Epistolary Correspondences

by Susan Howe



Before I was sent to Little Sir Echo I had an imaginary friend who lived in our Buffalo mailbox. His name was Mr. Bickle. When we moved to Cambridge he vanished as transitional objects tend to do although his name lives on as a family anecdote.

     Strange that one half-suffocated picnic in the course of life can disappear into Lake Armington’s hanging rock echo portals. Until the replication of love prevails in art and Periscope – one of Paul Thek’s late “picture-light” paintings, bubbles up from puddle blue depths

     So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden. Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean.
     I’m here, I’m still American

Notes on the Poem

Susan Howe is the winner of the 2018 International Griffin Poetry Prize, for her singular and intriguing poetry collection Debths. Let's celebrate this milestone in her distinguished career by revisiting our Poem of the Week look at "Epistolary Correspondences". "Epistolary Correspondences" picks up from the very beginning of the Foreword section, where Howe reminisces, but in somewhat pointed fashion, about the summer camp her parents sent her to when seh was eight. "I hated the place." In one visit where she had a solemn picnic with her parents, "I begged them to ransom me" ... but they departed at the end of the day and left her at the camp. Clearly, that incident still haunts her, not only raising the spectre of Mr. Bickle (although surely we think fondly about childhood imaginary friends, he's rather coldly referred to as a "transitional object") but earning the troubling adjective "half-suffocated" and other haunting analogies for that unfortunate picnic. The leap from there to the paintings of Paul Threk - here is a gallery of them to capture the mood - is fascinating. Did Threk's images somehow disinter the unhappy summer camp and perceived parental insensitivity? "So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden." That images - not words - provoked this unearthing of memories further intrigues. If Mr. Bickle lived in a mailbox, perhaps he would have witnessed some written missives petitioning for a summer camp reprieve ... but no, he had already transitioned and vanished, perhaps taking the power of words with him. As we delve into Howe's Debths, we see that images and text often battle it out on the page, deepening our curiosity and drawing us into her explorations.

The Rez Sisters II

by Billy-Ray Belcourt



after tomson highway

girl of surplus. girl who is made from fragments. she who can only
be spoken of by way of synecdoche. she whose name cannot be
enunciated only mouthed.

mother of that which cannot be mothered. mother who wants
nothing and everything at the same time. she who gave birth to
herself three times: 1. the miscarriage. 2. the shrunken world.
3.the aftermath.

sister of forest fire. sister who dwells in the wreckage. she who forages
for the right things in the wrong places. nothing is utopia and so she
prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to
make room for the heat.

aunt of the sovereignty of dust. aunt of that which cannot be
negated entirely. she who is magic because she goes missing and
comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the
world and does not fall.

kookum of love in spite of it all. kookum who made a man out of
a memory. she who is a country unto herself.

father of ash. father of a past without a mouth. he who ate too much
of the sunset.

Notes on the Poem

Billy-Ray Belcourt is the newly minted winner of the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, for his powerful poetry collection This Wound is a World. Let's celebrate this achievement for a young poet's first poetry collection by revisiting our Poem of the Week look at "The Rez Sisters II". The poem's distinctive title will probably already ring a bell. The attribution "after tomson highway" confirms that the poem takes its inspiration from Cree Canadian playwright and novelist Highway's 1986 play The Rez Sisters. The cast of characters comprising Highway's work are described vividly here. As this definition clarifies the use of "after", the work that follows is considered to be "a direct imitation of an original artwork, made at a later date". Belcourt's poem definitely takes its cues from the play, but it is no mere imitation. The poem's spare and striking depictions of damage, such as: "girl who is made from fragments" and "sister who dwells in the wreckage" are analogous to what Highway's characters have contended with, but the moments of transcendence: "she prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to make room for the heat." and "she who is magic because she goes missing and comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the world and does not fall." are homage to Highway's themes of survival, by whatever feisty, whimsical and resourceful means necessary. Tomson Highway has acknowledged that his work was inspired in part by Michel Tremblay's 1965 play Les Belles-soeurs. It's interesting to see that core themes of a potent collective feminine energy facing life's adversities have carried through and informed three such powerful interpretations and tributes.

Debths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt Win the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize

TORONTO – Thursday, June 7, 2018Debths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt are the International and Canadian winners of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize. They each received C$65,000 in prize money.

