Vallum Poem of the Week: “Transmutations” by Anthony Labriola


Not when, how or why, but what for, and where to,
in the face of chaos and expansion,
from the Big Bang to an Unheard Whimper—

            All Things Counter, Original, Spare, Strange2
are rigged in our favour or we wouldn’t be here.
Something will come from nothing: nothing to water,
water to a single cell, a single cell
to a fish, a fish to light, light to a word,
a word to a world, a world to an equation,
an equation to a book, a book to a talking
snake, a talking snake to a bone, a bone
to a flood, a flood to a raven, a raven
to a dove, a dove to a nail, a nail to a stone,
a stone to a tree, a tree to my body, morphing—
           A stargazer lily becomes a hat,
a hat, a submarine, a submarine,
a drone, a drone, an arrow, an arrow,
a running shoe, a running shoe, a spool,
a spool, a revolver, a revolver,
an island, an island, a ship, a ship,
a notebook, a notebook, a theory, a theory,
a Great Ape, a Great Ape, a revolution,
a revolution, an evolution,
an evolution, a new word, a new word
becomes your body, only evolving—
           The second transmutation: a mastodon
into a flea, a flea into a brain,
a brain into a bomb, a bomb into
a chess piece, a chess piece into a fortress,
a fortress into reptiles, reptiles
into leaves, leaves into bees, bees into
Darwin’s finches, Darwin’s finches into
cubes, cubes into a coastal town, a coastal town
into a seashore, a seashore into
black-and-white squares, black-and-white squares into
your body and my body, still evolving—

1 Transmutation of species or Transformism describes nineteenth century evolutionary notions for how one species changes into another and predates Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

2 Gerard Manley Hopkins

Anthony Labriola’s poetry includes: The Rigged Universe (Shanti), Sun Dogs (Battered Suitcase), Invisible Mending (Anaphora), and The Blessing of the Bikes (Anaphora). His prose includes: Devouring the Artist, The Pros & Cons of Dragon-Slaying, Poor Love (Anaphora), and The Japanese Waltzing Mouse (Cranberry Tree). Birds & Arrows will appear soon.

To view other poems published in our upcoming issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.


Vallum Poem of the Week: “Wood-Cunning” by Medbh McGuckian




Only your eye, your silver eye,
Seems to have no sex, its deep look
Of dreamy greeting, the sense
Of a small bouquet
In its weaker folds.

Your lips, a glass book
Smelling of the glass,
And of beautiful women resting
Their weight in silver and gold
On your acute youth.

The paths of your voice,
Plentiful and warm,
Make love a second begetting
On a hill near the court, silver-footed
As your preference for unrest.

But the vellum is so buckled
In the apple of your throat,
If your lips were to expire
In a tight dark strap
Tomorrow night,

The echo of having known you,
Chieftain-to-be and amateur poet,
Would travel together with every
Legal and official kissing
Like a spear barely missing a plait of hair.

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Featured Interview: Erín Moure.

Where Language Lives: A Conversation with Erín Moure
Interview by Francesca Bianco

Image result for erin moure

Francesca Bianco: I’ve often noticed that critics write about your preoccupation with language. Is this true, do you always gravitate towards writing about language? Perhaps there is simply a tendency for your audience to presume this impulse. Either way, Language with a capital L: the thing that supposedly makes us feel secure, the institution that makes us believe we are all on the same voyage. Though there are many ships to embark on. What happens when you translate a poem? What is lost or gained? Especially in poetry where every line holds equal freight?

Erín Moure: I write “about” many things! But I am always conscious of language, which is and is not mine, and which bears cultural, social and ideological weights. My awareness of this doesn’t make me feel all that secure! A poem or text cannot, in itself, be translated. I can only translate my reading of a poem at a given moment. The ciphers that are the poem must be translated through my eyes and mind and body. Something powerful can cross over. Since the ideological and social fundaments of the language into which I translate are not the same as those of the language from which I translate, there is a lot that cannot cross over. Only, perhaps, be explained. Though I find explanations usually diminish the situation, so I tend to avoid them. And go for the visceral and intellectual transfer: what languages share, because people share. And discover, or uncover correlates to the words that can transmit the poem into the other language. That’s a process of translation that a machine can’t emulate!

FB: Signification is a fascinating concept, that there is the word and then there is what that word signifies. When trying to go for what languages share, do you ever find yourself grasping for unattainable words or teetering towards incomprehensibility? Do you ever feel like you are performing ‘Adam’ in the act of renaming and redefinition?

EM: You squirm. It is infinitely fascinating. I don’t feel I am playing Adam, I am just chorusing. My voice bounces back off the wall, or is drowned in the sweater of the person beside me. 

