Category Archives: Julian Gunn

Babstock’s new collection explores poet as spymaster

On Malice

By Ken Babstock

Coach House Books

94 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

How can you tell signal from noise? What are fair and foul ways to assemble knowledge? Ken Babstock sets his exacting and accomplished fifth collection of poetry, On Malice, at the confluence of just these questions. Named a Globe & Mail Best Book of 2014, the collection has its immediate genesis in a year spent in Berlin, but the poems harness the language of observation across several centuries. Babstock reminds us that acts of decryption are essential both to espionage and to poetry.

Babstock’s earlier work–in, for example, 2011’s Methodist Hatchet, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize–wears its critique more openly, employing narrative formulae that seem transparent by comparison with what I might call the rigorous whimsy of On Malice. The new collection’s cumulative effect is something like parsing the paranoid hierarchies in the novels of Thomas Pyncheon, though Babstock’s voice is cool rather than feverish.

I felt challenged to find ways into reading On Malice. I sometimes felt like a codebreaker myself. These poems insist on duration, repetition, and process. They demand re-reading. Floundering, readers may cling to the lucidity of observations that illuminate “a correction in the architecture / any ordinary person felt as cause” (“Perfect Blue Distant Objects”). How disconcerting and ultimately wonderful, then, to observe finally the precise way these small mechanisms drill down into the concealed territories beneath the ideologies of nations, of poetic form, and (but this we ought to expect from poetry) of language itself.

The book’s end notes present a tantalizing seriocomic summary of the methodology and context for these poems. Much of their vocabulary is repurposed from external sources–a formal index of Babstock’s inquiry into surveillance, data collection and decoding. Walter Benjamin’s diary of his son’s language acquisition is reassembled into a haphazard deciphering of signal from emotional and political noise in “Sigint”. William Hazlitt’s essay about the pleasures of distance transmutes into a scrolling text about the hazards of mediation in “Perfect Blue Distant Objects:” “all relation / a port/ of affection and the will towards an instantaneous deed.”

The NSA website defines “sigint” (short for “signals intelligence”) as “collecting foreign intelligence from communications and information systems and providing it to customers across the U.S. government.” On Malice opens with a heterodox sonnet cycle of this name, followed by three long poems or poem series. (Form is strictly observed, yet always exceeded, in On Malice.) “Perfect Blue Distant Objects” explores the self-alienation of screentime and the way it facilitates our projection of fantasies and abstractions onto others. “Deep Packet Din” refers to the filtering of network data, used both to channel and to spy on information transmitted over the Internet. “Five Eyes” is one of many names for an alliance of five countries (including the US and Canada) sharing signals intelligence under a multilateral agreement.

Shortly after the publication of On Malice, Babstock was awarded the first annual Latner Writer’s Trust Poetry Prize, “in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian poetry”. In the era of the highest noise-over-signal ratio ever experienced in human communications, combined with the cyclical revelation of omnipresent government surveillance, we need writers like Babstock to demonstrate how poetic work can be done with integrity and without escapism. We are surrounded by, as Babstock reminds us repeatedly, “the art of the ill,” and On Malice is both self-aware symptom and an attempt at inoculation.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet, essayist and reviewer.

Governor General winner melds intensity and restraint

Lake of Two Mountains

By Arleen Pare

Brick Books

83 pages, $20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Arleen Paré opens her Governor General’s Award-winning collection, Lake of Two Mountains, with “Distance Closing In,” a spare, moody poem with echoes of the Imagist poet H.D.: “sky collapsing from its bowl / shoreline waiting    taut / stones dark as plums.”

Paré, now known to all of Canada as a Victoria-area poet and novelist, is masterful in this mode of simultaneous intensity and restraint. Lake of Two Mountains is an elegy of sorts—in the tradition of the love-elegy as well as the elegy of loss. The beloved here is the lake, known passionately in childhood and now re-imagined from multiple perspectives. The collection is like an Elizabethan poet’s blazon, with the beloved’s parts mapped out as a geography—but here the metaphor and the beloved are one thing, a landscape at once infinitely interpretable and yet also always exceeding human attempts to grasp, to own, to define.

Poet Patrick Lane compares the poems in this collection to “monastic prayers for forgiveness,” and there is indeed something both contemplative and austere about them. There is no narcissism here, no confessional “I.” Instead, Paré, offers grammatical and figurative intercessors. Where we might expect that “I,” there is often a “you,” as in “How Fast a Life.” “You stood at the end / of the wharf, you and you sister. / Cautious. In handfuls, your mother’s ashes / catching the wind,” Pare writes, and this “you” thrusts the memory into the arms, so to speak, of the reader. Or a simple word like “let” creates poems that are both pleas and directives: “let him sit on the beach… // let him unreel / the past on the waves,” “How Mend a Life” incants.

