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Dusting Off: Love Minus Zero

A delete bin’s worth of autobiographies released over the past decade by ex-punkers who have settled into memoir age hasn’t necessarily made for collective appraisal beyond a garage-tinged look at the sex, drugs, slam-and-roll counter-culture of their youth. Love Minus Zero, Lori Hahnel’s 2008 novel based on her role in Calgary’s first female punk bank, The Virgins, is poignantly different. Set in the late 70s/early 80s First Wave of punk in which fictional all-female Calgary band Misclairo briefly rise, it is a sombre exploration of the personalities that drive counterculture and what happens when the initial energy fades. 

Misclairol and associates quickly experience the smoulder-out of their own movement as it provides the kindling for a more violent and less-inclusive hardcore scene. Subsequent forays into reality and adulthood for the band and scensters means an uncomfortable normalcy for some, or following the nihilism to its logical end for others.

Hahnel’s writing style is suitably punk rock, in the First Wave sense. Rather than an anarchic hack at narrative that draws more attention to technique than substance, she uses straightforward, unadorned prose that, like the music, is all about getting to the throbbing heart of the matter.

Join the pogo here.

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Clean Up Your Reading

Dishwashing Event Part Two: Ontario

By Sacha Archer

20 pages

Puddles of Sky Press


2016


The companion piece to Sacha Archer’s Dishwashing Event Part One: Tianjin, China, this chapbook is a simple and complicated paean to daily physical chores, turning the mindless and the mundane into a thoughtful exposition of language. It’s also the literal transcription of the sounds of Archer’s daily dishwashing, picked up by a voice analysis program and fed into Microsoft Word to produce sound poems that translate both the psychological banality and physical intensity of the act into something like a series of spontaneous literary grunts. A little outside the soap box, maybe, but it works.


The poems are short, and either monosyllabic, prosey and urgent, or stuffed with definite and indefinite articles and stuttered conditional clauses that repeat in increasing frequency and agitation until grammar degenerates into a full-blown riot. The role of the reader is key: the act of reading becomes an attempt to translate the ambiguous signs back into the essential world of the physical act and restore some order: Does this multiple repetition of ‘if’ represent a particularly hard de-scouring of a greased pan?; Does this grinding of grammar into pure onomatopoeia equal the rinse?


The process, technique and results are certainly going to scramble your sense of what a poem should be. But while Dishwashing Event Part Two might sully the coherence of language, it invites you to clean up the mess again.


Get to work here.

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A Read of Kaaterskill Basin Lit Journal (with all the lights on)

​Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal

Issue 1.4 (Fall 2016)

94 pages

Modern horror is less a genre than a feeling: you know what it is when you see or read it, but can’t necessarily describe it (certainly not as traditional eerie suspense). Horror can be a detailed study of the mutability of the flesh – usually into many bloody pieces. It can also be a psychological work, wherein the nature of reality is revealed to be grown from just as delicate tissue as the body. Or a bit of fantasy. Perhaps some speculative fiction as well?

The pages of the Fall 2016 issue of Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, wrapped around a horror theme, are full of all, but focused through subtler, more ‘L’iterary lenses. Such as through verse.

Poetry on horror themes can be tricky. One can easily pit-fall into melodramatic goth, or take too much of a staid, serious and lukewarmly academic approach to generate any chills. While the most easily identifiable mode for poetry of a terror-filled kind is narrative that is derived, forevermore, from Edgar Allen Poe, the best poems in Kaaterskill are crafted from short, condensed stanzas and feature modernist, imagistic flavours. (Think William Carlos Williams producing Saw rather than writing Paterson.) For example, Gayane Haroutyunyan’s “Pain” is the quite sharp, literal dissection of an oddly ‘giving’ relationship. Larry D. Thacker’s “Respect”, where “bones in the yard…float up out of the black dirt” is an ode to the buried history of small town secrets, like what you might see if Stephen King had co-written the lyrics to Nebraska.

