The Long Poem Migration

Photograph by Tea Gerbeza

The long poem can be challenging to define as a genre. In “Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender,” Lynn Keller makes a “partial list” of the form’s varieties, including: “narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, [and] heroic epics” (3). Despite its broad categorization, however, the long poem has, from its inception, been a vehicle for mapping the journeys of specific peoples and histories. From The Odyssey’s ten-year-long homecoming to The Divine Comedy’s pilgrimage, long poems provide the space and time to depict transformative trajectories. A long poem’s journey need not be geographical or even physical—Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s book of six long poems, Heavenly Questions, follows the path the bereaved embark upon when at the bedside of their dying loved one. Additionally, the voyage need not be linear or arrive at a conclusive “home.” Grappling with his worsening mental illness, the speaker of Stuart MacKinnon’s The Intervals admits that he is “an uncontrolled wanderer in [his own] body” (49). For MacKinnon, the long poem was the form best suited to wending along the path of a roving mind. But the long poem does not only depict migration; it is itself a migration.

            By enacting the idea of migration on the page, the long poem becomes a corridor that moves both readers and writers “from room to succeeding room” of ideas (McLennan). In an interview for The Paris Review, Anne Carson describes the poem as “an action of the mind captured on a page,” suggesting that the reader enters into that action through the process of reading and that “by the time [they] get to the end, [they’re] different than [they] were at the beginning” (Aitken 203). The long poem links these actions of the mind, increasing the depth and breadth of the possible journey through excess and digression, documentary and accumulation. My own work in the form became a process of gathering in and spreading out, even as I returned again and again—more deeply, with greater concentration, or from new angles—to a central idea. Tim Lilburn names this central idea a poet’s “preoccupation or lasting, persistent loyalty or yearning” and suggests that the long poem “can look like transformative power, a large story—visionary recital—of many parts that pulls readers in and stretches them” (“The Long Long Poem”). The long poem traces the poet’s pursual of a lifelong preoccupation over the course of an extended and ongoing transformation, and it carries readers along the same path.

            The two major anthologies of Canadian long poems, The Long Poem Anthology and The New Long Poem Anthology, include statements from their authors, and many discuss the long poem in relation to movement, or as a demonstration of passage and process. According to Michael Ondaatje, long poems “show a process of knowledge, of discovery during the actual writing of the poem” (13). Robert Kroetsch suggests that this process depicts the passage of “the self returning from the self” (312). Both writers imply here that the experience of engaging with the long poem, as reader or writer, is frenetic and ongoing—“not the having written, but the writing” (311). To Don McKay, “the long poem is an imaginative space… a time for meditation, travel, metamorphosis, loitering” (321), while Daphne Marlatt describes the form as “a movement around, based in return” (317). The emphasis these poets place on the long poem’s peripatetic nature solidifies the ways in which the long poem can invite readers into a metamorphic process or migratory journey. 

            While the long poem’s journey does not always resolve with an ultimate destination, migration does raise the question of home. The homeplace is certainly a focus for seminal Canadian long poems such as StevestonSeed Catalogue, and Long Sault, in which Daphne Marlatt, Robert Kroetsch, and Don McKay parody the idea of the traditional, heroic epic (Brandt 250), while simultaneously asserting that B.C. fishing villages, rural Albertan farms, and small towns along the St. Lawrence Seaway are each worthy of a long and epic attention. These and other Canadian long poems function as myth-making texts, impacting readers’ understanding of Canada as a homeplace and “form[ing] our consciousness of the past” (McMahon 74). As such, these texts can hold significant cultural weight and can persuasively support aspects of pervading societal thought. 

            At the same time, in offering multiple, fragmented, and contradictory historical accounts from an array of voices, the long poem form can also work to undermine and resist systems of power. Susan Stanford Friedman draws attention to the exclusionary politics at work in the genre, writing that “big-long-important poems have assumed the authority of the dominant cultural discourses” (10). By taking this “big-long-important” form into their own hands, marginalized writers have radically challenged and re-centred Canadian discourse on history and place. Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow, for example, rewrites the “Lord’s Prayer,” translating the religious words of the colonizer into Cree and invoking the voices of her grandmothers. In Debbie: An Epic, Lisa Robertson upends expectations of the heroic subject, “dispers[ing] the tropes of the traditional epic so that the ancient male politics of Virgil’s Aeneid undergo a female subversion” (MacEachern). In a similar vein, Sue Goyette retells The Odyssey from Penelope’s grieving and rage-filled perspective in Penelope in First Person. With its wide scope and “long look” (Ondaatje 12), a long poem can both document particular places as well as challenge dominant understandings of those places.

