Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Elegy of Now: Jeff Latosik’s “DreamPad

     “We have to postulate a fiction. // I could follow what is real down to its furnaces.” In his latest bracing poetry collection, Dreampad, Jeff Latosik loops childhood memories, samples clearance sales and photostreams, and remixes a world gone, “so boho, but it can also go all doorknobs// on you.” These doorknobs, if the reader chooses to turn them, open onto meditations which resist closure and openly question the authority of the personal lyric, as Latosik orders and shapes the ephemera of now, the present moment, troubleshooting existence by showing how conditional our lives are.

     The first thing readers notice when digging into this book is its sheer size but there is no dead-weight to be found. His first poem “Dreampad”, which is also the title of the collection, is breath-taking in its sweep and scope.  

It’s this calendar I’ve dislodged and am playing
like a simple music grid controller.

It’s the past, plus all I’ve sleep-talked
and confused with what took place

and it starts out with a pulse of light click-tracking
across time and space. I gather up some days

and make a living beat to layer over. Then the grid
populates as memory, which has reverb

and you best believe it has attack. Myself, age eight,
coming back from a vacation that my mother

and stepfather had themselves dreamed up
heading in the same direction for the last time

and I’ve got a salamander hidden in my hand.
I want to make a commune for the part-pond things

but when I look again it’s just a smear of red
like I’ve wrenched down a nebula.

My stepfather looking out onto the highway
must have felt the same thing when he understood

my mother would be leaving—some general lack
over which the world comes tumbling again.

Hence, a trick I like to do. I make all that isn’t
come to in a half-life of being dreamed and as I do the days

patch through in a way that’s hard to damp and fade.
Strange, though, my remixing’s not my stepfather getting clean,

or my mother finally getting to live beside the Atlantic.
I feel it in my hand sometimes, like a rubber band

has tightened in my wrist, but I play better than I once did
the older that I do. I missed something that made my life.

     The trick this poem is doing is taking the speaker’s experience and not rendering it sequentially but “remixing” it with memory, making “a living beat to layer over”, as the speaker boasts, "I make all that isn’t //come to in a half-life of being dreamed”. This suggests memories are not so much what happened but are more a by-product of the moment we are living. He admits in the poem’s conclusion “I missed something that made my life” which reads like an elegy to both the past and the present.

     In another poem in the collection ”The Fortune You Seek Is In Another Cookie”, this theme of celebrating the pursuit of meaning while simultaneously mourning its loss as  ephemeral, continues with the speaker admitting “What you think should be is often in another life, not this one”. The ending of the poem is particularly salient when the speaker's suspicions about meaning are realized while they are sorting through memories and experiences: 

 Let’s say one night you were sorting through everything
that made you realize you weren’t the person you thought;
somehow you’d sliced through the thin adhesive strip
that separates each thing from where it should have stayed.
Perhaps you’d walk through every room watching sunlight
slow-tsunami the parquet with its lone blend of everything that is,
plus a cleaving quiet. And you might come to rest on a view
of somebody sitting on a stoop outside waiting for news
of a friend who’s not now suddenly so far. Or even far-gone.

      Latosik has a deft gift for phrasing with lines like “watching sunlight // slow-tsunami the parquet with its lone blend of everything that is”. He writes just as eloquently whether it is in tercets or quatrains or long meditative block lines.  

In a later poem “The Great Illusion”, Latosik writes “Our everyday sense of being // evicted from the real and true for a few electric shivers.” Clearly, this is what Jeff Latosik is doing in his latest poetry collection DreamPad. An elegy of now, this book shows how precarious reality is as it interrogates our private lives within the public realm. Pick up a copy from your local bookstore and read these poems for yourself.

By Chris Banks

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Waiting and Finding

     So you have finished your next collection of poems and you are left to wonder what next? Every poet knows this feeling as a deathly silence takes hold and the words begin to evaporate. There is no rule as to how long one should take between books but from my perspective I get worried when I take longer than three years.

     However, there may be good reasons for being patient. Sometimes the voice you have carefully buffed, finessed over a couple of slim volumes, begins to change on you, and it takes time to figure out what is meaningful about those changes. For myself, I have little interest in writing for the sake of writing. I have to feel like I’m staking out some new poetic territory for myself, or if I’m returning to my favorite triggering subjects, I’m writing about those subjects in a new way.

     I’ve written long syllabics and surprisingly surreal poems, thoughtful meditations and slap-stick lyrics, but what to turn my attention towards next can sometimes be a mystery. I certainly do not want to force a subject, a poem, an image. I would rather wrestle an angel. Friends suggest reading the new darlings of the poetry community, or going back to earlier influences for inspiration, or maybe heading out to a reading series to hear poetry spoken aloud, but ultimately new work comes when it is ready.