The short fiction contains much of the mutability aspect. Both “The Creature from Flathead Lake” by Theodore Carter and “Feeding the Fish” by Bron Treanor illustrate the inner transformations of characters through very similar physical mutations, but with different, though equally grotesque, outcomes. There is also the more cut-and-paste (or hack-and-graft) transformation in “Gin Stitches” by Daniel Lynch, which kicks off with the beautifully deadpan and irony-spattered, “Jack has identity issues” and goes wonderfully off the rails from there. 

The horror includes the more fantastical variety, too. “Mute” by Timothy Day is a dark, sci-fi mind-bender that shares space with some of M. John Harrison’s latter work. “Creeley’s Drop” by Ethan Leonard suggests Kathe Koja-edged Alice Munro; that is, an unsentimental portrait of innocence outlined by existential menace and dread. Leonard’s story in particular demonstrates the other strength of this themed-issue: Kaaterskill isn’t simply interested in delivering hardboiled horror. The theme may be raw genre, but the writing is precisely cooked, as Leonard demonstrates via such passages as the beautifully circular:

“It was easy to keep the bottomless pit a secret. Once a person stood at its edge, there was no way to put it in words. The new girls on the track team came to me, in the locker room, and I saw what they’d seen reflected in their eyes, so I started talking.”

Oh, and it makes for a pretty good set of page-turners, too.

Peek over here, if you dare.

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Ringing Out the Bones

Ring out the bones of the old year with the medullan melodies of Rob Plath’s Skeleton Sutras (40 pages, Epic Rites Press, 2016), a wickedly entertaining series of grim anti-fairy tales/parables. One of the sharpest collections you should have read all year, Skeleton Sutras pulls beauty from ruin in blunt, finely carved prose poems in which Plath chisels language (excuse us) right to the bone.

Start the New off with the Old.

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A Good Read of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

By Diane Williams

131 pages

McSweeney’s 

2016
‘Flash fiction’ can mean anything from a few clipped sentences to a few short paragraphs to a few brief pages, with narrative as the clearest literary line separating it from prose poetry. Flash fiction means there is still a story, no matter how short and sharp the arc may be. It could be the span of a life jammed into the tight jar of a paragraph, or the climax sliced from a larger backstory and spread out on its own, or a sprinkling of scenes. But the reader will still get some open and closure, implied or otherwise. The author will still work with imagery and rhetoric to suggest actions, ideas and consequences beyond the air-tight strictures.

The flash fiction of Diane Williams in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine showcases all of these traits. But her stories somehow manage the weightier task of also being character-driven.

Many of these characters remain nameless, as if caught in tableau. Sometimes, Williams will peg an identity to them, but more for tone and colour than symbolism. Almost all are at a sudden point where they face a marked change in their lives. Some adapt as quickly as the word-count ends while others seem set to struggle far beyond the time it will take for the page to yellow. The reader may not know much about them, but will witness the import of their key moments and situations. This is flash fiction as the drama of epiphany.

“Specialist” presents the ultra-condensed ‘life-flashing-before-the-eyes’ of a very self-wrapped consciousness condemned to a fresh hell of external-awareness. “The Poet” evokes a surreal tragedy in two packed paragraphs. “Perform Small Tasks” is a mini-masterpiece of obfuscation, where drama is hidden behind a mind fussed with daily minutiae. “Girl With a Pencil” is a creation myth sketched with short strokes as the main character’s dark self-prophecy is shaped by a stark maternal presence.

Behind numerous facades (of forced passion, rigid consciousness, contrived fashion) everything is, of course, not fine. The thread that joins the stories is, in fact, threads coming unwound: relationships ending (or never quite weaving together), lives snipped short with unanswered questions and unresolved issues. The false declaration of the title, that sounds like a petulant child giving in with reluctant pout, melds with the overall, overwhelming effect of the relentless narratives. The substantial amount of character and drama that Williams packs into the book can overwhelm the reader, as the number of small tragedies add up to the emotional weight of an epic.

