25th Trillium Award

Profile of In/Words, with a few questions

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In/Words. Photo credit: Cameron Anstee

In his ?12 or 20 (small press) interview,? Ottawa poet and Apt. 9 Press publisher Cameron Anstee talked about attending Carleton University and his introduction to small press:

My introduction to small press publishing came during a Canadian Literature survey taught by Prof. Collett Tracey during the second year of my undergrad. She gave a lecture on Souster, Dudek, Layton and their Contact Press that absolutely floored me. I'd never heard anything like it and couldn't understand why they didn't teach THAT in high school. From there, I became involved in the student-run campus little mag and chapbook press (In/Words at Carleton University).

For a university without a creative writing program, Ottawa?s Carleton University has managed to make substantial literary waves, given the creation of Arc Poetry Magazine in 1978 or the late decade-plus student run literary journal, The Carleton Arts Review (formerly known as The Carleton Literary Review), in the 1980s. More recently, Carleton University English professor Collett Tracey directed a group of undergraduate students to found In/Words magazine and In/Words press, a series of activities that have now lasted more than a decade. According to their website, founded through the English Department in the fall of 2001, In/Words ?...began as a reaction to a first year seminar course taught by founder Professor Collett Tracey in which students were encouraged to write.? It?s a deceptively simple idea, but that is exactly the strength of the group: that they were encouraged to write. With that encouragement, those students began a series of activities that has managed to sustain them still, including a regular journal, a series of poetry chapbooks produced throughout the academic year, a monthly reading series and a regular series of informal Monday-night workshops, all of which fall under the umbrella moniker ?In/Words.? What has really left a sustained mark is the list of writers that have come through the other end, a number of whom are producing increasingly interesting writing, and beginning to receive attention beyond the immediate borders of the informal group. Some of that list would include Bardia Sinaee, Peter Gibbon, Rachael Simpson, Ben Ladouceur, Justin Million, Leah Mol, Cameron Anstee, jesslyn delia smith, Jeff Blackman, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Jenna Jarvis, Rotem Yaniv, Chris Johnson, David Emery and numerous others. As Million himself writes:

In/Words validated the passion that I had for writing poetry, as I was suddenly surrounded by passionate, intelligent and highly motivated poets. I suddenly wasn't alone in my need to sit at the campus bar and drink and argue about poems and poets and magazines and the direction Canadian literature is taking and think we were actually contributing to the latter narrative. Becoming an editor at In/Words can immerse you very quickly in that world, as it did for me.

As informal as the group is, it?s impressive how they have been to a large degree self-sustaining. Million goes on to say:

One thing I will give us credit for is that we did it almost entirely on our own, and In/Words still prints a mag, still has a relevant reading series, and is a growing presence in Ottawa's busy writing community. [?]We all pushed each other as writers, whether we were writing collaborative chapbooks, editing each other's stuff, workshopping as a group at the Monday Writer's Circle meetings or just introducing each other to new writing. We were also hard on each other, which I think pushed us to write more and to think more about what we were writing. I consider people like Pete Gibbon, Jeff Blackman, Cameron Anstee, Bardia Sinaee, Ben Ladouceur, Jesslyn Delia Smith and others to be some of the most exciting young poets I know, and we all came out of the same mess of poets. We made each other better.

With an influx of new members every autumn, the group manages to encourage and maintain a healthy space for writing, reading and feedback. The strength, in fact, is that odd combination of relative insularity and annual influxes of new members. As Cameron Anstee writes,

The editing team turns over every couple of years. Previous editors go out into the world and do wonderful things, whether as writers or small press publishers. New editors come in, learn for themselves, repeat many older mistakes and do lots of other things way better than previous editors. Because it is so closely tied to the University, turnover is a natural part of it.

