Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Last Day of 2016 – Happy New Year

Cookies, brownies and dream cake squares. Check. Champagne. Check. Ingredients for pad thai. Check. Popcorn, Coke and M&Ms for our movie snacks. Check. It's like we're using food and drink to fortify us against the terror of another year passing – that or we're just plain excited about celebrating in style. Perhaps it's a bit of both.  We are officially stay-at-home revellers. No use going out into the world tonight. Better to stick close to home and enjoy hibernation.  

I don't feel like making any New Year's Resolutions. This last year has already been full of resolutions, so I have enough change to try and keep up with without adding to my list. I do like the idea of a clean slate though – and 2017 is looking very pristine and shiny and golden to me right now. Hello new year. Come on in.  

Do I always think that the coming year is going to be better than the last? Yip. Not a lot of logic going on there. But I'm an optimist – so that's just how I roll. I suppose it's also human nature to think that at an undefined later date, I will somehow get done what I need to and do it better than I can right now. Idealize the future and idealize the past... What I really want to do is write more fiction this year. I just love a good story and trying to craft one. 

Mike and I just finished watching the first season of The OA (on Netflix) and it really took some interesting turns. There was one episode near the end which almost ruined the whole series for me – some of the characters' actions/motivations didn't add up and there were a few scenes that didn't tie into anything else – which made me feel as if I were watching the deleted scenes reel. But the storytelling overall was excellent (although sometimes the tone was a little too gritty and raw for me).  As the season went on, I started to feel like I was watching Lost – much is unexplained and you start to wonder if the creators of the show are really going to make this work. We'll see if they can continue to hold up the story in the seasons to come, but it definitely intrigued and inspired me – lots of new storylines that I haven't seen before. Pretty original, in many respects. And I now know what OA stands for. I won't ruin it by telling you. 

I have to admit, I didn't read that many novels in 2016. I read lots of great poetry and non-fiction. Just finished How to Write a Sentence, by Stanley Fish. So good and so fun. I hope more people write books like that. Let's get into the magic of the sentence more. It's a wonderful, powerful tool. Poets who haven't read this book are certainly in for a treat. I'm actually reading it again for a second time (and redoing all the exercises too). Fish has some exercises for writing aphorisms. Here are some of mine: It's more important to be happy than to be right. Too many nights out lead to too many nights in. 

Happy New Year to all lovers of fiction, poetry and everything in between. Here's to new adventures and warmer climes!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Q&A with poet Robin Richardson

The truth, and the vulnerability of sharing it, is liberation.

Robin Richardson is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, and is Editor-in-Chief at Minola Review, a Journal of Women’s Arts & Letters Her work has been shortlisted for the Walrus Poetry Prize, CBC Poetry Award, Lemon Hound Poetry Prize, and ReLit Award and has won the John B. Santorini Award and the Joan T. Baldwin Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals including POETRY, Tin House, Arc, The North American Review, and Hazlitt of Random House. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and BA in Design from OCAD University. Richardson’s latest collection, Sit How You Want, is forthcoming with Véhicule Press. She is represented by Samantha Haywood at Transatlantic Agency, who is working with her debut memoir this year. 

A couple of weeks ago, Robin Richardson featured at the Art Bar Poetry Series. The atmosphere was warm and inviting, and the audience, full of young and old alike, was buoyed and uplifted by the superb quality and craft of Robin Richardsons poetry. I had so many questions to ask Robin about her poetry.

In this Q&A, Robin Richardson talks about public and private life, what she values in a poem, her work in leading poetry workshops, and the biggest obstacle she faces as Editor-in-Chief at Minola Review.

One of Robin Richardson’s poems (previously published in Lemon Hound) that she read at the Art Bar Poetry Series:

No Exit

I love your world, he said, just keep it to yourself
I love your mouth.

In a Star Wars-themed fever dream
I saw him lassoed by a solar flare and held
there in a warmth I cant provide. Blue light
clicking upon waking, wishing

caffeine came easy as a boy of twenty.
Think these sausages have feelings.
See them smiling from the skillet, soaking
olives plucked in Florence by a sun-fold crone.

Wish Id been there popping bottles
of Prosecco by the boastful shadow
of that lady. Cant fake mornings undone
by a brain as overanxious as a surgeon

with a bone to pick. One busted nose
and I keep thinking itll shift again, fall
off: some stupid uncles magic trick
gone wrong: I got your nose, I got your nose!

He got me hooked on the illusion I was whole.

