Hearts Amok: a memoir in verse
Anvil Press, 2020
One of the first featured questions that pops up on Google when you search "memoir" is: What exactly makes a memoir a memoir? You probably have an answer swelling in your head already, something about truth, real-life stories, and autobiography. This is mostly correct, in my experience. But in the case of Hearts Amok, the newest book of poetry from Kevin Spenst, a memoir in verse is another thing entirely. It would be a mistake to assume the speaker in these poems is 100% the author. Spenst's choice of the sonnet is interesting as a historical touchstone. He contrasts demanding structures with lexical exuberance, almost daring the words to bust apart the metre that contains them. This is familiar terrain for those who have heard Spenst perform, his whisper to operatic vibrato likely to scare the unprepared out of their folding chairs, no microphone required. The book is as much a memoir in the voice of the sonnet as it is a memoir in the voice of "Kevin Spenst." And this is to say nothing of the tendency in both memoir and poetry to creatively edit facts in an attempt to make them better suit constructed narratives. Or how the act of metaphor fundamentally alters the sense of what "truth" is.
For the poet as reader (as I am), it's the fantastic collection that prompts not a thought in the mode of prose, but the thought as a poem. In that spirit I offer:
Hearts Amok: a book review in verse
for Kevin Spenst
Is that you in the poems, hobo for love?
Memoir peeks from behind the sonnet.
Take the poet out of Surrey, tho
still hear Fraser Highway on their tongue.
How much Spenst in the character “Kevin”?
I couldn’t translate the tramp at first read –
stitches sew fragments into verse heart,
Dedalus super-form of walking thot.
Are we doomed? Every speaker is a flight
story, winged bard in blood and feather.
This lonely job here carving windchimes
knee-deep in the emotional rushes.
Let movies shoot the sentimental stuff.
Metaphor is a price deferred with honey.
The humour is not lost on me that one of the most well-known "poems" by experimental writer bpNichol, as appears above, is actually an excerpt from Extreme Positions, one of his many works of fiction. Nichol, who passed away in 1988 and someone who spent a career trying to break down the barriers between artistic genres, I feel would also get a kick out of the this fact.
His long out of print fiction has been collected in this generous anthology edited by Banff Centre Director of Literary Arts, derek beaulieu. The collection offers a bit of everything that makes Nichol so special to his admirers and the confounding, genre-twisting excursions that his detractors love to disparage. Incorporating autobiography, comics, visual poetry, and even musical notation, Nichol breaks open storytelling to let the reader see what is inside. beaulieu contextualizes the violence and sexuality that appears in a few of the stories by referencing Nichol’s inspiration: his experience as a laytherapist at Toronto psychoanalytic commune Therafields in the 1970s, but cleverly places the information in an afterword to let the reader make up their mind about the material before filling them in on the story behind the stories.
Still, complex simplicity of language is what holds attention, as in award-winning “The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid” (“history always stands back calling people cowards or failures”) or “Cautious Diary” (“if i did not have my head tied on i would lose it here let me make the knot tighter not too tight now coz it hurts”). Nights on Prose Mountain thrills the reader wiling to open themselves to Nichol: “turn the page & i am here that in itself is interesting.”
This review was originally written for publication in Coast Mountain Culture. Pick up one of their back issues to support an independent BC publisher dedicated to telling stories about the Cascadia region.
beholden: a poem as long as the river
rita wong & fred wah
In this collaborative text from former Parliamentary Poet Laureate Fred Wah and poet-activist Rita Wong, the Columbia River is given a voice to express its complicated life as breathing waterway and hydroelectric conduit. Wah and Wong each compose a single poem and entwine these lines with a complete topographical map of the river from headwaters to ocean. While Wah’s attention centres on what he calls the "isness" of the water body (“The thing that exists is itself. That’s what we need to pay attention to”), Wong’s poem is preoccupied with a full account of the river and the life which so intimately depends on it (“Catfish in the reach & leak of radioactive Hanford bumping up cancer counts alongside and downstream the news that travels through”). Each page has only a portion of words from each poem alongside the map and so reading can feel a bit like how you experience the river itself, in small sections, listening to what it can teach. This is a stunning book that reminds us the Columbia has a “dignity that cannot be taken away, not by the buzz of wires, not by the hum of highway, not by induced amnesia, because water remembers.”
This review was originally written for publication in Coast Mountain Culture. Like many businesses they were hit pretty hard by COVID-19. Pick up one of their back issues to support an independent BC publisher dedicated to telling stories about the Cascadia region.
"It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are."
In the fall of 2018 I was asked to contribute a photograph to a fundraising auction organized by an artist-run gallery in Vancouver. Excited by the opportunity (my first such solicitation), I selected an image of a man at the corner of one of the busiest intersections of the city collecting empties from a street-side trash can, his collection of recyclables slung over his shoulder. After my submission was accepted, I invested time, labour, and money into making an archival quality print that would not only honour the subject but also last for decades as a visual object.