     When I am writing well, I feel like the language is literally spilling out of me. I write quickly and passionately. I feel the rightness of every word and every line break. I am not one of those people anymore who does twenty drafts of a poem. If I knew how to channel that manic energy required to write, I would clearly do it because I feel in command of my life when I’m writing and bereft when I’m not.

      I worry about my life choices when the silence takes over and I’m forced to wait for the next surge of poems.

    What gets me through the hush-hush of times when I am not writing are my kids and those poets who have written far more eloquently about such things than me. Here is a poem by Jack Gilbert I return to, again and again, when the quiet becomes overwhelming:

 Waiting and Finding

While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tom-toms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.

By Jack Gilbert

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Reckon by Steve McOrmond

Steve McOrmond’s new poetry collection Reckon with Brick Books attempts to shake readers out of a modern malaise filled with Big Gulps and 911 calls, storm warnings and sitcoms, packages of lozenges and the “fake” cheeriness of others. Like the snowflakes magnified on the book’s cover, a reference to McOrmond's poem “The Photographer of Snowflakes”, these poems hold seemingly mundane moments up to the light to show how they are anything but familiar.

The first poem “Pastoral” sets the stage for the whole collection as it finds poetry in “the lavender notes of a Glade plug-in” and “a refrigerator on defrost, chirping like crickets in a field.” It depicts nature, a “raccoon lurking in the alcove outside my front door”, interacting with an indifferent city whose “parkway is congested, as always” and whose buildings downtown are “decapitated by fog”.

Notable poems in the volume are many. I am partial to the poem “I Want To Love More” which really encapsulates how the poet McOrmond pushes back against run-amok corporate capitalism and its anaesthetizing effects on people. Here is an excerpt:

To admit that at dawn the city is nearly adorable,
Rubbing sleep from its eyes. The shoe repair guy
Flips the sign in the window, lugs a five-foot-tall
Red fiberglass cowboy boot to the curb.
The barista stifles a yawn. Above it all,
The crane operator has the best seat in the house.
To grasp before I go what any kindergarten
Teacher knows: you can make anything
With glitter, hearts, and glue…..
……My mixture
Isn’t right; I can never quite shake
The loneliness of living in this serene republic,
The longing that nests in the names
Of racehorses: Waiting on a Woman, Dusty Lane
Galaxy, Escape The News, Nurse Thy Bitterness.
Oh I do. Black coffee, dry toast on a chipped plate.

(from “I Want To Love More”)

This is simply first-rate writing. Other stand-outs from the collection are “For the Beauty of Winona Ryder” and “Pure Outrage”. In the wake of Facebook’s data-breach, a poem like “We Like You For This” feels especially pertinent speaking to a surveillance state who wishes to know the very minutiae of everyone's life in the way the poem catechizes rapid-fire questions:

The evidence is circumstantial. We can neither confirm
nor deny. Do you know your fanily history? Are you prone
to mental infirmity? Have you ever been confined
in a prison or similar institution? Does God communicate
with you through visions? How’s that
working out for you? Have you suffered? Would you say
you have a tendency to aestheticize suffering?

(From “We Like You For This”)

Steve McOrmond is not so much staring into the abyss as he is a modern witness searching for the source code that underlies sad songs, all-inclusive vacations, office cubicles, Rorschach tests and over-worked waitresses. His brand new collection Reckon is out from Brick Books and can be purchased at your local book-store.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Even Better Than The Real Thing: Authenticity in Poetry

Well, Poetry month is only two weeks away so thought I would break out of my comfort zone and write an essay on authenticity in poetry. It is an exciting time in Canadian poetry, lots of new poets, lots of new voices, but try to get someone to say what makes for a good poem and many just stare at their shoes. 

I asked, “What is authentic in poetry?” on social media and got replies running the gamut of gentle mocking to language mumbling. 

Why is it so hard to nail down, to use an over-worked metaphor, what makes a good poem? I suppose, for one, what is considered particularly good or vital or inspired changes over time. Some poetry like wallpaper doesn’t age well. Theodore Roethke once said the task of an artist is “to enter the mind of his contemporaries” but I would add to that the artist needs to avoid the sheen of contemporariness. Can this be done?

