Editor Michael Prior reviews Claire Kelly's debut chapbook, Ur-Moth.

Claire Kelly
Frog Hollow Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781926948201
Page Count: 35pp

clairemoth2014In Sophocles’ Ajax, the titular Greek prince is incensed that the dead Achilles’ armour is given to Odysseus, and therefore vows to kill the other Greek leaders. However, before he can do so, Athena intervenes, causing Ajax to hallucinate that a group of sheep and cattle are the other Greeks. Later, when Ajax realizes he’s spent an awful lot of time trying to get a cow to apologize, he decides to kill himself by planting his sword in the ground and falling on it. In one sense, Ajax dies for his imagination—yes, he dies for his own pride, and yes, he dies because of divine intervention, but Ajax also dies for what he cannot imagine: his inability to see the world through any of the other Greeks’ eyes, his inevitable failure to retain control of his mind when Athena decides to substitute sheep for soldier.

It’s fitting, then, that Claire Kelly’s highly imaginative and allusive chapbook Ur-Moth (Frog Hollow Press, 2014) opens with a poem called “How to Fall a Sword: A Step-by-step Guide,” replete with an epigraph from Ajax and mention of the “grievous imaginations” to which Ajax succumbs. While Ajax fails to disengage himself from his singular and self-centered point-of-view, Kelly’s poems engage with a plurality of perspectives and diverse subjects, often reaching via ekphrasis or ode towards other artists and other lives (some of the more obvious inspiration comes from Gwendolyn MacEwen, van Gogh, and several species of mushrooms). Kelly is also formally explorative and Ur-Moth contains glosas, anaphora poems, and poems that drift across the page, unanchored from the left margin.

The best poems in Ur-Moth are composed at the intersection of ekphrasis and ventriloquism, where Kelly’s speakers seem simultaneously familiar and strange—an intersection fruitfully explored by many poems in the chapbook’s first half. “How to Fall on a Sword,” for example, is a striking tongue-in-cheek examination of the foibles of a rigid code of masculinity, the speaker’s tone wavering between outright ironic (“Why trust the gods?”) and coldly instructional (“Forget your wife and child. Your body was made for battle, not comfort”). The poem is written in long lines and in list form. Such structural decisions run the risk of unfurling into prose, but Kelly’s careful rhetorical flourishes, blunt diction, and keen grasp of what should be left unsaid emphasize the divide between tone and subject matter, adding a subtle tension to the lines:

8. Call to death. Tell him how water tasted when you were a child and where you skipped
your first stone.

9. If someone’s listening, remember: honour is a precarious business.

The first and last commands in these lines flex a tight-fisted concision, while the second command to “Tell him how water tasted…” is less directive than permission to remember. Sonically, the lines are carefully considered with parallel prepositional clauses, an intensifying caesura, and the consonance of the “w” that recurs every three to four syllables in the second sentence, as if recalling the insistent ebb of the “water” itself.

Such syntactical and lexical acuity are also demonstrated in “Morning Gods on the Day of Enlightenment,” a lush glosa whose four recycled lines/epigraph are taken from Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Breakfast,” (originally published in her collection, The Rising Fire). The poem is filled with striking images and associations: the opening lines compare “crowds rustling papers,” to the sound of water evaporating in a hot pan—a sound that suggests to the speaker “the entire world could dry up in an instant.” Both MacEwen’s and Kelly’s poems meditate on the individual’s internalization of the external world (MacEwen: “by eating the world you may enclose it.” Kelly: “comfort yourself // knowing that it will soon be inside you). But whereas MacEwen is swallowed up by the overwhelming cosmos in her attempt to grapple with the vastness of the inhuman world, Kelly implies that the world is only as vast as one allows, and that the small, domestic space of the kitchen may be made to contract and expand through the power of imagination—not the other way around. Thus, MacEwen’s speaker holds a spoon up to marvel at the way it is swallowed by the sky, while Kelly’s speaker measures her and her partner’s hands against another spoon to confirm their “small[ness]” and intimacy.

“Morning Gods on the Day of Englightenment,” in its insistence on the pleasures of the small and particular as connected to—but not overwhelmed by—the larger, often incomprehensible world, allows Kelly to cleverly frame the poem as an unconventional aubade, where her speaker may “whisk” the early morning “moon” around her and her partner, as if their love were “galactic madness.” Kelly’s astral conceits, however, turn slightly “topsy-turvy” and “fragile” by the poem’s end which returns the reader to the darker astral pandemonium of MacEwen’s imagination. The final lines’ relative ambiguity is cleverly contrasted with the sonic closure of the stanza’s ending rhyme that incorporates the MacEwen source material: “Even my imposing frame has grown unstable / with the measurements of a momentary breakfast table.”

