Friday, October 19, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: Monty Reid

This is the thirty-third 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.

The Canvas Bag Survives

When I first moved to Ottawa from Alberta in 1999, two poets went out of their way to welcome me. One, Arc co-founder Chris Levenson, has since moved himself, out to the west coast.  The other was rob mclennan. In fact, the day after I got into town, we read together at a downtown bookstore at an event that had been planned much earlier. Or did he host? I don’t remember. What I do remember is leaving the bookstore with a small envelope full of recent chapbooks he’d produced. 

They weren’t hard to carry. Lightweight and simply-produced, they felt flimsy in my hand. But they were not flimsy, they were loaded. I had heard of above/ground but this was the first I’d actually seen of it. I had read some of the poets, but many of them were new to me. There was concrete work, mashed-up sonnets and more traditional sentence-based material. I loved some of them and didn’t love others, but was knocked out by the variety and the sheer quantity of the productions.

It hasn’t stopped. The chapbooks keep coming, fifty a year sometimes. And this in addition to rob’s other projects, his little magazines, his recently-sequestered Chaudiere Books, his extensive blog, his workshops, his own non-stop publications, his support for other poetry organizations such as the Tree Reading Series and VerseFest, and his now-substantial family commitments. 

Like other chapbook publishers, above/ground plays an important role in develping new poets and giving more-established poets a new audience as well as a chance to test-drive new, sometimes different material. But I can’t think of any other chapbook publisher with the range and number of titles (even Fred Cogswell’s amazing Fiddlehead Books produced only 307 titles, albeit not all were chapbooks), with the long-term consistency (25 years and counting is a heck of a run), with the editorial generosity and as a result, an increasingly pivotal role for many writers, particularly those with an experimental bent.

My relation with above/ground is both as enabled and enabler. The press has published four of my chapbooks and a fifth is in the works. rob has arranged readings, made introductions, and gotten my work out into the world. As he has done for hundreds of others. One of my favorite images is rob on his bike in mid-winter, a black toque on his head and his long coat flapping, a canvas bag full of above/ground envelopes slung over his shoulder, heading out in the snow to hand-deliver the latest chapbooks to subscribers around the city. The bike, sadly, got stolen and trashed. The canvas bag survives.

But there were also times when I supplied paper and envelopes for the chapbooks, and heated up the copiers at the Museum of Nature running off hundreds of pages of the latest productions. I moved boxes, bought pizza, and tried to get rob to eat his vegetables. They were good times. They were the kind of things that friends did together, and that’s how I think of above/ground most often – as a friend.

Monty Reid was born in Saskatchewan, lived for many years in Alberta, and moved to the Ottawa area in 1999 to work at the Canadian Museum of Nature. His books include Karst Means Stone (NeWest), Crawlspace (Anansi), The Alternate Guide (rdc) and Garden (Chaudiere) – his most recent collection is 2016’s Meditatio Placentae (Brick). His chapbooks have appeared from many small publishers in Canada and abroad, including four from above/ground. A new chapbook, nipple variations, is forthcoming from post ghost press. A three-time GG nominee, he was Arc Poetry Magazine’s Managing Editor for many years and is currently the Director of VerseFest, Ottawa’s international poetry festival.

Monty Reid is the author of four above/ground press chapbooks, including Six Songs for the Mammoth Steppe (2000), cuba A book (2005), In the Garden (sept series) (2011) and Moan Coach (2013). A fifth is forthcoming.

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