Robert Hogg (1942-2022)

Robert Hogg died on November 13, 2022, at the age of 80.

Robert Hogg (Source: Facebook Profile)

I began to write this in a suspended moment, having received the news that Bob was in palliative care two Thursdays ago, but with no further details, not knowing how long he had left, or if perhaps he was already gone. The news came out yesterday, Friday, November 18, that he had died the previous Sunday at the Ottawa General Hospital surrounded by his family. I know that once word of his palliative care spread, a flurry of emails went to him from all over, as his many communities tried to express to him something of his importance as a person, a poet, an editor, a scholar, a teacher. I hope that every note arrived in time, and that Bob was able to read them.

I knew Bob primarily as a poet and so will speak of him here primarily as a poet, but long before I understood his contributions to poetry in this country, he was a presence in my life through my dad, Rod Anstee. They had Kerouac and the Beat Generation in common. They travelled together to NYC in 1994 for a Beat conference at NYU, and to Montreal where Bob introduced my dad to Allen Ginsberg. I have the faintest memory of visiting an office in Dunton Tower with my dad, probably in the early 90s or late 80s, a gloriously disordered office that must have been Bob’s. I remember that among dad’s books, which I understood to be important, were Bob’s books, and so they too were important. Dad and mom spoke of Bob with such respect in our house that even as a child it carried weight for me. When I got to know Bob myself, I of course understood immediately.

His five trade books were published from 1966 to 1993, a book every 6 or 7 years. A pace influenced, I am sure, by his research, and his teaching, and his farming, but also a graceful pace. Each book in his bibliography is unique, and none overstay their welcome. They were published by Oyez, and Coach House, and Black Moss, and ECW (with an edited collection of Confederation-era poetic theory from Talon for good measure), all excellent presses that did beautiful production work on the books. The blurbs on Of Light make clear the esteem in which he was held by his fellow poets—none other than Victor Coleman, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan sing his praises.

His work appeared in New Wave Canada in 1966, the seminal anthology edited by Raymond Souster for Contact Press that established many of the primary directions of Canadian poetry in the decades that followed, and in Modern Canadian Verse in 1967, edited by A.J.M. Smith for Oxford University Press, alongside the Atwoods and Ondaatjes and McFaddens of Canadian Literature.

He was an editor at magazines TISH and MOTION. He studied at SUNY Buffalo under Charles Olson, on whom he later wrote his dissertation under Robert Creeley. He taught Literature at Carleton University for close to 40 years, while also somehow finding time to become an organic farmer and operate an organic flour mill. He retired from Carleton around the time I started there as an undergrad, and I wish that I could have sat in on one of his classes. My dad audited a Beat course he taught in the 90s, the syllabus of which is still tucked into my copy of Of Light.

The final act of his writing life was notably productive. While it has been close to thirty years since his most recent trade book, others are reportedly forthcoming (with Chax and Ekstasis). There were chapbooks—from above/ground, and battleaxe, and Apt. 9, and Trainwreck, and Hawkweed, and his own Hogwallow. He published in magazines near and far, in print and online, and offered a steady stream of brand new poems on his Facebook account.

That productivity leaves behind a wealth of other material, like this wonderful and long podcast interview conducted by one of his former students, Craig Carpenter; or this recording of a reading of Bob’s from February 1970 at Sir George Williams University in Montreal; or this video of a more recent virtual reading produced in December 2021, from deep within pandemic:

I worked with Bob on one book of his, the late chapbook Apothegms published in December 2021. Bob sent me a large file of his very smallest recent poems, from which he let me make a selection, and after only a bit of back and forth, we settled on the manuscript. He even allowed me to use graphic elements from his very first book, The Connexions (1966), on the cover and title spread. Bob told me the story of that first book, and of the hexagram, as follows:

Not sure if you know, but I threw that oracle with the I Ching in Buffalo before heading out to Berkeley in the summer of 1965 with the ms in my satchel because I was wondering if it held together sufficiently, or if I should wait before thinking it might be a “book”. The resulting hexagram, No.14, is called Ta Yu – Possession in Great Measure! That kind of resolved the issue for me, and lady luck did the rest. I met Robert Hawley, the publisher of Oyez Press, quite accidently while browsing a bookstore he owned in nearby Oakland. Realising we were there for the Berkeley Poetry Conference, he asked my friend, Marty Kriegel, if he was a poet; he said no, but my pal here is. Hawley asked if I had a ms of poems he could look at. I did. The next day we were back for an elegant lunch and I signed the contract! I even got paid $150, which would amount to about $1500 today. The only book I was ever paid for. 500 copies were printed. 

Publishing Apothegms was one of the great privileges of my life, small press or otherwise. The poems are, of course, excellent, full of humour and insight and carried by his reliable poetic instincts. But it was also the experience working with Bob. He was so generous and open throughout the process, and patient with me, and I think that we made a truly great book together. I’ve put up a PDF of the whole thing for free here if you’re interested.

