Category Archives: Cole Mash

Poetry springs from everyday life in East Vancouver

By Bren Simmers
Nightwood Editions
96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

East Vancouver, like the rest of the capitalist world, is an area in a state of constant decay and repair. Parking lots are paved for the condos beside them, followed by people and their cars to fill those parking lots. Hastings- Sunrise, the second collection of poetry from Bren Simmers, gives us one full year of the everyday in the growing and crumbling neighbourhood of East Vancouver, a place Simmers once called home. She has previously published one book of poetry, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) and won the 2006 Arc Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Award. Though she muses on Vancouver, like so many Canadian poets before her, Simmers resides in the more rural Squamish, B.C.

Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot measure an object’s speed and position at the same time. A moving object cannot have a fixed position. Simmers recognizes the fluidity of the urban place and proves the exception to this principle. Distilling East Vancouver into letters, Simmers gives us a concrete world that, while fixed on a map, is in constant motion. The book moves through the year beginning in March, and each section is marked with dates alerting the reader to the season, each date accompanied by a beautifully packed sentence (moment): “Petals strung like popcorn/March 21.” Sunrise runs, crosses crosswalks and changes lanes, but it rarely sits. The book cultivates this velocity through rapid imagery describing the amassing and oscillating stimuli of a growing city, “Hong Kong Bakery, Pies 2 for $7, Keys Cut Here.” In this quotation from the unnamed first poem we have a number of signs which move the reader down the street, each sign and location packed with a narrative of their own in only one sentence.

Simmers maps the city carefully, appealing to all of our senses with crisp vignettes and a diversity of form and language. “What’ll it be today, Henry,” a barista asks among the roar of steaming espresso machines and the smell of chai and Scrabble. Most of the poems are titleless, which allows every poem to be about the time spent between two sunrises on Hastings. Many of the poems appear to sprawl across the page in a formless free-verse structure, but the enjambment of sound and step propel the reader forward over each crack in the sidewalk that Simmers brings to life. There are visual poems in the form of maps, like the table of contents which represents the streets of east Vancouver, though “not to scale” as Simmers playfully reminds us; footnotes; fill in the blanks for an hours log; and even a Venn Diagram illustrating the contrast of the busy Vancouver and the pastoral constitution of the fictional “Saska-Wollup.”

Most prominently, among the delight in form, Simmers has a lyric eye that poignantly and carefully captures and illuminates the everydayness of life. Despite being a book about a specific place, in this way Sunrise becomes universal. Simmers writes, “I still covet a fireplace, a hammock/doors we can close.” It is due to this combination of specificity and universality that I found Simmers book so engrossing. Often when I read poetry, I find myself reading a poem or two and then putting the book down to let the poems settle; however, with Sunrise, I read it almost straight through. I wanted to feel a year go by in an afternoon and be guided by Simmers through a part of Vancouver I didn’t know very well. Now, after reading the book, I feel like I’ve spent a whole life there, and it was a good one.

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.

Wong’s Undercurrent gives water a voice


By Rita Wong

Nightwood Editions

96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

In her poem “The Wonders of Being Several,” Rita Wong quotes Louis Pasteur, writing, “the role of the infinitely small, is infinitely large.” This quotation rings especially true of Wong’s new collection undercurrent. Though it spans only 96 pages, make no mistake—the book is immense.

Wong turns her socially conscious verse to defending the water which shaped her life. Wong writes that the Bow River—which runs through Calgary where she grew up—“taught [her] the power of water from an early age.” Since then, Wong has published three books of poetry including the critically acclaimed forage (2007) which won the 2008 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Canada Reads Poetry 2011. Wong now teaches at Emily Carr in the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver.

undercurrent is a lament for the “mostly unseen” strife of the water, and an exploration of its complexity. We do not look out our bedroom window and see the waste in The Kettle River or the great Pacific garbage patch, and their devastating effects, but it does not mean it isn’t there. Though she admits, ironically, that she never learned to swim, the water has taught Wong wisdoms which she graciously extends to us via the page: in “Declaration of Intent,” she writes, “i hereby honour what the flow of water teaches us/the beauty of enough.” Wong has learned what she wants us all to know: that we need to stop taking from something that gives so much; we must take care of the world’s most precious asset, fresh and salt alike.