            The act of reading or writing a long poem is an act of migration, and through the process of departure and return, the long poem transforms, unearthing and discarding and cultivating ideas of home. Barry McKinnon writes that the poem “helps us build up ‘new little habitats’ in the detritus and helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy” (368). The roaming spirit that runs through a long poem constructs, along the way, hopeful little habitats, which are found and lost, left and returned to over the course of the poem’s migratory route. The long poem extends, embarks, but always returns to the question of home. 

Works Cited:

Aitken, Will. “Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88.” The Paris Review, no. 171, 2004, pp. 191-226.

Brandt, Di. “The Multi-genre Multimedia Disjunctive Poetic Narrative Dream Text: ‘New Epic’ Attentions in Contemporary Canadian Experimental Writing.” Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature, edited by Maria Löschnigg and Melanie Braunecker. Brill: Leiden, 2019.  

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “When a ‘long’ poem is a ‘big’ poem: Self-authorizing strategies in women’s twentieth-century ‘long poems’.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, pp. 9-25. 

Goyette, Sue. Penelope in First Person. Gaspereau Press Limited, 2017.

Halfe, Louise. Blue Marrow. McClelland & Stewart, 1998.

Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 

Kroetsch, Robert. Seed Catalogue. Turnstone Press, 1979.

—. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, Michael Ondaatje, ed. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Lilburn, Tim. “The Long Long Poem.” Writing North 10: Turn West, 25 January 2020, St. 

Andrew’s College, Saskatoon, SK. Session Presentation. 

MacEachern, Jessi. “On Lisa Robertson’s ‘She Has Smoothed Her Pants to No End.’” Lemonhound, 2011, http://www.lemonhoundcom.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/jessi-maceachern-on-lisa-robertsons-she-has-smoothed-her-pants-to-no-end/.

MacKinnon, Stuart. “The Intervals.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Marlatt, Daphne. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

—. “Steveston.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

McKay, Don. “Long Sault.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

—. “Statement.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

McKinnon, Barry. “Statement.” The New Long Poem Anthology, edited by Sharon Thesen. Talonbooks, 1999.

McLennan, Rob. “The Penultimate Long Poem Anthology.” Rob McLennan’s Blog, http://www.robmclennan.blogspot.com/2011/10/penultimate-long-poem-  anthology-edited.html.

McMahon, Fiona. “Robert Kroetsch and Archival Culture in the Canadian Long Poem.” Études canadiennes / Canadian Studies, vol 74, 2013, pp. 73-85.

Ondaatje, Michael. “Introduction.” The Long Poem Anthology, edited by Michael Ondaatje. The Coach House Press, 1979.

Robertson, Lisa. Debbie: An Epic. New Star Books, 1997.

Schnackenberg, Gjertrud. Heavenly Questions. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

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Essay by Sarah Ens, writer and editor based in Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg, MB). Her poetry has appeared in Prairie FireArc Poetry MagazineContemporary Verse 2Poetry Is DeadRoom Magazine, and SAD Mag. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest and placed 2nd in Contemporary Verse 2‘s 2-Day Poem Contest. She also won 1st place in Room Magazine‘s 2018 Short Forms Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, launched Spring 2020 with Turnstone Press.

An Ancient and Modern Silence: A Review of Sue Goyette’s Penelope in First Person

In her seventh book of poetry, Sue Goyette rewrites The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, moving the ever-patient, ever-faithful Penelope from the sidelines of the story into the spotlight. Much of Western canon depends on the stifling of women’s voices and Penelope in First Person addresses this by exploring Penelope’s experience within the epic—her disorientation, grief, rage, rebellion, hope, and love. Although a chorus of characters speak, including the insatiable suitors, the hot-headed prince Telemachus, an unnamed goddess, objects like Penelope’s bedroom door and ceiling, and even Odysseus himself, Penelope is the centre of this story—a story familiar to many women: that of waiting, of isolation, of duty. “Funny how anger can be so ancient and so modern, the goddess muses,” and through Goyette’s precise and passionate telling, Penelope’s journey into reclamation is rendered fully relevant to our contemporary world (23).