LY: On CBC's Canada Writes website, they call your forthcoming collection, Sit How You Want (Véhicule Press), your most personal collection yet. This comment seems to point to a marked change in your poetry, whether one calls it more personal, or simply carrying a new flavour or energy. Would you agree that your poetry has taken on a different aspect? And if so, can you pinpoint any one discovery that might have led to this change?

Robin Richardson: There has been a tremendous shift over the past five years. I came out of a sort of fog through which I had been feeling my way, half consciously, through writing, aware of what I wanted to avoid, and what mood I meant to relay, but unable to see myself or my work with any clarity. The shift happened after I removed myself from a particularly impactful and volatile relationship, and began to explore my own instinct about work and self, as unencumbered as I could get, by the influences of opinionated men. Once I was no longer motivated by fear of disapproval, my own voice began to reveal itself with increasing force. It became clear I value honesty, directness, and a certain gut level, unsympathetic writing that exposes elements of the self and the experience of life in order to create intimacy between myself and the reader, and thus, ideally between the reader and her world. It’s clear now that the fancy footwork popular within contemporary Canadian poetry isn’t me, nor the embellishment or showmanship of ambiguous wordplay. My writing is best when it is direct, unflinching, when something is at risk.

I can also point to two things that helped this development along; the one having been my time at Sarah Lawrence College in the States, where a certain directness is revered, and the other being my reading of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which proved exposing oneself could be an effective and frankly brilliant way to expose the world at large, if done well.  

LY: “Come In and Get Lost,” which is one of the poems you read at the Art Bar recently (and also one of the poems featured on your website), is so full of life, beauty and drama. Could you share with us your experience of bringing this poem to fruition?

Robin Richardson: Thank you. This poem began with a preoccupation with money. I was living in Brooklyn when I wrote it. I shared a two bedroom flat with four people, and spent my evenings throwing money I didn’t have at experiences I felt somehow entitled to. I was also reading a lot of Frederick Seidel. Seidel, for those who don’t know it, is a poet famous for his ghoulishness and for his rumoured multi-millionaire status. They say he lives at the Carlyle Hotel. Seidel writes of his wealth openly and flippantly, flaunting it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. In the poem, “Come In and Get Lost” I imagine myself intruding upon Seidel’s world, dressed up in my “knockoff goddess garments”, “a forgery so skillfully constructed it outdoes the real thing”. I do not belong and yet by the end of the poem my intrusion becomes a kind of conquering. There is power in honesty. There is power in mask-wearing too, in playing at being something I am not in order to better discover what I’m capable of becoming. The poem moves through the seeming supremacy of monetary wealth to an epiphany of the power of being unabashedly engaged in my own ever-shifting truths. The poem is also a nod to artists like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Leikeli47, and Lorde, whose bravado brought out a similar tone of empowerment in my own voice. 

LY:  In terms of your Unsympathetic Poetry Workshops, what are some of the key factors that have helped you create a productive and safe environment for your participants? And have you been tempted to run a “no-boys-allowed dance party” writing workshop?

Robin Richardson: The biggest contributing factor in creating the environment I have with the workshops is my sovereignty. I know that sounds extreme but the power to facilitate and lead the workshops without oversight allows me to create a controlled environment according to my own vision. Participants in my workshops are generally newer poets, or prose writers, curious about poetic practices. My approach to the workshop is to be open-minded, to zero in on the strong possibilities of a given poem and find ways to draw out those strengths, to format the work to best serve its own, often somewhat hidden truth. There is never talk of disliking a poem, only talk of what the poem is capable of. I find that by leading with this example the participants very quickly follow suit. Conducting themselves in an encouraging, enthusiastic manner.

As for gender one of my favourite things about these workshops is the effect they have on the men who participate in them. On average, in a workshop of about 8 participants, 2 will be men; the rest are women. I have seen men reexamine their work based on illuminating feedback from women on the gendered experience of the work. There are few things more thrilling than witnessing a moment of epiphany as one puts to question one’s previous presumptions and begins to see things in a new light. Again, I think this is mainly due to the freedom I have to monitor the room on my own terms. I have of course seen workshops run by less conscientious facilitators that devolved into bullying or seemingly endless exchanges of misunderstandings. There is an art to facilitation and I believe that the trick to a nurturing and effective workshop is the mastery of that art. 

LY: I've always been fascinated about that line writers draw or don't draw between their private and public lives. What kinds of issues have arisen for you around this topic?

