Reading Love Poems to My Dog: A Review of Micheline Maylor's Little Wildheart

A poetry collection isn’t necessarily meant to be read cover-to-cover in a single sitting, but curled in bed with my dog is exactly how I ended up reading Little Wildheart. In 2016, I heard Maylor read “How to be in a garden” at her Calgary poet laureate inauguration, and the sensual blend of animal and human, sincerity and sarcasm became lodged in my brain. Three years later, in a hunt for that single poem, I bought Little Wildheart. It felt natural to have my own animal companion beside me, as the poems delve into a human/animal dreamscape that is both memoir and imaged space.

Little Wildheart opens with the ominously titled “We are entirely flammable,” which starts: “Come, walk an open road. Stand./ Meld a hawk’s shadow/ with your own” (1). With this short poem, Maylor extends an invitation to her readers to quite literally come with her through this collection. The second and third poems introduce the reader to Maylor, who blends herself together with each poem’s speaker; Maylor writes of her own DNA and mixed heritage: “Double-stranded ascension to past and sky./ This is to say, my life is a hallway between those strands ” (“Convergence” 3).

Maylor’s careful awareness of the land on which she writes and her own place in it is touched upon several times in the collection, most notably in “Detroit Zoo bathroom, 1977” where she gives details of her “grandmother./ Bronzed Queen of Huron” and herself “bleached to blend in prairie snow” (16). Maylor continues to blur her identity beyond the human and into the natural world. In “Free” she writes, “The dogs in my brain run amok,” and more animals roam the poet’s body in “For there are still such mysteries, and such advice”: “The rabbits in my blood have turned to circus freaks […] Their fur, my DNA” (66, 28). With her images, Maylor draws the reader into her very body, forming herself into not only a space where nature plays, but into an unapologetically sexual space.

Having been introduced to this collection with “How to be in a garden,” which reads “You can’t be here fast enough, inside me. It’s been a long time/ since I’ve felt that dam burst,” I ought to have expected more of the erotic from Maylor, but each time her poems turned to the sexual, I was surprised by their outspokenness (38). Maylor rarely hides behind allusion or insinuation. In “Reasons for learning cursive” she writes, “Hand on quim, roll and ripple up, I/ scribble where your fingers trace again,” and in “Mercurial,” “under the pressure of your body on mine,/ that indelible surrender/ your crowning penis” (45, 54). Though perhaps too frank for some, I do not believe that Maylor writes gratuitously. Poems like “Mercurial” do the empowering work of reclaiming sexuality and pleasure within a female body as well as turning a sexed gaze upon the male body—a gaze so often turned upon women in order to silence and objectify. Meanwhile, works like “Polarity,” “Before the dark,” and “Talisman pool” depict motherhood (13, 14, 64). By including both topics, so often seen as separate—the sexless mother and the childless lover—Maylor reminds her readers of the connection between sex and childbirth and how the mother’s identity is one of plurality.

While “For there are such mysteries and such advice,” “How to be in a garden,” and “I always wanted a tattoo” are glosa poems, Maylor writes predominately in free verse, finding slippage between poetry and prose (28-29, 38-39, 46-47). In this slippage, Maylor constructs images through surprise and juxtaposition, often employing her own brand of snarky humour. “Fleece” exemplifies all of these elements: “All night, Salman Rushdie chastised me in my dreams […] His nametag says Dr. Authenticity […] I would agree even the shore seems god-lit. This morning/ seems like a reason as good as any to make off like a loon” (40). With the careful enjambment between “This morning” and “seems like a reason,” Maylor builds a deceptively simple double reading between her line breaks and her sentences, leading the reader to a larger world than the comic dreamscape they began in.

Little Wildheart is a collection that covers the pluralities of Maylor’s life as a poet, feminist, mother, teacher, and lover. As I curled in bed reading this collection aloud to my dog, I found myself unwilling to leave Maylor’s world in which human and animal blend seamlessly together with tender wildness.

Review by Kathryn Shalley, a writer, editor, and obsessive dog mom from Calgary, Alberta.

Examining Allusion and Apparition in Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

Terrance Hayes’s poetry collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is a compendium of America’s ghosts. Published in 2018, the collection contends with America’s past, present, and future selves from the vantages of racism (on micro and macro levels), systemic oppression, and toxic masculinity in the age of the Trump presidency. 

Book cover of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by American poet Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, 2018.

