25th Trillium Award

Profile of Michael Dennis, poet and blogger

 
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Michael Dennis

By rob mclennan

It has been said that during the 1980s, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis was easily the most published poet in Ottawa, with poems in several hundred magazines and journals. Born in London, Ontario in 1956, he has lived in Ottawa now for more than two decades. His work has been compared to that of Charles Bukowski and Al Purdy for its use of plain speech, as well as for his working-class ethos (and references to bars and drinking beer), yet he considers Auden one of his touchstones. When asked the poets important to his work in his ?12 or 20 questions? interview (posted 2007), he responded:

I?m a big fan of Canadian poets. Just reread Karen Solie?s most excellent Short Haul Engine.

There are so many more out there. I love the big guns Purdy, Cohen, Layton, Birney and that whole gang.

Toronto poet Stuart Ross is a big influence.

Auden, Bukowski, Szymborska. I could make a big list.

Sharon Olds is someone I've been reading lately. She writes perfect poems.

Raymond Carver.

Dennis originally became known as a poet during his years in Peterborough in the late 1970s and into the 80s, surrounded by poets such as Dennis Tourbin, Riley Tench, Richard Harrison and Maggie Helwig before relocating to Ottawa around 1984 (Tourbin and Tench also ended up in Ottawa). Once here, he quickly established himself as an active writer and a powerful reader, alongside friends and contemporaries such as Louis Cabri, Kate Van Dusen, Dennis Tourbin, Ronnie Brown, Deborah McMullen, George Young, Luba Szkambara, George Johnston, Paul Couillard, Riley Tench, Mark Frutkin, Louis Fagan, John Barton, Nadine McInnis, Susan McMaster and Colin Morton. For many years, he was part of a strain of poets that ran counterpoint to the ?official? Ottawa poets, themselves centred around the relatively-new poetry magazine Arc, run out of Carleton University by Christopher Levenson, Michael Gnarowski and Tom Henighan. The results of this division are clearest when one considers the number of anthologies of Ottawa poets produced between, say, the early 80s and the early 1990s — including Colin Morton?s Capital Poets (Oroborus, 1988), Heather Ferguson?s Open Set: A TREE Anthology (Agawa Press, 1990) and Seymour Mayne?s Six Ottawa Poets (Mosaic, 1990) — and how the extremely active and productive Michael Dennis (as well as a number of his immediate contemporaries) wasn?t included in a single one.

Dennis? list of chapbooks and books over the years is impressive and includes poems for jessica-flynn (Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986), fade to blue (Pulp Press, 1988), the on-going dilemma of small change (above/ground press, 1995), and This Day Full of Promise: Poems Selected and New (Broken Jaw Press, 2001), coming ashore on fire (Burnt Wine Press, 2009), as well as the broadside there was a man who loved to murder (Apt #9 Press, 2011). Writing on poems for jessica-flynn on his blog (posted June 8, 2012), Cameron Anstee writes:

In a career notable for its stubborn belief in writing a sort of poetry that is generally unfashionable and unlikely to yield awards or serious critical attention, Dennis has persisted. In a recent excellent interview with Bardia Sinaee, Dennis addressed the comparisons to Bukowski he is typically met with, as well as his lifelong commitment to writing:

Well the comparisons to Bukowski, I think, have more to do with the choice of content and approach to poetry, but there?s no real comparison to be made in terms of lifestyle. Other than [that] I embodied the idea of living as a poet and being a poet at a very early age, and I?ve lived in poverty.

Over the years, Dennis has also been known for an impressively large library of contemporary poetry (as well as an astounding collection of contemporary art), and his reading of Canadian and international poetry has been wide and varied. Almost as an extension of his reading practice, in March, 2013, with the help of Ottawa writer Christian McPherson, Michael Dennis started a blog of poetry reviews at michaeldennispoet.blogspot.com, where he reviews a new collection of poetry every two days, ?more or less.? Since he started, even he has had to admit to being amazed at the attention his reviews have been receiving, and the growing audience of readers. Given that the reviews are produced at no-one?s behest other than his own, he?s decided to focus on books that interest him, and books that he enjoys, rather than using the space to complain about books he doesn?t like. In an interview on Stuart Ross? blog (posted October 25, 2013), Dennis suggested that he doesn?t consider his pieces reviews in the traditional sense, and has opened up a new appreciation for contemporary Canadian poetry generally, and poetry overall:

For the best part of forty years I have called myself a poet and acted accordingly. I?ve been reading all I could and collecting all I could afford. I felt confident that I had a good grasp of the poetry scene in Canada. I have never been more wrong. The flood of poetry that came to my door was a joy in itself, the surprise was the number of authors I?d never heard of. How could that be. Quite literally hundreds of books of poetry published in the last couple of years and a vast number of them by poets I?d never heard of. Once I got over my initial embarrassment and shock, it was an uplifting discovery.

