Jay Macpherson, Emblem Books

Jay Macpherson died earlier this year (21 March 2012) at the age of 80. Her death was met with a surprising silence in its immediate wake (with a handful of exceptions). Macpherson is known primarily as a poet. Her reputation is built on a small number of collections in the 1950s, culminating in a Governor General’s Award in 1958 for The Boatman.

My own research interests have turned up her name in the margins of a variety of fantastic projects in the history of modern Canadian poetry. She was an early reader at the Contact Poetry Reading Series, appearing on 13 November 1957, generating some of the earliest national press that the series received in the Globe and Mail; Macpherson is described as being “considered by many Canadians our finest young poet” (“Arts in Toronto Spurting Ahead at a Great Pace.” 12 November 1957. p.13).

In an Ottawa connection, she completed part of her high school education at Glebe Collegiate.

More interesting, and more relevant for this blog, she started a small chapbook press in 1954 called Emblem Books. According to the One Zero Zero virtual library of English Canadian Small Presses, Emblem ran from 1954-1962, producing eight books. Authors include Macpherson herself, Dorothy Livesay, Daryl Hine, Violet Anderson, Heather Spears, Dorothy Roberts, Alden Nowlan and Al Purdy. The Nowlan and Purdy books, Wind in a Rocky Country (1960) and The Blur in Between (1962) respectively, were designed and published by Robert Rosewarne, who we have already discussed here.

These two books are surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century. To my mind, they stand alongside the two books of poems produced by Avrom Isaacs’ Gallery Editions. A footnote from my M.A. research describes Gallery Editions as follows:

Avrom Isaacs’ Gallery Editions Press is one of the tangible products of the reading series. Although it only existed for a few years (1960-1962), Gallery Editions produced three books: Eyes Without a Face (1960), poems by Kenneth McRobbie with art by Graham Coughtry, Place of Meeting (1962), poems by Raymond Souster with art by Michael Snow, and Sketch Book: Canadian and European Sketches by Tony Urquhart (1962). Michael Torosian, writing in Toronto Suite, states “they are among the most elegant Canadian books of their day” (66). George Bowering, in an insightful review in The Canadian Forum, takes care to connect the books with their Gallery source: “I have never seen the Isaacs Gallery on Yonge Street except in photographs, but judging from the finesse with which that establishment has moved into the publishing business, I would be prepared to argue in their favour at the drop of a beret” (44). The books remain valuable documents of the interaction that occurred between poets and artists in the Greenwich and Isaacs Galleries.

Raymond Souster, Place of Meeting
Kenneth McRobbie, Eyes Without a Face

I cannot scan the insides of either of these two without damaging the spines. If you have an opportunity, flip through both to truly understand their remarkable beauty.

Rosewarne’s work on these two Emblem books is astonishing. He pairs Purdy and Nowlan’s poems with the sort of abstracted, colourful images that we have already seen in his work with Bill Hawkins. Below is a poster he designed for a reading by Hawkins in 1962.

I’ll reproduce, without comment, a handful of images from inside each book below. My scanner is not always large enough to accommodate the entire spread, apologies where pages are cut off. I have tried to keep at least the images intact.

Nowlan, Alden A. Wind in a Rocky Country. Toronto: An Emblem Book, 1960.

Purdy, Alfred. The Blur in Between: Poems 1960-1961. Toronto: Emblem Books, 1962. [The edition I am using for this, borrowed from the University of Ottawa Library, has 1962 struck out, replaced with 1963].

The Purdy is especially notable for Rosewarne’s work. The Nowlan book does not acknowledge Rosewarne’s contribution. The Purdy book lists him on the title page, as well as includes further information on the colophon:

This book was published in one edition of 300 copies. It was designed by R.V. Rosewarne. The text was hand-set by Axel Harvey in 10 point Light Gothic leaded with a strip of light cardboard. The book was then hand printed on a press of the Washington variety by The Blue R Hand Press (Ottawa Canada).

The Washington press in question is surely (without any proof) the same one used by Rosewarne’s Nil Press to produce the Hawkins poster poems. Rosewarne is operating the press in the detail from an Ottawa Citizen article below. These two books are contemporary with the poster poems, and it is difficult to imagine Rosewarne having access to two different Washington presses in Ottawa in these years. Seeing these, it is a shame that Rosewarne did not produce a series of chapbooks under his own imprint.

I have a soft spot for poets who print and distribute work by others. It is important work and is largely unheralded, certainly rarely acknowledged in a way commensurate with the time and labour invested. When you read and remember Macpherson, think of Emblem Books as well.