undercurrent comes out of Wong’s community work in Vancouver, and her collaboration with The Downstream Project, an organization dedicated to preserving natural resources and raising awareness through the arts and technology. Wong’s undercurrent gives that water a voice through poetry, both subtly and forthright, throughout the book. She does so through smaller gestures such as referring to the ocean as simply “ocean” (a proper name with the Marlattian lower case Wong almost exclusively employs) as though it were a person that the beach sleeps beside. Often poems in the book are dedicated to bodies of water such as “Unsung Service,” which is dedicated to the Fraser River, also known as Sto:lo in the Indigenous language Halkomelem. Many of her poems, including the first poem in the book “Pacific Flow,” take on the shape of water, and often have two currents of stanzas running down the page. The poem “Fresh Ancient Ground” reminds us not to forget that global change is possible and that “we are capable of it, if we care to try.” Wong recounts the long history of the water before us, and how someday it will again outlast us in “The Sea Around us, The Sea Within Us,” writing that “both the ferned & the furry, the herbaceous & the human, can call the ocean our ancestor.”

Wong continues to work in a variety of forms, which is in part what has always made her work so fresh. Much like in forage, there are relevant quotations running along the bottom and in the margins of many poems in undercurrent. Wong continues to mix English with Cantonese and Indigenous languages, bringing the book to life through an untranslated cultural confluence. Wong employs structural idiosyncrasies as simple as right alignment rather than left, or, like in the poem “Detritus,” having the text run perpendicular to the right and left margins. Perhaps the most interesting formal innovation is the addition of italic prose embedded in a number of poems, telling self-reflexive anecdotes that allow us to think through and about water alongside Wong.

I found Wong’s book to be the perfect balance of ethical philosophy and poignant lyrics, reminding us of our duty to protect the primordial soup from which we came, and doing so with words that delight and dance on our tongue. The point of Wong’s book is not to wag fingers—and make no mistake, fingers should be wagged—but to inform and illuminate, and instill hope. The book seeks to remind us that there is still time to save the planet, and that “what you cannot do alone, you will do together.”

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC’s Okanagan campus, and his poetry has previously been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.

Candid memoir unpacks gender, sexuality

Michael V Smith is a performance artist, poet, novelist, professor, drag queen, film-maker, comic and occasional go-go dancer: he is a man whose work transcends categorization, and his memoir, My Body is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press), is no different. The memoir smartly unpacks topics like gender roles, ontology and social pressure, while telling the compelling and often provocative story of Smith’s life. Smith has published two novels: Cumberland, which won the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Prizze for Emerging LGBT Writers, and Progress; and two books of poetry: What You Can’t Have, and Body of Text. He teaches creative writing at The University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus. Cole Mash recently spoke to Michael V Smith for The Coastal Spectator.

Michael, memoir is a difficult medium. Most lives are interesting in one way or another, but one needs a storyteller’s ability to include the right moments, a gift for compelling prose and insight to tell readers why it all matters. Your book did all three so deftly. How did you negotiate between fact and subjectivity, and the limitations of memory, while still remaining true to the real story?

Oh crap, that’s a tricky question. Every time I write a book the task isn’t so much an exercise in writing but in listening. A good storyteller is first a good listener—especially listening to herself, which can be the hardest talk—so that telling the story is simply about transcribing well the information you’ve gathered. Much of this book came out differently than I had planned—my goal was to write a clever treatise, but instead I wrote a candid memoir. I followed the topic that I’d set out—to write about my complicated relationship to masculinity, and some of how I’ve unburdened myself from that, which includes my relationship to my father—and then the book sort of did what it wanted to do. I followed instinct, I wrote way more than I’d intended, I deleted a whole whack of stuff that didn’t seem necessary to the core of the story, all based on the greater thematics that evolved. I always build a whole bunch of parts and slowly fit them together, to see what sort of machine can be made, what’s capable, and then set about fine-tuning those parts so they fit together well. In that way, the book tells me what sort of machine it is. There’s equal parts chance, subconscious, and intention.

