Thursday, November 01, 2018

Celan Translaboration

I've been making "translations" by a process of running poems through Google translate (and sometimes using an N+7-like process) then tidying up or editing the results. It's a bit I Ching-like or like Cage's writing through acrostics.

 In these translation poems, I'm using the "translate" technique to create for me a resonant pile of phrases and images (a "heap of broken images"?) which I can then shape by exploring this open field of associations which didn't derive from me. Of course (like Cage choice he sources and techniques) I made choices about what to translate and which languages to use and how long to keep translating. Then there is an awareness of the initial poem informing my decisions as well as, of course, the range of my aesthetics--what I consider "working" even if it is beyond my logical understanding.

For me, it's a way of simulating collaboration without collaborating (not that I don't collaborate a lot too.) Maybe it's "translaborating."

Here's one from Celan's poem "Flower" (I don't know who did the original translation into to English. I got the poem of

it’s the wind where I'm going

eyes, like night, are stones

everything black: 

we see the word

flower—a word for darkness

your eyes upon me

like summer

your heart on a wall of hearts

another word like a name for disease

the government of dawn renews

Friday, October 12, 2018

Wilted Vegetables and Hope: two new reviews of NO TV FOR WOODPECKERS

Great to have a new review of my poetry book, No TV for Woodpeckers in Canadian Literary. Much thanks to MLA Chernoff for writing it. Intriguing and an honour to considered beside Robin Sarah and Richard Harrison.

And this other really great review by Michael D. Sloane appearing in The Goose. It is so rewarding to have such a thoughtful and intelligent reader.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Lillian Allen's new single on which I got to play saxophone!

The brilliant Lillian Allen releases a new single. Super catchy & grooving as well as insightful--woken and unbroken.

What a thrill to get to play saxophone on this! This is part of a project creating by Gregory Betts, Lillian and me which is in development.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

How much of the air

How much of the air is inside humans at any one time—inside kings, lungs, mouths, teachers, police, the dead? What if everyone inhaled at once? What would happen to birds or clouds? How would it sound? Then we all exhale. Some of us into inflatable mattresses.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: a novel-in-progress excerpt

I write and ask myself is the remembering mind a kind of ghost, drifting, no longer bound by time or gravity, as if twilight or reality had gathered into a cloud? Imagine a ghost returning to the place where it once lived. That place would seem a ghost to that ghost. Nothing the same. Everything haunted. As if seen through gauze. Of course it would seem that way: it’d be seen through a ghost. But gauze is apt, for a ghost’s past is a wound and the ghost is a dressing, a consolation, instead of us returning with no veil, the past in full colour. Haunting, though unsettling does not excoriate like reliving, like the mind returning, like a living wound. 

A living memory. Shares a circulation with the body, with the lived life, with the present.

Writing this story, both a kind of haunting and an opening of a wound. Or its investigation. 

When asked, my grandfather said he would never return to Lithuania. “There’s nothing there,” he’d say. Nothing but the eviscerating presence of what wasn’t there, he meant. That wound. His family. The village. His childhood. Leaving it for another life in Africa. There was too much there if he returned. There was too much was there. Without the possibility of change.

You can drown in memory if it’s not like a wave, if it’s a still pool, unchanging, stagnant. If it’s not in circulation, like the blood. 

And what is a wave?  I search online: Do waves move the water with them? 

They don’t. The water stays in one place, like the past, energy moves through the water, across the ocean, creating waves. My grandfather travelled across the ocean, from Krekenova to Bristol and from there to South Africa.

I had lunch with my cousin. We were speaking about our great-grandparents. He’d been looking through an online archive from Panevezys where they’d lived. He was sure that he recognized our great-grandfather in the jittery film, being chased down the street. Soldiers standing beside old cars, men in long dark coats, our great-grandfather beaten with a stick, clutching his head.

Monday, July 30, 2018

A response to Pasha Malla's "CanLit's Comedy Problem."

There's a wisecrack in everything.

That's how the light gets in.

Pasha Malla wrote an insightful critique of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Literary Humour in the Literary Review of Canada 
examining his feeling that this medal rewards anodyne humour which is mostly white and male and is indicative of the received notion of mainstream CanLit's idea of humour in general. Basically, I agree with Pasha about this.

Except about me. (More about that, further on.)