[I do not own the rights to Emblem Books. I have reproduced the images above with respect and admiration for the work of Macpherson and Rosewarne. They represent only a small portion of larger books. I will gladly remove the images if the estate of either requests it. I encourage everyone with the time and means to seek out these books to further understand the work of both.]

Diversity and Representation

I’m late to this conversation.

On May 4, Natalie Zina Walschots published a captivating post on her blog regarding the disparity between the numbers of books by men and women reviewed in the National Post in the previous year and a half. Just over a year ago, Sina Queyras wrote passionately about gender bias in contemporary literary cultures. rob mclennan subsequently weighed in on his own experience as a publisher and reviewer. These three barely scratch the surface of this conversation. The comment streams provide some further depth, and there are endless articles to be tracked down in addition.

This is an issue I’m acutely self-conscious of as a publisher. My own Apt. 9 Press skews male–of 14 authors I’ve published, only 4 have been female. In keeping with what others have said, this in part reflects my experience of soliciting and receiving submissions. I’ve had greater success actually getting manuscripts from the men I approach. It certainly does not reflect my reading, and does not reflect the gender balance of my wish list. Nonetheless, it is a fact of the current state of my publishing project. I hope over the next several years of the life of the press that this will balance out (of the three titles coming along in the Fall, for example, two are by women).

The press has been inactive for the last ten months or so, and it has given me a chance to reflect on this disparity. What I love about these conversations, debates and ideas is that a discussion of a particular marginalized and under-represented group of people can be a good first step towards discussing the problems of marginalization and under-representation more broadly. To discuss diversity and variety primarily, or even exclusively, in terms of gender is reductive. A list with a perfect ratio of men to women is not necessarily more richly diverse than Michael Lista’s body of reviews that prompted the current iteration of this discussion (I won’t comment directly on Lista here, I have not read each of his reviews). I feel that my own Apt. 9, despite skewing male, presents a varied and diverse body of work. I have published first chapbooks by writers, chapbooks by writers who have been publishing for decades, young and old, queer and straight, poetry/fiction/non-fiction (to say nothing of the diversity of forms and styles within these types of writing), women and men.

Addressing the gender disparity clearly evident in how books are reviewed in this country is a productive, worthwhile project that we should all be engaged with. I feel that we should also consider other terms of disparity. rob mclennan gestures towards the geographic characteristics of his own work, discussing his Canadian vs. Non-Canadian numbers. I admire work being done at The Bull Calf Review where they publish “Retrospective Reviews,” discussing important books from previous years. An increased number of reviewers writing from an increased number of critical positions would also be valuable; as in my academic experience, it quickly grows boring when everyone agrees. Forms of publishing also come into play. It is hard to imagine it happening, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a chapbook or two reviewed in a national forum?

It’s an impossible project, of course. We can’t balance perfectly the endless configurations of different markers of identity that determine how books are categorized, published, reviewed. It is possible, though, to work individually, to be conscious of one’s habits, to resist those habits, to seek out new, interesting and challenging writing. I suspect we all do this already in our personal reading, and variety is surely a goal of each of our writing projects.

Yes, I intend to review and publish more writing by women. I also intend to review and publish more varied writing under a whole host of other categories.

As Walschots list of poetry books by Canadian women since 2010 shows, there is no shortage of wonderful writing and publishing being done by women in this country, which is an excellent place to start and certainly was not always the case. I’ve been reading Dean Irvine’s phenomenal Editing Modernity: Women and Little Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956. Discussing Alan Crawley’s work editing Contemporary Verse from 1941-1952, Irvine touches on a historical version of this same discussion. I’m going to quote two full paragraphs, forgive their length:

Despite their common ancestry in the CAA poetry yearbooks and derivation from Poetry, Canadian Poetry Magazine and Contemporary Verse remained separated by their different commitments to the making of modernist little-magazine cultures, particularly to the issue of gender. Crawley’s personal correspondence, including editorial advice and recommendations for revision, inspired an entire generation of Canadian poets, especially women poets, to publish their poetry either in Contemporary Verse or in other little magazines. As Butling notes in her article on women poets and British Columbia little magazines, ‘Contemporary Verse is . . . significant for the number of women writers that it published. Thirty to fifty percent of the poems in every issue were by women . . . (Not until the eighties do we see such a high percentage again)’ (‘Hall’ 61-2). While she is emphatic that Contemporary Verse was not a ‘women’s magazine’ (62), Butling speculates on the possible reasons for its attractiveness to women: ‘Was it the greater prominence of women in wartime combined with the obvious presence of women contributors at t he start of the magazine, or editor Crawley’s open and supportive manner, or the non-aggressive nature of the magazine?’ (62).  Writing in 1938 to McLaren, Crawley hinted at the gender orientation of his editorial work on Contemporary Verse when he announced ‘what a feminist I am unconsciously’ (FMP).