I feel rather that I teeter toward what is just on the far side of comprehension, to expand our powers to comprehend. And to listen.

FB: Virginia Woolf set out to express “life itself” in her writing. Henry Miller looked for “the vital thing” when thinking about his writing although never quite knowing what this thing was. I wonder if for you there is a vital thing in your writing, something that has to be there for it to work. Tell us what moves you to write.

EM:  Movement in language that takes me to a place or space that differs (and defers) from what language has been able to do, an opening to a “something else” that perturbs what I know or think I know.

There’s a vitality in that process that can’t be matched!

It brings me back to thinking about translation again, for in translation that
space can often be reached or touched; that space of unknowing yet of

FB: Yes! You are pointing towards the capacity for language to transform or recreate reality. We just need the tools to unlock the box.

You have also spoken about the importance of “resonance” in writing poetry. Can you elaborate on what “resonance” means to you?

EM: Resonance means to allow language itself the room to project, glow, move, refract without trying to pin down words to one meaning, without trying to shut down meaning (which is always multiple and full, contradictory and incomprehensible) into one narrow track so as to valorize “the author” or “the author’s voice.”

For the writer, it involves listening to the reverberation of sounds and senses in the words they call on and learning from them, and going where they point. And revising, but much later on, once the work has had a chance to grow.

FB: Yes, words yearn for collaboration, we long to close the gap between ourselves and the world. In Gertrude Stein’s words, “I like the feeling of words doing/ as they want to do and as they have to do.” What happens though, when words fail us?

EM: Ah, many things, including more words! Words fail us all the time; it is part of their role, and their beauty. They show us the betweens and the movements instead of closing gaps, really.

FB: Can you speak more about “poetry as material practice”?

EM: Words look beautiful, letters are beautiful. We can move words about on the page and they mean differently, we hear them differently. I mean, I guess, letting language speak and listening to it, while regarding the page or screen as a physical support and its spaces as part of the poem that we are engaged in writing.

It means being able to work with the differing resonances in words that we move or adjust on the page, listening to what happens rather than trying to “express ourselves.” Which is always a diminution of what language is and can do.

It means also thinking of the embodied nature of the voice, and of the instruments of language articulation, of performance (in the sense Judith Butler might give it, and in the most obvious sense).

FB: Along with translation and other concerns, you have also considered the female experience in your writing. I’m thinking here of the particular poem, “The Beauty of Furs” and “The Beauty of Furs: Site Glossary” in WSW (West South West), a distinctly feminist text. In those poems, language became an attempt to construct female identification to the body in a world defined under the precepts of a catholic and therefore patriarchal reality. This reads in the poem not only as what one must put on—physically through the furs, but also what women endure by giving birth. It is an extremely powerful poem. Do you begin writing a poem as a domestic space that must be ruptured or subverted? Or do you simply want to express female experiences for others?

EM: I think these spaces around one (the domestic) are always already under rupture; I try to let those ruptures be visible without sealing them over in a lyric whole (though I do not dismiss lyric, quite the contrary). And I go with Galician poet Chus Pato, to write a poetry that produces and does not simply express. Productive, rather than expressive.

FB: Adding to this, you and Robert Majzels translated some of Nicole Brossard’s poems for Vallum’s last issue. What is the importance of representing or bringing to light another female poet’s work that may not be read if English is the reader’s only familiar language?

EM: Brossard’s vision of world, being, language, female and lesbian sexuality, earthly destruction, the possibilities for movement among the young, the febrility of one person thinking and being in a street beside other persons, is an amazing vision to bring into English. And to bring into a shared English created not just by myself but by “the person” who exists in language thanks to a working relation between Moure and Robert Majzels.  And then, of course, Nicole Brossard herself reads those words we wrote aloud, as her words. She has a big audience in the English-speaking world.

In fact, Brossard’s feminist work has long been critical to readers and writers in English Canada and, more recently, in the United States, in Mexico, in Catalunya, in Spain, in France, in Belgium, in Italy, etc. Her early and brave speaking of lesbian desire and the effect/infect/refract of that in culture and language has made the work of the rest of us women of my generation possible.

Translating Brossard into English is a gift. I just do it to share that gift with others who need gifts in our terrible economy of commodities.

FB: Your reflection on Brossard’s work reminds me of Phyllis Webb’s “Naked Poems”. Did Canadian poets such as Webb, P.K. Page, Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen pave a path for you as a writer? Are there still discrepancies in being recognized as a female writer in a male-dominated field? What else makes your work possible, female or otherwise?