A long poem relayed in a series of couplets, each page of Penelope represents yet another day, the words both weaving and unravelling the queen’s intimate thoughts. Within Penelope’s waiting period, Goyette builds urgency though refrain and motif. Almost every page returns to the same phrases (“I wake,” “I dress dutifully,” “I’m asked/I reply,” and “If I know anything”), drawing attention to the restrictive routine of Penelope’s waking hours. Rather than stagnating the narrative, the repetition amplifies Penelope’s voice, her pleading and her protest. Aware of her own echo, Penelope starts to mock herself, saying, “I wake to the same day. I’m asked, I reply./ I dress dutifully. If I know anything about loss/ it’s about loss” (26). Later, impatience and pain warp her litany: “I awake, I woke am asked/ reply and say:/ (dutifullydutifullydutifullydutifullydutifully)/ if anything/ my loss is mortal and has been acting like a goddess” (64).

Goyette also uses the poem’s reoccurring phrases, together with striking imagery, to demonstrate Penelope’s transformation throughout the story. When awake, Penelope must cope with the angst of her fatherless son, her powerlessness to rule the kingdom in which she has been abandoned, and her longing for and anger towards her adventuring husband, never mind the increasingly alarming harassment from the suitors: “There’d be no stopping that ass,/ I’m told. Smile, I’m told. Show me your tits” (55). Only in her dreams is Penelope free, and after nights of self-discovery and self-expression, her “waking” becomes more and more surreal. She first wakes to “visitors at the door” but soon wakes “to goddess” (9, 23). She wakes as a horse, a rabbit, a bird, a flower, a hound, and other people and objects start to wake too. “The door wakes to the suitors talking to it,” “Telemachus wakes in thunder,” “the bed wakes to Penelope,” and “the feast wakes in a house” (41, 46, 53, 68). As Penelope learns to define herself in new and powerful ways—“Middle finger up, the goddess coaches”—her dreams start to blend with her waking reality (24).

At the same time, Penelope’s voice is one firmly rooted in veracity. She is a woman with “stretch marks and slur, pucker and pouch” (33). She drinks too much, feels shame, weeps and rages. “I banter. I cajole. I screech/ the crooked logic women know when our hearts are aghast and silenced,” she says, and on some of the most satisfying pages, Penelope truly tells it like it is: “Are you the lady/ who’s been waiting for a husband for a pathetically long time?/ I’m asked. Are you fucking kidding me? I reply” (11, 28). There is nothing passive in Penelope’s waiting, in her role in this story. Drawn by Goyette, when Penelope “dutifully, womanly, stomp[s], loss migrates to animal, braying” (29).

Penelope in First Person is a poem about the reclamation of voice, story, and self. “I dress my wound dutifully,” says Penelope at the beginning of her waiting, but in order to heal she must first “bleed the thick grief keeping [her] quiet” (18, 42). By the end of the poem, her loss is transformed from a wound into “another slit so [she] may blossom” (67). By giving Penelope control of her narrative, Goyette allows for the healing of old wounds created by centuries of silence.

Review by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press

Interview with Laurie D. Graham

Sarah Ens interviews Laurie D. Graham

Laurie D. Graham, MFA in Writing mentor, award-winning writer, and editor

Laurie D. Graham is a writer, an editor, and the publisher of Brick magazine. Her debut book, Rove (Hagios Press, 2013), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and her second book, Settler Education (McClelland & Stewart, 2016), was nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry. A third book, a long poem tentatively titled The Larger Forgetting, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2022. Winner of the Thomas Morton Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, Laurie currently lives and writes in Treaty 20 territory (Peterborough, Ontario).

Sarah Ens: What draws you to the long poem form? How do you find the process of writing a long poem different from writing a collection of poetry?

Laurie D. Graham: I tend to start out thinking I’m writing these manageable little poem-things that are about their own discrete subjects and have little to do with one another. But then those poem-things multiply, and I begin to see that the terrible titles I’ve put at the tops of all the pages are nothing but a ruse, and what I’m really doing is writing toward a larger concern. To see the pages acting together, to see them having an aim or a project that they’re moving toward by showing something in concert and at length, gives the work a different sort of momentum, one that I don’t know exactly how to describe, except to say that it breathes more slowly. I think this is part of what draws me to the form. The silence of the page break, followed by a continuation of thought not interrupted by a new title, is something that just works with the way I work. It might be that this has something to do with where I’m from—I am ever aware of writing in response to Robert Kroetsch when I write a long poem, for example—but I also just have an interest in what can be made with this kind of sustained attention. You can talk about the whole damn world in a long poem.