The extent to which he practised an ‘unconscious’ feminism and fostered an emergent women’s modernism in an otherwise masculinist little-magazine culture can be measured by the significant volume of women’s modernist poetry he published in Contemporary Verse. In fact, around the mid-point of the magazine’s run, Crawley takes stock of the number of men and women poets represented not only in Contemporary Verse but also in the recent anthologies Unit of Five (1944) and Other Canadians (1947); he notes that in each case the men far outnumber the women and finds himself surprised to discover that ‘in twenty two numbers of Contemporary Verse covering a period of more than six years forty men have contributed considerably more poems than the women writers whose number is thirty’ (‘Notes’ 20). If Crawley’s initial ‘unconscious’ feminism facilitated the emergence of a respectable proportion of women poets, his statistical reflection on the magazine’s contents bespeaks a gender consciousness that makes plain his advocacy of an increased representation of women at a time when Canada’s modernist literary culture sustained its dominant masculinist character. (87-88)

Every review is valuable. Let’s write more, and more variously. Queyras provided a list of proactive steps towards achieving greater balance in these conversations. Her call to “DEMAND A MORE VIGOROUS AND DIVERSE LITERARY WEAVE” says more eloquently, powerfully and concisely what I intended with this post. So allow me to simply repeat her words:


Notes on Five Canadian Small (micro) Publishers

rob mclennan recently published a piece called “Notes on Five Canadian Small (micro) Publishers” in the Australian magazine Cordite Poetry Review. Holy cow, what a list, and my own little Apt. 9 was lucky enough to be included. The other four presses are four of the best outfits going in Canada:


The Emergency Response Unit

Nomados Literary Publishers

Greenboathouse Press

There is an awful lot that I aspire to with Apt. 9, and these four embody the great majority of it. It would be impossible to list all of the wonderful small press work being done in Canada right now (rob tries valiantly in the article, listing off a few dozen with ease). The four he points to in addition to Apt. 9 are accomplishing some of the most varied, interesting, and invested work that I know of. Please go buy their books. And buy some of rob’s from his tireless above/ground press while you’re at it. The list of presses over at Meet The Presses is another great place to start to dive into the active world of Canadian small press.

Thanks, rob!

The Hard Return by Marcus McCann

Hey, I’ve got three words in a book with a spine!

I was at Octopus Books yesterday where I picked up Lisa Robertson’s new Bookthug title Nilling, as well as Marcus McCann‘s second trade collection, The Hard Return, published by Insomniac. Marcus lives in Toronto currently, but he was a longtime stalwart of Ottawa’s creative writing community. He ran the Naughty Thoughts Book Club, was one of the stable of hosts for CKCU’s Literary Landscapes, ran his own Onion Union project, published just about everywhere, and eventually saw his first trade collection Soft Where into print with Chaudiere Books. He has also published chapbooks with many of the coolest chapbook publishers in the country (above/ground, The Emergency Response Unit, Rubicon). Marcus is a good poet, and getting better. So it was simple to buy his new book yesterday.

Flipping through, three poems jumped out: “Twenty-two Toronto Poets Wake Up on the Bathroom Floor and Discuss Their Hangover”, “Twenty-two BC Poets Use Orgasm As a Metaphor for Belonging” and “Twenty-Two Ottawa Poets Fail to Agree About the Morning.” The poems perform exactly the work you would expect, pulling lines from twenty-two poets each on a particular subject. I was thrilled to find three words of my own (“becomes a corner”) tucked in among twenty-one other Ottawa poets disagreeing about the morning. McCann’s extensive notes trace the sources for each line of these three poems. I’m sandwiched in between Shane Rhodes and Stephen Brockwell, excellent company. The entire list is phenomenal, a good starting point to approach contemporary Ottawa poetry.

Twenty-Two Ottawa Poets Fail to Agree About the Morning

A humble summoning of daylight.


Shower spray, sharp needles,

the speed limit, the streamlined

visible and beloved. When we were leaving

the sky-hole, this metal tent (plastic

on the grass, human beings

beaks aloft with ribbon)

blood, velocity and steam:


it falls the way a mind

becomes a corner

now cloud, fish, river, sea

cloud cloud cloud

of sad grey computer captains, the impedimenta

soft, on leather skin.


No stopping to browse The Terror Shop:

on Elgin Street, very little

of iron and carbon–these stories of metal

consigned pounds of paper to recycling. That too

is a bit much. We’re related how?


Is this apocalypse parenthetical or parallel?

Be a saxophone disrupting sirens.

Hush baby, hush.

My poem in question is “Other Surfaces” from a very old chapbook: Remember Our Young Bones (Ottawa: In/Words, 2008).

