18 August 2020

Chatting again with Michael Dennis about Today's book of poetry

Photo by Kirsty Jackson

I’ve blogged about the Ottawa poet Michael Dennis before. He is a person I love, and he is a great and honest poet who doesn’t pull any punches. Our friendship is one of the two or three best things that came out of my decade of selling chapbooks in the streets of Toronto during the 1980s. Our chance encounter out there has led to decades of camaraderie, collaboration, mutual support, the occasional heated argument, countless great meals together (and a few terrible ones), a houseboat adventure with our partners, and probably hundreds of hours of vital conversation and music-listening in his tiny, magnificent, poetry-book-filled office. 

Michael is the author of thirty or so immensely pleasurable poetry books and chapbooks, including, most recently, Low Centre of Gravity (Anvil Press, 2020), The President of the United States (above/ground press, 2020), Caterwaul: Nine Poems (shreeking violet press, 2019), Divining (Proper Tales Press, 2019), Sad Balloon (Monks Press, 2018), and Bad Engine: New + Selected Poems (Anvil Press, 2017). Also, this summer, a new literary press, A + D, based in Trondheim and Minneapolis, released Spøkjelse i japanske drosjar (Ghosts in Japanese Taxis), a beautifully designed bilingual selection of Michael’s poems in English and Nynorsk translation by the Norwegian poet Dag T. Straumsvåg. 

Forthcoming is 70 Kippers, a book of collaborative poems by Michael and me that I’ll be putting out soon through my Proper Tales Press.


Now, here’s the thing. From Thursday, March 7, 2013 until April 3, 2020, Michael maintained a blog called Today’s book of poetry. Posting every few days on average, he wrote appreciations of 812 poetry books he admired on that blog. In October 2013, I published an interview with Michael about Today’s book of poetry on my own blog. When Michael announced, a few months ago, that he was retiring his blog, I asked if we could do a second interview.


Over the intervening years, Michael’s blog has been a regular point of discussion for us during my frequent visits to Ottawa. Michael often produced his Today’s book of poetry ledgers, where he recorded the title, publisher, and author of every book he received, year of publication, date of receipt, whether he wrote about the book. All colour-coded. And I marvelled at the intricate system he’d set up on his shelves: like Molloy, in Samuel Beckett’s book of that title, who divided his eight sucking stones among his four pockets and continually rotated them, so he didn’t suck on the same stone twice in a row, Michael made sure he continually cycled through the various publishers so he could most effectively spread his poetry love.


For most of the reviews, Michael carefully keyed in two or three of the poems in the book. After all, the poems themselves would speak at least as loudly as Michael’s commentary. Plus, it was a good way for readers to see if they agreed with what Michael had to say. What amazed me was how many great poets I just hadn’t been aware of, especially from the US, but even here in Canada. I found dozens of new (to me) poets through Michael’s blog, and have bought dozens of books because of it.


I am in the process now of reading through the entire blog, from the first entry to the last entry. I'm noting more books I have to order! I love watching how Michael’s approach to the blog develops, how his very approach to reading a book seems to shift: though his honest, gut response is consistent throughout.


I, and others, had been urging Michael, for a few years, to add a “tip” button to the blog, so he could at least generate some pocket change for his work, or maybe to set up a Patreon account. Michael is a bit of a luddite, and it’s something he didn’t get around to doing. So, within days of his shutting down the blog, I started up a GoFundMe campaign — a way for people to show their appreciation to Michael for his dedication to poetry.

I mean, it would have been plenty enough for him to just have written the great poems he’s written. But the blog represents the kind of selfless dedication that allows the poetry machine to keep cranking and clanking along. At first, I was torn about whether to set the GoFundMe target at $1,000 or $2,000. A friend convinced me to go for the latter. Within a few months, the campaign has raised over $10,000, still a modest reward for all that Michael — and Kirsty, his wife — have done for poetry. (Hey! You can still contribute!)


On July 13, I sat with Michael out on his porch — just big enough for a social-distance visit — in Ottawa’s Vanier neighbourhood, and I asked him about the experience of writing his blog for eight years.