Hayes takes inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s work on defining the American Sonnet (Hayes 91); throughout the collection, Hayes’s seventy poems then critically resist and embrace the traditional form, seeking to forge his own American definition. The sonnet, pioneered by the likes of Petrarch and Shakespeare, typically contains fourteen lines; a set, regular rhyme scheme; the volta (or turn); and a thematic emphasis on love or romanticization. Here, Hayes mostly conforms, writing each sonnet with fourteen lines and many with identifiable turns. In the collection’s entirety, however, he abandons rhyme, opting instead for free verse. Each poem bears the same name—“American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin—and through this recurring title and form, Hayes’s poems immediately challenge their reader: “How do you even begin to write love poems to your once and future killer?” 

Additionally, once you are killed, what do you become? Ghosts are a recurrent motif in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Hayes channels ghosts in both literal and figurative, direct and indirect, meta and intertextual levels; often, Hayes’s ghosts work on all planes simultaneously. In one sonnet, for example, he writes of ghosts directly: “After blackness was invented/ People began seeing ghosts. When my father/ Told me I was one of God’s chosen ones,/ He was only half bullshiting. Probably each twilight/ Is as different as a father is from his son” (39). Here, Hayes reflects on the hysteria of racism and othering, as white Americans turn black Americans into bogeymen, or “ghosts.” Hayes then draws a parallel to his father, both men of twilight, both half bullshitting, both not God’s chosen, but both certainly bogeyman to fear, bogeymen that haunt. 

Moreover, this example of Hayes’s ghosts works indirectly as an allusion, as well. In American media, ghosts are a common image in referring to the Ku Klux Klan, given their white hoods and robes. The subject, “people,” can alternatively be understood as black victims experiencing “ghosts,” or racial hatred and extremism, for the first time, as race became a permanent social construct in American society with the invention of blackness (39). Here, the “ghost” is figurative and invoked indirectly. 

Truly, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a trove of allusion, a device that is the collection’s driving force. Hayes’s reliance on allusion builds the collection’s compendium of specters—where politicians, poets, protests, and history are evoked (some named and others not) as apparitions, left to repeatedly echo within the confines of Hayes’s sonnets and across their pages. 

At times, when celebrating protest and/or blackness, Hayes embraces the sonnet’s traditional romantic intentions. In one poem, Hayes shapes the sonnet into an ode as he proclaims his love for U.S. Representative Maxine Waters. Hayes writes:

“Maxine Waters, being of fire, being of sword/ Shaped like a silver tongue. Cauldron, siren,/ Black as tarnation, black as the consciousness/ Of a black president’s wife, black as his black tie/ Tuxedo beside his black wife in room after room/ Of whiteness. My grandmother’s name had water/ In it too, Water maker” (23). 

Later, Hayes intertwines a second allusion, writing to Waters, “I love your mouth,/ Flood gate, storm door, you are black as the gap/ In Baldwin’s teeth, you are black as a Baldwin speech” (23). Like other black thinkers, writer James Baldwin is a figure returned to again and again throughout the collection. Baldwin is even given an ode of his own, where Hayes admires Baldwin’s wrinkles like “the feel and color of wet driftwood in the mud” (16). 

From Ginuwine to James Baldwin, from Langston Hughes to Odysseus, Hayes’s use of allusion also alters the very form he has chosen by resisting the romanticization of the sonnet and invoking more angry or even somber voices. In some poems, he namelessly references Donald Trump. In one instance, he writes, “Are you not the color of this country’s current threat/ Advisory? And of pompoms at a school whose mascot/ Is the clementine” (10); later, the sonnet turns: “You are the color of a sucker punch/ […] a contusion before it swells & darkens” (10). 

In other poems, Hayes transforms the sonnet into elegy. “Suppose we cannot/ Forget about what happened in Money. Suppose/ You’re someone who celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s/ Birthday. Suppose he was someone whose love/ For a black woman was blinded by blackness,/ Hers & his, yours & mine. I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave/ I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid” (63). In this example, Thomas Jefferson sits at the forefront of the sonnet; however, the poem has tragedy deeply embedded within its lines. First, tragedy is buried within the allusion of Money, the town in Mississippi where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, one of America’s worst hate crimes. Second, the poem alludes to Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson and later discovered to be the mother of six of his children. Till and Hemings emerge here as unnamed apparitions, echoing at the edges of the piece, their memories distant and their experiences haunting—echoes which Hayes reiterates throughout the collection. 