I was entirely delighted last year to share the 2017 shortlist with two remarkable writers who I are really brilliant and brilliantly funny: Drew Hayden Taylor and Amy Jones. So the three of us: one Jew, one Indigenous person and one women. Something like one bourbon, one scotch and one beer. You can decide who is which. 

My father-in-law, not knowing that Drew Hayden Taylor was Indigenous, looked around the room at the Leacock gala and quipped, “I guess we’re the diversity here.” 

I was very grateful to have won the award that year. I was touched and honoured.

I was glad to see this year’s shortlist comprising three women: Jennifer Craig (Gone to Pot,) Laurie Gelman (Class Mom,) and Scaachi Koul (One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter). (Jennifer Craig ultimately,won the prize.) However, looking back at winners from years past, I agree with Pasha that historically, the lists were predominantly white and male (and I'd add non-disabled and non-queer) and that the humour was more Horatian than Juvenalian. Gentle satire about the quirks of mostly white Canadians.

But I do hope that as its recent long and short lists indicate, that the Leacock medal is moving toward an award which reflects contemporary Canada rather than the narrow world which Leacock himself might have considered. (I found an interview where Drew Hayden Taylor—certainly one of the wittiest and funniest people and writers I know—in a brilliantly ironic and pointed move, quoted Leacock saying that Indigenous people were entirely humourless. That’s just hateful, stupid and entirely wrong.) The very notion of prizes is fraught, but a prize becomes entirely meaningless if it doesn’t notice or reflect its world. 

Now that we’ve got that niggling issue of representation, let me talk about me. Pasha writes: 

There have been a few aesthetic anomalies among Leacock winners, most recently Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates (2017), and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2012). These two novels stray from the Leacock formula in some respects—Barwin’s postmodern adventure story is narrated by a Jewish parrot; deWitt’s postmodern Western suggests a Coen brothers/Cormac McCarthy collaboration—but, like Sunshine Sketches, both are situated in worlds so predominantly male that the homosociality borders on parodic. The novels do, in fact, muck with genre and gender conventions, but they still exemplify Leacock’s tendency to centralize masculine nostalgia, here for the swashbuckling and gun-slinging of boyhood fantasies.

If I didn’t respect Pasha so much, I wouldn’t respond. But I’d like to say a few things about what I at least hoped to do in the novel.

I hope that my novel does more than “stray” from a Leacockian model. It was intended to be a satire on post-colonialism and an examination of genocide — both the Inquisition and then on Imperialist genocide of Indigenous people. I was happy when S. Bear Bergman wrote in the Globe that it was “the funniest and most engaging book about a genocide I have ever read.”
Though there is a range of types of humour in the book, I was most interested in the idea that  humour isn’t just a distraction or entertainment but helps with survival both physical and spiritual. I wrote from the belief that humour is one of the great human technologies of survival and of hope. I hoped that much of the humour reflects the optimistic pessimism and pessimistic optimism of Jewish humour specifically. I also intended the humour—the parody and the satire—in the novel to critique, and reveal the prevailing social norms of the day, and to cause the reader to question and interrogate issues relating to colonialism and Indigenous people many of which continue to be important today. Humour can unpack, can discomfit. I hoped for that. 

What's worse than finding half an worm in your apple.

The Holocaust.

I deliberately parodied tropes and stereotypes — of Jews, heterosexuality and of Indigenous people. For example, Yahima — who says she won’t be anyone’s (even the Jewish pirate’s) “Pocahontawitz”is intended as a parody of the Pocohontas trope: the beautiful Indigenous woman who falls for a European hero. When all the white and/or Jewish men are mired in their colonial capitalistic patriarchical nonsense, she just leaves Moishe (the Jewish pirate) and returns to the sanity of her people. I also hoped to explore PTSD, despair, the horrors of genocide (and racialized murder) and the moral responsibility of witnesses and those who might be complicit. (A Jew escaping pogroms and the Inquisition finds himself witness to the horrors of colonialism. What is his moral responsibility?) I hoped that this did more deep work, and less gentle work than Leacock and the whimsical charms of writers such as Stuart Maclean--though I've always read his turkey cooking story as an allegory about hetcis normativity where the oven is the patriarchy and Dave is an obvious stand-in for Judith Butler.

Why don't Jews drink?

It dulls the pain.

