Wednesday, January 9, 2019

above/ground press 25th anniversary essay: Julia Polyck-O’Neill

This is the thirty-eighth in a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the 2018 quarter century mark of above/ground. See links to the whole series here.

Reflecting on the significance of above/ground press on the occasion of its 25th anniversary brings me to a good number of places.

I’m fortunate to count myself among the hundreds of above/ground authors editor/publisher rob mclennan nurtures. Like a patient gardener, rob applauds progress at the moments when we’ve learned to anticipate indifference, finding greatness in the quietest parts of quiet artists (and also, I add, in the loudest parts of loud artists). Anyone who writes knows that to write means to reach out to an imagined audience, and rob has often been the first to read my work, and certainly was the first to publish a small collection of my shy poems.

But my personal relationship with above/ground extends beyond publishing my first two texts, the chapbooks Everything will be taken away (2018) and femme (2016). It extends beyond my first ‘biggish’ public reading in Ottawa as part the Factory Reading Series, an unofficial parallel event held in conjunction with the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities in 2015. There is a reason that I was nervous to first meet rob, and that was because above/ground published works by many of the poets I love and has come to represent one of the most important nodes in the network of experimental poetry and small or micro-press publishing in Canada and beyond. I cited interviews on his blog in my essays and collected the small, innocuous-looking booklets of exquisite poetry he made in at his desk long before I knew I’d have a chance of interacting with him personally, and certainly well before I would have considered sending or showing him my work. Writing this particular piece is making me emotional; the fact of being invited to share my thoughts on the occasion of above/ground’s twenty-fifth anniversary makes me emotional (which explains, at least in part, why my reflections are late).

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I grew up on the periphery of Canadian cultural happenings, in Whitehorse, Yukon, where visits from prominent authors were regular but rare, and always sponsored by government grants and cultural initiatives. Acquiring small press work (and thus accessing the kinds of voices small presses publish) happened when I’d travel out of the territory, which I was lucky (privileged) enough to do regularly, but this travel also gave me a sense of the distance between my own creative community and those that ‘mattered’ – a cultural read I’d later come to critically question. These (much) later realizations aside, I came into my own with a reflexive consciousness that I would always be an observer and not a participant, and this sense of backgroundness, of peripheral identity, remains distilled in my self-imaginary. I remember reading poems in Ottawa, amongst my peers, and having rob share some generous praise for my writing and performance, then, quite by surprise, inviting me to submit work for an Ottawa project he was editing. Later, an invitation to submit a chapbook (which would be followed by a number of other exciting invitations, including the heartening invitation to read alongside poetry heroes at the anniversary event this past August). I recall the sensation of holding a box of my chapbooks and feeling overwhelmed. I was part of the network I’d studied. It was surreal.

above/ground press chapbooks represent a shared understanding that writing inhabits a variety of scales, and that many of them are small, intimate, and that these small intimacies are the building blocks for the larger worlds of poetry’s possible futures, its potentialities. Poetry really does come down to words on a page, but also, words that make their way to readers, and this is no small feat. above/ground is a press, but it’s also a network. above/ground is also rob mclennan, the patient gardener of poetry’s intimacies.

Julia Polyck-O’Neill is an artist, curator, critic, and writer. Her writing has been published in B.C. Studies, Feminist Spaces, Tripwire, Train, Touch the Donkey, Fermenting Feminisms (a project of the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, curated by Lauren Fournier), Avant Canada (WLU Press, 2018), and other places. She has published two chapbooks, Everything will be taken away (2018) and femme (2016), both with above/ground press. She currently lives in Toronto, where she is completing her  SSHRC-funded PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities.

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