It is somewhat horrifying to be reminded of this older work, and even more horrifying to think that Marcus had looked at it relatively recently. I remember writing and laying out this chapbook during my final summer working for the City of Ottawa in School Zone Traffic Safety in the Traffic and Parking Department (it was more exciting than it sounds!). I think the layout has held up more strongly than the poems, but I still have a soft spot for the poem Marcus plundered. Beside it in the image below is a poem that was later extended into the sequence Releasing Symmetry, published a short chapbook in January 2009.

Another interesting In/Words tangent in Marcus’ book is that he also quotes from Jacqueline Lawrence’s chapbook Surrender in “Twenty-two Ottawa Poets…” Surrender was being published just as I was becoming involved with the mag and chapbook press. I remember Peter Gibbon’s headaches over the layout. As I recall it was published jointly with Dusty Owl to coincide with a reading of Jacqueline’s. Looking back through old emails, it looks to have been published in October 2006.

When Soft Where was released I intended to write a review. It never happened, unfortunately, but I remember wanting to discuss Marcus’ public readings. I struggled with Marcus’ work until I heard him read for the first time (at a Bywords event, I believe, where I got my hands on a copy of his early chapbook Heteroskeptical, still one of the best titles I’ve heard). His is a poetry that I feel demands to be heard. Much of what he does depends on his voice, his natural rhythms. The complexity of his work comes through when he speaks it. At the time, I hadn’t read nearly enough, or variously enough, to approach Marcus’ work in an informed way. His work on the page is excellent. However, I stand by my feeling that it is only made stronger by hearing him read.  He has some launch events coming up for The Hard Return. Get out to one, buy the book, listen to Marcus. He’s a good force in Canadian poetry.

Grey Matters: The Peace Arts Anthology (Ottawa: Peace Arts Publishers, 1985)

Grey Matters: The Peace Arts Anthology

My formal literary education, as well as my small press/little mag educations, find their origins at Carleton University. I spent several years working with a little mag and chapbook press called In/Words run out of a small office on the 19th floor of Dunton Tower. At the time, it felt as though Carleton had very little literary history. Certainly, what history it had was rarely discussed. Since my time at Carleton, I’ve become increasingly aware of different things that happened in and around the school during its history. ARC Poetry Magazine was founded there in 1978 by Christopher Levenson and Michael Gnarowski. The Carleton Arts Review ran closer to the end of the century (I don’t know the years, the early 90s?). I have a copy of a magazine called Halcyon published out of the University in 1966/67. George Johnston was a longtime Professor, as was poet and Tish-editor Robert Hogg who brought Allen Ginsberg and other New York and Beat poets to read at the University in the 1960s and 1970s (incidentally, Hogg is giving a reading at the end of the month). The NFB film Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen was shot partially at Carleton University (Cohen on stage, reading and telling jokes, was shot in Alumni Theatre). There was also the short-lived Harbinger Poetry Series published by Carleton University Press that published important first books by David O’Meara, Michelle Desbarats, Anne Le Dressay and Craig Poile. More recently, Rob Winger completed his Ph.D. and sparked new vitality in the student creative writing community with his teaching work (I was lucky enough to be in one of his Canadian long-poems of the 1970s courses). This is only a short list of what I can immediately remember.

ARC 4: “A Women’s Issue”

All this to arrive at a brief discussion of a small anthology from the 1980s that I purchased last year from Patrick McGahern Books before their move out of the Glebe. Grey Matters, edited by Daniel Brooks and Enda Soostar in 1985, “strives to re-define our ideas of war and peace.” Prompted by Cold War concerns, the inside flap declares “peace and disarmament are issues that must no longer remain in the political arena. Grey Matters reaches into the realm that lies between ideological poles of black and white, to offer a subtle and imaginative kind of activism that illuminates the shadow world of the human heart.” The contributors list is impressive: Margaret Laurence, Bronwen Wallace, Joy Kogawa, bpNichol, Susan McMaster, George Bowering, Robert Priest, Daphne Marlatt, Raymond Souster, among many others. Notably, personal and Apt. 9 favourite Michael Dennis has two poems in the anthology: “vapour trails in my dreams” and “did you know adolf hitler really wanted to be an architect?” Dennis was also recently a Carleton student. My copy is number “3” of 600 and signed, presumably by the editors (the initials look like DB and ES to me).

Of primary interest, however, is the material history of the book. According to the Acknowledgements page:

Grey Matters is the result of a Carleton University co-operative venture, funded by the Carleton University Student’s Association and the University Administration . . .