Taken together, Hayes’s allusions beg the question: who is his assassin? Between his father, Waters, Trump, and so many others, Hayes’s assassin is a shapeshifter. Sometimes, when Hayes writes conversationally, “I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin,” the antagonist becomes the reader herself (63). Ultimately, Hayes’s assassin is not one person or one thing but again the collection’s compendium of ghosts. Hayes’s assassin is America: her history; her hate; her culture; her love; her past, present, and future zeitgeist (a word which translates literally from German as “time ghost,” by the way). The collection’s assassin is framed by the work’s recurrent title, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” where the present is disregarded and the past and future are regarded as one in the same. In the sonnets’ titles, time is rendered simultaneous, even absurd. Be it Trump or Till’s murderers, America’s toxicity and racial inequity constant; they, too, are merely shapeshifters. Or maybe time travelers.

In fact, Hayes bolsters this greater theme with yet another allusion: the television show Doctor Who. In one of the collection’s final poems, Hayes declares, “In a parallel world where all Dr. Who’s/ Are black, I’m the doctor who knows no god/ Is more powerful than Time. […]/ A brother has to know how to time travel & doctor/ Himself when a knee or shoe stalls against his neck” (77). In America, black men must always be prepared to return to a Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights era, where violence is imminent, because, despite illusions of progress, violence still is. 

With his clever artistry of allusion, Hayes manages to craft an ultimate, meta allusion, which is used as the very scaffolding and premise for his entire collection. In his evocation of Baldwin and his usage of the love-addled sonnet, Hayes enacts Baldwin’s own poem, “A Lover’s Question.” Himself alluding to “America” by Samuel Francis Smith, Baldwin cries to America, his unrequited, even abusive lover: “I have endured your fire/ and your whip,/ your rope,/ and the panic from your hip,/ […]/ yet, my love:/ you do not know/ how desperately I hope/ that you would grow/ not so much to love me/ as to know/ that what you do to me/ you do to you” (Baldwin 60-1). Just as Baldwin questions America’s torrid affair with its black citizens, Hayes writes America love poems—some unrequited, some hurt, some scornful, some mournful, some even celebratory. Hayes begs Baldwin’s question: how can you, a black man, love a country that derides you? How can you forgive a country that can’t (or won’t) reckon with its ghosts? How can you serenade your home that is also sometimes your Hell? Nearing the end of the collection, Hayes concludes, “This country is mine as much as an orphan’s house is his” (71).

Works Cited:
Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014. eBook.
Hayes, Terrance. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Penguin Poets, 2018. Print.

Essay by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Her work has appeared in Mystery Tribune and the Nexus Lit Journal. You can find Hope on Twitter.

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. 

Transmissions: A Review of Leontia Flynn’s The Radio

Trust a poet to come along and to do a better job than most at articulating my thoughts and anxieties. Leontia Flynn is a poet that I’ve been following for years, exploring with her the pressures of inner life through her intimate portraits of Northern Ireland. Flynn’s poetic skill lies in her astute power of observation, wit, humour, allusion, and superb mastery of form. Her fourth book of poetry, The Radio, continues where she left off in her third collection, Profit and Loss, where marriage, motherhood, and her father’s Alzheimer’s took centre stage before the backdrop of the banking crisis.  In her fourth book family life remains central to the collection, only this time it’s set against the “Age of Interruption” (“Third Dialogue” 65), a life of relentless technologies, transmissions and “mobile phones beside our plates: our shiny black talisman” (“Malone Hoard” 48).

The Radio, originally published by Cape Poetry (2017), republished by Wake Forest University Press (2018)

The first section, “The Child, the Family . . .”, focuses on Flynn’s personal life—in particular motherhood. The sonnet, “Yellow Lullaby”, captures motherhood, with the fabulous image of the poet “barrelling out like some semi-deranged / trainee barista” towards her crying baby (4). She describes herself at her child’s cot with “the limb that moved, the light that shone, / the hand that soothed her and the flesh that fed” (4). In Flynn’s hands, the act of soothing a child becomes much more, speculating through its cries that the baby communes “with the unborn and the dead” (4). This chilling description could allude to the idea that if she does not see to her child, it will be lost to the spirit-world. Alternatively, it could refer to real-world dangers that she needs to keep away from her infant. These real-world dangers are pervasive within the technological world of “updates. High alerts / the BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ of following information” (“Third Dialogue” 64).