[?] And it made me feel better about my own life as a poet. A great deal of the frustration I?d been feeling about my own work, and the lack of attention it received, evaporated. I honestly felt a rejuvenating glee at seeing all these fine books. I?ve enjoyed every one I?ve written about. I don?t necessarily love every poem but I try to share why I?m enthused about each book. And then there have been the books that have simply blown me out of the water. Nora Gould?s I See My Love More Clearly From A Distance was simply astonishingly good. There have been dozens of books of such superb poetry it just boggles my mind.

Given his blog is soon to celebrate its first anniversary, I thought it a good time to check in with Michael Dennis on reviewing, his potential audience, and just what he?s learned from the experience.

rm: Recently at a conference, I heard a book editor from a major Canadian newspaper claim that the heyday of the poetry blog was five years ago, yet you started a blog in March 2013. What was the impetus for beginning to write and post reviews online?

MD: I started the blog entirely as a lark. I'd been posting occasional notes about books I'd enjoyed and a friend suggested I started to blog about them. He also suggested that if I did — publishers would respond by sending me books. It really was that simple — and frankly, surprising. Shortly after I started the blog I had a very positive response from Kitty Lewis at Brick Books and shortly after that a similar response from Hazel Millar at Book Thug. It was really around then that it occurred to me that the blog might have a purpose.

I don't know about the heyday of the poetry blog and I guess I'm not that concerned either. I see that this project has developed a life of its own and for the time being I'm quite happy to play along.

rm: You?ve been writing and publishing since the early 1980s, and I?ve long known you to be a voracious reader, taking in enormous amounts of contemporary poetry, as well as having a wide range of stylistic interest. Yet you?ve mentioned that there are whole swaths of poets working out there you hadn?t even heard of, prior to starting the reviews blog. Of the discoveries you?ve made over the past year, who are your favourites?

MD: There are several books I've read in the last year that will remain with me forever. Nora Gould's I See My Love More Clearly From A Distance, Kanina Dawson's Masham Means Evening, Susan Goyette's The True Names of Birds. These three stand out in my mind, but I have a great deal of affection for every book I wrote about. It's been a very satisfying experience at every level, this blog, and in so many ways I hadn't expected or anticipated.

Getting to see so much new poetry is really a privilege and it is bringing me much joy. The truth of the blog is that it is a selfish pursuit that is immensely satisfying. It is taking up more and more of my time but I'm in the very privileged position of having a loving wife who is entirely supportive.

rm: Has posting reviews to the blog changed the way you look at your own writing at all? Have you learned anything through the process of writing and posting over the past year you might not have expected?

MD: Doing the blog has greatly changed the way I see my own writing. I am probably less fond of my own voice as a result of reading all these excellent poets, or to put it another way, I'm far more critical of my own work. At the same time I'm probably more comfortable with my own work.

The most surprising aspect of the blog has been the consistently high level of poetry. I can't imagine there has ever been a time when there were more good active poets publishing in this country and that excites me. I recently read where a complaint was being made about quantity over quality in Canadian publishing — but I couldn't disagree more.

rm: I?d say there have already been at least some changes in your writing, such as the collaborative poems you composed with Stuart Ross that appeared recently in Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2013). How did those pieces come about, and what?s your take on working on collaborations? Is this something you?ve worked on before?

MD: You asked about the collaborative poems I did with Stuart. They happened because Stuart suggested it and I was happy to join in. Part of that is my long friendship with Stuart, I'd pretty much do anything he asked. I've done collaborative poems in the past with people like Ward Maxwell and Ian David Arlett back in the 80s, Steve Noyes and Louis Fagan in the 90s. Not a lot but little forays.

The poems that Stuart and I wrote were the most natural things in the world. We've known each other since we were quite young and know a lot about one another. That familiarity, from my perspective, and a willingness to just put it out there, made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. There wasn't a lot of humming and hawing about it. We started with one word exchanges, he'd write a word, then I'd write a word. Then we did two words each, and so on, until we were writing one line each. It was a gas.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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