Wednesday, August 29, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: Stephen Collis

This is the twenty-ninth 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.

As both a poet and an academic, I have the benefit (or the burden) of two offices: one in a corner of my basement at home, where an aging and cobwebbed sliding door leads out into our back yard, and another at my university. Sadly, perhaps, they are both bursting at the seams, with books overflowing shelves and papers piled on desks and spilling onto the floor. Sometimes I pick through the piles that have accumulated, or quickly glance through them as I move things from one pile to another, convinced I am getting something done. The papers are often broadsides, pamphlets, chapbooks and zines, which you really do have to page through to remind yourself what they are (as opposed to the books with their legible spines).

More often than not, as I re-encounter these publications, I turn them over and realise that what I’m holding is an above/ground production. It would be interesting to actually run a count of how many I have: issues of Touch the Donkey and The Peter F. Yacht Club; chapbooks by many poets; and—my favourites really, for their archetypal samizdat simplicity—broadsides and little one-page pamphlets penned by, it would seem, pretty much every poet in this country. These have been arriving in my mail literally for decades now. I don’t know what portion of my archive would be composed of above/ground publications, but it would be considerable. Maybe even embarrassing.

It’s difficult to pick something out and say “this is so above/ground.” Its own sheer profusion is the hallmark of the press. And I have often associated poetry with profusion (as opposed, perhaps, to Pound’s “compression”): poetry is what spreads, is the form of encountering, and moving past, boundaries. Is writing that always seems to be hailing more writing—a continuous script, an unbroken conversation. above/ground is nothing if not profuse, nothing if not continuous. It’s longevity and productivity are legendary and largely unparalleled.  

Also remarkable is the fact that the press’s forms and materials have changed little over the years. There have been no aesthetic leaps, no advances in design, no evolving production values. Simplicity is and always has been the name of the game here. above/ground is “news that stays news.” There was a time when poets could turn to certain journals to get a sense of what was actually happening in poetry at that exact moment. Then certain websites came along to do that (Silliman’s blog, Jacket, Lemonhound). This is exactly what above/ground has always been—and remarkably continues to be, long after many of these others have come and gone, or passed the nadir of their arcs of influence. above/ground is persistence incarnate. It is the pulse of poetry. It’s where it’s at.

How ridiculous would it be if all this—25 years and countless profuse and persistent publications—was the work of one poet-editor. How crazy would that be? No one would ever believe the story. I still don’t (though I feel like I’ve met the guy … maybe he could help me with some storage issues I’m having).

Stephen Collis’s [photo credit: Lawrence Schwartzwald] many books of poetry include The Commons (Talon Books 2008; 2014), On the Material (Talon Books 2010—awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry), DECOMP (with Jordan Scott—Coach House 2013), and Once in Blockadia (Talon Books 2016—nominated for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature). He has also written a book of essays on the Occupy Movement, and a novel. Almost Islands (Talon Books 2018) is a memoir of his friendship with poet Phyllis Webb, and a long poem, Sketch of a Poem I Will Not Have Written, is in progress. He lives near Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish Territory, and teaches poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University.

Collis is the author of two above/ground press chapbooks, including New Life (2016) and FIRST SKETCH OF A POEM I WILL NOT HAVE WRITTEN (2017).

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