A chat with Michael Dennis, poetry blogger
I've been friends with Michael Dennis since the early 1980s. We met in Toronto when I was selling my chapbooks out on Yonge Street and became fast friends, though I found him sort of intimidating. Still do. But, in spite of a few rough patches, it's been a great and enduring friendship.
Michael is the author of over a dozen poetry books. Among my favourites are Coming Ashore on Fire (Burnt Wine Press, 2009), Fade to Blue (Pulp Press, 1988), Sometimes Passion, Sometimes Pain (Ordinary Press, 1982). There are lots more and you can find them here.
This year Michael started a new project: he decided he'd blog roughly every two days about a poetry book he likes. He is one of the most well-read poets I know, so this seemed a natural for him. Except that it involved a computer and the internet, and he is a Flintstone.
But he's done an amazing job, and has already made a great contribution to the art and industry of Canadian poetry. Every day, this secret weapon in Canadian poetry becomes less secret.
Over the past week or so, I have interviewed Michael by email. Here's what we had to say.
Over and out.
Michael, since last February or March, you have been writing about a different book of poetry on your blog every two days, more or less. Are you crazy?
Still crazy after all these years. No, not crazy, but you could say I’ve rediscovered my enthusiasm for poetry. As it happens I have lots of time on my hands, I spend two or three hours a day on the blog. Thankfully I have a very supportive partner who sees that this project is important to me and supports it.
How did you come up with the idea?
My friend Christian McPherson suggested it. I had been writing little blurbs on FaceBook from time to time to mention books I’d enjoyed and they were primarily poetry. Christian suggested I should start a blog. Initially I had no interest. Then he suggested to me that if I blogged about poetry, publishers might send me books. That was the real hook.
I have been collecting poetry since I was a teenager and the idea of getting books in the mail was tremendously appealing to me. But I was very skeptical.
Christian actually set up the blog for me; there is no way I could have or would have, and I started with books I owned.
Within two weeks I had a couple of different publishers sending me books. I was astounded. Kitty Lewis at Brick Books and Hazel Millar at BookThug were both very big supporters right from the start. In fact, the support and encouragement of people like Kitty and Hazel really made the blog far more real for me.
Once I started to get books from publishers, I quit writing about any books that didn’t come from a publisher. It’s one of my rules.
One of your other rules is that you write only about books you like. I know we’ve discussed this before: what’s your rationale, and how much do you have to like a book? Is “good enough” the criteria, or does it have to be great, or excellent?
Excellent is best, but I guess the criteria I have is whether or not I like it enough that I would suggest one of my friends reads it. I’ve always felt that finding one really good poem in a collection made that collection worthwhile but I’m certainly not using that criteria here. All the books I’ve chosen to write about are books that I would happily put into the arms of a friend. Certainly some of them are stronger than others — but all of them contain enough of one thing or another that I was entertained, challenged or interested at some committed level.
I’m very naive sometimes and was surprised to find myself feeling terribly guilty every time I passed on a book, for whatever reason. I found that I felt a real obligation to the publishers who were sending me books, that I should write about each of them, but as you said, I only write about books I like, books I like well enough to recommend.
I don’t think you should feel guilty! But how come you don’t write about why you don’t like a book? You’re coming off as too nice a guy!
Stuart, you know me so much better than that. I did think about the reasons I only wanted to write about things I like. One of them is my “tool set”. As much as I love poetry and have a degree in English literature, I don’t really feel I have the skill set to deconstruct other people's poems.
But that really isn’t it. I’m a nasty prick as often as not and full of vitriol to the brim — that doesn’t mean that is the person I want to be. I figured I would write about the positive, and if I didn’t feel the positive, I wouldn’t write at all. There is only so much time and I didn’t/don’t want to spend my time exploring things I don’t like, don’t enjoy, don’t approve of. To put it another way: I didn’t want to spend my time talking about burnt toast.
As you know, this blog started more by accident than with purpose — but when it did start I made a conscious decision not to bitch about one thing or another. I am the King of complaint and the Bard of Bitch and it is not attractive.
I don’t think of these blogs as traditional reviews in any sense of the word. I call them reviews only for lack of a more recognizable term. I would call what I do “appreciations” more than reviews — but I’m not out to break new ground. There are critical reviewers out there who do a fine job of deconstructing poems but I never sought to do that.