The poetic voice comes closest to asserting ownership in the poems about family members. In “Dad Before Lake” there is the possessive “my mother”; in “How Mend the Years” there is “my uncle.” Most raw and intimate, perhaps, is “Dad in the Lake”: “His face as it clears each popping wave – / his eyes – / how unsure where he is.” “Figments” recounts the death of a mother, the eeriness of the body in death, its alien otherness as a kind of fossil evidence of the living person. It speaks of a retreat from language: “If you could, you’d live below theory.”

Indeed, language, in its precision, its power and its failure, is the collection’s ambiguous consolation. The poems often take formal shapes that elegantly echo their subjects. “Alnoitic Rock” (the name of a rare volcanic rock found in the region) presents “topographies herded flat, wide as the weft of caribou hooves,” and is written in long, widely-spaced lines. “More” is a poem about reflection that itself reflects, in shimmering, gently distorted echoes.

Lake of Two Mountains stands as a remarkably coherent, yet never over-formalized, whole. It is keen-eyed, full of detail and careful construction; there are many pleasures in its language. If I were to look for some further development on these strengths—say, in Pare’s next collection—it would be only this: that some of her carefully governed intensity be allowed to break through, both formally and emotionally, like the bolt of lightning that threatens but never strikes in “Distance Closing In.”

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet, essayist and reviewer.

Debut poetry collection explores working class masculinity

Garth Martens’ debut poetry collection, Prologue for the Age of Consequence, is a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards, to be announced on Nov. 18. While working class masculinity has been a throughline of Canadian poetry in the work of poets like Patrick Lane, Martens’ poems, eloquent and brutal, are probably the most merciless – yet starkly compassionate – portrait of a group of working men in Canadian poetry. In this interview with Julian Gunn, Martens takes some of his metaphors from flamenco. He has studied flamenco dance, cante (singing), and palmas (percussion) for seven years at Alma de Espana. He wrote the libretto for a major international flamenco production, Pasajes, staged at the Royal Theatre in July 2014.

The poems in Prologue for the Age of Consequence travel between portrait and myth. Where does the mythological impulse come from, and why this shifting back and forth in scale from microcosm to macrocosm?

Large forces act on us. We promote them through a passive agreement, fingers on the planchette of a Ouija board. If the ordinary lives of tradespeople need no embellishment, still, there’s a corresponding experience. The worker asleep. We’re faced with a lot of numbers, the death rate in construction, or an amount, in metric tonnes, of land disrupted through machinery for bitumen. Portraiture allows a coarser engagement. Immensity, intimacy—we live each of these. So I’m interested in character, loaded voices. I’m also in love with an everything diction. Shifts in scale, hybridized registers, these were right for the telling.

The voice of a poem like “The Bolt that Cracked” moves between collective and individual identity, and between first and third person. Were you exploring how a sense of self works under extreme circumstances? What did you want your readers to experience through this instability?

Halfway through the first draft of “The Bolt That Cracked,” I discovered I had changed from first to third person, accidentally, and I was annoyed, but then I liked the effect. I thought about why I had done that, why I had slipped: an attempt to avert the gaze, disassociate, move left. I like your word “instability” here. The shifts begin when the speaker’s in the hospital observing other patients, their injuries, until returning to himself: “and here, now, this one, hovering / in spacious anaesthetic.” We don’t, sometimes, want to speak “I”. We can’t place ourselves. There are two wounds in that poem, and one of them is much simpler than the other and given more attention. So yes, extreme circumstances, which in fact are commonplace: the self exerted on, the departures, by choice or death, of those we love. The characters in Prologue have their individual identity and their collective identity, and both of these are under assault.

Formally, the poems in Prologue tend to present themselves as prose poems or as long-lined free verse, yet they seem to me to have a subterranean structurefor example, of alliteration and especially assonance. Occasionally, passages of meter break through the surface, as in “Mythologies of Men”: “He built a motorbike from scrap, / he built a stair-rail ramp, he built a fire”these bursts feel almost incantatory. Were there models you had in mind, and was there a conceptual purpose behind this tension between the form on the page and the sound of speech?

When I read “Mythologies of Men” out loud, I do it naturally, but toward the accent, which is how flamenco dancers work, and ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry. Line length is immaterial. Every syllable, when musically positioned, will read variably according to the hierarchy of accent, in triplets or dobles, a pounding of iambs, but also in a sinuous inflection, the language as spoken, which is richly idiosyncratic. Some of these poems have compact rhythm and others oxygenated rhythm. The bursts you refer to—these aren’t, you know, singularities—they’re in a musical context. See: “Myths, Metres, Rhythms,” from Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, Ted Hughes.

As I read, I began to think of the language in this collection as stubbornI don’t know if that resonates with youit is dense, and it often turns aside from an expected word and chooses one near it, or suddenly knots syntax in a surprising way. It seemed to me that you wanted the reading process to reflect the physical labour of constructionthe poems must be built in the mind, they don’t just drop easily in. Does that reflect your intention, or is it a more general strategy in your work? You’ve said that you don’t want to be “strafing the world with perfume.”

