“nostalgia to me:” Reading In/Words Chapbook Series 8

Between August 2008 and April 2009, In/Words Magazine & Press released two issues (8.1 and 8.2), and twelve chapbooks under the guidance of chapbook editors Peter Gibbon and Cameron Anstee. Near the end of the academic year, the ottawa small press book fair (summer) was looming on the horizon, and us In/Words editors took that as a challenge. The plan was to throw all twelve chapbooks into packages, and sell them as a whole: a sort of instant one-year subscription. We had a pile of large cardboard shipping envelopes, and one of us knew where to buy large letter stamps. It was doable, and it was going to be fun, and it was going to be important.

In/Words Chapbook Series 8

We decided to collect or reprint copies of all twelve chapbooks, and have twenty “subscriptions” ready and numbered in time for the book fair. A few of the chapbooks were still plentiful in our office, and others would have to be reprinted. Somehow, this became a months-long project for myself, Anstee, Gibbon, and Jeff Blackman.

In the forward for the collection, Gibbon writes: “location… seems to be one of the few concrete themes of this series.” It’s true that, aside from being a bunch of young writers, the contributors don’t seem to have a load in common. What makes In/Words Chapbook Series 8 a whole, aside from the shared envelope, and the traces of sweat from the hands of a few inexplicably motivated editors? My hope here is to find out why – or if – these chapbooks are worth reading four years later. Find out if this large envelope contains any revelations, or clues towards these writers’ futures.

Cameron Anstee’s Remember Our Young Bones was the first chapbook of the Series, published in August 2008. It is dedicated to “Jenn.” “All poems are yours, none is enough,” he writes in the acknowledgments. Anstee has dedicated most (if not all?) of his chapbooks to the same person, which makes these love poems that much more beautiful and acute in hindsight. Other dominant themes in this chapbook – the geography of the body, the geography of Ottawa, poetry itself – are still in Anstee’s system four years later, and will probably remain there. Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Fallen Ghazal:”

down to the smallest parts
and quick now through the fingers

it’s cold out
but our room is very warm

words we have,
words we have poem is poem itself

Compare that to this excerpt of the sequence “First Law,” published in the anthology Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry (ed. Susan McMaster, Scrivener Press, 2010) a couple of years later:

body is energy is body

want no distinctions
no thing between skin

the energy produced
by the movements of a substance’s

atoms

it is cold out
but our room is very warm

it is cold out
our room is warm

All of these poets have improved their craft, but the process of improvement is most explicit with Anstee’s work; a new Anstee poem often drifts on the contrails of an old one. In/Words Chapbook Series 8 can be seen as a playground of sorts, in which we all figured out what we could get away with and what we couldn’t. Strong, resonant themes and ideas (and lines) were discovered, then carried into the world beyond campus.

Ghazals, for that matter, were happening everywhere that year. Many members of the In/Words community – myself not included – had taken Rob Winger’s seminar about the Canadian long poem, and developed an understanding of the ghazal. Copies of John Thompson’s Stilt Jack were lent around, and that book was a regular fixture in barroom conversation. I’m still not sure if I can make heads or tails of the ghazal. From what I’ve gathered, it’s sort of like a high-concept art film, refusing to offer the comfort of a tangible narrative. Justin Million’s No Good Hiding Space doesn’t contain explicit ghazals, but the form’s sensibilities shine through. The following excerpt, from the poem “Printout found after an Ottawa hydro station became self-aware on Nov. 7, 2008,” demonstrates the heights of experimentation to which Million entitled himself:

MOSTLIKELYGLORIOUSSUFFERSTHESAME/ABOUTBEINGDISJOINTEDU
NTILSHITCAN’TSTICK,LIKECHANCEINADECKOFCARDS,POSSIBILITYBAS
EDINTHEENDLESS,OVERSLOWBURNINGPLANETS(WHENSUNSEXPLORE
ASEXEXPLODINGOVERHEAD)SOWEAREspaceWHITERELIEVED,LIVINGW
ITHTHEMOBSBECAUSEIT’SASOCIALSTAIRCASEWHEREWEGETUSED/RE
CEIVETHOUGHITWILLSOONBEOVER.CHURCH&SNOW,LIPS&ETERNALS
UFFRAGE&POORWAGES,EVENOVEREXPORTEDANTIVIRALMEDICATION
SKNOWWEALLGODOWN.