Think of it this way, would you rather spend time talking about a book you like or one you don’t? The blog and everything associated with it is entirely my responsibility — so I get to set the parameters. If people and publishers don’t like it, I guess I won’t be doing it for all that long. But as it stands, as long as publishers will send me books I’ll be blogging about the ones I like.
The other side of that coin is the joy I mentioned earlier. I’d gone through, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, a period where some of the shine had come off of poetry. I felt terribly discouraged and frustrated and was withdrawing from my involvement with poetry. When books started coming through the door I was astounded by a couple of things right from the start. The first of them was that I didn’t know what I thought I did.
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.
The best part of that was/is the quality. Of course there have been books I didn’t like, but they are a minority. So many of these books are so good it makes me laugh, real happy laughter.
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.
With all of these books to write about, and I am trying to keep to one every two days (surgery this month and subsequent recovery have caused some gaps). I choose to not have the time for those books I would only criticize.
What effect has this rigorous practice of writing about a book every two days had on your own poetry?
I’ve always been a writer who wrote something almost constantly. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a teenager. Over the years I’ve had many periods when I wrote less for one reason or another and I was certainly in one of those periods when I started the blog. I continue to write poems but haven’t been nearly as active in recent months. But this is one fallow period where I’m really enjoying the break and certainly feel like I am fueling up. This is a real learning process for me. I’ve always read a lot of poetry, at least a couple of books a week, but since I started this blog I’m probably reading six, or seven or eight books of poetry every week.
I continue to read outside the blog. As generous as some publishers have been I’m still only getting books from a small percentage of all the presses out there. What I mean is that there are plenty of books I want to buy. Most recently I bought Austin Clarke’s Where The Sun Shines Best. And of course I read stuff other than poetry.
But to get back to the question, I am still writing. I have a chapbook coming out sometime this fall with Warren Dean Fulton’s Pooka Press in Vancouver, Blue Movies for Blues Players or Sonnets for the Eternally Sad. These poems are about gender and power in film, believe it or not. I originally wrote them for a film course I took at Carleton. The professor, Jose Sanchez, was a revelation and the course a genuinely eye-opening experience. I liked these poems a lot and shopped them around a little. Warren very kindly agreed to publish them and I’m thrilled.
I continue to write other poetry but it isn’t a priority at the moment. Frankly, I’m getting my poetry Jones fixed with the blog. And like I said earlier, fuelling up.
Some of the books you’ve written about have surprised me: some pretty experimental stuff. Is this process of doing the blog broadening your aesthetic?
I hope so. It’s a good question. I follow the same procedure with each book. I try not to read anything else about the book in question so I don’t have any preconceived ideas about it. When I’m reading these books I keep pen and paper handy and make notes, I jot down the poems that I find striking and proceed from there. With the more experimental works that you are talking about it was simple really, as I was reading and making notes, it was clear to me that these books had marvels in them that I was just beginning to understand, or appreciate.
It’s not like I’ve had a change of heart or direction, I’m still partial to narrative poetry, I like a good story and a little dirt under the fingernails.
But certainly there is an attempt, by me, to have a broader window to look out of.
Perhaps it’s this: every time I open a book, I really WANT to like it. I want to find the joy someone felt with each and every book when they decided to publish it.
Of course, that isn’t always the case. Some books mystify me. I cannot begin to imagine how more than one person admired the poems. Those are the ones I don’t write about.
What is the fate of those mystifying books? Your bookshelves are already pretty crammed!
Those books, the ones that I don’t blog about, end up on my shelf in alphabetical order, just like the rest of them. Maybe I’ll like them next time around. More to the point, I am proud of the collection of poetry I’ve amassed, even before this project began. It’s never been a criteria of mine that I had to love every book on my shelf. There are certainly some Irving Layton books I care for more than others — but that doesn’t mean I don’t keep them all.
And I can always build more bookshelves.
(Lately I’ve been building shelves out of recycled IKEA bed and couch frames. It’s great clean wood and can be found for free on many garbage days.)
