Friday, 18 July 2014

A Poem by Gretchen Primack

Here’s another installment of “Poetry…I just don’t get it”. A series where I send some good poems out into the world with an explanation by the poet – in the hopes that the average non-poet reader will explore the realm of Poetry Land with less fear (or anger), and maybe buy a book or two. Or three. 

The last two episodes can be found here (Michaela Kahn) and here (Erling Friis-Baastad). 

This month: a poem by Gretchen Primack, from her collection Kind (Post Traumatic Press, 2013). The title plays with the idea of what kind means. Kind is sometimes a noun, defining class or group (human, animal, etc.). This definition usually creates difference, a sense of us vs. them, and so, alienation. Kind can also be an adjective, meaning benevolent, loving, or considerate.

I quote from her interview with Chronogram (a Hudson Valley, New York magazine) when Kind was first released: “I don't have a line between our species and other sentient beings…I don’t think children have that line; somewhere along the line we’re taught it. I find that separation very artificial, and I don’t think it leads us to healthy lives. It leads to profound problems in our world. It contributes to environmental disaster, to world hunger, to public health nightmares, to a breakdown of morality.”

While many of the poems in this collection have been seen through the lens of “animal rights,” I see the collection in broader terms, as part of a new wave of authors re-defining Humanism: that what makes us human is our relationship with the non-human.

Gretchen is also the author of a more recent collection of poetry, Doris’ Red Spaces (May Apple Press, 2014); a chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets (Finishing Line Press, 2007); and was co-author on The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin, 2012), about the life of Jenny Brown, founder of The Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.


What I like about the poem “The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods” is the immediacy of the language. The description of the scene moves forward, back, groping, the way the mind does when confronted by something brutal and frightening. What am I seeing? Did someone really do this? Why? The poem then expands, moves quickly from horrified witness, out through the questions the scene poses, and into the world with one person’s answer…

The Dogs and I
          Walked Our Woods,

and there was a dog, precisely the colors of autumn,
asleep between two trunks by the trail.
But it was a coyote, paws pink
with a clean-through hole in the left,
and a deep hole in the back of the neck,
dragged and placed in the low crotch
of a tree. But it was two coyotes,
the other's hole in the side of the neck,
the other with a dried pool of blood below
the nose, a dried pool below the anus,
the other dragged and placed
in the adjoining low crook, the other's body
a precise mirror of the first. The eyes were closed,
the fur smooth and precisely the colors
of autumn, a little warm to my touch though the bodies
were not. The fur was cells telling themselves
to spin to keep her warm to stand
and hunt and keep. It was a red
autumn leaf on the forest floor, but
it was a blooded brown leaf, and another, because
they dragged the bodies to create a monument
to domination, to the enormous human,
and if I bore a child who suffered to see this,
or if I bore a child who gladdened to see this, or if
I bore a child who kept walking, I could not bear
it, so I will not bear one.

The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods

Every morning, I take the dogs on the forest trails that loop behind our house. We rarely see a human. Occasionally, there’s a man with a gun. 

One morning, we were about a mile from the house when I noticed the sleeping dog, which turned into a coyote, which turned into two shot coyotes assembled in the crook of a forked tree. I wrote this poem almost immediately afterwards (though there was plenty of shaping to do). 

About a year later, I wrote a longer poem, The Hunter, trying to get into the head of someone who feels more alive by taking life. He is making his mark on the world; he is exercising ultimate control; he is slighting his own death. 

Maybe he goes one step further. Maybe he handles the bodies, makes these beings into his puppets (echoing the heads on spikes of Old London Bridge). But part of him, too, might feel the satisfaction that comes from making art. 

Art is another way to derive worth and fight the vulnerability of mortality. It can, of course, be created without causing harm, even work against harm – but there’s his kind, too. In his case, one way to stave off the fear of mortality—taking life—led to another way—making art. 

Both ways came at the expense of a creature every bit as worthy as himself.

Gretchen Primack

You can buy Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces from her website here.
(where you can also find sample poems)

Interview with Chronogram

Gretchen discussing Kind at EcoRazzi

Review of Kind at pank magazine

Review of Kind at ourhenhouse


Friday, 18 April 2014

Andalusian Poems by Erling Friis-Baastad

Welcome to Episode 2 of Poetry? I Just Don’t Get It. A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work. It’s my small attempt to bridge what I see as a huge gap between readers (who are not poets themselves) and great contemporary poetry. 

In this episode I am posting a suite of poems by Canadian poet Erling Friis-Baastad. 

Erling was born in Norway, raised in the US, and has spent most of his adult life in the Yukon Territory, Canada. I first encountered his work in the early 90’s, in a magazine published out of Montreal called Alpha Beat Soup. His poem, The Exile House, leapt right into me. Back then I had a small poetry press called BEgiNNer’s MIND, publishing poetry chapbooks and broadsides alongside art, so I immediately sent a letter to him through the magazine asking if I could publish The Exile House as a broadside (The Exile House ended up as the title of his first collection from Salmon Poetry in 2001). When he wrote back I discovered he lived in the Yukon. Wait…the Yukon? Like, up by the Arctic Circle? The Exile House is still one of my favorite poems. 

