Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

A profile of Pearl Pirie’s phafours (with a few questions)

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Pearl Pirie

By rob mclennan

By the time anyone had noticed that Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie was producing small, even mini-, chapbooks, she’d already produced a small handful, delightfully prepared for both 2012 editions of the Ottawa small press book fair. Very much in the range of publishing small chapbooks and ephemera, the mini-chapbooks that make up much of the backlist to date are each produced on a single sheet of paper folded, carved and stapled into the shape of a very small book. Authors through the press so far have included a mix of new and established poets, most of whom have histories engaging with the small literary press, such as Ottawa poets Monty Reid and Gwendolyn Guth, American poet and critic Jessica Smith, Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall and Kingston poet and small press publisher Michael e. Casteels. In a short review of small press items following the spring 2012 Ottawa small press book fair on her blog, Amanda Earl highlights some of what appeals about visiting the phafours table, as well as an explanation of the name:

Speaking of Pearl Pirie, she had a table for her phafours press. I always like the way Pearl sets up her table: she puts something beneath a table cloth to give the table a bit of a platform to showcase the work & this year she used strawberry baskets to hold the chapbooks. Hurray for creativity unleashed. I picked up two wee chapbooks, beautifully folded pieces of paper: “Sprockets Away” by Pearl Pirie & “Late Plate” by Gwendolyn Guth. The covers were sweetly designed. Here’s the 411 on phafours’ name, if your wondering: “The phafours in phavours press is a play on favours (as in party favours, as the first few things I gave out as that including some paku paku) and Pha-4, the gene that somehow governs the development of the pharynx, sphincter and longevity.”

Pirie has been a flurry of activity over the past half decade or so, and micro publisher merely adds to an already abundant list of accomplishments. She is the coordinating facilitator of the Tree Seed Workshop Series for The Tree Reading Series since 2009 and one of the hosts of Literary Landscapes on CKCU. Her trade poetry collection is been shed bore (Chaudiere Books, 2010), and she won the Robert Kroetsch for Award Innovative Poetry, which resulted in the publication of her second collection, Thirsts (Snare Books, 2011). The author of a number of small chapbooks, most recently vertigoheel for the dilly (above/ground press, 2014) and Quebec Passages (Noun Trivet Press, 2014), she has both new chapbook and book forthcoming: today’s woods (above/ground press, forthwith), and pet radish, shrunken (BookThug, spring 2015). Reviewing some phafours items from the fall 2012 fair over at his own blog, Ottawa poet and critic Cameron Anstee wrote:

Pearl Pirie’s Phafours began producing tiny chapbooks, almost micro-chapbooks, for the summer installment of the Ottawa small press book fair in 2012 (as far I can tell). These playful little books consist of a single sheet, ingeniously folded to provide eight pages. Pearl’s writing is so consistently varied that it is wonderful to see her tastes and gleeful experimentation extend to her publishing projects (both in material form and in the work she is publishing). At the November book fair I picked up new tiny chapbooks in this series from Pearl, Gary Barwin, and Amanda Earl (to go with titles from Pearl and Gwendolyn Guth acquired in the summer).

In 2013, Pirie solicited work for a chapbook anthology on squirrels. One can’t help but notice the glee in Ryan Pratt’s voice as he discusses the very idea of a chapbook of poems about squirrels over at his blog: “Earlier this year, Ottawa-based poet and publisher Pearl Pirie circulated a call through Phafours Press with the working title Squirrels in Stetsons Take Over Earth. An entire chapbook about squirrels; it seemed almost too intriguing to pan out. A consideration of the little critters’ way of life, their survival tactics, how they’re perceived and how they might feel about it. Which poets would raise their hands to the squirrel-call and what would they have to say?” While there is little in the way of reviews or discussion online about phafours, it would seem that more than a couple of lit-bloggers have been paying close attention to what she’s been doing: phafours is discussed during a recent interview Hamilton poet and critic Ryan Pratt conducted for The Puritan:

RP: As a writer and publisher (of phafours press) how lively do you consider the critical response here in Canada?

