Friday, December 23, 2011


is not a shapely
blot upon a page, not 
a metric cascade
of sweet and scented
syllables tumbling 
through the air, nor
is it the tap and click
of keys encoding
Important Thoughts
and Feelings Deep
across a backlit
screen. Poetry is
none of these
because it is
the quid of things,
which is why 
we find it
so infrequently
in words, and so 
rarely in the minds 
of those accounted 
wisest. Poetry 
is the cooling
ash that holds
the form of what was
burned and has not 
fallen through 
the grate. It is 
the pause 
in the slide of slightly
oily fingertips
along a tingling
thigh. It is
the quick slip
caught in the middle
of an old and 
well-told lie.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Johnstone, Gruber et moi

Herewith, audio from my reading the other night. An enjoyable, albeit occasionally odd, evening. The unexplained phone call that happened in the middle of my reading was from, I later learned, a friend who had wanted to come to the reading, but had a plumbing emergency. She'd called to find out if the reading was still going on, which the somewhat socially awkward store clerk didn't bother to explain. Same guy had come into the store during Jim Johnstone's reading, cut through the audience and made a beeline for the cheese plate, where he noisily helped himself to cheese and crackers while Jim read. Classic.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reading: Vancouver, Dec. 8, 7pm

I hope you can join me, Jim Johnstone and Adrienne Gruber 
for a reading at Spartacus Books, 684 E. Hastings.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Joseph Conrad, on the improbable start of his literary career

In the career of the most unliterary of writers, in the sense that
literary ambition had never entered the world of his imagination, the
coming into existence of the first book is quite an inexplicable event.
In my own case I cannot trace it back to any mental or psychological
cause which one could point out and hold to. The greatest of my gifts
being a consummate capacity for doing nothing, I cannot even point to
boredom as a rational stimulus for taking up a pen. The pen, at any
rate, was there, and there is nothing wonderful in that. Everybody keeps
a pen (the cold steel of our days) in his rooms, in this enlightened age
of penny stamps and halfpenny post-cards. In fact, this was the epoch
when by means of postcard and pen Mr. Gladstone had made the reputation
of a novel or two. And I, too, had a pen rolling about somewhere--the
seldom-used, the reluctantly taken-up pen of a sailor ashore, the pen
rugged with the dried ink of abandoned attempts, of answers delayed
longer than decency permitted, of letters begun with infinite
reluctance, and put off suddenly till next day--till next week, as like
as not! The neglected, uncared-for pen, flung away at the slightest
provocation, and under the stress of dire necessity hunted for without
enthusiasm, in a perfunctory, grumpy worry, in the "Where the devil _is_
the beastly thing gone to?" ungracious spirit. Where, indeed! It might
have been reposing behind the sofa for a day or so. My landlady's anemic
daughter (as Ollendorff would have expressed it), though commendably
neat, had a lordly, careless manner of approaching her domestic duties.
Or it might even be resting delicately poised on its point by the side
of the table-leg, and when picked up show a gaping, inefficient beak
which would have discouraged any man of literary instincts. But not me!
"Never mind. This will do."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tom Riesterer Memorial Prize

I checked my UNB email account today for the first time in two months and discovered that last month I was awarded the Tom Riesterer Memorial Prize by the UNB English Department for my essay on Angela Carter's novel Nights at the Circus. Nice bit of icing on the cake for me, now that I've finished my MA. The essay will be published in a forthcoming issue of the department's Journal of Student Writing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Some Love for Kenneth Leslie

Tim Inkster at The Porcupine's Quill has pointed out this nice little review of my Kenneth Leslie selection. So glad to see this book--to see Leslie's poems--getting some thoughtful attention.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review in print

My review of Peter Norman's At the Gates of the Theme Park and Michael Harris's Circus has just been published in Fiddlehead 249. Both books are marvels.


The tamaracks are golden.
The snow is on the ground.

Monday, October 31, 2011

IFOA post mortem

Thought I'd share a few impressions of my week at IFOA as I roll towards Montreal on the train.

The number one impression is the incredible hospitality I enjoyed while I was at the festival. Geoffrey Taylor and his staff, as well as the many volunteers, do a top-notch job of making writers feel like royals, while also managing their slew of events with military efficiency. Kudos! I'll never forget this incredible week.

While I encountered a lot of stimulating writing at IFOA, I was just as impressed with the people who produced it. I met so many warm, witty, whipsmart people in Toronto, people from all over the world, some of whom I have the feeling will be friends for a long time. Rachel and I had a particularly fine time in the company of some Scots writers our own age, Alan Bissett, Kirstin Innes and Rodge Glass. Also the German novelist and journalist Thomas Pletzinger, English novelist Linda Grant and Danish poet Niels Frank. And this is only naming the people we talked to the most. Too many smart and gracious folk to name.

Highlight readings for me were Daniel Woodrell and Zsuzsi Gartner, who had the crowd at the Giller shortlist reading in stitches with her spirited reading from an absolutely explosive short story. I'm very sure that I missed a number of equally good things because they were on at the same time as events I was attending or participating in.

My own readings went well. The highlight for me was being approached by an audience member for a signature and being told, "This is the first book of poems I've ever bought." This kind of reader is inordinately important to me. Usually, I just have to imagine that he or she exists, so I was humbled to actually meet one face to face.

I can't wait to see my son after more than a week away, and I'm looking forward to getting more landscaping done before the weather turns cold, but I have to say, real life has a tough act to follow.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Last reading at IFOA!

READING: Marx, McWatt, Wells, Wilson

Sunday, October 30, 12:00pm, 2011
Patricia Marx, Tessa McWatt, Zachariah Wells, and D.W. Wilson read from their latest works. Mark Medley hosts.

Related Content


Patricia Marx

Patricia Marx is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a former writer for Saturday Night Live. She is the author of several books, including the novel Him Her Him Again The End of Him, which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humour. Marx was the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon, the world's longest continually published humour magazine. Marx presents Starting from Happy, the story of a reluctant girl who finds her perfect, yet absurd, romantic match.

Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt was born in Georgetown, Guyana and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of five novels, including a Governor General’s Literary Award and Toronto Book Award-nominated Dragons Cry. She developed and leads the MA Writing: Imaginative Practice Programme at the University of East London, and is currently working with the British novelist, art historian and painter John Berger to develop a film based on his novel To the Wedding. McWatt’s latest novel, Vital Signs, takes readers deep inside a marriage at the edge of an emotional abyss.

Mark Medley

Mark Medley is the National Post's Books Editor and co-edits the paper's books blog, The Afterword. His work has appeared in publications across North America, including the Globe and MailWalrus andThis Magazine. He currently sits on PEN Canada's Board of Directors.

Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is the Reviews Editor for Canadian Notes & Queries and the author of Unsettled, a collection of poetry about the Arctic. He is also the author, alongside Rachel Lebowitz, of the children’s book Anything But Hank!, and editor of the anthologyJailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. Wells presentsTrack & Trace, a collection of poetry that uses an eclectic array of techniques and forms to represent a post-industrial nomadic restlessness in a rootless age.

D.W. Wilson

D.W. Wilson is the recipient of the University of East Anglia’s inaugural Man Booker Prize Scholarship – the most prestigious award available to students in the MA programme. His stories have appeared in literary magazines across Canada, Ireland, and the UK, including the Malahat ReviewGrain and Southword. Wilson’s debut collection of stories, Once You Break a Knuckle, tells tales of good people doing bad things: two bullied adolescents sabotage a rope swing, resulting in another boy’s death; a heartbroken young man refuses to warn his best friend about an approaching car; and sons challenge fathers and break taboos.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tomorrow! Please come.

READING: Coady, van der Pol, Wells, Wolitzer

Saturday, October 29, 4:00pm, 2011
Lynn Coady, Marieke van der Pol, Zachariah Wells, and Meg Wolitzer read from their latest works. Michael Lista hosts.

Related Content


Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady is an award-winning author, editor and journalist. Her previous novels include Saints of Big Harbour, which was a national bestseller and a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, and Mean Boy, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book. Her popular advice column, "Group Therapy," runs weekly in the Globe and Mail. Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, follows a man who, formerly cast as an enforcer and goon by all who knew him, discovers that, almost 20 years later, a once trusted friend has published a novel mirroring his life.

Michael Lista

Michael Lista is the author of Bloom, the acclaimed collection of poems. He is the poetry editor of The Walrus and he writes a popular monthly column on poetry for the National Post.

Marieke Van Der Pol

Marieke van der Pol is the author of the prize-winning screenplay for the international hit film The Twin Girls. Her debut novel, Bride Flight, has also been made into a film in the Netherlands. Bride Flightfollows three women who took the last great transcontinental flight from London to New Zealand in 1953 and their eventual realization, years later, at a fellow passenger’s funeral of how tightly their lives have been bound together.

Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is the Reviews Editor for Canadian Notes & Queries and the author of Unsettled, a collection of poetry about the Arctic. He is also the author, alongside Rachel Lebowitz, of the children’s book Anything But Hank!, and editor of the anthologyJailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. Wells presentsTrack & Trace, a collection of poetry that uses an eclectic array of techniques and forms to represent a post-industrial nomadic restlessness in a rootless age.

Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer is the author of eight previous novels, including The Ten-Year NapThe Position and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. She lives in New York City. Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Uncoupling, is a Greek drama-inspired novel about a tight-knit group of men and women in a high school community who are forced to look at their shared history and at their sexual selves in a new light.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


I'm off to Toronto tomorrow for a couple of readings at the International Festival of Authors. Been looking forward to this for some time, but just at the moment, with frighteningly unseasonable Indian summer conditions making a massive landscaping project immensely enjoyable, I'm almost wishing I was staying home to finish it. I'll get over it. If you're in Toronto at month's end, I'd love it if you came out to my readings. Looks like some pretty damn good company I'm on stage with. TTFN.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The CC says everything's cool

So the Canada Council has responded to the comments I made about the most recent GG poetry shortlist. Here's what they have to say:

The Council does not see a conflict of interest in authors assessing books by other authors that are produced by their publishing house. Peer assessors are professionals and dedicated to making the best decision possible. If authors were not able to sit on a peer assessment committee to discuss books produced by their publisher, it would be impossible for the Council to have qualified representation on these committees. As noted by Mr. Wells, Mr. McCaffery has a stellar reputation in the poetry community. The Council benefited from the expertise of all three members of the jury in this selection process.

A number of things to address here. First off, I agree in principle with the first sentence. Obviously, peer jurying would be inconceivable otherwise. I have my issues with peer jurying, but I've never said that no poets should ever be on the jury. However. Agreeing with this a priori does not mean that one need agree with it a posteriori. When three titles by a single press make it onto the shortlist, one immediately looks for an explanation. The altruistic explanation is that it was just an exceptionally good year for BookThug. Bravo, BookThug! This could also be the cynical explanation, depending on your angle. The altruistic explanation only holds water if you can't otherwise account for such a high number of shortlistees. (Keep in mind that BookThug submissions accounted for 6% of books under consideration for the award, but 60% of shortlisted titles. Just having one title on the list defies the odds; having three is akin to the mathematical improbability that saw the Tampa Bay Rays make the MLB playoffs this year.) We could speculate endlessly about how this extremely improbable scenario took shape--and we must speculate, as the CC insists on acting like some kind of goddamn Star Chamber--but Occam's Razor insists that we pin responsibility on an interested party.

Enter Steve McCaffery, BookThug author and Champion of All Things Avant Garde. The spokesperson from the CC said that I made reference to Dr. McCaffery's "stellar reputation in the poetry community." I said nothing of the sort. For one thing, I've never held Dr. McCaffery's work or opinions in high regard. For another, I'm far from alone in this. I said that McCaffery is an eminence grise. Which he is. He is a polarising figure who has dedicated his life and work to the promotion of one stream of poetry and the diminishment of all others. If he is to be placed on a jury, this needs to be taken into account. Dr. McCaffery is not simply a variable to be inserted into a jury equation. He is a theorist and poetic ideologue dedicated to the promotion of postmodern values in poetry, who would have a number of preformulated arguments at his fingertips, which he would no doubt bring to bear in any discussions with fellow jurors to determine a shortlist. If your average possible juror is x, then McCaffery is 5x. For a jury including him to be balanced, the other jurors must be similarly formidable figures. Douglas Burnet Smith is a good writer and a smart man, but has nothing like McCaffery's stature or zeal. Joanne Arnott, to be frank, is little better than an amateur. In the absence of disclosures from the CC, it is only reasonable to assume that McCaffery had a disproportionate influence on the shortlist. The CC is to blame for this, for choosing an unbalanced jury in the first place and for failing to redress the unbalanced shortlist in the second.

Something that's gone unmentioned is the fact that the unbalance isn't restricted to the presence of 3 BookThug titles. Besides those, there is also a book by a writer, Garry Thomas Morse, associated with the Kootenay School of Writing, which is aesthetically aligned with BookThug and its pedagogical arm, the Toronto New School of Writing. So, four out of five titles have "avant garde" credentials. And we're to believe that McCaffery, a longtime avant-garde general, had no more say in this than the other two. Who have no avant-garde affiliations, by the way. Uh-huh. A likely story. Occam? Not bloody likely, you say? Oh. (And please note that the CC carefully avoids saying that all jurors had equal input.)