The range of this memoir makes for an incredible reading experience. In one chapter I would be brought nearly to tears by the more sad parts of your life like dealing with an aging, alcoholic father, then in another chapter there would be a fisting scene. You balance humor, guilt, sex and tragedy while still having the awareness to tie it back to important social topics like gender, class and sexuality. How did you achieve balance throughout?

Years ago, I heard David Adams Richards say at a reading that he was trying to stuff as much as he could into his novels, all the life he knew, jam full. And I approached this book in much the same way, with breadth. I wanted to look as broadly across my life as I could, looking at how my relationship to masculinity—like how I inhabit my body, and how I came to understand my gender—has played out in all the different aspects of my life. Some of that, of course, involves sex, involves family, involves a lot of embarrassment and shame, and successes and celebrations. Writing, for me, is about getting at the things other people can’t talk about. It’s my job to articulate what we can’t or haven’t or refuse to or are too terrified to say.

So the book goes everywhere, because I’ve gone everywhere. Writing My Body Is Yours has simply been an exercise in candour, or honesty. If the memoir touches on broader themes, it’s because I see those patterns at play in the breadth of my life. Some patterns I knew before starting the book—some were an impulse to writing it, like how frustrating it was to be a genderfreaky child, or how my compulsion has been a key motivator in my life—and some insights only came to me through the process of writing—like the mirror my life made with my father, how much I’d never noticed [what] we had in common—which is always the best material, because the writer, in a way, is discovering in time with the reader. If there’s balance in the book, it’s because I looked across the field of my life without harbouring secrets, without silences. I’d suffered too long in silence as a child. This book is hopefully an antidote to secrecy, whether the secrets be from shame or manipulation. Like I quote Alan Downs in the book: “It’s never a bad idea to be completely honest about the facts.”

For the most part, the memoir follows a linear narrative, but each chapter occasionally jumps in time to employ your current perspective, to link similar events from your life, and to cultivate a different aspect of your corporeal identity. The first chapter for instance seems to open a dialogue on shame and silence, whereas later chapters contribute a sense of sexual agency and liberation. Was this shape conscious or was it organic to the writing process?

The shape was very much organic. Although I love stories that are super clever, and freshly structured, it’s just not what I write most often. I’m working through the heart more than the mind—my ideas are in service to an emotional intelligence, rather than the other way around. My work tends to have classic structures—like linearity, as you pointed out—but with transgressive content. My newness is more in the subject than the form. I know form and subject work together, of course; they’re really the same thing. What I’m trying to do is take the topic of what I write about, which can often seem very foreign for someone on the outside of that experience, and put it in a classic form, as a kind of recognizable container to hold the foreign subject. Aesthetic innovation comes out more in my performance, which is easier for me, because it’s personalized in my performed body sharing space. With books, I’m always interested in reaching a broad audience, and those familiar forms help when you’re writing about topics that might seem, on the surface, to be sensational.

You state numerous times the influence of John Berger on your work. The book is even prefaced with an epigraph from Berger: “There’s nothing but the dumb touch of our fingers. / And our deeds”.  What has been his influence as a novelist and poet on your creative work?

Berger’s prose is amazing. He has this enviable ability to pull back the lens in a particular moment—within some intimacy—and speak about the world in broader terms. He’ll give you a description of a tender touch of a hand on an ankle in a love scene, and then zoom out to discuss the different ways in which men and women are socialized to respond to touch, or how love works, or what the human heart can know from a gesture. The personal, for Berger, is always political—like the touch of our fingers—because the personal is always universal, it always has impact. We are changing the world in each small moment of our day. We are creating it, with each insignificant decision, how we say hello the woman at the checkout stand. If we say hello. He has many aspects to his genius, but that’s the one I hold most dearly, his love of the small touch, and the enormity of its consequence.