Continue readingDebths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt Win the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize”

A Short Story of Falling

by Alice Oswald



It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary

is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

Notes on the Poem

While we await the announcement of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winners on June 7, 2018, let's enjoy agaih a Poem of the Week selection from the work of 2017 winner Alice Oswald. When Alice Oswald read from her 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Falling Awake in the spring of 2017, she was not in fact reading - she was reciting her work. In the video of her reading, note that she never looks down, but gazes directly at the audience throughout the poem. In this picture, all that is visible on the podium before her is a small scrap of paper that surely cannot contain the text of all the poems she presented that unforgettable evening. Alice Oswald OK, maybe she has a wee advantage because it is her poem. Still, memorization and performance of that memorization are estimable feats, perhaps especially so in this age of myriad distractions. Oswald is known and admired for memorizing her work when she presents it. Her performance of her book-length poem Memorial was described as a "visibly exhausting tour-de-force" in an article in which she touched on reasons for this rigorous practice. “I do very much believe in poetry as a kind of tune or music,” she revealed. As well, the Memorial presentation was clearly a type of veneration: "In a kind of superstitious way, I feel that for those names actually to be sounded out loud is even more than for them to be written on a page. It’s a kind of giving of life back to those people." Memorization and recitation might seem too daunting, even for the rewards of challenging oneself, succeeding, honouring, leaving an impression. Poetry In Voice, an organization that encourages Canadian students to fall in love with poetry through reading, writing, and recitation (including competition) offers straightforward tips for giving it a try. It just so happens Oswald's "A Short Story of Falling" is a perfect recitation candidate, with rhyming couplets unspooling in a satisfyingly rhythmic fashion. Its circular construct invites you to repeat it over and over again. While demanding, there are any benefits to the poet or presenter in reciting a poem. Recitation lends added power and resonance for those listening to and experiencing a poem rendered in this way.

or more or

by Donato Mancini

Notes on the Poem

We've devoted this and the previous six Poem of the Week installments to the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. We now draw to the end of the tour with "or more or" (as it's called in the "Contents" at the end of the book) from Donato Mancini's Same Diff. This selection can easily lay claim to being an intriguing example of two very different - perhaps even mutually exclusive - forms. As you can tell from the image of the poem here, before you enlarge it to fully take in the words, it is a form of concrete poetry. The poem's themes, significance amd effect are achieved visually, through the arrangement and styles of letters, words and lines on the page. At first glance, the three arrows? icicles? daggers? ... or any numbers of pointed objects or signposts might not yet signify what the poem is about, but those shapes leave an impression that informs our continued exploration of the poem. And of course, that impression, that impact, that layer of experience of the poem is lost on us if we cannot see the page. That's where it's revelatory to discover that the poem also stands on its own as a startlingly powerful example of sound poetry. Imagine it being read aloud or ... go ahead, read it aloud! The driving force of the incessant repetitions and variations of a seemingly simple figure of speech is hypnotic. Intriguingly, the phrase's meanings - somewhat, with small variations - echo the process by which the phrase is being deconstructed, with incremental variations that build such that the words' innocuousness suddenly becomes desperate, obsessive, sinister or ... or ... or ... are rendered blank, ready to take on new meanings. As the Griffin Poetry Prize judges concluded about Mancini's work throughout Same Diff, "[h]e is a custodian of language who returns it to us cleaned.” However you approach this particular poem, he has clearly done that here.

I fold in half

by Aisha Sasha John



Documents destined for the shredder.

I leave flat the ones to be scanned into patient charts.

I consider how long stickers have rested on the glass
Protecting me from potential
Disease and violence
Of the people.

The first time I came here I was late, I was scolded
I was bleeding
I barely even cared
Fuck, look:
When I start to bleed
I have to eat

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week excursion through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist now stops at "I fold in half", one of numerous examples of Aisha Sasha John's refreshingly direct authorial voice in I have to live. "I fold in half" exemplifies what the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed when they remarked that John's collection "shows what poetry can become when stripped of prettiness and polite convention — when in survival mode." The poem's title is the start of a declarative sentence, rolling straight into the business at hand. In this case, the business at hand is a mundane job, but John's narrator gets to it. As she marches forward, her drive is not blinded to telltale details in the world she is navigating that might aid or impede her survival. "I consider how long stickers have rested on the glass" is both vigilant and verging on humorous in its concern for safety. Still, in her next breath, she contradicts her apparent attention to detail and confesses that she was late the first time she showed up for this job. This narrator is both breezily heedless and - maybe - mindfully self-deprecating. A couple of weeks ago, we examined how Natalie Shapero spoke to us directly through her lyric poetry. Arguably, John's poem is also lyric, in the sense at least that she is speaking directly, certainly in that she speaks intimately. In her two references to bleeding, you don't know at first if she is injured - thereby eliciting sympathy - or menstruating, eliciting any number of reactions, none of them necessarily sympathetic even if they might be empathetic. She's in a workplace. She's new here, we've only just met, maybe that information is too personal or not appropriate. But you know what? She "barely even cared." We can't help but admire that she's speaking directly and bluntly, but she is not speaking to us. As the Griffin judges couch it, "John writes poems that are resistant to overwrought aesthetics, poems that have popular appeal yet are uninhibited by audience ..." Even though we are not her audience, or she barely cares if she has an audience, we're still drawn to listen to her pain, her boredom, her hunger. We're attracted to the unvarnished voraciousness that strikes us from the outset in the title of the book, which is like a refrain woven throughout the collection. By quite steadfastly focusing on herself, her feelings, her appetites, John gives us new perspectives from which to view ourselves and those around us.