Robin Richardson: For me the public and private are irrevocably intermingled. The poetry is exposing, sure, but I’ve also started work on my memoir, which exposes the most intimate aspects of my upbringing and personal life leading up to present time. The more I expose, the more I feel I’m doing justice to my personal aim in writing, which is to connect on more meaningful, truthful levels with other human beings. I want the reader to know she is not alone and the surest way to do this is to reveal those aspects of the self we most often conceal and thus hold us in isolation. For me this isn’t scary. Lies are scary. Secrets are scary. The truth, and the vulnerability of sharing it, is liberation. 

LY: Minola Review is growing in leaps and bounds, ever expanding its reach. What do you think is the biggest obstacle you will face in the years to come as Editor-in-Chief?

Robin Richardson: Funding! I want more than anything to be able to pay contributors, publish international writers, and make the work available both online and in print. These criteria make government funding near impossible, as most councils demand about 80% Canadian content, among other requirements that limit the liberties I believe Minola Review thrives with. As a solution to this, I have taken to crowdsourcing via a Kickstarter campaign that is running from now until mid-November. Our goal is to raise $5000, which will enable us to pay contributors, and create a print anthology, which (fingers crossed) will perpetuate enough funds through its sales to fund the same thing in the following year and so on. Each contribution is a pre-order rather than a donation. So each contribution gets one a copy of the anthology, as well as signed art and poetry, depending on the amount given. We’ve already reached 40% of our goal, so I am very optimistic we’ll succeed at this.

The other challenge one might think of for a woman’s journal would be pushback from MRA types. Thankfully there has been much less of this than anticipated. I can count on one hand the men (and one woman) who have criticized the mission. Overall the support and enthusiasm has been swift, and enthusiastic. There is clearly a great need and it’s encouraging to see how supportive the literary community is to the promotion of such a conversation.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mad Men-esque — A Dark Look at Hollywood Filmmaking

In this Hollywood, art is all "lies, connivance and darkness." 
 Kindle Edition (Biblioasis, 2016)

Scrolling through the books on Biblioasis' websiteThe Camera Always Lies, a novel by Hugh Hood, caught my eye. It's described as a story about "Hollywood politics and one woman’s struggle to survive them." I was intrigued, not only by the promise of an insider's view, but to boot, the main character is a woman. Sold. (Not to mention Hugh Hood's bio, which in itself is impressive.) I read the novel over two evenings and thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Set in 1966-67, this is a very dark look at Hollywood filmmaking. Love and Art are all but extinguished in this Holly-land. The greed, lust and misogyny are palpable. Hugh Hood strikes the right balance by injecting humour into the mix. Even the truly "bad guys" are funny. And the overall statement Hood is making about art versus commercialism/careerism elevates the whole thing. 

At the beginning of the novel, it appears that this is going to be a revenge tale, with two slimy producers as the villains, and one beautiful, refined actress as the victim/avenger. But the plot's much more complex than that. Almost all the characters are implicated in some way – even the landscape of LA is described as inhuman. In this Hollywood, art is all "lies, connivance and darkness." 

What I like best about this book is the way Hood captures the 1960s and of course, his searing psychological insights.The Camera Always Lies reveals the worst of human nature, but it also sheds light on how we might live, love and create real Art. With this novel, Hugh Hood is "authenticating the real...dragging phenomena into undeniable life" and we, the readers, are the better for it. 

The Camera Always Lies (originally published in 1967) is part of Biblioasis’ Renditions Series.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Conversation with Poet Sonia Di Placido

“I found myself in an Akashic Wood.” 

Sonia Di Placido's poems, essays, and other writings have appeared in blogs, literary print and online journals such as The Toronto Quarterly, Carousel, The Puritan, The White Wall Review 38, Jacket2, The California Journal of Women Writers, and the Canthius Journal. Two anthologies worthy of mention: Walk Myself Home, An Anthology of Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press), and The Poet to Poet Anthology (Guernica Editions). Sonia’s first full-length collection of poetry, Exaltation in Cadmium Red, launched in 2012 with Guernica Editions. Her second book of poems with Guernica Editions is forthcoming in 2018. Sonia's also currently working on an epistolary series about poetry and writing. 

Sonia's latest chapbook, The Akashic Woodwas published this past spring by LyricalMyrical Press. The opening quote by Emily Dickinson (from the poem “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun”) sets the fiery and dangerous tone for this collection. This is not going to be a nature walk through the forest. Themes of The Akashic Wood include the hunter and the hunted, as well as the power of words and gut instinct as weapons against alienation and domination. The lyrical poems sing with a beauty reminiscent of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” while the post-modern/experimental poems disorient and intoxicate. This mix of poetic styles adds to the overall impression of multiplicity and lushness in The Akashic Wood. There are no page numbers, no table of contents, and not all of the sections are titled, as if the book itself will not be constrained or confined by conventions. In The Akashic Wood, the forest and its inhabitants have been taken over and claimed by “the father” and/or “hunter.” The poems are not only a lament against this takeover, full of warnings not to misuse and appropriate what craves to be wild and free, but an act of reclamation, a reclaiming of the essential self.

