Ariel Gordon

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor. In spring 2010, Palimpsest Press published her first full-length poetry collection, Hump. She is the 2010 recipient of the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer and the 2011 Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry/Le Prix Lansdowne du poesie. How to Prepare for Flooding (JackPine Press, 2011), a collaboration with designer Julia Michaud, will be launched this fall. When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the woods and taking macro photographs of mushrooms.

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines? Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?

Ariel Gordon: There’s a rare/fleeting moment, while editing, when a poem ceases being a castle in the air and exists outside of my thoughts/feelings about it or the moment/feeling/image it documents.

At that point, I’m satisfied and stop editing. Which is not to say that the poem is finished but that it’s finished enough – intact in a way that’s beyond fiddling – to keep my editing compulsions in check.

I’m often driven to write poems by particular strings of images/phrases/sounds and so editing is about removing the clevernesses, the over-emphases, the notes that clunk instead of sing.

That said, my poems don’t often change radically while being edited…but I tend to have a fairly good sense of what poems work and which ones don’t. I don’t spend much time with the limp ones.

I’m hoping to get braver/more ruthless with the poems that work.

Depending on the poem, I’ll have an on-line thesaurus open, to look for words that might fit better in terms of sense or sound.

I read the poem out loud to check on rhythm/sound and I do a read-thru to make sure that my line breaks aren’t too distracting/too safe, but I’m not overly worried about stray commas.

Partly, that’s because I’m not a bred-in-the-bone copy-editor; I see language as a means to communicate. And I’m rather brutish by nature. I like things that are scratched up, when the object’s seams are showing. But then, I’m from faded-at-the-knees Winnipeg…

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”

Ariel Gordon: Inspiration is scribbling. Revision is writing.

Do you feel any difference or make any distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?

Ariel Gordon: They’re micro/macro versions of the same process. A poem with four parts, for instance, has to have variation in terms of length, of tone, in register. The same goes for a book with four parts, though the challenge is deeper/darker. I’ve rearranged manuscripts by spreading them out on the floor after having a hard time conceiving of the mansucript entirely in my head or in a single Word dcoument, for instance. Too much same-same (as my S. Korean ESL students used to say) is boring. And predictable. And boring.

Any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?

Ariel Gordon: I’m no one’s wife but I OFTEN find myself married to the original idea/image/sound in a particular work.

Convincing myself to radically change a piece – throwing out most if not all of it, dramatically re-writing the rest – is hard mental work, especially if I’ve got something that sort-of-kind-of-but-doesn’t-quite-FUCKING-work.

The problem is that you have to be committed to changing the piece for the changes to be any good. And if you’re not convinced that it needs changing, well…it feels baby/bathwater-y.

The absolute worst is when I’m having a stupid day and somehow decide, in the midst of my stupidity, that maybe I should edit my poems. Thank gods I keep all the different e-versions of my poems…

Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Ariel Gordon: Lately I seem to be writing lots of little image clusters. There isn’t a lot of connective tissue between them, so they get committed to my journal but don’t seem to quite work as poems, which is to say that they may or may not get another draft.

My poem “Blown” was like that. Though I mostly resolved not to write any more pregnancy and mothering poems after my first book Hump was published, I can’t yet stop myself from writing poems to my daughter, inhabited/informed by my daughter.

So this is a one-off, written while my conceit-ed manuscript languishes.

Anyways, here are the bits and pieces I started with, all written at the same time:

You step into a wet gopher hole.

Behind you, a fenced-in bison scrapes

her flank against a comb taller than you are. Handfuls of fur.

The ting of horn against metal. But you don’t want to stay

and watch massive

shrug out of her winter coat.

Boulevards like fields

of mustard, mid-summer: dandelions.

Dandelions. Six steps back, you start in

on the oldest charm in the books: He loves

me, he loves me not. Shredding


Crabapples in full pulpy flower. You stand

downwind to pick a single pink bloom

but a stiff breeze finds you blinking away

petals from dozens, clutching

empty stem.

You punch gopher holes

in ground I thought was solid,

I won’t complain. Bouquet of balloons jostle

into the front seat.

I don’t expect more. Balloons jostle

into the front seat, fender benders

of static electricity.

You can tell I was having trouble because I was circling around the gopher hole sequence and the movement of the balloons. A few weeks afterwards, I went back to my journal and had another go: the image of the balloons, in particular, had stuck with me.

Working on the poem in second draft felt to me like wielding a stack of cold pancakes or irregularly shaped plates. It totters a bit. But that seems to be how my brain works these days.

Here’s what I finished with, though it still feels like it might need another tinker or two…

Bouquet of balloons in the back seat.
You swat, adding fingerprints
to the latex covering drifting fists
of noble gas. In the rearview I get glimpses of road,
your heated cheeks, the cars nudging
the few feet between us
at the lights. I don’t ever expect more
than glimpses. How we both got a mouthful
of crabapple pulp today when all you were after
was a single bloom. How you substituted dandelion
for daisy when the oldest charm
rattled through your head: She loves me,
she loves me NOT. And started shedding yellow.
Lately, you’ve relied on I didn’t mean to…
Which means everything I own shredded,
everything I own fragile. Like a balloon
floating into the front seat, static
a kiss with teeth.


Cecily Nicholson

Cecily Nicholson has worked with women of the downtown eastside community of Vancouver for the past ten years and is currently the Coordinator of Funds with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. She has collaborated most recently with VIVO Media Arts collective, the Press Release poetry collective and the No One is Illegal, Vancouver collective. Triage is her first book. The following interview took place one evening at the beginning of July in Gastown.

Your first collection of poems, Triage, is certainly one luminescent explosion of a book. While reading it I found that it needed to be voiced out loud. I’m curious to know if you wrote it out loud? Reading and rereading lines? Do you consider the oral dimension of the book an act against the privileged status of the silent, written word on the page?

Cecily Nicholson: I often do read my work out loud but this happens at a particular point in the writing. It’s not something I do all the time. It’s the moment when I start to realize the form of the poem, the poem starts to form in a more solid way and the vocalization is part of the smoothing. I’m very attuned to rhythm. I’m definitely influenced by a relationship to music and have a long history of composing and participating in collaborative music. I don’t suppose my poetry is all that musical, but rhyme is critical to how I relate to the text. I don’t have a lot of experience reading poetry out loud in public. I only started doing that about three years ago with a great deal of anxiety, but in recent memory I’ve grown more comfortable with it having had the benefit of the good company of poet friends. Part of the writing process is the public performance. There are a number of pieces in Triage that I read at various events or efforts. I hang out a lot at Rhizome café –that’s one of those places – and often, based on the experience of reading it to a group of people, the relationship to the audience and people’s feedback becomes part of the process as well as. Poetry seems to get realized in that moment in a particular way that becomes part of the editing but it’s relatively new to me and corresponds with the point in my life where I’ve became somebody who reads poetry out loud. I’ve written my whole life.

The second part of this question: I hadn’t thought about it as a privileged status of the silent written word, but it’s a good frame. When I think about the cultures that have influenced me – that is to say my people – who are multivariate and also my culture of influence on a regular basis currently – who I spend time with who is my community, etc – most of those and much of that is significantly based on oral culture. In the downtown eastside for example word of mouth is swift, efficient and common. Sharing stories, learning to speak, breaking silence these kinds of tropes are quite common. I’m definitely influenced by that as well as by the idea of what it means to make work accessible. So the written word is not necessarily accessible especially when we’re working with folks who may not be speaking English as a first language, who are dealing with literacy barriers and who are more likely to be present to listen to poetry than pick up a book and read it.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing you read at an evening entitled Poetry at the Barricades: La Commune 1871/2011. Triage pulls together all manner of corporate and industry jargon to problematize any easy acceptance of local and global events. What were some of the most important guides that took you through the editing of your “poetic barricades”?

Cecily Nicholson: The first thing I think of is the idea of responsibility to the topic. I feel very responsible to the topics that I take up. I feel that on a number of levels. One way is a kind of affinity, aspects of familiarity. In other ways it is the real effort of solidarity – not necessarily my experience but what is my responsibility to it – so no matter the framing of the sections or the pieces of poetry this is always present to me. Those principles are always present to me and that’s not just a matter of writing poetry it’s a general approach to life.

I’ve had a lot of great conversations and feedback from people leading up to these sections becoming a book and so in terms of others people’s work influencing my own… I would say in many ways those are guides. I’ve always looked with admiration to folks like Rita Wong and Dionne Brand who have a capacity to create really emotive and rhythmic and moving writing while incorporating the hard detail, fact and material grounding. I think that’s critical and it’s an art – the topics and subjects don’t always lend themselves to that. I could have a tendency to be withdrawn in my work and contemplative in my writing in ways that are not helpful so I’m concerned about a broader project. How does it relate to communities I struggle alongside, how does it move forward in concert with organizing efforts, towards movement building and the like.

There’s an intriguing repetition of language that occurs throughout Triage. From the opening poem, “Copper Mine”

business endeavours the main thing hit
like a tonne per operated hour operating
the main thing to keep the main thing the main thing
inexpensive it takes focus – a perfect shift

to a doubling of words throughout a number of poems. My sense was that words/phrases are repeated into something that sounds like the crush of heavy industry (or “double-bunked” to show the lose of freedom) but this strategy also forces us to hear words in a different, more critical, way. At the same time there are a number of poetic effects such as alliteration and assonance that sing throughout the book. While writing Triage did you ever find yourself moving too much towards the “choking of language” or conversely moving too much towards a “poetic aesthetic” ? How did you arrive at that beautiful balance?

Cecily Nicholson: It’s the first stanza in the book and it’s meaningful that way. It’s deliberate, but in particular that line “the main thing to keep the main thing the main thing” is almost a direct quote that I took from signage I observed while visiting an open pit copper mine in Arizona. There is this intense signage in areas for workers to see that was reiterating various mantras and direction around productivity, so they actually use that sentence –there was another verb in there “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”. I was floored by it and their inability to recognize themselves, what they were doing. The repetition of language for me is a very simple device and necessary, not in a deliberate attempt necessarily to force people to think about it more or in different ways – although that is tangentially an effect because that’s what happens with language when you repeat it, even our own names, it just becomes alien – but more out of necessity for what is being represented. So “the crush of the heavy industry” as you describe, that’s part of what’s being mimicked there, part of what I’m being drawn to possibly but that crush is not one that I experience myself – indeed what I experience personally in my consumer life, my everyday benefits consistently and without consequence from industries of mining and extraction. My stance towards it is an extremely privileged one and I think more about what it means to grind as a laborer, what it means to contend with holes in your land and the primarily indigenous communities globally that have consistently and historically been displaced through these industries, and the ways in which its been normalized. It’s been normalized in the context of a rich country, it’s been normalized for those of us who don’t have to think about it – simultaneous that normality, I’m blown away by how disturbing normalcy is. So there is a function to repetition in some ways.