The long, title poem, “The Radio”, begins with a radio as it “hoots and mutters, hoots and mutters / out of dark, each morning of my childhood” (11). The aural imagery brings back childhood memories of listening to the crackling radio at breakfast and yet such a line suggests a threat. While Flynn uses the radio as a portal through which “the outside world / comes streaming, like a magic lantern show, / into our bewildered solitude” the radio acts as a device for violence (11). Rural Irish life is depicted through the “Charolais cow”, “the marvellous bungalow” and “birdsong in chimneys” (12) But it is overshadowed by the “the half-ignited powder keg of Belfast” that lurks just beyond the radio (12). However, the mother of the household, who is “small, freaked out, pragmatic, vigilant;”, stands guard “like a sentential, by the sink” trying to resist the “harrowing radio” and keep her children safe from the violence that exists outside their peaceful world (11, 12).

In the second section, “…And the Outside World”, while the Troubles may be over, there are other troubles. I remain suspicious with Flynn, aware of the intrusion of the “glazed God’s-eye / of the transmitter” in Flynn’s fabulous poem, “The Mast” (51). This eye of the transmitter takes me back to the radio in the title poem that keeps watch over the poet’s mother, now this eye keeps watch over Flynn and the “glittering urban scree”, the city, “parks and back bars”, and the inhabitants that “stroke like pets / familiar devices” (50, 51).

A stand out poem for me in the third section, “Poems Conceived as Dialogues Between Two Antagonistic Voices”, is the third dialogue between “Mother of Older Child, Imploded”, with “The Awesome Voice of the Internet” (63). Here Flynn’s pressure of raising a child against the backdrop of the internet mirrors the mother who “stands, like a sentinel, by the sink” protecting her children from “the outside world” that “comes streaming in” (“The Radio” 11).

The Radio is an exceptional collection of poetry. Leontia Flynn’s powerful observations on motherhood and family life contrasted with the Troubles and technology makes for an unforgettable read. Clearly Flynn is a poet with “an ethics: which instructs” in this “Age of Interruption” (“August 30th 2013” 24, “Third Dialogue” 65) In the end I wonder what hope I have in resisting the external pressures that exist as the Internet proclaims, “I’m the Bright, White Spirit of the Age” (“Third Dialogue” 65). Flynn’s “Mother Imploded” has an answer, one which seems almost a revolutionary one, and that is to take a breather from the external pressures by “sitting down” (“Third Dialogue” 65).

Review by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press.

Note: all citations refer to the original print version from Cape Poetry, 2017.

Examining Structure in Tiana Clark’s “Nashville” From I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood

In the poem “Nashville” the narrator is walking down Second Avenue in Nashville with their white husband when a racial slur is yelled at them from an unknown source (Clark xiii-xv). The poem hinges on this moment. The “four violent syllables stabbing my skin” sets Tiana Clark on an investigation into the legacy of Nashville that is gentrified by people who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre” (xv, xiii). The narrator also examines their own history—“my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name, / a slave from Warrior, North Carolina” (xiv). Clark uses sound, rhythm, and concrete imagery to great effect in “Nashville.” Further to this, the author’s structural choices strengthen and unify themes of place, public and private histories, memories, race, family, and mythology.

Tiana Clark’s most recent book of poetry, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, 2018

“Nashville” consists of fourteen quatrains with equal line length, except in the last stanza. The poem is sectioned into two parts with the racial epithet used as a bridge and a barrier to connect and contrast two histories. The first section refers to the city of Nashville and the second is a personal reflection. The structure of the poem’s stanzas can be looked at in a 6,1,6,1 formation.

The first six stanzas investigate the legacy of Nashville by comparing it to “hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame covered spice / for white people” (xiii). Here the enjambment is such that the stanzas merge into each other: “or maybe // they’ve hungered” and “where freed slaves lived // on the fringe of Union camps” (xiii). What is interesting is that the lines have freedom to move into the next stanzas. Contrast this with the social divide of the South where their own food— “hot chicken” is now curated by white people and their economic resources taken from them with the “I-40 that bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete” (xiii).

The seventh stanza is where the racial slur occurs and in the same stanza: “Again. Walking down / Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back / of my husband” (xiv). This stanza acts as a link to the next section of the poem, triggering the narrator to reflect on their personal history. Had the racial slur been placed at the start of the poem, the bridging and contrasting of the two legacies as well as the poem’s shift towards a personal response would have made less of an emotional and intellectual impact because the racial slur would be decontextualised.

It is worth noting that while the seventh stanza acts as a bridge to the poet’s personal history it also acts as a barrier between the gentrified people in the first six stanzas who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre”(xiii). In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder states, “life is mirrored in…our use of language: we start forgetting the true significance of words and using them quickly, thoughtlessly, to function socially, and to stand in for certain experiences” (42).