(On initiating the) Doe

I am learning to hide
the hairs of this Language
By losing [an] other.

I give you words in all of my skins—
Moistened, tanned, stained/stamped
Leather    Patent or Pleather

unplastic patented.
Suede—each one kneaded to still
my style of perfection’s needs.

You shall wear these
and them
afraid             friendless.

LY: What led you to write this particular book, The Akashic Wood?

Sonia Di Placido: Once I’d published Exaltation In Cadmium Red, I felt a cathartic completion in my poetic sensibilities of or relating to the first ideologies I had with becoming a writer, a poet, a Canadian artist with Italian roots of migration. Things birthed and erased in memory led to eventual trajectories, which opened and closed within. The more familiar I became with my own poetic license, the more places I wanted to go, the more I extended my reach further. This first book was dedicated to my mother and there was much in the work and its process of writing that I identified with, specific contexts and concepts of my person, upbringing, voice. And it felt in alignment with the ‘mother’ figure, one could refer to it as Freudian, but I saw...whatever. I’m a poet and I’m not sure that means only the ‘Matriarch’ in the English intellectual sense of the word and its English (sic) meaning.

However, from that exegesis of the book coming forth, I felt the surge of new places, next places, the resurgence of familiar spaces within, that I wanted to explore through language. I was taking poetry workshops, learning about American poets of which I hadn’t explored with such depth as to write by way of exchanging a dialogue with Modern America post-Dickinson and Whitman, and also leaving behind some of the more well-known deemed ‘confessional’ poets such as Parker, Plath and Sexton, who I was more familiar with—some would reference the typical White American Canon. Again, whatever. It’s a process, for every poet. There’s a process, going in, going out and reading what and who you know and what or who comes next.

My Canadian poetry influences: MacEwen, Purdy, Lowther, Layton, Acorn—all of the Modern context in our literary ‘Canadiana’ were a point of departure here. I could meld my voice with theirs: share our stories, thoughts, poetic languages. However, the subjects they wrote about—their landscapes were still foreign to me. I could return to the ‘Cypress’ trees but had never actually written about MacEwen’s or Purdy’s Pines. Thompson’s Pines, Lowther’s creeks and swamps. I wanted to write about my own Wood. My woods. Not the woods I knew in some far off distant dream-like nostalgic past-life memory of Molise Italy. I felt it was time and I was ready to write about my wood, the wood my father shared with me. The wood and the ground on which I trod every day to school in Toronto. The wood that took me to Manitoulin, to Thunder Bay, Vancouver Island and Quebec. How this vast ‘North’ Americas territory speaks to me. I came to understand the relationship I had, with a ‘coming-forth’ clarity, to this terrain that is my Canada. The one my father gave me, shared with me and also imprinted on me. So, I went into my own Wood with him behind me, with everything that I knew of Canada as someone born here.

The only poetry we can write is our own, not anyone else’s despite the varying trends and ideas in poetry based on the nationalities, and times one writes in. Ultimately, one can recall, recalibrate and return to oneself. I found myself in an Akashic Wood. From my fascination with Blavatsky’s western Spiritualism to my father’s embrace of ‘the Frontier’ to watching a suburban Toronto of the early 1980s become an urban Global city 35 years later by 2015. There’s a history there, there’s a lineage and my own poetic ethos. And that is where and how I began.

LY: Was there one idea that inspired you and if so, what was it and where did it lead you?

Sonia Di Placido: I'd say there were a number of poets who brought about an idea or inner episodic transformation that allowed an opening for poems to come through. For example, I found that in Workshop ideas and themes came through working with American poets such as Lorine Niedecker, her poems about Wisconsin, Lake Superior. The Great Lakes as an idea led me to explore that further—go into my own experience of the Canadian landscape. A Poetry trip to Cobalt in 2013 in physical stasis and association to place also allowed for an opening space for dialogue in poetry.

LY: The first and last poems in a collection are often the hardest to choose. How did you go about choosing “A Poet Makes Noise” for the first poem and “A Golden Hunger Trails The Emerald City” for the last one?