Thinking about alliteration and assonance… it’s funny, poetic devices or poetic effect –
never studied it never studied poetry in an objective way. I don’t think I’m all that fancy, when it comes to how I put language together. It’s actually in some ways quite juvenile in terms of those kinds of devices. I can remember learning alliteration and assonance a long time ago before university, but to me it is more an aspect of rhythm. There is a desire at the same time as I’m recognizing that grinding normalcy, that oppressive and marginalizing force of all our industry I’m also recognizing that it’s quite a rhythm. It’s quite a pattern – one that’s integrated in the flow of traffic even and I have a strange fascination possibly, so it’s problematic, but I enjoy the aesthetic of industry. Part of that’s coming from a rural context where I was for many many years so when I came to the city for the first time, I was absolutely astounded by what people can do. This has also been my experience visiting mining operations, I can’t fucking believe what we can do as people and then, that that’s what we do. So yes there is a sense or desire to recognize that there is a beauty to the process if we could possibly separate it out from all those intense ethical and ecological issues, but we can’t. So it’s more about creating a tolerance I suppose in the effort of telling the story.

This juxtaposition the choking of language and the moving towards a poetic aesthetic – it’s an interesting either/or. The choking of language… I’m not sure what that means.

“The main thing to keep the main thing the main thing” We’re not moving forward in that line and it has the effect of draining the words of poetry in the traditional sense. You could write a book of poetry on that single line repeated again and again and say, “Look this is what the world is becoming,” This constant pounding of industry towards profit and people would look at that book as somewhat extreme. But you have more poetic play in your work which is interesting to follow.

Cecily Nicholson: The choking of language. There are points in the book where I’m drawing direct focus to the idea of choking. I employ it in the context of these artificial narratives about gagging. I’ve seen too much in my life of people who’ve lost or never had the ability to speak. And I have seen many examples of people who stand up and speak their mind in opposition to these horrible forces – the stuff of heroism and leadership, in a best case scenario – but for the most marginalized person the damage can be to health and loved ones and home. What could be deeper than that? So it is critical to represent that in my writing. It’s not something I set out to do deliberately and possibly its more that that tension is in myself. I find myself – you know, talking about coming to the city and being overwhelmed by the process of industry that’s astounding to me – and also consistently overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of text in my life. What do I mean by that? I guess the healthy thing would be to block much of it out but I don’t seem to have good filters that way. Poetry is one of my ways of coping with the intensely overwhelming nature of text, mainly through corporate structure, so advertising obviously. I’m super sensitive and happy to observe the in between, text that occurs in the public eye that’s generated by people. Overall though to me the cacophony that overwhelmingness lends itself to a kind of choking and futility about what it means to utter anything.

Another powerful aspect of Triage was the surprising shifts taken through a multiplicity of voices: from Neil Young to street graffiti, from French and Spanish back to English on the street “everyone knew that hotel was a goner” and of course from the mission statements of governments and corporations to voices of resistance. In spite of all this, there’s no sense of any authorial claim to omniscience, no privileged ground. In fact, there’s the theme of partial knowledge that runs through the book. If partiality is a goal, how do you know when a poem is finished?

Cecily Nicholson: The manuscript is due. It is actually one of the things that’s been useful about working into the printed page to an actual published work. There’s a finality that comes to you as opposed to you coming to it and I struggle with that. I don’t suppose I’m the only one. I chronically edit or pull things apart and put them back together again ad nauseam to a limited productivity and am constantly extracting words from the text. I appreciate the observation that there’s a multiplicity of voices and to me it’s one of those elements of necessity – I don’t know how to tell a story personally – you know, it’s a particular stance round the fact that there is no authoritative voice, there is no one perspective or firm fact. I take cues from writers like Haraway who have understood that knowledge is necessarily situated. That it forms when we recognize our partiality together to create some holism around it. To me it’s not about writing per se as much as it is a broader goal and it’s humbling – what could I possibly represent or speak to wholly from my limited position.

How do I know the poem is finished? There are points where I turn it over and allow it to connect with other people and that’s the moment that I’ve committed to it being finished enough for it to be shared. I do that when I feel a level of comfort with what I’ve said or done. I do that when I feel like its ready to enter into a dialogue. So I don’t suppose that at that moment when the poem is finished that it is finished. That it’s in a book and on a library shelf is amazing to me but if we’re critical about how knowledge is produced and shared then we know that most people aren’t going to be picking up my book in the library and reading it. Generally most people in this city aren’t going to read it. I have more opportunity to potentially interact with people again as a spoken phenomenon than a written one. I’m not as panicked as I once was about something being finished or the import of a particular poem. It’s not precious. It’s not everything and if I’m lucky its part of a lifelong project that hopefully will continue to be read with some kind of synthesis. Those of us who care to engage more deeply and regularly with the kinds of conversations that might be happening in poetry, maybe there’s some patience in the long run to hear what I actually might be saying. Most things I write feel immature almost immediately. I remember a great conversation with Marie Annharte about what happens to the poem when its done. She talked about the loathing that can come and the distancing and I appreciated hearing that because it was a feeling that I shared. For me it was self-destructive, sharing the feeling softened that a bit. I no longer feel that loathing or level of repulsion toward my poetry, but I have learned that it’s always going to be incomplete.

One of my favorite poems in Triage is “Warm,” a poem that deals with Redding, California, one of the most polluted mining sites in the world. The poems employs a great deal of word play “strong string circular circus” while exploring our relationships to these far off environmental catastrophes “Cannot control how I am used by proxy”. I loved how the poem revealed itself and its layers through each successive reading. Do you write layer by layer or do poems start as a compounded “ligne donne”

Cecily Nicholson: Thank you for the close reading of “Warm”. It absolutely relates as many of the poems do, to the idea of mining and also to art in some ways. I was writing a particular number of poems along these lines in the lead up to the Olympics. Do I write layer by layer or do poems start as a compounded “ligne donne”? My writing comes from notes. I make notes chronically throughout my day. The day I don’t write notes I forget everything so I’ve learned to do that as I go. Often it might just be a couple of words or a recording of what I’ve read, so it’s not always initially formed, sometimes it happens by accident. So I take those notes and then typically there’s a downloading kind of process and usually I do that about every week or two. It’s a joy those moments when I have a window and the mood hits you and tonight or this morning is a time to write poetry so I sit down and transcribe my notes and that is usually quite generative to start finding relationships between what I’ve recorded. Sometimes I’m setting out with a topic in mind. I need to write a poem about this for this reason. I’m infuriated, I need to respond. I’m in love, whatever, you find these reasons to write towards, but the language informs what happens. So the research –I guess it’s a kind of research—the recording kind of informs what’s going to happen. That’s where I discover these sometimes serendipitous, sometimes glaring relationships between things that I want to have this tiny bit of power to put into relationship on the page. So the lines do occur as layers. Sometimes I’ll have layers of things happening in one corner that I’ll discover from six months ago and find that they actually relate to another set. It might be a matter of geography, actually where the notes come from, it might be a matter of subject, my tone toward it or it might just be a matter of the language itself. Sometimes parts of language just finds itself relating. I find those moments most enjoyable because they seem to find themselves and are happening outside of the conditions of time, if that makes sense. Every once in a while there are those lines that are just so clear. That’s every once in a while.

On the whole, do you find talking about the writing process” conducive or antithetical to the writing process?

Cecily Nicholson: It’s super conducive. It’s super useful for me (I’ve been hanging out with Matt Hern lately so the word “super” keeps creeping into my vocabulary). It’s really conducive for to me to take a step back and think about writing as a process because everything forms with process, so it seems like a self-awareness and maybe developing some criticality around that can’t be a bad thing. I also enjoy it. It’s quite curious to me how this thing has come together and it’s curious to have people interested in that. I’m sure that my practices will change over time, it’s not a fixed thing at all. What’s happened to me in the past couple of years has been a settling into the idea of language. Years ago in conversation, particularly with Wayde Compton, it’s one of the reasons I thanked him in the book, he was very direct with me: “Well, you’re a writer and you should make a book.” It was something that I appreciated. I needed to settle into this process and I just needed to do it. Once you have confidence in something you can start to relax into it. Now’s a good time probably to take that a step further, “How can I push myself more? How can I work a little harder?” – in a pleasurable way because I love this. Writing poetry for me is something that is not consumed by processes of capital. I know it is outside of me the moment it enters the book economy and all of that crap, but for me personally in terms of what it means to create it, it just taps into such a warm place, a place where change occurs for me, that’s one of the ways I shift how I think – through writing – and I just feel lucky, even luxurious to have that time and that space to do that work. So yeah, I like thinking about the process. I like thinking about that in general.

The last poem of your book ends in some gorgeously uplifting lines: “hearts round like family,” “plumage splendid/ seldom brought to the ground.” As you wrote Triage, did you have to make any editorial decisions based on a balance between outrage and hope?

Cecily Nicholson: I think this is an effort for life. We have to work towards balance in life. I could be outraged all the time realistically, reasonably I think. Hope on the other hand… Not surprisingly there is a tension in the writing. One of the things I know about myself or my writing or what I sense it emotes is a when I shift into a voice or a tone or a context that is foregrounding “nature” I’m tapping into something different from that intense anxiety I was talking about earlier – the barrage of text, the movement of the city and the way I find that overwhelming. There is a clearer path for me –I don’t know about the reader –to something a little more optimistic and hopeful because no matter what struggles we are in or caring about, none of us are going to be able to escape the dilemma – the word is way too insufficient – of ecology, the slippery and devastating path we’re on in terms of the balance of the earth. If I’ve any hope it’s that more people decide to have a relationship to the land and to recognize it as having its own history and its own future that’s got nothing to do with us arrogant people. So hope for me as it functions in language, that’s one of the sites. The other site has to do with the bridging and strengthening of social relations both of which in my life I try actively to work towards. I see life as impossible without having that being a driving force and I’m inspired – I’ve said recently in a conversation with Jules Boycoff– that I’m inspired by the people around me. I’m cautious of romanticizing this when the conditions are hard for people who are hard working in a way that privileged people never are, never have to be, because we’re talking about issues of survival – people who despite conditions manage to wake up, be present in a social way that’s joyful, with humour and who can attach to happiness, with intelligence, in the midst of enormous tragedy, who are incredibly generous despite the extreme limitations of their conditions. How do you observe and participate in relationship to that and not want to take all your petty stuff and set it aside and think and work toward hopeful things. How do you not want to imagine something better. So yeah, it’s an active effort. It doesn’t come naturally. So much of how our systems are organized discourages hope for real justice. That said I hope I’m not being false. What I’ve said is tinged by elements of nostalgia and sadness, I wouldn’t necessarily remove that from an idea of hope, but it can make it bitter sweet.