You write about haptic perception, the recognition of an object through touch. This seems to be such an important focus of your book. Reading My Body is Yours is a tactile experience: as readers we understand the history of your body, the failures, successes and fears that you have experienced, through physically holding the book. Can you reflect on writing something so personal and then having it packaged and distributed as an object? How have people reacted so far?

I’ve been dreaming about my father for the last couple of weeks. He died more than two years ago, so it’s been nice to see him in my dreams. Even if it’s only there. I’ll run the risk of sounding woowoo and say that I think my subconscious is preparing me for this book’s debut in the world, for strangers to read about my complicated relationship to Dad, to masculinity, and to my father’s death. Those dreams are offering me intimate comfort, pending a general public that doesn’t know me, who’ll read about my private life. Not that I’m worried, especially, not any more than I am for any book. For years now I’ve been exploring topics that frighten and shame me, so I’m familiar with the drill. I know that fear—which is really just a combination of shame and anxiety—are nothing compared to the reward of being vulnerable. People are loving. Readers are loving. As much as they are lonely and isolated. Every time I write something that scares the crap out of me to share, readers are grateful to have found some company in the work. I don’t know myself better by articulating what haunts me, but by hearing its echo when other people respond with their own stories. Books are a means of sharing all that. Every book is a generosity—the writer to the reader with a story, the reader to the writer with her time. I’m blessed to have so many secrets in print. Beyond my reductive fear of being poorly judged or misunderstood, I have a kind of proven faith that I’ll be blessed to have readers who say, “Oh, here’s a bit of truth I haven’t looked at before. Here’s me, too.” That is a gift that gives both ways.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.

Johnston’s stories an exercise in brevity

We Don’t Listen to Them

By Sean Johnston

Thistledown Press

144 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

Continuing with the spare but complex minimalism that made Sean Johnston’s other works so satisfying to devour, We Don’t Listen to Them is a collection of stories with blind-depth that holds you at every turned page. Johnston was born in Saskatoon and grew up a few miles from the small town of Asquith. He is the author of two novels, two books of poetry, and two books of short stories, and was the 2003 winner of the ReLit Award for Short Fiction for A Day Does Not Go By. His newest offering of beautiful and fleeting short stories is a powerful example of the brevity that makes the form moving, and, arguably, the hardest to work in. Johnston has mastered the medium to the point of appearing effortless.

The plots of Johnston’s stories are subtle, often taking a back seat to characters, ideas and insight into the ontology of human existence. Each story is an opportunity for Johnston to explore the act of being. In the story “He Hasn’t Been to the Bank in Weeks,” he writes, “we make copies of all our legitimate responses to the material world, we see the copies we make the copies from on huge movie screens, loud as hell, or alone with tiny earbuds in our ears and the personal screens inches from our face. We have lines to say and whatever we say we know it is the approved expression from a genre we despise, and yet we do feel, we do”. Johnston makes moments feel like eternity, and then inhabits and examines those moments. This is the case right from the first story, “How Blue,” which takes place on a suburban sidewalk on a hot day in so little time that the young boy-protagonist’s ice cream cone doesn’t even melt.

Both directly and indirectly many of the stories are a reflection on the act of writing itself. “We Don’t Celebrate That,” follows a writer and his colleagues on the day they have “received the new rules” for writing. The story explores the fallacy that there are regulations that dictate the process of writing in a very literal, but almost satirical manner, exposing the ridiculous notion that the creative process can be boiled down to a set of rules that must be followed in order to be successful writing. In this story, Johnston writes almost as if describing the stories you hold in your hand, “These stories inhabited this very world, they grew out of our own concerns but they were about love, for instance.”

Other stories don’t tackle the subject of writing directly, but contain snippets that transcend plot to talk about craft. For example, in “It Cools Down,” a story about a man moving to a small town so his children can be closer to their biological father, Johnston writes, “There was nothing to do but your mind goes on. I could picture it all. The real story was in the car. A road trip gets things moving.”

