Blogs, Blocks, Books, & Baseball

Steven Ross Smith


The problem with having a blog site is that it needs regular fresh content, followed up by social media posts to attract readers. Some of us are not that efficient. I’ve been thinking about that since it is fourteen months since my last post. As a result, I expect that my readership is falling off, from a few then into sub-zero zones now. So today I thought, “I’d better get at it.” But what to write about? Seems I’m in a poetic withdrawal, so maybe it’s time for a confessional.

For the first time in many many years I feel a certain lethargy around my ‘poetic practice’ – the pursuit of my own poetic energy through daily attention. I’ve held many workshops where I’ve encouraged writers to write regardless of their emotional state, their surroundings, their daily pressures. I’ve talked about overcoming writers’ blocks through consistency, reading, and so on. But here I am in the doldrums, in need of a teacher like me … or maybe not like me.

I know the mantra: write about anything; stick with it; write at least a bit everyday; read other poets; go to poetry events; and so on. I can tell myself all that but the ambivalence hangs in, low grey clouds pressed down by a temperature inversion. Oh, such self-involvement, such a feeling-sorry-for-myself.

As I type these words, an image unexpectedly pops into my head, – green and black – a book cover. It’s a book on my shelf – is music, by John Taggart. I’m not sure why, but there it is, vivid, in my mind’s eye. In a few minutes I’ll turn around to my shelf and grab that copy.

But I want to muse, or mosey, a bit further first. Hmmm … what was my line of thought? … Oh yes, writing doldrums. But contrary to my own current feelings and self-assessment, there are many poets writing today, many more than when I began pursuing the muse in the early ‘70s. Today workshops abound, university programs feed aspirants’ dreams and knowledge, readings spawn, and poetry pixilates on YouTube. Print publishing venues chew up trees, and contests and prizes promise, and even give, treasure chests of gold and fame; and so, many poets receive brief infusions – small or large – of cash to help their trembling bottom lines.

Speaking of “lines” there are resplendent varieties of the idea of the poetic line to be found in current books and magazines, recordings and videos – short punchy lines, disjunctive couplets, long lingering lines, phrases flat of sound, and syntax with muscular sonic torque, all delivering, in their own ways, interior investigations, astute observations, playful or serious articulations, formal and stylistic probings. The field is rich. The various media channels, social and broadcast, sometimes, pay attention. A few poets even become household names … well in some households anyway.

But in truth, few people read poetry, and those who do are most often the poets themselves, and students whose coursework makes such a demand. And the more unconventional the work, the less it is read or rewarded.

Now, let me confess – here we go – I consider most of my poetry, as revealed in ten books, to be unconventional. I follow my own eccentric mode – a primary interest in the materiality of language, in sound and rhythm, in the compositional possibilities of language, and in – that dirty word – experimentation. My work has not gone totally unnoticed – I have actually won two awards – but my readership, as far as I know, is tiny. My royalty statements – often in the negative – are testament to this reality.

I don’t want to be a whiner, but when I see many books and writers promoted and rewarded, I see little of the innovative work, the risky, the difficult, the demanding, the eccentric poetry there. Of course some innovators do rise … I think of John Ashbery, Nicole Brossard, Paul Celan, Lyn Hejinian, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Phil Hall, Erin Moure, Fred Wah. These are writers whose work I admire and regard as distinctive. None provide immediate accessibility and easy epiphany. A reader has to spend time with their work, sometimes to puzzle it out, to dig deep into it to gain familiarity with a vocabulary, a style, and underlying poetics. But who has time, when our smart phones are pinging, when social media is delivering a panoply of news – mundane or engaging personal narratives, breaking tragic global events, cat videos, and push-notifications – or when commutes and job double-shifting eats up our spare time.

So maybe my lethargy is being fed by a feeling of drowning in that sea of life in the millennium; or is it the loneliness of neglect; or the frustrations stirred by my own unused energy – is it some or all of those that make me of question my whole enterprise? I’m beginning to wallow, alone in my study … well not exactly alone – my bookshelves contain a few hundred (or maybe a thousand) books as company.

Oh yes, John Taggart. I almost forgot. I turn to find his is music. Fortunately my books are arranged alphabetically by author, so I spot him right away, clutch and flip open the book. I read “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins”. I read “Marvin Gaye Suite.” I skim “Magdalene Poem” and “Refrains for Robert Quine.” I flip through “Slow Song For Mark Rothko.” I’ve read that piece before, several times, captivated. The pieces are rich. There’s so much there – in his space, his integrity, his artistry. The meditative space, its pace – slow, steady, repetitive, demanding attention to each line, each word, each syllable, its sensibility. The stuff of the poetry that I like – material over message, mystery over transparency, sculpted language. Doing it regardless, sticking to his guns.

In “Marvin Gaye Suite” he says: “repetition is choice you choose to be part of the party that waits.” (1.) A fine line! Indeed he uses repetition to create his language-mood-music. He is one-of–a-kind. He’s received accolades, and rightly so. “the party that waits” is possibly the individual who is willing to enter, with patience, to read and experience movement and delay, movement and interjection, delay, recapitulation, movement – his ostenato with extensions.

But my blog piece today is not about John Taggart – well, okay, it is – though I do wonder how many people have read him, experienced his brilliance, his dallying, his revelling, in music and art with words, in words with music and art? … say, compared to how many humans are watching the third game in the American League division of the World Series of baseball. (It’s that time of the year.)

John (probably), and I (definitely) did not choose – did not have the skill to choose – a career in baseball. The baseball message came to me as a kid when I was playing shortstop and a line drive drove right at me, missing my glove but finding my knackers (as they say). It wasn’t at that moment that I decided to become a poet or sound poet, but I did emit a bodily groan. Or maybe that’s when I did decide. Reading John Taggart makes me forget my lethargy, makes me want to pick up my pen, thereby proving my own theory stated earlier.

Now where was I? Oh yes, blogging. I guess, with this piece, I’ve brought currency to my blog, at least for a moment – this moment.

Gertrude Stein says there is no such thing as repetition, just insistence. Makes sense, especially when you read Taggart, or even Ms. Stein … but Taggart today, to me, seems to make more sense … though I love reading them both. I’ll read a bit of Gertrude when I’m done here. I’m getting near the end, so that will be soon.

Writing this piece today has put me back in touch with poetry, with myself even. And in a moment I’ll be in touch with Gertrude – likely Tender Buttons” or How Writing Is Written”. Then I will pull out my keyboard. Yes, my readership is tiny, but when I engage with language and my own poetic impulses, my world is immense.


  1. 1. From “Marvin Gaye Suite,” John Taggart, is music, Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2010, Port Townsend, Washington. P.174


The Artist Suffers in a Vineyard

The Artist Suffers in a Vineyard, but Writes

Steven Ross Smith
A myth suggests that artists must suffer for their art. And indeed some do, although it’s often not clear if the art makes them suffer, or if they were already suffering and it shows up in their art. Think Van Gogh, Plath, Cobain, Winehouse, and Robin Williams, who are often cited. We tend to think of suffering in extreme, but there are degrees of suffering, and it is relative.

I’m a poet and I know that the modest payback for most poets haunts them and in some cases propels them to drive taxis, to hold sessional academic posts, to try to sell their books on street corners in rush hour, or just to live lean, all of which might cause degrees of suffering. And of course there is Buddhist wisdom that suggests that we cause our own suffering, but that’s contemplation for another day.