Garry Thomas Morse

Garry Thomas Morse is the author of Transversals for Orpheus (LINEbooks 2006), Streams (LINEbooks 2007), Death in Vancouver (Talonbooks 2009), After Jack (Talonbooks 2010), and his most recent book Discovery Passages (Talonbooks 2011). We’re very happy to have this extended interview with Garry on the topics of poetry in Vancouver, his recent book Discovery Passages and all matters surreal.

One of the pleasures of Discovery Passages was following the unique development of several core concepts:  trees, fish, masks, mythic creatures, the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Western take (read: theft) on native culture from  the “Indian Agent” Willliam M. Halliday to Duncan Campbell Scott, the poet/Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs and finally to Franz Boas, early “ethnographer of bifurrrrrrrrrrrrrcate tongue.”  Out of these concepts and people you develop a narrative that is strikingly unique and powerful. Did your writing process follow a chronology of material from the past into the present?

Garry Thomas Morse: I am rather leery about the term “narrative”, particularly when it comes to poetry, since this was a process of discovery for myself as well as the reader, rather than me itching to insist anything to the reader. Much of the work and imagery arose from a trip I took in a northernly direction among our beautiful islands in BC. Islanders gave me a great deal of information in their own voices and images presented themselves, whether it was seeing the totems of mourning that are left to rot and die, or the dog named Samson that runs up and down the main road. This book, rooted in history and place, for the most part, wrote itself. I served as the medium.

I would venture the same approach was taken toward relating any aspects of history which are often generalized or glossed over. The key point to remember in this case is that the potlatch ban was orchestrated by (or could not have been brought about without) a few individuals. There is some evidence that the City of Vancouver and some of the government officials were at the very least indifferent to the activities of natives in their own homes, and that they did not approve of some of the Indian Agent’s actions, whom they refer to as the “grand poohbah of Alert Bay”.

William Halliday, as Indian Agent in 1913, was eager to stamp out the “savage ways” of the Kwakwaka’wakw and what he called their “evil potlatch” and replace it with good old fashioned religious values. However, he wasn’t getting anywhere with his divinely appointed mission until Duncan Campbell Scott became the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Halliday was then made a Justice of the Peace and many arrests started taking place. Natives were given the “choice” of serving jail time for potlatching or signing an agreement whereby they would relinquish their paraphernalia (masks, coppers, etc), which Halliday would promptly sell to collectors and museums.

The poem closest to an invective, styled somewhat after Wayde Compton’s poem for James Douglas, is “Hot Blooded, A Love Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott”. Here is an often celebrated figure who as a poet with his verses was always trying to romanticize First Nations people out of existence while with his legislation, he was a thousand times worse than Halliday. You only have to consider him writing about his “Onondaga Madonnas” and openly lamenting their “vanishing waning race”, while actively working toward threatening and breaking up families, seemingly intent on their extinction. And from 1913 to 1932, he was head of what has been called the most repressive and brutal assimilation programs Canada ever enacted against its native inhabitants.

As for my last word on the practices of Ottawa and the government, to appreciate the relationship of a First Nations person to many national interests, one only need read the quote from John A. MacDonald, in which he calls my mother’s people “the most savage and uncivilized in the province”, indicating that the “evil potlatch” was constantly being held by them. Beyond land claim talks and bureaucratic apologia, although I am perhaps not the best person to ask, since I am not a cultural theorist, I suspect that these subconscious cues remain in our political organization in such a way that while they are likely not actively roused with much conscious energy, because of their elusiveness they linger, as in the case of Stephen Dedalus as Irish subject living with the aftermath of British rule, finding that “history is a nightmare they are trying to wake up from.” To make any kind of sincere reparation, we (meaning everybody) would have to dismantle this system and perhaps all systems. That would be a starting point (meaning for everybody), but since this is an impossibility, due to the divisiveness and self-loathing these processes can lead to, I believe more can be accomplished through language projects and new artistic works.

Franz Boas is a more ambiguous figure, at times a means of cultural preservation and at other times a means of distortion. It’s a bit like those Icelandic sagas that were subject to religious alteration, where you can’t always tell what was from the original tale and what morals have been tacked on. To be fair, some of the stories may not have been ready for prime time, and startled the prudish sensibilities of the anthropological team. It is difficult in our era to figure out the motivations of any given individual in another time. I have observed the recent academic trend is to criticize Boas, although the most comprehensive lambasting is often by non-Aboriginals, which does not take into account the value his records might have for present and future generations, as in some cases, even as an observer, however inconvenient, he is a kind of witness that can be called forth. I also think it is more often an unconscious fault on the part of non-Aboriginal academics when they begin to speak on behalf of Aboriginals and their issues, although this is a real muddying of the waters in trying to explore any kind of historical truth, or in the process of understanding some of the characteristics of a people. My take on it is that if you play enough theoretical games, you can entirely abstract out the experiential—you can make just about anyone disappear…

The poem you refer to, “Interpretative Dance”, is a reworking of two texts by Boas, one describing a multicultural fishing community and one that is a story from my familial group, the Assu family from the Wewaikai First Nation. And while it is not my place to discuss or formulate the characteristics of a people, since I not an ethnographer, I am beginning to recognize a few traits I recognize and hold dear, particularly among the descendants of Chief Billy Assu, who is my great-grandfather. This is part of the “discovery” in my book.

I found the juxtaposition of these two texts by Boas interesting, and this part of the book was also influenced by Daphne Marlatt’s wonderful work about the fishing community in Steveston. The family story is rather open ended and is more in keeping with fiercely held convictions about everything from aesthetics to personal conduct—there is something familiar here, something being uttered about the energy that might be roused in the wake of an artistic act, although that is only my interpretation. And I am hesitant about attempting to speak with any authority about anything that appears to me self-evident and intuitive. However, I would find it interesting if any of these points would help to stimulate further study and discussion.

A number of poems in Discovery Passages cascade across the page.


                devours village

& is not
                        on motorcycle
                              car alarms
                                                 or powerboat

At times I wondered if they were strips of bark off trees, strips of flesh, waves, an “interpretative dance” across the page. Could you tell us about the shape of your lines?

Garry Thomas Morse: I get this question a lot. I think Elee Kraljii Gardiner said it best in that she sensed in many of my lines this yearning to reach far beyond the confines of the page, or something to that effect. As I do not consider myself a visual artist or very much of a conceptualizer, and do not write square little poems about my rather droll domestic realm, I find I am left with hand-me-down lyricism I enjoy


which is another way of saying the kinetic movement and musicality of the style in work by William Carlos Williams and also what has been called my “tendency towards epic”. What I like best is finding there is cohesion in a work—that its parts relate to the whole and so on. But you are right in this case, as a lithe animality presented itself to me, as well as a world of wood and stone and water, and this influenced the way I wrote some of the book. Also, there is some element of Ezra Pound talking about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska planning sculpture while the bullets are whizzing past. Not really. But that’s where my automatism kicks in. I do a lot of things unconsciously, which is another way of saying I steal. Another way of saying I steal stuff back!

I have also learned a fair amount about lyric sensibility from the work of George Bowering, not to mention his overview of Canadian Literature, his last course at SFU that I had the chance to take. I recall being interested in Al Purdy, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, and Lola Lemire Tostevin at the time. And that was before I had heard of Artie Gold. Incidentally, the first poem I wrote for Discovery Passages is based upon a poem by George Bowering in The Gangs of Kosmos (Anansi, 1969) about “Kwakiutl cannibal societies”. In those days, I think it was in vogue to get in touch with your inner “Indian”.

Nowadays, Bowering says “another book by Garry Thomas Morse?!?” and Morse says “Hell yeah, mofo!” or something, ahem, to that effect.

I love how the different sections of your book bump up against each other in such surprising ways. The Document section contains a series of stripped down quotes from letters made about the practice of the potlatch. From the last three words of that section


the reader turns the page to “The Indian Picture Opera” which inflates to “In the Land of the Head Hunters (based on a true people)” a spoof of a big, schmaltzy Hollywood style production. Did these different sections come first as framing ideas or did they emerge from within the practice of writing?

Garry Thomas Morse: Although it has been mistaken as merely a form of currency or status, even by Boas, the copper for the Kwakwaka’wakw people also serves as a document, something like the wampum of Natives across the “imaginary” 49th parallel. What I did was take the actual letters between the Natives and government officials and apply an erasure poetic, a kind of reverse whitewash if you will, to erode away all the flowery language and develop a sort of pidgin language that expressed what was really going on, while at the same time subjecting a few bureaucrats to something like the popularized stereotype of First Nations characters—Tonto and so on…

For me, the most poignant part is where a Native man is asking permission to perform a potlatch for his daughter who has just died, even quoting the Bible to try to evoke sympathy in the official. And I think the official reply, a refusal, is devastating.

I am not sure how to approach the transition between sections in the book, but I would like to explain that the idea for the next section came from another rather ambiguous figure, who incidentally didn’t exactly get along with Boas. I am referring to the title subject of the play by Marie Clements and photographic critique by Rita Leistner The Edward Curtis Project (Talonbooks). Edward Curtis wrote the original metamyth called In the Land of the Head Hunters, which is a fable loosely based upon ways of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

The reason I consider him ambiguous is that while he produced beautiful photographs, there are many questions of authenticity about them, and also his depiction of Natives across North America as a “vanishing race”. On the other hand, his personal obsession was also a kind of campaign to raise awareness about the condition of Aboriginals. In hindsight, some folks are appreciative of his role as a record keeper and others are outraged at his portrayal of Native people. The thing to remember is that while instinctively we want to think poorly of him, there are individuals and families who now appreciate having such grand evidence of their relations and in some cases this has helped to spark a cultural restoration.

