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Write On Ottawa: Bywords offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of local poetry chapbooks

By Rob Thomas on January 7, 2014


What’s a chapbook?  I hear that a lot.  That’s because I’m trying to write one.  The straight answer is: Something a touch shy of a book, usually a stapled booklet with 24 pages or fewer.  The more inspired thing is to call it an appetizer: A work that can be consumed at one sitting, provides a taste of an author’s work and leaves the reader hungry for more.

If you like poetry, there are hundreds of them.  And if you like poetry from Ottawa there is a virtual buffet, thanks to the good folks at Bywords who have been publishing one a year through their annual John Newlove Poetry Award for the past decade.

Full disclosure: I’m the 2013 winner.  This is why I’m writing my chapbook, although I’m not trying to sell you my book – not yet.  However, I am acutely aware just how remarkable my predecessors’ books have been, and how they offer delectable spread of Ottawa’s poetic voices.  Below are some previous winners.

tigerTiger with the Crooked Smile
Jenna Jarvis
2012 winner

One of the many things I love about this chapbook is that it smells like a weird cat-lady house, figuratively.  There’s the eponymous tiger, of course, but also a killer in the clover that leaves a “tower of bones”; a copycat, wildcat canal and a lament for a sickly, mustachioed companion named Catseye. Jarvis’ poetic voice is catlike as well: Cool, sardonic and playful, but with claws – sharp ones that tug and tease the frayed edge of language.

My favourite Jarvis poem, mope springs eternal, is not in this collecion, but in the September issue of The Steel Chisel.  It has the qualities I admire from her chapbook but seems, to me, more concise and controlled.  It also hints that her best poems are yet to come.  Keep an eye on this one.  She has a crooked smile.

The Glass Jaw
Marcus McCann
2009 winner

McCann writes tightly structured poems that heave and push against the restraints, brimming with musicality, unexpected images and plenty of humour.  He also knows how to put a trope to work.  Glass and jaw: Fragility and menace.

In his hands, drinking glasses hide slivers of consequence, a windshield becomes a window on disaster, sunglasses disrupt the connection people, a glass pipe offers “chemical admission” and, yes, a jaw is broken in a junior A hockey fight.

The only real disappointment is that McCann left Ottawa in 2009 making it harder to hear his poems, which privilege language and sound, performed.

canadaMiss Canada International
rob mclennan
2011 winner

I won’t say too much about mclennan’s book because his work is well known in Ottawa and he’s written lovely summary of his aim.  I mention it because it is a beautiful book object.

Designer Charles Earl did a masterful job of reproducing a Canadian Passport right down to look and texture of the paper.  This book is worth owning for this reason alone.

One Man Parade
Rob Friday
2008 winner

This chapbook is also a dazzling object.  Friday is almost certainly better known around Ottawa for his art than his poetry and his book boosts three of his distinctive drawings (including the cover).

His poems, like his drawings, are playful, surreal and self-assured little machines that whirr, spin and dazzle; propelled by witty turns of phrase such as: “I am in love with the dishwasher/ because everything he touches/ turns to clean.” Or a poem addressing to a banana. I will stop here because… well… his book resists summary. Read it.


To obtain Copies of the above chapbooks – those that aren’t sold out – click on the store link on the Bywords site.