Sonia Di Placido: Actually, I didn’t feel that choice was a part of the first poem. “A Poet Makes Noise” really ties in with a few truths in tandem with my creation of the title. The Akashic Wood is presumed to be somewhat of an ethereal natural habitat, something silent, on the whole a passive place: a quiet introspective area that persists in a netherworld of sorts. A Wood that is not of earth and yet is made up of Forest. I worked with instinct and felt my way through the opening poem. Somehow, I found that this piece required something akin to a bird’s song that opens the book, the poet and the reader into this ‘otherworld’ of a unique Wood. A veil gets lifted as one enters, takes sensory notes, whether they be apparitions or echoed sounds, voices of a journey. There’s an ecosystem to the poet’s attempt, welcoming the reader into the book as she works with pencil and passion. The noise is released from disrupting the Wood’s language through her activity rather than passivity. The poet wants to share with the reader her journey into the Wood, but she knows that in so doing there’s an active disruption, a possible corruption of the Wood no longer existing as one with the Akashic dimension. The work of a poet to reform a wood into words, thereby making it ‘her’ Wood. There’s an indication of lead as being the greater part of noise, both the potential damaging effects of writing Poetry by using a lead pencil as the conduit of disruption. The ‘lead’, a substance from earth, which is reformed and molded to become part of a refined wood mix compressed by humans to create the Poet’s ultimate writing tool. The sound of the lead against paper as they become one ‘noise’ among The Akashic Wood is also about the creation of a subtle, sometimes resolute voice, that comes from writing by hand. Though the process is expected to resonate softly, noiselessly, without clumsiness, it is a difficult phenomenon in The Akashic Wood.

A connection between this first poem and the last has a lot to do with the unconscious in a process of becoming conscious—a common place and/or space that came to my thoughts was Vancouver Island. From the large old Milling zone north of Cowichan Bay, among various lakes, mountain regions, ferries and thicker wooded areas. Thoughtful sensibilities of the ‘Grist of the Mill’ from pulp to paper to pencils became the eventual opening poem for the book as one uniting body for a series of pieces made up of separate components to the larger body. The final poem speaks about Emily Carr, her home in Victoria. This is a return to Vancouver Island’s lush greening woodsy terrain. The poet revisits her initiation by looking down and away from a gigantic broader perspective. The piece is part of the final section in the book called ‘Greener’. The final section and the choice of “A Golden Hunger Trails The Emerald City” closes the book with the circular return toward urbanity. The poet directs the reader toward a cityscape coming out of the Wood and the city is Emerald much like the various green tones of Carr’s paintings of her Vancouver Island forests. Leaving The Akashic Wood to find something rich, alive, refreshing and of ‘Greener’ being. Gold is also referenced as the sun indicating that by leaving the Akashic Wood behind, the returned is in a different place bearing more light. Tall trees, greenery, large brown stumps and the intertwining of tree branches above tend to keep the light out.

The opening poem begins with the entrance of the voice into the Akashic Wood and the closing poem is a reflection of an exit from this Akashic Wood.

LY: Although you embrace beauty and light in this chapbook, you also don't shy away from the messy or darker side of human nature. What does it take to delve so deeply into what essentially wants to remain hidden?

Sonia Di Placido: It's easy to say/write/think that I've always been someone who wanted to be political in the face of darkness in life, existence, 'the world' ... maybe all it really has to do with is the fact that I was born under the Scorpio Sun sign. Ha!

I am very shy about certain types or kinds of inner darkness. I avoid writing poems about love and relationships emotionally/directly like the plague. The "Green Trousers" poem is one of the first and closest I've come to do so in many years. It was inspired by working with some exercises from reading the poet Joanne Kyger. Ironically, her voice is light and playful, but that made room for my poems to delve into a certain darker nature of love, sex, mixing with self and other, the stuff of being ‘In Love’. I continually struggle with some poems, even if I know they feel complete. I fear it's being harshly judged because I judge it. Something in there keeps a heightened vulnerability and demands humility within, even though the poem may not come across that way by language as in using the words ‘fuck’ ‘shit’ etc. It’s still raw. It’s also still delicate. It’s both. I have worried that it's somehow shallow, evasive and not enough. And yet, I still love it for what it is, as it is.