Pasha writes that the book exemplifies “Leacock’s tendency to centralize masculine nostalgia, here for the swashbuckling ... of boyhood fantasies.” I’m not sure I understand this. The entire premise of the novel is that it may be an elaborate yarn told by a possibly immortal gay pirate and includes trauma, genocide, and an ambivalence between storytelling, the responsibility of witness and memory versus forgetting and being free. They search for the Fountain of Youth. Maybe it will allow them to be immortal and continue to be able to bear witness to the genocides they’ve seen. Maybe they will become young again and free from the burden of memory and witness. Also, made as it is from a patchwork of plundered texts and tropes (i.e. the parrot tells the story by borrowing other stories—Treasure Island, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, etc.) the very questions of truth, nostalgia and authenticity were meant to be challenged. It’s about being aware that your memories and identity are about the tension between your “authentic” self and a construction made of received tropes. The book was intended to challenge received notions of identity constructed through language and narrative. None of this sounds like nostalgic boyhood fantasies to me.

One last thing,  Pasha writes that the book takes place in a world “so predominantly male that the homosociality borders on parodic.” When writing the novel, I was extremely aware of the maleness implicit in traditional pirate narratives. Indeed, this was part of my agenda in using pirate narratives and connecting them to patriarchal imperialism and colonialism. I worked to include powerful people who weren’t simply male, white and heterosexual while at the same time parodying some of the heterosexual macho tropes of pirate narratives. My gay African grey parrot “parrots” much of them as he tries to find language to be part of the human world. He spends a lot of time trying to be a swaggering swashbuckling pirate-human and jokes about his testicles. Eventually, he manages to navigate through to a more authentic notion of his own identity.

There were some powerful women active in the historical period my novel is set in and they are included in my narrative. I think it wouldn’t be useful to go through all the women that are integral to the narrative. In truth, I hope it is quality and significant not quantity that defines their importance. In writing, Yiddish for Pirates, I did work to try to ensure that women were represented—that I found historical examples—in what could easily have been an entirely male-dominated pirate world as in most pirate narratives.  A couple of examples. Doña Gracia is a central part of the Spanish section of the book. She is the merchant responsible for rescuing many Jews from the Inquisition and the events centre around her. She is the matriarch of the resistance. Queen Isabella, while parodied in her role as monarch, is clearly a decisive woman who determines policy according to her own will. Her husband, King Ferdinand is clearly subordinate. 

I’ve mentioned Yahima, who is an important part of the Carribean sections of the book. She is initially responsible for rescuing her people from a murderous Spanish incursion and eventually joins the pirate crew. I tried to make her act on her own terms as an independent and strong individual.  There is also a scene where three Indigenous woman deliberately enact a parody of the classical Sirens in order to attract, capture, and seek revenge on some Spanish men. I hoped by using parody, by satirizing both the male and the colonial gaze, to explore these issues. 

One more thing: Regarding Jewishness.It's true that Jewishness is often subsumed with "whiteness" and often Jews do and can assume the social privilege of whiteness in the dominant culture, but obviously that's very contingent on the place and time. For example, I'm currently researching the world my grandparents escaped from: Holocaust Lithuania. And Jewish humour--as has been written extensively about—is a distinct manifestation of our culture and social and historical position. 

Ok. Enough doing what I never do and shouldn’t do. Respond to a review of my work. I did want to make these points about my novel. And I did want to write to also agree with what Pasha Malla wrote regarding what has been considered Canadian literary humour in the past. I am looking forward to seeing the remarkable books that will be recognized by the award (and other awards) in the future. I feel we are at a very fruitful and exciting moment in the opening up of CanLit. There are so many brilliant, exciting and—yes, humorous—books being published in Canada, and books which reflect the great vibrancy of our complex and polyphonic place and time.


If you're interested, here's the speech I wrote when I won the award which discussed the importance of humour and the things that it is able to do beyond entertain.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Listen to the Farkakte Bird, Bubula. He Has a Story to Tell (a Yiddish for Pirates review)

This is a very sweet book. It really left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart. I picked it almost at random from the library website because I have been reading a lot of heavy stuff and I wanted something funny to cleanse the palate a bit and, well Yiddish for Pirates sounds funny. It did the trick, but there is a really good, strong story here too.

A lovely review of Yiddish for Pirates from a great bookclub, Cannonball Read (CBR) which is "an online, memorial book challenge to read and review 52 books in a year (or 26 or 13) with a mission to donate profits to the American Cancer Society. We’re essentially a virtual book club where participants read what they want and write what they want, all while shouting to the world,  “F— Cancer!”"