PP: I am told that in other times and places, like Ireland and Iran, people engage with literature who are well-informed and do not practice it—like hockey fans who don’t play the sport but know the history, the score, etc. That larger picture and judging it isn’t my concern. My work is to read and learn. Secondarily, it is to pass along what is valuable. Thirdly, it is to thank the makers where and when I can for doing good work.

Pearl Pirie and phafours will be exhibiting this November at both the 20th anniversary edition of the Ottawa small press book fair (November 8) and at Meet the Presses (November 22). Chapbooks can also be ordered online via PayPal.

rob mclennan:

What first prompted you to produce chapbooks, and what were your models for the press?

Pearl Pirie:

I have been making chapbooks since primary school. I made my first collected best poems around grade 6 and a set of chapbooks in grade 9 for a friend in radiation treatment.

I’ve always wanted a hand in production. There’s no reason it should only be by others if one can learn the skills of design, judgement, production, distribution and sales. Making is healthier than consuming. I worked the school newspaper and yearbook, acting as photographer, article writer and editor, which naturally led to blogging once that existed.

As the internet started I made an online portfolio of poem/author site. In 2000 that became online chapbooks, which I also printed out and left around public libraries as random acts of poetry. They were in 3 streams of poetry I was doing: serious lyrical (Watermark Me Free), haiku (Haiku Quiet) and comic (Life Eaten with a Spoon). There’s not a lot of difference between one form of distribution and another.

When I made my own poetry chapbook as an adult I was still tentative about putting my poetry out there with my face and life attached. Online anonymity feels more satisfying since I can pretend that time is not an economic resource and there is no opportunity cost but when one is paying cash for photocopies or printer toner and paper, Return on Investment adds more antsyness. It’s a whole other learning curve to figure out how to price, guess size of print run of how many the market will absorb, and how much I want to spend and how much I want to risk losing. Like any gamble it should be from discretionary spending or well-informed or both. It is a good discipline to not plan and fiddle for too long or else I am paying myself 10 cents an hour after costs are covered, when costs get covered.

When I first opened up the idea of making chapbooks of other people’s work, it was when I saw poems I felt more people should read and if the poets involved weren’t going to send them around themselves, I wanted to help in getting good work in front of more eyes. There were poems that I wanted a piece of. There were poets who other people should know so I made chapbooks to help promote them. The model that the chapbook is a form that’s normal to make comes from seeing and receiving above/ground chapbooks.


The bulk of your production to date has focused on the mini-chapbooks. What about the mini-chapbooks do you find so compelling?


Depends on how you measure. There are more mini-chapbooks, but in 5 years 18 poets are represented in mini-chapbooks but 44 different poets in the standard sized anthology chapbooks (not counting any overlap of people). The larger chapbooks are more time consuming, with special window folds or French flaps, burnt or cut holes, hand-sewing or awling holes in the wood veneer cover. (That wood is for Monty Reid’s Kissing Bug to be out at the Ottawa Small Press Fair and Meet the Presses.)

The mini-chapbooks need cover art and font and I can do them on my home printer. I cap them at 100 copies of each but the poets get a pdf if they want to make an open print run of making their own. They are easy to transport and if they’re damaged, it doesn’t feel like inventory loss. The bigger chapbooks are fun to design. When books get too crafty there’s a risk that the value becomes the object instead of the language and ideas.

With mini-chapbooks the value becomes more the poems. Obviously regardless of the scale I want to make a good design that fits the content and is nicely laid out so the design and materials doesn’t obstruct the reading.

People love the mini-chapbooks and give an ooh-cute response. People tell me they love how they are easy to carry around and have a good hand-feel. People buying feel they can be greedy and generous and thrifty at the same time by blowing a bill and getting many chapbooks.


How do you take submissions? Is yours an open process, or more a matter of quiet solicitation?


In theory it is open and rolling all the time. Most things I’ve solicited and pursued, sometimes for years for a poem or few. I’m looking for things that resonate with me and for work by interesting people who I’d like to promote.


How does your experience as an author, or even a reader, shape your considerations of running a micro press?


As a writer, I realize the dichotomy between people who like the hierarchy and want to impress those who they idealize so want to publish through status cash channels and big presses and those who are more community-minded who want to be in dialogue with many like-minds. That oversimplifies. There’s hero-worship in small press too and those who want a cash not trade economy, and those who think only of large press as a way to be validated by some community at large as an in-group to rub shoulders with like minds. Itching each other’s brains with shrugs? Metaphor’s engine broke. Send CAA for towing.