But, while brief, remain profound snapshots of life where things can change in a flash.

Snap to it.

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A Read (and re-read) of re/translate

​re/translate

By Stephen Hines

40 pages

Bottle of Smoke Press

2015

Let’s say that language is an abstract, subjective system of signs, with different languages built in different systems. Let’s add that poetry may involve a warmer, more musical system, but one that is still built in an equally subjective way atop the first set of signs. The act of translating verse from one language into another, then, can be like arranging a whole new song in a completely new genre. Or, at least, giving the original an extensive remix.

At first read, re/translate isn’t quite that musically inclined. Poet Stephen Hines suggests he is working in the spirit of the time-honoured kids’ game of “Pass it On”, where a phrase repeated at one end of a line-up comes out the other end processed into linguistic hamburger by the giggly minds of early learners. But playing this game with poetry offers a bit more adventure than spitting a phrase along from one ear to the next can.

Here, the phrase is a full-grown piece of literature, and the processor, an on-line translation system. Hines’ rather unpoetic technique is to run the text of a previously-published poem of his (“revision”) through a translation algorithm numerous times, from English to, say, Russian, then back to English. He reveals the transformation, then moves on to the next language, and the return to English, and the further remix.

Although Hines claims not to have tinkered with or edited the translations, the results have a surprising flow. Through the accretion of idiosyncrasies from each language, the words gather additional meaning from translation to translation, like a well-worn piece of luggage building up a facade of travel stickers. 

And it’s a battered piece. For Hines, language is an almost physical medium, and reading his work becomes a visceral experience. The text takes an anoraphic pounding, such as when, in the initial poem, “these words [become] raw from rereading/raised bloodred from rereading”. Hines’ style is prosaic, direct and merciless.

Translation, though, rips the poem from his grasp. When, a few versions in, the poem returns to English from German, it has been tuned more lyrical: “Rereading these words makes swollen/saturated beads, raw red raised/wounds.” By the time the last version is reached, landing from Bengali as “Format”, the text is a minimalist knot of potential meaning that seems exhausted by all the efforts, gradually collapsing at the end into the infinity of a hanging conjunction:

“Words,

For

Or”

Of course, there are other variables at work in this literary experiment (which translator is used?; which languages are chosen and in which order? etc.). But the satisfaction from the results, the way in which the collection actually hangs together as a piece of literature rather than just the raw products of an experiment, comes from the dramatization of language as a constantly mutable system. Here, meaning is as much layered on as also dug up, with the reader rearranging their approach to the poem with each fresh presentation: a remix and a new genre from each mouth to each ear.

Go to the front of the line.

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Dusting Off: King Dork, the novels

(An occasional series in which we dust off some slightly older but relevant material that has been sitting on the shelf, metaphorical or otherwise)

The (notionally) youth-oriented King Dork series is an example of art imitating art. Author Frank Portman is (slightly) better known as “Dr. Frank” of long-running punkers MTX (aka The Mr. T. Experience), a band (mildly) famous for blending romantic angst, pop culture references, witty wordplay and breezy, loudly anthemic musicKing Dork and King Dork Approximately feature angst-ridden young rebels who favour anthemic music told via a snappy mix of pop culture references, witty wordplay and breezy prose. These are entertaining stories that also happen to be smart interrogations of youth culture and the art it is based in. Throughout the books, our anti-hero, Tom Henderson, tries to make sense of his world and Western youth culture while looking at, but not necessarily using, best practices from classic rebellion-based books (Catcher in the RyeBrighton RockNaked Lunch), and a large ‘desert island disc’ list of music (from at least AC/DC to Nirvana). It all sounds ordinary enough, but Portman brings just the right mix of irony and earnestness to the production to offer something to those of the younger demographic who are navigating adolescence (a bit too seriously), and those of the older set looking back at those days with some (undue) nostalgia.


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