Groups of writers emerging out of universities certainly aren?t anything new, but when you consider that neither Carleton nor the University of Ottawa have creative writing programs, any levels of support become directed nearly exclusively by a series of individuals. Anstee continues:

At first it was simply motivation to write regularly. There were deadlines, open-mics and people willing to read and listen, so it seemed a shame not to have new work. At first we published a lot (certainly too much in my case). By the end of my time with the mag, I think I learned to hold back a bit, to publish less, to work on things more. I began to see the longer game and I hope I?m more patient with the process now. As an editor and publisher, it drove home for me the great joy of putting work in to print from writers I admire, and seeing that as an incredibly valuable contribution to the community. I approach publishing as a generative, creative endeavour.

All of this (the good things in each of my answers) has to be traced to Collett Tracey. It is absurd how she motivates people in this community at Carleton. Undergrads who care about writing leave her courses amped up to changed the world with a poem. The group of writers who I consider myself to be a part of from Carleton simply does not exist without Collett.

The only parallel in recent Canadian writing might be the Burning Rock collective out of St. John?s, Newfoundland. A group of writers that originally came out of a fiction workshop in the mid-1980s, they continued to meet pretty consistently every two weeks for informal workshops, and some who emerged from such include Christine Pountney, Michael Winter, Lisa Moore and Kathleen Winter. There are certainly plenty of other examples of writers who have emerged from literary journals attached to universities, from filling Station to dANDelion to PRISM International to Matrix to The Malahat Review to The Fiddlehead. As a journal, In/Words magazine might be smaller (it exists in chapbook format), but, unlike the larger literary magazines, the journal is only but a part of their wide breadth of activity. Instead of focusing on the journal itself, the journal, it seems, is but a means to a larger, broader end of literary activity and production. Jeremy Hanson-Finger writes:

In/Words provided a community within which I was comfortable to share my work and the monthly open mic was a good incentive to write something new every month. I also really respected the feedback I got from writers whose work I admire, especially Ben Ladouceur and Bardia Sinaee. I'm not sure I can pin down an In/Words influence or thread that ran through everybody's writing the way that there was a Tish style, since everybody's work was so different — some were heavily influenced by the Montreal modernist poets, and some were influenced by more contemporary Canadian or American writers. I wouldn't say In/Words had an impact on the direction of my work so much as it provided a great atmosphere in which to write, and that I certainly wouldn't have pursued writing the same way during university without the existence of In/Words. I didn't really write anything during my first year of university, and after going to that open mic that Justin invited me to, In/Words provided an external support system to help keep me motivated to keep producing, and the confidence to send more work outside Ottawa again.

An earlier editor of In/Words, Peter Gibbon echoes a bit of what Hanson-Finger says, writing:

In/Words was in a unique position while I worked with it because we mostly operated on the Carleton campus which left us relatively isolated from the larger Ottawa literary community. I'm not suggesting that was a positive thing, but it contributed to the development of many writers simply because we learned more from each other and developed a unique sensibility when it comes to poetics. I think the attitudes of the Montreal Modernists toward publishing and reading poetry was pretty influential for us and contributed to the dynamic of our group. it also cultivated a healthy suspicion toward the status quo in Canadian poetry, putting the small press/mag ethic on the forefront, what Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen and Carolyn F. Ulrich referred to as the "advance guard" of literary production. we took that very seriously. we also developed a vicious loyalty toward each other's writing, since we were so invested in what the other person was writing and publishing.

One of the features of In/Words has to be the reading series, currently held the last Wednesday of every month at The Clocktower Pub on Bank Street, situated at the north end of the Glebe. Hosted and organized by David Currie, the series has developed into a healthy open stage of predominantly emerging and/or In/Words writers, as well as regular features, some of which come from their own ranks, as well as more established local writers such as Michelle Desberats, Michael Blouin, David O?Meara and Rob Winger. As Currie writes:

I took over the reading series a year ago this summer and with the exception of December it has happened on the last Wednesday of every month since then. I see the reading series as being an extension of In/Words somewhat manic obsession with the new. Having worked as an editor of the magazine I have witnessed and felt first hand the panic and jubilation as the board searches for and discovers new writers.

