Friday, April 6, 2018
above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: Gregory Betts
This is the fifteenth in a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the quarter century mark of above/ground. See links to the whole series here.
Bespoke, Be Spoken
I am likely the last poet in the country who published rob mclennan before being published by him. I was, however, back in Victoria in 1999, already acutely aware of the generative role he played with his publishing venture—the presses, zines, anthologies, and now blogs and more. above/ground (rolled out in 1993) is the hub of a wheel made up of an extraordinary range of poets, each taking a turn as a spoke in its constantly regenerating progress, rolling over the years, now decades. Poets learn to speak in public, to become spoken, through getting published. For 25 years, mclennan has created space for poets to write themselves into authorship, or to become spoken of, often for the first time in one of his constantly appearing reviews or scene surveys. To ride the metaphor to its last spoke, he has carved roads into this country and built vehicles to travel them.
I was the Managing Editor of a small press zine (Laughing Gland, edited by Lori Emerson, whose issues (I realize in retrospect) suspiciously resemble above/ground), and remember well the meeting when Lori presented work by rob. We were excited to publish those poems, and fascinated by the package of leaflets and chapbooks of other people’s works that he sent with them. We passed them around, read them carefully over coffee and cigarettes. It was the combination that struck me the most — the ethic of creating a space for other writers while finding a place for yourself. Self-expression and other-promotion. It all seemed perfectly positive, generous, and strangely misfit as I dropped copies here and there around the campus and town, watching strangers pick them up read or toss them aside.
A few years later, above/ground published a chapbook of mine. It was a collection of poems responding to the legacy of the explorer David Thompson, who cut the Canadian/American border. rob mailed a box (Canada Post owes him at least his image on a limited edition stamp for all he has spent on postage), a real Staples box full of folded and stapled chapbooks. I guiltily remembered the short run of zines we had mailed him years before (It was, I confess, my job to balance the budget, and limit, therefore, the print run—but take notice of rob’s method of constant bigheartedness, of overabundance and wildly free circulation, and emulate it freely. He’s doing it right.).
I marveled at the simple, bespoke object filled with my words that he had made. I promptly started handing out copies to ever and whomever crossed my path. I met people by doing so. What a delightful pleasure it is to give your own small book to people you barely know or don’t at all. Christian Bök calls chapbooks and books expensive “business cards” for future services, but they are, really, more like greeting cards: greetings, here I am, this is some kind of record of me and where my mind sometimes strays, come have a conversation. I marvel at the range of rob’s imagination that sees the contours and recognizes the value of each of the imaginary worlds in the almost-a-thousand objects he has made.
When I first started publishing with above/ground (or should that be, ‘surfacing’?), it never dawned on me that literature could fashion communities, that giving away things brings constant returns. This was my entrance into the gift economy. In the wider literary world in Canada, I was made quickly aware of the fiercely guarded aesthetic and social fiefdoms. But rob, all the while, was creating communities across such pale garrisons. I, one of his minions, have probably handed out thousands of copies of his chapbooks and zines filled with writing by countless authors I have never yet met—except that I feel I have met many of them through his maze of pathways that cross the space above/ground. I don’t know them, but I have met them, and share a common space.
My first three poetry readings were all with rob, including the very first that happened to be in St. Catharines, where I moved a few years later and have stayed ever since. I even ended up taking over that literary series where we read and curated it for a number of years. I have become in a much, much smaller way, a local bike builder (in the literary sense) here in town, trying to build a space for writers of all types and sorts to speak themselves into authorship. rob sends me messages – whose coming, what can we do? Still carving borders every bit as real and imaginary as the one cut by David Thompson, still extending his hub into all the marvelous worlds one can find above/ground.
Gregory Betts is the author of Avant-Garde Canadian Literature, six books of poetry, and editor of six volumes of experimental Canadian writing. He curates the bpNichol.ca Digital Archive. He is a poet and professor at Brock University in St.Catharines, Ontario (but will be the Craig Dobbin Professor of Canadian Studies at the University College of Dublin next year).
Gregory Betts is the author of four above/ground press titles, including The Cult of David Thompson (2005), The Curse of Canada (2008) and Who Let the Mice in Brion Gysin (2014) as well as another title to release later this month. He also appeared in the four poet anthology READ YORK (2004), and as an above/ground press broadside (#221, 2004).