It’s all enough to drive one to drink…well, maybe one or two glasses of red.

To match the modest returns from their art, most writers I know—except, I suppose, the richly successful, and those with delusions of grandeur—have modest expectations. I have seen these expectations surpassed, overwhelming the writers when they’re treated well—for instance, in residencies where they’re ‘taken care of’: at Sage Hill Writing Experience, with its lovely rural Saskatchewan setting, tasty meals, and endless conversations about writing, all free from the distractions of home; or at The Banff Centre, where accommodations are pleasant and can be serviced every day, the food excellent, the setting spectacular, and you get an ID card that states “ARTIST” (yes, in upper case); or at those endowed retreats where a basket lunch shows up at your cabin door, and where you even receive a stipend for your presence.

Once in a while writers get invited to festivals and are put up in posh hotels. Such treatment makes us buoyant, while feeling somehow, inadequate. We love these luxuries, perhaps because of their rarity in our modest, “suffering” lives.

I remember a comment poet Steve McCaffery made to me many years ago: “Artists don’t get rich, but the artist’s life is a rich one.” He wasn’t necessarily referring to material or financial wealth, but to the vivacity of the imagination, the engaging people one meets in artistic circles, the rewards of utilized creativity, and occasionally, a dip in the pool of posh and dosh. How precious those perks are when they come.

Well, I recently received a perk. Through an organization called Writing Between the Vines I was granted a one-week residency at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C., in the south Okanagan wine-growing region.

On leaving home in Banff, I’d loaded the car—a 2002 Camry—with computer, printer, suitcase, bike, and I humped a big heavy cooler of food into the trunk. The drive from Banff to Oliver was about nine hours. I rarely got out of the car—once in Revelstoke for a latte, sandwich, and ginger cookie at the Modern Bakery; in Kelowna, at Safeway, for more supplies—skim milk, cans of beans, whole wheat bread; for gas near Penticton; and then onward to the Sandy Beach Motel, right on Osoyoos Lake, to spend the night before my Tinhorn Creek Winery experience began.

When I got out of bed the next morning, pain shot through my lower back, and my right hip seized up. I leaned and twisted like a gnarly old grape vine. My body wouldn’t straighten. And if I sat down for fifteen minutes I had immediate pain when I stood up. I did some stretches and took some pills, but the condition persisted. I was suffering—surely great writing was in the offing.

Tinhorn Creek Winery sits high up on the western Golden Mile bench (or ridge) just south of Oliver. On arrival I went first to the vineyard tasting room to pick up my room key. The friendly wine host I met, Marilyn, insisted that I linger long enough to taste some wine—obviously a plot to distract me from my work. When I mentioned my kinked back Marilyn said, “More wine might help.” I swirled, sniffed, and sipped, comparing three kinds of Merlot and two Cabernet Francs. (I would have to return another day to get to the whites.) After tastings and pleasant conversation, I took my key and drove upslope past rows of vines, signs at the beginning of each row designating their varietals—Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and so on—then downslope past more rows to the Fischer House, which sits just below the vineyards. I opened the door to the Shaunessy suite—a four-room accommodation with lots of light, and more than one good workspace. To write, I could choose between one end of the large dining room table, or the comfortable couch in the living room, in front of the fireplace.

From the large windows I took in a view that spanned a broad reach of the valley and the March-brown distant hills and mountains, including Mount Baldy where, I am told, in early spring you can don your skis while golfers way below in the valley are hacking divots and missing putts. (I did none of these things, as I was there to write.) So, I quickly settled, then set up my computer to bear down on a new poetry project I’d been thinking about for several months. I intended to do substantial work.

But I soon realized that, given my sore back, and to keep the poetry front of mind, I would require some help. So, off to the local physiotherapy clinic. With treatments there, morning stretches on my yoga mat, and nightly medicinals, I began to straighten and keep my attention mostly on my writing. I did find myself pausing now and again to think, “Why am I suffering now when I’m supposed to be having this great time writing, exploring the area, and sipping wines at different vineyards? Why don’t I take better care of my back? Is this retributive justice or masochism meant to deny me a fabulous time?” It was hard to keep the voices (the unwanted ones) at bay. I was not really interested in suffering for or because of my art. But when I did manage to get into the writing current I forgot about these existential matters, and just dwelt in the words. Nonetheless, by the third day I had to stand up to write, computer stacked up on the kitchen counter on a couple of thick books. It worked well and eased the pain. And I recalled notable writers who have chosen to stand while writing—Hemingway for example, and Yann Martel.

Throughout the week, and despite my back issues I was able to take a couple of hikes on the Golden Mile Stamp Mill Trail which took me even higher above the winery. There I came upon Tinhorn Creek itself, running right alongside the vineyard. And I had views about fifteen kilometres south to Osoyoos Lake, or north over Oliver, and across the valley to the Black Sage Bench where a host of other wineries perched. As the afternoon glow hit that bench, buildings gleamed and light shifted on the tawny hills as clouds passed over the sun. I also managed two bike rides along part of the flood control road beside the river that runs through the valley bottom. Part of that area is designated IBA, Important Bird Area, and though I was too early (in March) to catch the spring migrations, I did appreciate what it might be like in April with the singing flocks, and I vowed to return.

A bonus to my residency was that I received a discount on wine purchases and meals, and so one evening after a ride, I decided to escape my can-opener cuisine and treat myself—feeling worthy of a reward after my hard work—to dinner at Tinhorn’s Miradoro restaurant. I’d been lured by the special—the five-course, wine-paired dinner. The dinner opened with a Tuna Crudo, Grains and Krauti, well-presented on rectangular white plate—pale tuna triangles that were tender and slightly salty, a red root vegetable, which I assumed was the krauti, a touch sweet after the tuna and the soft chewy seed grains, all providing a tasty and enjoyable combination of textures. The paired wine was a light, crisp 2014 Pinot Gris, which balanced perfectly with the dish. Then three more excellent courses—a soup, potato gnocchi and duck leg—all in modest but satisfying portions; I could describe them all, but I’ll leap here to the finale, a Tiramisu, the Italian “cheer-me-up” dessert. This one had a dusting of cocoa powder on top of the chocolate icing and layers of creamy whip and cake beneath. The sweet, light tiramisu was paired with a Black Sage Pipe, a smooth and delicious port-style wine made by Sumac Ridge Winery, several miles north of Oliver, in Summerland. The whole meal was beautifully paced, varied, and delicious, and the wines added that distinctive complementary flair. It was a bit extravagant, but, still at bargain early spring rates. I thought, “When will I have this opportunity again?” I went for it. Eat now, pay later…a bad practice if it’s a habit for a writer with a modest lifestyle, and the extravagance might create suffering later, when the bill comes in, but….

