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Friday, April 20, 2012

BOOK REVIEW/ INTERVIEW: R.L. Raymond Sonofabitch Poems. PigeonBike Press, Canada, 2011 (49 pages).

This is the first poetry collection of R.L. Raymond, a Canadian writer and founder of PigeonBike Press. The book’s twenty-six poems are tightly crafted and explore a wide variety of subject matter in an open-ended and understated way. These are largely third person narrative poems which focus on ordinary incidents- a motor vehicle accident, visiting a relative in the local hospital, sitting in a pub, sending a son to the shop to buy smokes and the like. Despite the basic subject matter of many of the poems, what elevates this book is the pain-staking and strikingly original way in which the poems are conceived and constructed.

The stiff, shiny cover features an original oil painting by the writer. It has a swirl of bright colours like inside a furnace with three thin finger-like bars slashed into the foreground. The title Sonofabitch Poems is highly memorable and was coined by R.L. Raymond to mirror ‘the tough guy sonofabitches’ he writes about in his collection. As Raymond explains in the interview which follows, he had written three early poems about ‘tough guys’ and this emphasis on character drove the rest of the book:

‘I had three poems about legendary, pseudo tough guys (Skallagrim, Gambrinus and St Vitus) that worked really well together. Those became the foundation. From there I build characters and situations where sons-of-bitches acted, reacted, interacted. There are some tough guys, tough gals, and also regular folks affected by SOBs in one way or another. The tread is character driven in this collection.’

Most of the poems are characteristically 1-2 pages in length and provide brief glimpses into the lives of a variety of often unnamed people, who exist on the margins of mainstream society. The portraits are unsentimental and sometimes crushingly grim. The reader is presented with deft, nuanced figurative language, occasionally embedded with clever but opaque allusions.

In ‘L’acadien perdu’ a young man is king-hit outside a dive bar and is left to perish in the snow. ‘Lucky Luke’s car crashes into a ditch during an accident. He rolls down his window and is punched in the face by a road ragger. In ‘Phenoptosis’ a man ‘with the perfect lawn’ has shot himself with a hand gun. Outside his house,  the police, family and counsellors blare away on a megaphone not aware that he is already dead. In ‘Gambrinus’ a tough barfly sits drinking and waiting for ‘whatever else came his way.’

The portraits sometimes reveal to the reader, through dramatic irony, the false hopes people desperately cling to. In ‘A dirty bowl’ a child steals a coin from a church collection plate every Sunday and tosses it into a dry well in the hope his deceased mother will return. In ‘Crusts’ a dying man in hospital wheezes out a wish for a ribeye steak. In ‘On the grate’ a homeless woman sees her ex-husband, a doctor, approaching her hovel and futilely thinks that he has ‘finally come back for her.’ He walks on, not knowing nor caring she is there. In the powerful thirteen page ‘Gravedigger- a long poem’ the protagonist buries the old man’s dog after his neighbor blows his head partially off with a rifle.

Despite R.L. calling himself a ‘non-poet’ elsewhere and the book’s pretensions to appeal to a wider, non-academic audience, much of the pleasure for me inside these pages derives from unraveling the meaning and form of the poems. The best poems in the collection certainly ask more of its readers.

The beauty of the poems lies in the scattered, often shotgun detail that R.L. Raymond provides the reader. On first reading you understand the essence of most poems, but because the author has deliberately withheld crucial information, or has incorporated ambiguities, he denies us a precise reading. It’s up to the reader therefore to fill in the gaps based on their past experiences to make better sense of the poem. The reader therefore becomes involved in the composer’s process of creation. 

Take the first seven lines of ‘A little yellow room’ as an example:

maybe he hadn’t heard her scream ‘no!’
because her voice was young
and again
maybe he hadn’t heard her scream ‘I’m bleeding!’
because the phone lines were scratchy

she hailed a cab alone
so mom wouldn’t find out

The passage seems to raise more questions than it answers. The details of the narrative are as scratchy as the phone line. Who is the girl calling? Her boyfriend? Did he hear her screaming ‘no’, and ‘I’m bleeding’? Why would he not want to admit hearing her pleas? Was she attacked? Why is she bleeding? Why does she go to the hospital in a cab rather than by ambulance? Why doesn’t she want her mother to know?

