In this essay, head editor Laura Ritland tells us what it was like to teach Jim Johnstone's poetry collection Dog Ear (Signal Editions 2014) to undergraduates at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The truth is, contemporary poetry ain't hard to love, and Johnstone's book is a knockout.

Last semester I taught about 60 undergraduate students as a teaching assistant for Daniel Scott Tysdal’s course in poetry at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Of all the experiences poetry has led me to, this was one of the most gratifying and inspiring. This isn’t to say that being a teaching assistant is glamorous work; the explosive labor dispute this semester at UofT exposes the uglier and frankly depressing conditions of being a graduate student. But when contemporary poetry, students, and writers gather in the halls of academia, some 60s-era wood-panelled room, transformative things can happen.dog ear title

Firstly, it’s worth knowing that Daniel Scott Tysdal is a brilliant poet in his own right and that his students are wild about him. “He looks like Shakespeare!” a student noted to me in tutorials. Secondly, Tysdal always incorporates a title of contemporary poetry into his curriculum – this year, Jim Johnstone’s Dog Ear. Winched together as smartly as Evel Knievel’s motorcycle, the book is a truly masterful collection, ambitious in its formal and conceptual scope, melodic, haunted, gritty, gorgeous. A skeptic might raise an eyebrow at an attempt to inspire a general audience to take interest in contemporary poetry (oddly, these voices tend to be poets themselves, which says something about our self-esteem). Indeed, even as I marvelled at Johnstone’s painterly application of allusions, his torqued imagery, the engineered compactness of his meditations on ontology, I was uncertain about how anyone not-a-poet would enter into this world.

Thankfully, Tysdal was teaching this course, not me. Each lecture started with the nuts and bolts of poetry – the image, poetic devices, meter, set forms – and moved into reading a poem from Dog Ear alongside something more traditionally canonical from Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets and Poetry anthology. For our lecture on imagery, we untangled the “white oak’s” branches of Johnstone’s “Ariadne’s Thread”; for metaphor, we looked at the “tuba, quartered” slipped within “Parenthesis.” “Drive,” read during our week on musical devices, was a favourite. The poem soars in long, songlike lines: “No one will find us in this city—not your valentine,/ not the line of dogs he’s chained by the throat.” Even if some students remained staunch enemies with prosody by that point, the music of Johnstone’s language wound its way into their hearts. All it took to enjoy these poems was to sit down and make the space to listen.

On a basic level, I’m saying something about contemporary poetry: that it’s easy to love, if you’re willing to listen. Equip yourself with a vocabulary in poetic devices and meter, and you’re set for maximum appreciation and possibly sublime transcendence. On a level of appraisal, I’m saying Dog Ear shines. If you’re looking for clever imagery, take the eponymous “Dog Ear”:

It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
page …

In line two, “this” initially means “dog ear,” the place marker for a book. But as we follow the poem’s groove of logic, a matching image, another gear, presents itself in the form of the speaker’s wife’s “earring,” which is then compared to “words” written on a page’s margin. Dog-ear, earring, words. “This” isn’t just a book-marker, but time-markers, the meaning-making we substitute for loss.

A pause while I explain what I think is the nucleus of the book: Dog Ear is about meaning-making, form – both in the aesthetic and ontological sense of the word. As Johnstone said to me later over a chocolate chip cookie in Toronto’s Parkdale, what do we “dog ear” from a life and “why do we pick to write about one thing rather than something else?” Put another way, what determines the shape of a life and how we might we come to terms with the mechanics that drive our identities? What choice do we have in these determinants? Not only time, but biology, culture, language and art undergird these concerns. In “The Greater Good,” the speaker’s very literal, biological heart “valves … drain// like pigs skewered/ on a spit”; Evel Knievel’s self-portrait is a “dog-eared, a carnal mask mirroring/ half-lit splits of wood.” These speakers are heavy with their own materials. These poems are also conscious of their aesthetic foundations, apparent in the ekphrastic “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” or the dubious agency of the artist figure in “Freedom.” I can’t help but also add that this mesh of aesthetics and evoked experience is perfect for a poetry class: it invites readers to see the relevance of aesthetics to what it means to humanly exist. “Epoch,” the last of the collection, is perhaps the most moving example of this synthesis, and I won’t say much more except please read it.