As usual, the CC is owning no responsibility for this cock-up. Same thing happened a couple of years ago with the Di Brandt/Jacob Scheier mess. They said everything was okay. But then they started cracking down hard, going so far as to remove juror Brian Bartlett from jury duty because a poet he barely knew happened to dedicate one poem to Bartlett (because the poem borrowed a line of Bartlett's). The CC doesn't seem to realize that conflict of interest is something that has to be watched more on the back-end than the front-end of a juried competition; a potential conflict of interest is immaterial if the compromised juror selects no books to which s/he has an affiliation. Had this year's jury only turned up one BookThug/avant-garde title, you shrug and go "okay, that's to be expected." Three?! Then, you need to go back to the jury and find out, pardon me, what the fuck is going on. Let me remind you: there were 170 titles submitted to this award. 11 of them were from BookThug. Let me also remind you that this is a press that fairly prides itself on its own counter-culture marginality, on being "experimental" and "innovative." For them to have three books on this most mainstream of lists means either that they've sold out hardcore or that they've been given an unfair boost by an ardent fan.

Finally, I think this situation proves conclusively that the three-person peer jury consensus model is too broken to be fixed. Scrap it, and stop pretending it's the only way this thing can be done. I've made many suggestions in the past how this might be effected. Mark Sampson has recently made more elaborate, but eminently reasonable, suggestions. Canada Council: start listening to your constituents. Don't be like Steven Harper. Because even if you are, he'll still cut your ass.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Richard Outram

I got my contributor's copy of Richard Outram: Essays on His Works in the mail today. It's been a long time in the works. I submitted my essay to editor Ingrid Ruthig back in '07, so very glad to see it in print. And in fine company, other contributors being Brian Bartlett, Michael Carbert, Robert Denham, Jeffery Donaldson, Steven Heighton, Amanda Jernigan, Eric Ormsby, Ingrid herself and Peter Sanger, who has written the book on Outram. I'm looking forward to reading everyone's contributions to this important book about one of the country's very best poets.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Peter Darbyshire on the GG shortlists

...with commentary from yrs truly. As I said on Facebook earlier today, what is really remarkable about this story is the CC's complete ineptitude when it comes to oversight.

 I know someone who was forced to withdraw from judging the GG last year because one poem in one book was dedicated to him. The author wasn't someone this ex-juror knew personally, but the poem borrowed a line from one of the ex-juror's poems. And yet this clusterfuck "slips through." Bureaucratic incompetence is ultimately to blame for all these SNAFUs

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All That Needs to be Said About This Year's Poetry GG Shortlist

Let me end with a lament and a seduction.  There are poems that I’m sad cannot be included because of length.  “Teachable Texts” is a favourite of mine and a poem that  think stands the test of time, likewise “Poetry in the Pissoir.”  Both are available (theoretically in earlier formats).  I withheld poems from the Basho Variations and Every Way Oakly (my homolinguistic translations of poems in Stein’s Tender Buttons) as a  courtesy to my publisher, the brave Jay MillAr, in the hope that sales of his editions will reap largesse.
 --Steve McAffery, in the introduction to his selected poems in 2009

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Love for the Trotter

Abigail Deutsch reviews Joshua Trotter's All This Could Be Yours in Poetry.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Interview online

I recently did a Q&A with Kathryn Mockler for her literary webzine The Rusty Toque. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Poems online

Six poems of mine are now up for your reading pleasure at The Winnipeg Review. Many thanks to Maurice Mierau for publishing them!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview online

An interview with me is now up at the new issue of The Puritan. Thanks to Jesse Eckerlin for his thoughtful questions and the good folks at the magazine for sharing them with y'all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dave Brosha photo tribute

I met a lot of amazing people while I lived and worked in Resolute Bay. One of the best was Dave Brosha, who moved to Resolute with his wife Erin shortly after I started working there. The Broshas later moved to Yellowknife, where Dave took the plunge, followed his dream and became a full-time photographer. His jaw-dropping photos have since been published widely, in prominent venues like National Geographic. Dave has put together a very moving and affirmative photo tribute to Resolute, in the wake of the devastating accident there.

Resolute from Dave Brosha on Vimeo.

An old poem of mine about Resolute Bay

for R.

From this hilltop, dusty vistas of crushed
stone, unrestricted zones of brown
gravel. Under your feet the first
purple syllable of saxifrage
breaks rock, puckered heads of poppies
prepare to bellow small yellow
shouts. Over that hill,
in the valley, the river runs
black with the backs of char,
one muscle, a ford. The bay's
thousand whitecaps aren't waves,
they're beluga. And that noise you hear
is not merely the wind.

(from Unsettled, Insomniac Press 2004)

Monday, August 22, 2011

First Air 6560

Most people reading this will have heard about the terrible plane crash in Resolute Bay, Nunavut the other day. When I first learned of the accident, my gut twisted into knots. I worked for First Air from 1996-2003. My last two years with the company were spent in Resolute Bay, where, for four weeks at a time, I basically was the cargo department. C-GNWN, the plane that went down, is one I know well. I loaded and offloaded it hundreds of times. I had a sick feeling, before any specifics were public, that among the twelve victims were probably people I knew.

I finally found out that three of the people killed in the crash of Flight 6560 were old friends and acquaintances. Captain Blair Rutherford was an uncommonly good man. Airlines are like huge families, not only in positive terms. There is routinely a lot of melodrama, backbiting and gossip. For all that, Blair was a man I never heard maligned by anyone. I flew with him dozens of times and always appreciated his wry, quiet, good-natured humour. I have known his wife, Tatiana, even longer. She was a flight attendant when I first started working up north, and as feisty, smart and large-hearted a woman as you'd care to know. I remember being glad to hear that she and Blair, whose personalities complemented each other beautifully, were a couple--and gladder still when they married and had kids. And so it is with commensurate sadness that I think of her loss.

Two employees of South Camp Inn that I knew from my days in Resolute Bay were also killed. I didn't know Mike and Randy exceptionally well, but they were good guys. I especially enjoyed Mike's ribald banter whenever he came to the First Air freight shed to pick up cargo for South Camp. Aziz Kheraj, the owner of South Camp (he also became mayor of Resolute while I lived there), also suffered a terrible family loss in the crash. His two young granddaughters were on the flight, and one of them died. So my thoughts are with Aziz and his large extended family, which includes my old friend and First Air colleague Mavis. In a town the size of Resolute and at a tight-knit company like First Air, everyone is family. No words are adequate.


i.m. Blair Rutherford and First Air Flight 6560

This morning
twelve poppy blossoms
where last night
there was none.
Purple hearts bleed out
to pink, tissue-thin
I didn't plant the poppies.
A single volunteer
and proliferated
over years.
Their foliage is ugly
but I keep them
for these livid
blooms. On this windward
hillside, they can't last.
Each blast of air
carries off a petal.
At sundown
the stalks again
are bare.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Trotter Daily

So nice to come off the railroad this evening to find a poem of Josh Trotter's featured on Poetry Daily. It's particularly cool for me to see this poem, "Welcoming Party," chosen. Overall, I have to say that editing Josh's collection was an easy job. He's such a meticulous craftsman that there wasn't a whole lot of line by line editing required. Most of the work consisted of us discussing the pros and cons of including particular poems. There was one Josh wanted to cut and I agreed that it wasn't especially strong, but I absolutely loved its first stanza (of three). I suggested to Josh that he cut the other two stanzas because the first stood alone beautifully. Josh agreed and so "Welcoming Party" found its form.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jaela E. Bernstien on the real problem

A very well-stated piece that offers another perspective on the question of male-female imbalances in the magazine world.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Just received my copy of the much-anticipated Arc/New Quarterly science and literature collaboration, QuArc, which contains a trio of my stranger poems. Haven't had a chance to delve into it deeply yet, but it's a meaty and intriguing production, with lots of sharp visuals. The poetry/photography collaboration of Harry Thurston and Thaddeus Holownia is especially arresting.