The production of Grey Matters was carried out on an ancient letterpress machine, which is situated in the University’s Arts Tower. More than half of the text matter was set in type byhand by the editors. The remainder was set by Linotype by Mr. Frank Eager. We received our training as printers in the early stages of this project and have only now, at the culmination of our work, begun to comprehend the complex elements of the printer’s art. What technical competence might be apparent in this edition is due mainly to the advice and assistance of Ray Luoma, Frank Eager, Joe Lachaine and Rick Bernie.

CUSA funded many of our projects at In/Words (begrudgingly, it often felt). I have far too many memories of begging for money before a tribunal bored and uninterested fellow students. Oddly, we had far fewer hoops to jump through to secure funding from University administration. Many of our projects were printed late at night, and secretly we hoped, on an ancient risograph machine in the English photocopy room of Dunton Tower (the Arts Tower mentioned above).

Dunton Tower (Photo by Jenn Huzera)

The letterpress used for Grey Matters, unfortunately, was no longer operational or located in Dunton by our time. However, I have an unproven belief that this same Chandler & Price machine is still on campus and located in the MacOdrum Library where I worked for three years during my undergrad. If anyone can prove this, or has a photo of the press, send it along! It is located on the ground floor, in the entrance to the government documents room near the elevators.

Hello, World!

Ok. So I’ve started a blog.

First, my apologies.

Second, I intend this blog to be a site to collect and document my various interactions with the literary community (most directly in Ottawa, but hopefully more broadly). Initially, I’ve gathered up some reviews and research notes previously published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, as well as written a brief note on the little magazine Something Else.

Ongoing research related to my academic life often turns up smaller items of interest that either do not fit into current projects, or are simply not “substantial” enough to find an existence in scholarly writing and publishing. With these sorts of items (such as Something Else) I find myself wanting to state publicly, Hey, look at this! Isn’t it cool? That is going to be one function of this blog. I’ll resist writing a diatribe here about how Ottawa’s literary history is undervalued and largely unrepresented in the dominant discourses surrounding contemporary poetry in this country. Nonetheless, it is. I intend, however modestly, to record and make visible evidence of this history that I find. If you’re interested, please check in once in a while. It would be a pleasure to have you along.

I’ll also work to write and publish reviews. Chapbooks, as ever, deserve more attention.

Finally, there will be self-promotion. I’ll try to keep this to a minimum. Please bear with me.

Something Else

Something Else was a short-lived Ottawa-based literary magazine. It survived for a single issue published in March 1963. I turned up a listing for it in the process of searching for previously uncollected William Hawkins poems.

Table of Contents

Hawkins edited the mag along with Denis Faulkner. Harry Howith and F.A. Harvey are listed as “Associates” on the masthead. Howith collaborated with Hawkins on their 1965 book Two Longer Poems: The Seasons of Miss Nicky by Harry Howith and Louis Riel by William Hawkins (Toronto: Patrician Press). Something Else also lists R.V. Rosewarne as responsible for “Design.” Rosewarne was another regular Hawkins collaborator, designing and printing some of the iconic 60s poster-poems as well as running Nil Press (who published Hawkins in 1966).

The mag earned a mention in Canadian Author and Bookman 38:4 (Summer 1963):

As yet far from luxurious in presentation, but also commendable in content, is SOMETHING ELSE, a spirited newcomer to the periodical scene. The first issue, dated March 1963, is notable for “Looking for Dylan”, a rhapsodic-reminiscent piece by Charles Fisher which catches, obliquely but exactly, the beery yet somehow magnificent aura of the poet’s genius and the spirit of his time . . .

            SOMETHING ELSE is published in Ottawa, and is edited by William Hawkins and Denis Faulkner. It deserves a more attractive format (ie. a bigger budget), Like many another magazine in  Canada, it appears to be functioning not according to the laws of economics, but on faith, hope, and precious little charity. We can only with it luck and send in our three dollars (for six issues, interval not specified). Address: 248 Bank Street, Ottawa 4, Ontario.

248 Bank Street was home to one iteration of the legendary Le Hibou coffee house, host to an astonishing range of poetry readings and musicians during it tenure.

The publishing of the magazine overlaps with other publishing ventures in Ottawa of the early 1960s. Aesthetically, it bears striking resemblance to the Hawkins/Roy MacSkimming book Shoot Low Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies!, self-published by Hawkins and MacSkimming in 1964:

Shoot Low Cover
Title Page

It can also be matched to Harry Howith’s Burglar Tools, published by Howith’s own short-lived small press Bytown Books in 1963. Bytown was announced in the same issue of Canadian Author and Bookman:

Bytown Books, a new Ottawa venture, is looking for short (150 pages maximum, for the present), modern manuscripts. This is not a “vanity press”, not is it, yet, a commercial publishing house. “I suppose we’re something like a co-operative”, says editor Harry Howith. “For the time being, at least, we expect to ask most authors to contribute something towards production costs. If the book sells well enough, this will be refunded. If it keeps right on selling, we’ll pay royalties. But we will not publish anything unless we believe in it.”