We also put a Wikipedia page together about him a couple years ago that was hilariously rejected the first time for plagiarism (we had “plagiarized” his own biographical note from the listing for a reading of his).

I hosted a panel about the Beats and Ottawa in 2016 at the Carleton University Art Gallery. It was Bob, Roy MacSkimming, and Rob Holton, discussing the experience of seeing Allen Ginsberg read at Carleton in the 1960s and the later influence of Beat writing on their lives and careers, all set against an exhibition of Ginsberg’s photographs. What a great night that was, with tables full of books and ephemera and posters, much of which came from Bob’s office. I also remember an earlier panel at VerseFest (maybe in 2014?), with Bob and William Hawkins, during which there was a screening of a documentary about the conference, followed by Bob and Bill reminiscing about it.

Bob was kind. That is a common thread in notes on social media in recent days, the kindness he unfailingly showed, something especially important for young poets to whom he was never anything but generous and enthusiastic. He was as excited about chapbooks as about trade books, about magazines low and high profile. He just wanted to share work, and have work shared with him. His emails were always full of news, and discussion of what he was reading, and comments on any recent poems (his, or mine, or someone else’s)

I remember being annoyed with Bob when I would ask him to sign books—he had a habit of putting the book on a table, opening the cover, and then pressing it flat with his palm, leaving a horrible crease! Now I realize that I will buy his new books and never have the pleasure of being annoyed with him for how he signs them.

Just last week, thinking of the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, I made a small leaflet of poems for Bob. I had been planning to hand it to him at the fair (in fact we had plans for a small exchange that day). It was intended as a small gesture of thanks for publishing Apothegms with Apt. 9, and which became wholly inadequate given the news. Those poems are also in this tribute rob mclennan put together, with which I look forward to spending time.

I had, and have, such admiration for Bob’s writing life, the honesty of it, the joy of it, the commitment to poetry, the openness to it (and patience with it), the role it played in his life. I hope to emulate a small part of it all. Bob contributed a great deal as a writer, an editor, a researcher, a teacher, a poet; work that mattered, and matters, and will matter I believe.

I’ll end here, with some of my favourites of Bob’s shorter poems:

Thank you, Bob, for all of it, for your writing and for your many kindnesses. I love your books and your poems. I will return to them again and again for the rest of my life, and will tell others to do so as well.

Robert Hogg (Source: Facebook Profile)


Apt. 9 had the great pleasure and privilege of publishing two new chapbooks this fall–ghost ships by Marilyn Irwin and inside inside inside by Jo Ianni. Marilyn’s is available to purchase (and she’ll be reading from it at my Ottawa Sheets launch next week), while Jo’s book sold out faster than any previous Apt. 9 title. Between the Toronto launch and the website, the book is now gone! Apologies to anyone who missed it.

In other Apt. 9 news, I am delighted to say that Pearl Pirie’s Rain’s Small Gestures was longlisted for the Nelson Ball Prize (along with my own chapbook Lines). Very excited to see the shortlist and eventual winner!

Susan Johnston was kind enough to interview me about Sheets for her long-running show Friday Special Blend at the mighty CKCU. We talked typewriters and poetry, and she played a pile of William Hawkins’ songs. Thanks, Susan!

And finally, for anyone interested, I started a new instagram page where I post photos and comments about (mostly) small press books in my collection. If that sounds interesting to you, here you go: @smallpress_bookshelf. Jeff Blackman was also kind enough to ask me a few questions about it for his zine These Days. Thanks, Jeff!

Sheets | Now Available

My new book, Sheets: Typewriter Works, is officially in the world. Get it from your fine local independent bookstore, directly from the press, from me, or at an upcoming event! (Or from the bigger, less local options if those are the only ones available to you!).

I read recently in Montreal at the excellent Argo Bookshop with Bardia Sinaee and William Vallières. Other readings and launches are upcoming in Ottawa and Toronto:

I answered a few questions about the new book at Open Book earlier this month, and the book even received its first review courtesy of rob mclennan: “[…] Sheets: Typewriter Works furthers Anstee’s poetic explorations into and through the minimal, but through gestures that extend both the act and result of writing—both composition and erasure—into the deeply physical. The effect is striking and immediate […]”

Update Roundup

An overdue roundup of some updates from my writing life.