EM: As you yourself say, the field of publishing, and reviewing, is still male-dominated, and I find that situation worse elsewhere than in Canada, though things have also slipped somewhat in Canada. Slip and rise. We need more people, men and women, like recently appointed Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland, and like Lemon Hound’s Sina Queryas, who are determined to keep an eye on the proportions and make sure women’s work doesn’t fall by the wayside. We also need more writers to ask questions when they are invited to events, and to suggest other writers when the gender balance is too lopsided. Both women and men need to point out when imbalances exist, and not be complicit with them.

That said, reading poetry by P.K. Page and Margaret Atwood, Phyllis Webb, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Miriam Waddington, Elizabeth Brewster, Claire Harris, Anne Marriott, Anne Szumigalski, Daphne Marlatt was very critical to me and to my sense of possibility as a writer. As well, my feminist contemporaries such as Bronwen Wallace, Mary di Michele, Lorna Crozier, and male writers such as Phil Hall, Roy Miki, Fred Wah, Colin Browne were very important to my developing sense of the possible; they too in their writing raised issues about representation, history, mentoring, in the 1980s in different ways.

Really I think of poetry as a conversation, and the work of others in poetry, in editing, in commentary, enables mine. Lisa Robertson, Susan Clark, Norma Cole, Sharon Thesen, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Chus Pato, Caroline Bergvall, Barbara Guest, Myung Mi Kim, Rozalie Hirs, Laura Mullen: my work wouldn’t be possible without the contemporary work of women writers such as these. And it wouldn’t continue to be possible without the younger generation of women poets now producing amazing work: Oana Avasilichioaei, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Angela Carr, Margaret Christakos, Shannon Maguire, Nicole Markotić, Rachel Zolf, to name but a few.

FB: Where do you feel you get the most support for your writing? Is it from the envisaged vehicles of Canadian culture (The Governor General’s Award, The CBC Lit Awards, etc…) or from your peers? Perhaps it comes from some place else?

EM: My peers here in Canada and abroad, women and men, common beings, as Chus Pato might say, are my greatest support. Between us we share a panoply of concerns and passions in languages and poetries and productions and in visual art, curatorial and critical practice, translation, music, architecture, ecology. And reading excellent books in many languages, for whether the authors are alive or dead, the work remains contemporary. And being aware of the stakes in poetries that are not my own, and are not just located in the “present.” All that, and the sky.

I also feel the strong and cordial support of readers, who are people outside the production of a work in some senses, but in others, they are very much a part of the production of meaning. Their readings, the links they make, what they accept and what they refuse, is all interesting to me, and social media makes our conversations more possible.

FB: Your most recent book of poetry deals with translation as a process, and dying as process. In The Unmemntioable, death transforms the speaker, in the same way that language is transformative. Through reading the poems, we are touched by the ineffable that arises when attempting to articulate death. Is it because we lose language in that final moment of conversion? Does the misspelling or alteration of the title, The Unmemntioable, result from this loss?

EM: It is an irrevocable fact that we cannot report on our own death; facing death is to face a place where language will fail us. The alteration of the word that forms the title of the book indicates physically and materially in the word itself what the word means. For something to be merely “unmentionable” means it can and has already been mentioned. The alteration erases that particular mentionability and allows The Unmemntioable to speak for itself.

FB: We are told to “write what we know.” What is your take on the fairly new form of literature centred on Internet culture called “Alt-Lit”? If all we know comes from reading our Twitter feed for hours, there becomes an insatiable hunger for self-reflective prose. Is this a good thing? Or do we lapse into a kind of narcissism?

EM: There is a risk of narcissism. Or, more accurately, perhaps, a kind of presentism. Todayism. Based on an unthinking belief that time is linear and bears us onward.  I argue more for the achronological, the anachronic. We learn more about time from exploring what goes against our own. Yet the internet also makes work accessible from all times in ways it never was before. So there’s no hard and fast proclamation to be gleaned from my words here.

What do I know? Elisa Sampedrín in The Unmemntioable tries to explore experience and define it, and finds she can’t do it on her own, as she lacks “an interior.” We who are not invented do have interiors, un for intérieur. How do we encounter world and worldliness? Partly through words, for words precede us in our experiences.

I don’t think I would tell people to “write what you know.” It sounds like a way of saying “never leave the box where you are comfortable.” Rather, as Lisa Robertson has said, you have to write just beyond what you already know. And you have to listen to language and let it work and reverberate. Then you’ll learn something new, and your readers will, too.

FB: Can we also encounter the world, like Elisa, through our exterior? Merleau-Ponty claimed that the body is the bearer of meaning. The idea of being bodily occurs-pre-linguistically, before language. Are you ever inspired by the experience of bodily sensation first?

EM: The body, though, definitely has an interior. And the division between inside and outside is not as clear as it might seem. Bodily sensations definitely can be a starting point for writing, but without language how would you describe them? You only start to know what a body is when you begin to get language for it; otherwise, it’s not extricable from what is around it. Body is a reified term, in that sense. Merleau-Ponty has written probingly on the body-subject, as have others.