The Rez Sisters II

by Billy-Ray Belcourt



girl of surplus. girl who is made from fragments. she who can only
be spoken of by way of synecdoche. she whose name cannot be
enunciated only mouthed.

mother of that which cannot be mothered. mother who wants
nothing and everything at the same time. she who gave birth to
herself three times: 1. the miscarriage. 2. the shrunken world.
3.the aftermath.

sister of forest fire. sister who dwells in the wreckage. she who forages
for the right things in the wrong places. nothing is utopia and so she
prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to
make room for the heat.

aunt of the sovereignty of dust. aunt of that which cannot be
negated entirely. she who is magic because she goes missing and
comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the
world and does not fall.

kookum of love in spite of it all. kookum who made a man out of
a memory. she who is a country unto herself.

father of ash. father of a past without a mouth. he who ate too much
of the sunset.

Notes on the Poem

Next up in our Poem of the Week tour through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist is "The Rez Sisters II", a selection from Billy-Ray Belcourt's This Wound is a World. The poem's distinctive title will probably already ring a bell. The attribution "after tomson highway" confirms that the poem takes its inspiration from Cree Canadian playwright and novelist Highway's 1986 play The Rez Sisters. The cast of characters comprising Highway's work are described vividly here. As this definition clarifies the use of "after", the work that follows is considered to be "a direct imitation of an original artwork, made at a later date". Belcourt's poem definitely takes its cues from the play, but it is no mere imitation. The poem's spare and striking depictions of damage, such as: "girl who is made from fragments" and "sister who dwells in the wreckage" are analogous to what Highway's characters have contended with, but the moments of transcendence: "she prays to a god for a back that can bend like a tree splitting open to make room for the heat." and "she who is magic because she goes missing and comes back. she who walks upside down on the ceiling of the world and does not fall." are homage to Highway's themes of survival, by whatever feisty, whimsical and resourceful means necessary. Tomson Highway has acknowledged that his work was inspired in part by Michel Tremblay's 1965 play Les Belles-soeurs. It's interesting to see that core themes of a potent collective feminine energy facing life's adversities have carried through and informed three such powerful interpretations and tributes.

Hard Child

by Natalie Shapero



So I had two lists of names for a girl, so
what. The president’s allowed to
have two speeches, in case the hostage
comes home in a bag. The geese
in the metropark don’t want
for bread crumbs, despite the signs
proclaiming the land provides them all
they need. I was a hard child, by which
I mean I was callous from the start.
Even now, were I to find myself after
a grand disease or blast, among the pasty
scattering of survivors, there isn’t one
human tradition I would choose to carry
forward. Not marking feast days, not
assembling roadside shrines, not marrying
up, not researching the colloquialism
STATEN ISLAND DIVORCE, not
representing paste pearls as the real
things, not recounting how the advent
of photography altered painting,
soured us on the acrylic portrait, thrust us
toward the abstract, sent us seeking
to capture in oil that which film would
never be wasted on: umbrella stands,
unlovely grates, assorted drains, body casts.
I typically hate discussing the past
and treasure the option, rarer and rarer,
to turn from it, as when K’s twins
were born and one of them
nearly died — I don’t remember which,
that’s how much they got better.

Notes on the Poem

We hope you're sharing our delight as we make our way through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, a Poem of the Week at a time. This week, we're savouring the many pleasures of Natalie Shapero's "Hard Child", the eponymous poem of her shortlisted work. The judges' citation for Hard Child the poetry collection describes "Hard Child" the poem perfectly:
“The poems in Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child come as close as lyric poems can to perfection. We feel the effect of them before noticing their machinery. Yet every poetic instinct Shapero possesses, every decision of line, image, stanza, diction, and tone, results in poems that are limber, athletic, powerful, and balanced. And behind her technical choices lie an emerging ethics: “I don’t want any more of what I have. / I don’t want another spider plant. I don’t //want another lover.” Her poems take us to the purest evolutionary point of the lyric form through their single-speaker stance, the movement of a mind over subjects, the emotional weight carried on the backs of images, the unpredictable associations, the satisfying call-backs. She teaches us how to retain the self without disappearing into the object we behold. She holds herself at various distances from the thing considered. She drives us toward a view and back again. This is how to write a lyric poem.”
"Hard Child" launches with the immediacy, intimacy and intensity that every definition of lyric poetry and poems suggests. We certainly feel like the poet is speaking to us directly - maybe not singing, but certainly with animation - and is abundantly expressing her thoughts and feelings. The lightly sardonic tone (which, if you haven't heard Shapero's voice, you'll always happily hear henceforth), describes situations ranging from the troubling, tacky or vulgar to the downright horrific, but it's all paced and leavened with dark humour. The poem abounds with intriguing examples of twinning and pairing. There are two lists of names, the president's two speeches, faux and real gems, as well as photography versus painting, marrying versus divorcing (you can decide if you want to research that one or not) and infant twins, one briefly imperilled. Because she was apparently alone as a child, is that why the narrator of this lyric poem "was a hard child, by which I mean I was callous from the start" Maybe hearing Shapero read it will help resolve it. We hope she'll bring this poem to life when the 2018 shortlisted poets gather to read from their work on Thursday, June 6th in Toronto.