The big news is that my second book of poetry, Sheets: Typewriter Works, is forthcoming from the mighty Invisible Publishing in October 2022. As per the official description:

Sheets: Typewriter Works extends the minimalist explorations of Cameron Anstee’s first collection, Book of Annotations. Prompted by receiving the Olivetti Lettera 30 typewriter that belonged to poet William Hawkins after his death in 2016, the works in this book explore how small poems operate through the freedoms and constraints of the typewriter as both a decaying machine and a mode of composition. Through engagement with writers and artists like Jiri Valoch, Barbara Caruso, Leroy Gorman, Cia Rinne, William Hawkins, Dani Spinosa, Kate Siklosi, and Norman McLaren, Sheets: Typewriter Works re-embeds the minimalist poem in the typewritten page.”

The entire book was typed on Bill’s typewriter, and an erasure of his 1966 book Ottawa Poems is the centrepiece of the collection. Writing it pushed my meager typewriter skills to their limits and ultimately moved my writing further into a visual/concrete realm than it had been before. It is very much still a book of minimalist works, but ones that are perhaps expansive in ways that are new for my work. It includes an afterword and extensive notes, and I had the great pleasure of working with derek beaulieu as my editor. I also could not be happier with the cover design by Megan Fildes, which adapts a piece from the book, and am thrilled to be working with Invisible once again. Pearl Pirie asked me a couple questions about the book as part of a series of mini interviews she has been doing for forthcoming books, and the interview includes two pieces from the book if you’re interested in a preview (thanks Pearl!).

Launch plans and all the rest are still to be figured out, and I will share all of those details once they’re set, but in the meantime it is available now for pre-order from Invisible or from your local independent bookstore.

I am also delighted to say that some of the work in my dissertation has finally been published in print (reminder that you can read the whole thing for free here if you like). I contributed a chapter to Unpacking the Personal Library: The Public and Private Life of Books, edited by Jason Camlot and J.A. Weingarten. I am excited not only to see my research on jwcurry published, but also to be in such fine company (Alberto Manguel! Sherrin Frances! Linda Morra!). Thanks Jason and Jeff!

I recently contributed to a totally enjoyable roundtable discussion about chapbooks for the latest issue of Hamilton Arts & Letters, with questions from David Ly and answers from Ashley Obscura (Metatron), Adèle Barclay (Rahila’s Ghost), and myself. To my happy surprise, the entire issue turned out to be a “Canadian Chapbook Issue” (edited by Jim Johnstone and Shane Neilson) and included a lovely bonus–Jim Johnstone was kind enough to include Apt. 9 Press in his survey of Canadian micropresses. Thanks David, Jim, and HA&L!

And last but not least, I recently finished writing an essay (or at least finished writing a draft of an essay…) about Jessica Bebenek‘s amazing k2tog project, an essay that touched on risograph printing among many other things. Jessica then pulled a line from the essay and used it as demo text in a risograph workshop she was running, meaning that I now have a stack of very cool broadsides printed on a mix of off cuts at the riso studio of Concordia’s Centre for Expanded Poetics:

I’ve got a few of these, so if you’re interested in one send me a message.

River Update

Before the pandemic, I had a lovely 30-minute commute on foot. For two-and-a-half years, I walked across the Alexandra Bridge from Ottawa to Gatineau twice a day, five days a week. It was a great way to start and end each workday, and I began to really look at the Ottawa River for the first time in my life. I watched it change states through the seasons, and began a nearly daily habit of taking a picture (or pictures) of it in its various states, mostly looking directly down at the river from the pedestrian walkway on the bridge.

The pandemic interrupted this, as it has interrupted so many things. Today, my partner and I take walks in our neighbourhood before and/or after work, as life and the weather allow, and I have again begun to take photos of the rivers close to us (the Ottawa River and the Rideau River), albeit much more occasionally.

I post these on Instagram (@caoanstee if you’re interested), usually under the title “River update.” Here is a small selection of some of my favourites from the last four or so years:

And here is a poem titled “River Suite (Alexandra Bridge)” that came from the same habit (and that was published by above/ground press back in 2018). I’ve got some copies of this broadside kicking around, if anyone is interested.

Hugh Barclay, Thee Hellbox Press

I was very sorry to learn this week that Hugh Barclay, proprietor of Thee Hellbox Press, has passed away.

I had the great pleasure of interacting with Hugh at small press book fairs in Ottawa and Toronto, where he was a regular exhibitor, and it was an unfailing joy to speak to him and look at the beautiful books he made. I treasure my small trove of Thee Hellbox publications.

In his work, I especially love how he often printed text over top of exuberantly coloured abstract art. Here are a few examples of what I mean, including prints by Michele LaRose in Phil Hall’s X, wood-type ligatures printed under Susan Gillis’ poems in The Sky These Days, and an abstract image by Hugh himself (I believe) from Jim Johnstone’s Microaggressions.

Of this choice, Hugh said, “I like to think that if the artwork is entirely illustrative, it is like saying to the reader, ‘I know you are a bit dull so I thought I would draw a picture so you could understand what the author is saying.’ Whereas if I use colour with some abstract art, it speaks in several tongues and may well speak differently to different readers […] Hopefully I will make them ask questions and interpret the artwork any way they like, as there are no right or wrong answers. If it makes them reread the text, it has done its job.” (Devil’s Artisan 78, p. 71).