So much of the process is intuitive and appropriate to who I am in the world, and so I wrote these poems and I wrote them in this way, and I have at moments a myopic attention, an obsessiveness. My editor referred to the language in Prologue as, at times, baroque. “A tortuous vasculature,” my optometrist said, after a retinal scan. My comment on “strafing the world with perfume” was said with respect to rendering the world of construction workers, writing as resident and not tourist, neither gloving an ugliness nor ignoring a darkness.

As for stubbornness, I don’t disagree. Still, no one says flamenco music is stubborn, though it is complex.

This is a world composed almost entirely of men. Is the collection exploring ideas about gender, particularly masculinity? What does it excavate?

There is an odious masculinity on stage throughout Prologue. There aren’t many women, as on job sites. Apart from the cleaner, and the present absence of girlfriends or ex-wives, there is the mother figure in “Everything That’s Yours”. The men in Prologue regulate one another toward faces that are cruder but approved. I hope that, beneath a stereotype, complexities agitate.

I tried to write a poem from the perspective of a childhood friend. She was a bank teller in Kelowna who became an apprentice electrician, and went to work in Fort Mac, among three hundred men in camp. I tried, with her permission, but I couldn’t get it right. I was getting it wrong. And there wasn’t time to improve it. I wish there had been.

Garth Martens will be reading today Nov. 8, at 11.15 a.m., as a part of the Victoria Writers Festival, on a panel called called “Grit Lit: Writing the Rural” at Oak Bay United Church (1355 Mitchell Street). 

On Nov. 14, Martens will be a featured poet at Planet Earth Poetry. Open Mic begins at 7:30 p.m. Featured poets Garth Martens and Erina Harris begin at 8 p.m. 

Add Pen-in-Hand reading series to your calendar

Pen-in-Hand Poetry and Prose Reading Series

Featured Readers (Sept. 15): John Barton, with Chris Gudgeon, Lukas Bhandar, and Yusuf Saadi

Next reading: Oct. 20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

The Pen-in-Hand Poetry/Prose Reading Series takes place on the third Monday of every month at the Serious Coffee in Cook Street Village. September’s lineup featured celebrated local poet John Barton, whose most recent collection, Polari, was released by Goose Lane Editions this spring. Reading with Barton (pictured) were Chris Gudgeon, multi-faceted author of the novel Song of Kosovo and nonfiction book The Naked Truth: The Untold Story of Sex in Canada, among many other works; Lukas Bhandar, whose essay “I Love My Hair, I Hate My Hair” is published in Issue 4 of Plenitude; and Yusuf Saadi, whose poem “Spacetime” appears in the recent “Speed” issue of Vallum.

At the playful instigation of Chris Gudgeon, the four scheduled readers performed in two short rounds – something like a literary debate, though without acrimony. As part of a series engaging historical Canadian homophobia, Gudgeon read “Fruit Machine,” about a grotesque real-life device once used in an attempt to weed out homosexuals from the Canadian civil service.

Yusuf Saadi, an MA student at UVic, told the audience that he had just arrived in town a month ago and was impressed with Victoria’s famously walkable proportions. His poems, often tightly bound by a single metaphor, spun metaphysical and astronomical images into meditations on distance and duration. His lines, in poems like “Spacetime,” were laden with rich verbal elaborations. Interested readers can also find his poem “Breaking Fast” in PRISM’s Summer 2014 issue.

To my ear, John Barton’s experiments with traditional form have brought a new playful tone to the poems of Polari. “Shirtsleeve Weather,” written in heroic couplets, showcased this recent interest. Speaking about the five-stanza glosa “Closing the Gate of Sorrow,” Barton explained that the glosa began with a quatrain from another poet’s work, then used the following stanzas to elaborate on the quatrain, each stanza finishing with a borrowed line. Barton chose a section from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Lukas Bhandar, reading fourth, gave us an excerpt from his Plenitude essay, a personal and critical reflection about body hair, ethnicity, and, as Plenitude points out, “the racism of gay beauty standards.” In a vivid and intimate anecdote, he recounted the laborious process of attempting to shave his legs – and the sensation of waking up the next day. A journalism student at UVic, Bhandar is an intern at the Malahat Review. Readers may also have caught his performance at Pride and the Word 2013.

After a short break, the writers returned for a second round. Unfortunately, the coffee shop had to close precisely at nine o’clock, so that instead of a second act, their return became a coda. Each author read only one more poem or section of prose. Gudgeon made the most of his time, reading out “Canadian Tourister”, a caustic incantation of warped Canadiana – hypnotic, profane, and provocative. Bhandar’s essay was least well served by the cutoff, and several audience members called out their disappointment when he had to stop short. Hopefully, they were all driven to finish the essay in Plenitude.

I encourage readers and poets to attend the Oct. 20 Pen-in-Hand reading. The organizers, particularly host Amy Ainbinder, create an informal and welcoming environment.

How to flunk out of gender into something better

Gender Failure

Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon

Arsenal Pulp Press

265 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

And what a gorgeous failure it is.

Gender Failure is the new book by performers, authors and musicians Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon. Under its wry title, it succeeds on any terms you care to apply: as a work of art, a collection of autobiographical essays, the record of a stage show, and a gentle but firm declaration that if we do not honour each other’s authentic, struggling, and contradictory relationships to gender, then we fail each other.

