershed gathering of 1,000 women. In short, through all these years I was an intensely community-based poet.

These were anything-is-possible-years. Feminist literary and publishing communities and Canadian literary and publishing communities infused and creatively provoked each other. These were years of passion, vision and hard work. Poetry throbbed in our bodies and minds, its daily flow essential as blood.

By the early ’90s things began to shift.

I was one of the four editors of conference proceedings “Telling it  – Women and Languages Across Cultures” (1991). Although this was a remarkable gathering in many respects, conflicts arose around crucial issues of racism and homophobia during the conference and while editing the proceedings. At that time, racism, classism and homophobia were coming to the foreground in the feminist endeavors everywhere in North America. This second wave of “consciousness raising” was absolutely necessary but at that point – when our funding was being cut and we were still a nascent community – we stumbled in redefining ourselves collectively.

By the mid-90s, a twelve-year relationship with my lover and co-author of two books, Daphne Marlatt, ended. This had been a pivotal relationship. Daphne and I collaborated on a number of projects including a first in Canada: a cross-Canada reading tour from our companion books of erotic love poems – touch to my tongue (Daphne’s) and open is broken (mine). My first book had included lesbian love poems but the lover’s gender was implicit and not stated. In this, my second book, it was specific and I became known as a lesbian writer. For Daphne (published since 1968), touch to my tongue was her fourteenth book: she was already a respected and well-known woman writer.

In hindsight, I realized that I emerged as feminist lesbian author and this was an aberration. Other feminist lesbian writers lives hadn’t unfold this way. In their early publishing years they had had close friendships with, a number had had romantic relationships with, and nearly all had had been students of literary men.  I had not.  Consequently, my inclusion in the poetry community was significantly limited.

On a national scale, government funding began to be cut back: funding that was crucial to enabling women’s conferences, newspapers, magazines and publishing houses. In the ’90s, poetry took a nosedive in Canada. Although many of our poets had been nationally respected and read as much as fiction and nonfiction during the rise of Canadian literature, “just being a poet” suddenly wasn’t enough. I did some research and discovered that, while the number of poetry and fiction books published annually in the ’70s and ’80s was similar, in the ’90s fiction shot ahead. Poets began writing novels. These novels enrich our literature in general but significantly lessening our poetic voice in public discourse. In capitalism’s insatiable commodification of everything I suspect that poetry just couldn’t be monetized profitably. Also, “Canada” was a relatively young country formed by colonization, and the highly regarded role poets hold in older cultures had not been established. Among the aboriginal peoples, however, poetry through song was and increasingly plays a central role. During the ’80s and ’90s, aboriginal writers began to be published, read and acclaimed, and their writing challenged and inspired me.

Except for a handful of  “recovering romantic poems” written between 2005-2006, I stopped writing poetry after 1998 when my collection of nine suites of poems, What Holds Us Here, was published. Simply said: the reception of my work and latitude for acceptance within the poetry community continued to be too sparse.

Through the ’90s feminist writing, and feminist experimental writers (of whom I was) continued to open up new territories of thought, form and content not previously seen on the page. But our internal conflicts, along with increasing government cutbacks, continued. A bi-annual Feminist International Bookfair, which I was invited to in Oslo and Montreal, folded. In Canada, universities became the only secure outposts for feminist writers. Some of us were hired, or became part of the canon for ongoing study in courses, thesis and dissertation work; some us were not.

A poet without a community is a contradiction in terms for me. One can be a poet who critiques, even rejects, a community — but this still is a poet in deep relationship to that community.

The hybridization of grass-roots politics and the personal yet public voice was subsumed by the academy’s concerns. Excepting most women writers of colour, experimental feminist writers and poets were becoming increasingly theory-informed, driven. I too was excited by a number of theorists and thinkers, but theory-determined poetry was not a fit for me.

I became a poet without a community.

A poet is more deeply intertwined with community than the fiction writer or nonfiction writer. In our most important life and death rituals poetry is what we turn to, communally recite or sing. The necessity for quick cohesion and absorption goes hand- in- hand with these gatherings: one page of poetry can profoundly move and bond people while it takes an entire novel to call up a similar response.

“A poem enters your heart like an idea enters your mind.”

Breathing the Page


The very structure of the poem acknowledges the interactive presence of the other (reader or listener); the poem’s un-inscribed space literally saves a seat for reader/the listener, literally provides space for their own thoughts and emotions.

