25th Trillium Award

A profile of The Rotary Dial (with a few questions)

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The Rotary Dial

by rob mclennan

The Rotary Dial, co-founded and co-edited by poets Alexandra Oliver and P. C. is a monthly poetry journal published to Kindle format. According to their website, the journal is:

  ideally a mix of Canadian and international poets, both new and established, all writing   in form.

  We often get asked what we mean by form. Well, a poem is formal to us if it sets up a   pattern of sound, whether through meter (no stress, stress, no stress, stress), rhyme   (ABAB), or any other method.

  We also see form as a continuum, with hard formalism at one end more patterned, and soft at the other (less   patterned). We?re open to work that falls anywhere inside this range, especially if it doesn't torture sense, idiom or the   natural rhythms of spoken English. ?Hard to write, easy to read? is our unofficial mantra. And we?re open to all tones,   from weighty to light. Check out the coffee table for samples.

  Of course, a poem needs more besides form to recommend it. There?s a lot of bad formal poetry out there and a lot of   good free verse. Form is necessary for getting into the Dial, but not sufficient.

Founded in March, 2013, the journal has featured work by a wide range of authors, including Claudia Gary, Conrad Geller, George Szirtes, Chris O'Carroll, Sandy Shreve, Alex Boyd, Mark Blauer, Quincy R. Lehr, Frank Osen and David Rosenthal, as well as a Kim Bridgford tribute issue. In an interview conducted by Michael R. Burch for The HyperTexts, Oliver speaks of the journal?s origins: ?It was P. C. who came up with the name, so all glory should go to him in that department. But we were both agreed that it was the perfect name for what we were trying to achieve. For one thing, rotary dial phones are, well, old. Most of the poets that P. C. and I love were active during the time of their widespread use. Secondly, there?s the issue of craft. The mechanism of a dial is more complex; it?s the sum of many carefully assembled working parts. Phillip Larkin once said that poems are verbal contraptions for reproducing emotion. Once you start to work in form, the assembly of the contraption becomes more of a self-conscious discipline. For all their complexity, rotary dial telephones have a solidness about them that is appealing. Formal work, in its best incarnation, has this quality as well. And finally, a dial is round. It evokes the cycle of life, things coming full circle. We believe that people, Canadians or otherwise, are returning to the idea that it?s okay to relish formally-crafted work, enjoy its music. It?s not a question of imposing fuddy-duddy artificiality upon the general public, it?s the idea of embracing the rhythms that are naturally present in the workings of the world, that were there all along.? Each issue also features the work of one author per issue on their website.

Both editors are active writers as well. Toronto poet P. C. is the author of First Comes Love (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2005). Writing on his poem ?Misspent Youth? online for Arc Poetry Magazine, Lynda Grace Philippsen described it as ?hilarious and sexually-loaded wordplay throughout the poem is underscored with pathos, established first by the varied nuances of the title ?Misspent Youth.? To miss is to fail to meet, take advantage of, or experience.? Alexandra Oliver divides her time between Toronto and Glasgow, Scotland, and her second poetry collection, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (Windsor ON: Biblioasis, 2013) was named by Michael Lista of The National Post as one of the top four books of Canadian poetry for 2013, and recently won the 2014 Pat Lowther Award.

rob mclennan:

It is slowly coming up on two years since the founding of The Rotary Dial, perhaps the only monthly poetry journal published to Kindle format. Just what has the response to the journal been, and have there been any surprises?