“The Indian Picture Opera” was actually the title of Edward Curtis’ travelling slide show to promote his book (In the Land of the Head Hunters). For a number of reasons, I thought it would be incredibly ironic to write a performance piece to promote my own book. I was quite excited to be invited by Joanne Arnott and Russell Wallace to perform this at the Talking Stick festival in Vancouver, because the audience was so fired up and everyone began to tell some story or other about Edward Curtis.

This piece re-appropriates highly romanticized lines from the book by Curtis and also references the movie of “In the Land of the Head Hunters” he made with Kwakwaka’wakw actors, the highlights being how in the face of on-set cases of the giggles, he didn’t want “his Indians” to laugh and the fact that they had to rent a whale from a neighbouring group of Natives, which quite naturally led to my Gilbert and Sullivan whale song. On some level, I feel this taps into the impressive and flamboyant theatrical nature of the people themselves, not to mention the self-promotional tendencies of my familial line.

The poems in Discovery Passages retrace Captain Vancouver’s route from Alert Bay to Malcolm Island (where the town of Sointula was founded by Finns with Utopian ideals). At times we’re in the poet’s imagination, at other times in conversation with people on various islands and then we’re also reminded that we’re on a ferry moving from island to island. From how many places did you write Discovery Passages?

Garry Thomas Morse: Did I mention my book is currently available on BC Ferries? You can read it moving from island to island…

For quite some time I was under the impression that the Kwakwaka’wakw were there to meet Captain Vancouver, but apparently it was the Salish before the Kwakwaka’wakw pushed them out through battle and intermarriage. It’s fun to mention this in Vancouver directly after all the customary tributes to Coast Salish territory because I get booed. It’s like being a character in Aboriginal wrestling. I mostly like to mention this because it adds another level of complexity to the stereotypical view of Native people only as vanishing, as victims, etc. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Salish! My point is really that no one should be simplified out of existence just because the truth or essence of things is too complicated to turn into a sound bite.

I wrote the poetry for the book in Vancouver, in Sointula, in Alert Bay, in Campbell River, and in Quadra Island, where my mother is originally from, although she as a girl, she used to be a cook on a fishing boat with her father journeying along the Fraser River, and spent part of her early years in Steveston, also working in the cannery.

The trip to the Finnish museum on Sointula was a surprise. It was quite the plot twist for the book and it was exciting to learn about this early community with its Utopian and Socialist ideals, and also to consider the result after the community became divided over some kind of “operatic free love triangle”. The woman at the museum told me how they were forbidden to speak their own language at school, so they used to gab in Finn together under the bleachers.

Are there any lines from an early draft of any poem in Discovery Passages that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Garry Thomas Morse: Although I’m not necessarily a first through/best thought flunky, I’m not exactly like Wordsworth, wanting to do four different versions of The Prelude and so forth. As the Kwakwaka’wakw believe in a kind of intuition that is also a power called NWALUK, what you might call gut (or spirits), I don’t really grasp the editorial process in terms of my own work. In this case, I can only defer to the opinion of a truly brilliant editor, since Karl Siegler, for three books now, has demonstrated the utmost confidence in my work, and has on more than one occasion expressed that in my own crazed esoteric way, I know what the **** I am doing, and that is good enough for me.

And I would like to take a second to thank Karl Siegler, Daphne Marlatt, and Roy Miki, because it was their continual encouragement and interest and unwavering belief in this project that led to it being realized as a book. Also, in addition to the kindnesses shown by Williams and Williams and the rest of what Sachiko Murakami calls the Talonbooks family, which it is, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of my colleague Gregory Gibson, who helped me track down and obtain the appropriate permissions for archival photographs, since I have learned that when an artifact has been confiscated from your family, you still have to pay a museum for the rights to show other people a picture of what it looks like.

Also, I take poetry seriously to the point that it is like a belief system that I am rather cagey about. And this is not to say in Dantean fashion I make a trumpet of my ass and it comes out like flowers every time. For all the writing I do, there are many false starts and dead ends, left behind in the mausoleum of abandoned things. Just as I hate to rehearse anything that would interfere with the so-called pseudodivine act of recitation which is the only thing in the world that seems to make me tremble from the sheer release of frenzied energy, I hate to revisit something I’ve abandoned. It’s like an old romance. Like old cabbage.

So no, I’ve blithered on and I have nothing to show you. It all came out like stone and water and trees and animals and maybe sometimes Orphic flowers…

What are your thoughts about the current poetry and/or literary scene in Vancouver?

Garry Thomas Morse: Recently, Lemon Hound referred to Vancouver as a poetry hub, and I would have to agree. Most of all, I am constantly impressed by “the kids”, as I playfully call those around my own age or younger who are part of this “ass-roots” movement (as in up off the ass kick ass movement) to create their own literary scene, one that is both informed by tradition and also opening up new avenues of expression.

Sadly, this comes at a time when the g(local) media and our realized Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord) is all caught up with images of violence from the sporty riot in downtown Vancouver. I have heard many different theories about the causes, although I think it is a gross error to place too much significance in this particular event, since it does a disservice to all legitimate protesters and activists to confuse this riot with other politically motivated riots and protests in not so distant Canadian history. What was apparent was not so much the actions of the same troublemakers who always go to these things looking for destructive opportunities or the alcohol fueled tweens trying to recreate some sort of primitive ritual involving fire, perhaps in the hope of being initiated into manhood, but in fact the number of people with live streaming gadgetalia who did not even attempt to turn around and head home when asked to by police, which presented difficulties in dealing with some of the primary agitators. And I think the aftermath has shown that no matter what we think about it, it has become a kind of grotesque tourism to use technology to nourish this sorry spectacle. This is simply the dynamic collective psychic energy that is not being put to any good purpose, the kind of thing that can be misused or easily manipulated by those in power and by commercial interests, and this has repeatedly happened throughout history. It is disappointing that such energy could not be put into either bringing about political solutions, or preventing our food from being genetically modified, or questioning more ardently what is in our water, and more importantly, what may be in our waters very soon if we continue to build crude pipelines and nuclear reactors and the like. What we did was buy a t-shirt to show we cared and took our own photo in front of an exploding car.

That said, this does nothing in my eyes to tarnish Vancouver’s growing reputation as a literary hub, where every night there is at least one event and often three or four events, all relating to writing and books! What is more, recent writings and workshops show hands-on engagement with the community, and there are excellent projects such as Megaphone Magazine that gives helpful opportunities for independent street vendors in the Downtown Eastside. Off the top of my head, I would say that individuals such as Alex Leslie, Cecily Nicholson, Mariner Janes, Sean Condon, Joanne Arnott, Aubyn Rader, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Christine Leclerc and Daniel Zomparelli, through written work, through various forms of community-oriented employment, through organization, through publication, and most of all through all of their time given to local projects, are revealing to me the kind of literary community I want to live in. There is not a day I do not wake up excited to consider that I may have my own very small part to play in this surreal new city, that is, after all, my own birthplace.

The Vancouver Art Gallery has a few Kwakwaka’wakw figures in their Colour of my Dreams exhibit, which suggests some influence of tribal practices on the surrealism movement.  Was this ever acknowledged by any of the surrealists?

Garry Thomas Morse: Yes, upon entering the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Colour of my Dreams exhibit, I was startled to encounter a Kwakwaka’wakw figure tucked behind the liminal. I was also pleased to discover that in this wonderful curation by Dawn Ades, a respectful sensibility had been achieved, which I find rare in the positioning of such artifacts in various museums and galleries. There is a grandeur and solemnity to this welcoming creature of wood, and one feels its open mouth is inventing whatever is to follow. I was also awed by the Kwakwaka’wakw heron juxtaposed with Edith Rimmington’s The Oneiroscopist. Here, I believe the surrealist augury is self-explanatory.

I believe that this influence was acknowledged in some way by the Surrealists. In a strange coincidence, in an excellent piece by Colin Browne in the Vancouver Art Gallery catalogue, I discovered that the American collector, George Heye, who happened to purchase my familial frog from William Halliday and is parodied in Discovery Passages, also acquired a Kwakwaka’wakw headdress that ended up in Andre Breton’s study. Although this was returned to the U’mista Centre in Alert Bay by Breton’s daughter, it is being generally referred to as Breton’s headdress, although it was almost assuredly obtained indirectly by the means I have described at the beginning of this interview.

At the gallery, I was trying not to take things too personally, although to my astonishment, the exhibit made me acutely aware of a connection between at least two of my literary interests and creations, and therefore revealed a not so tenuous bridge across my subconscious interior (where much of my work gets done). I was intensely aware of something I had been trying to express about not just the Kwakwaka’wakw but my own literary ideas and forms of expression and suddenly I realized that this exhibit might help to provide a dream vocabulary of sorts, at least to explain what I have accomplished thus far and what is soon to follow.

The French proto-surrealist Comte de Lautreamont in Les Chants de Maldoror describes a boy as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!” Is there enough surrealism in contemporary literature? Are there enough sewing-machines and umbrellas on dissecting-tables?

Garry Thomas Morse: I am really glad you mentioned Maldoror, because this has influenced a series of novels I am writing called The M Trilogy.

In order to appreciate French surrealism, I think that one has to understand what you call the proto-surrealists. I realize that much of the discussion tends to lead to Breton, although in my opinion, one of the worst aspects of his contradictory nature was the way he became a proponent for some fantastic artists and then later denounced them over the most petty of issues, whether it be what he perceived were social or political affiliations. Therefore I was disappointed by his surrealist manifestoes, which strike me more as a who’s who of surrealism, or a gossip column about people he is hanging out with.

The other thing Breton does is to try and imitate his predecessors, including Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Gérard de Nerval, and the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), praising them when it suits him to do so, and distancing himself from them when his own literature does not measure up, insisting that they failed to become a surrealist like himself. Actually, I believe he makes an exception for Maldoror, which he manages to read between writing manifestoes, but that is beside the point. I find that his description of a trip to Quebec reads like a watered down version of Nerval’s fascinating works, who was a pioneer in the field of creative non-fiction and fictive journalism.

In my view, concepts of writing collectives and audience appeasement and what is more, creative writing factories and the hyperactive marketing of books, do not lead to the degree of social invective and criticism to be found in Maldoror. Whether it is surrealism or not, in Gogol and Genet and de Sade and Bataille and sometimes even in Balzac, there is a decadent pseudoreality that presents the strangest of characters in such detail that the reader is compelled to come to grips with this altered reality, to ultimately identify with it in some way.

And I think there is a difference between adding surrealism to a writing technique as one adds a sauce to a dish and exploring surrealism as a way of communicating one’s own personal vision of the city, world, universe, etc. The point of a personal vision would be not to reach a potential audience but rather to invent it in the most munificent shades and textures.

