November/December Reading Miscellany (Part One)

Some notes on books acquired at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, and other places, during the Fall that I have finally been able to sit down with and give a bit of time. Expect more of these posts over the next couple weeks.

Nelson Ball. Orphans. Paris ON: Rubblestone Press, 2012.

—. The Continuous Present. Cobourg ON: Proper Tales Press, 2012.

Nelson Ball continues to be Canada’s greatest practicing minimalist poet. Part of me feels, sincerely, that it would do a disservice to his work to spend hundreds or thousands of words taking apart his carefully constructed poems that refuse to waste even a syllable. A different part of me feels that he so desperately deserves close attention and reading and wider recognition of his accomplishments. Please, someone with the resources, publish a collected poems of Nelson Ball that gives the poems room to breathe on the page. Though it would run, I would guess, well over a thousand pages, these are poems that deserve to be read one to a page.

The most coherent statement on Nelson Ball’s work I’ve yet read comes from jwcurry, quoted from 1cent on the back of Nelson’s With Issa: Poems 1964-1971: “…his is a highly personal gesture, opening up a world’s worth of nuance with an absolute minimum of referents, Nelson quietly standing in the middle saying ‘see?’”

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I received an unexpected package from Ball recently containing these two chapbooks, one from his own Rubblestone Press and one from Stuart Ross’s stalwart Proper Tales. Both are part of an engaging project wherein Nelson is quietly but steadily excavating his own poetic archive, a sort-or self-archaeology, pre-empting future editors and academics. The Continuous Present is a book of poems “not in any of my previous books and chapbooks.” Orphans collects poems “not chosen for The Continuous Present.” Nelson has done this before, lots. Nine Poems, also from his own Rubblestone, collects poems “omitted from In This Thin Rain” (Mansfield, 2012). With Held (Laurel Reed Books, 2004) collected poems withheld from With Issa (ECW, 1991), Bird Tracks on Hard Snow (ECW, 1994), Concrete Air (Mercury Press, 1996), Almost Spring (Mercury Press, 1999), and At the Edge of the Frog Pond (Mercury Press, 2004).Concrete Air gathered unpublished work from 1971 and 1972. And, well, I think you get the picture. (as an aside, I was just pulling that link to the ECW website for With Issa, and see that both of his ECW titles are in stock and cost only $12.00. Buy them if you don’t have them!).

Orphans comes with a lovely dedication to William Hawkins and Christopher Wells: “With gratitude to Ottawa poet and singer/songwriter Bill Hawkins who, although he probably won’t remember this, directed me towards imagist poetry. And to his friend artist Christ Wells who, with his wife Peg, oversaw with generosity and sensitivity the marriage of Barbara and me that snow January in 1965.” Nelson published Bill’s classic Ottawa Poems in 1966. Orphans, in its production, brings to mind Nelson’s designed work (with wife Barbara) at weed/flower in the 1960s.

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Nelson Ball poems (and chapbooks, and books) are just so refreshing. So much noise is stripped away. He is attentive to both the sounds and the material constructions of letters on a minute scale. He plays between lyric and sound, concrete and found poetry. His love poems are simply the best going. He’s funny and he’s sad and has continued to do all these things for over fifty years now. I’m going to stop talking about his work now, because it really should be read. Here is an absolutely perfect love poem from The Continuous Present.


To Barbara


I sit on the toilet seat

warmed by your bum


a comfort

this cold winter day

Spencer Gordon. Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! Toronto ON: Ferno House, 2012.

Andrew Faulkner. Mean Matt and Other Shitty People. Toronto ON: Ferno House, 2012.

Toronto’s Ferno House (Editors Spencer Gordon and Mat Laporte, Designer Arnaud Brassard) continues to be infuriating. It is difficult to describe how beautifully produced their books are. I don’t know if there are many chapbook or micro-presses in the country who can keep up with them these days. Their perfect bound (hand bound) efforts are stunning (the For Crying Out Loud anthologies and the wonderfully bizarre Dinosaur Porn). Their chapbooks, as Spencer’s title indicate, look good and feel great (ugh, apologies for that). Pictures of both books below have been scanned with the covers open and flat, so you’re seeing front and back covers plus spine.