Receiving this magazine is timely, as I'm just finishing work on my MA thesis, which is largely concerned with intersections between poetry and science, particularly in relation to the nature of selfhood and self-consciousness. This involves me quoting a lot of neuroscientists and saying that Roland Barthes didn't really know what he was talking about. Which is always fun, eh. When my thesis was in the proposal stage, a prof told me that I should bring some theory into it because it would be expected. Not sure this is what he meant....

Speaking of interdisciplinary awesomeness, if you've got an hour or two, you might want to check out this interview with pioneering neurophilosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stacey May Fowles on CNQ's systemic sexism

....and a few other things. I've responded, because I think the criticism of CNQ is uninformed. In discussions with other editors and the publisher of the magazine, no single non-content-question has come up more often than the rather lad-heavy list of contributors. It isn't something we want, but as I say in my comments on Stacey's post, it's something of an uphill slog trying to get women to contribute to the magazine. I think most reviews editors, particularly ones working for low-paying venues, could tell you the same story. We're a magazine that solicits most of our content; I expect magazines that rely on a passive slush-pile model have no trouble, since there are probably at least as many female as male writers out there submitting fiction and poetry to journals. And I know from my work at a more mainstream magazine that there are loads of gung-ho female freelancers out there looking for work--work that pays well, at least. Book reviewing and literary criticism is a ghetto. Maybe it's just that women are fed up with doing hard work for lousy pay, eh.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pessoa cont.

Each of us is various, many people, a prolixity of selves. Which is why the person who disdains his world is not the same as the person who rejoices or suffers because of his world. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people, thinking and feeling differently. ... And like a diverse but compact multitude, this world of different people that I am projects a unique shadow--this calm, writing body that I lean against Borges's high desk, where I came to look for my blotter, which I'd lent him.

More Pessoa

When grammar defines usage, it makes legitimate and false divisions. For example, it makes some verbs transitive and others intransitive. A man who knows how to speak often has to make a transitive verb intransitive in order to photograph what he feels instead, as usually happens with the common human animal, of seeing his feelings darkly. If I want to say that I exist, I would say, "I am." If I want to say that I exist as a separate soul, I would say, "I am I." But if I want to say that I exist as an entity that directs and forms itself, how can I use the verb "to be" unless I suddenly make it transitive? So I triumphantly, antigrammatically supreme, would say, "I'm me." I will have spoken a philosophy in two small words. Isn't this better than saying nothing in forty sentences?

I have no political or social feelings. But in a certain sense I do have a highly patriotic feeling. My country is the Portuguese language. It wouldn't bother me if Portugal were invaded or conquered, unless I were personally incommoded. But I hate, with true hatred, with the only hatred I feel, not those who write Portuguese badly, not those who are ignorant of syntax, not those who spell phonetically, but the badly written page, as if it were a living person. I hate incorrect syntax as if it were a person to beat, incorrect spelling as if it were phlegm spit at me, independently of the person who spit it. 

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (trans. Alfred Mac Adam)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trottering on the Mooney

I shared this on Facebook--where I seem to be doing most of the bite-sized blogging I used to do over here--the other day, but thought I'd post it here as well, in case anyone following CLM is off-'book, as it were. A very smart interview of Joshua Trotter by Jacob Mooney. Very glad to see Josh's book not only getting attention, but intelligent attention. You should give it yours!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Interview at Open Book Toronto

The interview I did with Toronto high school student Micaela Kirkwood-Lazazzera has been re-posted at the Open Book Toronto site, in case you missed it previously...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day, eh

I'm not sure about these Hallmark holidays, but fatherhood has been something of a recurring theme in my poems. Here's a set of poems from Track & Trace, the first three of which are occasion-appropriate. Or inappropriate...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Literary Litter of the Littoral-Minded: Elizabeth Bishop's Ideas of Disorder at Key West

Here's audio from my talk at the Elizabeth Bishop symposium t'other day:

I made several more recordings over the course of the weekend, but haven't uploaded them from my dictaphone yet. I probably won't be posting them myself, but will send them over to the folks who organized the symposium, who will likely be posting them on the Bishop Centenary blog at some point.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Colm Toibin on Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn

I was very lucky to attend this talk the other night. It isn't edited, so start watching at minute 33.

Watch live streaming video from ukings at

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It Must be Nova Scotia

This has kind of snuck up on me. I'm giving a talk at the University of King's College (my alma mater) tomorrow morning. It's part of the Elizabeth Bishop centenary symposium taking place at King's. Lots of awesome stuff going on over the weekend. You can see the full schedule here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Interview online

Maurice Mierau has posted a little interview with yours truly at The Winnipeg Review. It's all about e-books and whatnot.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


My leather wallet went AWOL while I
was buying Lego at Walmart. I can't
afford another wallet that posh. I've spent
too much on home and tuition to buy

such a pricey pocket for my money.
I love building Lego with my daughter,
but in this land of loaned milk and honey
I'm watching all my wine turn to water.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Interview online

A couple of months ago, I received an email from Angela Rawlings inviting me to take part in a project she was coordinating. Angela had been working with high school students at Malvern Collegiate Institute in Toronto, getting them to write poems and introducing them to the work of contemporary Canadian poets. She thought it would be good for the students, having been introduced to the work of a poet, to make contact with that poet and conduct an interview. I've had fantastic experiences myself interacting with students of that age, so I agreed to take part without hesitation. Since I was going to be in Toronto at the end of March and beginning of April, I asked Angela if the class's teacher would be interested in having me visit. He was, and we worked out a date. I got my interview questions, from a student named Micaela, a few days before the visit, which was pretty great timing. As usual, I had a really fun and rewarding experience talking with and reading to the students at MCI (a school, it turns out, that my grandmother attended!).