I have evaded an inner language of darkness that ought to be translated through poetry (my own) that is sex or sexuality. In this chapbook, the subtleties are there. Sort of hanging out in the soil at the root of the trees or looming like breath in the 'SKY' 'Akash' that keeps the Wood alive. And for this book, I can answer the latter half of your question by saying that there is a lot that does want to remain hidden here. That wants to be revealed but some kind of 'hide and seek' is happening as the book moves through all sorts of themes, images, ideas, categories about 'being with' my gender, being hetero female, struggling with parental archetypes, my male other, what is passive, what is aggressive action and what does it really have to do with human sentience? To me, there's sexuality, oppression, questions about what or who is really feminine/female in this book. What is mothering? What is fathering? For example in "Advice From A Crying Bear", I didn't write the piece asking these questions. I felt my way through to meet the wood with an animal that, for me, embodies the sensibility of an Akashic place and the Woods space. As I wrote, the piece started to fold and unfold, essentially becoming like Origami of the Bear. Then after some revisions it made sense. What and who is the Crying Bear? What does she want? What is she feeling? Where are her cubs? Where is the mate? Why isn’t this a man or the male bear? Crying doesn't always manifest itself by tears, a runny nose and a red face. It’s so much more than that.

For me, I write about things that hurt or piss me off when I'm ready, which is, for any writer, I believe, part of the great secretive process. That opens up the portal to more easily delve deep into the bowels or tissue matter, unleash the veins and reach into the through-thoughts that make up and create the poem. The work of writing poetry cannot manifest until it’s ripe to be writ. The apple has to be picked or drop from the tree with a light hand, then it’s most succulent. You won't get a good apple if you yank it off its branch. It's just not ready. It's got to be felt with the thought, and knowing this I can enter the right spaces at their most coherent and lock in the moments, sensations, imagery.

I try to be honest with my creative work, as much as possible. That doesn't mean I don't manipulate, play or cheat here, there with language, communication, poetics—technique. What I aim to be honest for are the emotional truths I want to convey and share. Not only general truths of big vague concepts like Beauty, Death, Love, Money, Cities, Technology, Home. To be true, however obscure a poem can be, about the narratives and stories that carry out such truths. That requires an insurmountable depth of sensibilities and feelings. How to convey confusion in a poem? Can we give it sides? Good and/or a bad? A weakness and/or a strength? If I am to do this effectively then I must strive to know “How to make the blindness shine? How to make a beautiful shadow? How to cause a shining darkness? Where’s the black light?”

To order a copy of The Akashic Wood, visit Sonia’s website. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Q&A with poet Michael Fraser

I didn’t have to challenge myself. Numerous challenges emerged on their own.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFO: Michael Fraser has been published in numerous national and international anthologies and journals including: Paris Atlantic, Arc, CV2, and The Caribbean Writer. He won ARC’s Reader’s Choice award for 2012, and was included in the Best Canadian Poetry in English 2013. He won FreeFall’s 2014 and 2015 Poetry Contests. His latest book is To Greet Yourself Arriving (Tightrope Books). He is the creator and former director of the Plasticine Poetry Series. 

Michael’s second collection of poetry To Greet Yourself Arriving was recently published by Tightrope Books. As the title suggests, this collection explores self-awareness, fragmented selves, and the best self. Some of the poems are portraits of people who have accomplished rare achievements, such as Bob Marley, Joe Frazier, Maya Angelou and Barack Obama. With each poem, the reader is immersed in rich imagery and surprising metaphors. To Greet Yourself Arriving is a complete journey: both uplifting and sobering.

Harry Jerome

Like a child, he craves firefly glitter
suspended beneath his neck.

He wants coins, gold patina skin. To have
that metal taste drifting between his teeth,

the heat of concentration like a magnifying
glass searing paper. His obsession

with an unwinding track rounded to infinity.
If moments are distances between places,

a clock pulsing through rain, snow
and slow boredom, trying to place brakes

on time, to outdistance other men living
between lines. The ground is a spring his

ankle fears. He rips down the straightaway,
holding off gazelles cloaked in wind.

LY: What has been the most rewarding aspect of publishing your second poetry collection, To Greet Yourself Arriving (Tightrope Books)? What are some of the highlights of your experience?

Michael Fraser: The most rewarding aspect is holding the book in your hands for the first time. The notion of your book is essentially abstract until you open it and flip through the pages. You enjoy the pages’ texture and peruse it like a child who has just unwrapped a birthday present. You admire the font and cover, and literally, playfully, and gleefully wade through this concrete, bound collection of your thoughts and perspectives on the world. Equally important are the eight years between this book and my first collection, The Serenity of Stone. I know I have more books in me, but life really interrupted the momentum I gained from publishing the first book. Thus, I was thrilled to have finally published this manuscript which I laboured over the previous seven years.