He also emphasized the value of collaboration in printing and in art generally, and the openness of that approach is a defining characteristic of his printing: “I have realized for a long time the importance of collaboration. We do ourselves a disservice by establishing boundaries. Our job is one of publishing a book. This objective is held by me, the artists and the writer. In the end, it becomes impossible to credit anyone specifically and this is what I call collaboration” (Devil’s Artisan 78, p.73).

Hugh’s work shows up in places in the written history of the small and fine press in Canada. Here is a brief paragraph about Thee Hellbox from Fine Printing: The Private Press in Canada (1995):

There is also a lovely and long interview with Hugh by Shane Neilson in issue 78 of The Devil’s Artisan, from which the long quotations above come.

Most substantially, in 2017, Merilyn Simonds published the book Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books, a meditation on print and digital books and a loving memoir of her time spent working with Hugh when he published her book The Paradise Project through Thee Hellbox. The Paradise Project, incidentally, was displayed at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library in 2013 as part of an exhibition titled A Death Greatly Exaggerated: Canada’s Thriving Small and Fine Press.

In addition to being a printer, Hugh was an orthotist and developed a tilting wheelchair, artificial limbs, and braces.

Hugh’s work was consistently beautiful, unique, collaborative, and full of joy, and that is the overriding memory I will have of Hugh from our few conversations. I will miss seeing him at the next Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, and each one after that, and I am grateful to have a few examples of his fine work on my shelves to which I can return.

A Few Updates

I’m giving this site a bit of a refresh, and wanted to take the opportunity to round up a handful of links from the past year:

I’ve published two chapbooks recently: Words in Place, through Michael Casteels’ always-wonderful Puddles of Sky Press, and Lines, through my own St. Andrew Books (review by rob mclennan). Words in Place is a single tiny poem rubber-stamped in micro-chapbook form using paper stock from Barbara Caruso’s presspresspress supplies. Lines is a collection of minimalist poems, printed using mixed cover stock that I had left over from previous Apt. 9 projects, and comes with a bonus typewriter poem leaflet (“Baseline Variations”). Lines is also currently available as part of the “Fertile” Subscription Series at Knife | Fork | Book, where I am delighted to see it in such fine company.

I also answered “Six Questions” at the Chaudiere Books blog as part of a series that I always enjoy reading. Thanks to rob mclennan for asking me these questions.

On the Apt. 9 front, Justin Million’s EJECTA remains available for purchase, and I’m slowly gearing up for at least one Fall project with more to come. When it is safe to do, I look forward to finally celebrating EJECTA with in-person readings.

Michael Dennis (1956-2020)

Michael Dennis died on December 31, 2020. He was a good friend and a good poet. I love him and I miss him, like so many do. I’ve been writing and re-writing this since he died trying to say more or less that, I think. I’ve also been re-reading his poems and feeling grateful that there are so many to sit with now.

As I have been writing and revising this post, it has gradually become more focused on my personal memories of Michael, and so skews to the final decade of his life. rob mclennan’s post offers a more detailed overview of Michael’s life and life in poetry, and I encourage you to read it. I’ll add links to other remembrances as they appear.

I first got to know Michael through his poems. I’d come across his name as I was looking for Ottawa poets. (Michael was an Ottawa poet, yes, but by way of Peterborough by way of London.) I was starting to get to know people in the contemporary small press scene in town, but was desperate to find evidence of a poetry community in the city in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was there, of course, I just hadn’t found it yet, and so jumped at the chance to pick up the first of his books that I came across in the bookstore ecosystem. It was This Day Full of Promise (Fredericton: Broken Jaw, 2002), his first selected poems, found on the low poetry shelves at Book Bazaar on Bank Street. In those poems I encountered so many of the layers of Michael that I came to know in him as a person years later—kindness, sensitivity, generosity, love, humour, honesty, joy at having a good story to tell, and an abiding commitment to poetry.

I met Michael in person for the first time in April 2009. He was participating in a fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-Frame, reading at Library and Archives Canada with Stephen Brockwell, Rob Winger, Gwendolyn Guth, and others. On the book table, he was selling a single copy of a relatively early book of his that was legendary to me—poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986), a book he famously wrote sitting in a bookstore window in Ottawa. (Here is something I wrote about that book a few years later.) I snatched it up, he signed it for me, and I felt like I’d met a proper poet, a poet who had been doing it for decades for little acclaim, certainly for no money. I don’t remember what Michael read of Al Purdy’s, or of his own work, but I remember the force of his reading, his comfort on the microphone, his command of the room. Michael was a great reader, with a great voice, and his poems were often at their best when spoken. To not be able to hear him read anymore–to not be able to listen to him speak anymore–is a deep loss. Here is a legendary reading from 1999 at the Ottawa International Poetry Festival.