As a reader, I realize how it can take years to get a single poem in a magazine and the turnaround time on getting a chapbook or book made can mean that by the time a group of poems is published, the poet may be a project or two past the high-boil of interest. A chapbook can be a sort of poem trailer as well as a finished thing in itself.

I try to have a faster response so people, readers and writers, can have a place for the poems in the meantime to whet interest or encourage continuing the process, and have something in hand. All chapbooks and books are calling cards for whatever’s next.


What items are forthcoming, and where do you see the press headed?


I’m hoping to put together a full-size collaborative chapbook of some shape with Roland Prevost in 2015. I’m hoping (counting my chickens that are eggs) to make a vispo mini-chapbook of Sanita Fejzic in 2014. I'd like to continue at the same scale, putting out at least 4 titles a year, one big one and a few minis and answer the calls of requests for an annual subscription.

A phafours bibliography:


Kissing Bug, Monty Reid
Eigner, Phil Hall
6 poems, Michael e. Casteels
Cicada Radio, Jessica Smith
3 Chapters Towards an Epic, Michael e. Casteels
Acceptance Speech, rob mclennan
Obviously Obviously Not What it Seems, Rod Pederson
Change In their Pockets, Catherine Brunet
Some Things with Certainty, Sneha Madhavan-Reese
What the Hair is Going On, Grace Maselli


Our hircine, murine, doppelgängers, mars, ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Gary Barwin, Vivian Vavassis, Phil Hall, Janet Hepburn, Lori Anderson Moseman, Ryan Pratt, Carol A Stephen and Shai Ben-Shalom
If, ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Jacqueline Bourque, Frances Boyle, Mary Lee Bragg, Claudia Chowaniec, Claudia Radmore, LM Rochefort, Robin K. Macdonald, Pearl Pirie, Deborah-Anne Tunney and Jean Van Loon
Where There’s Fire, ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Jacqueline Bourque, Frances Boyle, Mary Lee Bragg, Laurie Koensgen, Robin K. Macdonald, Pearl Pirie, LM Rochefort, Deborah-Anne Tunney and Jean Van Loon
hhh?, Gary Barwin
a cluster of as, Amanda Earl
Avid Walls, Luminita Suse


Self-Portrait, Gary Stark
Sprockets Away, Pearl Pirie
Voices, Choices, Louisa Howerow
Late Plate, Gwendolyn Guth
Air Out/In Air: 21 Poets for the Guatemala Stove Project, ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Allison Armstrong, Shai Ben-Shalom, Jeremy Colangelo, Dawn Corrigan, Czandra, James DeMers, Amanda Earl, Phil Hall, Rick Kempa, Adrienne Mercer, rob mclennan, Rhonda Melanson, Mike Montreuil, My Name Is Scot, Monty Reid, Nedjo Rogers, Jade Scapillato, Kevin Spenst, Luminita Suse, Danielle Susi and Robert Swereda


a wall’s sharp white (co-published with Tree Press), ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Barry Dempster, Sylvia Adams, Frances Boyle, Terry Ann Carter, Pearl Pirie, Claudia Coutu Radmore, L.M. Rochefort, Guy Simser, Gill Foss, Rona Shaffran, Carol A. Stephen, Gillian Wallace and Margaret Malloch Zielinski
Chromatic Beliefs (co-published with Tree Press), ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Sylvia Adams, Frances Boyle, Terry Ann Carter, Glenn Kletke, Rod Pederson, Pearl Pirie, Claudia Coutu Radmore, L.M. Rochefort, Guy Simser, Rona Shaffran, Carol A. Stephen and Margaret Malloch Zielinski


Barely Their, ed. Pearl Pirie; poems by Terry Ann Carter, Margot Gallant, Laurie Koensgen, Sean Moreland, Claudia Coutu Radmore, Sandra Ridley, L.M. Rochefort, Rona Shaffran and Gillian Wallace


Off the Keyring, Pearl Pirie


There are Better Ways to Go than by Aspartame, Pearl Pirie

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014 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 poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( 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

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