I had first read about the residency at Tinhorn Creek Winery two years prior, in an online post. The residency is run through an entity in the U.S. called Writing Between the Vines, and the initiative was founded by American Marcy Gordon, a wine, food, and travel writer. Now Executive Director of the Vines project, Gordon says, “I write about wine and visit a lot of vineyards and always find the atmosphere in vineyards to be tranquil and inspiring…except of course during the harvest when it’s quite chaotic. But the idea of writing retreats germinated while I was visiting a vineyard in Portugal and thought the location would be a great place to spend some time alone and write.” While she hasn’t yet engaged a Portugal winery, currently in North America there are five wineries that take part, four in the States (in Texas and California) and one in Canada. Ms. Gordon reports: “Our goal is to place as many writers as possible each season; in 2016 we hosted twelve writers. There are many logistical details to manage with multiple retreats, but we’d like to expand to ten vineyard locations by 2017.” There is an application fee of $30 and the writer does have to supply his/her own transportation and meals, but perks at the wineries, including the free accommodation, help offset, or at least ease, the ‘suffering’ such costs might cause. Information can be found at

While wine did not feature in the poetic work I did at Tinhorn, I’m sure the glass or two I had in the evening contributed to my relaxation as it also eased my back pain. I achieved several hours of focused work every day I was there, sitting or standing, so moved the new poetry along. This, of course, is the feature of such retreats, fancy or basic, wherever they are—escape, focus, and productivity. The value-added lovely setting, comfortable accommodation, and quality wines will remain in my mind, contributing to a memorable instance of “posh” treatment I’ve had as a writer. And I’d learned a lot about wines and wine-making. This opportunity let me experience one distinct moment of the “artist’s rich life” that Steve McCaffery spoke of.

Suffering? Mine was limited to a sore back and a somewhat lighter wallet. Not bad, given what I gained, and the indulgence offered by Marcy Gordon’s Writing Between the Vines wonderful idea—“pairing” me, the writer, with this winery’s facilities.

And now, here in Banff and with a healthier back, it’s time for a glass of Tinhorn Creek Merlot taken from a bottle in the case I brought home with me. I’ll sip and recollect my view over the tan and tufted ridges and hills. Then, back to work.


Surprising Affirmation

Steven Ross Smith

If my perspective is accurate, poets often feel that their work falls into the void. Reviews are few, sales are minimal, and the retail shelf life (if any) is short. Of course there are exceptions—the award-winning books, the poets with reputations, the iconic books. But, for most of us, a few years after a book has been published, it seems to have died completely.

But surprising affirmations can come. Such was the case for me recently.

The Toronto-based poet Soraya Peerbaye published a book, Tell: poems for a girlhood (Pedlar Press, 2015). The book recently won the Trillium Book Award and was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize for Poetry. It is a notable book that explores the details of the murder of Reena Virk, a girl of South Asian descent, who was killed by a group of high school classmates in 1997, in Saanich, British Columbia. The book also attends to the details and evidence of the perpetrators’ trials in heart-wrenching lyric. The Griffin prize judges citation states: “Peerbaye bears brave witness to the unspeakable brutality of these events, drawing from testimonies of the convicted, the victim’s autopsy report, and a history of the landscape itself.”

I knew about the book and its successes, but I would never have considered Soraya’s book or her comments about that book would relate to me and my work. But startlingly, within two days in July 2016, I found that Soraya had cited my book Fluttertongue 4: adagio for the pressured surround, (NeWest Press, 2007) in two different interviews, as an influence.

Here’s what she said in an interview with Phoebe Wang for The Rusty Toque: “I also read Steven Ross Smith’s Fluttertongue 4: adagio for the pressured surround. It’s an annotated vigil: there’s a violence in its lyricism, in the tension and release between memory, a contemplation of the political, the act of tending to the beloved during a prolonged dying, and the quotidian. I feel the influence of that collection in the Gorge poems in Tell.” She also cited my book in an interview by poet rob mclennan for the Ploughshares blog: Fluttertongue — holds the self in relation to the political world.”

As I said, I was surprised, but I am also honoured and humbled to have my work acknowledged by a fine poet and whose courageous book, bore, in my mind, no connection to mine.

Such affirmations give me hope. I…we poets…cast our words, it seems, to the wind. Sometimes they blow away, and sometimes they land.

Thank you Soraya Peerbaye, for your artful efforts and your words.

Thinking Dada, Once Again

Steven Ross Smith


One hundred years ago an event took place in Zurich that would turn the art world on its head. The Cabaret Voltaire took the stage on February 5 1916, and featured artists in many genres—poets, dancers, musicians, visual artists—revolutionary in spirit and confrontational in their performances. Many of them would become famous or at least notorious, despite, or as intended, their wish to spit in the face of bourgeois, stale, and predictable art.

It was at the Cabaret that the first “verse ohne worte” were sounded. The abstract (and/or ‘nonsense / non-sense’) use of language was intoned by Hugo Ball in his poems like “Karawane” and “Gadji Beri Bimba.” Much has been written since about this movement that came to be known as Dada.

In 1988 I wrote an essay about Dada, sound poetry, and what followed. In February 2016, as if prompted mysteriously by the 100th anniversary, I stumbled upon a copy of this forgotten essay. So to honour the moment of the Cabaret Voltaire, I offer an edited and enhanced version of my essay here.


                                               POETRY: A CABARET

You are in a cabaret. The world is not a comfortable place. It is 1916. Zurich. A street called Spiegelgasse. The lights dim. In the darkness, from the stage a voice begins:
Gadji beri bimba
Glandridi lauli lonni cadori
Gadjama bim beri glassala
Glandridi glassala tuffm i zimbrabim (1)

The lights fade in. A figure in shiny blue appears on the stage. His legs are wrapped in cardboard cylinders. He looks like an obelisk. He wears a huge cardboard collar, scarlet inside and gold outside. It is fastened at the neck in such a way that he gives the impression of wing-like movement by raising and lowering his elbows. He wears a blue and white striped witchdoctor’s hat. He continues chanting. (2)
Blassa galassasa tuffm I zimbrabim …. (1)

This is Hugo Ball. This is Cabaret Voltaire. This is Dada. Hugo Ball called his incantations “Verse ohne Worte,” poems without words, for the words are syllables without meaning. He also called his pieces “Lautgedichte,” loud speaking, or as they’ve become known, sound poems.

Ball was not the absolute beginning. Earlier roots of the exploration of the ‘phonemic’ aspect of language can be found in: Aristophanes in the 4th century BC; Rabelais in the 15th century AD; the formal experiments and combinatorics of 17th century mystic and poet Quirinus Khulman; Petrus Borel, whose writing in the early 19th century foreshadowed Surrealism; Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, published in full in Through the Looking Glass in 1871; the works of Christian Morgenstern around 1875; the poems of August Stramm, the leading poet of Der Sturm, around 1912; the works of the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov between 1908 and 1915 wherein he experimented with the Russian language, drawing upon its roots to invent neologisms, and finding significance in the shapes and sounds of individual letters, and who along with and Aleksei Kruchenykh originated beyond-sense language creations they called zaum. (3)

In 1913, three years preceding Ball’s performances, Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti wrote a manifesto titled Destruction of Syntax—Imagination Without Strings—Words in Freedom. It is a long document. Here’s a key section:
“…we no longer want the lyric intoxication to order the words syntactically before launching them forth with the breaths we have invented … Moreover our lyric intoxication should freely deform, refresh the words, cutting them short, stretching them out, reinforcing the centre of the extremities, augmenting or diminishing the number of vowels and consonants … This instinctive deformation of words corresponds to our natural tendency towards onomatopoeia. It matters little if the deformed word becomes ambiguous. It will marry itself to the onomatopoetic harmonies, or the noise-summaries, and will permit us soon to reach the onomatopoetic psychic harmony, the sonorous but abstract expression of an emotion or a pure thought.” (4)

But it was Ball who brought these sounds to the performance stage, and into the literary language of the twentieth century.