In/Words provided me with a home community and a very plastic press to play with. After a few months of having drinks in Mike's Place with In/Words writers I started to venture off campus, figuring that there would be other writers drinking other drinks in other places. I was right, that decision to wander is probably the most significant of my writing life. Within a very short time, I became acquainted with many of the players in ottawa poetry. This led to the inclusion of some of those people in the magazine or as featured readers at the reading series.

Some of the In/Words alumni that have begun to make waves include: Bardia Sinaee, who won the Walrus Poetry Prize Readers? Choice Award in October 2012; Ben Ladouceur, who recently had one of his poems from PRISM International nominated for a Pushcart Prize; and Jeremy Hanson-Finger, who recently had a first collection of short stories accepted by Montreal publisher 8th House. One of the strongest writers and producers to emerge from In/Words has to be Cameron Anstee, who has authored a number of chapbooks through above/ground press, as well as through his St. Andrews Books and Apt. 9 Press, and a number of writers in the community are eagerly awaiting the possibilities of a full-length publication down the road. Over the past couple of years, Apt. 9 Press has helped various In/Words members to that next level of writing and publication, including Ben Ladouceur, Justin Million, Leah Mol and Rachael Simpson. In 2012, Simpson had a chapbook produced through Anstee?s Apt 9 Press and was able to launch alongside Governor-General?s Award-winner Phil Hall. Simpson says: ?In/Words helped me recognize that, even if I write a poem and never show it to a soul, my writing is not written by myself alone. It's collaborative, ekphrastic, and full of the world's noise. It seems obvious now, but it wasn't then.? Former In/Words author jesslyn delia smith writes:

Before moving to Ottawa I was just becoming familiar with the literary community in Hamilton, where I?m from. I was getting to know a few people here and there and learning about the few publications and writers? groups in the city. My outlook on a ?literary community? wasn?t very positive at that point (to be fair, I think the arts community in Hamilton has flourished quite a bit since I moved away). In/Words completely changed that; within a few months I felt welcomed and encouraged by a group of people who were so clearly passionate about writing, publishing and sharing their experiences. Though In/Words can be admittedly exclusive, it?s only because there is such a strong core of these passionate people who sort of stick around. I was introduced to everyone and consistently encouraged to continue editing, writing and putting out chapbooks even though I made mistakes along the way. It was inspiring in a lot of ways, not just for my writing but also for the kind of writing I wanted to read and the types of people I wanted to be around. Although I never committed to being an editor and while I definitely didn?t fully push myself into the ?group? most of the time, these people ended up becoming some of my closest friends at Carleton and in Ottawa. This first little In/Words bubble led me to meet more people and groups beyond Carleton, and at the risk of sounding a bit gushy, they were (and continue to be) a small family pushing each other further all the time.

In many ways, Antsee's work with Apt. 9 Press could be considered a continuation of the work started at In/Words. Other offshoots and sister publications, most of which, unfortunately, have already come and gone, would include Blank Page, Odourless Press, The Moose &Pussy, Vagina Dentata and Mot Dit. On the other hand, Jeremy Hansen-Finger?s online journal Dragnet is still going strong. In/Words is also one of the founding members of VERSe Ottawa, producers of the annual VERSeFest poetry festival. Claire Hunter, one of the current In/Words editors, is a more recent addition to the group. She writes:

I think the strengths of In/Words lie in its foundation in Carleton University. It may be something we do not overtly associate ourselves with but In/Words has the ability to be a stepping stone for new writers who are fresh onto the scene to find their way into the larger Ottawa writing community. Our chapbooks are often first-timers, our writers circles are full of new voices, just waiting to be heard, and our reading series features readers from all levels of achievement as well as showing off aspiring writers during the open mic set. I think people often forget that without In/Words, a lot of young voices would be left out of the writing scene, and that's something that is incredibly important.