Thompson is one of many Canadian writers from whom the Carleton writing community derived inspiration around this time. In the afterward of Mark Sokolowski’s chapbook Dust in the Water, the author clarifies his effort to “engage with Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston,” and admits that the work of Al Purdy “was in the back of my mind during the writing of these poems.” The amount of Canadian literature that fed these books speaks of editor-in-chief Prof. Collett Tracey’s influence. Her undergrad courses ignited, or fueled, passion towards Canlit for many students (myself included).

Indeed, In/Words Magazine consciously acknowledged the legacies of Irving Layton, Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster when it first began. This influence has diminished slightly over the course of thirteen years. It’s the curse of the campus magazine: every few years, there’s a whole new editorial board. In/Words has gone through a handful of mandates, though collaboration and the promotion of Canadian literature have been consistent themes.

The chapbooks of Jeff Blackman, Peter Gibbon and myself demonstrate the extent to which the In/Words community was, if I’m honest, writing to and for each other. Many Series contributors attended the campus writers’ circles every week, as did other members of the community who didn’t happen to publish chapbooks through In/Words that year (notably Rachael Simpson, Kate Maxfield, and Bardia Sinaee). The writers’ circles often ended with a trip down to Mike’s Place, where we’d continue our never-ending dialogues, and further iron out each other’s projects. Blizzard, a collaborative book of poetry and prose by Jeff Blackman and Peter Gibbon, is the goliath of the Series. Blizzard takes the press’s fixation with Canada one step further (or rather, one step closer) by making Ottawa its subject. The Ottawa of Blizzard is a city of baseless politicians, lost souls, and forgotten histories. With the notable exception of Blizzard, it must be admitted that social issues are rarely addressed in the Series as a whole.

Gibbon and Blackman intentionally left their individual pieces unattributed. When I asked Gibbon why he and Blackman made this decision, he told me that he figured everyone would be able to tell who wrote what. Apparently Gibbon hadn’t given much thought towards the possibility of a stranger reading the piece. This exemplifies the awareness many of us had towards our very small readership. When I was writing Dust and the Colour Orange – a twenty-part sequence about a pack of Belmonts, with one poem for every cigarette – I asked Gibbon and Blackman to contribute poems of their own. It was a passive-aggressive way to remind them that they’d bummed so many of my cigarettes. Again, the act of collaboration gave a book its soul. (The singer-songwriter Gaby Wilson, now based in Toronto, contributed a poem to that chapbook as well.)

Other Series contributors derived inspiration from a number of writers outside of campus, outside of Canada. The three sections of Lindsey Woodward’s Huckster Piss each begin with an epitaph from American author Henry Miller. Her poem “Icicles:”

Remember that time you tore the dawn in two
shoved half in your pocket and gave the other to me?

You wandered off, dragging the morning behind you
like a fist lost deep
in a burlap sack

If I could have stopped time in that one reckless moment
I think I might have filled that still frame with icicles
just to rip hot skin from my tongue
and watch blood burn clean holes through the snow.

Saintliness/Slowdive by Jeremy Hanson-Finger is a pair of short stories. Hanson-Finger’s inspirators were (and are) plentiful, and this chapbook’s flipbook format brings Mark Z. Danielewski’s ergodic fiction to mind. “Saintliness” is black text on white, and “Slowdive” is white text on black. Hanson-Finger got two different artists to provide the two covers, and mail-ordered blank vinyl-EP covers in which to present the book. Rest assured that the substance matches the style – but instead of trying to articulate the depth of Hanson-Finger’s prose, I’ll just provide a link to his delightful short story “Goodbye, Base Eight.” It was self-published as a chapbook in 2009, though not as a member of this series. Hanson-Finger’s first book is coming out through 8th House Publishing later this year.

“Goodbye, Base Eight.”