But the best thing about reading Dog Ear with Tysdal’s poetry class? The day Johnstone gave his reading. Students snaked from the podium to the back of the lecture hall, waiting to get their copies signed at the beginning of class. Few of them had met a “real poet,” I found out later. They had been expecting someone quaint, fusty, “with leather elbow patches,” “the tweed jacket.” I wonder if, in these students’ minds, the poet Johnstone had risked becoming like any other printed name in their anthology, that the reason they had been expecting a fictional Wordsworth to stroll into the room was because our culture knows our dead poets, but not our living ones. Johnstone stated this with fewer words: “Poetry needs to feel relevant to them. And if it’s not, then it takes on the dead quality of its author.” But Johnstone – we called him Jim – was real. Jim was chill. Jim had tattoos. Jim was bemused by all the attention and read his poems in the voice he wrote them and the class spread open their books to follow along. After weeks analyzing his work on chalkboards and living his poems in our minds, we listened.

 

jim johnstoneJim Johnstone is the author of The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions 2008), Patternicity (Nightwood Editions 2010) and Sunday, the locusts (Tightrope Books 2011). He is the recipient of a CBC Literary Award, The Fiddlehead's Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, and Matrix Magazine's Lit POP Award. Currently he's poetry editor at Palimpsest Press and an associate editor at Representative Poetry Online.

 

 

daniel scott tysdalDaniel Scott Tysdal is the author of three books of poetry, Fauxccasional Poems (forthcoming from Icehouse 2015), The Mourner’s Book of Albums (Tightrope 2010), and Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method (Coteau 2006). Predicting received the ReLit Award for Poetry (2007) and the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Award (2006). Oxford University Press recently published his poetry textbook, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough. In 2012, the UTSC student newspaper, The Underground, named him one of their four “Professors of the Year.”

 

 

 

double ducksWe double-dutched. We double-crossed each other a little. We met in secret, bridging two provincial borders over two prophetic weekends, and we doubled back to finally arrive at the winning entries of the Echolo-Qwerty Doubles Contest.

First place:
“Straight Man” by Sugar Le Fae

Second place:
“Stone Formations Along the Marginal Way” by Jennifer Martelli

Honourable mentions:
“Aubade I” and “Corridors” by Adèle Barclay
“Looping String” by Marcus Creaghan
“a wish in reverse, is this called regret?” by Cara Evans
“The Expendables 2 2” by Max Karpinski
“Pest Control” by Michael Meagher

Many thanks to all those who helped us spread the word about our collaboration, to the respective staffs of Echolocation and Qwerty magazines for their support, their hard work, and their patience with some inexplicably bad jokes about ducks, and most especially, to everyone who submitted to the contest.

The winning pieces and all honourable mentions will be printed in the Doubles Chapbook, to be printed soon, and launched separately in Toronto and Fredericton—more details to come in the following weeks. Congratulations, all!

In this week's Echolocation post, poet Jessica Bebenek provides us with an insightful and interrogative reading of Matthea Harvey's “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters To His Love” from Pity the Bathtub, Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.

from “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters To His Love”
by Matthea Harvey

7.
I once saw my life through the lens of one of your amber earrings
saw tiny skeletons caught in the silver oval with no chance
of struggling free and felt trapped and suffused with all
the sweetness and stickiness of your affection here surrounded
as I am by such spectrums of color and life suddenly all is clear
here I am the trapper littering the landscape with corpses
no longer feeling as if the path of my life is being cut into rock
by passion’s aimless meanderings I look back to you as though
through a telescope in this I mean I know what I want now
are the hidden things the intangible and unimaginable all
that you spoke of long ago I thought it was all about the chase
I reveled in hardships practicing sleeping on the dormitory floor
for when I would have the ground as my bed but I never practiced
sleeping with my knees in the hollow of another’s knees or breathing
slowly together instead I learnt the shallow breath of one who must
always remain undetected and in this way I have let my face slip from
your dreams I am here I am combing the grasses for hidden lions
riding after herds of elephants coming home with my own skin torn
my disguises and ploys seen for what they are by simple animals
who turn around and charge when they have been betrayed...

Matthea Harvey sets up “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love” as an epistolary poem, but only, it seems, in order to turn both the man and the form on their heads. Over the poem’s seven sections, we follow the real-life Selous’s imagined letters to his beloved, a woman left behind in England while he hunts big-game in Africa, as they go unreturned. Gradually, the sections become more journal entries than letters, amounting finally to a portrait of Selous’s own crippling passion, and his intrinsic isolation.

What draws me to this poem more than any of Harvey’s others is its sense of danger, the threat of violence and the too-real threat of loss. Selous as a speaker is terrifying in his casual aggression, beginning his first letter in accusation and presumption, his explicitness only increasing as the poem progresses. Through expansive sentence structures, Harvey creates meanings which slip headlong into one another to form cutting double entendres. The apparent motives of Selous’s desires mingle between violent and sexual with an ominousness that makes me question whether it is Harvey or Selous flexing her/his muscles in the space between the words.