Following the Zurich performance, in Germany, in the 1920s, an innovative visual artist, Kurt Schwitters, influenced by the Dadaists, began to experiment with poetry. His explorations took him through several modes of poetic expression, including abstraction, word collages, number poems, cut-up poems, juxtaposed banalities (Merz poems). His most famous piece, Ursonate, was begun in 1921 and reached its final form in 1932. It is written in sonata form containing four movements plus an introduction and conclusion. Poetry slips into musical form. Schwitters’ recitations of his poem were described by artist Hans Arp:
“He sang, trilled, whispered, snarled, shouted his Ursonate with overpowering élan, until the audience jumped out of their skins…he hissed, whistled, chirped, fluted, spelled letters. The sounds he made were superhuman, seductive, siren-like.” (5)

The poem went like this, but off the page and into voice:
Lanke trr gill
pe pe pe pe pe
Ook a ook a ook a ook a

Lanke trr gll
Pii pii pii pii
Züük a züük a züük a züük a (6)

Why? Why were they doing this to language, to poetry?

They wanted to shock, they wanted change. The Dadaists created these reactionary art forms that tried not to be art at all, but rather to be guerilla tactics, statements against comfortable, predictable art, against the bourgeoisie, and against war. For the Futurists it was an attempt to reflect a new industrial society. And for Schwitters it was simply another direction in his explorations of aesthetics and artistic media, of reducing and rebuilding.

The artists I’ve named here expanded the definition of poetry in ways that are still felt today. They challenged the notion of drawing room recitations. They deconstructed syntax. They fissioned the word. They thrust poetry forward into the nuclear age.

In the 1940s the painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky wrote in Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art):
“The poet’s task is to manipulate his material so as to efface this outer [denotative] meaning, or at least to permit other meanings to emerge in vibrations that will affect the audience on a spiritual level. Repetition of a word can bring out unsuspected spiritual properties…and deprives the word of its external reference… We hear this pure sound…which exercises a direct impression on the soul.” (7)

Also in the 1940s the first Canadian foray into this realm occurred. Quebec artist Claude Gavreau was experimenting with “a non-semantic language of pure sound.” Yet his influence never reached outside his home province of Quebec. (8)

The next developments of sound poetry came in the 1950s, mostly out of Europe. There were the guttural and screeching Crirhythmes of French sound poet François Dufrêne who improvised without a written score. Canadian artist Steve McCaffery suggests that Dufrêne was “investigating the full range of predenotatative forms: grunts, howls, shrieks, etc.” (9) Richard Kostalanetz in Text-Sound-Texts said: “Perhaps Dufrêne’s textless art is really a species of vocal theatre…” (10)

Also in France in the mid-‘50s poets Henri Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck began to explore the technological manipulation and layering of the human voice through the use of the tape recorder.

Bernard Heidsieck created poesie-action where the human voice is mingled with found activity—city sounds. The poems can be heard on disk or tape, but the term action denotes the performative aspect when the poem is delivered live, with movement and gesture enacted against pre-taped layered backdrops in his poem-partitions. He brings tension and a conceptual component to his performances. One example is his accelerated live vocal delivery, read from a scrolling score fifteen or twenty feet long, as he moves across the stage. This performance seems to become a matter of life and death. A viewer/listener feels the race against time, the suspense, and the battle between the speaker and his words, the artist and his creation. His astounding performances cannot easily (if at all) be duplicated by others. He is spellbinding.

Also sounding in the ‘50s were: the Brit, Bob Cobbing who improvised often from visual gestetner-made scores and with musicians, and/or from no scores at all; and Arrigo Lora-Totino, the Italian who often vocalized through or with a water-horn, a bent silvery tube that he poured water into and used as a prop and instrument, a simple technology.

By the 1960s Composers Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen were exploring the word/music realm of sprechstimme (a form of speaking/singing that can be traced back to German composer Englebert Humperdinck who used it in 1897.)

And in further expansions, American composers Steve Reich, Robert Ashley and John Cage began to use the spoken voice as raw material for musical or electronic manipulation, sometimes using the tape recorder as a compositional instrument. The Fylkingen Group for Linguistic Arts in Sweden also began composing with tape. In a border blur the disciplines of music and poetry meet; a hybrid art grew, and intermedia exploration took place.

American artist and publisher Dick Higgins coined the term Intermedia in 1964 to identify the kind of art presented in Happenings, which he and many other artists—including John Cage and painter Alan Kaprow—began presenting in the ‘50s. Happenings integrated theatre, visual art, text, sound, and sometimes cinema. In a way it was the Cabaret Voltaire of its time.

Intermedia art does not merely combine two or more forms, as in multi-media. Intermedia created a new form out of the integration. Happenings often juxtaposed elements in a non-representational way, with the aim of moving the spectator on an unconscious level, rather than on a rational one. We’ve heard these intentions before—in Dada and in Futurism. The distinctions between art forms were breaking down.

And in the ‘70’s and ‘80s: Canadians began sounding—The Four Horsemen, Sean Ohuigin, Penn Kemp, Doug Barbour and Stephen Scobie; Brits too—Paula Claire, jgjgjgjg; and further afield there were more—the Hungarian Katalin Ladik, the Swede Ilmar Laaban, and American Larry Wendt, to name just a few. The ‘70s were the decade in which I began performing sound poetry.

In 1971 I approached The Four Horsemen with the idea of making a film about them. (We didn’t make the film, but I became a sound poet.) In 1972, after some sound workshops with Steve McCaffery (member of the Horsemen), the workshop group formed an ensemble and we called ourselves Cosmic Handkerchief. We explored vocal and instrumental sound, and in performance we incorporated simple on-stage theatrical elements like chanting in a crouching position in a circle.

In 1975 four writers and friends got together in a framing studio in Toronto to explore making vocal sound. We—Michael Dean, David Penhale, Richard Truhlar, and I—became Owen Sound. Between 1975 and 1984, at first as a quartet, then a trio, our performances embraced the presentation of verbal and abstract phonematic texts, and grew to include conceptuality, gesture, simultaneity, and the performance essay. To expand our theatricality we used props ranging from children’s toys to bird whistles and flashlights; we incorporated choreographed movement. At one time we were wrapped in tin foil and sat static like statues, or like chickens ready for the broiler. On another occasion we wore white masks and drenched one member in coloured paint. On another we ripped shirts off to reveal writing on our chests. We collaborated with other sound poets, and with musicians and with dancers. We staged our own Cabaret Voltaire in 1978 with sound poets and musicians at the Art Gallery of Ontario and at the Western Front in Vancouver.

Between 1983 and ’88, Richard Truhlar and I, performing as a duo, used words, word-atoms, projected image backdrops, conceptual approaches, tape backgrounds, synthesizers, electronic multi-tracking, physical contact, and a robot, as compositional and performance elements.

As a sound poetry soloist, I used my body as a machine, as a target for blows from my own hands; I performed with a bag over my head; I performed lying down.