Next year you have a book of fiction coming out from Talonbooks which includes a reworking of concepts rooted in the surrealist movement. Could you tell us how you came across the idea for this book?

Garry Thomas Morse: The first two volumes of my novella series The Chaos! Quincunx are forays into the surrealist and speculative genres, if there are such things. The first volume, Minor Episodes, is a reworking of a surrealist novella by a French poet named Robert Desnos called La Liberté ou l’Amour (Liberty or Love!). As Breton originally suspected, I believe Desnos to be the literary genius of the surrealist movement, and I was inspired by his take on consumerism as the new form of religion and with his exploration of the philosophical or metaphysical erotic in a narrative that continually reinvents itself. And there are hints of Kierkegaard and Kafka and other names that start with K.

I consider my own first volume a serial novella, as it borrows techniques from serial matinees and the surrealist cinema of Luis Buñuel and deals with the episodes of the protagonist Minor, whose very existence seems to involve the instantaneous commercialization of anything and everything on a metaphysical level.

The second volume is also surrealist in flavour (more sauce!) but it is leaning more in the direction of the speculative genre. In this, I also took two stories from my very own Death in Vancouver and expanded them and gave them mail order extensions. And due to popular demand, I wrote more adventures for the Canadian porn censor characters that give the Aboriginal erotic genre a run for its money…

Stay tuned!

Stephen Collis

Stephen Collis is the author of four books of poetry, Mine (New Star 2001), Anarchive (New Star 2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, The Commons (Talonbooks 2008)—the latter two forming parts of the on-going “Barricades Project”—and his latest work On the Material (Talonbooks 2010). Noted for his analyses of affinities between twentieth century poets, he has lectured widely on poetics and done numerous readings in Canada and the U.S. It is with great pleasure that I present the following extended interview with Stephen Collis which took place over email:

In a 2007 interview for rob mclennan you said that one of the main theoretical questions behind your writing was “What resources remain—in language—from the history of liberation movements and class struggles?”  How do you see your latest book, “On the Material”, as an answer to that question? 

Stephen Collis: I don’t know that On the Material is an answer to this question. At the time I said that I was thinking more about what I call “The Barricades Project”—a sequence of works which do indeed take this up directly, and which includes Anarchive (2005) and The Commons (2008), and several other books that are in-process. But it does nevertheless come up in On the Material (which I wanted, for the most part, to seem more contemporary, less immersed in history, as my other books were or tend to be). One of the “4×4”s is titled “The Infernal Quixote,” which is the title of a novel written by Charles Lucas shortly after the French Revolution. I think the poem also uses William Godwin, whose response to the Revolution was a little more positive than Lucas’s. The poem embeds a bit of an “argument” between those two (“chains” or “change”). Then a poem like “The Ark of Resistance” takes up—if not so much the language of that tradition—at least its iconography (Parisians in liberty caps, the reference to Delacroix’s “Lady Liberty Leading the People,” etc.). I think I’m always interested in how far I can take direct and often (uncomfortably) sincere/idealistic expressions of political sentiment and still make poetry out of them—that is, still use them “with my ear,” hear them as sounds worth listening to. It’s so easy—in almost any corner of our culture (popular media, learned intellectual circles)—to dismiss this language and that rhetorical tradition. But it’s near the heart of poetry to me—Blake and Shelley and Whitman and that whole call to (the imagination’s) arms and common cause.

“On the Material” is an efficiently sublime title that reaches back to a sense of the classical but also brings us into the present experience of holding a book of poetry in our hands.  Throughout the book there’s a dazzling collection of allusions and guests, from Aristaeus, the god of bee-keeping, to Zizeck, the Elvis/Sylvester the Cat of Critical Theory. How did you go about organizing and incorporating such a wealth of references into your poetry?

Stephen Collis: I tend to think of poetry as a conversation—one I’m having with my peers, and all those dead poets and artists and philosophers from the past. So where we might mark a work as being “after” so and so, or where we might see an “allusion” to such and such a work—or, to shift genres, where one work might “sample” another—I see a conversation, and thus an exploration of the “social.”

There was nothing methodical about this in On the Material—at least not initially. For example, I wanted to write about the startling and sudden death of bees all over the world in 2007 or 08, and stumbled upon a reproduction of a statue of Aristaeus mourning his bees (a classical theme seemingly popular in 19th century France). Or I was in Philadelphia, and saw Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Ilium, and wanted to write about that (perplexed as I was by his statement that his paintings were a response to—specifically—Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad). So on and so forth.

With the long sequence, “4×4,” I wrote the first few poems on a trip to California. The form was accidental, but right away I recognized that it was a highly reproducible form—like a sonnet—and I started calling them 4x4s and thinking of them as poems I would write while travelling. On that same trip I bought a copy of Ted Berrigan’s Collected Poems, and was really enjoying his long sequence of “Sonnets.” I started to quote him. So then quoting other poets—sampling their work as I travelled through books as well as through physical space—also became part of the process or practice of writing the “4×4” poems.

I’ve always seen the path to writing as leading through reading, “through words of others,” as Susan Howe says. I think in each book I write I do that in a slightly different way. (In The Commons, for instance, where most of the words “belong” to someone else, this is very buried, very much erased, for the most part; in On the Material it’s a little more on the surface, available.) To write a poem is to tend “the commons” of language, to listen to and speak to the “shared.”

Wordsworth found the sublime in the Lake District and most people thought, “Sure, trees, mountains, beauty, a poem no problem.”  Your collection begins with a quote from David Harvey, a social theorist with a profound interest in Marxist ideas, and your poems proceed to incorporate economic concepts in a very robust way, but the move from economics to poetry is not an obvious one. Could you talk about your process of turning economics into poetry?

Stephen Collis: The Economic Sublime! We’ll have to start a new school.

Poetry is thinking—a mode of thought—at least that’s how I approach it. Early lessons have really stuck: Pound’s image as “an intellectual and emotional complex”—not either thought or feeling, but both at once; or Fred Wah’s “music at the heart of thinking.” (If a poem is just intellect—sometimes conceptual poems come out this way—or just emotion—like a confessional lyric—it’s usually of less interest to me; it might be a brilliant poem, and I might enjoy it immensely, but for some reason it’s not a poem I’m too interested in writing.) So poetry is sound/thought. A dialectic of those two. Economics is just another approach, another way of thinking about the world. It provides a discourse and a lexicon. You can find music in all forms of language—my ear just happens to be attuned to socio-economic discourse (some of the time, anyhow). I find both explanatory power in thinkers coming out of the Marxist tradition (like Harvey), as well as a music I find pleasing (poems in upcoming parts of “The Barricades Project” contain a lot of Harvey!). They also lay down a challenge for cultural production: we seem to lack imagination around solutions/alternatives to current structures/problems—‘hey you poets/novelists/artists,’ I can here them calling, ‘imagine us a different world.’ If it were only so simple! I don’t think poetry is great for solutions, ultimately, but what it is good at is expressing political affects (like solidarity, social dismay/anguish, hope, rage). And—via its compression and parataxis—it’s also good at bundling problems up and presenting them—especially in their ambiguity and contradictions. The crazy disconnections that, when we look at them, we have to shake our heads and say ‘Really? Do we want this world?’

The only form of resistance
But it costs so much
And those gulls falling from
Trailing contrail spires

Would make a lovely poem
I could travel half a continent
To read it to you
In an air-conditioned room

Is there a specific type of “you” in an air-conditioned room? In other words, while writing On the Material did you have an audience in mind?

Stephen Collis: I don’t think I typically had a specific audience in mind—but at certain intersections I certainly did, like in this poem. At times I’m addressing my avant garde peers (to sort of say, again, ‘Really? Is this what we’re in this for?’). I wrote these poems while travelling, and most of that travelling was to do readings or poetry talks. So this poem addresses the poetry audience. It’s such a small exchange—a poet or two, 20 or 30 people in a small room somewhere. And I’m using all the resources of contemporary capitalism—my income, air travel, hotel rooms, etc.—so we can do this? Seems a bit excessive. I guess it’s just a moment of recognizing complicity, and irony, and how we are all caught up in this vast mechanism. I could choose not to travel, not to give readings. But I like to. And I think the people I interact with get something of value out of it (I hope so anyway). So we’re stuck. But we’re always stuck like this today—in our jobs, in everything we do which sometimes has disastrous side effects. Our world is one of consequences and side-effects.

The first third of On the Material is called 4X4 and features a wide range of cars and parts of cars. 

Looking out the window I will
SUV all over this     tarmac world
Fog lights on    suburban gladiator grill
Crunch of rock under tire

When did you first think of driving a car into a poem? What were the discoveries that you made along the way?

Stephen Collis: It’s probably Jeff Derksen’s fault (Transnational Muscle Cars)! Actually, I’d never thought of it before really. But the 4×4 form suggested the vehicle, then I couldn’t resist it. The metaphor was so easy—late capitalism as a joy ride. I had to insist the publisher not put a truck on the cover! But I come from a very car-oriented family. My father always had old British sports cars he was trying to make work. And my brothers—if not me—inherited this machanic urge. And “booney bashing”—driving wrecklessly along overgrown logging roads in a truck—was a big part of growing up on Vancouver Island.

I think we like meeting everyday (material!) things like cars and trucks in poems. I would hate for those to be the only things in poems—but it’s good they are there. When I read some of these poems around Northern BC this spring, I was a little nervous. You have a different relationship to a 4×4 if you live where there’s snow on the ground 4 or 5 months of the year. But people still seemed to like the poems. There’s sort of a “narrative” structure to the “4×4” sequence. It begins with the 2008 crash and that pervasive feeling that “we’re fucked”—moves up down and across the continent on its joy-ride through decay and collapse—then winds up on a lyrical and romantically revolutionary note—abandoning gas guzzling trucks for an “ark of resistance.” So what did I discover along the way? Pull over! And maybe put your queer shoulder to some other wheel.

Baudelaire, Rilke, or Shelley. Who do you think would make the best drinking buddy?

Stephen Collis: Whew—tough. Baudelaire would be depressing, but he’d really, seriously drink. Rilke’s too angelic. Good for a walk by the sea—but drinking? I don’t think so. Shelley would party, I’m sure, though he can be a little pretentious. Hmm. I guess I’ll go with Shelley—but we stay out of boats.