Later in 2009–November 28, to be precise, I can date it from a book inscription–I visited Michael and Kirsty’s home on Dagmar for the first time. I’d launched Apt. 9 Press a few months earlier, and Michael was considering submitting a manuscript to me. He invited me by to discuss it, and as we sat in his astounding library, he asked me a hundred poetry questions—who was I reading, who did I like, what was I studying, what books were in my to-read pile, who did I not like. He was feeling me out, trying to find my loyalties in the poetry world, but he was also just excited to talk poetry. He showed me books in his incredible library, handed me stacks to take home, and shared poems. (I did have the privilege of publishing one of his chapbooks through Apt. 9—how are you she innocently asked (2010)—as well as a broadside in 2011 on the occasion of the inaugural edition of Ottawa’s poetry festival, Versefest. Michael read on the opening night with Ben Ladouceur, and gave a typically masterful performance.)

michael dennis office
Michael’s desk and library (Photograph by Michael, I believe).

I was astonished by his and Kirsty’s home, as everyone is that sees it, full to bursting with art—paintings and sculptures and objects and music and books. I’d never seen so much art, so gleefully and lovingly arranged on what felt like every free inch of wall space (and much of the floor and shelf space), pieces big and small. The tour of their house was an education in a life lived for each other and for art. It was beautiful. It is beautiful. I can’t do it justice, nor do I have the knowledge necessary to begin articulating the importance of their collection. Take the time to read this interview to begin to understand the scope of it.

His working life—that is, his non-poetry working life—covered more than most. I’ll defer to the concise overview in his biographical statement from his final book: “His working life has included everything from stints in car plants and copper mines to installing artworks in galleries and doing time as a short-order cook and dishwasher in a strip club; he ran a small boutique hotel in the ’80s, was Santa at the Kmart in Charlottetown one year, and opened a non-profit ESL school in Jablonec nad Nisou, Czechoslovakia, immediately following the Velvet Revolution. Michael has driven a taxi and a truck and had a brief stint as a private chauffeur.” I also remember him telling me that he worked with Yann Martel in a bookstore (or library?) in Peterborough. He told me that Yann inscribed a first edition of his early book, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, but that it had been misplaced or stolen somewhere along the way. I open every copy I see, and genuinely thought I would find that copy again someday and return it to Michael.

In early 2013 he started his blog, Today’s Book of Poetry, and I think that it had a profound effect on him as a poet and as a member of the small press community. In the early years of our friendship, he often had a chip on his shoulder about poetry. There was a sense that he had perhaps not had the literary career he at one time expected, and he had complaints about the state of things. rob mclennan, in his post following Michael’s death, does an admirable job of covering the ground of Michael’s publishing career, some of the hits and misses, and notes for example that Michael wasn’t included in any of the Ottawa-focused anthologies of the 1980s and early 1990s. While not anthologies, Michael did give me a handful of broadsides from those years in which he appears with other poets of the Peterborough-Ottawa line and beyond, including Barry Dempster, Mark Frutkin, Ward Maxwell, Riley Tench, Dennis Tourbin, Richard Harrison, and Armand Ruffo.

I think a good deal of credit needs to go to Christian McPherson for setting up the website, which allowed Michael to begin writing “appreciations” of contemporary books of poetry (I helped in a small way scanning book covers). It quickly gathered steam, and before long he was receiving regular packages of books in the mail from publishers across the country and beyond. The first post was dedicated to the work of a friend, Ward Maxwell, who has done exceptional work documenting Peterborough poets at his own website. Another early post collected some videos of Michael available online, that will remain well worth your time. And this post makes me smile and breaks my heart—to think he won’t sit our library again and finger books that I half wonder if he’ll smuggle out with him. By the time he wrapped it up in 2020, after his diagnosis, he had written appreciations of over 800 books of poetry. This year, he received an award for the blog—the Meet the Presses’ Special Recognition Award for Commitment and Devotion to Small Press.

Most importantly, I think the blog helped him to fall in love with poetry again. The chip on his shoulder receded, and when we spoke about publishing, he expressed more gratitude and less frustration. He was pleased to have published as much as he did, and was newly impressed by the volume and quality of poetry being published in this country. He would come out to readings with stacks of books to have signed. He would come home from trips with new boxes of books. He devoured every contemporary book of poetry he could get his hands on–the last time he gave me an estimate, he thought there were some 8,000 books of poetry in his library. Here is a profile of Michael by rob mclennan that shows evidence of this shift. And here are two profiles of the blog by Stuart Ross, one from 2013 and one from 2020.