            Bytown Books will be published cheaply, but attractively, Mr. Howith Says. “We are most interested in contemporary poetry, but we would be glad to see prose fiction and even non-fiction. We are particularly interested in humour, satire, and polemics. No juvenile material.”

            Address: Harry Howith, Editor, Bytown Books, 191 Fourth Avenue, Ottawa 1, Ontario.

Burglar Tools Cover
Title Page

Bytown Books announced a second book, That Monocycle, The Moon by Seymour Mayne, in an issue of Louis Dudek’s Delta in 1963, but the book was never published.

Delta 23 Rear Cover

Hawkins recalls that Something Else was discontinued because it was “probably too much work.”

Between Nil Press, Bytown Books, and Something Else, 1962-1965 were amazingly fertile years for poetry (and art generally) in Ottawa. Howith would go on to be published by DC Books as well as have the distinction of writing the final book published by Contact Press (Total War, 1967). Denis Faulkner was increasingly busy with Le Hibou. Rosewarne continued his own work as an artist, as well as designed titles by Al Purdy and Alden Nowlan for Emblem Books out of Toronto [look for a future post about these two unbelievably beautiful books]. Hawkins would achieve the height of his publishing success in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The four overlapped in various forms during these years. Something Else is a remarkable document of their interactions.

Something Else Rear Cover

Review: Notes from a Cartywheel by Christine McNair

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 26 November 2011]

Notes From A Cartywheel

Christine McNair

Ottawa: AngelHousePress, November 2011

A cartwheel is a strange thing. It implies movement but also return. It is cyclical. It is repetition with change. One arrives somewhere familiar but not quite the same as where one started. The cartwheel, or cartywheel, is an object of interest for Christine McNair. From her cartywheel press, to her notes from a cartwheel blog (“here’s the part where we say what we mean & we mean what we say”), and now this chapbook, Notes From A Cartywheel (Ottawa: AngelHousePress, 2011), her exploration of the concept over the last few years has been wide and varied. She is also in the process of editing and producing an anthology focused on cartwheels. Her call for submissions draws attention to the productive capacity of the image:

cart·wheel (kärthwl, -wl)
n. 1. A handspring in which the body turns over sideways with the arms and legs spread like the spokes of a wheel. 2. Slang A large coin, such as a silver dollar.

An open call for cartwheels: poems or quite short fiction relating to the cyclic, cartwheels, cart wheels, or any variation thereof. Loose interpretations are quite acceptable. (For example: cartwheels, but also cart wheels (see: cart, vehicle for transport), cartwheel hats, saint catherine and her wheel, catherine wheels, cartwheel coronal ejections, cartwheel neurons, cartwheel galaxies, cartwheel silver dollars, anything related to the cyclic, etc, etc, etc.)

In what sense are these poems “notes” from cartwheels? The title suggests the poems are written from within cartwheels, that the perspectives are perhaps moving laterally and circularly. These poems are anything but static. The book includes a series of poems built as anagrams:


a cloned involution

unlaced violin onto

calved lotion union

unlaced volution on

unclad voile notion

nonactive loud lion

invocation dull one


lilac devotion noun


colonial devout in

continual dove lion

lunatic loved onion

contain unloved oil

a lucid violent noon

a novice dull notion

an uncool violent id

These exercises in rearranging are astonishing. The central line in each is bookended by variations on the initial syllables and letters. The sounds are effectively turning cartwheels around one another. Each subsequent line is familiar but altered. Origins are recalled, but the meanings and perspectives have changed. McNair reduces language to component aural (musical?) parts, and unlocks reciprocal and competing meanings in the process. She takes a simple idea and creates tremendous movement.

Notes is a book of great variety. An untitled poem arranges words and type in a grid, horizontally and vertically, establishing a field of meaning that lacks a fixed referent. “biblio non-grata” catalogues search results for “cartwheel” from amazon and chapters, a list that runs from children’s titles to obscure scientific objects. Other poems, structured as lists, are experiments in contrast: “I am frank, honest, full of vigor and ambition. I am amiable and sociable. / I have problems being open. I accept solitude” (“five”). There are prose sections focused on a character named Catherine (“I Catherine, useless entrust myself to you”). Speakers confront direction and misdirection, knowledge and ignorance: “there’s due course then there’s also a fixed lack of relative position spiral delicious over black angled highway there’s coursework to be done / you lost your maps I pinned them to your black pants you still lost them you didn’t care / I play pick-me-up with bits of this and that and those I can’t remember if we’ll get there in due course” (“ten”).

