I first met rob when I was a Creative Writing student at Concordia. I was a couple of months pregnant but not yet showing; rob was giving a poetry reading and my professor had encouraged the class to attend. The reading was held in a nondescript meeting room at Concordia. There were lines of chairs facing a podium, and there was rob, a very poet-looking poet with long hair, reading from his book of poems. It all seemed such a marvelous accomplishment – that I was there, a creative writing student, and that such things as poets publishing books existed. rob seemed to be “one of our own” – not one of the distant writers I’d read and studied. This perception helped me imagine that going from “here” to “there” was, indeed, possible. This thing rob was doing was something people did, something that could be done, that perhaps I could do.
I was a little star-struck, and so it’s not surprising that this experience made quite an impression on me. What is surprising, perhaps, is that it still seems significant to me today. The sense of collegiality, of camaraderie that I felt at this first introduction to rob and the above/ground press was energizing. rob made poetry and the idea of being a poet legitimate, tangible and attainable. I remember this reading in relation to my pregnancy because, of course, events become connected in these ways in one’s memory, but also because that baby is now a young adult, and it seems to me that rob has nurtured the above/ground press and its community in the same way one raises a child.
Not long after that reading, I subscribed to the press and sporadically an envelope stuffed with poems would appear in the mail. It would arrive torn at the corners and taped to stop it splitting open. Receiving those packages was always a small envy-tinged thrill, but soon enough, the question became how to store them. The incredible volume of work the press has published over the years is truly impressive. Although I subscribed for only a few years, I have dozens of above/ground chapbooks on my shelves and a banker’s box full to bursting of “POEM” broadsides. Unfortunately, a banker’s box is a storage solution that does not lend its contents well to casual reading, and so, at one point, I considered getting rid of the broadsides but that seemed sacrilegious. So I’ve kept the box, carting it from apartment to apartment and house to house, and then from room to room within the house until finally, recently, the broadsides have made their way onto my shelves. Every time I’ve had to move that box and have opened it to see what it held, I’ve felt something akin to nostalgia at the sight of all the POEMs printed on the bright paper. Ah, yes, these! I’d think and tuck the top back on the box leaving the POEMs undisturbed. They remind me, still, of how I felt at the beginning of writing, before children and work consumed all my energy, before the years when I stopped writing altogether; they spark hope and possibility, still.
Over the years, the POEMs have acquired another level of significance. They are part of the history of Canadian poetry, a record of the growth of a community and of the development of individual writers, an inspiration for writers to come. This is no mean feat for a tiny press.
Even more valuable and immediate to me is rob’s unwavering support of poets and writers – new or established, local or not – and his ability to encourage, mentor and nurture this talented community. I want to say that rob is relentless, but that word carries a slight negative connotation that I wouldn’t want to imply. He’s supportive and persistent and, somehow, he manages, with his regular email inquiries, to nudge and push me in a way that I feel, included and valued. In the years when I gave up on my writing, rob did not. The above/ground press kept on publishing poems and poets, building writers and community, and when I was ready to return, rob and above/ground press were there to welcome me.
Last August, the press published a chapbook of mine and I read at the press’ 24th anniversary alongside other above/ground authors, including Stephanie Bolster, the professor who had encouraged me to attend rob’s reading close to 20 years ago. As full circles come, this one was pretty special: there I was, doing the thing.
For me, above/ground press is and will continue to be a beacon of possibility. It reminds me, when I’m in danger of forgetting, that I want to write, that I should write. And then I do.