Elisa S’s problem is that she has no interior, partly because she has no parents, she’s a figment. That’s why she tries to investigate “experience.” Because experience, for her, is very difficult, nigh impossible. She has to observe someone else, and chooses E.M. (and in doing, provokes the question of what experience and history are for any of us, for all of us).

FB: Speaking of interiors and exteriors, is nature important to you when getting down to write? Can we separate the urban from the natural world when landscape can be redefined as a synthetic product of human interest? The poem is also artificial, a product with a not-so-invisible hand…

EM: I share your views here. Nature is already unnatural. That said, there are still rabbits running wild on the lawns of Calgary. To an animal, nature is where it lives, it doesn’t separate. And a leaf speaks. As Robert Majzels has said, even bacteria are already writing poems of their own. A lot of talk about nature poetry is a colonization of that nature (the one a rabbit lives in) by humans; its fundamental character is its unnaturality.

FB:  What is the importance of doing things with your hands that aren’t writing? Do you practice other art forms?

EM: Hands are pretty vital, more vital than feet and legs, which can be replaced by wheels or prostheses more easily. I cook food, which is another art form. I love to invent combinations with food (right now I am eating little batons of white turnip gently steamed with a few drops of sesame oil and sprinkled with poppy seeds). And I write with pencil in notebooks.

FB: Do you write longhand, then?

EM: I write longhand, and on the computer. I scribble a lot in notebooks… and in other peoples’ books, and on envelopes, bits of saved paper, napkins. I enjoy handwriting even though my script is almost illegible, even to me. It makes me think hard about words, their connections to each other. At the same time, I like to write / compose and see how text looks on the page at the moment of composition, as well, which means using the computer.

FB: Speaking of technology, do you have a stance on the print/online debate? Should we keep the physical book for its fetishized artful qualities or will it become obsolete? There surely seems to be a nostalgic resurgence for all things vintage and tangible as the online world proliferates.

EM: Books will always exist and I love books but I do not always need to have everything in book form. I love the access to reading that the internet allows us. The access to old books and dictionaries from the Bodleian Library via Google Books, for example.

I hope though that the books of the future will be more beautiful and more carefully made. The cheap book is really better read on an iPad or reader, if you ask me. Yet you can leaf through a book in a way that a screen doesn’t let you… you can be achronic in a book… and because hands have many fingers you can hold many places in a book simultaneously in your reading. And you can readily open anywhere and read in the wrong order. A book is a beautiful thing. Its physical design can really help you enter the contents and challenges in the text. I’m reading François Turcot’s Mon Dinosaure right now, and I have to say, La Peuplade makes beautiful books. Mass-produced, but beautiful. Everything about the type and spacing and feel and cover has been attended to.

FB: What are you working on at the moment? Are you at liberty to discuss?

EM: Oh, that’s usually clear from Facebook! I just finished a third draft of the English translation of Chus Pato’s new (just back from the printers) book of poetry, Flesh of Leviathan, though the translation won’t appear till 2016 or so. And I am looking for dramaturgical help with my play Kapusta, which I finished last year and I expect to appear as a book of poems in 2015. Just finished a draft of Insecession, my poetic response to Pato’s Secession.  It will appear from BookThug in 2014 in a facing page edition with my translation of Secession, and at the moment is in the editing process as my part of the manuscript requires more work. And I am preparing to find a collaborator who speaks and translates Tsuu’tina or Dane-zaa so that we can translate Brazilian Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea for English readers… it’s a trilingual border book in Portunhol and Guárani. I’ll be working on that project next winter when I am Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and will be also working on a new book of poems, tentatively titled The Elements. As well, I will help launch the French translation (by Daniel Canty, out from Le Noroît) of Little Theatres, Petits théâtres, this fall.

Must one be ruthless when writing a poem? Should we reserve the right to tell lies?

EM: Ha! Perhaps all we can do is ruthlessly tell untruths. Especially when the truth is generally an invention anyhow, in many ways; to arrive at a truth, much must be suppressed. Sometimes this suppression is useful and good, sometimes it is not. I hear the voice of Simone Weil here, who wrote: “The opposite of truth, which is untruth, may not be a lie.”

FB: Michael Ondaatje’s long poem “Tin Roof” asks, “Do you want to be happy and write?” posing it as a kind of impossibility.

EM: I am, plutôt, immersed. Agitated, engaged, driven to the edge and over. Some people might find that a torment, but I rather like it. It makes me happy.


FRANCESCA BIANCO graduated from McGill with a BA in English Literature. She intense to pursue an MFA in poetry or screenwriting when the time is right. One day, with any luck or alchemy, she will turn a poem into a film.