But almost always, in group or solo configurations, there was the human voice, speaking or spewing, drooling or demanding, whispering or wailing; using verse, words, breath, or atoms from the molecules of words; using music or gesture, humour or pathos, intellect or intuition.

Still we were writers, poets, and when working in this area we still felt like poets. We were charged with the energy of the art of poetry. We were writing poetry with our bodies. If poetry is what poets do, then we were making poetry.

Poetry, after all, was an oral, performed and dramatized art before it became imprisoned on the printed page, and so I am amazed at the sometimes negative comments or side-show categorization that sound poetry attracts. What does sound poetry threaten—the lyric line, metaphor, aesthetics, tradition, formula? I hope it shakes up complacency and safe poetry. I hope it sends small tremors through ideologies of power structures, poetic and social. When I perform sound poems I hope to push meaning and syntax to the limit. To open the form.

Nowadays there are at least one hundred artists sounding worldwide (in twenty plus countries), continuing to work in sound/text-sound/performance poetry. As well, there are Inuit and Tuvan and Tibetan throat singing, the Balinese monkey chant, speaking in tongues, Navajo Horse Songs, nonsense choruses of English folk songs, scat singing, rap, dub poetry, spoken word—many vocalisms, and many people I’ve not identified.

On a recent afternoon I left my house in Saskatoon to go to the store. Two blocks along I passed under a familiar railway bridge. But this time a piece of graffiti jumped out at me and made me smile. It said: “THINK DADA.”


So, here I am in 2016 revisiting my essay on the Cabaret Voltaire and thinking again about these moments, in detail. Interestingly, late last year my spouse gave me a book—Jed Rasula’s Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century, a prompt to ready me to revisit and celebrate the Cabaret Voltaire. It impelled me to once again include sound poetry in my performances, at least for this year, and maybe into the future to try to shake up the 21st century too.

As Raoul Hausmann wrote in Courrier Dada, in 1958:

“When language becomes petrified in the academies, its true sprit takes refuge among children and mad poets.” (11)


1. Flight Out of Time A Dada Diary by Hugo Ball. Ed., John Elderfield. Viking Press, NY. 1974. p. 70
2. Ibid. Paraphrased form p. 70
3. Sound Poetry A Catalogue, Eds. bpNichol & Steve McCaffery. Underwhich Editions. Toronto. 1978. p. 6-7
4. Futurist Manifestos. Ed. Umbro Appollonio. Viking Press. NY. 1973. p. 106
5. Kurt Schwitters. Werner Schalenback. Harry N Abrams Inc. NY. 1967. pp. 214-216
6. Ibid. p. 212
7. Flight Out of Time A Dada Diary. p. xxvi-xxvii
8. Sound Poetry A Catalogue. pp. 16-17
9. Ibid. p. 10
10. Text-Sound-Text. Richard Kostalanetz. William Morrow & Co. NY. 1980. p. 20
11. Dada Art and Anti-Art. Has Richter. Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. 1965. p.    119

General References:
i. Sound Poetry A Catalogue, Eds. bpNichol & Steve McCaffery. Underwhich Editions. Toronto. 1978.
ii. Sound Poetry. “The Capilano Review. #31.” Eds. Steven Smith & Richard Truhlar. Vancouver. 1984.
iii. A Dialectic of Centuries: Notes Towards a Theory of the New Arts. Dick Higgins. Printed Editions. NY. 1978

Other Recommended:
(a) Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century. Jed Rasula. Basic Books/Perseus Books Group. NY. 2015
(b) The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Motherwell. Wittenborn Art Books. 1979
(c) Memoirs of a Dada Drummer by Richard Huelsenbeck. Ed. H. J. Kleinschmidt. Viking Press. NY. 1974

What I Said To Wanda Praamsma About My Poetry

Wanda Praamsma, author of a thin line between, sat down with Steven Ross Smith to discuss his latest book.

Wanda Praamsma: Could you tell me about your Fluttertongue project? Why did you want to create a long ‘life-poem’ and how does Emanations fit in?

Steven Ross Smith: I didn’t think of this as a life-long poem in the beginning—or maybe I still don’t, because its content doesn’t really trace my life. I have lived with the fluttering since the 1990s, and my life is quite a bit longer than that. But then, some of the poems in the first book were written in the mid-1970s and late ’80s. What compelled me as I was working on the first book, which became Fluttertongue 1: The Book of Games, was a realization that whatever I was doing with poetry really had just one predominant, propelling impetus, and that was composing language. I had published three poetry books by that time, but had not seen my work in this ‘new’ way, so it was kind of a revelation. I was very aware of bpNichol’s The Martyrology—his 9-book work (some published posthumously) referred to as a life-long poem—so I suspect that that was a model. Though I knew bp and had many conversations with him, I don’t know if his impetus to use a subtitle was the same as mine (I published the first Fluttertongue ten years after bp’s passing.)
With each of the Fluttertongues there is a different compositional mode or problem or strategy at work. I don’t repeat a method from one book to the next; I try to find a new problem or challenge to respond to with language. As well, my primary interest is not in exploring the ‘I’—that ‘I’ being me, though of course I am there in the poems because I wrote them. I try to let language lead, to get the ego out of the way, to not have intention with the content… but that is, I guess, an intention. But poetry is full of conundrums and compromise, isn’t it? Emanations: Fluttertongue 6 is obviously the sixth book in the series. It ‘fits’ because it is another compositional mode jumping away from or beyond or behind the previous book, which was a series of prose poems about anything and everything along with an underlying rolling text about moss. But with each piece in Fluttertongue 5: Everything Appears to Shine with Mossy Splendour I was working to explore poetic and narrative possibilities—the torque of the prose line and the leaping narrative possibilities, along with a relatively straight ahead document about sexy moss. I was absorbed, in that book and in the previous two Fluttertongues, with multiple and embedded texts. In a way, Emanations takes a simpler approach, a return to free verse form, working with poems that emanate from other poets’ poems, poets and poems that attract me, often, but not always poets I know personally.
I keep thinking that maybe ‘this one’ will be the last Fluttertongue, but I’ve been thinking that since Fluttertongue 4: Adagio for the Pressured Surround. Right now, I think there might be one more, but I’m not sure. I don’t want to get predictable or to fall into a rut. The next work or any after that will have to be viewed (by me) as fitting this mode of compositional exploration in order to be called a Fluttertongue.

WP: All this fluttering—wings going, words joining, pace deepening—how do you catch all this, get it down? I am imagining your mind’s innards—the speed and periods of slow. What is your process like?

SRS: Ha-ha. My mind’s innards might be a strange place… or maybe a boring one. But I try to let language take over my mind, to let words play, to let them associate and dissociate, to let them leap and fall, to let them collide, to let them chime… I try to get my mind out of the way, though of course language is in the mind. But it is also in the body. I really believe that poetry is physical—physical energy liberated though these symbols we call language. I try to make the poetic line physical.

WP: I’m looking at your poem “Lurch,” and its back-and-forth form. Could you talk about the writing, and shaping, of this poem in particular?