Is this a brave book? Sure it is, but I don’t like using that word brave. We mean something good by it, but we also sometimes mean, “Brave, not like me.” We use it to create a little bit of distance between the brave person and our ordinary selves. When people called me “brave” after my own transition, I thought, “That’s not what it felt like at all.” Instead, I want to say that this is a powerfully vulnerable book, and that the more vulnerable the book gets, the more powerful it becomes, because it invites readers to take the same risk.

Fittingly, Gender Failure is a book that can’t be reduced to simple categories. It is based on the collaborators’ live show, and incorporates photos, illustrations, and song lyrics. There are no simple, fixed narratives of gender identity here. There are stories about gender transitions, yes, in the sense of transitions in how each author felt and thought about living gender. Yet Gender Failure is about transition in all kinds of other senses, too. A big part of Rae Spoon’s story is their transition from folk/country to electronic/indie musician, and beyond. Ivan Coyote transitions out of writing a long-term newspaper column. The authors describe physical and social transformations, transformations of wardrobes and pronouns, but ultimately the transition that matters is the one towards self-determination and self-celebration. It’s not a complete journey. How could it be, especially while gendered norms are violently enforced, even in spaces where we expect better? Spoon writes wrenchingly of finding that “the freedom that is part of the rhetoric about indie music . . .  is reserved only for certain people.”

In a section entitled “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” Coyote writes, simply: “Yes. Of course I still do.” It’s a reminder that these words—Butch, trans*, Spoon’s playful-yet-serious coining “gender-retired” – are supposed to make space in the world for people to live as their whole selves, not create new ways to exclude and shame each other’s difference. Part of what’s inspiring about this book is the way these two, as collaborators and friends, make loving mirrors of themselves for each other.

Here’s what I hope most of all: that Gender Failure marks the beginning of a new wave of declarations from gender dropouts and gender retirees, gender inventors and gender artists. May we all fail at everything that is wounding and constricting us. May we fail together into something better.

Reviewer’s Note: As good as Gender Failure is, it’s not the same as a live show with Spoon and Coyote. If you get a chance to see one or both of them, go. Meanwhile, clips are available on YouTube.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.  

Brick’s GM multi-tasks for poetry

Coastal Spectator contributor Julian Gunn recently sat down over coffee to chat with Kitty Lewis, the general manager of poetry publisher Brick Books. At this year’s League of Canadian Poets gala, Lewis received the League’s Honorary Life Membership Award. She insists that her contribution is to support the artistic vision of Brick founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland. Still, it’s obvious how much the poetry community appreciates that contribution. Gunn’s interview encompassed a discussion of Brick’s current projects, the history of the publisher, and its commitment to Canadian poetry.

Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Brick Books?

The press started 39 years ago, and I’ve been around something like 25. I always forget how long. Don McKay, who’s a poet, and Stan Dragland, who’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, were both teaching at Western University (the University of Western Ontario in those days). They kept coming across students who were writing poetry, and they said, “We should publish some of this.” They started with chapbooks, and then, as people started sending in longer manuscripts, we got into applying for grants for full-length books.

I don’t do the choosing. I don’t do the editing. I don’t do production. I do everything else. I’m the administration. You need someone practical. There are artistic people who are running presses who can do it all. They can write, they can edit, but that’s not one of my talents. What’s great is that I get to run a business but I’m not risking my own money. (She laughs.)

So what’s it like in the Brick Books office? Are there people always coming and going? Interns?

No, no.  It’s in my house. I work strange hours. I tend to stay up really late at night. I maybe start working in the morning at 10 or 11. At 8 o’clock I might watch some TV, and then I might do a couple more hours of work. I go away in the summer. I have a cottage and I just move Brick Books there. As long as I have the Internet, I can run the business.

It never worked out to get an intern. I love to impart what I know, and I’m always happy to meet with people. If anybody writes asking about Brick Books, I will usually meet with them, because they’re interested in publishing. I’ll just sit them down, and we’ll have a chat so I can give them an idea of what it’s all about.

I’ve found through the years that the more you do, the more there is to do. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter years ago. We didn’t have the Internet.

Speaking of which, Brick Books has a broad-based Internet presence. You seem to have ventured into all available social media. I’m assuming that’s a deliberate strategy?

I started on Facebook because my older son said “Hey! My friends are on here. Lots of people would like to be friends with you.” Then I started looking around, and I saw that other publishers were on the Internet. I just started building that up.

There’s a grant called the OMDC Book Fund – that stands for the Ontario Media Development Corporation. There are grants for film and television and books, all under the same umbrella. In the past, the grant was more for something over and above what you would normally do. In 2008 we had two poets laureate on our list: Agnes Walsh from St John’s, Newfoundland, and Lorri Neilsen Glenn from Halifax. I said, “Are you interested in visiting other poets laureate across the country?” Because you know, I network. I had met these people or at least been in touch with them. So we got the grant, and then the poets said “You don’t suppose we could go up north, do you?” Well, I had no contacts up there, but one of our authors had been to the Whitehorse Poetry Festival (, so I got that person’s contact and we went north. We went to Edmonton, Yellowknife, Whitehorse – I went with them to those three – then Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. So that was the kind of thing we were proposing in those days.