Montrealer ERÍN MOURE is busy working. 2012: The Unmemntioable (Anansi). 2013: translations of White Piano (Coach House) by Nicole Brossard (with Robert Majzels) from French, and Galician Songs (Small Stations) by Rosalía de Castro, from Galician. 2014: Insecession, an autobiopoetics, will face Moure’s translation from Galician of Chus Pato’s autobiopoetics, Secession (Book Thug).


To view other content published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “Sonnet By A Forgotten Twix Wrapper” by Yusuf Saadi


Sonnet by a Forgotten Twix Wrapper

Petalled and split, our foil innards reflect
the ants who excavate for final crumbs.
In nightmares we remember thumb & index
vice grips — reeking Bud Light, sex,
and subway poles. Conjoinèd sleepers shrouded
in the TV’s halo: champing on the parted
biscuits, (lovey on their sugar rush), evolving
such efficient jaws. Do their impatient tongues
perceive our frigid factory floors, conveyor
belts, and pitch-black crates that cross
the ocean? Did they taste the cocoa’s dreams
between their lustred teeth? Now we soliloquize,
though prey to seagull beaks, and sunbathe on
the asphalt when the maelstroms grant us mercy.

YUSUF SAADI’s writing has appeared in magazines including The Malahat Review, Grain, Prairie Fire, PRISM, and Vallum. He also won The Malahat Review’s 2016 Far Horizons Poetry Award. He recently completed his MA at the University of Victoria.

Of this poem, Word Music Blog wrote:

“Other poems have a wonderful sense of play as they meld formal tradition with easy casualness, the high with the low. There’s a sonnet to a “Forgotten Twix Wrapper” which, ironically, sounds the most Shakespearean, and one to sound that reminds us that Chopin, a child’s screams, and a flushing toilet are all perceived with the same sense.”

Yusuf Saadi was the winner of Vallum’s 2016 Chapbook Award! To view guidelines on how to submit your work to the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award, click here.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.


Vallum Poem of the Week: “Ask a Decision” by Lou Vani


Ask a Decision

Oh how starched such
these replicas unremitting.
A drama unqualified
below on custom bent.

Tell me of feel
and I to be
indentured, indebted, tortured
as sufferance to realize your devices.

To come here
full of outpouring and pity.
Harmed, unwise.
Closing to beginnings.

Lou Vani was born in Montreal, Canada. He is an actor who enjoys writing poetry.  He also has a YouTube channel

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “Odysseus” by Genevieve MacKay




In the worst moments,
when the sea rises up to engulf him
or fires the arrows of the sun
to scorch his eyes,
the image he clings to is not
the nymph,
or the sorceress,
or his wife or unknown child.
It’s the thought of roots,
strong and hale past death,
stretching into the earth.
Above them, the life he made
for himself remains,
held firm and fast,
a promise of something
And he thinks,
all is as it should be.

Genevieve MacKay is a Vancouver-based musician and writer who holds her MA in Ancient Culture, Religion, and Ethnicity from the University of British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in Room MagazineVallum Magazine, and Leaf Press’s “Monday’s Poem” series. As a musician, she has performed with the Plastic Acid Orchestra, Lions Gate Sinfonia, Kamloops Symphony, OperaFeHk, the indie band Sorry Buttons, Vancouver Viols, United Players of Vancouver, and more. In her spare time, she can be found drinking tea, reading lengthy novels, and practicing sun salutations.

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “From the Underground” by Julie Eliopoloulos



From the Underground

In the cavern of the underworld
gliding on a hidden stream

in a metal boat
without oars

the idea of a meadow
basking in luminous sunlight

is as strange to us
as someone else’s dream

we are inertial beings
in an unsettling cage

the city’s inconsolable secret
kept prisoner every single day

and then released as if this
were not a crime

to convey humans like worms
in the earth

and then allow them to leave
rise up into the sparkling

champagne of the day
as if there were no tunnel

no abominable engine
clothed in the dark

Julie Eliopoulos’s poetry has previously appeared in CV2, EVENTThe New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, The Puritan, Room and Vallum.

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Featured Interview: Ariel Gordon

Interview with Ariel Gordon
By Sharon Caseburg

Sharon Caseburg: Much of your writing considers landscapes. In what
kind of landscape do you find the most inspiration—urban or rural?