One major highlight was working with Deanna Janovski at Tightrope Books. I have copious praise and unending accolades for Deanna Janovski. I saw her previous book covers and deferred to her expertise and experience. I had 110% confidence in her capability and vision. I was waylaid when she initially shared an image of the front cover. I returned her email with a plethora of happy emoticons and every adjective for the word “amazing” I could muster. It was quite juvenile and unprofessional, but I was beyond elated! Deanna was also a master copy editor. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by Black Uhuru was one of my favourite songs during my impassioned adolescence. For most of my life, I sang the lyric “so the Book of Ruth shall stand”. I included this line in the poem referencing Black Uhuru. I was surprised when Deanna wrote back stating the lyric is “so the Book of Rule shall stand,” and she was correct. I couldn’t believe I spent most of my life singing incorrect lyrics from a song I heard a million times! It was hilarious.

LY: In what ways did you try to challenge yourself while writing To Greet Yourself Arriving? What was your writing process?

Michael Fraser: I didn’t have to challenge myself. Numerous challenges emerged on their own. I commenced this project immediately after I completed The Serenity of Stone. My daughter entered our world a few months later, and I immediately realized time is most definitely our greatest resource! Writing anything was ridiculously difficult as my daughter seemed to cry continuously whenever she was awake. The first three months were brutal. I felt like a creature from The Walking Dead. Any writing attempts were disjointed and beyond amateurish. Writing returned in spurts when she was roughly six months old. I discovered Hemingway was correct when he claimed the subconscious works on our writing while we’re not writing or even contemplating writing. I essentially tried to write and read whenever a moment presented itself. I wrote surreptitiously during meetings, the occasional time I took public transit, in the midst of movie theatres.

The book’s title presented a serious challenge and went through various incarnations during my seven years writing the book. Walcott’s Love After Love is one of my favourite poems and the light clicked when I listened to a YouTube recitation of the poem while cleaning. To Greet Yourself Arriving was the perfect title that had eluded me the previous seven years. It’s a perfect title since Love After Love focuses on loving oneself prior to loving others. This mirrors the African diasporic experience since media and society have constructed “blackness” as something to be despised and hated. We, as diasporic African peoples, have imbibed this hatred and continue to further entrench it amongst us. I believe it was Junot Diaz who said if every “white” person was to magically disappear off the planet tomorrow, white supremacy would continue as normal since it’s heavily ingrained and embedded in our society and our collective consciousness. If you’re from the Caribbean, you’re fully cognizant of this. Colourism/Shadism is completely in effect as you ascend the social-economic ladder. We know who has “good” hair versus “bad” hair, who has a “good” versus “bad” complexion. The “White doll versus Black doll” experiment which was initially conducted in the early 1960’s demonstrates how pervasive and damaging societal constructions of “blackness” are. In the experiment, three and four year-olds are presented with a black doll and a white doll. They are asked, “which doll is the good doll, and which doll is the bad doll.” Every single preschooler (regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, ability, etc.), selected the white doll for positive traits and the black doll for negative traits. You can easily observe these experiments on YouTube. These experiments literally make people cry. I think everyone should see them, especially people who claim we’re in a post-racial world. When you see a “Black” toddler or preschooler repeatedly point to the black doll as being bad, stupid, untrustworthy, ugly, unfriendly, sad, angry, dangerous, etc., it breaks your heart. It completely disembowels you. I had all of this in mind, and the multi-billion dollar skin-whitening business, in mind when I decided on the title To Greet Yourself Arriving, because we, as African Diasporic peoples, must learn to love ourselves again after centuries of physical and psychological degradation enacted by our Western European colonizers.

Editing also presented a challenge because, in the end, we excised roughly 40 poems from the first manuscript draft! George Elliott Clarke illustrates in the book’s introduction that I failed to write poems for Melvin Tolson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Amiri Baraka. Truth is, I did write poems about these excellent poets; however, the poems I penned weren’t worthy of the poets and were not included in the collection.

LY: Were there any specific books that you were drawn to reading while working on To Greet Yourself Arriving that influenced and informed your writing?

Michael Fraser: While the book profiles historical figures, it is not a history book. Thus, I had no burning desire to extensively research the African diasporic figures showcased in the book. I’m presenting individuals who are special to me. I want to capture something visceral about each individual. I try to envision their struggles from their eyes, or from a third-person omniscient perspective. Perspective was another contentious issue. For people who are still alive like Michaëlle Jean, I had to ask myself, should I really write her poem in first-person perspective? You can envision all the land mines and rabbit holes first-person perspective is capable of generating with such an ambitious project.