It’s not that I’m a completist, but I am a collector of sorts. You’ve been to our home and seen the art K and I have collected over the years; it is a bit of the same thing. You don’t have to love everything equally to appreciate it, or keep it, as long as you recognize it has value to you. And of course I’m not talking about monetary value — emotional currency is more like it.
What you’re doing is extremely important. There is less and less space for poetry books to be reviewed in this country, so intelligent, enthusiastic bloggers are key to getting the word out about books from small presses. But how do you get the word out about your blog? How do you let publishers know you exist? And any idea how many people are reading your appreciations?
The number of readers so far is almost 20,000 and I guess that works out to around 100 a day.
Shortly after I started and was still writing about books from my shelves I got an email from Kitty Lewis from Brick Books telling me that she was sending books. I was overwhelmed. When I first started the blog I had emailed or otherwise contacted a long list of Canadian publishers and explained what I was doing.
Since then I have broadened the list to include a couple of American presses. I figure I’ve contacted about 150 different small presses and had responses in the form of books from 42 of them. A little less than one in three.
As I’m a total Luddite I really am at a loss as to how to get a better readership. When I publish a blog I contact the press/publisher in question and send them a link to the blog. If it is possible I post my blog on their FB homepage. I also try to contact the author and send him or her a copy of the blog. Otherwise I post it on FB. I figure most of the people who read the blog are doing name searches for the writer and they get directed to the blog by a search, but in truth I’m not really sure how it happens. And I’m certainly open to suggestions for attracting a wider audience. Having both the publisher and the writer posting the blog on their home pages helps.
I appreciate that some people find this important, the blog about small press poetry, and I guess I think it’s important as well. Not that what I say has particular importance or relevance but that there is another voice championing these books.
There really is a wide, wide universe of small press poetry in this country that so many readers don’t know about and it’s not their fault. If I didn’t know how broad it was, how many presses there were, how many great books, it would be hard for people outside the poetry world to know either. In that universe there are such a number of fine writers. That’s what I’ve discovered more than anything else in the past few months.
I’ve been encouraged that in recent weeks I’ve had a couple of packages from publishers I never contacted, never sent an email to — so they have heard of the blog — and that is exactly what I would like to happen. I’ve also been excited that I’ve received books from a couple of American small presses in recent weeks.
One of the ways I can gauge the success of the blog will be whether those presses who’ve sent me work will continue to send work as time goes on. Of course I want to please readers, but I also want the publishers who are sending me this work, at considerable expense, to feel that they are being treated with respect and courtesy.
And that leads me to talk about how I choose which book I’ll write about. It’s very simple. I write down each book/publisher/author when it arrives and write about them in first come, first serve order, one publisher at a time. If I don’t like a particular book enough to blog about it I try to choose another from the same publisher so that they don’t lose their place in line. If I don’t have another book by that publisher I move on to the next.
I also receive a few books from individual writers. I treat them exactly the same as I do for the books that come from publishers except that if I choose not to write about the book — I still contact the author. Individuals aren’t publishing houses and I feel they are due a personal response regardless of whether I publish a blog or not.
As for letting more publishers know I exist, that’s next. The blog has now been seen in close to 100 countries, has a readership of almost 20,000 (by the end of the month, with any luck) and is seen around 100 people a day. I’ve posted 113 blogs in a little less than eight months. The next time I send an email to a group of publishers I’ll have that as ammunition.
Right now I’m waiting to see what will happen with all the fall releases and crossing my fingers.
What’s the future of Michael Dennis’s poetry blog?
For the foreseeable future it will be staying the course. I’m very pleased with the response thus far. I’m certainly enjoying the process far more than I ever thought possible. So the easy answer is that as long as books keep coming I will continue to blog. I’d like to learn a little more about the tech side of things so that I could add more additional information, pictures, links and such, but that will come. I’m a slow learner.
I’m glad there are people out there who see this blog as an important addition to the world of small press poetry, if I’m allowed to say that. It allows me to be involved in the conversation in some small way, that I could never have predicted.
Can we expect a review of Michael Dennis’s new book from Pooka on Michael Dennis’s poetry blog?
No, I don’t think I’ll be reviewing my own book. Besides, I’m not sure I could wax eloquently enough about its virtues.
Seriously, no, I won’t be writing about my own book.