In my artist statement for the gallery, I noted my inspiration, specifically, an essay written by curator Bill Jeffries about Vancouver photography that issued a call to action in hope that “artists would see that there is in fact a tradition of picturing our streets and that the pictures do carry meaning that cannot be found in other ways.” My image is less an exercise in common tropes of street photography, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, than in Jeffries’ notion that the street acts as a symbol of a city’s economic engine and social space.
Yet both approaches to picture-making still play a role in my image. The man with the bags looms over the foreground, while the action in the image collapses into the space behind him, all slammed against the rigidity of the scarred light standard, a captivating collision of textures and geometries with an accidental Winogrand-style frame tilt. But the “moment” works in the service of context, the man highlighting the lengths some residents must go to mitigate their poverty, and the faceless figure with cellphone to ear, full stride accelerating away, showcasing the ambivalence by which some continue to ignore the problem.
About a week before the scheduled auction I received an email asking for new work for the show, stating unnamed staff and volunteers had concerns with my photograph, and even though previously defended by the gallery director/curator prior to approval, the work would not be shown. I was disappointed (to say the least).
Now, I do not wish to vent my outrage or name names; this is not about censorship. The decision of whether or not to hang my art lies exclusively with the gallery and I hold no grudge against the persons involved (though I would decline an offer to work with them in the future). My struggle is to accept the notion that a street portrait of a man juxtaposed against a society that ignores him is in some way controversial, the image photojournalistic to the degree that it would not look out of place on the cover of a newspaper.
I assumed (because they were never explained in much detail) the major concerns leveled at my image come from the direction of those who classify it as appropriation or exploitation. Without permission to take the photograph, I am simply a privileged artist with agency stealing the narrative of someone with less power for use in the service of my own interests. But this contention ignores the entire history of photojournalism and a lineage of humanistic street photography in Vancouver, pictures that capture the beating heart of the city and its people, by such internationally-recognized artists as Fred Herzog and Greg Girard (among many others). These are exactly the kind of photographs Bill Jeffries was referring to when he called artists to renew their desire in “picturing” Vancouver; images which communicate the experience of living in this place at this exact moment in history. The name I had chosen for my picture was a direct reference to one from Girard, my intention to emphasize the temporal, how the photograph can be used document a city as it changes.
The charge of appropriation/exploitation comes also without the context of why I chose to capture the man with bags (I was never asked), assuming it not possible I could have any idea of his life; to the accusers I’m simply trading in another’s pain. But that assumption is wrong. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes “photographs are a means of making ‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” She is referring to war photography and depictions of gruesome death, but the logic can be applied to documentary photographs of all forms of pain.
Sontag wrote against the perception that “something is innately cynical about [the] diffusion” of such images of pain, and addressed “a suspicion about the interest in these images, and the intentions of those who produce them,” that lingers, still. “Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.”
What the critics of my photograph were not aware of is I chose the man because I saw myself in him, where my life could have ended up given only slightly changed circumstances.
I ran away from home a few days after my sixteenth birthday, bouncing from house to house, even living on the street for a short time (thank god it was summer) before a family friend gave me a bedroom to sleep. I was heavily using drugs and escaping an abusive situation no longer tenable. Eventually I went home, quit using, but I have never forgotten just how easy it is to end up with nothing, whether by one’s own making or not. It informs the compassion with which I treat all people in my community. With only an instant to capture the frame of the man with bags as I crossed Georgia Street, I thought of all the ways my life could have been different, of all the ways since my sixteenth year I have been so near poverty I could smell the air beneath the cliff, and I pressed the shutter.
But the image was about the man and the community in which I live, not about me. It was not about identity; it was about the social turmoil and class divisions that are keeping the community increasingly alienated from itself. I do not make confessional art (well sometimes, I guess I am human after all). Like any artist, my life and identity inform my practice, but the work springs most from the palace of ideas and from stories of my society, like portraits of what it’s like to live in this specific time and place. Like my photography, my writing is journalistic, even when not specifically journalism.