There’s a nice strain of humour that runs through the poems in your collection. From messing around with Rolling Stones songs, (“Goodbye Ruby Super Tuesday”) to remixing John Ashbury (“tennis court oaf”), there’s a great propensity to play. From conception to completion, how do you maintain play and humour in a poem? 

Stephen Collis: Probably it’s a matter of listening and watching for the puns—just like listening for sound—and letting them come if they do. I’ve “tried” to write “funny” poems, and failed miserably. Some people can do this. I think in recent years too many people have tried too hard to do this. But if it comes, it comes. It’s another way of thinking with and through the poem—“truth as laughter,” was Robin Blaser’s phrase. Don’t go overboard. But if the next line is a pun, sometimes that’s a good thing.

“On the Material” is built out of some very important questions:  “Is making itself / the problem? How did we go from / meeting our needs to / excess and waste?” “Fighters forget – are we for or against freedom?” “Is this poem helping at all?” Have you had opportunities to discuss these questions with readers? Are there any answers that have stood out?

Stephen Collis: I haven’t discussed these specific questions with readers—usually the discussions are more general. The questions are rhetorical—I don’t expect answers. But I think it’s important we ask (big/difficult/abstract) questions. Maybe it’s more about modeling: I’m hoping readers will feel enabled to ask whatever “big” questions they might be pondering. The key is that the “world as it is” isn’t assumed to be absolute, or irreversible, or beyond question and doubt.

I’ve found the rhetorical in poetry—especially the direct address (apostrophe)—crucial—for a poetic politics. Poetry’s lyric heritage enables this projection of an abstract addressee. For me, that addressee is always a hypothetical everyone, or, alternatively, a hypothetical “ground control” or “global head quarters.” Powerlessness is a nasty business we all have to suffer through—we don’t know where to go to complain /protest most of the time (think capitalism as Kafkaesque Castle)—so via the lyrical address I can project that castle, or that mob milling outside the castle. It’s a social lyric address. If I got a direct response to one of these rhetorical questions/addresses, well, we’d really be getting somewhere!

In the last section of your book there is a series of homophonic translations of Rilke’s poems. 

Book of moods
Music’s icon I
Conoclastic steel its
Power is linking its
Rose absolves trees

I was wondering if you could tell us about the process of editing a homophonic poem compared to other forms. Does it go through as many revisions? Is it filtered through the same editing process?

Stephen Collis: I’ve said a fair bit about sound here. When you’re doing a homophonic translation, everything becomes sound, and you’re focusing very microscopically—on the phoneme. It goes something like this: you say the original line or phrase, over and over, trying to get the sound right; you start trying words—or even just phonemes, syllables—that reproduce the sound, but mean something or form recognizable words in the language you’re translating into. This can be quite painstaking, and of course it’s impossible to come up with an exact, sonic, echo—just like it’s impossible to make an exact, literal translation. I’m no purist in any sense of the word—don’t believe at all in purity—so when I’m editing a homophonic translation afterwards, I might start monkeying around with it, changing things, forgetting that it had its source in another poem, another language. So I’d say yes, the editing process can be much like any other poem for me. I derive poems through all sorts of procedures (including that old procedure of just-making-it-up-on-the-fly, or writing-what-I-really-think-and-feel); once there’s a text there I start shaping, listening, cutting, adding, moving things around.

Stan Rogal

Born in Vancouver, Stan Rogal obtained a B.A. from Simon Fraser University, majoring in English and doing a double minor in Philosophy and Theatre. He moved to Toronto in 1987, where he completed an M.A. in English at York University. He ran the popular Idler Pub Reading Series for ten years, was co-creator of Bald Ego Theatre, and is now the artistic director of Bulletproof Theatre. His work has appeared in several anthologies (The Edges of Time, Seraphim Editions 1999) and numerous literary magazines, and he is the author of nine books of poetry, two novels and three short story collections. We’re thrilled to have him here at Poetic Edits:

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines? Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?

Stan Rogal: I’ve been thinking about this and I guess my first stumbling block is with the word “revision”. I tend to think of this as going back to a work that’s finished and then re-writing with an arsenal of new knowledge or a new “take” on it in order to make it something “other” than it was; a fresh angle. To be honest, I’ve never had the luxury (or maybe even the inclination) to do this in poetry. Once it’s done, it’s done and it either gets published “as is” or not and it’s rare for editors to come back and take the time to offer crit in order to overhaul a poem, never mind an entire manuscript.

Even my fiction generally has only had light touch-ups done. It’s a bit different with my plays because (while I may have what I think is a finished product) I get to work with actors/directors and a play can go through many transformations before it hits the stage.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”

Stan Rogal: I guess I’m also not too big on the word “inspiration” in its metaphorical meaning, and prefer the more base definition of “breathe new life into”. For me, revision is exertion; it’s physical and mental toil; it’s work. Poems don’t just come to me, I gather bits and pieces of things, pull them apart, bash them up, then reconstruct them; string them together with own voice and view of the world.

Looked at this way, I don’t call what I do “revising” but an ongoing “reworking” of an idea until I get to a place where I’m more or less satisfied with what I’ve produced. I know many writers who write a lot, then cut it back. I tend to get a skeleton down then add to it; build upon it. I try to use as little punctuation as possible and let the line breaks do the work, and/or allow words to blend together and allow the reader decide whether to stop, go or pause. When it comes to words, I try to make one word do the work of several. So, a word that offers several meanings in itself or offers allusions to other ideas, works, people, whatever.

Do you feel any difference/make a distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?

Stan Rogal: I tend to write single poems that tie together via a particular theme. That said, I work on the single poem at one time until I finally break its back. I don’t tend to work on several poems at the same time, though I will consciously echo images, ideas and so on throughout an entire collection.

Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?

Stan Rogal: Pet peeves? I’m pretty open to feedback and am willing to make changes if they make sense. What really bothers me is editors who want to change your style to make it more like theirs. Or ask for changes that suit their needs rather than mine or the poem. Or obviously have no idea what the poem is doing so want me to write in an explanation.

I’ve never really edited anyone else’s poems. I’ve offered opinions and said they can take them or not.

Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Stan Rogal: I guess I work on this all the way through subconsciously, but as I’m closing in on the poem, I think more and more about the actual shape of the poem (big and fat long lines; short and narrow lines; lots of line breaks, few line breaks) as well as the rhythm, the music of the poem.

And, of course, what am I trying to say or do with the poem (because yes, I’m one of those poets who does deal with meaning) and is it too overt/not overt enough and so on.

No principles. Lines don’t change so much as the trade places, then make sure each word is doing as much work as possible and if it isn’t, find a better one: “The poem of the mind and the act of finding what will suffice,” Wallace Stevens. Gut feelings, I suppose — does it sing; does it dance; does it tickle; does it shock? Finally, does it make me happy ’cause very few folks out there give a shit about poetry, yes?

Marcus McCann

Marcus McCann is the author of Soft Where (Chaudiere Books) and eight chapbooks. He was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert and Robert Kroetsch awards, and in 2009 he won the John Newlove Award. A journalist by trade and curious by inclination, McCann is an editor at Xtra in Toronto and Ottawa. We’re happy to have him at Poetic Edits…

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines? Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?

Marcus McCann: The other poets you’ve spoken with seem to have answered these questions so well. I agree with a lot of what’s been said: that it’s hard work, that distance helps, that a good editor is essential.

One further thought: immediately before a poet sends a poem to its first reader, there is a moment of panic. And it’s very productive. For me, that first reader is usually my boyfriend Mark, and it’s usually a matter of hauling the text out of Microsoft Word and pasting it into the body of an email. Right before I send it, I always give it a frantic final read and I catch two or three lines or phrases that are really dreadful, and the pressure is on to correct it right away, before I hit send. That moment of pressure — deadline? — is unusual for poetry, and it sometimes helps. It’s happened a couple of times that I’ve gotten to that phase, and then not hit send, because the poem isn’t ready. It’s a moment of clarity.

That’s not the only time I edit. Most poems have to survive at least 5 rounds of edits; and of course, preparing the work for publication in a book or chapbook comes with its own editing process. But yeah, the minutes before I send a work to someone are usually an intense period of editing.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”

Marcus McCann: So much of poetry today works from source texts: cento, glosa, poems with epigraphs, retellings, translation (transelation, homo-linguistic translation), allusion, found poems, plunderverse, flarf, erasure, anagram, and so on. The creative act in producing a found poem, for instance, is the act of carving text out of one context and putting it in another. For erasure, the creative act is deletion. These are essentially poems created by editing, by revision. Revision as curation? Or as collation?

If you don’t think that revision is a creative or artistic act, then I think you’d have to discount a lot of the interesting work that’s going on in poetry today, namely those poems where composition takes a back seat to editing — or even where composition disappears completely, and the creative act is something we would not normally associate with editing. Revision is creation.

Do you feel any difference/make a distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?

Marcus McCann: Editing a poem and a book require the same types of decisions — inclusion/exclusion, sequencing, revision, and so on. Take repetition. It’s something that you’re watching out for in a single poem — repeated words, phrases and ideas — and you’re trying to answer the question, “Is this repetition useful?” Because repetition is okay, as long as it adds some kind of resonance to the poem. And it’s the same for a collection or a series. I mean, it’s on a different scale, and so it doesn’t feel the same while you’re doing it, but they’re not that different, no?

Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?

Marcus McCann: Oh god. Consistency. I’m a stickler for consistent formatting. So, for instance, titles: do they get a capital? Word caps? All caps? Are the prepositions capitalized? And I want that to be the same throughout the book. Same for punctuation. It throws me when some poems are punctuated and others not in the same collection.

Other poets, of course, have other ideas. I’ve had the good fortune of helping edit two very good collections, one by Nicholas Lea and one by Pearl Pirie. Both Lea and Pirie have taught me a lot about writing. They both insisted I was wrong about that kind of formal consistency. So, I’m learning to let go. I think it comes from my career as a newspaper editor — in the back of my mind, I keep thinking, “What would CP say?”

Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Marcus McCann:

Dressed in
the frilly undergarment
of apprehension,

These three lines first appeared a failed poem called “Exhibition Place,” which was a piece about living in a glass condo with no curtains. The poem miscarried. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I couldn’t seem to hammer out a structure for the poem. Eventually, it just died on the operating room table.