The latter half of the chapbook contains a series of poems that derive inspiration from the names of various mushrooms. Rife with puns, the mushroom poems are slighter and more purely descriptive than the poems in the first half of the chapbook, yet they still display Kelly’s lexical flair and penchant for surprising comparisons. Take the compact “Devil's Snuff Box,” excerpted below in its entirety:

Spiny bumps, gem-studded, kinky.
A pale knob poking from fallen leaves.

When touched, a spray of spores
spits like an insult, a curse.

Common. Warted.

Poor men’s sweetbread:
Fry until golden and crack an egg,

or with a well-honed knife,
cube the white flesh for soup.

Ignore the misnomer,
the wicked exterior, all that sex.

Battered and sautéed, a perfect side dish.
Mushrooms cannot sin.

The poem balances purely descriptive appraisals with an extended sexual conceit; Kelly takes delight in the use of suggestive imagery such as the “pale knob poking” up from a bed of leaves, as well as adjectives like “kinky” and “wicked.” The conceit playfully contrasts with the actual asexuality of the mushrooms that reproduce via spores, populating their surroundings with identical copies of themselves—a solitary cycle in opposition to the "sin" of animal reproduction. The poem isn’t ambitious in its scope, never moving far beyond its descriptive and metaphorical focus, but within its concision Kelly demonstrates a nuanced understanding of sound as an intensifier of sense (the last four lines are particularly memorable). While some of the mushroom poems don't quite match the memorability of "Devil's Snuff Box," the majority are satisfying metaphorical explorations of myth and allusion (at points, Kelly evokes Ovid, Dickens, and the constellation Ursa Major) via Kelly’s deceptively diminutive fungal tenors.

Claire Kelly’s Ur-Moth is a carefully-wrought chapbook by a talented writer. Throughout its pages, Kelly restlessly and confidently interrogates her own myriad influences, gifting the reader surprising turns of phrase and thought. Like Shelley’s moth desiring the star, Kelly’s poems turn and flutter in unexpected ways, often reaching higher than they would appear to on first read—the products of a luminescent imagination.

TREVOR CORKUM cropped Liz Harmer: Trevor, you’ve been making your mark on the Canadian literary scene for the past few years, publishing in journals like The Malahat Review, Descant, Event, Joyland, The Dalhousie Review, Prairie Fire, Little Fiction, PRISM international, and others, and receiving nominations for the Journey Prize and for National Magazine Awards, longlisting and shortlisting all over the place, and completing your MFA at UBC under Zsuzsi Gartner’s mentorship.

You’ve been very successful with your stories—do you see yourself as primarily or especially drawn to the story form? What have you got on the go now?

Trevor Corkum: Like many of us, I work in many genres. I started out as a poet, and my first published works were poems. At UBC, I focused on short fiction, screenplay, and non-fiction, and I still work in all three. I’m drawn to the story in particular because of the joys and challenge of the form—in and out as quickly as possible, sketching a believable world, building the action, shaping believable and full characters. I like that in the story there’s so little room for error. All elements need to work together in perfect harmony—language, rhythm, pacing, structure, voice—or else it all falls down like a house of cards. In a longer piece (novel or novella or full-length screenplay), there’s more room for slack. In the story we need to stay disciplined and focused at every turn.

Apart from the mechanics, I love the infinite variety of the form. My own short stories have run the gamut from traditional narratives to highly experimental pieces, from those that are nearly plotless to more action-filled dramas, from tragedy to satire. I also move pretty fluidly among narrative perspectives and points of view. I appreciate that a story, when fully realized, is closer to a poem than a novel—it’s a deeper, more penetrating kind of insight about a particular human experience—a flash of brilliance to appreciate and savour before it disappears into the ether.

I have a whole bag of tricks on the go at the moment. I finished a short story manuscript this year, at long last--I really took my time to put it together and make sure it was what I wanted as a first book out in the world. The manuscript began as my thesis from UBC (originally called Beautiful Birds Are Flying All Around You), but over time, that collection was pillaged and looted and replaced with stories that felt more intuitively and organically connected. I’m a compulsive editor, so I spent a lot of time polishing. Only two of the original twelve stories remain in the current manuscript. The new collection is called When We Die. It’s with my agent now—we’re getting ready to send it around soon. There’s been some good interest so far from early readers, so that’s encouraging.