SRS: “Lurch” had an interesting ‘growth’ with lots of attention and revision and techniques applied to it, and I don’t even remember any more what it looked like early on. But I began accumulating associative vocabulary around the words and lines in the early draft. Sometimes I went with sonic links, sometimes I applied the Oulipo ‘n+7’ method, and I also used methods I don’t recall now. As I was moving words, deleting, adding, thumbing the dictionary, and the ‘beach and wave’ image (which was there early on) kept insisting itself, I thought of swaying the poem down the page kind of the way a floating item will get pushed up and down and side to side by ocean waves at tide time (or by boat wash). So I rendered the poem that way; it swayed back and forth down the page. But my editor, Phil Hall, suggested that that form and appearance was a big departure from the ‘look’ of the rest of the poems in the collection. So I revisited, and wanting to keep the motion, the buffeting, the lurching, I came up with the final shape and positioning for the poem. As this is Fluttertongue 6, I broke the poem into six line stanzas and justified them, alternately, left and right, keeping a flow, a lurch. I like to read it like a rushing chant.

WP: You’re primarily a sound poet, and gathering musicians and poets has been a focus in your life. What happens when these people get together? Has this happened with Fluttertongue?

SRS: Well, my ‘best’ years as a sound poet may be behind me. Working with Owen Sound—Richard Truhlar, Michael Dean, and Dave Penhale—in the ’70s & ’80s was terrific. We pushed our envelopes of comfort and fear and influence and knowledge, and performed sound and action poetry in various configurations. Then when I moved to Saskatoon—to get out of Toronto’s ‘fast lane’—eventually I found some musicians who were willing to work in both scored and improvised collaborative forms, and I carried on my oral/sound explorations with them for about another decade. I also performed solo sound too during that time. But I love working collaboratively and pushing the edges. I haven’t had opportunities to perform collaboratively now for over a decade. I do still perform the odd sound poem solo, but often I voice historic ones and not the ones I’ve written. Like any instrument you have to keep playing to keep limber. I’ll need to get my lips, throat, and tongue limber once again to really get back into that realm. Nonetheless, my work with sound/action/music performance has definitely influenced my aesthetic approach to poetry. When I create for the page, sound is most important to me and I am almost always thinking sonically; that is, how the poem will sound aloud, because really, I think that poetry is an oral art. The page is just a record. Speaking the poem brings it to life most vitally.
I like to think that, in Fluttertongue, I’m jamming with language, with all my past performer-collaborators wailing behind me.

WP: You bring in The Poet—hero-poet, poet-dreamer, poet-fearful—in third person. I am curious about your vision of the poet in the world. What is the poet’s role—your role? And what are the struggles/joys?

SRS: Yes, I do bring the poet into the poems sometimes. I think that’s just me reflecting on my process, and to a point making the process visible.
It’s hard to say what the poet’s role is in the world, given that poetry receives so little attention in the mass cultural market place—yet it thrives. I can only speak personally. For me, composing language, working the materiality of language, is my main concern. I like to have fun with language, even when I’m serious. I like to stretch beyond my daily thinking. I like to find new challenges. I disregard any notion of a formula for a poem. Each poem defines a formula and it might be unfamiliar. I like unfamiliarity, chance, imperfection, leaping. Yet I’m always aware that I am writing while many voices are speaking—a community of poets, both living and gone. Poetry is a current running through time and I’m there in that current in my small boat, with my sail fluttering. I try to honour that the best way I can.
The struggle is to get the poem right, or to find the right shape for a whole manuscript, and sometimes that happens; the joy is most intense when I do feel I’ve nailed it. And there is the joy of feeling a part of the community of poets and understanding that there is something special that we all share, that connects us, and that may be beyond dailiness, beyond language.

Steven Ross Smith is a sound and performance poet, as well as a writer of fiction and lyric poetry. He has served as publisher/editor at Underwhich Editions, business manager of Grain magazine, managing editor for Banff Centre Press, and as editor of the online magazine Boulderpavement. He has been publishing books since the 1970s, and was a member of the legendary sound poetry group Owen Sound. Smith’s book fluttertongue 3: disarray won the 2005 Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award. The chapbook Pliny’s Knickers, a collaboration between Smith, poet Hilary Clark, and artist Betsy Rosenwald, won the 2006 bpNichol Chapbook Award. In 2008, he became Director of Literary Arts at The Banff Centre, where he served until February 2014. Smith currently lives in Banff, Alberta. Connect with Smith at or on Twitter @SonnyBoySmith.

Wanda Praamsma grew up in the Ottawa Valley in Clayton, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds, and Feathertale, and several literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in The Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She has worked, studied, and lived at various points in Salamanca, Spain, Santiago, Chile, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and has travelled to many places in between and beyond, including Cuba, India, and the Balkans. Praamsma currently lives in Kingston, Ontario. Her debut poetry book, a thin line between, was published by BookThug in 2013. Find Praamsma at or connect with her on Twitter @wpraamsma

On Birk’s Road: Remembering Birk Sproxton

Today I stumbled upon a piece I wrote in 2007 about Birk Sproxton, shortly after his passing in March that year, at age 63. It’s about Birk and the Hanson Lake Road in Saskatchewan. I never published it.

As we celebrate new work and writers young and older — that community of like and disparate beings — who are starting or continuing to write, it is important to recall those who have passed on, whose work is/was important to us. So here’s my nod to Birk.

On Birk’s Road

I can’t remember now where I first met Birk. I’d heard of him and his book Headframes through bpNichol in Toronto in the ’80s. I might have heard Birk read around then in Toronto. Or I might have first met him at a writers’ conference in Winnipeg in the early ’90s. After whatever first meeting we had, he kept turning up where I was, or I was nearby and able to turn up where he was — at other conferences, at Sage Hill Writing Experience, at a reading at the University of Regina, and elsewhere. Wherever he was, he was a spark.

He invited me for at least three occasions to read or be a writer-in-residence at Red Deer. He has also invited my wife Jill Robinson to similar posts, as he did recently for the May 2008 residency. She said that “it will seem strange, so strange, that Birk is not there.  We will miss him very much.” He had passed on between his invitation to her and the residency dates.

I’ve always enjoyed my time in Birk’s proximity. He had a lively and determined energy and a generous heart. I thought he’d be with us forever. Well, he remains with us now, through his published words, and in the memories of we lucky ones who got to know him.


I’ve driven the Hanson Lake Road in Saskatchewan a number of times — with Jill, our son Emmett and with my Mom, Ruth, as we’ve all travelled to visit our friends — writer Dave Carpenter and his wife, the painter Honor Kever — at their cabin at Little Bear Lake, east of Prince Albert, then a few hours north on the Hanson Lake Road. The road goes north then north-east from Smeaton to the Manitoba border at Flin Flon, and is also known as Highway # 106.

After I’d driven that route a number of times, Birk published Phantom Lake: North of 54. In that book, a story called “Hanson Lake Road Begins in Smeaton” caught my attention. It’s a terrific and vividly funny tale — is it fiction or non-fiction? It tells of a character who sounds like Birk — and a wife named Sally. They have a misadventure that unfolds in Smeaton as the male character is about to set out on the Hanson Lake Road heading for Flin Flon. If you haven’t read it, please do — I’ll tell no more, but leave it to you to discover or reread, and enjoy.

I will be travelling that road at the end of this month, and many more times I hope, to go fishing with Carpenter. I will pass through Smeaton. It’s a tiny place and you can’t miss the Co-op Gas Station or the Hotel that are featured in Birk’s story.