An important line in the book closes “five”: “I persevere.” The chapbook is committed to generative possibilities and contradictions of the cartwheel. It explores language through this central image, pushing as far as the words, as the letters, can bear. In “how to say sweetheart” the poem breaks down into description of the written marks of letters: “curve sharp curve curve / sharp sharp curve curve” before settling on “dot dot dot dot.” What is most admirable in the chapbook is McNair’s free exploration of a host of component parts of language and communication (sentences, images, words, syllables, written signs). She perseveres through meaning and non-meaning, privileging neither. Playful and free utterance, the joy of sound and image, are the core of Notes From A Cartywheel. The youthful exuberance of cartwheels seems an entirely apt anchor for McNair’s writing.

AngelHouse deserves acknowledgement for the production of the book. As usual, the press uses lovely paper stock and thoughtful, personal design. A series of scanned objects illustrate the poems, ranging from wooden type and coins, to polaroids and jewellery. The images extend the language of the poems, as well as assert the varied dimensions and modes of communication McNair is interested in.

McNair has been successful in recent years. She was shortlisted for the 2011 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, she has seen broadsides published by AngelHouse and above/ground, her work appeared in the astoundingly beautiful anthology Dinosaur Porn (Toronto: Ferno House & The Emergency Response Unit, 2010.), she read at VERSeFest, she took part in the most recent iterations of jwcurry’s Messagio Galore (takes VII and VIII), and her first trade collection, Conflict, is forthcoming from BookThug in 2012. She is an exciting poet in Ottawa, and an active member of the community (we cannot forget her hosting duties on CKCU’s Literary Landscapes). McNair is due a trade collection. Conflict will be an exciting book. In the meantime, go buy Notes From A Cartywheel, the poet and the press are deserving.

Review: Odourless Press (Ottawa ON): Ladouceur, Blackman, Sinaee

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 1 November 2011]

Odourless Press (Ottawa ON) appeared without ceremony in August 2011. The press identifies itself as “a small Ottawa collective.” It has an active web presence, publishing poems near-daily on its blog as well as hosting poetry podcast contentfrom local readings. Odourless chapbooks are single pages, folded or stuffed into envelopes, printed on both sides with a handful of poems. The clean, simple designs are a testament to creativity and restraint. Odourless accomplishes an awful lot with a single page. With a $0.50 price tag on each book, there is a whole lot to like here, and no excuse not to buy them all.


Ben Ladouceur

Odourless Press: Ottawa, 2011

Ben Ladouceur has been busy in 2011. He read on the opening night of VERSeFest, published two previous chapbooks (Lime Kiln Quay Road [above/ground: Ottawa, 2011] and self-portrait as the bottom of the sea at the beginning of time [The Moose & Pussy: Ottawa, 2011]), and one broadside (TUKTOYUKTUK [Apt. 9 Press: Ottawa, 2011], not to mention his ongoing graduate studies. It continues to be a pleasure to find new poems from Ben available.

Mutt collects five new ones that walk a fine line between sadness and humour. Ben has remarkable control over his subject matter, managing a bill bissett epigraph, a Kafka reference, a prayer, and bodily humour in the first poem, “Colostomy”:

You have lifted the t-shirt

over your sweet head

to reveal your dark bag of faeces, proof

the body is a sequence of routes that men

can redirect.

These are poems of loss and decay, separation and return. There is a restlessness in Ben’s work, subject matter that roams across cities and countries. “A home has lost its home,” he writes in “Redundancies.” For the displacements of these poems, the reader is rewarded with stunning images: “A lake is a body of water plus / the bodies of hundreds of birds” (“Derwentwater”). Ben has seen enough quality work into print in chapbooks and magazines in the last two years to furnish a staggering debut trade collection. Until that happens, Mutt is a welcome addition to his body of work.

Back to My Old Self

Jeff Blackman

Odourless Press: Ottawa, 2011

Jeff Blackman is one of the hardest working and most underappreciated writers in Ottawa. He has been quietly developing a unique and engaging voice over a series of projects in the last few years. Perhaps, more accurately, he has been developing unique and engaging voices. From his sex-positive work as co-founder and co-editor of The Moose & Pussy, to his devastating Shiva after Shabbas (Horsebroke: Ottawa, 2011), and now Back To My Old Self (Odourless Press: Ottawa, 2011), a series of poems that take on the single greatest video game in the history of video games: Super Mario Bros. 3.