from Vaporative

by Layli Long Soldier



However a light may come
through vaporative
glass pane or dry dermis
of hand winter bent
I follow that light
capacity that I have
cup-sized capture
snap-like seizure I
remember small
is less to forget
less to carry
tiny gears mini-
armature I gun
the spark light
I blink eye blink
at me to look
at me in
light eye
look twice
and I eye
alight
again.

Notes on the Poem

As we make our way through the poetry collections on the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, Poem of the Week now casts its gaze at "Vaporative", a selection from Layli Long Soldier's Whereas. As the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observe, Long Soldier "lay[s] bare the murderous hypocrisy lurking behind the official language of the state" by "deftly deploying a variety of techniques and idioms". The slim icicle of simultaneously precise and elusive wordplay that is the opening section of "Vaporative" might not, at first glance, seem to be as pointed an examination of troubling and deceptive uses of language as, for example, the "Whereas" section of the book is. But in fact, "Vaporative" is pointed: figuratively, as it unspools words that as they're spoken can artfully mislead ("I blink eye blink"), and literally, as the words on the page assemble into the honed tip of a knife. Concrete poetry is clearly one of the forms the judges commend Long Soldier for wielding with such effect. We're reminded of the combination of visual interest and emotional resonance that Liz Howard achieved in her poem "Boreal Swing". While the power of concrete poetry is lost when the poem is read aloud, Long Soldier also bolsters this poem's potency with delectable words. This sequence cries out to be read aloud: "I follow that light capacity that I have cup-sized capture snap-like seizure I remember small is less to forget less to carry" In the introduction to the Whereas Statements at the heart of this collection, it's a dagger thrust of trenchant irony when Long Soldier points out that the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans was never read aloud, publicly. Even though the suggestion in this poem that words spoken or recorded on the page are perhaps ephemeral - they vaporize - Long Soldier has combined visual impact with sonic powers that drive home the point (yes, that word bears repeating) that whether or not words are viewed, not viewed, spoken or not spoken, they can endure, for good or for bad.

Epistolary Correspondences

by Susan Howe



Before I was sent to Little Sir Echo I had an imaginary friend who lived in our Buffalo mailbox. His name was Mr. Bickle. When we moved to Cambridge he vanished as transitional objects tend to do although his name lives on as a family anecdote.

     Strange that one half-suffocated picnic in the course of life can disappear into Lake Armington’s hanging rock echo portals. Until the replication of love prevails in art and Periscope – one of Paul Thek’s late “picture-light” paintings, bubbles up from puddle blue depths

     So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden. Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean.
     I’m here, I’m still American

Notes on the Poem

Poem of the Week is now on the second week of a seven-week exploration of selections from the just announced 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This time, we're delving into the riches of the extended Foreword of Susan Howe's work, Debths. "Epistolary Correspondences" picks up from the very beginning of the Foreword section, where Howe reminisces, but in somewhat pointed fashion, about the summer camp her parents sent her to when seh was eight. "I hated the place." In one visit where she had a solemn picnic with her parents, "I begged them to ransom me" ... but they departed at the end of the day and left her at the camp. Clearly, that incident still haunts her, not only raising the spectre of Mr. Bickle (although surely we think fondly about childhood imaginary friends, he's rather coldly referred to as a "transitional object") but earning the troubling adjective "half-suffocated" and other haunting analogies for that unfortunate picnic. The leap from there to the paintings of Paul Threk - here is a gallery of them to capture the mood - is fascinating. Did Threk's images somehow disinter the unhappy summer camp and perceived parental insensitivity? "So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden." That images - not words - provoked this unearthing of memories further intrigues. If Mr. Bickle lived in a mailbox, perhaps he would have witnessed some written missives petitioning for a summer camp reprieve ... but no, he had already transitioned and vanished, perhaps taking the power of words with him. As we delve into Howe's Debths, we see that images and text often battle it out on the page, deepening our curiosity and drawing us into her explorations.