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Spencer Gordon is having one hell of a year. Feel Good! was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award, while his first trade collection, Cosmo, was published by Coach House. I’m not sure what more you could ask for as a young writer in this country. I’m still working through Cosmo, so I won’t talk about it here, but Feel Good! is an exciting, fast-paced set of poems steeped (as Cosmo is) in contemporary pop culture (Gordon would simply say culture). His acknowledgements point to these influences: “Thanks to the musicians and bands whose song lyrics I’ve cribbed—The Black-Eyed Peas, The Melodians, KISS, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Zwan, and Leonard Cohen—and to those whom I mention or allude too—Lady Gaga, The Goo Goo Dolls, Bon Jovi, Shania Twain, Chantal Kreviazuk, Bob Dylan, Hall and Oates, Toto, and Night Ranger.” These are not wholly ironic and insincere poems, however. Gordon can write lines like  “Life is a long time grieving, especially the first time. / The second time you try, and it’s alright, there’s less tears; / it’s a reunion you never thought would happen.”  These lines hit, they work, they touch that weird little space between humour and sadness that we need more of in our poetry.

These are poems from a young poet wrestling with being a young poet in a cultural moment in which, on the one hand, poetry seems obsolete and unimportant on a national scale, but that at the same time offers more and greater opportunities to publish and be published and construct for oneself a place in Canada’s literary community. Gordon’s Ferno House and The Puritan are perfect examples of a new, young generation embracing the technology available to publish in print and online, and to foster the development of their peers. His energy is admirable, and his writing is good and getting better.

Andrew Faulkner is poised at the same precipice Gordon has just jumped from. He runs, along with partner Leigh Nash, the Toronto based chapbook press The Emergency Response Unit. TERU is as good as Ferno House. These are beautiful books, produced lovingly with respect for the work and the book object. Dinosaur Porn was a co-production between Ferno House and TERU. His 2008 chapbook, Useful Knots and How to Tie Them (TERU), was shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award. He had a poem in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011. He has a debut trade collection forthcoming from Coach House in 2013. I think that over the next couple years we’ll be seeing debut collections from a group who will become increasingly important, both as writers and as editors during the next decade. I would add Jeremy Hanson-Finger (of Dragnet Mag), Ben Ladouceur, and Bardia Sinaee (all recent Ottawa ex-pats relocated to Toronto) to this list from my own little community. Leigh Nash is already there with her own writing, TERU, and her work at Coach House. I keep hearing great things about the work Jess Taylor is doing with the Emerging Writers Reading Series in Toronto. Michael e. Casteels in Kingston with his wicked Puddles of Sky Press. Amanda Earl in Ottawa with her vital work at AngelHouse, Bywords, and myriad other projects. Pearl Pirie also with Phafours, her tireless blogging, and her work organizing workshops for the Tree Reading Series in Ottawa (Pearl has had two trade collections published in the last couple years). There are countless others, this could go on all day. And this is only the tiny Ottawa-Toronto corridor. What else is happening around the country?

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Faulkner’s Mean Matt and Other Shitty People, in addition to having an awesome cover and predictably beautiful production values, achieves a similar balance to Gordon’s Feel Good! between pop culture, humour, and sincere emotion. In “Notes on a Theme” Faulkner pulls off these lines that, to my ear, reference Beautiful Losers and The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The theme of this party is the digital age / and I am pleasuring myself with a fiber optic dildo. / The theme of this party is body shots / and as I drank I aged hideously.” The tension between the first three lines and the final sustain this fairly long poem, and speak to the strengths of the chapbook as a whole. I can’t wait to see what Faulkner does with a trade collection.

When you get a chance, buy books from Ferno House and TERU. Maybe it isn’t too late to buy them as Christmas gifts?

Published by Cameron Anstee

Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa ON where he runs Apt. 9 Press and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Ottawa.

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