Ariel Gordon: I’m most comfortable in the transition zone between urban
and rural. Take Assiniboine Forest, for instance, which is 287 hectares of
aspen parkland in Winnipeg’s south end. It has all the problems of the
community surrounding it: poor drainage, teenagers with paintball guns,
pollution. It floods in the spring, is full of poorly constructed tree-forts,
and its trees are stressed. But it’s this patch of woods located within city
limits with a field and a pond that has somehow never been commercially
developed. The city lays down mulch paths and performs managed burns
when invasive species begin to outperform native plants, but unlike most
other parks, it’s pretty much left alone. Trees rot where they fall. This is
magnificent for mushrooms, a particular favourite of mine. They’re episo-
dic, like poems: they appear suddenly and disappear just as quickly unless
attended to by someone with a camera … or a notebook. Fungi like stressed
trees, rotting logs, and mulch paths. But notice, please, that two of those
situations are produced by human intervention, even in this ‘wild’ space.

The forest is full of lovely contradictions. Deer bed down between trem-
bling aspens but are canny enough to realize that the rusted out shell of an
old car provides a good windbreak. Lost moose lurk in the stubbly clearing
where a small plane crashed. And monarchs emerge from chrysalises near
the CPR line at the far end of the forest.

I think it’s the contradictions that make me so comfortable there. I grew up
in suburban Winnipeg, but our family vacations were spent in Minaki, in
a cabin with kerosene lamps on the walls and an outhouse. The property
was on an island with only a few other inhabitants that was only reach-
able by boat, which provided a measure of isolation from the Lake-of-the-
Woods ‘tourism experience,’ but we could still go to town for groceries.

The great majority of my poems are set in these kinds of spaces and often
actively explore them, but the closest I could ever come to pinning a label
on them was ‘urban/nature/love poems.’

SC: I’ve only known you to live a more urban than suburban lifestyle. What
does one have that is preferential to the other? How does that figure into
your daily creative process?

AG: I grew up in a house on the river, which meant that our basement
flooded semi-regularly and that you’d see deer and ducks and even foxes
on the riverbank corridor—so again, always, wild/tame.

But as I got older, my sensibilities shifted. We had this really interesting
back yard but the front streets were all long dusty blocks. Downtown was
concentrated, with many things existing and co-existing. When it came
time to go to school I chose the small downtown activist university over
the large suburban university. My first house was in a bad old neighbour-
hood in Winnipeg’s downtown. It was one of five houses in a row that were
derelict and had been derelict for years. It was our street’s row of rotten
teeth until the federal government offered funding to renovate housing
stock in low-income neighbourhoods. We bought one of the first reno-
vated homes and lived there nearly a decade … which made me aware of
all kinds of things I’d been taking for granted in my life and in my writing. It
also complicated everything, of course.

If you look at my first book, Hump (Palimpsest Press, 2010) as a barom-
eter of my influences—urban, rural, and suburban—nine poems were set
in Assiniboine Forest, with a further two in other green spaces. Nine po-
ems have urban settings. And a further sixteen poems were set in and
around that first house, which I guess you could call ‘urban domestic.’

SC: How does the constructed landscape of the city figure into your writ-
ing process? Are you more at ease in an urban environment, freer with
your language and your own poetic constructs, or do you prefer to write
and produce poetry in a more rural environment?

AG: What I like about Winnipeg in particular is that, like Assiniboine
Forest, it is neither completely urban nor rural. We have a few glassy sky-
scrapers and a good collection of grand old buildings with ornate facades,
but we also have an elm canopy comprised of approximately 160,000
trees. Sitting in the nosebleed section of the old Bomber stadium one July,
I was quite thrilled to look down and see the city disappear under the trees.

I also quite like the fact that the reason we have those grand old buildings
at all is because Winnipeg never recovered from the first World War, the
1919 General Strike, the dirty thirties. It was no longer the “Chicago of
the North” or even the “Gateway to the West.” Calgary and Vancouver
became enduring boomtowns, cities full of ambitious or even just rest-
less Winnipeggers. If you’re a boomtown, everything has to be bright and
shiny. So your buildings get knocked down every generation and bigger
shinier ones get put up in their places. Because Winnipeg was anything
but a boomtown for so long, we kept the buildings in our mercantile neigh-
bourhood, The Exchange District, some of which were derelict but many
of which were transformed into artists’ studios and galleries and cafes,
which, taken together, create something … interesting.

That said, although I’ve worked and lived downtown, I have never rented a
studio in a made-over factory or camped out in a tin-ceiling-ed coffee shop.
I have, however, scribbled first drafts in my notebook in the car while my
partner drives. For me, the serious work of writing—research, writing and
then re-writing—has always taken place at home, which right now means
my dining room table in our house in Wolseley—Winnipeg’s granola belt.
Wolseley has strange old houses and green spaces and functions as an ad-
junct to downtown. I can’t imagine, anymore, living very far from downtown.