At other points though, and especially lately, I have words or lines appearing in small scraps, and they don’t seem to exist as part of any clean whole whatsoever: their order is interchangeable, they don’t hint at having anything more to show beyond what’s contained in them, and they seem rather like signposts on a long walk. So, I’ve just been loosely collecting those scraps, letting them be, and giving them lots of space to do their thing together.

SE: Your book Settler Education, nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry, challenges Canada’s master narrative by re-examining the stories that continue to impact contemporary settler-Indigenous relationships. Why do you reach to poetry to confront powerful systems of thought? What about poetry allows for reckoning?

LDG: I wondered at first if I ought to write prose, write essays, in order to write about what I was learning (much too late and largely on my own) about the Frog Lake “Massacre” and the Northwest Resistance, these events that are evoked any time anyone utters the words “coast to coast to coast.” But I could see how simply adding to the written record, which is already quite extensive, would render many of my aims impossible. I wanted to show what is profoundly not present in non-Indigenous understandings of what happened at Frog Lake and Batoche and elsewhere. I also wanted to connect seemingly disparate things that didn’t seem to me so disparate: to connect what happened in 1885 to the present moment, to reveal remnants of “prairie history” in southern Ontario, where the monuments to the soldiers who went West to “put down the Rebellion” still stand. Poetry felt like the medium that could best handle this long look at erasure and absence, to make these broad but crucial connections. I would argue though that the poems in that book are uncomfortable as poems. I was very careful about how they were situated, how they spoke, the tenor and cadence and rhythm of them.

SE: Can you speak further to the idea of the poems in Settler Education being “uncomfortable as poems”? What were the rhythms and cadences you were listening for, and how did they connect to the meanings you were trying to evoke?

LDG: I was cautious of their getting too concerned with their own language, their own sound. They needed to always be looking out at where they were writing, and to be aware of the written record that preceded, and aware of the monuments, which meant at times showing what I was reading and seeing—meaning the poems would sometimes fall into prose or telling or quoting or mapping. I find certain passages from the book tricky to read out loud because they don’t “sound” like what I understand poems ought to sound like. But it was important to make sure poetic cadence was doing justice, was cutting right to it, which meant at times eschewing what is understood as a successful poem.

SE: In his session at Writing North this past January, Tim Lilburn asked us to think about our preoccupations, our lasting puzzlements, suggesting that as writers, we must be faithful to these ideas. What are the preoccupations of your writing life? What are the ongoing pursuits of your poetry?

LDG: I love this question. It’s Tim who started me onto understanding and articulating my own preoccupations. And he read my rickety first attempts!

The concern that stretches over all my work is, to put it bluntly, how to not be a blight upon this continent, upon this place I think of as my home. I’m trying to better understand the obliterating nature of the colonial project, and how or whether innateness might be possible for the non-Indigenous North American.

SE: Describe your revision process. What guides you as you make editorial decisions, both for your own work and the work of others?

LDG: Revision is so hard to describe. When I write, I sometimes hear the rhythm of a line before the words arrive, or it’s the sound of a group of arrived words that moves me to write them down, so when I’m revising, I’m trying to be more widely attentive to what’s on the page: the sense of the words, their patterns and imagery, the way the poems are thinking, what they’re drawing on. Revision is a long, slow attempt to get the poem closer to the thing it’s after, and most frequently for me that involves stripping away anything that’s not serving that aim or is instead trying to report that aim to the reader.

When I’m editing the work of others, I am trying to be a very close reader and a very close listener, to try to help bring out what the piece seems to want to say or be. I am also trying to be an astute and helpful outside eye, asking as many questions as I can about a piece and the things it’s doing. The stakes are different, but no less important: they involve staying out of the way of the work, not imposing notions of “what’s good” that don’t come from the text itself, and always working from a place of respect for the writer’s intentions.

SE: As editor and publisher of Brick magazine, what do you look for in submissions? And, more broadly, what excites you about working in Canadian publishing?

When I’m reading for Brick—and Brick publishes mainly non-fiction—I’m looking for lively and well-construed writing, a compelling idea or subject, and/or an approach grounded in love and care. I have been doing stuff for literary journals pretty steadily since 2005, and by some miracle I now get a bit of money to do this work. It can sometimes be very hectic, and the plate often becomes way overfull because lit mags do such a great deal without adequate resources. But I have learned that I am happiest when the wage-earning I do doesn’t feel like work, and helping to make Brick, kind of like writing, doesn’t feel much like work to me. It feels more like vocation.  

Interview by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press this spring.