But Clark’s refusal to not “give a damn”, embodied by the narrator asking “Who said it?” shows the responsibility that a poet has in not forgetting the importance of language and how it is used (xiv). Clark says: “there is always a word I’m chasing inside / and outside of my body” (xiv). Not only is Clark chasing a word and its importance but she’s also in control. Clark is doing the chasing and the questioning.

The next six stanzas continue to flow into each other as Clark searches for definitions and histories of words, “scanning // the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots” (xiv). However, the thirteenth stanza ends with a full-stop— “four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamoured with pain” (xv). This throws the structure off kilter, offering no exit.

The last stanza’s first line is of similar length to the rest of the poem but the last three lines are shorter and repetitive referencing the “breath…panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair” in stanza thirteen (xv). “I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself: /Who said it? / Who said it? / Who said it?” (xv)

While the seventh stanza is significant because this is where the racial slur occurs, it is in the final stanza that the structure shifts. The formation of 6,1,6 offers a barrier with the structure mirroring the experience of Clark, who is outnumbered by the mob. In the last stanza there is no circling back as the structure has made this impossible. However, the structure of 6,1,6,1 offers the poet a way through the mob to get to meaning, no matter the pain that her search for “Who said it” causes herself (xv).

Works Cited:

Clark, Tiana. “Nashville.” I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. University of Pittsburgh Press, September 18, 2018, pp xiii-xv. (You can read or listen to her poem “Nashville” on The New Yorker)

Zaprudur, Matthew. Why Poetry. Harper Collins Publishers, 2017, pp 42.

Essay by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press

Millennial Musings: On High’s Wry Critique of Individualism

Neil Surkan’s debut poetry collection, On High, grows out of his chapbook Super, Natural (Anstruther Press 2017). Surkan’s wry wit combines cutting criticism of consumer culture and a deep respect for natural environments. However, this criticism is tempered by a desire to understand and create community; Surkan memorialises the attempts of a teenage boy to impress a girl at the mall (“Opportunistic Mystic” 56) alongside the death of a spider under a hiking boot (“Decreation” 80) and in doing so, gives each moment equal weight. Divided into four parts, On High begins at a surface-level documentary of the quotidian and gets deeper into the political and the personal with each section.

Opening on a path between a house and a beach, the first poem, “Directive,” does as its title suggests, ending with the missive and reassurance to “think less/ of your destination, more on where/ you’re bound to go. Or try walking at night. You won’t see what I mean, but you’ll know” (Surkan 3). In this poem, the speaker takes us down to the beach, through the summer sun and into the snow, getting distracted by cacti and other trails, and encouraging the reader to both put aside personal worries and to allow themselves to get lost within the following poems. “Directive” invites the reader to momentarily step into the speaker’s footsteps, to test out the intense attention to mundane details, before committing to the entire book. What follows in the first section are intimate descriptions of human environments: city streets, a bar with live music, a dilapidated strip mall, a family kitchen.

The fastidious recounting of a subject is maintained throughout On High, and the speaker’s voice emerges as a Canada-traversing-earnest-but-disillusioned companion incapable of failing to note human peculiarities. In “The Branch-Breaker,” the speaker documents the lewd conversation of a group of teens as they walk by. Instead of critiquing the boys, the speaker reflects that he does not have access to their inner lives, and turns his focus away from the boys: “May the look I gave the branch-breaker,/ mostly hatred, grow every day a little more/ compassion. Tonight I’ll raise a growler/ to Angela, to skin that breaks but persists/ and to goodness—the kind that’s wordless” (5). The position of this poem as the second in the collection sets the tone for the book; though intent on observing all details, the speaker refuses to fill in gaps and insists on believing in the best of people.

Bridging the first two parts, the last poems of part one follow the speaker to spaces between the human/natural: the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, a hiking trail in Kananaskis, and on an unnamed mountain. “On High,” the first of two title poems, sets the speaker on a mountaintop as he considers the landscape as a “room” for the natural; a “room” inseparable from what it contains (21). Part two lunges into the relationships between humans and animals, focusing on how humans interact with non-humans and setting the tone with “Pelt”: “We hurl rocks/ while he’s stretched in the sun, the weasel./ He killed our entire coop/ but now has nostrils for eyes” (25). Again, the speaker avoids condemnation, but this time inserts himself into the action with “we,” acknowledging his complicity in the action that killed the weasel, regardless of whether the speaker was present (25). Instead of a harsh criticism of people who use or harm animals, the speaker shows the social and cultural milieu that results in these interactions. While the title of the book suggests a bird’s eye view—an amount of distance, or the separation of the speaker and subjects—Surkan’s speaker rejects this role by continually stating his presence and place within the subjects.