He gave more and more readings, despite having announced that he was giving his “final” reading on a more than a few occasions. Memorable  ones included this reading with Stuart at Tree in 2017, and a house reading in November 2019 that stands as one of the finest afternoons of poetry I’ve enjoyed (also with Stuart, and held at the home of Ottawa’s greatest and lowest-profile collector of poetry, Alexander Monker).

Photograph by Jennifer Huzera

He began to publish more, including chapbooks with a huge number of small presses—Proper Tales, and Burnt Wine, and above/ground, and shreeking violet, and Monk, and phafours, and Sunday Afternoon Poems, and Apt. 9. Stuart Ross lovingly edited the substantial Bad Engine: New and Selected Poems (Vancouver: Anvil, 2017), and followed it up with a new trade collection in 2020—Low Centre of Gravity (Vancouver: Anvil). He also appeared in translation in Norwegian this year (Ghosts in Japanese Taxis [Trondheim and Minneapolis: A+D, 2020], a publication for which Jenn and I had the pleasure of hand-stitching roughly half of the edition). He had a late-career renaissance, and his work is perhaps more accessible and in-print now than at any previous point. Here is Michael describing his own “small press writing day”, and it is a lovely glimpse into his days, writing and otherwise.


He also unquestionably produced some of his finest work in the final years—Low Centre of Gravity is among his best. It is oddly prescient, a book about funerals and reflecting back, about family and art, and as always about love and poetry. The reception of the book will no doubt be coloured by his death, but the bulk of the poems must have been with the publisher long before the events of the past nine months. Please buy Bad Engine, and buy Low Centre of Gravity, and then keep your eyes open in used bookstores for his early books.

Michael’s poetry has been described with great insight by many. Stuart Ross, in his introduction to Bad Engine, described Michael as “a people’s poet, a populist poet” and argued that the “greatest appeal of Michael’s work” was “his conviction, his directness.” Yann Martel, in his blurb for Arrows of Desire, wrote that Michael’s poetry was “honest, unflinching, needy, sad, joyous, unmistakably human.” Maggie Helwig described Michael’s poems as being “of unflinching honesty and deep tenderness.” The back copy of Bad Engine calls his poetry “direct, curious, pissed off and honest.” Barry Dempster wrote that “he is like a man who is trying to teach his heart to speak on its own.” He’s been compared to Charles Bukowski, and Al Purdy, and Eileen Myles. Here is a small handful of poems of his that I love:

The poems will endure, I’m sure of that. Equally important, the kindness and generosity that he sent out into the world will endure in those who were lucky enough to be his friend. Jenn and I received more than our share of his and Kirsty’s love. He once picked us up from the airport, after midnight and unprompted, when we had to cut a vacation short for medical reasons. He delivered supplies when Jenn threw her back out. When I finished my PhD, he appeared at the door with a signed Henry Miller book. When Jenn defended her Master’s Thesis on Jimmy Stewart, he appeared with a signed letter from Jimmy Stewart that Jimmy wrote to Michael in 1993 in response to a letter of Michael’s. He was also a devoted blood donor (over 200 donations, I believe), and I will think of him every time I sit in that chair in the future. Donate if you can–in Michael’s words, “the experience is entirely rewarding. It is one of the few times when you empirically know you have done something GOOD.”

I received more than one ride home over the years. I remember one in December 2019 (I think…). I work in the same building as Kirsty, and as I left to trudge home through the snow on foot, Michael was there in the car waiting to pick Kirsty up and extended a kind offer as always. Instead of fighting the snow and ice on the Alexandra Bridge, I got to sit in his and Kirsty’s warmth, listening to them talk about their days. It was lovely, as it always was to be around them together. A dinner invitation from them was a gift, and I regret the ones we had to turn down over the years.

Michael - 1
Photograph by Kirsty Jackson

The first time I visited him, he told me that Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” was his favourite poem. I don’t know if that was still true years later, I wish I had asked, but it is easy to see the influence of that poem on him. Auden’s poem reads, in full:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I’m certain he could recite that from memory. Michael wrote many variations of that poem over the years—like we all do when we find a poem we wish we had written. The sense of tragedy, of suffering, being a matter of scale and perspective, and of life going on, as it must go on, regardless–these ideas formed one core of so much of his work.

Michael’s poems told us again and again that the world goes on, that “one thing will happen / and then a little later / another thing” (“happy birthday to me”); that after each funeral “the sun set and then rose / just like every other day / somewhere a cloud, some rain / another place flowers” (“my mother and I sat waiting for death”). Michael’s poems show us the sad parts, and the disasters, and the suffering, but also the flowers in the other place, and the small victories despite it all, and the modest but significant parts in which we should invest our hopes—“hope for one more night in bed / one more morning / the sun coming up from the east / her eyes seeing mine” (“one more day”). The steady stream of stories being shared on social media, and in other blog posts, shows that part of the world did stop and notice this particular moment of disaster, that it has not been met with indifference but instead has been met with love.