 Photo by Pearl Pirie: Michael & I reading at Black Squirrel Books in Ottawa

You may have the exact number, but I’m guessing you read maybe 3,000 or 4,000 poetry collections, or parts of poetry collections, for Today’s book of poetry, and you ended up writing about 812 of them. Were there still surprises for you in that last couple hundred?


Oh, completely, completely. Right up until the end. The last couple of books had surprises that I wasn’t expecting.


Were the surprises about the content or that different kinds of books existed or different publishers existed? Were those the kinds of surprises?


I was surprised that I was still finding authors who had achieved enormous levels of acclaim, particularly in the States, and that I was just discovering them, and some of them dead for ten or fifteen years but with bodies of work that were completely contemporary and vivid and exciting. So that continued to be a surprise to me. But also, new works by young Canadians who were just off-the-charts smart.


Were you surprised ever at something that you wouldn’t have expected to like but you liked?


Well, I’d like to think that over the entire period of doing the blog that I was willing to expand my horizons. Whether or not I was still doing that at the end is really going to be up to other people to decide.


We’re sitting out here on your porch, which is the most amazing place, where you know almost all of your neighbours … I know you did a lot of your reading up in your bed before going to sleep —


Did I ever read here? Constantly. Constantly. Whenever the weather was nice. Sat right there —


Where I’m sitting.


— with a stack of books.


And then you whittled them down. I remember you mentioning that you had a ritual of taking a couple to bed with you at night. Were those the ones you whittled it down to?


Well, it would depend on what night it was. If it was the night before I was writing a blog, it would be the one that I was writing about. Re-reading it and writing about it. Or it could be a night where I was whittling down new stuff that had arrived, or you know, sometimes just taking stuff to bed for pleasure.


So there were books you were reading, too, that were not for the blog. Because you were only writing about books that publishers or authors submitted to you specifically.


But I was still buying poetry.


So you were reading other stuff too. You had your pleasure reading and your work reading, so to speak.


Or if books came to me different ways. Like, if an author sent me a book, I would consider that book for the blog. But if a buddy gave me ten books, those books wouldn’t be up for consideration. Not because there wasn’t anything good in them, but because they just didn’t fit the criteria.


When I interviewed you about this, maybe it was about a year or two into it, the first time, I grilled you about how come you’re only writing about books you like, and now I’m totally sold on the project. I was totally sold on the project sometime after that: maybe it was a couple of years or a few months, because I think it makes what you did unique. What, for you, over the course of the time you were doing Today’s book of poetry, were the greatest rewards? Obviously, getting books in the mail is pretty exciting!


The greatest rewards were the friendships. There were dozens of friendships I developed through correspondence as a result of the books, both with publisher and with poets. Those were the biggest things. You’ll remember me speaking of my friend [the American poet] David Clewell, who passed away just at the start of this pandemic. He was a real changing force, in that he opened up my eyes to quite literally dozens of very fine poets I hadn’t been exposed to, and did it in a fairly broad-minded way, literally with dozens of books.


Maybe you can talk just a little bit more about the friendships. I know you’ve talked so much about David to me, and then he connected you with other people. Campbell McGrath you had some correspondence with; John Levy, from Tucson, who I’m now corresponding a bit with, you met through Today’s book of poetry, as well? 


David Lee…


The American David Lee. 


Yeah. He was one of the biggest discoveries. His work is just simply nonpareil. Both the body of it and the content. Just a remarkable, remarkable body of work.


And he became a friend as well?


Yeah. A correspondence friend. Another guy down in California, Richard Lopez. And, of course, Dag T. Straumsvåg, from Norway, who I met through you.


Your answer about the greatest rewards did surprise me. I know that you contacted every writer and/or every publisher you wrote about, if you were able to, to let them know? Did you hear back from most of the writers?


About sixty per cent. And all tickled. For most of them, it was the only critical attention they’d had.




M: And even for some very well-established people. Another guy I got to correspond with – Ron Koertge — is someone I’d looked up to for a long, long time. He was just so overwhelmed with gratitude when I wrote about his book on my blog that I was astounded.


Yeah, he’s a pretty prominent poet.


And the same thing for Campbell McGrath.


So, that’s interesting. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe there’d be poets who’d maybe you’d been aware of and had been reading for some years who you ended up writing about and –


Because for one reason or another, they fell under the criteria.