Here's the link.


Image: my homage to Kenojuak, the astounding Inuit artist and her iconic Enchanted Owl.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Watermark: Cootes Paradise, Natural Urban and the Urban Natural Environment.

I’m in a small cove, a bight, a calligraphic curl in the shoreline, amidst lily pads, floating logs, water striders and the intermittent glurp of surfacing fish. I’m trying to remain as quiet and still as I can. I’m kayaking in Cootes Paradise, a kilometre from where I’ve lived in Hamilton, Ontario for nearly 30 years. 

Lake Ontario Waterkeepers has a project, The Watermark Project where they invite people to write something about a body of water that is important to them. I've written about Cootes Paradise, a marsh that is near to where I live and where I hike and kayak and about in interconnectedness of the urban with the natural world.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Refugia: The Ontario Election, the Griffin Prize, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and a poem about rage.

The news in the current Ontario election is terrible, but the news from the Griffin Poetry Prize—that Billy-Ray Belcourt won the Canadian prize (and his heartfelt speech) was such a salve. This is the Canada I want, not what happened in this election. My friend, the artist Svava Juliusson, asked me to "Write me a poem about trying to hold on to the rage (that other place), the alternative is seductive (a future gone)." Here's a first attempt, a beginning of something perhaps. The poem is after Billy-Ray Belcourt's Ode to Northern Alberta with awe and admiration and, I hope, with non-appropriative humility. Thinking and learning about how the body -- the queer Indigenous body certainly, but also any body -- is embodied, embodies history, time, and power relations.


“the future is already over…that doesn’t mean we don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Billy-Ray Belcourt

Here, no one is ready

for the morning’s fist
I kill myself

likening myself to the physical
or the future
We worship the act of worshipping

the difference between
get used to getting used to it
and burning that shit down

My body imagines what isn’t there
tremors a nest of bees in a beatless heart
We wrap our rage in a warm bed

set the house on fire
Now we can’t tell the difference between
a warm bed and a burning house

Look to the smoke
The sky is not near
a forest made of ash and smoke

and yet we build houses
history made of ash and smoke
and yet love and anger survive

I refuse the body they give me
or the names for the space around it
I refuse the mind
this morning, evening, burning day


Thursday, April 19, 2018


I ask myself what am I remembering? And why? There’s an ocean to remember, a storm at sea, and I’m telling the story of a single wave. Now to make these words a boat for the reader and me. Then we both dive in. Oh there goes my perfect hair. Then my skin is washed off and I’m all bones, bobbing around in the surf. Reader, help me gather my bones.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Mud steps and birds: Escarpment as Muse

Cornelia Peckart, Tor Lukasik-Foss, Amber Aasman, Donna Akrey, Lisa Pijuan-Nomura and me have created Escarpment as Muse, an art project involving an installation of works inspired by the Niagara Escarpment and culminating in a multi-media performance. I'm performing text and music works and I also composed the above piece of music based on samples that I recorded on the Bruce Trail (the Escarpment). Some of those I translated (using a pitch-to-MIDI converter) and made piano and marimba parts. There's lots of squishy mud sounds as well as birds. Lisa Pijuan-Nomura will dance to the work.

The whole shindig takes place in the Hamilton Public Library's Central Branch on April 15th. Here's the link to the event.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Anna Akhmatova: Instead of a preface

Instead of a preface:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone "recognized" me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the supor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
     "Can you describe this?"
     And I answered: "Yes, I can."
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

Anna Akhmatova from Carolyn Forche's anthology Against Forgetting.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Two New Chapbooks!

A two-chapbook day! Just released: collaborative work with Tom Prime and published by ’s above/ground press

if you want to order via the publisher, paypal rob mclennan $6 (or, outside of canada, $7) at and he'll "totally send you a copy."

Interviewing Peter Carey

Last Monday, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Peter Carey about his latest novel, A Long Way from Home.  I thought the novel was fantastic and Carey in person was warm and relaxed, thoughtful and funny. The interview was part of the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon series at the Toronto Reference Library. It'll be posted here soon.

Here's how I introduced him before the interview:

I’m so pleased to be here tonight.  Thank you all for coming for what I’m certain will be a marvellous evening with the marvellous Peter Carey.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we’re on the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee, Anishnabe, and Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, and home to many diverse Indigenous peoples. The territory is also part of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant. We are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on this territory.