He is a poet of the far north, but this particular suite of poems is from Spain; specifically, Andalusia. It was written while he was in residence at Fundación Valparaíso in Mojácar, Spain.The distance and closeness he felt in writing in a region so different than the Yukon he addresses in the mini-essay that follows the poems. 

His most recent collection is Wood Spoken: New & Selected Poems (Harbour Publishing, 2005). 

The Andalusia poems were previously published in Errant. They will be part of a new collection entitled Fossil Light

Erling Friis-Baastad

for Giuliano Capecelatro


Do not rush
into a desert night
Shield your eyes
against these stars

Recall the North—
decades demanded
simply to hint
at spruce or ice

Move a hand slowly here
The wide-eyed lizard
beside your pen
has seen a ghost 


I have packed
the wrong books
into this desert—

of northern gods
who rage and sweat
in their dark fur

Here, a languid demon
only nods
toward the courtyard

and the smallest of ants
silently removes
a dying cricket

from the hot
white stone


As the shard
works its way
through stone
up into the sun
you will rise
from night’s matrix

Today, you will brush
centuries of earth
from a fragment
of thought, reveal
an ancient potter’s
perfect green and blue

Later, in the heat
you will obsess
over white,
then sleep
without closing your eyes


I would never thrive here
but I might survive
as a fragment, of course,
as a shard

something once fashioned
by a strong brown hand
then aged in sand,
sturdy and simple—

or as a scavenger
whose rare cry
might be heard at dusk
in deference, in homage, to all

something that small: the slave
of a slave, shadow of a shadow
who worships among cactus
trusts to thorns

and begins each night with please


Too much history here
I cannot sleep

Cold lightning
to the west
over the Sierra Nevada
startles the centuries
awake and back
into hunger—

Huge black horses
trample winter’s
garden again

dark matter
made flesh


by some fierce new god
striking the old mountains

exhumed by his storm
I sit up
after centuries

abraded but amazed
to feel
desert wind again

I have survived all
I was meant

to placate or reveal

And am now pure—
art and in anyone’s service

Fundación Valparaíso, Mojacar, Spain/Erling Friis-Baastad

Erling Friis-Baastad

I first stepped off the Alaska Highway, travel-worn but expectant, into the Yukon Territory in 1974. After years in cities like Toronto and New York and their suburbs, I felt propelled by heroes of the San Francisco Renaissance, poets like Lew Welch, Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth, to explore a western wilderness.

I found myself, that first summer, in a tiny cabin on a lake. There, I imitated those California artists, imposing their interpretations of their coastal stomping grounds on my new boreal landscape. It took years of writing in and from the Yukon to produce a poem that actually sounded like it had been written among black spruce, not under an arbutus, and further years to develop upon that discovery. It also took a stay in Andalusian Spain.
Since before the time of Homer, poets have been created by landscapes every bit as often as they sought to portray and respond to them. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but as a northern poet it is possible to get very stuck in one place and never get to draw parallels to, or explore differences with, other regions.

Time and again, we poets of the North, as infatuated by our boreal or Arctic identities as by our home, are called upon by editors to contribute work to special “northern issues” of magazines. We comply, being both understandably proud of where we live, and eager to be included among our northern neighbours. Some marvellous publications have resulted. But a steady diet of that editorial preference can lead to parochialism and severe artistic malnutrition. We become complacent, endlessly rework expected myths and legends and allow northern lights and moose to do the heavy lifting. Time spent elsewhere revitalizes one’s art, even if the quotidian home is as exotic as the Far North.

I was accepted as a fellow at Fundación Valparaíso in Andalusia more than seven years ago, and during my month on the southeastern coast of Spain I was given time to explore a new place, made more vivid for me by some surprising similarities to my Yukon home. I sensed a haunting, just beneath the obvious, but by new ghosts from other histories.
Both the desert and the boreal hills allowed the small and elemental to break through humanity’s current burst of desperate territorial chatter. As a result I discovered that the spare poem is best suited to translating rocks, bones, birds, shrubs, worked chert, and ceramic shards into art, while recalling the dreams and chaos played out by humanity among them.
I brought my new, pared-down poetry back from Spain to the Yukon. The handful of Andalusian poems may well be my favourite of all my work, in part because they return me to such an absorbing time and place among new friends, living and dead, and in part because of what those small songs taught me about individual words and the spaces between them. A desert landscape released the power concentrated in the smallest things: lizards, ants, feathers, thorns, photons...  

I recently completed a 200-poem manuscript of even leaner work, The Pencil Poems, mostly set in Yukon mountains and on the coast of British Columbia, poems of flower petals, spider webs, snow crystals, and drops of rain. The six poems of the Andalusia suite were the slightly more wordy progenitors of that collection.




A late





(from Pencil Poems)

Erling Friis-Baastad
Whitehorse, Yukon

Links to some of Erling’s poems

Erling's Books