Alexandra Oliver:

I?d have to say that the response to the journal has been overwhelmingly positive. We?ve carved a niche for ourselves as a home for Form Orphans. It?s tricky for Canadians who write in form to find journals in this country that will run their work. Exceptions to this would include, just off the top of my head, Hazlitt, The Toronto Quarterly and The Walrus. The larger part of formal-friendly journals (including Measure, The Raintown Review, Mezzo Cammin, The Atlanta Review, The New Criterion and Poetry) are to be found stateside. There are also some terrific UK journals (I?m particularly enamoured of The Dark Horse). Actual presses in Canada are running formal work—look at Gaspereau, Palimpsest, House of Anansi and Biblioasis. But the journals are thin on the ground. As for surprises, we are both a little stunned and humbled to have had poets such as Kim Bridgford, Anna Evans, Charles Martin and George Szirtes let us run their work gratis. Another surprise was when I sent out a clarion call for young poets; we really wanted to make a Youth Issue. Hardly anyone responded to that. However, we?re going to have another crack at that in the near future, and I think we?ll see better results.


Given the fact that both of you are active poets yourselves, how does the journal further the argument of your own individual works? How has the journal affected (if at all) the ways in which you write?


I think that any poet will tell you that you can?t be a good writer without being a good reader first. When the good material crosses our desks, it?s a tonic reminder of what works in a poem and what doesn?t. The same thing goes for the not-so-good stuff. It?s interesting to see how people venture into certain thematic territory having made choices about the sonic and visual configurations of the poem. Sometimes there?s the case where someone has chosen a specifically Hot Topic; they wish to address that topic and they go into meticulously instructive detail while obeying certain formal perimeters. They figure that the topic itself will command attention and the form will lend the package an extra sense of authority. Often these poems are unsuccessful; they end up being (to paraphrase my co-editor) rhymed journalism. There isn?t that haunting rattle, the sense of the emotional pulse inside the piece. I have fallen into this trap a few times, and it?s always good to be reminded of how pervasive it is and seek out options to avoid this. Another factor that?s influencing our respective outlooks on our practice is the waterfall of iambic pentameter coming in, including (but not limited to) a vast flowering of sonnets. So many great poems have been written in this metre, but?what about ballad metre? What about fourteeners? What about triple metres (anapests, dactyls and amphibrachs)? Sapphics and alcaics? When you hear the same sequences of beats, you know it?s time (forgive the wretched old expression) to dance to a different drummer yourself.


Given two editors on two different continents, how does the editorial process work between the two of you? How well do you work together?


Fantastically, considering the distance. I have to say that my co-editor has shouldered much of the load this past year, as I had to deal with the launch of my last book, a serious illness and the final stages of preparing an anthology. We look at the work together, file it and make decisions about how to assemble the issues. My co-editor does the layout and he does so beautifully. We have also started preparing single-authour tribute issues (like our recent Kim Bridgford Issue). This involves the writing of forwards, which I quite enjoy doing. We communicate by e-mail these days. When I come back to Canada, there?ll be more face-to-face interaction.


I?m intrigued at your mix of Canadian and International, but apart from a couple of names throughout the entirety of your list, I?m not seeing many names I?m previously aware of as being Canadian poets. Is this a matter of accepting work by new poets without much of a name yet, or are you not receiving the amount of submissions you might have hoped? Does this mean you?re soliciting much of the Canadian entries?


Word-of-mouth has served us very well, considering that we?ve only been going for a relatively brief span of time. We do solicit poems from poets we know and like (Canadian and otherwise), but we?ve also received submissions from people we?ve never met, let alone heard of. Some of these discoveries are revelations, and we?re pleased to give these people exposure and encouragement. We?re getting more and more excellent Canadian material; given what I?ve already said about the skepticism around form in this country, this is very heartening. We are, however, a meritocratic enterprise. We take what we find truly exceptional, regardless of provenance. That being said, our mandate for the year to come is to try and drum up more local interest and involvement.


Where do you see the journal going, over the next couple of years?


We?d like to have more tribute issues. We?d like to get some fat grants, so we can start paying our poets. My co-editor has started up a brilliant recitation series in Toronto, and we?d like to expand that to include educational programs, featuring visiting writers. We?d like our own chain of shops. Our own designer jeans label. Maybe an airline. We?re building an evil empire. Check back next year.

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 (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) 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

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