For the past year I’ve been working on a novel set in contemporary Halifax. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between two teenage boys in the North End of the city, and the relationship between one of the boys and his soldier father. I may be biased, but I think it’s heartbreaking and funny at the same time (think Nomi Nickels from A Complicated Kindness as a Maritime boy). Thematically, it explores race relations in Halifax, electricity, astrology, guilt, Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan, punk music, and of course death.

I’ve started early work on a couple of additional novels—one is a sort of meditation on love (and dying), the other an international political thriller. I’m about to start work with actor and director Ryan Cunningham on a screen adaption of my short story “5’9, 135, 6c, br bl” which made its stage in Edmonton a few years ago. I have a number of newer stories for a second collection, a pile of essays that need some tender loving revision, and a pretty solid working idea for a children’s book. I like to keep my fingers in many pies.

That’s a pretty impressive number of pies. Now I’m wondering, since you balance the often very different parts of a writer’s job:  Does your feeling about the work of writing shift when the work moves from inward and mostly experienced by yourself to public, either published or performed? How do you feel about exposure?

This is a great question, Liz. I think on the first level, we all as writers have the experience of readers believing the fictions we create are true to our own lives. When I first began to publish, there were a few awkward, not-quite-sure-how-to-ask moments with friends who believed that every last detail of one short story or another was based on my own life. I think comes with the territory and doesn’t bother at all—it’s just interesting to note.

On another level, it’s deeply gratifying when any of the work connects with readers (or audience members). I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of feedback (through email, social media, or in person) from readers about particular pieces that have had an impact in some way. Because many of my stories deal with characters who are lonely, ostracized, or struggling in some way, to know that a piece has made someone feel less alone in the context of their own lives is extremely rewarding.

Since I’ve moved to Toronto, I’ve had the odd experience of being "recognized” on the street from time to time from people who’ve read my work and recognize me from photos or events—folks who want to introduce themselves, talk about the work, or just say hello.

For me a work is not truly alive until it connects with an audience. Ultimately, it is the reader (or audience) who grants the work its ‘soul’ through the alchemy of reading and witnessing. It’s a combined pact of magic between the writer and reader.

 I’ve noticed that you are very generous to other writers, reading others and encouraging them and promoting their work. So, when you are on the other side of that alchemical relationship, what resonates most with you? Which writers you do you most connect with?

This is always a tricky question, because the list is so long and ever-changing. I read widely--I was that quiet kid at the library on a summer day with a pile of 10 or 12 hardcover library books, who couldn’t wait to get home and lie on a blanket in the sun to soak them all up--and I’m still like that. Reading is another form of writing, in other words. To read well as a writer is to engage in the other side the conversation, being open to experiencing new ways of seeing the world, of understanding what it means to be alive and be human--and of course at the technical level of craft, peeling back the layers to understand how a particular writer engages in their own form of magic.

In general, at the deepest level I engage most with writers who have a deep sense of generosity and compassion with the world. We were speaking in another forum about the idea of the ‘soul’ or ‘life force’ that some writers are able to work with in their writing--the idea that each character contains a certain indelible energy that takes shape in human form, and that in a piece of writing, the writer understands how that particular energy force/soul interacts and engages with the wider, mysterious world. So writers like Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, W.G. Sebald, Dionne Brand, Teju Cole--they’re all masters at the nuances of this kind of energy work. One of the challenges of the time we live in is that this sort of depth is somewhat out of fashion--we live in a time when surfaces are celebrated, when the cult of irony and brand names reigns supreme, when anything remotely earnest is met with suspicion or outright contempt.

That’s why writers like George Saunders, or Amy Hempel, Junot Diaz, or David Foster Wallace (may he rest in peace) are so inspiring—they’re able to match depth/soul with the obsession with surface that occupies our time, finding new forms and voices and ways of telling stories that resonate with how we live now. Writers like Miriam Toews and Heather O’Neill help me understand how to marry the darkness of our lives with humour—how to use humour to illuminate the fullness of our experience of being human. That’s been important in my own work. In terms of younger writers, I greatly admire artists and writers like Vivek Shraya, who are telling stories that have been ignored or overlooked by the mainstream, and are doing it with wit, flair, deep intelligence, and great heart.