Parts three and four further the earlier themes by peopleing the spaces explored in the first half of the book: a white, suburban church goer is caught stealing funds because he feels owed (“Teardown” 54-5); a Serbian Uber driver heckles his passengers (“The Opposite” 45-7); the Penticton Reserve stands in contrast to tourists, businesses, and the celebratory First Nations statues (untitled 66-70); a mayor urges tourists to ignore the smoke from nearby wildfires (untitled 71); and, the speaker drives home to the Okanagan Valley, then leaves (“Verges, Now and Forever” 88-98). Throughout these sections, the speaker shows the failed interactions of humans with each other and nature as equal, and himself not an immune bystander, but an active participant. The poems become neither explanation nor justification, but an acknowledgement of human folly and apology. And yet, the book refuses to fall into melancholy. The metaphors and juxtapositions are fresh and playful, as in “Fawn” when the speaker notes that the hoof of a deer recently turned to roadkill is “black and sticky as bong resin” (82). This comparison is not irreverent, but the opposite, as it provides a new lens with which to view the interconnectivity of human and non-human life.

Surkan’s attention to poetics (rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, etc.) throughout On High serves to communicate these themes of human and non-human interactions and reciprocal responsibilities, while providing a tangible connection to the ‘real world’ through writing-back. A list of notes at the end of the book cites a range of sources from Keats’ canonical poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a YouTube video from 2016 of a group of men attempting to ride/hunt a moose while on a raft (101). Surkan draws inspiration from these sources, but also allows those perspectives into his work in the form of titles.

At turns witty, sarcastic, and blunt, On High contains stark observations from a speaker who loves humanity but recognises that “shame runs deeper than love” (“Apology” 74). Surkan’s speaker desires to observe interactions truthfully, though does so with an eye toward compassion and self-improvement, and through this mindset, asks readers to reconsider their own behaviours in the context of community.

Review by Allie McFarland, editor of the RVRB. Allie is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. and soundbite. Her chapbook Marianne’s Daughters, was published by Loft on EIGHTH in 2018.

Interview with Barbara Langhorst

Allie McFarland interviews Barbara Langhorst

Barbara Langhorst, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning author

Allie McFarland: The USask MFA mentorship program is (as you know) unique in Canada, but what do you think it brings to the program? Or, what do you think about the practice of mentorship more broadly in relation to writing and emerging writers? What does mentorship entail in your mind (both for giving and receiving)?

Barbara Langhorst: The mentorship program in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan is first-rate, in my experience. The mentors bring professional experience as working writers to the students, revealing another dimension of the writing life as it exists outside academia. This year, this is especially obvious, as the Director of the MFA Program (Jeanette Lynes) and several of the mentors in the program have been shortlisted for a variety of Saskatchewan Book Awards.
One of the strongest aspects of mentorship is the connection between generations of writers—the construction of a network of writers and writing that supports both mentors and emerging writers. The mentors have a wide variety of approaches and interests, and help the students develop individualized reading lists that broaden the experience for both parties. As a mentor, I draw on my own experience with my supervisors in grad school, both of whom were very supportive but practical—they advised me to expect a lot from myself, especially about the amount of reading and writing that needed to be done in a limited time, and so I have high expectations for my students, too. However, the relationship in the MFA at the U of S is also beneficial to the mentors, who revisit problems they have dealt with (and some they have not), and learn from their students, as much as the other way around. I have had the great opportunity to work with two brilliant students, and learning how to help them has helped my own writing. 
I have had the enormous good fortune to be mentored by fantastic writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, dennis cooley, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Sandra Birdsell, and Guy Vanderhaeghe, and in all cases the experience was extremely helpful in developing a sense of myself as a writer. Kroetsch and cooley, in particular, tended to say, “You’re the poet,” and give support with relatively little technical advice. As a mentor myself, when some practical advice about craft is expected, I try to leave the work in the writer’s hands as much as possible, only identifying areas that need to be rethought or worked through, rather than offering my own solutions. 

AM: Thinking about the advice from your mentors and your approach to mentoring, what do you consider ‘writing’—the physical act of sitting down and putting new words to page, or do you include the revises / redrafting / editing processes as ‘writing’? And what is the most exciting part about writing to you?