In his first letter, Selous writes,

[I held the lion] in my arms still warm it is so strange to be surrounded
by animals larger and greater than me and watch them fall to their knees
still shuddering with that last longing for life and now I have
its tawny pelt beside me its hair two shades lighter than yours
and rougher...

making it easy for us as readers to imagine why his beloved may be keeping quiet. Later, when Selous becomes angry, resigned to her rejection, he compares their relationship to “the lion who roars to the dunes and grasses around him getting no / answer but the frightened silence of prey who pray to never be close / enough to have to answer with their flesh”.

There is a thrill in getting so close to the heart of Selous, this spring-loaded figure of hypermasculinity,  as he teaches himself “to be less judicious think less shoot more”. Harvey’s expansive, unstoppable lines drive us through the poem, push and pull us with the passion of a Selous “gone wild from lack of company or containment”, trip us over thoughts which refuse to end neatly. He threatens either to possess us or to kill us, but ultimately both the reader (and his beloved) are safe from him, kept at the distance of mere words on paper, able to reach out and touch the lion without fear of being eaten.

If he has lost his love, “let [his] face slip from / [her] dreams”, it is only through the worlds he has put between them. Though he is “the trapper littering the landscape with corpses”, she remains utterly unattainable, and Harvey permeates the poem with her presence like buckshot. This woman, the famous collector’s only nameless trophy, exists solely in the negative space of the poem, the remembered “knick-knacks / and patterned wallpaper” of her living room, the “tiny skeletons” in her amber earring. And yet her absence is the force behind the poem’s very existence, the betrayal of Selous’s fervent writing, his own desire to be pursued—his life lived without love, “without sugar it is so bitter”.

By the poem’s conclusion, Harvey leaves us with a delicately-wrought portrait of Selous, of his loneliness born from single-mindedness, his inability to find space for compassion between passion and pursuit. In his final letter, he writes,

I reveled in hardships practicing sleeping on the dormitory floor
for when I would have the ground as my bed but I never practiced
sleeping with my knees in the hollow of another’s knees or breathing
slowly together

We see a strength which has driven him towards everything he has accomplished now driving him away from humanity. We see a man betrayed more by himself than by his beloved. And who, after all, is this titular “Love”, or what? Ultimately, Selous is writing only to himself, the poem enacting a struggle not between man and nature, but between man and the forces of his own nature, his debilitating passion. By the closing lines, it is all too easy to see Selous for what he is, one of his “skins at the dock […] folded / into boxes tissue paper stuffed between the teeth and around the snout”.

On January 29, Laura Ritland (echolocation head editor), Adam Zachary (Editor in Chief of The Hart House Review) and Ronna Bloom (Poet in Community) presented a conversation panel on literary magazine publication to fellow writers, students, friends and colleagues. Laura discussed the value of literary magazines as “living communities,” Adam explained aspects of a strong literary submission, and Ronna spoke to the problems and gratifications of sharing literary work with others. What follows is a condensed and edited version of the conversation…

LR: I don’t think I’m making too large of an assumption in saying many of us are already well-acquainted with the concept of literary magazines. But if there’s one characteristic about literary magazines I want to foreground early in this conversation, it’s that they are a living community; they are ground-up organizations, grassroots efforts, which give them a unique capability to forge and sustain creative work.

I’ve been an editor and organizer of literary journals for over three years now – not a super long time, but I’ve see the same thing everywhere: good lit mags are inseparable from their creative communities; they are where editors, writers, readers, academics, publicists and other members in the literary industry hang out. The audience is very select: members of the intellectual community and other writers. Accordingly, because of its close dependence on its founders and participants, every literary journal has its own aesthetic taste, sometimes also aligned with an implicit or explicit political attitude.

But before I began to publish my work, I tended to worry about the “hierarchy of prestige” among literary journals and the way a writer is judged by the publications they have collected. It’s like a carnival game where everyone is shooting the same target. Yet, while competition is an important and necessary part of a thriving artistic community, I don’t believe this is necessarily a helpful or sustainable praxis for a writer. Rather, it’s good to keep in mind that literary magazines are these living communities through which we contribute, celebrate and perpetuate art. Appreciation rather than evaluation keeps writing alive.

Think of it this way: it enters into a readership and thus conversation about ideas, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and so on. A literary journal isn’t just whatever paper (or digital) format comes out of the work, but the people who have handled that work, thought about it, and enjoyed it. You’re entering a very living (and truly incredibly positive) human interaction when you share your work with others. This is a much more useful attitude, when you’re starting out, rather than focusing on the “prestige” of those journals. ...continue reading

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

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. ...continue reading