Anyway, Angela has now made the interviews--with 30-odd poets in all--public. You can read them here. My interview is here. Angela and teacher John Ouzas deserve a lot of credit for organizing and guiding this project. It seems to me an example of how these things can and should be done, with minimal cost and ample reward.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Whether affliction or infection
      Whether predator or virus
Whether p.f.o. or rejection
      Whether Billy Ray or Miley Cyrus

Whether metonym or metaphor
      Whether keyboard or stylus
Whether cell phone or semaphore
      Whether I-Pad or papyrus

Whether intuition or feeling
      Whether brain stem or gyrus
Whether stop sign or ceiling
      Whether they demote or they fire us

Whether chance or catastrophe
      Whether eyeball or iris
Whether chorus or antistrophe
      Whether chronos or chiros

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Upcoming Reading

I'll be reading in Halifax this Saturday, May 21, 1 pm at the North St. Church, 5657 North St. Also reading are Matt Robinson and Sue Goyette. Readings will take place between sets of live music. It's part of the Long Live the Queen Festival. More details:
 Come on out!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lyrebird, Lyrebird, sing me a song

The good folks at the Best Canadian Poetry blog have just posted an audio clip of me reading my poem "To the Superb Lyrebird..."

Fun timing because I just got an email a couple of days ago from Brian Bartlett, who told me that he'd shared my poem with an Aussie friend, who told Brian that the line about a "dingo with rabies" was "crap" because there have been no reported cases of rabies in Australia. Far from making me want to revise the poem for greater accuracy, this makes me like the line even better. The idea of the lyrebird imitating a sound that it can't possibly have heard is enormously appealing to my imagination.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review of T&T

Just came across this review of Track & Trace in Canadian Literature.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Gee, I hope they found what they were looking for

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tatamagouche Audio

What a great evening. Tatamagouche is a hell of a cool little town. Fables Club is an amazing venue and the hospitality was peerless. We stayed overnight at the neatest B&B I've ever seen. My son was in heaven.

First recording features Anna Quon, followed by yours truly. The second is Carole Glasser Langille followed by Harry Thurston. As I say during my reading, it was especially great to read with Harry, because of longtime connections between his family and mine and because I've been a fan of his writing for years. His prose book A Place Between the Tides, a journal of a year on a salt marsh, is one of the best topological books I've ever read, and he's written a lot of really wonderful poems.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Sunday, April 10, 2011


Sorry, I'm not myself today. Lately,
I think I never am. I was yesterday

beside myself and from that angle
I could see the cracks and fissures,

the stitches and seams. So it seems
this shifting complex of cells—each a self

that buds and blossoms and sloughs—has some
sort of unified purpose, but fact is

they're merely confined, yoked to a cubicled
lifetime till they die and return for more

of the same. And so I am reborn,
even before I'm buried and broken

down into dirt. If today I'm not myself,
it's because I'm busy being everything else.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hickey, Wells and Trotter at the Dora Keogh Pub

The third and final reading of our mini tour. I missed the very beginning of Dave's preamble, but otherwise the whole thing's here. It was another wonderful night, with a good crowd in a great venue, graciously hosted by Rupert McNally, who was selling books for his father's store. Apparently the three of us sold more books last night than Sylvia Tyson did at a recent event. Songwriting: the new poetry.

It's been a great run for me, with half a dozen events in a dozen days or so. I'm ready to get home for a bit of rest. Not too much, tho. I'll be reading in Tatamagouche, NS on April 15. Details to follow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wells, Trotter and Hickey at the London Public Library

Here's the audio from last night's wonderful reading at the London Public Library. Almost fifty people turned out to hear local boy David Hickey and two guys with beards. A Q&A session follows the reading. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Audio: Hickey, Trotter and Wells in Windsor

Title says it all. Unfortunately, I forgot to turn on the recorder until after Dan Wells had begun his gracious introduction.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Belated Reading Report: Battle of the Bards

If you're the sort of person who reads this blog, you probably already know that yours truly was one of five readers chosen on Wednesday by the Harbourfront jury to read at the International Festival of Authors in October. I had the advantage, thanks to the alphabet, of reading last. The Gattling gun procession of poems certainly blurred for me, so I imagine it would have been quite a challenge for the jurors to keep track of everything in their memories whilst deliberating.

It was a very fun, albeit disorienting evening, and obviously I'm pleased with the results. Also happy for the other four: co-winners Gary Barwin and David Groulx and my fellow runners up, Ruth Roach Pierson and Souvankham Thammavongsa. Gary and Souvankham's work I've followed and enjoyed for some time. Pierson and Groulx were more or less new to me; a nice mix of styles and voices, overall.

I'm a bit disappointed that my Biblioasis stablemates David Hickey and Robyn Sarah weren't chosen. Robyn, especially, would have been a no-brainer for me had I been a juror; besides having read beautifully, she's widely and justly recognized as one of the leading poets of her generation, to say nothing of her top-notch contributions as a critic and editor. But so it goes in the world of taste and discrimination.

I'm really looking forward to spending some time with Dave's new collection, Open Air Bindery, which is fresh off the presses and most beauteous. As I posted earlier, I'll be reading with Dave and Joshua Trotter three times in the week to come. Should be a blast. TTFN.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Moving Scene: The Poetry and Poetics of Description

Ok kids, I'm up way past my bedtime, but wanted to share this with you, since chances are you couldn't or didn't make it to the live version. Herewith, my talk at UNB on Monday. Two mp3s: 1)the talk 2)the discussion that followed. Voices in the discussion that aren't mine belong to Ross Leckie, Ian Letourneau and UNB doctoral candidate Lisa Jodoin.

In case the embedded player doesn't give you both mp3s, here's the link to the page where the recordings are archived.

Friday, March 25, 2011

After the Disaster

Been a while since I posted an audio poem here. Many minor malfunctions in my audio gear. I seem to have it all resolved now, and thought I'd post a poem that fits recent events altogether too well. A sharp, wry sonnet by Peter Norman from his fabulous collection, At the Gates of the Theme Park. Oh, and I have a bit of a virus, which I think adds something...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Upcoming Dates

March has been a gonzo month for me, with all the writing and editing I've had to do for school and work. And as we roll into April, the pace promises to continue unabated. I'll be getting out into the world a bit, tho, not just staying chained to my keyboard. Some upcoming dates, details sketchy for some of them at the moment:

Monday, March 28, Fredericton, NB: Lecture at the UNB English Department: "The Moving Scene: Descriptive Poetry." Room and time TBA; it'll be in the a.m., as I have to scoot off to catch a train to Toronto. This is the final assignment for the independent study course I've been working on all term. It'll involve a bit of overview of aesthetic theory (Plato, Aristotle, Erasmus, Gotthold Lessing, Ruskin, Tolstoy) combined with analysis of the descriptive techniques of John Clare, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes and others. It'll be as much fun as one can have on a campus on Monday morning. Seriously.

Wednesday, March 30, Toronto, 7:30 pm: Reading at this Harbourfront thing. Brigantine Room, York Quay Centre, 235 Queens Quay West. Apparently this makes me a whore, a slave and a lipsticked pig, all in one. Sounds fun!