BL: All acts of putting words on the page and moving them around is “writing” to me. Composing the first draft is the most exciting, dangerous type of writing, I find. It jolts the adrenaline like nothing else, especially when I feel like I’m channeling a story that is begging to be told, but it can also be terrifying, because pursuing the wrong intuition, following the wrong choice in plot or character, can mean months of rewriting.
I try to keep the joy of composing when I revise by looking at scenes (or even the novel as a whole) and seeing whether the piece needs to be retold from another perspective or a different point in the action, and by looking at the entire novel as a poem, where pieces can be moved around as I do words in writing poetry. Sometimes I go back, as I did in Want, and completely rewrite several chapters right at the beginning. I also use a headset to dictate sometimes, if I want a new perspective on the work. With Want, when I wasn’t sure about the structure, I wrote out the plot, cut it into scenes, drew the paper slips of scenes from a hat, taped them down in that order, and then cut and pasted the novel into that order, smoothing as I went. In the end, I reordered the book again, but that randomization helped me to see which scenes were necessary and where they needed to be. I also changed the point of view to first person on the third draft of Want, and moved it from present tense to the past. In my current novel, I think I am working much more confidently with the structure—but I do hope that confidence is justified. Time will tell.
Perhaps the form of writing that seems least like real writing is the synopsis, yet I wrote three synopses for Want, and the process showed me the characters’ motivations in ways that I hadn’t realized before. I enjoy responding to editorial suggestions, as they, too, show me the novel in ways that are new. Time at the keyboard is happy time for me—all of it—even when I can’t write as well as I’d like. The goal is to become better, and that only happens by doing.  

AM: Your novel Want was shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award. And your collection of poetry, Restless White Fields, won both the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book award and the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Book award. These are amazing accomplishments, and I’m curious what you think about the role of these types of awards / recognitions in relation to the community aspect of writing that your mentioned earlier? 

BL: I am tremendously grateful for the awards offered in SK and AB…as Doug Barbour at NeWest has often said, being nominated is as much an affirmation as winning. Many good or even great books miss being nominated simply because there are so many good books published, and thus being nominated is a truly heart-lifting gift. I always enjoy attending the awards, and am really looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Many of those nominated this year for the Saskatchewan Book Awards are writers I’ve known and admired for almost twenty years—and many of them are part of the MFA in Writing program at the U of S. It’s fabulous to be among them. SK writers are so generous with their time, energy, humour, and friendship. I would never have written if I hadn’t come to SK, I know that. It’s a phenomenally supportive community.

Interview by Allie McFarland, RVRB editor, co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, and reluctant poet.

Interview with Sylvia Legris

Jaclyn Morken interviews Sylvia Legris

Sylvia Legris, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning poet.

Jaclyn Morken: How do you typically approach writing a poetry collection?

Sylvia Legris: I’m a big believer in trusting where your current preoccupations or obsessions want to take you. You have to write what you’re passionate or excited about, otherwise you run the risk of producing work that, though it might be competent and might even very likely be publishable, lacks spark and heart, and, sadly, is ultimately unmemorable. I’d much rather read work that’s perhaps less polished, rougher around the edges, but that feels distinctive—like nobody else could have written it—and that leaves you with the feeling that the person who wrote that piece really got a kick doing so. You have to love your writing; you also have to love it enough to ditch it or chop it up when it isn’t working. How does this relate to how I approach writing a poetry collection? Putting a collection together, trying to determine what shape it will be, what its poems, perhaps its sections will focus on…well, much of that happens after I’ve written enough poems that surprise and excite me, that make me think, ah ha, I nailed that! It’s part instinct, part believing that what excites me might excite a reader. The much bigger part of putting together a collection, of making any successful piece of writing, is sheer determination, hard work, revising and revising until your head and your gut and your ear tell you it’s right. I think it’s also crucial to allow for accidents, for the unexpected. If you feel obliged to stick too closely to a project description or thesis, you might paralyse yourself. Projects change as you go along, often for the better. Writers have to remind themselves (constantly) that everything has to serve the writing; no matter how much you love a particular line, image, paragraph, or whole section, if it isn’t benefiting the work, remove it. Doing so might initially be agonizing, but soon after you won’t even remember what you removed because you’ll have a stronger piece of writing.   

JM: What do you consider most challenging in writing poetry?