Even though I get most of my writing done in the every day, during bought-and-
paid-for writing days, I also travel to writing retreats and extended work-
shops. Like those offered by the Sage Hill Writing Experience
and the Wallace Stegner House, for instance, both of which are situated in
rural Saskatchewan. I’ve also done an overseas retreat at Hawthornden
Castle Writers Retreat just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

SC: How do these types of environments aid or hinder your creative process?
What hidden discoveries have you made in these types of environments?

AG: I don’t always get a lot of writing done while on retreat, but that’s
because you can’t always schedule a surge of first-draft writing the way
you can schedule a retreat. But I always get in lots of editing and reading
and thinking and I somehow always manage to find trees to scrabble under
for mushrooms. And I always take away a writing friend or two, which is
invaluable to my writing life if not my writing.

I’d like to blithely say that I can write anywhere—urban or rural—but I
am sensitive to my environment. It took me a week, a potted plant from
Safeway and a stolen poster to get comfortable enough in my room at the
Banff Centre to do any writing there. And I had to take down all the cru-
cifixes and images-of-god in my room at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre
and make/drink many cups of tea before I was able to get going on the project
I’d brought with me.

While retreats aren’t meant to be that stimulating in and of themselves,
I’ve enjoyed poking around in each site. When I was at Hawthornden, for
instance, another writer and I located a set of pictographs described in
nineteenth century travel accounts that the current administrator couldn’t
find. And my last stint at Sage Hill happened to be while the saskatoons
were ripe. I was walking from tree to tree, mouth full of berries, and nearly
stepped on a fawn that had been hidden in the middle of the path. A few
days later I was nearly bowled over by a galloping deer.

SC: What is the appeal of the “hidden” or “unseen”?

AG: I have a journalism background and I think what journalists (and nov-
elists and non-fiction specialists and short story mavens) … and poets
have in common is an inclination to find out what’s behind the facades.
To rattle doorknobs and authority figures, even if the writer in question
doesn’t identify as an activist. So I don’t think it’s a question of “appeal”
so much as aptitude. Writers are, at their core, curious people. Every time I
sit down to write, I try for something “hidden” or “unseen,” whether that’s
a surprising image or combination of words and sounds or the subject of
the poem.

SC: Do you miss journalism?

AG: I miss journalism occasionally. Mostly when my partner, who’s a
photojournalist, comes home and says that he got to ride in a helicopter
or visit a remote community in the North or take a picture of a newborn
bison. Though I miss journalism, I’ve found that asking “how does it feel?”
via poetry is much more satisfying.

SC: Name five cities, five hidden treasures from those cities, and how their
discoveries shaped your writing.

AG: The soccer pitch in Winnipeg’s Memorial Park, where there are end-
less games of pick-up soccer in the summer, was the subject of my poem
“A year in: footsie” from Hump. The players are largely African immigrants
to the city. Driving by and seeing them there is endlessly reassuring to me.

The tattoo parlour in Bukit Tinggi, Indonesia, was washed clean by a to-
rrential rain but full of men smoking and drinking the darkest of dark cof-
fee and flipping through photocopied western tat mags. I described it in
one thread of my long poem “Guidelines: Malaysia & Indonesia, 1999”
(Rubicon Press, 2009). But the whole poem was about the hidden/un-
seen; six years after my sister and I travelled there, I discovered that our
great-grandfather was a Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, which
became Indonesia. And so the poem sets our experiences in Kuala Lumpur
and Bukit Tinggi against those of our ancestors in Jakarta and Aceh.

My partner and I went to Hong Kong and Yunnan province in China during
the SARS epidemic in summer 2003. We walked through a pop-
up ceramics market in Li-jiang just as awareness of SARS was spreading
throughout mainland China: police staring balefully at foreigners over sur-
gical masks, women turning their backs on you in the streets. And there
were these immense pots next to small delicate vases next to gold cats
covered in glitter. It became a part of my poem “Hawk,” which Jonathan
Ball published in his Martian Press Review chapbook.

When I was living in Halifax and Seoul, South Korea in my twenties—for
journalism school and teaching English respectively—I wrote poems. For
me, both cities were hundreds—if not thousands—of years older than my
hometown. I had to re-jig my conception of the city, of the possible oc-
cupants of its built landscape. I published a few poems here and there on
both cities, but … in the end, they wound up in what I call ‘the manuscript
of my twenties,’ which was retired from circulation more or less gracefully.

SC: You once undertook a project titled Wrought Substance in which you
and a photographer entered into a poetic and photographic discussion
about urban decay and derelict buildings. Can you tell us about that project?

