Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa, where he runs Apt. 9 Press and holds a PhD in Canadian Literature from the University of Ottawa. Anstee’s latest poetry release is a minimalist collection called Book of Annotations, published this spring by the fine folks at Invisible Publishing out of Picton, Ontario. Anstee is also the editor of The Collected Poems of William Hawkins (Chaudiere Books, 2015).
I sat down with Cameron to talk about his new book ahead of his reading in Peterborough at the Show and Tell Poetry Series on July 21 at the Garnet, where he will be joined by a local poet, myself, Justin Million.
1. Book of Annotations is said to be “a dialogue in shorthand” with “contemporary and historical minimalists.” If that is the case, what did this dialogue teach you about questioning “how small a poem can be?” Is there such thing as a poem that is too short?
I haven’t found one yet! I think this will depend entirely on the reader, and what sort of tolerance for or interest in small works they have. I’m on board with works as small as a letter or two (see jwcurry or Aram Saroyan, for example), but am well aware that others don’t feel the same. I learned—primarily from reading others—that the smallest poem can seem to open endlessly. I learned that there is a different weight to seeing an entire book of small poems compared to one or two in a collection of otherwise longer works. I learned that I really like quiet and open space on the physical page. I learned how much more there is to learn about writing small poems.
2. As a poet myself, I find that when I am working in a specific theme or form in the hopes of putting together a collection, that some poems that just don’t ‘fit’ bubble up, and I am always conflicted about what to do with those efforts. Did you have to force any obtrusive (or possibly lengthy) ideas to fit your desired minimalist aesthetic?
While revising the book for publication, but even at the earlier stage of culling work toward a manuscript, I would ask myself of every poem some variation of “Does this need to be as long as it is?”
Some works were longer initially and gradually pared down to their current forms. I revisited lots of older, non-minimalist work to see if any of it was secretly a minimalist hiding inside something larger (most of it wasn’t, though the drive to the minimal has been hiding somewhere in the work for a long time now). An earlier draft of the manuscript had a 100-line list poem that was an attempt to write a “long” short poem. It didn’t work (not yet anyway).
Enormous credit must be paid to my editor, Rob Winger, for the generosity and care of his editing. The shape and structure and successes within the book owe a great debt to him.
3. Your poem “Finite,” with its aptly ironic title, shows how varied syntax (“I am thinking I / am countable I am / thinking I am countable”) can make seemingly repetitive words, phrases, or sentences hold myriad meanings, thereby turning what appears to be a ‘small’ poem into something much, much larger. However, when one reads such a poem aloud, this effect could be lost. Do you find yourself reading the poems from this collection to audiences differently than your past work?
I’ve only read from the book itself a handful of times at this point, so I’m still figuring out how it feels and how it is best served in performance. Part of me does think that the poems are best served on the page, or read out loud to oneself, but I am finding it enjoyable to read from the book.
I have, however, been road-testing poems like these for a number of years, and have had to confront the issue of how to fill 20 minutes—I could read my entire book in 10 minutes if I focused and moved quickly. I’m trying to learn to be patient, to read slowly, to let the poems sit in the air, to not rush or fill the gaps with banter. I’m finding it liberating so far.
4. What collection of minimalist work would you recommend to any aspiring minimalist poets out there?
These three are the poets that provided the earliest and most enduring sparks for me as far as writing small poems goes (though I could add books to this list all day!): Aram Saroyan (Complete Minimal Poems), Phyllis Webb (Naked Poems), and any book you can find by Nelson Ball, but I’ll point to his recent selected poems, Certain Details, edited by Stuart Ross.
5. The annoying question: what are you working on now?
I’m still somewhere in the post-publication glow (for which I will always be grateful to Leigh Nash and everyone at Invisible Publishing). Work is ongoing to promote the book and line up readings.
I am beginning to try to write new poems again, which are taking two directions—one is a continuation of the minimalist focus of Book of Annotations, and the other is an exploration of typewriter-based concrete/visual work. The typewriter poems are similarly interested in minimalist expression, but through the particular material constraints and literary history of the typewriter.
I also have non-poem projects on the go. I’m beginning to imagine a possible book of essays to do with the small-press book, I’m working on some publishing projects with my chapbook press Apt. 9, and I’m reading purely for joy (which is still a new feeling one year on from completing my PhD).
See Cameron Anstee live at the Garnet on July 21 with Justin Million (more info).
Images courtesy Cameron Anstee.