The contemporary poem right now is unconcerned with syllabics or meter or enjambment. It cares little for poetic influence, whether something is Audenesque, or smacks of an older Canadian poet, for it seems bent on convention-slippage, emotion as the source of lyric power, its own subjective experience as default home, but perhaps most of all, unpredictability to escape the familiar and to court the fantastical.

This is a generalization, for sure, but suspicions have grown up among younger poets around traditions and practices, and I think Dean Young is correct when he advocates for a “poetry of recklessness…moving through the calculations of the rational toward irrational detonation.” (12) Perhaps this is indeed the spirit of the age. Where previous generations of poets stood against the absurd, this new one embraces it as a source of power or conflict. 

And why not? When my own generation could not make up our minds about the worth of prose poetry, say, or fought ridiculous narrative versus formal style wars, new poets are moving beyond such navel-gazing. Gone are the days when you could write eloquently about picking black-berries. In a world of rapid-fire newsfeeds, perhaps we need a poetry of hair-trigger associations, less concerned with the rightness of a metaphor, and more messily embodying the way we think in an age of smart phones.

Yet the question persists: “What is authentic in poetry?” I kind of miss the angle-boy gun-slinger poetry critics because at least they argued furiously about such things. 

I wonder if it is a fear of criticism that makes younger poets gravitate towards not obfuscation, a poor word choice, but to the point where there is a loss of control and the poem spins out into strange territories. Larry Levis once said, “a lot of young poets don’t want to be understood because they feel when they’re understood they’re dead. That only comes from the fear of criticism – the vast inhibition they get from reading critics who, because the can understand something, simply decide not to deal with it”(Antioch Review; Summer 90, Vol. 48 Issue 3, p. 284, 16 p).

I hope Levis is wrong as this seems a rather cynical view, but it is something to consider when reviewers talk in platitudes instead of engaging with what a book of poems is attempting to do.

So far, I haven’t answered my own question about authenticity in poetry so I will attempt to put down some thoughts and ideas on the subject here:

1)    First of all, I agree with James Geary “that biological experience forms the basis of metaphorical thinking” (88) and “metaphor grounds even the most abstract ideas in the physiological facts of our bodies”(96).  As much as we sometimes wish, we cannot escape our bodies and minds. Try to escape the first person singular. Good luck to you. Donald Hall has reasoned, “a poem is human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem”(142). Hello, hello, anybody home?
2)    Whether you call it intensity of experience or anxiety of being or a conflict of disparate things, subjectivity versus objectivity, past versus present, the inside locked into battle with the outside, no poem is going to exist without it. You cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room.
3)    Hayden Carruth has suggested “The metaphor must arise naturally from the things of the poem”(225).  You cannot shoe-horn surprise into a poem, nor meaning. They come on their own or not.
4)    A poem must enhance our lives in some way – spiritually, intellectually or emotionally - if it is indeed poetry. Call me romantic, or old-fashioned, but I cannot get past this sentiment and I hope I never will.

These are the ideas I keep on the top shelf when I am attempting to write meaningful poems. I think they are immune to the whims of poetic fashion. When I asked people what is authentic in poetry, I guess I wanted people to get passionate. To yell, “The best poems are like magic! Spell-casting! They change us. Or haunt us. If only we are so lucky!” Dave Smith has said, “the poem of “the real thing” will have to embrace the moving targets any man or woman is in time”(251). Perhaps we are all too busy or too distracted to consider such things, but then someone shares a poem on twitter, or you read the first poem from a debut collection, and you find yourself transported. That, above all, is authentic.  

Monday, January 29, 2018



I thought about eternity until God turned up dead
in a textbook. Capitalism wears its tuxedo over
a blood-stained t-shirt. I like genius al dente.
Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. His sneakers
scuffing the canvas. I wander this intermission
between Ted Talks and the Apocalypse. I’m 
obligated to tell you my sadness is a private desert.
Optimism pirates broadband from a small oasis.
Halo or aura? My migraines are real. The world
is a chrysalis full of oil spills and hiccups and missing
children, and yet, something is materializing…..
All new monuments come in primary colours.
My voice is bronzed. Being brain-washed sounds
like a nice vacation, but how I would miss out
on all this not knowing anything! Anger
can be turned into a hammer if held too long.
A memory is a precious stone. Try not to hit
one with the other. The emitting sound
emanates through decades. Hurts your children.
Your children’s children. The play is over.
You sift the narrative. Someone was in love,
then wasn’t. Someone gained some valuable
knowledge, then died. The actors stand around
waiting for you to leave the building. If given
a choice, I suppose I would take a waterfall
over Xanax. Beauty demands fealty. Sometimes
you have to close your eyes and fire all flares.  

By Chris Banks