Jeff understands poems—funny poems, sad poems, filthy poems. He knows when to say more, and when to say less:

It helps if you had an older brother

or a best friend who had an older brother

If you grew up with a Nintendo Entertainment System, it would be a tragedy not to own this bizarre and wonderful little set of poems. Jeff turns the struggles of Mario into something nearly heroic, certainly human and frail: “so sing a psalm: everyday I’ll make mistakes tomorrow I’ll make most of them” (“Progress”). These poems have been developing publicly for at least a couple years now at open-mics and readings around Ottawa. Attentive crowds understood that something important was happening each time Jeff read from this manuscript. Following the production of a few of these poems as limited edition handmade broadsides last spring, we have something tangible and more widely available. At last.

Royal Jelly

Bardia Sinaee

Odourless Press: Ottawa, 2011

Bardia Sinaee is one of the most exciting young poets in Ottawa at the moment. He is one of four hosts of Literary Landscapes on CKCU, a former editor of In/Words, a recent “Hot Ottawa Voice” at the venerable Tree Reading Series, and a damned nice guy. He is also an intensely literate and articulate poet. He understands syllables, metres, sounds. For a young poet, he has a terrifyingly developed vision. He is well read and thoughtful, and deploys all of these characteristics in the service of serious but funny poems in Royal Jelly.


If a circle, C, is inside a triangle, T, then it entails

that C is smaller than T. The value of C would be unable

to hold its end of the equals sign. If the equation

were a gun-draw at dawn, C would lose by a hair

and buckle to its fate. Its lover and children

would mourn by its torn arms and wonder

why its body was built for bullets. (“The Inevitablist”)

Bardia writes rich poems that demand reading and re-reading. One always has the sense that there is more waiting to be drawn out. These are poems of careful construction that nonetheless appear effortless. The rate of Bardia’s development is difficult to measure, but is astonishing to follow.

Behind him, billboards plus peerless paediatrics

and a dated exhibition of bees. Try to find the queen

among all the workers and drones!

Behind that the ground, stapled with hydros,

won’t even shrug. (“7/4 Gridline”)

Odourless is a press to follow, and a welcome presence in Ottawa’s community. What is most striking and refreshing about these first three books is the presence of humour in each poet’s work. Balancing feeling and humour in a poem is an all too rare ability. Ben Ladouceur, Jeff Blackman, and Bardia Sinaee each accomplish this feat with personality to spare. Go buy these poems, for god’s sake! $1.50 for the set! Ottawa, meet Odourless Press. Odourless Press, welcome to Ottawa.

Review: Lime Kiln Quay Road by Ben Ladouceur

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 24 May 2011]

Lime Kiln Quay Road

Ben Ladouceur

Ottawa: above/ground press, May 2011.

Ben Ladouceur has had a wonderful nine months since returning to Ottawa following a year spent working in Suffolk, England. He gave a widely heralded reading on the opening night of Versefest alongside Michael Dennis, in April he read as part of University Night at Tree Reading Series, the chapbook self-portrait as the bottom of the sea at the beginning of time was published by The Moose & Pussy, and now Lime Kiln Quay Road is seen in to print by rob mclennan’s above/ground press, not to mention chapbooks before his departure: Alert (AngelHouse Press, 2010) and The Argossey (published by my own Apt. 9 Press—full disclosure).

Lime Kiln Quay Road sees him working further in serial forms, marrying concise individual pieces with breadth and larger project conception. It is a book concerned with growth (or more accurately, stuttering and failing growth):

There was a rock rumoured to grow

one inch every year.

It was a letdown.

In these poems, set in the countryside around the hostel in Suffolk where Ladouceur was employed, the reader finds stagnation and boredom, as well as questions of intention and consequence:

The indifferent roads collect rain

in depressions caused by tires

and make the drive tricky

but it’s neat

that the depressions exist

that when you go somewhere

everything behind you

is a little bit flatter.

Of course

that’s easy for me to say,

I never did the driving.

In the stagnant (though often beautiful) landscape, the figures of these poems develop sensitivity to the movement of their own identities:

We occupy the eye

in quietude of storm

wet weather soft against our roof

like gavels wrapped in satin

it’s the eye that is moving.

For now we are still.

There is an disconnect between the bodies of the figures and the landscape, one that undermines predictable expectations of poetry located in the rural or pastoral settings, as was an insistence upon the presence of the lower bodily stratum that grounds much of Ben’s work in the body itself:

It isn’t as though a tree

will sprout there

a very acidic and thankful tree

made of all the liquids

our bodies didn’t need.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen.

In Ottawa, those paying attention have known that Ben is a poet to follow. We have been lucky to have the opportunity to watch this work develop. Lime Kiln Quay Road makes plain that Ben is already fulfilling his vast promise. He has strong control over the developing momentum of this book, as well as the turns that startle the reader. With above/ground press’s famously large network of distribution, this book will hopefully catch the eye of some new readers around the country. Heads up, folks.