I also read to understand the world and situations and people outside my own life. I read a lot of international fiction and often feel that while the Canadian literary community does a great job at celebrating and promoting CanLit, we’re often not as great as placing our work in the context of or in conversation with global literature. That’s a whole other topic—but there’s so much exciting work coming out of Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world. Not to mention all of the writing within our own borders that gets so little attention.

I have one more question for you, to do with those slippery terms—emerging and established, aspiring and serious—that we apply to ourselves at different times in our lives. Was there a particular point at which you were able to talk about yourself as a writer? What were some of the milestones along your path?

Another great question. I’d like to think that we’re all always “emerging” or at least evolving as creators and humans. All these distinctions are so arbitrary. I think when we sit down to write, what matters most is how we approach the act and craft of writing. Do we take ourselves and the process seriously? Do we give ourselves over, take risks, work with material that is meaningful to our own lives? For me, these are the fundamental questions, whether we’ve published fifty best-selling books or are just sitting down to write for the first time.

In terms of milestones—when I first began to feel like the hard work was paying off—I’d have to say the first publication was a big one. There’s nothing like seeing your work in print that first time, seeing it take on a life outside itself. As a short story writer, being nominated for the Journey Prize was another huge milestone—so many of my favourite Canadian writers started out in the JP anthology, so being included made me feel I was on the right path. This past year, finding a fantastic agent (Dean Cooke) who believes in not only in my current manuscripts, but in my skills and passions as a writer, has been a tremendous boost. It’s great to have people you trust in your corner, and I’m grateful to Dean and everyone at The Cooke Agency for their faith.

On a final note, one of the most rewarding elements of this stage has been to meet and form friendships with a fabulous and eclectic group of peers, writers at various stages of their careers who support and encourage one another and who understand the hard work, sacrifice, and crazy journey involved in the writing and creative life.

Trevor Corkum's fiction and non-fiction have been published widely across Canada. His work has been nominated for The Journey Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Western Magazine Award, and longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. He has just completed his first collection of short fiction and is at work on a novel set in the North End of Halifax. He's online at trevorcorkum.com.

For Here, Read This, one writer chooses a story s/he admires and another one reacts to it for the first time. In our last instalment Naben Ruthnum and Liz Harmer discussed a short story that crossed horror/literary lines and the role of emotions in reading and writing.

This time, Andrew F. Sullivan has Liz read Lindsay Hunter’s “A Girl”, a story marked by quick pacing and sorrow filtered through a plural voice. It’s about a girl who has gone missing from the perspective of a group of teenaged boys who were witnesses to how her disappearance affected their town.


Liz: The final line of “A Girl” is an incredible mix of sad and surprising, but the first thing that struck me about Hunter’s story was the cadence of the narrator. Once I fell into its rhythm I became pretty keen on sentences like this:

that missing girl used to do her eyeliner during class. Over and over, underlining her eye like Miss Shane underlined them nasty equations.Solve for x.

Even with all these great lines, on first read I found the prose distracting. Writing teens can be really difficult, easily turned cliché, and to me it felt artificial.

There was other girls of course. The entire cheerleading team could get you going, save for the chubby one, but she’d do in a pinch.

Here what jangled for me was the mix of the grammar of “there was other girls” and the phrasing of “save for”, which seemed much more adult, more formal.

How do you feel about the prose in this story? Do you think she pulls off the first-person plural?

Andrew:  I think the story is a bit more retrospective than in the moment, a collective reflecting on a past they aren't proud of with little to no apologies. Not so much the voice of teenagers as teenagers, but a community reflecting on its recent history, refusing to acknowledge change while admitting to some nastier truths at the bottom of everything.

 As you said, that last line does carry a lot of weight for me. I think these minor violations do add up over time, the casual disregard teenagers can have for one another. I’d link it to films like Over the Edge and River’s Edge, both repulsed and enamoured with that desensitized, disaffected attitude. ...continue reading

photoalum read

Beckon in the New Year with three savvy readers, all graduates from the MA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Toronto! Jess Taylor ('13), Andrew Sullivan ('11) and Daniel Scott Tysdal ('08) will be our guests at this little reunion-of-sorts. We're stoked to hear from, and chat with, these ultra-talented grads!

Join us at 8pm on January 8 at Massey College (4 Devonshire Place, Toronto) in the Upper Library! https://www.facebook.com/events/1512251835723614/1515235222091942/?notif_t=like