The tragedy, as Michael told us, is not that the world goes on, of course the world goes on—it is that even if you notice the important things, even if you see the suffering and the beauty and somehow get the proportion of it all right, time still runs out. It is what is articulated by the final epigraph he chose for Low Centre of Gravity, his final collection:

“When God punishes you, it’s not that you don’t get what you want. It’s that you get everything that you want, but there’s no time left” (Miles Davis).

After the final poem in the same collection, he snuck in three more quotations , leaving Henrik Ibsen to have a final and more joyous word:

“And what if I did run / my ship aground; / oh, still it was splendid / to sail it!”

And so, all of that to say, I miss you and I love you, Michael. Thank you for everything.

Michael launching Bad Engine in front of a standing-room only crowd at the Avant Garde Bar in Ottawa.

Nelson Ball (1942-2019)

20130807_141942 copy
Nelson Ball, Mount Pleasant Nature Park (August 2013)

Nelson Ball died two days ago on Friday August 16, 2019. Nelson was a poet, editor, publisher, and bookseller specializing in the small press in Canada. His influence in each of these fields is beyond my ability to express here and he brought to each of these roles the same kindness and generosity that he brought to his friendships. I count myself lucky to have known him for the final decade of his life, to have worked with him, and most importantly to have been his friend.

I’ve made arguments in other, more formal venues about his importance in the small press, and won’t repeat them here—one chapter of my dissertation is about his work as a bookseller (online in full); I recently published an index of the three little magazines he edited in the 1960s (currently behind a paywall but only for a short time); and I was privileged to publish three chapbooks by Nelson through Apt. 9 Press, including his bpNichol Chapbook Award winning Small Waterways, and most recently A Letter to Amanda Bernstein and a Checklist of Weed/Flower Press (online in full). Here I simply want to remember my friend Nelson.

I first contacted Nelson in summer 2009. I was conducting research for my M.A. on the Contact Poetry Reading Series (1957-1962) and reached out to Nelson for research help. I was beginning to know his poetry and his reputation, and hoped that he might be able to point me in some useful directions. Almost instantly I received back a box full of books—magazines from the 1960s, chapbooks, and copies of Barbara’s published journals (she sent those along in addition to Nelson’s gifts, and are a now favourite re-read every few years). His and Barbara’s response was instructive in so many ways. It was kind and helpful; it showed that booksellers tended to have things that libraries didn’t; and it showed me that people who spend their lives in the small press are very often good people (there are certainly no financial rewards for such a life). Barbara died a few months later and I regret not meeting her in person.

My friendship with Nelson grew in the following decade. I sent him copies of everything Apt. 9 published. I gradually collected a sizable number of his books, chapbooks, and broadsides. When I was editing The Collected Poems of William Hawkins, Nelson again shared materials generously. When I began my PhD in 2011, I knew that I wanted small press bookselling to form a key element—it would later become the primary element. Nelson became a central focus of the work, and it allowed me to travel to Paris (ON) for the first time to meet him in person in August 2013. The visit was memorable. I interviewed Nelson, we visited Kemeny Babineau (another poet-publisher-bookseller after Nelson’s model), and we took a walk together at Mount Pleasant Nature Park. During that visit he also showed me the music video for Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol” and we sat together laughing and trying to puzzle out syllables that felt nearly comprehensible. On that first visit he also gave me a manuscript of about 100 pages, from which I selected some 30 poems for the chapbook Minutiae, our first of three projects together.

Willow Street, Paris (ON)

The house on Willow Street in Paris (ON) that Nelson and Barbara made their own in 1985 is beyond description. Nelson and Barbara made a life together in a dedicated and uncompromising way. They pursued art (Barbara), bookselling (Nelson), and writing (both), and the house remains a testament to that life and their accomplishments. Nelson’s friend Catherine Stevenson made a documentary about the house that is more articulate than I can be:

In 2016, Nelson was awarded the bpNichol Chapbook Award for Small Waterways, the second book of his that I was lucky enough to publish. Accepting the award on his behalf at the Meet the Press Indie Literary Market is my proudest moment in the small press. I read this speech on Nelson’s behalf. The speech captures his good heart, sense of humour, and personal investments in the small press. The dates also show how carefully he worked to say precisely what he wanted to say. I don’t think he had ever won an award for his poetry before. I’m so grateful to have worked with Nelson on the book, and to have seen him win an award bearing bp’s name. The judges that year were Alice Burdick and Hoa Nguyen.

On reflection, I’m astounded by the amount of support he gave to me over the past decade. He was always kind to me personally about my publishing and poetry, but he also stuck his neck out publicly. He trusted me to publish three of his books. He blurbed my own first book, as well as the Collected Poems of William Hawkins. He was a volunteer copy-editor of lots of what I did (including my dissertation and the Collected Hawkins—both monstrous projects in length). He researched things we discussed in our correspondence and sent me what he learned, shared books, and offered advice and direction.