the broker was numbers & paper
metrics at his desk in a heat wave
LCD screens tri-colour text
stock ticker translating real time
all day he wiped his forehead
with a handkerchief bet big
the numbers called for it
his office forty-seven stories
a spastic air conditioner & one
fan oscillating hallucination
hot at the top of the heap
looking down a snifter of ice water
no windows that open up there
at noon an assistant on retainer
spritzed his body with water vapour
expensed because it provided
the conditions necessary to print
slips of paper that for some reason
he’d come to believe in
the horizon vibrated behind the city
glass bright skyline feeding
off itself the telephone sparrows
mechanical one note no song
infinite flashing & repeats
losses ramped up in afternoon
trading but by closing he was still
ahead the others not so lucky
streamed out the building bloody
computers lit all night reflected
in the desk glass line graphs risen
from ash finally cool on the ground
the waft of gardenias & dirt & a hint
of spice as he downshifted he drove
the expressway with his shirt
unbuttoned the windows down
Glenn Miller on satellite radio
as if the body wasn’t lost
somewhere over the Channel
exit 177 caught the corner
with chauffeur precision his own
street by memory sign missing
from galvanized position the ladder
the daises stretched above the power
lines into the black sky toward
a fog or a smoke the streetlamps
glowing down through it like umbrellas
of light the engine parked on the lawn
Kentucky blue his neck bent back
it was a gamble he dumped his sweat
on the seat of the Buick
& climbed up into the light
My poem “Blank Generation,” takes its title from a song by Richard Hell and the Voidoids and is inspired by a photograph from the 2001 Gregory Crewdson series, “Twilight.” The poem speaks of a stock trader who discovers a portal on his drive home from the office and is pulled into its powerful gravity. A poem about the dangers of capitalism and the seductive lure of risk, it’s part of a manuscript that has been rejected (or quietly ignored) by nearly every suitable poetry publisher in Canada (or at least the ones who still have open submissions and I believe would be a good fit for the collection). I think I understand why.
The poems move with an omniscient narrator, and even when the speaker slips in to the ‘I,” the voice of self, of the poet, is rejected. My speakers are characters who rarely resemble me. The voice of the poems in the series in which "Blank Generation" appears draws heavily on USAmerican prose poet Russell Edson and his often fantastic narratives. I impart my identity on the poems by the rhythm of their breath. Maybe this is why one editor prized “the imaginative risks…the vigor of purpose and the willingness to keep leaving comfort behind,” and yet rejected the manuscript because it did not provide “wisdom” in the correct places, maybe not even the right wisdom at all, as if a person’s perception of what in fact is wise is not entirely subjective.
I feel contemporary Canadian poetry is struck by a concerning neo-romantic regression manifested as a valuation of personal feeling and autobiography as the one "true" and "correct" poetry. This neo-romanticism was not something that afflicted Vancouver poetry when I began writing in the 1990s. When you picked up books from different publishers you got entirely different kinds of writing. It is a wonderful pleasure to be reading, finally, such diversity in Canadian poetry. What is unfortunate is that so much of the writing published in Canada that is diverse in its identity, follows the same old lyric forms and emotional hegemony. But there is absolutely no possible reason anyone would want to read about the feelings of another white male writer near middle age. I don’t want to write that way, not because I can’t, but because my identity or experiences are not interesting or important to me. What is important to me is the society in which I live, the ideas that enliven it, and the very real people who occupy its spaces.
There is too the possibility both examples of my work here are, simply put, not any good. Maybe I am blind to the flaws in my own creations. But who if not me should believe in what I make? My favourite bookmark (for over twenty years) carries the quote: “If I’m not for myself then who is for me? If I’m only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when?” Maybe as well, as Zadie Smith wrote about “Open Casket,” the controversial painting by Dana Schutz: “The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the [artist]. The truth is that this [artwork] and I are simply not in profound communication.” Such is the danger letting my poems or photographs be wrapped in the community that surrounds them rather than the never-ceasing cloak of the self. It makes the work all the more difficult to connect with for a reader or viewer expecting a vehicle of self-expression. I am not deterred. My eye and ear continue to be trained out on the wider world.
“Of Friendship,” Vivian Gornick. After Montaigne, University of Georgia Press. 2015
Bill Jeffries in Unfinished Business: Photographing Vancouver Streets 1955 to 1985. West Coast Line 47 – Vol. 39 No.2. 2005
Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003
“Getting In and Out: who owns black pain?” Zadie Smith. Harper’s Magazine. July 2017
Released in 1956, Rythmetic by Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren is frequently misinterpreted as a one-dimensional educational film with a bit of humour to keep things entertaining. Numerals and mathematical shapes move in controlled, lyric gestures upon a crisp blue background. Spreading across the screen in geometric patterns, the numbers bump and chafe, spawn anew, and add and subtract themselves in the dance of arithmetic operations. Writing in 1976 for the Canadian Film Institute, Maynard Collins described the film thusly:
“Following the heels of a teaching assignment in India for UNESCO, this amusing non-verbal lecture on the subject of mathematics reveals…feelings about the inadequacies of communication between peoples of different cultures and languages. After toying with several ideas for making a truly international film, [McLaren & Lambert] settled on Arabic numerals as probably the most understood method of communication, far more so than any other alphabet.”
It may be comforting to a viewer grasping at meaning to place such autobiographical motives at the heart of the film, but a serious question arises: would two visionary animators put their talents toward an aim so plain, so didactic?