When speaking of books they love, people often say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Such is not the case with We Don’t Listen to Them. In fact, after reading almost every story in the collection I had to put the book down, as it was all I could internalize in a day. I found myself living with the stories, often re-reading lines, or full stories to unravel the complexities of each one. A small disclosure: a few years ago I took a class with Sean Johnston and experienced first-hand how meticulous he is in the creation of fiction. He taught me a lot about the craft of fiction in a very short time, and reading his work does the same. If you read in order to learn to write, and you are looking for a blue print, or “the rules,” look no further; Johnston has offered you something better than a blue print: a finished home.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.

Collection maps career of seminal poet

Angular Unconformity: The Collected Works of Don McKay

By Don McKay

Goose Lane Editions

584 pages; $45.00

Reviewed by Cole Mash

The importance of being gifted with the publication of Don McKay’s collected works can be found nested in the title McKay chose for the volume. In the dust jacket, McKay provides us with a definition: “An angular unconformity is a border between two rock sequences, one lying at a distinct angle to the other.” The name is perfect because that is exactly what we have: two Don McKays lying at an angle to each other; one a timestamp of a McKay’s earlier work, and the other the seminal poetry that has made McKay one of Canada’s most celebrated bards.

Raised in Cornwall, Ontario, Don McKay is the author of 12 books of poetry, twice winning the Governor General’s award. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2008. McKay is considered a pioneer of Canadian eco-poetry, once describing his own work as “nature poetry in a time of environmental crisis.”  His love of birds and birdwatching is a trademark fulcrum of his poetry.

Angular Unconformity: The Collected Poems 1970-2014 brings together a number of McKay’s books of poetry in their entirety, including, among others, his widely celebrated Birding, or Desire (1983), his Governor General’s Award winning books Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000), as well as some new poems and an insightful afterward by the author.

At the beginning McKay gives us a section called “A Note on the Title” in which he tells us that an angular unconformity has gaps in between the geologic structures; gaps of millions of years. He tells us to “imagine a biography with gaps of decades in it” and that is what we get with this offering: a poetic biography filled with blank space. Some books such as Air Occupies Space (1973) and Lightning Ball Bait (1980) are left out altogether, but in this erasure we get representative relic, a facsimile of an old flight plan.

The volume begins with poems from Long Sault, McKay’s second book of poetry. These poems foreshadow a later eco-centred McKay. “See” starts out by comparing roadways to islands followed by a poem employing the eco-imagery of a river sleeping “behind the dam.” The rest of the poems from Long Sault continue with this eco-imagery, and we even get an early bird sighting with mention of a great blue heron, a bird which McKay would later devote a whole poem to.

Next we have the poems of Lependu. The poems in Lependu centre on historical Ontario and the story of the hanged man (le pendu being French for “the hanged”).  In the poem “When Lependu Loves You”, McKay writes, “Nevertheless//when Dundas Street expects Lependu//to be in the air on Friday night she grins//like an extra long unplayed piano”. In this passage there is an absence of the eco-centrism characteristic of McKay’s work before and after this book. Instead, the poems of Lependu establish a sense of place and country, which McKay also carries forward in his poetry, and drives us onward with the ferocity of language that perpetuates McKay’s work.

Then we arrive at McKay’s seminal book, Birding, or Desire. This book brings together the Canadiana and eco-poetics that McKay cultivates in his first two selected offerings. He does this almost metapoetically in the poem “A Morning Song” in which his copy of “Birds of Canada roosts on the shelf,” a Canadian book on a shelf in a Canadian book to be bought and placed on your shelves. It is here in the book that a thematic and linguistic continuity is found in the wooded space McKay has chosen to inhabit with his words. This harmony is sustained right up to the last poem in the collection, which asserts, “we are here, we love it, we// belong”.

In the beautiful and haunting parable-esque afterword, McKay envisions running into a much younger version of himself. When looking back on his life he tells himself that “half a century, does not pass in vain,” and this book is proof of that; evidence of water collecting in the ground for years–a frost heave crack in the spring pavement.

McKay’s poems are filled with exciting, kinetically charged language in a geography I can inhabit and relate to. The text invites the reader to come and learn about one of our country’s great poets while also sheparding them through the experience; it is a field guide to McKay, and one that would be an asset to the shelf of any lover of Canadian poetry.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.