On my trip and every trip thereafter, I’m sure I’ll see Birk, the story’s (quote) “old guy” with the broken leg getting out of the blue car, clutching his crutches and crossing the road to answer a surprising phone call at the Smeaton Hotel.

I’ll stop at the Co-op for a few minutes, then head up the Hanson Lake Road — I’ll consider it ‘Birk’s Road’ — and I’ll travel it thinking of him.

Monumental book on art and the technology of writing

From Gerry Shikatani’s Recent Facebook Post:

On October 6, the international book world celebrates the publication and release of a monumental book on art and the technology of writing. The Art of Typewriting, edited by Marvin and Ruth Sackner is a hardcover volume of 350 pages and over 570 illustrations, reproductions of typewriter art by creators from around the world that are in the historic and remarkable Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. That such a book will now be available is something long overdue and artistically significant. And that this extraordinary book is from one of the world’s most renowned publishers of fine books on art, Thames and Hudson, assures that the art of typewriting – one sector of concrete poetry and poesia visiva – will be established in the pre-history and history of the creation and evolution of the technology of language and writing.

Among the countless artists whose works are included: Bernard Heidsieck, Paula Claire, Bob Cobbing, Augusto De Campos, Jean-Paul Curtay, Jiri Kolar, Yoko Ono, Charles Bernstein, Ian Hamilton Finlay, d.a. levy, Thomas Merton; and several Canadians including Paul Dutton, jw curry, Daniel F. Bradley, bpNichol, bill bissett., Steven Ross Smith, Damian Lopes, Shaunt Basmajian. (I am honoured that I share such company with two works of mine from 1980).

Above all this is a living document of the singluar dedication, love and generosity of Ruth and Marvin Sackner who have travelled the world to assemble their collection and thus ensure these works will be safeguarded for lovers of art and writing, and scholars.

The book will list at $70 (U.S.), but is currently available on pre-publication order from online booksellers for about $50 (U.S.).

“aka: bpNichol” Biography by Frank Davey

aka bpNichol by Frank Davey (ECW Press, Toronto, 2012)

pb, 338 pps. ISBN 978-1-77041-019-0 also issued as a PDF & ePub

Frank Davey seems in an ideal position to write a biography of the late bpNichol. He knew Nichol personally in the ‘70s and ‘80s; Davey’s wife Linda acted as Nichol’s agent for a period; Davey was aware of the Therafields psychoanalytic/social community of which Nichol was an important part; Davey and Nichol associated with many of the same writer/peers; Davey has written critically on the work of Nichol.

Davey has produced what is subtitled “a preliminary biography,” leaving room for much more to come, possibly, from his pen or from others.

Any biographer must determine an approach to the life examined and written about. Frank Davey has chosen to put heavy emphasis on a psychoanalytic approach, playing, to a degree, analyst to bp’s psyche. The temptation to this approach is understandable, as Nichol was openly involved in Therafields, a Toronto psychoanalytic community, first as a client of founder Lea Hindley-Smith (no relation) and then later as a therapist with, and vice-president of, the Therafields organization. Davey interprets much of Nichol’s writing as a clear window into, and reflection of his psyche, perhaps understandably, as bpNichol foregrounded autobiography in his poetry.

aka bpNichol is already a controversial biography. According to Davey’s notes, bp’s wife and custodian of his literary rights, Eleanor Nichol, at first collaborated in the research for the book; however she eventually withdrew support over disagreements in interpretation of bp’s works and notes. Davey says: “One of Ellie Nichol’s principal objections to this book is that it takes seriously Barrie’s various declarations that much of his work is built on autobiography” (p. 302, n.7). As a result, Eleanor denied Davey “permissions . . . to quote or include photographs of previously published Nichol material, including most of the material in his numerous notebooks and extensive correspondence (p.viii).” Though many friends and associates of bpNichol assisted Davey, others have, reportedly not done so, taking issue with Davey’s interpretations.

Several writers before bp – for example Fernando Pessoa and Gertrude Stein – have played with autobiography in an artistic way, employing details not always to be interpreted as fact. Obviously this can create difficulties. Such ambiguities are found in Nichol’s work, and can even be found in aka bpNichol. For instance, Davey quotes a late passage from The Martyrology which at first seems to reinforce bp’s biographical insistences: “It is what binds books together, these motifs and concerns, the trace of a life lived, a mind” (p. 298 – emphasis mine). But how factual can a trace be considered to be?

Nichol left a surfeit of ‘life notes’ behind, a rich repository which, of course, invites interpretation. Nichol was an avid note-taker, keeping notebooks, jotting down ideas, concerns, projects, dreams, and drawings. Davey has accessed and perused these notebooks (mostly held in Simon Fraser University’s special collections) thoroughly, it seems, despite lacking permission to quote directly. He tracks Nichol’s emotional matrix as presented in notebooks as well as in the finished poetic work itself. From these sources he makes many deductions about the content, context, and influences in Nichol’s works. It is worth noting that Davey offers a kind of dual Nichol: Barrie (Phillip) Nichol the person and bpNichol the writer. I’m not sure that the split can be so distinct, so clearly delineated, as in whatever setting, Nichol was known interchangeably as Barrie, bp, Beep, Beeper, though his authorial name was always bpNichol.

I too was associated with Therafields for about six years, and am aware of many of the analytic processes applied there, as well as the community’s aspirations and its flaws. I was a good friend of Nichol, and considered him a mentor. I was a part of ‘artist marathons’ led by bp and fellow therapist Grant Goodbrand, and I had a relationship with Nichol that was based on both literary and therapeutic concerns.

The Therafields foundation was centred in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood from the early ‘60s to the mid-‘80s. Nichol was involved with Therafields from 1964 to 1986. Therafields operated with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories as the primary influence, but with other psychological and social thinkers of the late 20th century woven in, including Edmund Bergler and Wilhelm Reich. Clients of the therapeutic process explored their ‘family dramas’ and repressed emotions (due to traumatic childhood incidents which our psyches couldn’t cope with) and the (mostly negative) influences of those on our present lives. Sessions took the form of client-therapist one-on-ones, group sessions, and retreats.

As I look back on those days, I see that valuable personal truths were revealed to many of us, but the term ‘drama’ could most certainly be applied. I now think that some of those emotional complexes were overdramatized. Hence I think that bp’s musings and note-takings at the time have to be taken more lightly today. Davey gives bp’s ‘life notes’ more weight than they ought to bear, especially those probings into Nichol’s ‘family drama’. As I got to know Nichol in the early ‘70s and ‘80s, he was more concerned with and engaged in the present than the past. I felt uncomfortable reading some of Davey’s profiling and deductions recording Nichol’s psyche. For example, Davey makes much of Nichol’s fear of being in a relationship with a woman, and relates this to childhood fears Barrie apparently had around his mother Avis. I recall a time when such fears were a big theme in relationship analyses in Therafields. It seemed that we all had this condition, or we thought we did, and maybe we did, or maybe not. I observed only complete comfort and dedication in bp’s relationship with his wife Ellie and daughter Sarah whenever I visited them in their home.