Then the OMDC grant added funding for digital projects. I wanted a project that was going to raise our visibility and discoverability. I knew someone in Toronto who was really good at social media, Julie Wilson. I told her “I’d like to talk to you sometime, but I don’t want to just talk to you and get advice and then buzz off and do it. I want to talk to you, and then I want to hire you.”

We’re a poetry publisher. We’re not looking for fireworks. We’re solid, we believe in what we do, and we believe in quality. I felt that she would understand who we were. And what she came up with is podcasts. We’ve done the whole history of Brick Books. We have books that we published in 1975, and I’ve now got three of the books from Fall 2014 already recorded. We’ve got almost a thousand poems recorded now.

We launched the podcast in Poetry Month one year, then created the YouTube channel. We do about six poems from each book, just to give a taste. On the YouTube channel we put those together and that’s a single podcast. I think the authors really like it. We’re including everybody. We’re not excluding you just because we published you in the 1990s – you’re still part of it.

Of all the things you do to connect readers to the poetry, which do you think are the most effective?

We just keep chugging away. Every year when you’re doing a new grant, you trot out your numbers. So the views on the YouTube channel are increasing, the number of podcast poems is increasing. We have more followers on Twitter. Facebook has become really hard now because they’re only showing 30 per cent of your people. That’s unfortunate, because that was a really good method. We’re still using it.

The Literary Press Group is creating an online bookstore which will be launched in the next few months, so that’s going to be the Canadian place to go. It includes Canadian literary presses – I think there are 35 publishers on board now. We do sell books from our own website, but people are looking for the author, not Brick Books.

I’m constantly networking with reading series . . . Then you have something like Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry reading series. They do that too, but there are more spaces, so that flexibility is great. Planet Earth is definitely my go-to place.

I know Brick Books is interested in emerging poets as well. Is that a policy?

Don and Stan were teachers, right? If we wanted to publish just established authors, we could, but that’s not where their hearts are. We do seven books a year, so we don’t say “Okay, three need to be first books.” It just happens. We don’t publish a first book just because. We read submissions between the first of January and the end of April every year. We get an average of a hundred submissions, and we have enough money to do seven books. So the manuscript kind of has to sparkle to rise above the others. Those ones will go into the finals. There might be anywhere from eight to 15 that we have to choose those seven out of and that’s hard because there’s not a lot of difference of quality between them. They’ll be strong in different ways. We do about 60 per cent first and second books and then 40 per cent third and up. I’ve been keeping the statistics.

The thing that’s nice about Brick Books is that we only do poetry, so it’s very easy to treat everybody the same way. If you do fiction, you’re probably going to devote a little more time to the fiction because it might make more money and help you afford to do the poetry. We do seven books and everybody gets treated the same way. It suits my temperament, like being inclusive with the podcasts and the ebooks – we just include everybody.

We are trying to run a business and we are trying to be fiscally responsible. But – as Don says – we have the hearts of peasants. We believe in people. We believe in writing. We believe in treating people with respect. Once you’re a Brick author you’re always a Brick author.

(In addition to Lewis’ recent award, on February 23rd Brick Books received the first Publishers’ Award from the Galiano Literary Festival.)

Poet tackles life’s uncertainty

The Fleece Era

Joanna Lilley

Brick Books

105 pages, $20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Joanna Lilley’s The Fleece Era is the discovery of Brick Books’ spring season, a first poetry collection with a subtle, shifting vision of ecological and human connection. Lilley is a transplant, raised in England and now living in the Yukon. Because of her northerly coordinates, I thought first of snow clouds and then of sheep when I read fleece. In fact, the title poem refers to that fuzzy synthetic fabric so symbolic of current environmental questions. The narrator, a lost hiker, talks to the man who’s given her a ride: “Big deal, he said, we can make / sweaters out of plastic pop / bottles, yet there are places / where it’s illegal to hang your / washing out to dry.” This question of relationship—between strangers and family members, between individuals and culture, between human beings and nature—drives the collection.

The Fleece Era is divided into four parts. Each gathers variations on the theme of relationship, which modulates from section to section. The first part, “A Riddle,” concerns family and distance—both emotional and geographical. The narrator of “Overheard” imagines herself “shouting from the shore / of my mother’s Atlantic teacup.” The next section, “Emotional Expenditure,” considers the intricately interwoven social and bodily alienation experienced by its female narrator. In complement, the third part, “At Each Exhale,” examines the latent violence of intimate connections like marriage. “Scientist” narrates a painful disconnect between partners, enacted while skiing: “How is it I’m lost / yet you’re not, although / we’re on the same blank trail.” The troubled relationships of The Fleece Era remain open-ended.

