Review by Richard Stevenson.
Sometimes good things come in small packages. Sometimes that small package means a small print run poetry chapbook of a hundred copies, of which fifty are signed by the author. Sometimes that small package comes hand-stitched, with lovely gift-like end wrappers, a fancy font on the cover, highly readable and serviceable text font inside, gorgeous cover illustration and spot colophons. Sometimes it arrives as a handy 4 ¼-inch by 5 ½-inch pocket size edition in a glassine envelope.
I often find myself cringing at a poetry reading when someone comes up to the merch table afterwards to inquire about the price of my latest full-length book, and I have to say $15 or, increasingly, $20. Among poets, I know I’m not alone. Occasional poetry readers don’t really get the pricing logistics of small print runs or trade editions of skinny books as opposed to the cost of mega-run paperbacks either, though they’ll concede that better quality paper ought to cost a little more than pulp. Sometimes that twenty bucks is just too rich for the poetry-loving patron of the arts. Poetry readers, by and large, don’t come from the upper echelons of corporate capitalist society, after all, and aren’t particularly flush. At ten bucks a pop, then, Leaf Editions’ chapbook series offers good value for the impoverished wannabe poet or student intent on keeping up with the Canadian poetry scene.
The arty chapbook makes a nice souvenir to take away from a reading, and a nice entry point for younger poets intent on making their mark as well. Poets can hone their craft and offer the quintessence of their work on the way up the slippery slope of Parnassus, and have several chapbooks to offer at a reading before they get to the way station of that all-important (prize-winning) first full-length book. More and more often, that contest-winning ms is the only entry-point left for fledgling poets wanting a full-length collection too, unless they submit to the e-book, vanity, or print-on-demand options, or start their own press and publish their books themselves. Stalwarts like Margaret Atwood and Al Purdy paid for their own first books, after all, so it’s a legitimate avenue. Besides, how are you supposed to get anyone to sit up and take notice when the audience is so small to begin with, and hundreds, if not thousands, of good poets are swimming the various channels among handsome journals, print and e-zines, among schools of bigger fish. The micro- and small presses eventually establish a stable of poets they feel they should support, and first-book slots are going the way of the dodo. Most small presses have to diversify their lists to stay afloat, and, even then, the Mandarin hand of the Canada Council is fickle come feeding time. I know: it’s just happened to me after having a first novel accepted by a new small press not yet on the block grant program, after having published twenty other books!
So chapbooks make sense. They may even make better sense than poetry books, but for the awkward fact that Unesco only recognizes 48 pages as a book, and only serious literary bookstores stock them, mostly on consignment. So they’re better than vanity press books, but appear fitfully at the lower end of the feeding chain, and chapbook poets have to swim very hard and fast and hang near spiny urchins and coral reefs to avoid being swallowed whole by the yawning groupers among us.
That’s why it’s so important that wannabe poets support such valiant enterprises as Leaf Press from the tiny hamlet of Lantzville, just outside of Nanaimo, and why the serious poetry addicts and publishers among us are looking at different distribution schemes like web site sales and subscription publishing.
A few words about Leaf Press then, before I get to the two sample chapbooks the editor was kind enough to send me for review.
Clearly Leaf Press is a labour of love. Equally clearly, publisher/editor Ursula Vaira is on a mission – to “publish chapbooks by new and established poets,” according to the web site “about us” page. I want to add, “in lovely, limited, and lovingly-produced editions.”
The web site – www.leafpress.ca — offers a weekly Monday poem slot and a substantial back list of titles. The site is handsome, expertly designed too: a model, in fact, of how a chapbook press ought to be run. Pay them a visit and consider making a serious donation or placing an online order then: plenty of excellent poetry can be had there, and you’ll be keeping the trigger fish, who specialize in pulling the spines from those protective urchins, at bay.
So much for the long preamble and diatribe about the rigours of small press publishing. What about the work of the poets at hand? Does the poetry warrant the loving care and attention?
Well, yes and no. Poet Candice May wrote A Letter From India, her one-poem work, while living in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains when she was twenty years old. It is typical of a lot of apprentice work by younger poets: urgent, unabashed, full of lovely images and metaphors; and, yes, it makes a strong poetic statement about local, civil war: that once one has lived in a so-called Third World country and has had to cope with bad water, parasites, has seen extreme poverty up close and personal, and learned to appreciate the extremely complicated politics and religious ambiguities associated with internecine conflicts, it is obscene to talk about their war or our war, or to talk in terms of avoiding trouble spots, and confining one’s tourist adventures to “safe” terrain. The war is as much an ongoing, mobile conflict concerned with class struggle and the inequities of global capitalism/consumerism, as it is local, and, therefore, unavoidable. We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us, to paraphrase a line from the Pogo comic strip.
The poet uses the ragged free verse strophe Purdy made popular and relies on the rhetorical question and anaphora to structure her lines and strophes. It works well, and the poet’s lines are generally rhythmic and melodic, but a kind of sentimental tendentiousness of preaching to the converted creeps in too.
Poet Svetlana Ischenko immigrated to Canada in 2001 from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, and had published two books in Ukraine, Chorales of Heaven and Earth (Vyr Publishing House, Kyiv, 1995) and B-Sharp (Mozhlivosti of Kimmeria Publishers, Mykolaiv, 1998), and had been anthologized in a volume of young Ukranian poets in 2000. In addition, her English language poems had begun to appear in some of Canada’s best literary magazines and a couple of micro press anthologies, including one from Leaf Editions, before appearing here.
According to the cover note, in Ukrainian culture, the crane represents freedom, purity of heart, peace. A pair of mated cranes symbolizes a loving couple that is free to fly but comes back to its home every spring, no matter how far it has travelled. The reader will see immediately where this is going, metaphorically speaking.
Most of the poems are untitled and form a loose sequence separated by three-asterisk breaks; the last two are titled. Again, we’re dealing with open form strophes held together with anaphora, metaphor and symbolism.
Ms Ischenko is a romantic poet. Often the metaphors work and draw us deeper into the poet’s conflicted émigré world; we hear her yearning for a genus loci, a great love to sustain her – not just the passion for a life-long mate and attentive lover, but for a “nest,” a second home she understands in her bones, one she can orbit around or stray great distances from as she returns to visit the old world:
The rain creeps out of the ocean
like a lover in the night.
The river allows the lover
into her fresh mouth
and touching him with her tongue
shapes him in her bosom into flint
that sparks coldly their words of love
in the language of the trees, …
Occasionally, second-language problems rear up: “the sound of a wind edged and flecked… .” The synaesthesia of a colour-flecked wind is a bit of a stretch. Over all, though, the language is fresh and invigorating and the poet’s control of the ebb and flow – the cadence — of her lines sure-footed and true.
I look forward to reading more work by both poets here. Moreover, I’m happy to say Leaf Press is in excellent hands. Anyone looking for a lovely gift for a friend, or, indeed, just wishing to drop in to scope out what some of our better established poets – John B. Lee, Allan Brown, April Bulmer, Winona Baker, John Pass, etc. — and interesting newcomers, are up to in the moment, need look no further than Lantzville and Leaf Press for poetic inspiration.
Richard Stevenson lives, teaches, and writes in Lethbridge, Alberta. Recent publications — full-length and chapbook works — include A Charm of Finches: Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka ( Ekstasis Editions, 2004), Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Palm Poets Series, 2004), Flicker At The Fascia (Serengeti Press, 2005), and Tempus Fugit: Improvisations for Miles Davis (Laurel Reed Books, 2005). He has another collection of haiku and a memoir forthcoming in 2006.