AG: For many years, I worked on a poetry/photography project with Jon
Schledewitz focused on five or six of Winnipeg’s derelict buildings. These
buildings—hotels and factories and homes—weren’t hidden treasures.
Winnipeggers were, if anything, overly familiar with them. These hulks had
always been there and they’d always be there, because their absentee
landlords couldn’t be bothered to pull them down and the land wasn’t
worth much. People couldn’t see past the boarded-up windows and the
kicked-in doors … it was hard enough for me to see them as something
other than what they’d become.

So, as a part of the writing process, I tried to find out who had built them
and who had inhabited them over the years and also talk a bit about the
neighbourhoods they were situated in. Part of that research involved
spending time in or near the buildings. Sometimes I talked my way into
buildings as they were being demolished, sometimes I endlessly walked
their perimeters, sometimes I climbed fences. I found the websites of
urban explorers, so I got to look inside buildings I was too timid to explore
myself. Part of that research was consulting archives and libraries and
organizations that had once occupied the buildings. I interviewed an
elderly woman over tea for the poems on the Salvation Army Citadel. I
pored over the Henderson Directories for the names and occupations of
the people who once lived in the derelict house next to mine.

SC: What did you hope to accomplish with Wrought Substance, and why
was it abandoned in the end?

AG: I was hoping to write a social history of Winnipeg in verse that would
talk as much about people as about architecture. Heritage-building folk tend
towards ‘Oh, isn’t it sad that these buildings are crumbling! We must
save them!’ without acknowledging the neighbourhoods the buildings are
in, and what function they might serve in those neighbourhoods. Descrip-
tions of the structures tend to focus on the big-wigs that built them in
Winnipeg’s golden age of ‘Progress! Prosperity! And Industry!’ And I want-
ed to talk back to that a bit.

But to write about the neighbourhoods that the buildings were in, to talk
about the people who lived in those neighbourhoods, I had to encounter
homelessness and [sex work] and mental illness. Violence and addiction.
I just didn’t have the tools, as a young poet and as someone from a middle-
class suburban background. I couldn’t ever get away from that fact that I was
choosing to live downtown. It was a locked door I rattled in the poetry. And
so I turned to first-person accounts, both recent and historical, and included
portions of them in poems.

We published poems/images from the series here and there but stopped
working on it in a concentrated way when I became pregnant. After my
daughter arrived, it was much more difficult to find time to loiter in vacant
lots. Also, writing about pregnancy and mothering completely hijacked my
writing practice. I think the last straw was when the photographer moved
away. Since that time, many of the buildings we documented have finally—
finally—been demolished as Winnipeg experiences a mini-boom.

I think I might be able to move back into the project now. Everything the
poems attempt is still very important to me. As people say of derelict
buildings: they have such good bones!

SC: What are you currently working on?

AG: I’m currently compiling poems for my second collection. A piece
I’m presently engaged with is a poem called “The Heart is a Small Appliance.”
It is what I call a ‘value-added poem.’ It was sidebar to another poem
I was working on just before bed one night. I was already enervated
with poem-work when I turned out the light. I laid there, listening to the sound
of my partner snoring next to me against the coyotes barking somewhere
outside and lines started coming to me. So I turned the light back on and
started writing them down, because you never get to keep those lines
overnight. Specifically, the poem is my long-delayed response to Winnipeg
crime writer Michael Van Rooy’s death, at 42, of a heart attack. I was more
angry than sad when he died. It was, in a word, criminal. If anyone knew
Winnipeg, its back alleys and carriage lanes and bike paths, it was Michael.


SHARON CASEBURG is a Canadian writer, editor and book designer. Her
poetry and critical writing have appeared in numerous publications, including
sleepwalking, a long poem chapbook published by JackPine Press. She is the
co-founder of the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry.

ARIEL GORDON is a Winnipeg-based writer. Her first book, Hump
(Kingsville: Palimpsest Press), won the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for
Poetry in 2011. Most recently, she collaborated with designer Julia Michaud
on the disaster DIY chapbook How To Prepare For Flooding (Saskatoon:
JackPine Press). When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the
woods and taking macro photographs of mushrooms.


To view other content published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum is now accepting original and previously unpublished chapbook submissions for the annual Vallum Chapbook Award 2017. For more information and guidelines, visit the Chapbook rules page

Vallum Poem of the Week: “Logistics” by Leland James




On a transport ship
out of Chesapeake Bay
bound for Sicily
— the Big War —

a box
“Projector Parts”

40,000 Purple Hearts.

Leland James is the author of four books of poetry. He has published over 200 poems in journals and magazines worldwide including The Lyric, Form Quarterly; The South Carolina Review; The Spoon River Poetry Review; New Millennium Writings; HQ The Haiku Quarterly, and The London Magazine. He was the winner of The UK’s Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, The Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize, and the Writer’s Forum short poem contest. He has received honors in many others competitions and was recently nominated for a Push Cart Prize.

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.