To attempt to answer the question, we must discard the impulse to place such importance on the life of the artist as source of inspiration, for there are many ways of reading this film. One possible avenue is found in the work of another often misinterpreted Canadian artist, the poet bpNichol.
To scholar Kit Dobson, “the best thing about reading bpNichol is the impossibility of reading bpNichol,” arguing that attempting to read his poems through the lens of personality and personal relationships has “limited how his work might be understood.”
When I first watched Rythmetic, I was instantly struck by the similarity to Nichol’s series of poems “probable systems” that uses cryptarithms (mathematical games with arithmetical operations where numbers are substituted for letters or other symbols) in an attempt to quantify the ephemeral. Take this example from 1974:
probable systems 4
this one’s for james joyce in his worst bummer
= 6 + 1 + 9 + 20 + 8
= 8 + 15 + 16 + 5
We are shown the work of his process and gain access to what Paul Dutton has described as the satisfaction we get from watching someone else’s original thinking. Having proved faith equals hope (literally and not by metaphor), Nichol cleverly illustrates the expressiveness of mathematics for speaking directly to the human experience.
The same emotion is at the heart of Rythmetic. The shapes don’t always follow the rules: they jump, bounce, dart across the screen, and, only after significant effort, settle. At one point, a mutating zero explodes the arithmetic attempting to contain its energy. The symbols police the numerals while the numerals bristle against the strict control.
This is no artless arithmetic. This is the lyric struggle of a life: to define yourself against the rules of a society that you could not help being born into, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Like Nichol’s “probable systems,” Rythmetic “analyses and expresses the unfolding of its own creative process” and invites the viewer to participate in meaning.
Really, though, when has math (or life) ever been simple?
J. A. Brown, T. Trowbridge and J. Szabó, "The poetic metrics of bpNichol," 2009 IEEE Toronto International Conference Science and Technology for Humanity (TIC-STH), Toronto, ON, 2009, pg. 933-938.
Dobson, Kit, "Openings: bpNichol's Ephemera," Open Letter 13, No.8, Ed. Lori Emerson, 2009, pg 9-18.
Nichol, bp, a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts, ed by Stephen Voyce, Coach House Books, Toronto, ON, 2013, pg 176.
Utako, Kurihara, “Norman McLaren’s Animated Film Rythmetic as Temporal Art,” Bigaku (Aesthetics), No. 15, The Japanese Society for Aesthetics, Tokyo, 2011, pg 116-124.
Listen to the subtle melodies of assonance, the call and response of slant rhyme feeding the reader through to the turn. Notice the repetition of single syllable words, an insistent rhythm. Owen uses sound like a lure, seduces the reader with music.
The poems of Somatic are inspired by the life and work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Published twenty years ago, this was Owen’s first book (the author gifted me a copy at a reading we did together) and the verse is grounded in the themes she continues to explore: art, love, death, desire, and the nature of the muse.
An interesting polyphony develops as the poems accrue. Subtle shifts in voice help the poems differentiate themselves, but have the effect on this reader of too much too soon. I wanted to dwell for longer with some sounds, rhythms, rather than following “their fine disturbances.” (42) Maybe it’s just the collection is short and no dominant voice develops fully. Still, if there is a through line, it is of distance, the poet-observer, Owen conscious of the humanity of the artist and of his subjects, the viewer and viewed, “the white brushed so lightly / around the brown / was done to suggest spirit, / the body’s other skin.” (34)
Owen’s interpretation of Schiele urges a drawing close of the dark, sexual, and for whatever reason ‘forbidden’ by society: “to take the darkness and draw / it ever deeper.” (41) The sexuality in the poems reflects Schiele's art, the times, and the character, but it also points to empowerment through sexual liberation and the freedom of living outside societal norms. Schiele paid a steep price when he was jailed for public immorality. He was never the same after:
With twenty-four days, your self-portraits
changed, the eyes no longer flaunted
a haughty pose of youth but become pools,
disturbed by stones so huge that ripples
bellied out over the surface, blind and unceasing.
“Prison, Neulengbach, 1912” (46)
There’s that music again, delivering the tragedy of Schiele’s life and the intense beauty of his art in equal measure. The narrative is black but the buoyancy of the language ensures accessibility to darkness. Somatic stands as a testament to the dangers of the rebel life and of non-conformity, and at the same time, prophets the necessity of following one’s truth, whatever the consequence.
This month's reading features special and exciting readings by local authors ryan fitzpatrick, Deanna Fong and Geoffrey Nilson. And Ashley-Elizabeth Best is joining us all the way from Ontario to launch her much anticipated debut book of poetry.
Please join us at The Lido, 518 East Broadway, Vancouver, BC. Doors at 6 p.m. Readings at 6:30 p.m.
Admission is, of course, FREE. And we'll catch the last hour of Happy Hour at The Lido.
This event takes place on unceded Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh land.