Luckily, every cadaver is full of organs. The line, with a new referent, was sewn into a new poem, “Poem on Multiplicity, with Accompaniment, Sung in a Natural Register,” which was a longish piece I wrote specifically for Michael V Smith’s Toronto launch of Progress at Grannyboots. It involved six voices speaking in dialogue, in partial unisons, in a round and in a cacophony. It required a lot of drone text that was intended to be more textural than lyric, so I was able to repurpose all kinds of things and Frankenstein them together. I’m not sure if anything will come of “Poem on Multiplicity,” but if not, perhaps I’ll be able to recycle some of those parts again.

Ken Norris

Ken Norris was born in New York City in 1951. He immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s and quickly became one of Montreal’s infamous Véhicule Poets. One of Canada’s most prolific poets, Norris has always given his readers subtly capricious and edgy poetry that reveals unanticipated possibilities and explores new horizons. He is the author of two dozen books and chapbooks of poetry, and is the editor of eight anthologies of poetry and poetics. His work has been widely anthologized in Canada and throughout the English-speaking world, as well as published in translation in France, Belgium, Israel and China.

How do you work your way through revisions?

Ken Norris: I work on poems a book at a time. I type up a complete manuscript in order to see what I’ve got. I consult with my editor. Poems are addressed as pieces of a whole. Weak poems get disappeared. Off-balance poems get realigned. Difficult poems get laid aside for the eleventh hour. But I work on a book, with poems as parts that make up the whole.

So the first thing is arriving at the vision of the book. That’s the first revision. Because what I’m starting out with is maybe twelve notebooks composed over a period of four years. As I’m typing it up I’m rejecting 50-60% of what I’ve got.

Once the manuscript gets approximated, then it is time to start working on refining the individual poems. The key ingredient is cold-bloodedness. The poet needs to be a good editor of his/her own work. Poems that simply don’t work get the heave-ho. My editor drives the line edits. Often an editor sees what you don’t, or understands the poem better than the person who wrote it.

Every poem is different. So that the revisionary process is different for every poem. Some poems need major overhauls. Some poems are perfect just as they are. Some poems need a different title. Others need a word changed and a comma added or deleted.

Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines?
Ken Norris: Back in 1983 I was blessed to have bpNichol as my editor for The Better Part Of Heaven, which was published by Coach House Press in 1984.

Working with bp was a mind-blowing experience. I thought I knew how to write until we sat down and started working on the manuscript. We worked on it for 12-16 hours a day over the course of a week.

Barrie had the extraordinary ability to show you the six or ten different ways you could have written your poem if you hadn’t written it the way you had. And he would do that in five or ten minutes.

His imagination was so vast, his skill level so accomplished, that he would help you to completely reimagine what you had written multiple ways, so that it suddenly dawned on you that you had infinite choices, abundant options, as opposed to the one way you thought the poem inevitably needed to be written.

He taught me how to write in a week. I was one writer at the beginning of the week and a completely different writer by the time we had finished editing the book.

He taught me a thousand different tricks for removing commas, words, or lines. But I don’t remember what they are. I just do them. The important thing was getting down deep into the text knowing that you had a vast array of options.

Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?
Ken Norris: For the past fifteen years I have edited all my books on my Apple computer in my office at the University of Maine. I have never thought about the chair, but it is the same chair.

State of mind is really important. Absolute concentration. A very clear mind, undisturbed by anything. Silence.

I can usually stay “in the zone” for a maximum of two hours. And then that is usually it. Occasionally, I try to pull a double shift. Two hours, a substantial break, another two hours. It usually doesn’t work, and I give up on the second shift after fifteen minutes of feeling out of it.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is ____________”
Ken Norris: Revision is seeing things differently.

By the time I get around to revising (5-10 years after the manuscript was written), I don’t much care about the poet who wrote the book. I don’t care what his motivations were, and often I don’t have any desire to respect his wishes. The poet who wrote the book is dead, and I am now the editor who needs to prepare for publication the manuscript he left behind.

So I experience a real split between the poet who wrote the book and the later incarnation editor who has to prepare the work for publication.

The person who wrote the book saw things one way, or had NO IDEA what he was seeing–he was just trying to describe it. The editor has to make sense of out his semi-incoherent thoughts and observations.

So I guess I fundamentally disagree with Lowell. As editor of my own work I feel more like a skilled technician. The inspiration needed to come at an earlier stage. The editor CAN BE somewhat inventive.

Do you feel any difference or make any distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?
Ken Norris: When editing a “book” of poetry, the poems all have something to do with one another. They all need to work together. They are all interrelated. So echoes can be interesting, sometimes necessary.

A single, free-standing poem only relates to itself. It doesn’t have to go outside its parameters or its own internal integrity.

Jonathan Ball

Jonathan Ball is the author of Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009) and Clockfire (Coach House Books, 2010). He is the former editor of dandelion, and his writing has appeared across Canada, and in The Believer and Harper’s. We’re happy to have him here at Poetic Edits.

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines?

Jonathan Ball: My main “trick” is to know my weaknesses beforehand. I’m prone to passive voice constructions so remove those. I see adverbs as flags that I have used imprecise or bland words and tried to “cover them up” by telling the reader “this is how to read” via the adverb. But my main tactic is to isolate the best part of the poem. That image or idea or form. And then edit to strengthen or uphold, and then complicate, that core element. I also try to take each image or idea and consider it in isolation, how to make it bright and twisting and visceral. My main concern in editing is to make the work more visceral, since this is the single quality I value most in poetry, and also the quality poems tend to lose in editing. I also push the poem into different forms to see what works best, and think a lot about how I can make the form more interesting. The simplest “trick” for a writer is to pare things down – make poems as minimalist as possible given what you’re trying to do. Few poems should be longer than half a page. Poetry’s strength is in compression. The more words you have, the less impact any single word has.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true?  How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”

Jonathan Ball: I hate it when artists say the word “inspiration.” If anything should be censored, it’s that. What does it mean? It’s a vague word for a vague process that nobody seems able to explain. I prefer Poe and his “Philosophy of Composition.” Any artist worth her or his salt should be able to explain their working process in that detail. “Inspiration” is so much a part of the artist’s vocabulary and ideology now that it should be excised as boring. “Revision is work.” There’s nothing nebulous about it. It’s a reasoned process of making logical decisions. At its worst, it’s “inspiration” in the sense of making gut-felt, instinctual decisions, none of which you can defend and which are therefore probably poor.

Do you feel any difference/make a distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection? 

Jonathan Ball: I’m not interested in collecting poems. I write books. Single poems don’t need to be collected. Why bother? Why force them into some vague, bland frame? My most recent manuscript, The Politics of Knives, is close to a collection, in that I didn’t at first intend the poems to work together in a book (but published them as separate chapbooks), but later began to think of them as something of a larger project, something I was working out in spurts, and wound them together, and rewrote them as a unit, so that I think they hold together as a book rather than a collection. But maybe I’m wrong and blind to my own failures. In which case, to answer your question, I settle on a coherent concept for a book, with a limited formal approach, and select/edit individual poems to then “fit” into the book rather than stand on their own.

Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s? 

Jonathan Ball: I’m sick of all these boring, bland emotions that everyone thinks are precious and worth writing about just because they have them currently or had them once. And thus perceive as universally interesting throughout epochal time. Always the same emotions, communicated the same ways. If you put an original spin on it, find a prettier way to say it, it’s still a cliché. My joke is that as a straight, white male, aged 18-35, I feel my emotions are adequately represented in the culture. I edit to strip out emotion. If any emotions remain, they are then connoted or otherwise fundamentally tied to the language and tone and therefore necessary, or result from collusion between language and reader, and my ugly face is out of the picture.

Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Jonathan Ball: This is a question I ask others to answer in the “8-Ball” interviews on my website, in a different guise, but few people answer the way I had hoped. So I’ll attempt to answer my own question, as I see it lying dormant in this one: “What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)”

A while back, I decided to write a poem attacking Stephen Harper, for a call sent out about a brilliant little chapbook/magazine called Stephen Harper. The publication never materialized, but it was the brainchild of Natalie Zina Walschots and Ryan Fitzpatrick, two friends of mine, who wanted to create a publication whose forced subscribers would be MPs across the nation. This was a response to the Conservative re-jigging of the Canadian Magazine Fund. So I wrote my poem and sent it in, and also posted all on my blog. I’ll reproduce the full post here, despite some inaccuracies regarding the noted policies I now notice:

Stephen Harper is in my face again. Why? What did I ever do to Stephen Harper? Why must I always feel at war with my own government? I just want to pay my taxes in peace.

It’s not enough that the government wants to impose bizarre regulations on the Canadian Magazine Fund, effectively destroying the literary periodical industry by limiting funding to periodicals with circulations less than 5000. No, they also have to try to kill SSHRC by making it fund only “business-related degrees” (I don’t know what kind of “business-related degrees” people get in the Social Sciences and Humanities).

The only good to come out of this is a new literary journal, Stephen Harper, run by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Natalie Zina Walschots. Their call for submissions is below. But first, my own contribution, composed mostly of lines from this CNN interview with Harper:

That said, Wolf

If there is one thing
that could turn a recession into a depression,
it’s Stephen Harper.

If any country
doesn’t respect its obligations,
then Stephen Harper.

I think this is a debate we would rather avoid.
You can’t “Buy Canadian” but you can buy Canada.

Later, I heard about a call for an anthology edited by Stephen Brockwell and Stuart Ross called Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament. The Stephen Harper magazine looks like it’s dead, so why not send my already-written Stephen Harper poem?
But then, looking at “That said, Wolf” later on, with some emotional distance, I’m disappointed in the work. I realize that the poem cannot be salvaged, because it simply restates my opinion, which is best expressed not in poetry but in essays or articles. So it may stand as published and submitted online, but will never be collected or reproduced elsewhere unless by others. My “second draft” will be a total restart, from Word 1.
I try something more subtle, something that sounds less like an attack ad and speaks more to my complicated, semi-nationalist feelings. We get the politicians we deserve, and the nation we deserve, and my conflicted love and horror of this country, its history, its future, and even mundane things like its weather, strikes me as not dissimilar from the emotions that I feel about religion in general, and my Catholic background in particular (even if you turn atheistic, Catholic guilt will never let you go) – since Harper is a religious man, why not move the poem further in this direction?
Instead of attacking Harper, I will address myself to him. “O Stephen Harper” is the obvious choice for a title. After a few more drafts I have a poem I’m happy with, one that doesn’t stand as an attack on Stephen Harper but is struck through with what I’d like to think is a profound ambivalence:

O Stephen Harper


O Stephen Harper, I am moving to your riding,
tell me what wine I should bring.

O Stephen Harper, I am casting my vote
in bronze to await your majority.