The final section, “Nobody Else Dies,” takes up the vexed relationship of human minds to the natural world. “Ten Thousand Trees” is stark about the destructive drives of even ethically committed human beings: “I didn’t know the flash / of a forest gash could mesmerize, that there could even be a lust / to witnessing the first road ever forced on feral land.” In “Earth Twin,” the collection’s closing poem, Lilley writes wryly of a scientist who theorizes that “there might be planets even more / suitable for human life than ours.” She recognizes this as a dangerous fantasy: “It takes / a day or so for me to comprehend / he was talking about Heaven.”

Across the four sections, key relationships, characters, and themes create a world that feels consistent. There is a mother and a father, sisters and a brother, a husband. Yet there is a perceptual wobble, or say a parallax, built into the language that describes the central figure of these poems. This figure is sometimes an “I,” sometimes a “she,” and sometimes a “you.” This unstable centre, surrounded by more static figures, builds a sense of self-alienation across the collection. It seems an appropriate choice given the ecological position of contemporary Canadians, whether in the Yukon or Victoria. As Lilley queries in “Earth Crack,” “What if the piece of the world / I’m on tears off?”

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.

Brick Books poetry launch explores underground themes

April 29, 2014

Open Space, 510 Fort St, Victoria, B.C.

Review by Julian Gunn 

There was smoke in the streets of downtown Victoria the night of the Brick Books launch. A derelict garage a few blocks over had caught fire in the afternoon. Poets and their fans drifted towards Open Space through a hazy sunset, carrying in the smell of charred wood on their clothes. It seemed curiously appropriate, since the work we heard that Tuesday night concerned the uneasy meetings of human desires and natural forces.

Sparking off their cross-Canada tour in Victoria, the four poets of Brick Books’ Spring Collection – Victoria’s Arleen Paré and Karen Enns, Whitehorse’s Joanna Lilley, and Jane Munro, formerly of Vancouver Island and now a Vancouver resident – read to a packed house that included a strong showing of Victoria’s poetic community. Brick Books General Manager Kitty Lewis was the enthusiastic host.

“You’ve got your whole spring lineup touring together,” I’d pointed out to Lewis over coffee the day before. “Was that hard to organize?”

She smiled conspiratorially. “No, but we made it work. I told them: you need the nucleus of an audience. So as long as there were two of the four that knew some people in the city, I booked a reading.” Lewis explained that Victoria is the first stop of a tour that culminates in Fredericton, New Brunswick. This is the largest reading tour Brick Books has ever put together. And by Brick Books, in this case I mean Kitty Lewis, since after more than 20 years she still administers the whole show out of her spare bedroom. Founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland provide Brick’s artistic direction. The editors choose and edit manuscripts. The production team ensures that each book is a carefully constructed artifact. Kitty Lewis keeps it all running, and beautiful books of poetry continue to be printed and offered to readers across Canada. Sitting there in the audience, I felt lucky.

Lewis lined up the authors in reverse order of experience. Joanna Lilley began her reading from The Fleece Era by telling the audience that this was a night of firsts for her: her first book, first reading in Victoria, first time touring with the little band of poets. Lilley was born in England but lives in the Yukon. Inspired by the art around us, she spoke about living in the Yukon as a settler, a British immigrant, a vegetarian who ponders the ethics of eating only shipped-in food, and a woman who is childless by choice. Many of her poems traversed the difficult emotional territory of intimate relationships through the twinning of geographical and emotional isolation. She read “Scientist,” about a painful disconnect between partners enacted while skiing: “How is it I’m lost / yet you’re not, although / we’re on the same blank trail.”

Karen Enns began her reading from Ordinary Hours softly, but she built a quiet vocal drama. I noticed an intriguing accumulation of negations and cancellations in the poems she read, a kind of loss by definition. In “Muse,” the titular being “comes with nothing in her hands,” and is both “almost imagined” and “almost real.” Again and again Enns points to things needed, longed for, or disavowed by naming their absence. Enns’ first book, That Other Beauty, draws from her childhood in a southern Ontario Mennonite community, and these memories are also part of the poems she read from Ordinary Hours. In “For F.,” from her moving series “William Street Elegies,” a phrase as simple as “no more / and no less” reverberates with all of the other constraints the poet had precisely delineated.

Arleen Paré’s new collection isn’t in our eager hands yet, but she is a subtly compelling reader with an academic’s attention to detail and an old friend’s quiet humour. Lake of Two Mountains, which Brick calls “a hymn to a beloved lake, a praise poem in forty-five parts, a contemplation of landscape and memory.” “Call and Response,” read meditatively, evoked the dynamic relationships of place: “The Canadian Shield calls to the fault // the fault, tectonic, / replies with the Ottawa River.” Paré’s ecopoetics of the lake include the Oka crisis, the lakeside monastery (now closed), and the child who passionately internalized the place. In “How Own a Lake,” she gently interrogates that joyful claiming, asking whether the child can own “the reservation… completely unknown.”