In terms of presentation alone, Saintliness/Slowdive embodies the sense of experimentation that I mentioned earlier. The chapbooks of Christopher Neglia and Kyrie Kristmanson are similarly playful. Neglia’s Lo-Fi Poems incorporates colour photography by Dan Morrison, and Kristmanson’s Myths of the Body unfolds as an elaborate pamphlet. From her poem “croak:”

She tells me to stay after class
Do it again!
This time opening all your orifices
to the possibility of song!

I should tell her to consider the frog
who inhales a perfect circle
through every pore
but still only sings one note

Considering Kristmanson’s talents as a songwriter, it’s surprising that these are poems in their own right, instead of lyrics without music. Kristmanson has continued to meet success as a musician, and is now based in Paris, France.

Blemish by Leah Mol is the Series’ only chapbook of creative non-fiction. It’s an incredibly self-aware tour through the darkest echelons of one particular psyche. Uncomfortable desires and horrible decisions abound here. The subtext, for me, is the fact that we’re all horrible sometimes, and only some of us (like Mol) are cognizant of it, and articulate about it. I cannot think of a more urgently confessional book. Mol is now pursuing a creative writing degree at UBC. From Blemish:

I want to be Sylvia Plath with her head in the oven. Janis Joplin overdosing in room 105 of a shitty hotel. Elizabeth Wurtzel addicted to Ritalin. Marianne Faithfull found by police on a drug search, wearing only a fur rug. Virginia Woolf writing the loveliest suicide note and then filling her pockets with rocks. Kate Moss photographed snorting an unidentified white substance on billions of magazine covers.

My own chapbook Nuuk certainly fits under the category of confessional writing as well. So does so it’s the first really warm day by jesslyn delia smith. Her poem “chocolate:”

your cigar it
smells like
sweet chocolate and
nostalgia to me
as i am
enveloped
in your arms and your
cacophony
and more sentiments
of you

For the sake of comparison, here’s a much more recent poem by smith called “carling,” taken from her website, where she self-publishes many of her poems:

we took a really long
drive down
carling, because carling
is so damn long
and you needed the break

i can’t legally drive
but it was a good time anyway

at the end of the
street is a school
and we parked on the side, i
talked you through while
your nerves
sank like keys in my purse
you rolled down the windows

when you were my age
you killed an eight year old girl

you couldn’t stop and she
died on the street in front of her house

now you are old
and on morphine and telling me this
so i’ll carry your pain

instead i’ve stopped
having hallucinations, fantasies,
of much older men, and i don’t
drive cars
and i don’t drive on carling

I think there’s been some undeniable development here, though I’m struggling to find the words for it, and I should probably just let the contrast between the two poems speak for itself. I consider smith’s trajectory an adequate delegate for all these authors’ trajectories. These authors are hiding, and confiding, and biding their time.

After lots of formatting, printing, photocopying, risographing, collating, folding, stapling, stamping and stacking, In/Words Chapbook Series 8 was eventually ready for the small press book fair. We sold a few copies, covering production costs and the price of the book fair table. And that was really something.

In/Words Chapbook Series 8 Contents

IN/WORDS CHAPBOOK SERIES 8 (August 2008-April 2009)
Eds. Cameron Anstee and Peter Gibbon.

8.1: Cameron Anstee, Remember Our Young Bones. August 2008.
8.2: Kyrie Kristmanson, Myths of the Body. September 2008.
8.3: Lindsey Woodward, Huckster Piss. September 2008.
8.4: Ben Ladouceur, Nuuk. October 2008.
8.5: Leah Mol, Blemish. October 2008.
8.6: Justin Million, No Good Hiding Space. November 2008.
8.7: Jeff Blackman & Peter Gibbon, Blizzard. January 2009.
8.8: Ben Ladouceur, Dust and the Colour Orange. January 2009.
8.9: Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Saintliness/Slowdive. February 2009.
8.10: jesslyn delia smith, so it’s the first really warm day. February 2009.
8.11: Mark Sokolowski, Dust in the Water. February 2009.
8.12: Christopher Neglia, Lo-Fi Poems. April 2009.

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