Monday, April 4, Windsor: Reading with fellow Biblioasis authors David Hickey and Joshua Trotter, both of whom have new books out.  Phog Lounge, 157 University Avenue West, time TBA (7ish a safe bet). Should be wicked fun.

Tuesday, April 5, London, 7 pm: Reading with the same dudes. London Central Branch Public Library, Dundas Ave. More fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Wednesday, April 6, Toronto, 7 pm: Biblioasis book launch extravaganza. Same dudes, but in the big city! Dora Keogh Pub, 141 Danforth Ave. So much fun, it should be illegal.

Then I go home to reacquaint myself with my family, catch up on all the stuff I'll not have got done whilst on the road, finish my thesis, get back to some landscaping, heavy railroading, etc. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An interview

A few days ago, I got an email from Steven Stewart, a student at Okanagan College in Vernon, BC, requesting an interview for a school assignment. It went very well, so with his permission, I'm posting it here for all and sundry. Enjoy.

Steven Stewart: When did you first decide that you wanted to write poetry? 

Zachariah Wells: I didn't really decide, I just started doing it when I was 21.  I was already doing a fair bit of writing and had had two short plays produced by the University of King's College Theatre Society, but it was a 4th year class in Canadian Literature that got me turned on to poetry by introducing me to Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan. I just kept going from there. I'd written the occasional poem prior to that, but never thought of it as something I might dedicate myself to. 

SS: When was the first poem you wrote that you actually enjoyed writing? (I ask that because lots of people are forced to in elementary or high school and despise it so very much but than taking a liking to it afterwards.)

ZW: My mom loves telling a story about when I was a young kid. She was sitting on the couch in the living room when a piece of paper fluttered down beside her from the upstairs mezzanine. She looked up and saw me standing there. On the paper, I'd written: "I hate school. School is a drool." So yeah, first poem...

SS: I'm curious about your poem "Fool's Errand," published in In Fine Form. What caused you to write it? 

ZW: I was prompted to write "Fool's Errand" by a combination of memory, language and poetic form. It's around ten years now since I wrote the poem, so the precise details of what I was thinking at the time of composition are pretty hazy. But for that matter, even if I'd written it last week, the process of writing a poem takes place during such a period of intensely focused concentration that, once it's over, it's usually pretty hard to play back in my mind what was going on. Writing a poem brings all one's resources to bear at once: instincts, intellect, feeling, knowledge of the language, knowledge of poetic technique, knowledge of poetry past. 

I think at the time I wrote the poem I was reading quite a lot of Thomas Hardy's poetry, and if you read some Hardy poems alongside "Fool's Errand," you might be able to see some influence--though I hope not too much! The rural setting, the theme of memory and the mood are things one sees a lot of in Hardy and he often worked in rhyme schemes, like my ABABAB sestets, that involve repeating a rhyme more than once. He was also notable for not writing often in regular metre, which you can see in my poem too. The basic pattern is an 8 syllable, 4 beat line, but I diverge from it quite a lot. The fifth line of the second stanza is what's known as a "fourteener" because it has 14 syllables--and like many fourteeners (particularly in the poetry of William Blake), the line kind of breaks in two after 8 syllables. It's really 2 lines presented visually as one line; there's this natural pause after "teeth" which rhymes with "wreath" at the end of the line, which makes it sound even more like 2 lines. (I'd already used "breath" and "death" in the stanza and there's not much left--other than, say, "crystal meth," which obviously wouldn't fit in this poem--that rhymes perfectly, so I switched to the "slant rhyme," but I guess I wanted there still to be a full rhyme in there for "wreath.") An orthodox formalist would say I was cheating--actually an orthodox formalist would probably say the whole poem's a mess--but I think of it more as stretching. A lot of people thought Hardy had a bad ear because his metres were so irregular, but they really just hadn't learned to hear the more ragged music of his rhythms. Ironically, a lot of the more daring experimental poets of the early 20th century found him kind of old-fashioned. In a way he was, but his style was also very original. Anyway, I wasn't doing all of this in a very deliberate manner. I wasn't thinking, "Now, I will write a fourteener split into a tetrameter and a trimeter, with an internal rhyme at the caesura." But the training and study I'd done--like sports drills or musical scales--prepared me to swerve and improvise as I went.

That's a long answer, but I'm trying to convey just what a complicated mix of things goes into the making of any poem. 

SS: Is "Fool's Errand" based on real events? I ask because your "hip high snow" or "stirred-up curdled milk" seem like descriptions that are not easy to explain if you have not lived through harsh winters, possibly prairie, but I haven't been further east than Saskatchewan so I really don't know how the winter gets in the maritime region.

ZW: The poem is based on an actual incident, yes, but one that happened so long before I wrote the poem and when I was so young (maybe 8 or 9, so "hip-high" wasn't really saying much!), that your guess is as good as mine how much I made up and how much "really happened." I grew up in a shallow valley on PEI and it doesn't usually get as cold as the prairies, but some winters--this year, particularly--it gets a heck of a lot of snow. During the storm, my mother was worried about our two dogs. The bitch was in heat and the dogs, mindless of the blizzard, were doing what mammals do best...

SS: Speaking of fourteeners, do you ever sit down to write a poem knowing what style you're going to write in? Or do you prefer to just write down (possibly in free verse) and then take it into a form afterwards?

ZW: I'll often sit down with an idea of what form a poem will be in, but the poem doesn't always cooperate. Actually, I tend to do a lot of the "writing" well before I sit down. I don't keep a notebook. I used to, but got out of the habit some years ago. Now I have a more zen approach to things. If I have an idea, or if a line comes to me, I wait to see if it sticks around and/or builds into something bigger in my head before I sit down at my computer and start typing. I somehow doubt I've lost very much of value this way. I write a lot less than I used to, but I keep a lot more of what I do write. The content--by which I don't just mean the subject matter, but the tone and rhythm too--often seems to push the writing towards one structure or another, whether "free verse" or something stricter.

Prose, of which I write quite a bit, is another beast altogether. That involves a lot of note-taking and working out the structure in advance.

SS: Do any of your other poems stem from your reading of Thomas Hardy? For instance, "Mental Moonshine," which seems to follow a similar pattern as "Fool's Errand."

ZW: I can't think of any poems off the top of my head that are directly inspired by Hardy, though I imagine there are traces of him in a lot of my work. "Mental Moonshine" is actually a free translation of a poem by Emile Nelligan, a Quebecois poet who wrote furiously as a young man, then had a mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life institutionalized. A few years back I translated fifteen or sixteen of his poems. Most of them I translated pretty faithfully, but I wasn't happy with my first attempts at "Clair de Lune Intellectuel,"  in large measure because the rhyme-scheme and pattern of refrains in the rondel form make it really hard to translate both the sense of the poem and its musical structure, without having the poem come out stiff. So I took it in another direction and decided to translate the imagery as well as the words. The result was a poem that was half translation and half my own. 