As a poet without community I had to reinvent myself. It began with two tandem events: when I began writing my memoir Bloodroot – Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000) in lyric nonfiction prose; when I was asked to design, then direct, a creative writing program in which I could define “learning in and building community” as the program’s organizing principle. This program is The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. An unusually diverse and community-minded program, recent first books by graduates Sarah Leavitt, Gurjinder Basran, Ayelet Tsabari and Janie Chang have attracted international attention.

The combination of lyric prose and poetic sensibilities rooted in the book-length narrative of Bloodroot was liberating. Intriguing. It allowed me to move freely and associatively between my idea-questing side and my intuitive, emotive, lyric, imagistic side. I literally felt my mind arcing back and forth between left and right hemispheres while writing it. In this form, I learned, as I had in poetry, to give as much presence and resonance to the scored space (un-inscribed space on the page) as the inscribed space. Learned how to always save a seat for the reader. Readers of Bloodroot often tell me that, of all my books, upon opening this book they were stopped in their tracks and read it straight through (even while sitting in their car).

“We scrutinize one another through the eye of language. We’re more interested in what’s been left out than what’s been put in for as language is inevitably incomplete, so is story.”



Between 1998 and 2010, I wrote Breathing the Page – Reading the Act of Writing (2010) and further investigated this associative yet conceptual style.

Then I began writing Oscar of Between while in London in 2007. Upon seeing an exhibit on the invention of camouflage during the First World War, the narrator identifies herself as a person of between, takes the alternate name Oscar and begins to reflect on how camouflage has morphed into an array of strategies of deceptions, spins and cover-ups: how strategies that once unified people in the “theatre” of war are now creating endemic fear, isolation, and increasing random violence in our contemporary “theatre” of public life.

With Oscar, my narrative position was no longer one of writing from the margin but one of writing as “a person of between,” — between genre, gender, social identities and methodologies of perception. An aside: for nearly 20 years poetry juries didn’t think my writing was poetry; nonfiction juries didn’t think it was nonfiction. It wasn’t until a new jury for exploratory writing was created that I finally was awarded a grant.

Since then I have increasingly found resonance with writers and readers of between. These writers and readers are diverse in every respect. We don’t constitute a community, yet there is a growing recognition, respect. Sometimes this extends to reading one another work, supporting one another professionally, but more often it’s a subtle connection that quietly sustains me.

Where is my poet self now? When I give a reading, audience members frequently refer to my writing as poetry. When addressed as a writer in public or print, I am most often referred to as “the poet.” This continues to surprise me, yet not entirely. I still think like a poet but not within our contemporary use of a form that, for me, can incline too easily toward precious artifact or a theory-poetic discourse among a few.

I’ve been publishing excerpt from Oscar of Between along with an excerpt from a guest writer or artist each month. Readers post their responses, riffs and critical reflections with a link to their own writing. As readers claim their seats, they provoke and elate me. It seems to me now, as I write this essay, that with my loss of community, I have become more interested in communing with the betweenesses that constitute our lives.

In Oscar’s daily life, when encountering someone, it goes like this: some address her as a male; some address her as a female; some begin with one and then switch (sometimes apologetically) to the other; some identify Oscar as lesbian and their face hardens, or, opens into a momentary glance of arousal; some know they don’t know and openly scrutinize; some decide female but stare perplexedly at her now-sans-breast-chest; some are bemused by, drawn or relate to her androgyny; for some none of this matters. On days turbulent with unpredictable reactions, Oscar longs for the simplicity of camouflage. Yet has no instinct for it. It would only put her at odds with who Oscar is, as Oscar notes in Part 12:

Then she brightens. Oscar – person of between – notices another response from others of between.



Oscar of Between





Betsy Warland has published 11 books of poetry, creative nonfiction, and mixed-genre. Her Canadian bestselling book, Breathing the Page ­– Reading the Act of Writing (Cormorant Books, 2010), is comprised of 24 essays that investigate the materials with which writers work as well as essays that investigate her observations about the forces writers encounter, during the act of writing, that reside beneath the language of craft. Recently, Betsy has created Oscar’s Salon on her website http://www.betsywarland.com/. In this lively 3-way online exchange, she publishes excerpts from her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between, alongside excerpts from Guest Writers’ and Artists’ work, and readers’ comments, riffs, creative writing and critical thought.

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