Wednesday, March 28, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: Ken Norris

This is the twelfth 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.


In the 1960s and 1970s chapbooks of poetry were often as interesting and as groundbreaking as full-length books or collections of poetry. I still have a xeroxed copy of Atwood’s Double Persephone floating around in my collection somewhere. Some of bpNichol’s most interesting books beyond The Martyrology were chapbooks. And one of my greatest personal accomplishments as a small press publisher was bringing out Artie Gold’s some of the cat poems, with staples anchoring its spine.

My own first book, Vegetables, was really a chapbook in disguise. It only had seventeen or nineteen poems in it, and got its promotion up to full-length book by having illustrations by my collaborator, Jill Smith, on facing pages across from the poems. My second book, Under The Skin, actually was a chapbook. As was my third: Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century (Book 1) with a cover design by Jill Smith. Only with my fourth book, The Perfect Accident, did I collect poems into a these-are-the-best-poems-I’ve-got collection that deserved perfect binding and an actual spine.

In the eighties I can remember publishing only one chapbook: Eight Odes, with illustrations by Nancy Smith (no relation). But, at the time, it was my intention to bring out the twenty-two books of my very long poem in progress, Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century, as separate chapbooks or books. Antonio D’Alfonso, then publisher/editor at Guernica Editions, told me I was insane, and then brought together Books 1-4 in a single volume in 1986 (thanks, Antonio, on both counts). As it is, books five, six and seven are still wandering out there in various quadrants of the landscape on their own.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know rob mclennan. Maybe that’s because my memory is failing, or maybe that’s because, when I was a young poet, there was bill bissett’s blew ointment press and bpNichol’s various adventures in chapbook publishing. At some point (looks like the early nineties), rob picked up that energy and began to run with it. So, for me, rob and above/ground press represent an energy I have always loved, and extend an enterprise I have always wanted to be a part of. We always need to have a poet or two around who like to keep things interesting.

Down through the years, as I’ve been writing my various books, sometimes I’ve written them only to discover that I was writing a chapbook. Cool. I love chapbooks. I love their autonomy, their singularity, and their waywardness. Sometimes poetry doesn’t want to be whipped into shape. Sometimes it just wants to run free like a wild animal and not serve anyone’s “career” at all. Chapbooks are their own kind of thing and can make their own kind of statement. And certainly they evade or speak counter to the “professionalization” of Can Lit that came into existence in the late eighties and early nineties of our previous century.

During its existence, I have published five chapbooks with above/ground press, and here are their little stories.

Windward—St. Lucia Poems. 100 copies, November 13, 1995.

In 1994, I was separated from my wife, living in Toronto, and typing up the manuscript of The Music, which was a book about my marriage that pointed in the direction of its eventual demise. The poems were all written during the time I was married and bumped right up against the month when we eventually and inevitably separated. The Music was six years of my writing and six years of my life.

Originally, I believe, it was organized into six sections. But there was one section that really didn’t feel like it belonged in the company of the other poems. And that section was Windward—St. Lucia Poems.

Windward felt more akin to the travel poem texts I had written in the South Seas in the mid-eighties: The Better Part Of Heaven and Islands. Except that it had been written in a much shorter time frame: two weeks. My wife and I had gone on a two week winter vacation to St. Lucia during the time we were proposing to conceive a child, and the romance of a lush Caribbean island appealed to the poet in both of us.

The poems in The Music were mostly about the everyday music of domestic life, while the Windward poems were much more Romantic in spirit and sometimes socially critical in their observations. With some regret, I pulled the Windward section out of The Music and started to think of Windward—St. Lucia Poems as its own separate thing.

How did it come to be published by above/ground press as a chapbook? I can’t remember exactly. My best guess is this: I was corresponding with rob via email quite a lot by that point and probably complained one day that I had a chapbook that I didn’t know where to place. With the date given above, rob has reminded me that the chapbook was brought out in connection with a reading I was to give in the TREE reading series in Ottawa. So it is probable that the material and the event converged. One hundred copies were produced, and I seem to remember that the book had a green cover and purple paper. I’m writing this in Thailand, far away from my personal library, so that’s what memory says. When I get home I will check to see how accurate memory is.

The Commentaries. 100 copies, November 1999.

Editing The Music was really a heavy lift. The book had been written as a celebration of domestic life but, in certain ways, it really told a counter story. Also, it was a book about marriage that I was editing when I was separated and on the road to divorce. I found it really hard to embrace the poems in the spirit in which they had originally been written. For me, it was like reading Songs of Innocence from the vantage point of Experience. I had to have a long talk with myself about the manuscript. And I concluded that I really needed to respect the poet who had written The Music, even though every day he was seeming more and more to me like a former self.