In everything above, it is so easy to see his formative influence on my life and work. He is a model of kindness, of care, of attention to detail, of support. When I started writing this, I thought I would be writing about the influence of his work on my publishing and my poetry, but that influence is so plain to see in the work itself. The testament to Nelson’s influence is in the poems, in the chapbooks, in the research—it is in so many elements of the decade of work I’ve managed since we became friends, and I think that is true of innumerable others in the small press since Nelson first starting working in the 1960s. The poems written that have been dedicated to Nelson over the years could fill more than a few books, to say nothing of the research projects that would have been impossible to complete without his advice, materials, or support, or the books and materials that would have been lost but for his book scouting and bookselling.

I got to know Nelson during a transition in his life—I only really knew him after Barbara’s death, but during the decade that I knew him his life grew out of that grief into something new and wonderful. He developed close and vital friendships that sustained him. He published more books, and at a faster rate, than at any time previous in his writing life. In addition to the bpNichol Award win, he also published a selected poems, edited with care by his friend and most trusted editor, Stuart Ross. He was able to see his influence reach yet another generation of young poets and publishers. The changes are there in his poetry. The poems become full of people and interactions. The humour that was always there comes out in new ways in anecdotes about his new friendships, and the poems are populated by children and laughter. He also published a book of poetry specifically for children (A Vole on a Roll, illustrated by JonArno Lawson; Shapes and Sounds Press, Dundas ON, 2016). His life was full of love in these years, as it was up to the end.

I visited Nelson three times in the final year of his life. Jenn and I travelled to see him in November 2018. Jenn and Nelson hadn’t met before, but both had heard plenty about each other from me. Jenn and I took a slow tour of the Willow Street house and sat with Nelson chatting about books as always. During that visit he passed me the manuscript for A Letter to Amanda Bernstein.

Willow Street, November 2018

I next visited in June 2019 to deliver the finished chapbook. On that visit, I met his friends Catherine (Stevenson) and Suzan (Yates) in person for the first time and saw the love he had for them and the love they had for him. My final visit was just this past week to say goodbye. We sat quietly, we talked publishing as usual, and I was able say thank you one last time. It was a beautiful visit and a relief to see Catherine and Suzan by his side, and I’m so grateful to have been able to be there.

I’m sitting in our library at home as I write this and I’m surrounded by Nelson. A drawing of Nelson by Barbara that was published in 1969 as an insert in his collection Force Movements is framed and rests on top of my manuscript in progress (keeping me honest, I like to think). A broadside he rubber-stamped in an edition of 10 in 1991 that marked his gradual return to poetry hangs on the wall. One of Barbara’s artist’s proofs for the cover of Nelson’s 1970 Coach House collection The Pre-Linguistic Heights sits on a bookshelf. His books, despite the economy of his poetry, somehow occupy approximately 12 inches of shelf space. The shelf of my own publications is infused by Nelson’s influence, and innumerable gifts from Nelson (books) are on other shelves. I also bought lots of books from him, and his carefully typed slips full of detailed and precise bibliographic and book-historical information are tucked safely into their respective books. A nearly complete set of the more than 200 bookseller catalogues he issued sit in plastic sleeves in three-ring binders. It is comforting to see him, and I know it will be more so every time I encounter him in the house somewhere.

For A Letter to Amanda Bernstein—a book that has became his final publication during his life—I designed a cover that echoed his first book, Room of Clocks (1965). The design was an intentional call back to Barbara’s lettering on his first book, but the symmetry has unintentionally become a bookend given that the two books open and close his publishing career. I’ve put a pdf of the entire book online for those interested.


Over the past week I’ve been reading and re-reading his poems. The poems model the attention Nelson paid to the world and they ask the reader to attend to the world, to language, to the oscillation between the two, and to oneself. As anyone who has read Nelson knows, the poems endure today and will endure tomorrow, and I will read them for the rest of my life. Here are a few of his poems, some from my favourite of his early books, Points of Attention (1971), and some from the two books of his that I had the honour of publishing, Minutiae (2014) and Small Waterways (2015):

If you’re unfamiliar with Nelson’s work and looking for a point-of-entry, buy a copy of Certain Details. He also published four trade collections with Mansfield Press in the last decade that are available for purchase.

I hope to someday write a poem a fraction as good as any of Nelson’s. In the meantime, here is a poem I wrote for Nelson this past Friday, surely the first of many I will write thinking about Nelson now that he is gone:


Thank you, Nelson. I am so grateful to have been your friend and I miss you.

Nelson Ball, Willow Street, Paris (ON), June 2019.