That’s really cool. Did the experience of doing Today’s book of poetrychange you, of writing about those 800 books?


Sure. Changed me, changed the way I looked at poetry. And by change, that can also mean reinforcing a lot of the things I already believed, but also opening up new doors. It was really great to see stuff from other countries, although I didn’t get a lot of it, but in translation — you know, just to reinforce how universal all these things are, all these things we believe in strongly, the humanity of it.


S: I was talking last night with Stephen Brockwell and Gwen Guth about your new book of poetry, Low Centre of Gravity. I think it’s your best book of poetry, as huge a fan I am of some of the other ones. And Stephen pointed out something. He compared it to your book Fade to Blue, which is another one of my favourite of yours, and he said Fade to Bluewas so straightforward and so tough… He didn’t say that it was objective, but he said the poetry was more direct, it was descriptive, and he felt that Low Centre of Gravity has a lot more emotional content, more raw emotional content – though it was obviously the same poet. Do you think that that is something that came out of the experience of the reading you were doing, or do you even agree with that theory?


I think it’s just what happens when you get older. You shouldbe more considered. You know, you’ve had time to weather some of these things, and they take on different levels of importance, and dominance in the way you perceive things. Yeah, things change.


Yeah, it didn’t even occur to me last night when we were having that discussion that that’s what’s happening to my poetry too. Experiencing things, and experiencing losses. I think my stuff is still recognizable as me from earlier books, but like I was saying at that online reading the other night, the Anvil Press launch, I feel that my writing is getting more autobiographical. Not that yours is more autobiographical than it was, but that mine is also becoming more emotionally open.


Yeah, I understand.


I do think it’s a product of aging and experience of life.


And a choice. And a choice.


And a choice?


Well, you know, you can also get to this point and just be a grumpy old man and say, “Well, I don’t want to explore those things” or “I’m going to close down those emotional outlets.” It’s a choice, right?


This is amazing. So…I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but…you chose to write about books that you liked, that you admired. Did you ever choose to pass on a book by a writer you knew personally?


How do mean pass on a book?


You know, a book comes in by a friend or someone you know –


Oh, dozens.


How did it feel to do that, or did you have to wrestle with it?


Well, I always felt like I was betraying my friends, but I also had really simple rules… And as much as I admire some of my friends’ work, I don’t admire all of my friends’ work all of the time.


Yeah, I definitely have friends whose poetry I don’t care for that much. I feel a little bad about it! But it’s how I feel. But I’m not in the position of writing or not writing about them.


No, I tried to be really honest with myself: are you writing this because this is how you really feel or are you writing this to gain points? And for the most part it was fairly easy, because it was anonymous — of the 800 I wrote about, I probably knew a hundred in person, or had some sort of interpersonal relationship with. Like, I wrote about Stephen Brockwell, I wrote about Pearl Pirie, I wrote about rob mclennan, I wrote about Cameron Anstee, I wrote about Justin Million. And more and more and more.


Were there presses that sent you a few titles, but you really wanted to see more of their books?


Oh yeah. I would have loved to have seen more of Gaspereau and more of Gaspereau’s chapbooks. I would have loved to see more of everybody’s everything.


Also, were there presses that were so gung-ho about your project and were sending you stuff and sending you stuff…but you didn’t necessarily like the stuff they were publishing and you wished they did more things that grabbed you?


Yeah, there was that feeling. If several books had come in from one publisher and I hadn’t written about any of them, I might be more lenient or more tempted to – But I still had rules I believed I had to follow. But yes, I wantedto support every publisher who sent books to me.


I just gave you a book last night called The Poetry of Pot, and it’s a really crappy-looking book, it looks like this awful self-published thing, and it’s so badly designed… Sometimes you’d put up a picture of a book, and I’d go, “Oh my god, that just looks like an awful self-published thing” — and I’m a self-publisher so I’m not really down on self-publishing. But there are really badly designed books that have good insides.


Yeah, and I really was able, I think, to overcome that, to overcome the covers…


But that was something you had to overcome?


Yeah, because godawful covers…and some amazing ones too. But there was some good poetry in bad covers.