So okay, I would let that poet have his voice and his say, and I wouldn’t rewrite ANYTHING. I would just clean it up technically, make it a better read.

But the thing was: the guy sitting there, doing the editing, had something to say about just about every poem. If this later self didn’t know “better” he certainly knew “different”. And he too needed to have his say.

So this is where editing The Music got crazy, but also interesting. Once “the editor” had helped to sufficiently realize the poem, he then had permission to write something about it off to the side. This is how the methodology of The Commentaries began to emerge.

Often in the middle of editing a poem I would take out my notebook and write down my present day comments or observations about it. There were the poems in The Music and now there were “these commentaries.”

The Commentaries is a blow-by-blow, poem-by-poem, critique/different perspective on the poems in The Music. I published The Music with ECW Press in 1995. I let four years go by. Then I published The Commentaries as an above/ground press chapbook in 1999, giving absolutely no indication that this text had anything to do with The Music. Read as a text-unto-itself it probably comes across as a pretty weird read. Read in concert with The Music it probably makes a lot more sense. If anyone is looking for a topic for an M.A. thesis—there you go.

Songs For Isabella. 300 copies, June 2000.

After living in Toronto over the summer of 1994, in the wake of my separation, I took off for Europe, where I mostly lived from October of 1994 until April of 1995. One of the places that I lived was Prague. While I was in Prague I had a love affair with a beautiful young Czech woman named Isabella.

Often affairs like this end marriages. In my case, this affair came into my life as a form of compensation for everything that I felt that I was losing. It helped me to apply the brakes and get some control over a life that had been careening out of control.

Like many intense love affairs it didn’t last long. When I arrived back in Toronto in the spring of 1995, I undertook the writing of Songs For Isabella.

Songs For Isabella is written over the top of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems And A Song Of Despair the same way that Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies is written over the top of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Why Neruda? A big influence on my poetry since I was twenty, Neruda had taken part of his “pen name” from Jan Neruda, a Czech writer. I liked the undersong of the poetry of a Chilean poet with a half- Czech pen name for a sequence of poems about a Canadian poet who had fallen in love with a Czech woman in Prague.

Isabella wore a deep red lipstick, but I can’t remember who suggested that we give the chapbook a red cover, me or rob. I actually think it was his idea, and then, because of the memories of her lipstick, I thought it was a good idea too.

Because I had poured so much emotion into these poems, I sort of longed for a more “upscale” production than how most above/ground press chapbooks are produced. I’ve never talked with rob about this, but I see him as having embraced or continued the aesthetic that bill bissett worked with when he was running blew ointment press. The primary intention was to get the work INTO PRINT, and not to get too precious about it. For a while I thought about revisiting Vegetables territory, finding an illustrator to do some nice erotic drawings and so help to pad the whole thing out to a perfect bound book. But I kept coming back to the thought: IT’S THE POEMS THAT MATTER. And when it’s the poems that matter, the important thing is to get them into print.

(Interestingly, a number of years later, when Editions du Noroit expressed an interest in doing a dual-language book of mine, I convinced Quebecois poet and translator Pierre Des Ruisseaux to “put together” a book of mine that didn’t exist in English. The book, Hotel Montreal, that he translated and Noroit published, consisted of the twenty new poems that had appeared at the end of my Talonbooks selected poems (also called Hotel Montreal) combined with Songs For Isabella. So Songs For Isabella wound up coming out as both a chapbook and, a number of years later, as half of a perfect bound book).

Green Wind. 200 copies, March 2010.

Ten years went by before I had another project to bring to rob for above/ground press. In 1998, Talonbooks had started to publish me, and Karl Siegler was willing to publish poetry books with a lot of pages in them, if the work warranted them. So I really got caught up in some rather large scale undertakings. And these bigger books were taking me away from chapbook territory.

During the thirteen years I was publishing with Talon (1998-2011), they published my selected poems, Hotel Montreal, mentioned above, as well as several other projects, including what I called the Travel Trilogy: Limbo Road (1998), Dominican Moon (2005) and Asian Skies (2010). These books were a return to my writing travel poem texts, as I had done in the 1980s with The Better Part Of Heaven and Islands. On the one hand, the Travel Trilogy was written with Dante’s Divine Comedy in mind. On the other hand, it was written with a more “contemporary” trilogy in mind: Neil Young’s “Ditch Trilogy” of albums (Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night). Travel poems texts almost form a category of their own in what I write and in what I have written.

After finishing the composition of Asian Skies, I began traveling in Cambodia, and a new travel poem text about that country began to manifest. After about two years I had a Cambodia manuscript.

I set to work on digging the poems out of my notebooks, and in fairly short order I had a manuscript of about ninety-six pages. I gave it the title Green Wind and let it sit for six months.