SL: I get the sense that your question assumes that “challenging” is equivalent to “painful” or “unpleasant,” something to be avoided. When the writing is at its most challenging, when I’m struggling to make something work on the page, is also when it’s the most enjoyable and, ultimately, the most rewarding. Why do it if it isn’t challenging? The whole point, for me, is to challenge myself, to push myself, to see what I’m capable of making out of language. When writing poetry ceases to be a challenge, I’ll quit. I’ve spent many years of my life working at mind-numbing, unchallenging jobs—the work of poetry (for both the reader and the writer) should be the extreme opposite of mind-numbing. Mind-electrifying? Mind-exhilarating?

JM: What do you consider most delightful in writing poetry?

SL: When I write something that both thrills and surprises me and I’m left thinking, “that came from me…how did that come from me?”

JM: Who are some of your influences/favourite poets?

SL: Though I have always been a voracious reader, I’d say that my poetry, certainly my development as a poet, was influenced as much by work in other disciplines as it was by literature. I had/have several visual artists in my family, and as a kid/adolescent/etc., I encountered many visual artists. From an early age I acquired the habit of looking at art, as reproductions in books and by visiting galleries and museums and even artists’ studios. Particularly in my earlier work, I viewed the page (despite its inherent limitations) as a space or room in which the borders were potentially more fluid, more expandable than is allowed by conventional margins. My key advice to beginning writers (other than read as if your life depends upon it) is “pay attention.” Developing the practice of looking at artwork (in its broadest definition: painting, sculpture, installation, performance, film, etc.) honed my ability to look at things closely, from different perspectives, to pay attention to minute detail and to how changeable one’s perceptions can be depending on elements like light, sightline, etc. Music and sound both clearly play a huge role in my poetry as well. While I can’t listen to music when I’m writing, the music I listen to in downtime has to jibe with what I’m working on. For example, during the several years that I was writing Pneumatic Antiphonal, I listened almost exclusively to recordings of 17th-century music for the viola da gamba—this sounds pretentious, but there was something about the deep, visceral pitch of that instrument that meshed with all those “lung” poems.
It’s hard to pin down which writers (poets as well as writers in other genres) have directly influenced my work—my reading has and continues to be all over the place. Standbys for me, writers whose work I return to, include: Emily Dickinson, Phyllis Webb, Rilke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Susan Howe, Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Will Alexander, H.D., Virgil, Christopher Dewdney, Rachel Zolf, Cormac McCarthy, Miroslav Holub, E.L. Doctorow, Camilla Gibb, Robert Walser, Joan Didion, Haruki Murikami, Dr. Seuss…

JM: Finally, at the Kloppenburg Award presentation, you mentioned that it was here in Saskatchewan that you started figuring out how to be a poet. What is it about Saskatchewan and/or its community that helped you come to poetry?

SL: I grew up in Winnipeg and moved to Saskatoon when I was already writing and just starting to publish poetry, so I’d say that whatever it was that informed the sort of poet I’d become had already happened before I arrived here. For me, figuring out how to be a poet meant finding a way to have enough money to survive and time to write—often the two don’t coincide. When I moved to Saskatoon it was, compared to other cities, fairly inexpensive to live in. When I realized I wanted to focus as much as possible on writing, I concluded that time and quiet and privacy were more important to me than owning stuff. I’ve often lived in one-room apartments, barely scraping by—I’ve never had a vehicle (it was a huge luxury when I reached the point that I could afford a monthly bus pass), I don’t own any property, I’ve tried to keep my belongings to a minimum. When I moved here, my entire life fit onto a 4-cubic foot shrink-wrapped pallet…since then I’ve really scaled back (at one point, I gave away nearly two thousand books).
One thing that Saskatchewan has is a history of supporting its artists. Thank goodness for the Saskatchewan Arts Board! I’ve been very fortunate in receiving grants over the years, which always buy you some time to breathe and to write. When necessary I’ve taken whatever work I’ve had to in order to survive (as I told one poet I know, I’ve never had any snobbery about jobs…a job’s a job.).  And then of course there’s the arts community, the friendships I’ve had with other writers and artists. Every artist, whether established or emerging, struggles at some point (many of us chronically) with doubt and lack of confidence. Often what keeps me going is having conversations with other writers and artists I know who, despite making really wonderful work, experience the same doubts. We all necessarily work in isolation, but in many ways we’re all in this together.

Interview by Jaclyn Morken, a fantasy / speculative fiction writer from Outlook, Saskatchewan. She has a BA Honours in English, and is completing her second year of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first published works can be found in the inaugural issue of The Anti-Languorous Project’s antilang., with which she currently serves as guest editor.