Poet Rob Winger taught a number of the In/Words group while he was at Carleton University, where he introduced them to the work of the late John Thompson, and was suddenly responsible for nearly every In/Words poet composing ghazals for months after. Some, like Justin Million, still do. As Bardia Sinaee writes: ?Something family-like to be grateful for whenever I accomplish anything writing-wise. Where else but In/Words could I find other students who like to have stoned 4 AM arguments about [John Thompson?s] Stilt Jack? I think about In/Words people all the time, miss them, resent them for missing them, feel a competitive drive to write when I'm blown away by their work.? Rob Winger says of the group:

Most of the folks I knew from the In/Words crowd were in my Academic classes, but they often shared their works in progress with me either privately or as some sort of special assignment completed for my courses. Those I likely knew the best at Carleton were Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Bardia Sinaee, Justin Million, and Cameron Anstee, but there were certainly others, too. Most of this crew (especially Justin and Cameron) were inspired and influenced by Collett Tracey's course on the little magazines of modernist Montreal, and I suspect that that's where their DIY publishing gusto came from. I perhaps fed this hunger a bit by talking about Tish as foundational for postmodernism in Canadian poetry, but suspect that they already knew about it or would have found out without me. Cameron, in particular, has become somewhat of an expert on the little magazine's history in Canada.

I think what was most inspiring about their In/Words work was both their open enthusiasm and their collective refusal to be defeated by the obstacles common to new writers: breaking into publishing, meeting mentor's stylistic expectations, and maturing as nuanced writers to go beyond lyric clichés. They achieved all of these goals much much sooner than I was ever able to, and remain better read, all of them, than I am. They're all great writers, too, and that sort of critical mass of hardworking, critically-aware, well-read, willing to write individuals is the likely inertia that made In/Words something unique.

A selected (chapbook) bibliography of some of the authors mentioned here:

Cameron Anstee
Wide Blue Fish Eye Sky (In/Words, 2006)
Remember Our Young Bones (In/Words, 2008)
the night goes, they rise together (In/Words, 2008)
Water Upsets Stone (The Emergency Response Unit, 2009)
Frank St. (above/ground press, 2010)
She May Be Weary (St. Andrew Books, 2011)
The Turning of Pages Should Not Be Audible (St. Andrew Books, 2011)
Regarding Renewal (above/ground press, 2012)

Peter Gibbon
Shelter (In/Words, 2006)
Illiterati (In/Words, 2007)
BLIZZARD: Ottawa City Stories (with Jeff Blackman; In/Words, 2008)
eating thistles (Apt. 9 Press, 2010)

Jeremy Hanson-Finger
Saintliness/Slowdive (In/Words, 2010)
The Delicious Fields (Apt. 9 Press, 2011)

Ben Ladouceur
Three Knit Hats (In/Words, 2007)
Dust and the Colour Orange (In/Words, 2008)
Nuuk (In/Words, 2008)
Alert (AngelHousePress, 2009)
The Argossey (Apt. 9 Press, 2009)
self-portrait as the bottom of the sea at the beginning of time (The Moose & Pussy Chapbook Press, 2011)
LIME KILN QUAY ROAD (above/ground press, 2011)
Mutt (Odourless Press, 2011)

Justin Million
A Butterfly Rush (In/Words, 2006)
Forever Convinced (In/Words, 2007)
Pirates (In/Words, 2008)
Guzzles (Apt. 9 Press, 2009)
HADRON (Apt. 9 Press, 2011)

Rachael Simpson
Eiderdown (Apt. 9 Press, 2012)

Bardia Sinaee
Royal Jelly (Odourless Press, 2011)

jesslyn delia smith
so it?s the first really warm day (edited by Cameron Anstee; In/Words, February 2009)
rescue poems (In/Words, January 2011)

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 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), 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 robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

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