O Stephen Harper, if a fisher of men
then your nets will be choked with such fish.

O Stephen Harper, if there are bailouts
then this boat could use a bailout.


O Stephen Harper, what can you do,
you are only one man and I’m an ocean.

O Stephen Harper, with your thimble
you must move my beach from here to here.

O Stephen Harper, there is a second death
and it’s coming and everyone’s waiting.

O Stephen Harper, something walks on the waters,
it looks human and we are all scared.

I’ve lost my earlier drafts of this poem – so this is how it appears in the Brockwell/Ross anthology. I like a lot of things about this poem – how it’s political, but also personal, yet not particularly expressive, and more concerned with sounding the depths of what politics means in our psychological and religious lives than making a point about how one should vote or not vote. Stephen Harper is more a void that we fill with our own hopes or anxieties than a real person, so I put in a reference to Lacanian psychoanalysis alongside the references to Christian mythology, although I tried to do it in a way that won’t bog down or ruin the poem for someone who doesn’t notice the reference.

I also like the turn where the final allusion to Jesus becomes monstrous, which in itself is inspired by the story where Jesus casts out the demons into the swine, after which he’s asked to leave the land and never return – ironically, Jesus as monstrous is something I’ve kept intact from the Bible stories, as opposed to how someone like Harper would want to read Jesus, or how he sometimes comes across as a castrated hippie in the modern age.

Like I say, I lost the original drafts, but I did another revision of this poem recently, nothing substantial, but I changed these lines slightly:

O Stephen Harper, I shall move to your riding,
tell me what wine I should bring.

O Stephen Harper, I shall cast my vote
in bronze to await your majority.

I’ve used “shall” for a more “prophetic” tone, and because “shall” is declarative. Otherwise, these final edits are embarrassing, Writing 101 edits on an already-published work: “Eliminate unnecessary passive voice constructions in order to add force to your writing.” I include this for any of my students who read this, to show that not only do I ALSO make this mistake, I ALSO deserve reprimand whenever I do!

Sandra Ridley

Sandra Ridley’s first book of poetry, Fallout, won the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Award for publishing. Her second collection, Post-Apothecary, is forthcoming with Pedlar Press. We’re delighted to have her at Poetic Edits…

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines? Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?

Sandra Ridley: Drafts are set aside for weeks or months at a time. Notes on the flyleaves of books are erased. Old files are deleted and the waste bin fills with paper. Surely not the wisest method, but it’s how I work. With no tracery of evidence of where the poem was, it has more freedom of movement. For me, typically, drafts are pieced together from accumulated scraps. There’s often no real beginning. No end.

With revisions, it helps to keep the breath in mind. If the poem can’t find breath, if rhythm is suspect, I take out all the punctuation and condense the work into a long run-on sentence. Line-breaks, commas, periods and whatnots are then redistributed where pauses are needed most — weighted with hesitation. Pragmatism works. The breath dictates the words into the cadence and structure of the poem onto the page. And from the page back into the mouth.

Poetry needs to be read aloud, spoken, sung — but of course, there are exceptions like most visual and haptic, with emphasis on sight and touch.

A friend’s or editor’s eyes are always helpful.

How do you feel your editing process has changed from when you first started writing?

Sandra Ridley: It’s become more critical. These days what concerns me is cinching and culling too early in the writing process — removing words as quickly as they accumulate. That’s no way to write a poem. But if a draft can get past this stage, it’s exactly that, a draft. A rough poem. Hinterland it. The more detached I am when I reread it aloud, the better I can hear where the work is congested. The content and the words themselves. Is the poem’s truth clear? I don’t mean what is factually true, but what the poem is really about and how that can be said best — using the poem’s implicit vocabulary, partnered with its endemic emotion and sound.

With any luck, a poem insists itself — with an intention much different than our own. Open. Listen. Let go.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”

Sandra Ridley: A tightening. A tourniquet.

I appreciate Lowell’s statement. Air into the lungs. Breath. But too often there is poor air quality. He got it only half-right. Mindful revision is inspiration. Revision itself is not.

Do you feel any difference or make any distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection? 

Most of my poems tend toward the serial and editing one affects the content and trajectory of the rest. One poem needs to be considered in the context of what comes before and after, particularly in serial work. Repeating images (or phrases) are okay until the objective eye sees that they can be read as infected with laziness. Also, individual poems taken from a serial often don’t retain the intensity of the whole, on their own. It’s a worry. So, I’ve been thinking about how to condense the serial’s integrity into excerpts. It’s a good thing we each have our heroes (and our agonists). We learn from them. These days I’m rereading Phil Hall’s An Oak Hunch and Nicole Brossard’s Notebook of Roses and Civilization (translated by Erín Moure and Robert Majzels). Here’s a section from Brossard’s:

the idea that there are
inconsolable centres
in the middle of the chest
while we keep on
a notebook of roses
under the arm

To my ear, any excerpt of Brossard’s is full of the energy of her collection — vitality resonates. One piece sustains another.

Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Sandra Ridley: Ah, you caught me just in time. For the last few weeks, I’ve been editing my manuscript, Post-Apothecary, which will be coming out this fall with Pedlar Press. I saved a revision from the prospering trash, with your question in mind. Here’s the last version of one poem:

Weaken : Swoon

Pull closer. The air is wet with skin in this spin-fevered room.
Tremble-heart flicker. A saccharine taste invites your tongue.
Pull closer. The air is wet with skin in this spin-fevered room.

Thin sepsis sliding on bed sheets. You, a gauntling, acquiesce.
Pull closer. The air is wet with skin in this spin-fevered room.
Thin sepsis sliding on bed sheets. You, a gauntling, acquiesce.

Insubstantial to the swift dreamscape, the rolling eye of night.
Thin sepsis sliding on bed sheets. You, a gauntling, acquiesce.
Insubstantial to the swift dreamscape, the rolling eye of night.

Glissando or gloaming : the threshold will swallow you whole.
Insubstantial to the swift dreamscape, the rolling eye of night.
Glissando or gloaming : the threshold will swallow you whole.

Tremble-heart flicker. A saccharine taste invites your tongue.
Pull closer. The air is wet with skin in this spin-fevered room.
Tremble-heart flicker. A saccharine taste invites your tongue.


A tourniquet is needed, certainly. First, my reference to spin is redundant. The lines reel on their own, but go nowhere. So I got rid of spin. I got rid of fever too because wasn’t that the state I wanted the poem to evoke? I didn’t need to specifically name it. Then a close friend pointed out the obvious. My god. Tremble-heart flicker? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s in there? Nauseating. Then, what saccharine taste? Of what? Sepsis? Seriously? Sepsis in a poem? Good bye, both of them.

The poem ate itself away.


Pull closer. This air, wet with skin in your calla lilied room.
On a catafalque of creased sheets, you, gauntling —

Insubstantial in this dreamscape, this rolling eye of night.
Its gloaming shrouds you whole

Calla lilied replaced spin-fevered. Thin sepsis sliding on bed sheets became catafalque on creased sheets (catafalque supplied by the same close friend), carrying the C sound. Bed isn’t as hard-working as creased and with catafalque the idea of bed is connoted. Glissando was cut because what was it doing there in the first place? What function did it serve? Absolutely none, other than carrying the ‘G’, which gloaming was already burdened with. Without references to saccharine taste or tongue, a threshold that swallows becomes completely nonsensical. No more aspects of the mouth. And isn’t a dreamscape a kind of threshold? As is gloaming? There’s another redundancy. So, threshold — gone! And since swallows was excised, what would replace it? Shrouds. Similar darkening action, stitched to the funereal. I may have been wanting the poem to be about fever, but the poem insisted on death.

Better? (Maybe.)

Done? (Ask me in a few weeks.)

Oh Valery.

OK, I’m throwing out that earlier version now. Thanks for the questions.

Monty Reid

Winner of the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry three times and a three-time Governor General’s Award nominee, Monty Reid has published widely as a poet and essayist, producing a substantial volume of literary work. His volumes include The Life of Riley (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown Press, 1981), These Lawns (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990), The Alternate Guide (Red Deer College Press, 1995), Dog Sleeps (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1993), Flat Side (Red Deer College Press, 1998), a collection of new and selected poems, Crawlspace (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 1993), the chapbooks cuba A book (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005) and Sweetheart of Mine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006), and finally Disappointment Island (chaudiere books, 2006). I’m pleased to have him at Poetic Edits:

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines? Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?

Monty Reid: I don’t do it systematically until I think something is ready to publish. Then I’ll go through the ms in detail. I once completely rewrote a ms as haiku, because I wanted a more precise, more nuanced line. I then rewrote again, losing the haiku form (mostly) but keeping the brevity. At this stage, it may or may not be a productive process – sometimes I’ve revised things only to go back to the earlier version. Most systematic of all, is when I go through it with an editor/publisher – the external eye can be very helpful.

I don’t have any tricks or theories. Usually, I’m trying to improve the clarity, but sometimes I’m also looking for more resonance. Ideally, those work together, but not always.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”

Monty Reid: It’s sometimes true. You can find wonderful new poems, approaches, ideas, as you revise existing work. And you can certainly improve the work in question. But nothing about writing and/or revising is so definitive – revision isn’t always inspiring. Revision is division.

Do you feel any difference or make any distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?

Monty Reid: For sure. A single poem may not be simpler, but you don’t have to worry about where it fits in the sequence, how it influences its context, how it moves the sequence along. I’ve dropped poems because they did the same work as other poems elsewhere in the collection. In part, it’s just an issue of scale, and at some point, scale matters. A single poem can have an equally complex web of relations, but a series has more of them, or at least repeats them more often.

Any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?

Monty Reid: Those are two different things. Editing your own work is way more painful.

Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

Monty Reid: Here’s the opening lines of a poem from a current ms – Host – as they were first written a couple of years ago:

Filarial worms, which need to pass from humans to mosquitos to complete their life cycle, can sense the time of day.
After dark they shuttle from your deepest capillaries up to the edge of the skin, hoping to depart.
If a mosquito bite does not find them by two in the morning
They return to the warm core of the host

and now:

Subcutaneous quiver.

After dark, the worms move.

They are leaving.

They rise to the edge
Of the host, to the bottom of the skin
And wait for another life.

If a mosquito does not find them by two in the morning
They return through the hospitable tissue
To the deeper ooze of the subject.

The ms is about how the self is constructed, often by natural and sometimes cultural agencies beyond our control, so the change was for the sake of clarity and for the pacing.