By the time I got back to it, I was already working on the author’s edit of my next Talon book, Floating Up To Zero, which was scheduled to be published by Talon in 2011. This would have been in the Fall of 2009. As I reread Green Wind against the backdrop of the new manuscript I was working on--large parts of which also took place in Asia-- two things happened.

First, it struck me that about a third of the poems in Green Wind were what I would call “tourist poetry,” which is not a complimentary designation. They registered reactions to Cambodia and observations about Cambodia in quite a shallow way. So I cut those poems out of the manuscript. Green Wind became a manuscript of about 64 pages.

The second thing that happened was in relation to the Floating Up To Zero manuscript. All in all, I thought Floating Up To Zero was quite possibly my best book. But there were a few instances in which it needed something. It, too, recorded time spent in Cambodia, but I detected a certain weakness in the material at a couple of key junctures.

My solution: I parachuted about six poems from Green Wind into Floating Up To Zero. Problem solved.

But also problem created. There were now six poems that were in BOTH Green Wind and Floating Up To Zero. I could take them out of Green Wind, but I didn’t WANT to take them out of Green Wind. They were consonant with the poems around them, but they were also quite comfortable in Floating Up To Zero too.

I sort of found myself with a double motivation. Given how strong a manuscript I thought Floating Up To Zero now was, I didn’t want to undermine it. At the same time, given how well I thought Green Wind documented my early days in Cambodia, I didn’t want to undermine that EITHER.

I gave the situation some thought. It’s unusual for the same poems to appear in two full-length books of poetry. But it isn’t necessarily unusual for poems that appeared in a chapbook to later wind up in a full-length book. Green Wind was quite good, but Floating Up To Zero was possibly the best book I’d ever written, was under contract, and Talon was waiting for the manuscript. I sent Floating Up To Zero off to Talon in November of 2009, and then contacted rob about Green Wind. Green Wind would have to be a jam-packed chapbook, which it was, and it was published by above/ground press in March of 2010. It’s a toss up for what chapbook I consider to be my best: Songs For Isabella or Green Wind.

Looking Into It. 200 copies, 2011.

The Floating Up To Zero manuscript was very accomplished, but writing it had actually taken quite a lot out of me. I was feeling quite spent by the time I finished writing it. So I gave myself three months off from writing, took a breather. Then I bought myself a new notebook and started working on my next manuscript.

I worked on my next manuscript for around eighteen months. The usual amount of time for me to work on a book is somewhere between one and three years. The Music, which had taken six years to write, was highly unusual. This manuscript generated a certain kind of energy field that began to evaporate after a year and a half. In the middle of writing it I knew that its title would be Looking Into It. Titles for books arrive at all sorts of different times.

Now, I know that Looking Into It was the manuscript I wrote between Floating Up To Zero and Rua Da Felicidade, two books their author quite likes. At the time I was just working on my next book, and when the book told me it was done I stopped writing it and let it sit for a few years.

When it’s turn came around, I began doing its editorial type-up. When I’d finished typing it up it consisted of about one hundred and twenty poems. As is my way, I then pushed it to the side for six months.

When I went back to reread it I was really quite disappointed. I could see that I was actually quite tired when I was writing it, and that I was rehashing a lot of old themes and concerns. I cut out two-thirds of it and took it down to forty poems I could stand behind.

Now: what to do with it? I could try to pad it out to be a very small perfect bound book. Or I could allow it to be a large chapbook. I opted for the latter, and contacted rob, who had just published Green Wind the year before. I believe it was published in the springtime of 2011.

Each one of these chapbooks has a very different history of composite on and publication. And they weave into the tapestry that is above/ground press, which as of today has published 850 chapbooks, with more on the way by the end of the week.

There are at least another 845 stories, and counting.

I see above/ground press as its own little, massive cultural enterprise. Somebody once said that bill bissett is “a one man civilization,” and I tend to see rob mclennan in similar terms. I gave up small press publishing, with CrossCountry magazine and CrossCountry Press, after about ten years. I was exhausted. rob’s been running above/ground press for twenty-five years and seems to be just warming up.

3—4 March, 2018

Ken Norris [pictured, left, with Louis Dudek] was born in New York City in 1951 and moved to Montreal in the early seventies, where he quickly became one of the infamous Vehicule Poets. He became a Canadian citizen in 1985. For thirty three years he taught Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Maine. He now resides in Toronto. His most recent book is The Weight (Guernica Editions, 2015)

Ken Norris is the author of five above/ground press chapbooks, including Windward - St. Lucia Poems (1995), THE COMMENTARIES (1999), SONGS FOR ISABELLA (2000), Green Wind (2010) and LOOKING INTO IT (2011).

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