Actually, the poem was first published in the magazine CV2, along with an introductory essay, part of which explains what I did with Nelligan's original:

The first poem in Nelligan’s complete works, “Clair de lune intellectuel” hooked me with its synaesthetic imagery, soundplay and demandingly intricate pattern or rhymes and refrains. The poem is thirteen lines long and uses only two end-rhymes (“eur” and “aine”). This was a challenge, un vrai défi!

The poem went through a number of very different drafts as I worked on it over a period of months, each one a little further from the letter of the original, but a bit closer to getting some of its music and magic. The final version, as you can see if you’re able to read the original, is substantially different from the poem on which it’s based. I had to do this if I wanted to avoid stretching syntax and diction too far in order to make the rhyme scheme work. In my experience, this is the biggest flaw of rhyming poetry translated into English, which is less rich in perfect rhyme than many other languages. (Nelligan’s oeuvre, as translated by Fred Cogswell and P.F. Widdows, has been particularly badly mishandled.) As I see it, there are two principal methods by which a translator can sidestep this fatal flaw: he can either ditch the rhyme scheme to one degree or another or he can take significant liberties with the text. Less drastic methods can also be applied, such as playing with enjambment and using slant rhymes (in which English, a highly consonantal tongue, is rich) where perfect rhymes won’t fit.

In “Clair de lune,” I saw the scheme of perfect rhymes as too intrinsic a part of the poem to dispense with it. But to keep it and stick too closely to the literal text of the poem would be to cripple it. A reader illiterate in French might get some idea of what the poem is about, but he won’t get a proper picture of how the poem goes about its business. I eventually strayed so far from Nelligan’s original (“My thought” became “My braincase”; “is the colour of far-away lights” became “prinked with pinpricks of stars”; the colour of a “crypt’s mysterious emptiness”—Widdows’s translation—became the smell of “fetid toes of the dead”; “green’s elusiveness”—again, Widdows—became a “brainflower blow[ing] its little green head”; a sun dipping antennas into a gulf or bay became a “Bloodied bull, dip[ping] horns to carve scars//In the dirt”; a garden became a ditch; the third stanza is completely changed, with “gold-plated lead bars” standing in for “matter and brute ugliness”—Widdows—and “Valhallas” for “Athens.”)—my version became so distinct that it is really as much my poem now as it is Nelligan’s. But it is a poem I couldn’t ever have written without Nelligan’s. My preservation of his phrase “les soirs doux” in my version is a nod to my debt and a sort of apology for killing those gentle nights by translation.

I think I was licensed to take these liberties by the nature of the poem, not only by the need to preserve its rhyme scheme without killing its vigour, but because the poem is, fundamentally, about the creative imagination. In a sense, it would be a betrayal of “Clair de lune’s” spirit to translate it literally, without using my own rhythms, images and metaphors. The translation of poetry, if it is to be at all successful, cannot be a mechanical act of matching sense and structure.

SS: You mention that you write more prose than poetry. Do you ever write crossovers of the two, possibly similar to Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, which to me at least reads like poetry due to the sporadic placement of paragraphs. 

ZW: The prose I referred to is a mix of things, mostly book reviews and literary essays, sometimes serious, sometimes satirical; a little bit of journalism. To-date, none of that work has been collected into a book, but that should change next year, when a collection of my reviews and essays will be published. I wrote an online column for Maisonneuve magazine back in 2004. I've continued to do that sort of thing, sporadically, on my blog and recently at the blog for the Best Canadian Poems anthology. 

I don't write fiction (which is to say, I've attempted to do this only a few times and nothing I've ever attempted has been much good) and have written very few prose poems. I'm not opposed to writing prose poems in principle; it just doesn't seem to be a form that I'm naturally drawn to. I do write the occasional narrative poem that is kind of like a short story in verse. My poem "Cormorant" is an example. As is "Fool's Errand" for that matter. I wrote a short essay the other day about luggage that is very language driven, in that I was writing it as much for the sound of the words as for their sense. Good prose writers are poets; they just work in a different medium. Conrad, Nabokov, Melville. They're poets as far as I'm concerned. Ondaatje too, when he's on his game. The English Patient gets called "poetic" a lot, but personally, I find much of it to be little better than purple prose. I haven't read Coming Through Slaughter, but his Billy the Kid book is terrific.

SS: The other poem that I am interested in is "Going Forward." Would you be able to tell me about any thought process you had while creating this poem?

ZW: I'm glad you asked me about "Going Forward"; there's a cool story behind it, actually. On January 16, 2009, my friend Shane Neilson wrote me an email with a poem about his daughter and this challenge in it:

"Okay, I challenge you. Write something ABAB, several stanzas, about your son. I know you can do it! (Maybe I'm cheating, since my daughter is older and does more, so there's more story possible.)"

This was actually a welcome assignment, as I have a very hard time writing poems about my boy, so having some set parameters gave me a starting point. I turned out the poem quite quickly and sent it back to Shane less than four hours later, almost as it finally appeared in the book later that year. So yeah, it's a pretty light, fun, self-satirising piece contrasting my then-six-month-old baby's ambition and drive--he was just learning to crawl and wanted nothing more than to move, move, move--with my own lack thereof. 

SS: Do you often get writing prompts or challenges from friends?

ZW: No, that sort of challenge or assignment is pretty rare, I have to say. I have written a few poems on commission, which is a whole other realm of challenge. The poems I wrote that way worked fine for their occasion, I think, but none of them is something I'd want to publish in a book.

SS: What are you thoughts on writing classes and workshops? Do you think they're necessary? Helpful? A hindrance? A crutch?

ZW: I try not to generalize about writing classes, because each class can only be as good as the teacher and the other students make it. So I wouldn't make any sweeping statements about them being useless or a hindrance. I've only ever taken one workshop myself, and I learned a few things. But nothing, really, that I couldn't have picked up on my own. I think a writer has to be an autodidact and has to find his or her own path into and through the world of writing, so you can't rely on a school curriculum, a mentor or your peer group to show the way. I don't think any writers who have the combination of inborn ability and ambition required to create original art are going to be ruined by studying writing. But I do think they'd be better off, if they're going to pursue a formal education, studying something else. Classics. Literature. History. Anthropology. Languages. The sciences. Talent is one thing, but you need to have something to say too. Our world is complex and the more you know about a wide range of things, the richer the writing you produce will be.