And perhaps I should also acknowledge before our conversation, that, it’ll be two white guys who amongst other things will be talking about indigenous issues.

Peter Carey is the author of fourteen novels, including Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang both of which received the Booker Prize. Among other honours, he has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. 

He was born in the town of Bacchus March in Australia — coincidently, the very same place that the Bobs family in his new novel call home. And it’s a further coincidence that, like the Bobs family, his parents also owned a car dealership in the town in the 1950s. Peter Carey has, however, lived in the US for many years. 

In Oscar and Lucinda, we read about Oscar’s father, Theophilus Hopkins. We learn that “You can look him up in the 1860 Britannica,” but “it does not tell you what he was like. You can read it three times over and never guess that he had any particular attitude to Christmas pudding.”

Peter Carey’s new novel, A Long Way from Home doesn’t tell us about anything about his attitude toward Christmas pudding, but, the novel, which he says “is the novel he spent his whole life not knowing how to write” explores some of the perennial themes of his writing: parenthood, love, journeys into urban spaces, the bush and the outback, history, legacy, ideology, settler colonialism, immigration, and the nature of power, identity, knowledge, truth, loss…and car dealerships. In many ways, it is the culmination of his previous concerns, but also marks a  new concern: a deeply thoughtful and sensitive reckoning with Australia’s brutality toward the continent’s Aboriginal people.

To quote the author, “I am 74 years old. It’s about fucking time I did this. I could have had a heart attack last week, or last year, or two years ago and would’t have done it. I prefer to have done it.”

But the proof is in the pudding. A Long Way from Home is hilarious, moving, and profound, filled with compelling characters and vivid and captivating storytelling.

Here’s a quick intro to the book, lifted from the publicity materials. A Long Way from Home opens in 1953 with the arrival of the tiny, handsome Titch Bobs, his beautiful petite wife, Irene, and their two children in the small town of Bacchus Marsh. Titch is the best car salesman in southeastern Australia and has an overbearing father. Irene loves her husband…and loves to drive fast. Together their enter the Redex Trial, a brutal endurance race around Australia, over roads no car is designed to survive. With them is their neighbour and navigator, Willie Bachhuber, a quiz show champion and a school teacher who’s been fired from his job. He calls the turns and creek crossings on a map leads them without warning away from the White Australia they all know. And then…well… I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s say the car doesn’t hits an iceberg and sink and they don’t drop the ring into avolcano and save the world. But perhaps we can talk about what develops toward the end of the race.

I’m truly honoured that we have the opportunity to have Peter Carey with us tonight to talk about the book. He’ll begin with a short reading and then we’ll have a chat and after that, there’ll be an opportunity for you to ask him some questions. 

Please join me now in welcoming Peter Carey. 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reading at Moon Milk!

Write lightning shoots out of our skinless heads!

Hamilton reading with S.K. Hughes. 

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Art Exhibition: Quantum Typography

Very happy about this: My QUANTUM TYPOGRAPHY series is now an art exhibition at the Central Library at Hamilton Public Library. (The book, published is available at Mixed Media Hamilton) and from Timglaset.) Thanks to Nancy Anne McPhee

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

New poem: “we make our lives by what we love”

Very happy to have this new poem up at Toronto's all poetry bookstore knife | fork | book site.

It involves John Cage, love, sex, loss, sparrows, Merce Cunningham, Medieval Chinese texts, and an anechoic chamber. 

Thanks to the inimitable Jeff Kirby for posting it. The John Cage line, "we make our lives by what we love," put me in mind of Kirby. 

Monday, February 19, 2018


A new poem of mine up on George Murray's always interesting

I wrote it  after the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

And yeah, “poetry makes nothing happen” but it is one part of us processing things and thinking through the experience together.

And if you haven't seen it, watch the remarkable speeches and interviews by the teen survivors of the shooting, powerful voices calling for change and refusing the status quo attitude that its a political gridlock. The link also links to ways that one can help.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Broken Light (an art exhibition), the Hebrew Alphabet and How Letters Unmake the World

Last night was the opening for my art show, Broken Light, an exhibition of images bases on letters from the Hebrew alphabet. The show was curated by the great Lisa Pijuan-Nomura in the Reading Room of Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton.

I've created a webpage of all the images and how to order them as well as webpage of my talk about the exhibition, the Hebrew alphabet, mysticism, and how paying attention to letters can unmake the world