Drawing together the evening’s underground themes, Jane Munro connected the intimate personal loss of a partner’s dementia to the cultural memory loss that allows environmental ruin. Blue Sonoma is a poet’s witness, by turns sorrowful, wondering, angry: “Don’t tempt me, old man. / Today I have four arms / and weapons in each hand,” she read. These lines come from the particularly fine sequence “Old Man Vacanas,” which arranges stark and humorous images around the centres of love, ecology, and human fate: “Language, travel, art? Props / in a little, local theatre of light.” Yet Munro is also concerned with the irreducibility of things. Her epigraph from the Upanishads reads, in part: “When fullness is taken from fullness, / Fullness still remains.”

After the readings, Victoria writer Sara Cassidy joined the poets for a friendly Q&A. A good interviewer not only brings questions but offers insights, creating a dynamic environment where  new ideas can arise. “Did it feel dangerous to write about caring for someone with dementia?” she asked Munro. “It felt necessary.” Munro answered. “Your book is full of silence,” Cassidy pointed out to Enns, “and also full of blooms.”

Throughout the smoky, slightly off-kilter night, bursts of seagull cries would suddenly punctuate the poems. They seemed to be insisting on speaking alongside the human voices. “This event came about because Karen Enns and Arlene Paré are from Victoria,” Kitty Lewis told me.  “Jane Munro lived in Sooke for years. That all made it possible.” Lewis said that the poets themselves brought the event together, even arranging the excellent refreshments. The audience enjoyed the usual wine and veggies, but also sushi and miniature cupcakes (I had two).

If you missed the reading, don’t despair. You can’t have a cupcake, but you can still hear the poets read on the Brick Books podcast, available through iTunes and YouTube.


Jane Munro’s collection Blue Sonoma is reviewed here [].

The Publisher

Brick Books:

Youtube Channel:

The Poets

Joanna Lilley:

Jane Munro:

Arleen Paré:

Karen Enns:

The Interviewer

Sara Cassidy:

 Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.  


Anthology celebrates queer families

A Family By Any Other Name

Edited by Bruce Gillespie

Touchwood Editions

229 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

A Family By Any Other Name, editor Bruce Gillespie’s latest anthology, invites its authors and readers to consider what queer families might look like now. The anthology is, above all, a snapshot of a fascinating moment in queer history – which is to say, just plain history – the incredible transformation of the position of people who identify as queer and our relationships within Canada and the United States.

Shall we refresh our memories? It has been only nine years since the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada (July 20th, if you want to throw a party). It’s eleven years since Ontario and British Columbia were the first and second provinces to recognize it (June 10th and July 8th, respectively. There’s nothing wrong with having several parties. Or one very long one.) There are still many American states where gay marriage is not legal.

Yet things have changed very quickly. Young people who identify as queer who were children when the laws changed are old enough now to be married themselves, and to have the same expectations as their straight peers about what marriage, fidelity, and family look like. And this is, on the whole, a wonderful thing. I think I’d have to be crazy not to be glad that a generation of people like me won’t be persecuted, isolated, and barred from the public recognition of their relationships.

You should know: this is a good book. The average quality of the essays here is remarkably high. I like to think people who identify as queer take it extra seriously when we set out to tell our stories, but it must also be true that Gillespie is a fine editor who knows how to inspire his contributors. A Family By Any Other Name has a lineage of its own. Gillespie has produced a whole series of anthologies examining the idea of family from all sorts of angles. Full disclosure: I am in one of them. It’s Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids (2008), co-edited by Lynne Van Luven. A Family By Any Other Name is a substantial addition to the series. It may even be Gillespie’s best.

And yet.

There are some great essays here. Victoria writer Arlene Paré contributes a meditation on the long gestation of her novel and the remaking of her family at the same time, “To Carry My Family in My Imperfect Head.” The well-known trans* author and educator S. Bear Bergman provides an exuberant account of his sprawling chosen family, “Hiddur Mitzvah.” Dale Lee Kwong’s “Created by Choice” describes the merging and multiplication of family through adoption, cultural community, faith, and profound friendship. In “What She Taught Me,” Ellen Russell describes her current partnership as a “blended family” because both partners are widowed: not children but the beloved dead are brought together in this new relationship. I cannot think of a simpler and more profound description of the infinite extension of the bonds of love.

There is also an uncanny similarity among many of these narratives; a similarity that I don’t think would have been present before 2003. Almost all of these stories are primarily about being part of a couple. This couple is usually legally married, and often raising children. If they’re polyamorous, or have unusual rules or configurations in their households, this isn’t usually part of the essay’s focus. A playful exception is “I, Didi,” which describes Dorianne Emmerton’s decision to partner, but not co-parent or cohabitate, with her beloved. Another is Bergman’s essay, describing the shabbos dinners he and his partner host. These dinners are the foundation of an expansive family built on all imaginable configurations of love and commitment: “now we have this kid of our own, a kid whose family tree is practically bent double with relatives of assorted kinds—blood, marriage, wine and glitter.”