[The garbage truck crawls by; we pause until the noise passes.]


And probably bad poetry in good covers. I was amazed that you were able to write, and sometimes every two or three days for months at a time, and find new ways of expressing praise. Did that ever become a struggle for you?


Oh yeah, I often felt like I was being redundant or saying the same thing over and over again. But I knew the same people weren’t reading the same ones every time. And I just, again, tried to be honest in the sentiment, even if some of the terminology was tired. And that’s why I brought in other characters, and music, and — not as distractions, but other ways of focusing, so I wasn’t always just saying exactly the same thing.


Right. So how did you bring in, was it …


The staff.


Your staff. Katherine, Milo… Was that specifically to find new ways of expressing?


Yeah. To get more than one opinion.


Also, as a reader, for me, it created this sort of narrative. I mean, I knew these were an invented staff, but I thought, in a sense, they represented different parts of you, for one thing, and they made it more entertaining because they created a narrative out of your reviews. That was pretty fun. Tell me, would you recommend it to anyone else to do what you did?


I’d recommend it to anyone. Just for the sheer reading pleasure. The practical problem is actually getting the books.


How to get out the word and get people to start sending them?


To get them to wantto send you their books. Yeah. Like, had I stayed doing it this year, that would have been a lot easier because Today’s book of poetry has more name recognition, and I was starting to get books from, you know, Copper Canyon, University of Chicago…


Did you keep all the books that came?


I would say more than ninety-nine per cent. The ones I didn’t keep were either doubles or… There was one publisher from Britain who I would say spent more money on their books per book than any of the other publishers that sent to me. What the hell was their name? Austin Macauley. But their books of poetry — hardcover, paper-wrapped, colour beautifully done, nice paper — but they were – I don’t know if it was vanity or really close to vanity, but it was like barroom limericks or just barely post-juvenile, and I just couldn’t ever bring myself to blog about one of their books, and I felt bad about it! So, there were some of those that I felt no need to keep whatsoever, and I put them in the little neighbourhood library box just up at the corner there.


You just didn’t want them taking up space on your shelf. Because you do keep books you don’t care for. These must have been really pretty bad.


Yes. They didn’t qualify


Are there any other things that I might not have touched on, that I might not have thought of, about your blog project that people might be curious about?


I don’t think people realize the time involved. And that was only made possible because of Kirsty, my wife. She thought it was a really worthwhile endeavour, so she supported it. You’re doing something once in a while, the time doesn’t really matter, but to be able to make that sort of commitment, with Today’s book of poetry, meant that there were three or four hours a day, most days, seven days a week, that I devoted to doing the blog, in one fashion or another. So that’s four hours that don’t get accounted for in the rest of the slate, whether it’s companionship, or going out to dinner, or doing other chores, and of course because there was no financial compensation, you know, essentially Kirsty was supporting me financially, but at the same time encouraging me to do exactly that, encouraging me to do the blog. So that was very paramount. Without that, you know, you’ve got the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.


Wow. I have been so “Thank you so much, Michael, for doing this,” it didn’t completely occur to me. I always thought of it more as “Kirsty puts up with this, “but she really supported the project wholeheartedly. She was almost a collaborator, in a sense, because she made it possible for you.


Oh yeah. And was encouraging every step of the way. She loved it. I mean, it bothered her, in a joking sense, about all the books coming in the house.


And maybe from the point of view of someone who isn’t a poet, that you weren’t paid for it.


Well, she certainly had an appreciation of that, and more and more as the blog was going along, she was seeing how these other poets, of far more renown than me, were totally ignored and financially ignored —


[At this point the garbage collectors arrived and the roar of the truck made it impossible to talk. Kirsty had put some especially heavy bags out for collection and was worried they wouldn’t take them. But they did.]


Kirsty: Thanks a lot! 


Thank you!


Yay! They’re taking it all! There might even have been a couple of those British books in there.


That’s gotta be the hardest job in the city.


They probably don’t have a lot of people sitting on the porch thanking them. Probably a less thankful job than poetry. But thanks so much, Michael — and Kirsty!

A pleasure, Stuart. Always.

Kirsty & Michael in their garden

Over and out.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home