While she sits in the back seat of the cab she is revolted by the stink of previous passengers. The poem concludes:

she closed her eyes to block it out
imagining a little yellow room
from a hallmark special around Christmas time
where girls in pigtails and boys with perfectly parted hair
were polite and beautiful
singing songs about baby jesus

The poem starts to make more sense. She has lost her virginity to her boyfriend and she has to go to the hospital because she continues to bleed. She doesn’t want her mother to know she’s had sex and her boyfriend is freaked out so she goes to the hospital alone. The yellow room symbolizes the state of childlike innocence and naivety that she would now like to return to.

‘Exhaust on the wild flames’, ‘Officer & Gentleman’, and especially ‘After the third beer and not much to eat’ also work in this style and are worthy of close detailed study. R.L. Raymond discusses his writing methods further in the interview below.

Overall, this is an intelligent, well thought out collection brimming with ideas, skilful word play and  bold experimentation. The poems creep up on you and as you draw further connections and associations, the poems will deliver their sucker punch to you when you least expect it.

Find further reviews and purchase details of Sonofabitch Poems here:


 Q1: R.L., You tell stories, like bourbon and have an MA in English Literature from the University of Western Ontario. What else can you tell us about yourself?
 RL: I still tell stories, I also drink gin and tonic in summer, and I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned those many years ago. Aside from that, I’m really just a guy writing words that I hope people enjoy reading. 
Q2: When did you first develop an interest in poetry and who are some of your present influences?
 RL: I’ve been writing for a long time, more seriously since about 2001. Not that I’d share much of that ‘juvenilia’ now, but there are some good lines here and there that sometimes find their way back into current stuff. I started getting published more consistently early last year – coincidentally when I started submitting a lot more. I am quite proud of the range of mags that accept my stuff – from literary to underground, scientific to comedic.
Influences are a hard thing to answer: are there poets and writers? Of course. But when you talk actual ‘influences,’ those things that MAKE you write, I’d probably list ambient drone music, darker beats by folks like Lustmord, Horseback, Pyramids… and I have to give props to Metal. To me, a nice loud blast of “Circle of the Tyrants” by Celtic Frost or “Snakes for the Divine” by High on Fire will get me going. Personally ‘influence’ isn’t those contemporaries I admire, or the dead that I’ve studied; ‘influence’ is what do I take in and regurgitate with, I hope, my stamp on it.
But for those writers that really touched me – Faulkner, McCarthy, Barnes, Eliot, Pound, Beckett, HD, Stevens – I tip my hat.
Q3: You’ve been publishing in small press magazines for a couple of years. Who do you rate amongst the best you’ve read and why?
RL: A few mags are stellar, either for their execution, their ‘vibe’ or a combination of both. Epic Rites always manages to capture the blood and guts. There are a lot of underground places that TRY to push that envelope, but it’s a hard thing to do right. Epic Rites Press does it. From a Canadian perspective, I think Carousel has to be one of the most fun, attractive, polished offerings I’ve seen in a long time. And the content is varied, interesting. With the small press there is SO MUCH stuff. Everyone has a niche, a schtick, and that’s cool. To me, if it’s entertaining, and well put together, I’m in. I am still a print purist, so a mag has to sound good, but FEEL good too. 
Q4: Turning to your first collection Sonofabitch Poems, apart from its head turning appeal, why did you choose this title?
RL: There is an actual genesis here. I had three poems about legendary, pseudo tough guys (Skallagrim, Gambrinus and St Vitus) that worked really well together. Those became the foundation. From there I build characters and situations where sons-of-bitches acted, reacted, interacted. There are some tough guys, tough gals, and also regular folks affected by SOBs in one way or another. The tread is character driven in this collection.
Q5: Why is your finely crafted book ‘dedicated to all the non-poets’?
RL: Poet is a label I abhor. You can’t call yourself a “poet” inasmuch as you can’t call yourself a “virtuoso.” It’s not yours to use. But, today, with social media, websites, innumerable ‘poetic’ places, everyone calls him or herself a poet. Not me. I’m a writer. I tell stories. There are line breaks, and ‘poetic’ diction / devices, but they exist only to add to the narrative. I have trouble separating my ‘poetry’ from my ‘prose’ so I just call it all writing. Someone wants to call me a poet, OK; but that’s not a compliment for this guy.
Q6: A predominant theme in the book appears to be about false or crushed hopes, yet ironically, there is an underlying sparkle of humour in the book. What are you trying to say about human nature?
RL: Well, I wouldn’t go that deep! Human nature is an ugly, ugly thing. What I try to do is take everyday situations, look at them from the outside, like an ‘alien’ as a good writer friend of mine likes to put it, and tell the ‘story’ I see. It’s a voyeuristic enterprise. Snapshots. Fill in the blanks. Here is a quick example:

a paperclip
bent repeatedly
between thumbs
and forefingers

her hands
warming a glass
of red wine
at a table for two
in another room

What’s going on? Who? Why? I don’t care. I am writing that slice; you are filling in the blanks. Is it ugly, or beautiful? Your call. There is nothing in the above but an open-ended story. That’s my job. Here’s a snapshot – what does it say to you?
Q7: How were you able to solicit the help of the American poet John Yamrus in the editing of your book?
RL: I met John through some online interactions (we’ve actually never met in person – something we’ll change soon I hope) and through chatting, calls, emails, we figured out we are on the same page when it comes to poetry. John was helpful in paring down what didn’t need to be there. Let the story tell itself. Don’t overdo it. My favourite Yamrus collection has to be “doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon.” It is required reading in my opinion.
We often exchange writing, comments, and practices. What I’ve learned most is the ‘business’ of writing. Submit, submit, submit. Stay true to your craft and you’ll find it a home. There is evidently a writerly connection there – check out the number of times we’ve appeared in print together (never planned!) But I’ve got a long way to go. John’s been published so much I can’t keep track. But, I’m doing OK. And I’ve got the confidence of youth on my side – HA! Just kidding John (kinda).
Q8: You are the Editor/Creator of PigeonBike Press. Can you briefly explain the events in the lead up to your decision to set up the publishing company? 
RL: PB started old-school in 1995. The whole underground thing: posters as calls for submission; the issue photocopied and stapled and passed around; contributors handing them out. It was small. It was me and a university friend just wanting to try it out. We did one issue. That was it. I resurrected PigeonBike in January 2011 for fun. Started as a blog to showcase some writers that I liked reading. Totally egotistical. If I liked it, it went up. Then I grew bored of the internet, of digital stuff – I’ve always been a book addict. So, I launched a few print issues and they were quite well received. Then I did the collections – full colour covers, perfect bound, hyper-professional looking. I have since turned off the digital part of PB, focusing on the print only. I want to practice what I preach: the permanence of ink and paper; putting out a product that contains both writing quality and physical beauty; showcasing what the small press can and should do. I think the current Print Issue “Semi Permanent Death” is the pinnacle of what I’ve been able to do with PigeonBike. It’s packed with great writing and photography. And, I humbly think it looks and feels wonderful. Pick up a copy:
Q9: What is the underlying philosophy behind PigeonBike Press?
RL: Simply put PigeonBike puts out stuff I like to read, on paper, to be shared and passed along. I want PigeonBike, however small it may be, to be a Press people respect and admire. 
Q10: What have been some of the highlights/ problems you’ve encountered so far with PigeonBike Press?
RL: As much as I love print, as much as I admire quality paper and printing methods, it’s expensive. I’ve used old-school offset presses, new-school digital presses, quality materials to ensure the longevity of PB titles. All this said, the world is changing. People want now, free, right away. ‘Likes’ and ‘re-tweets’ aren’t accepted currency at the printers. And because I don’t like e-devices and digital books, I don’t really want to play in that sandbox. But I’ve made that choice, to be old school and try my hardest to fight the death of print. So I’ll continue to fight.
Highlights? The writing. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. I have discovered people whose work I’d never heard of. I hope that a little exposure in PigeonBike helps those writers. Maybe a reader will pick up a print issue, a collection, whatever, and decide to support that writer by buying more of his or her work.
I just want to keep telling the stories that matter.

Thanks R.L. for taking the time in answering my questions so thoroughly.
My pleasure. Keep up the good fight. It’s the interplay and cooperation like this that can only help the small press. I tip my hat to you.