My ideal curriculum for a poetry training school would involve no workshops, but would require learning at least one dead language; at least one living language other than English; courses in epistemology, aesthetics and rhetoric; the multidisciplinary study of classic texts from antiquity to the present; a multi-year in-depth survey of poetry in English from Beowulf to the 20thC; a survey of poetry criticism and theory, from Aristotle and Longinus to Harold Bloom. As far as I know, there's no school out there that offers anything like this. The big objection I have to Creative Writing--other than it being a hideously trivial way of naming the enterprise to which I've dedicated my life at considerable personal expense--is the general lack of intellectual rigour with which it's taught in schools. It amounts, as an artist friend of mine said about visual art training, to polishing pebbles. Which is dandy, if all you want is to produce writing that is publishable and might win you the odd grant. But if your aim is higher, look elsewhere.

SS: Do you have a "formal education" in poetry or any other writing form?

ZW: I have a BA in English Lit. and am working on finishing my MA at the moment. The first year of my BA was the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King's College in Halifax, which is this incredible 24 credit survey of the Great Works of Western Civilization. Something like that, as I said, would be part of my dream curriculum, so I've been pretty fortunate. 

As I indicated, I took one poetry workshop, a Master's level course in 2000-01, at Concordia University in Montreal, led by Stephanie Bolster. She is great and my classmates included Susan Gillis, Oana Avasilichioaei and Angela Carr, all of whom have gone on to publish books and make a name for themselves. Another classmate was Jack Illingworth, who's now the executive director of the Literary Press Group of Canada, a big publishing/distribution organization. A pretty diverse group of smart, interesting people.

So yes, I've studied poetry and poetry composition in school, but most of the nuts and bolts work and the deep reading of individual poets' oeuvres I've done on my own time. And continue to do. One's education never ends.

SS: Also since you mentioned names like Aristotle and Harold Bloom, do you have any one artist whose work you admire more than any others? Or does your taste change depending on what your reading?

ZW: Different writers have meant a lot to me at different times of my life. Not necessarily verse-writing poets. Joseph Conrad is someone I come back to often, for example. At one point, if you quoted me a line from Heart of Darkness, I could tell you what page it was on in the Norton Critical Edition, I knew the book so well. Irving Layton was big for me in my early 20s; less so now, but his best poems are still astonishing. Ted Hughes a little later. Right now, touchstones for me are John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and especially Elizabeth Bishop. I've just finished writing a (really long) essay on one poem of Bishop's, "The Bight." The amount of stuff she was able to convey in so few words and in such a clear, direct manner is absolutely astounding. Humbling, really.

But a writer can't really afford to be an unwavering devotee to any one mentor or small group of influences. Poetry is a magpie's art. You need to read as much as you can and steal what works for you from anyone.

SS:  Do you have any routine when you write? Specific places you like to write, and ways? What about props? Do you have any superstitions or rituals that you need to before or while you write? 

ZW: I have neither superstitions nor routines. Right now I'm making most of my income by freelance writing and editing, so I have a routine for that stuff, as you would for any other job. Otherwise, it just wouldn't get done, and if it doesn't get done, I don't get paid. But I write poems whenever I feel so inclined. I haven't found it productive to force myself to write. Being a writer involves a lot of not writing. I actually try to set up as many obstacles to writing poems as I can, so that if I'm writing a poem it's because I really have to and not just because I'm idle and bored.

SS: When you begin writing a poem, is there any place that it begins? I don't mean in the sense of, do you begin at the end and work your way back? I mean do you feel like you're writing because you saw something moving, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon or something (I know that wasn't a great reference). Is there anything that can spark the desire to write for you, or is it just depending on your mood?

ZW: It varies, but usually a poem starts for me as a cluster of words that sound good together. Such clusters pass through my consciousness all the time, and can come from any number of sources, but not all of them crystallise and coalesce with other clusters to form a poem. I said earlier that I do a lot of my writing in my head; this is how it starts. Once that cluster grows to a certain point and once I can see that my mind's not going to let go of it, I start writing things out. Sometimes the poem is almost fully formed in my mind, but usually, I need to fill in some gaps. The process for me is profoundly associational, rather than logical/rational. One word or group of words will suggest another word or group because of some shared quality of sound and/or sense. A visual image or an idea might be a catalyst for a poem, but only if some glittery bit of language attaches itself to that picture or thought.

SS: How much do you edit and rewrite a poem before you finally decide that it is complete and is going to be handed to friends, or publishers? 

ZW: Editing and revision varies from poem to poem. "Cormorant," which I mentioned earlier, was first written in 1998, was published in a chapbook in 2004 and again in my book Track & Trace in 2009. Between first draft and final published form--which is quite different from its chapbook incarnation--I can't tell you how many revisions it underwent. Dozens. But I have to say that isn't typical for me, particularly since I started writing more in the way I just described. Because I've usually worked on a poem considerably before it ever gets written down or typed, I rarely do complete overhauls on poems. I do tweak and twiddle the details considerably. That said, a number of my poems are from-scratch rewrites of poems I'd abandoned years previously. Sometimes a poem isn't ready to be written until I've lived a bit longer. And occasionally it takes someone else, an editor, to point out just the right change to make an almost-finished poem click. But I'm not big on sharing work that I think is rough with others. I think it's the writer's job to sit with a poem as long as it takes to get it as good as he or she can.

SS: Speaking of sharing work with others, is there any one person, or group of people that you like to read your poem first?

ZW: Actually, these days what I do when I have a satisfactory working version of a poem done is post it on my blog. This is public, in a limited sort of way, but I still have control over it, so I can continue to make edits, or pull it down if I'm not happy with it.

SS: What do you think about public readings? Do you partake in them? Or do you prefer for your readings to simply be read by anyone that goes to your blog or picks up your writing?

ZW: I love public readings. I've done over a hundred of them and welcome any opportunity to share my work this way. I've also posted recordings of many poems, by myself and by other poets, at  When I read poetry to myself, I read it aloud because reading it silently is only a partial experience of the poet's work.

SS: Do you find any emotions difficult or easy to convey in your poetry?

ZW: I think anger is much easier to write than other emotions, but it's probably harder to make good poetry out of. Pure happiness is almost impossible. It writes white, as the saying goes. Poetry is a way of making sense of difficult things; ambiguity and ambivalence are the flesh and blood of poetry, so any uncomplicated emotion that doesn't trouble us is hard to write well about or out of. That's something I deal with in my poem "There Is Something Intractable in Me." It's a poem about feeling love for my then very young son. About how hard it is to write about that love without sliding into a slough of Hallmark cliche. One of the ways I took around the pitfalls was to make the poem very constrained. Not only is it written in ABABA stanzas in, for me, quite regular metre, but it's also an acrostic; each stanza is one of my son's three names: Kaleb Dovin Wells. While thinking about how I might write a poem about him that wasn't pure sap, I realized for the first time that each of his names had five letters. From there, the demands of the form became the prime concern, which took pressure off the loaded subject matter. I wound up writing a poem about not writing a poem about loving my son, so in a way I cheated, I guess, but I think I still managed to wring some emotional truth out of it.