Davey deals extensively with problems in the Therafields organization, which most certainly affected bp significantly, and accurately portrays the resulting stresses in bp’s life – stresses more wearing than I or many who knew him were aware of. As the Vice-president of the Therafields corporation, Barrie was often the man-in-the-middle, trying to resolve opposing forces, trying to keep the entity together – trying to facilitate accord between the group of disaffected therapists, and the growingly dysfunctional corporate structure. This is the role Nichol took, too, in The Four Horsemen sound poetry group, and with Coach House Press as group dynamics in those places disintegrated. Davey covers these disintegrations well. Nichol was the ultimate diplomat, working with his humour and personal skills to solidify the whole. It is painful to read accounts of such efforts and to recall the toll it took on bp and his artistic work. Yet, somehow through it all, bp still managed a prodigious creative output.

I found Davey’s representation of the evolution of bp’s works to be the most valid and essential part of the book, but felt it deserved even deeper critical investigation by Davey. I was reminded of and amazed by the restless range of bp’s artistic imagination and his ideas for projects. That work ranges from the multi-book poem The Martyrology to the ‘cartoon’ drawings, the concrete work, the critical explorations (mostly with Steve McCaffery), and the sound poetry (mostly with The Four Horsemen). Then there are the television scripts (Fraggle Rock, Blizzard Island, etc.), the publishing endeavours (Coach House Press, grOnk, Ganglia, Underwhich Editions), the ‘transcreations’ such as Translating Translating Apollinaire, musical theatre scripts scores and productions (‘Group,’ ‘The Gargoyle’), “Pataphysical explorations, children’s books, and even his ideas for board games.

Davey’s interpretation of Nichol’s mythic, poetic ethereal home – Cloudtown and its saints (St. And, St. Ranglehold, etc.) and sacred poetic material – words – and the evolution of this paradise and its inhabitants is perceptive. I must say I was completely surprised to learn of Nichol’s fixation with completing the manuscript ‘John Cannyside’, which would remain incomplete and unpublished. Davey notes “Barrie’s devotion to this repeatedly uncompleted Cannyside project, and to autobiography in general, was now close to obsessive” (p. 240). Can we take this as evidence of Nichol’s intention to telling his own story in all his writing? I think not, just as we cannot take The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid as autobiography; it is the product of a creative imagination.

For me, much of reading aka bpNichol involved reliving aspects of my life in the ‘70s and ‘80s – those lived in the circle that bp touched. This included, of course, events leading up to bp’s death. Davey’s reports the development of bp’s back ailment.

I recalled bp’s days of discomfort and the concern that many of us had for his condition, never realizing then the price that would be paid for a faulty diagnosis. I also recall how Nichol laughed through much of that time, how he gave his energy generously to other writers, and how he kept fuelling his creative processes, despite his agony. Throughout aka bpNichol Davey neglects to discuss Nichol’s prodigious generosity, how he could deeply touch or affect writers wherever he appeared, and how his confident humility made everyone he met feel engaged and comfortable.

Davey has done his research. He covers the scope of bp’s engagements in many projects and communities, with accuracy and economy. The problem is that Davey fails to separate fact from fiction, reality from imagination, in a satisfying way.

When Davey becomes the psychoanalyst, he treads on questionable ground. Nonetheless a reader senses that Davey does hold Nichol’s work, and the man, in high regard. As this biography concludes, one detects a mildly honorific tone to Davey’s words, suggesting that bpNichol and his work lay claim to a significant place in poetry’s history.


A Visit to Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poetic Garden

Little Sparta formerly known as Stoneypath, is a work of art and a garden—seven acres set in the rolling Pentland Hills about forty kilometers outside of Edinburgh, near Dunsyre, Scotland. It was a long-term project of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the reclusive Scottish artist and poet, who died in 2006, and it now lives on through the Little Sparta Trust. The garden combines tended and wild grasses, plants, and water with what can only be described as language events—poems, names, citations, and images set on or into physical structures and sculptures large and small. Artistic, poetic, moral, historic, and philosophical themes run through the garden landscape as readily as the streams and ponds that flow and ripple across the countryside. More than 275 artworks blend with the landscape and create a multi-dimensional experience. The visitor’s eyes stir with the views, and the mind resonates with meanings and associations evoked by shape and language in this intersection of words, sculpture, and horticulture. It is an all-natural, awe-inspiring experiential poem.

Finlay created this garden over twenty-five years after moving there with his wife, Sue, in 1966. His vision of the place was realized in collaboration with Sue who was the garden’s planter, and with stonemasons and letter-cutters. Within the site there are ten distinct areas, including the Roman Garden, tree-shaded and with six stone works on plinths; the Temple Pool Garden, with two stone temple buildings, and Finlay’s former residence, and a nearly still pool that mirrors the foliage and the art works surrounding it; and the wilder Lochan Eck Garden which edges on the pond where Finlay’s white dinghy still sits among the shore grasses – along with a wooden rail inscribed with the word “PICTURESQUE.”

I wander the natural paths and come upon a stream. I cross it on a pair of parallel wooden planks, each about six feet long, and each with the words “THAT WHICH JOINS AND THAT WHICH DIVIDES IS ONE AND THE SAME” running in opposite directions. I come up over a rise to encounter a series of six stone walls, each about six feet long and waist high, with a line of a metamorphosing poem embedded into each one. The poem ends with “HORIZONS LONG” and “FOR LITTLE FIELDS.” I discover a low white-clapboard beehive inscribed with “SWEET PROMISE” on a top board beneath its low-peaked roof. I find a flat slab of smooth square gray stone set in the grass inscribed with a lovely sonic verse: “THEY LIGHTLY SKIM / AND GENTLY SIP THE / DIMPLED RIVER’S BRIM.” These are just a few of the discoveries that await the visitor on this transcendent afternoon – moments of peace, awe, wit, and wonder, and moments beyond verbal description.


This excerpt is from “Growing in a Poet’s Garden: A Visit to Little Sparta” by Steven Ross Smith, was first published by Poets & Writers Magazine (January/February, Volume 43, Issue 1, 2015). Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poets & Writers Inc., 90 Broad St., New York, NY, 10004.


New Poetics Reader Just Published

About four years ago in my role as Managing Editor of Banff Centre Press, I attempted to initiate a book on poetics to augment the writing art & craft ‘how-to’ books already published by the Press. I had a few conversations with potential editors, but to no avail … until Vancouver poet Fred Wah agreed to take it on. He brought on British poet Amy De’Ath (now living in Canada) as co-editor as he wanted to include a younger sensibility with another perspective besides his own. The result is more even comprehensive and exciting than I envisioned.

Toward. Some. Air., published this spring, in 343 pages, features more than 40 pieces by over 50 writers, Canadian and international, pondering the art of poetry through many lenses – social, aesthetic, interventive, indigenous, digital, conceptual, and more.

Peter Jaeger writes, in the book’s ‘Contextual Essay:’ “The anthology’s title suggests a sense of movement, a direction ‘toward’ a breath of fresh air – perhaps even toward the sign air as a metonymy for psychological, physical, and social health … this anthology is marked by polyvocality, poetic and theoretical responses to the body, and a shared interest in politics.”

It includes Andrea Brady, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Jeff Derksen, Michael Davidson, Lisa Robertson, Caroline Bergvall, Nicole Brossard, Keith Tuma, Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland, Sina Queyras, Daphne Marlatt, Sean Bonney, and more.

Available from Banff Centre Press or Literary Press Group/LitDistCo, or your favourite book seller.