LY: As an educator and writer, how important do you think it is to have many interests? Do you have any hobbies or passions that would surprise your readers?

Michael Fraser: As I journey through life, the importance of having multiple interests intensifies. I remember having the “if you won $10 million dollars what would you do?” conversation with coworkers eons ago, and a few answers shocked me. One person claimed they’d eventually return to work because they’d be bored with all that free time. Can you imagine?

I believe it’s necessary and healthy for everyone to have copious interests. You become a more balanced person if you have various interests. I assume teachers with varied interests are more dynamic educators and perhaps have access to a wider range of experiences which can enhance their teaching. Additionally, having multiple interests introduces one to new social circles and people, which is always a positive thing. I read that language and musical acquisition improve fluidity between left and right brain hemispheres. Thus, I’m determined to learn Spanish and I’ve acquired a guitar. We live in a golden age of information. You can literally learn to play guitar from YouTube instructors and language programs are ridiculously dynamic and advanced these days! For the curious and those driven to learn, the world is truly their oyster.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Editing Session Revealed…

Poetry editing is such a huge topic that I’ve been procrastinating writing about it. Where to begin? What to cover? Well, let’s start with a poem I’m editing that has some ants in it.

Editing Session to Figure Out What to Do with the Ants:

Usually, when I come across a poem that includes ants, I think, oh no, not ants again. The writer was sitting in the grass and saw ants and had nothing else to write about, so the ants got in there. Plus, ants are such a cliché  we're like them: small, exposed to all kinds of twisted fates.

Find Poems that Cover Your Subject Matter

What I like about the poem  Failing in the Presence of Ants  is that it does the unexpected  it reveres the ants  not to mention it’s just well written  and if something’s working, whether it’s about ants or not, it doesn’t really matter  all is forgiven. Finding poems that cover your subject matter is a good way to see how other poets are handling what you find difficult.

Do Your Research

Okay, so I’m trying to portray these ants in a real way. But my vignette of them is falling short, so maybe I have to do a little research about them. Obvious, isn’t it?

I have an image in my mind about these ants in the grass, but it’s not clear enough. I need a refresher and look up “ants in the grass” on YouTube. (To me they look like hikers making their way through a forest.) Maybe I look up some interesting facts about them. (The worker ants don't sleep  they just take power naps!)

Now I rework my stanza about the ants after seeing them in action and reading a bit about them, but it’s still not working.

Refer to a Book on the Craft of Poetry 

I turn to The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry to see what Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio have to say in their chapter entitled, “The Energy of Revision.”

Out of the many ideas on how to approach revision, I pick these three suggestions:

1. Chop off the beginning of the poem. (This is an old piece of advice, but the key is to remember it when you need it and give it a try.) I’ve already tried this once, but the poem’s changed enough that it might work now…

When I chop off the beginning about the ants, it feels like something’s missing. I'll have to find another way to fix the ants.

2. Try to “go in a completely different direction.” My ants are busy  so against my better judgment, I’m going to make them lazy ants and see what happens…

Now the ants are more interesting  but they don’t fit with the rest of the poem.

3. Next up: rewriting the problematic lines in five different ways. Actually, I’ve already done this many times. Nothing is satisfying me. But you know what is? My original lines that I got rid of maybe 10 revisions ago. I’m going to bring those lines back... 

Voilà, it seems to work better.

Overall, I’m still not completely pleased with the poem. I read recently (perhaps in the Poet’s Market?) that reading your poem from the bottom up, line by line, can help give you some distance from your poem so you can really hear the words.

When I try this, I see that there are a few needless words I can get rid of, and I replace one weak word with a stronger word. But guess what stanza doesn’t sound right? The first stanza  the one about the ants. I think this decides it. I have to kill these darling ants. I just have to.


Editing is not always fun. It’s like you’re in a maze and you’re trying to get out. By the very nature of the problem, you’re going to end up retracing your steps  going back to the same places  seemingly endlessly. But eventually, if you’re lucky, you find a way out. I’ve found my way out, but I miss the ants!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Poetry and Patience

I spent every day over the winter holidays working on my poetry manuscript. I made some progress, but nowhere near as much as I thought. Turns out this next collection is proving to be a lot more work than I imagined. I've been working on it now, on and off, for four years.

Why is it taking longer? I'm not so sure, but I'm choosing to take it as a good sign. This book has a life of its own, and I'm just trying to give it what it needs. Turns out, it needs a lot. I hope it's ready to send out soon though, maybe come the Spring.

This weekend was entirely devoted to poetry, and once again, I've only moved a wee bit forward. And so it goes...