Each of the writers in By Any Other Name is funny and thoughtful about  his/her/their own particular struggles, some of which are more likely to be found in queer relationships – the struggle to conceive a child, or the awkward act of donating sperm. It’s just that most of these essays tend to assume the two-person partnership as the family unit. If they extend the discussion further, it’s often to the parents of the spouses. And the chosen family, the queer network of friends and frenemies and supporters and allies? It’s here, but it’s in the background. Several writers make appreciative reference to those communities, but in the end they focus on their spouses and children.

I don’t want any of that delicious talk of spouses and children to stop, but I do want us to remember to spend some time talking about building and celebrating that other love. I think it’s still here, for these writers and for me – it’s just that it was never that easy to describe. We never really had the right language, and now marriage has overshadowed our other loves, at least for the time being. I would have liked, for example, to have seen stories here about the extended communities that came together to face the HIV/AIDS epidemic just a generation ago.

So: the world has changed – right now, in these places, queer lives are better. Being better, they are more ordinary. This is a victory. And yet. I want us to give honour and attention to those who still can’t, or who once couldn’t, or who just won’t, enter into conventional structures of love and connection. I want us to do more than remember. I want us to bring those crazy ideas into the culture at large. I don’t just want queer relationships to be changed by marriage. I want us to change what marriage means. And everything else, too, while we’re at it. As my mom would say: the whole fam damily.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.  

Mormon wives “speak” through poems

Poet Marita Dachsel is the author of the new collection Glossolalia, and of the previous collection All Things Said & Done. Glossolalia is a re-imagining of the lives and voices of the 34 wives of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Julian Gunn interviewed Daschel at the end of April for the Coastal Spectator. See the poet’s blog at

Glossolalia is a long-term project. What was its genesis?

I’ve always been interested in fringe religions, and in 2006 the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful was in the news again. BC has long been home to strange sects and cults, and for the most part they are left alone. I thought that if the FLDS would just give up polygamy, then they could live in peace. I wondered why they practised it, and soon learned that it was a vital part of their faith that had been introduced by Joseph Smith back in the 1840s.

Did you always see Glossolalia as a book about all of Smith’s wives? (Or some version of all, since you mention that the exact count is unknown.)

I could understand why modern women born into Mormon Fundamentalism would choose polygamy—it’s their culture, it’s all they know—but I wondered about those women who agreed, who started it all. I read biographies on Joseph’s wives and began to write poems inspired by their lives. It was perfect timing, as I had finished my first collection, All Things Said & Done, and wasn’t sure what I’d do next with my poetry. I soon knew that I wanted to a whole book on them. At the time, I had no idea it would take six years, but I quickly fell into the rabbit hole of research and obsession.

Often, you have only one poem with which to evoke some aspect of each woman. How did you know what would do justice to each one?

Some were definitely easier [to capture] than others. Some came immediately. I’d “hear” their voice in my head and I knew what they’d disclose. Others took a long time of trial and error—the voice, the form, the story all had to click. “Emma Hale Smith,” for example, was the very first poem I wrote for this series, but it wasn’t right. It was really important to me to do her justice and consequently, it took six years of writing her to finally get her poem work the way I wanted it to.

Despite all the research that I did on the women and early Mormonism, not all the poems are based on biography. In the early years of the project, I was a little too tied to the truth, but learned to let that go. I’m not a historian; I’m a poet. My main goal was to write engaging poetry. Sometimes that meant skimming from the women’s lives; sometimes it meant making things up completely.

You use many different formal techniques in the collection. Was there a process by which you decided what techniques you would use, or was it done by intuition and experimentation?

My process was pretty loose. I’d start by reading about the woman, noting ideas or phrases as I went. I’d write a rough draft or two to see if I could get her voice right. If could, great! Then I’d work on the content and form—one usually informing the other. If I couldn’t get her voice right, then I’d either read some more about her, or move on to another wife. Repeat as necessary.

Like “Emma,” “Lucy Walker” is another [voice] that took a lot of trial and error. A few wives had told their own stories during their lives and I was particularly struck with hers—so full of heartache, confusion, and manipulation. I tried to capture it, but the poem always fell flat. Finally, I realized that I didn’t have to do what she already had done, that I could use her words. I played with her text a lot, but nothing was satisfying. Then I came across Jen Bervin’s amazing Nets and it was like a revelation to me. (She ‘erased’ many of Shakespeare’s sonnets into beautifully spare poems.) What I loved about her take on erasure was that we could still see the original poems, just in lighter text. For Lucy, I wanted her real story to still be available to the reader, but I liked the idea of it being deliberately crossed out, as if she were editing her own story. The private truth versus the public record.

How do you find blogging as a medium, as compared to poetry and conventional essays?

I really enjoy reading other people’s blogs, but I’m a terrible blogger. I don’t make the time to do it properly, so lately my blog has become not much more than a place for shameless self-promotion. A few years ago, I did an interview series with writing mothers that I really enjoyed and it still brings the most readers to the blog. I think that when I find time, I’ll revisit that form—return to interviews and discussions. When done well, blogging is an immediate conversation. It’s topical, yet focused. It creates community. I think I write too slowly and have too many interruptions to do the form justice right now, but I am so thankful that others do.