I have been writing various “letter-poems” for quite some time now—perhaps first striking off from Olson’s “letters” in Maximus (some of which were actually mailed to people—Ferrini, for instance). In what I call “The Barricades Project,” there are the “Dear Common” poems—addressed to everyone and no-one—as well as other letter poems, with various addressees (living and dead). I have also found the form useful for political agitation (would a corporation charge an open-letter poem with libel? We’ll see).

In early 2010, Vancouver poet and novelist Garry Morse and I started a correspondence when both our books were coming out that spring with Talon (Garry’s After Jack and my On the Material). Garry’s side of the correspondence was mostly in prose, and embedded in e-mails with other discussions intervening. He was also a lot more prolific than I was (!), so it’s hard to track what letter/poem responds to what. At first we were responding to each other’s manuscripts, but increasingly, we were responding to the building responses themselves. In the excerpts here I both comment on Garry’s work (often picking up and playing with language from After Jack) and respond to questions he was raising about my own practice. If there is an “ars poetica” buried in here, it is written in “Morse code.”
—Stephen Collis

Dear Garry

I think there’s no way
to wear the form of
the letter out—so here
goes—a relic of talk
or slurred odes to solitude

we both of us understand
there is never not a
danger of being utterly misunderstood
thus translations are just understood
misunderstandings—or if you like

misunderstood understandings where you place
yourself—mid-sandwich—between Jack and
Federico—or—is this right?
It’s more a matter of
telescoping where one could travel

Garry back to Jack back
to Lorca back to—what?
Out it seems again—into
Lorca like mirrors found in
a Rimbaud or a Duchamp

and then forward again into
all those contemporaries invoked (we
always need contemporaries)—the community
of peers we find ourselves
peering in and out of

Big tent poetics or really
we (as poets) have always
been a strange fringe of
other desires—the mark of
odd affinities found in form

(I will tell you what
Nietzsche teaches: Nietzsche teaches)
(That colon counts as a
word in case you’re counting)
Then those other translations too

like if radio could be
means and metaphor for Jack
you (as poets are want)
turn the form of communication
into TV Google Youtube etc.

Jack’s friends become your friends
(though they don’t know each
other) and Buster Keaton becomes
Charlie Chaplin (not a stretch)
but Juan Ramon Jiminez into

Malcolm Lowry? Now you’re Vancouverizing
at the tempo of Bowering’s
Rilkeization of Duino into Kerrisdale
—another telescoping or maybe Russian
doll nesting inside doll nesting

(you get the picture)—but
what I really wanted to
note (this is the literary
critical part of this poem)
is the centrality of the

refrain—from Lorca to Jack
to you Garry Thomas Morse—
repetitions and spirals so the
poem is always in some
sense its own internal translation

of some central node or
N-ode—so refrains here are
not just looping lines of
familiar content but the very
shape of the movement of

poetry across all our poems—
say—you to Donato to
(whoever wrote “Candle” for Elton)
to Spicer to Rimbaud—so
the refrain in poetry is

the sound of communities echoing
(isn’t that nice? I’ll slur
it a little drunkenly again)
the sound of communities echoing
in and out of time

Dear Garry

I offer some begloved examination:
I’d say the refrain in
your book is Spicer but
the refrain itself is more
Lorca than any thing else

Normative enough for ya? Plagiarism
(aside): ‘it’s mine I tell
You—ain’t no translations here’
I go fishing off the
peer you’ve provided in space

(some call this reading too)
This is the interface through
which we access the conceptual
(not that I want all
our books to go Bök

it’s just hard to avoid
him when he’s so sure
he’s beat us there already)
No one listens to poetry
though we ignore the fact

it’s a blog eat blog
world after all and the
words keep circling the bowl
flush after flush after flush
subtle malleable palpable savoury buttery

but how small is your
vocabulary? And aren’t the words
you’ve been using real enough
just themselves—words after words
stuck to nothing but themselves?

Sometimes I get the sense
of how close you are
to your sources—other times
you slip off into some
Rabelaisian world of your own

It’s OK—don’t even worry
the market can rear itself
and I like the shirt
of Nessus they hand out
to each poet down here

We both have the golden
arches to thank for these
aches in the dark—genetically
modified and pennies where our
dark eyes used to be

So sad—let’s pour another
drink—or pour one directly
into our heads—bitterness? Headaches?
it’s all Greek to me
and travelling twice as fast

Dear Garry

The talk is all night
in my head pillowed voices
ranting the levellers out of
woods where dreams squeezed paints
from tubes into clear jars

(get the picture?)—woods not
words I say though Greenwich
has its mean time and
the blackberries full of snipers
call radical poets to pick

so they can be picked
off one by one (loneliness
you or Jack remind is
necessary for [ ] poetry—“purity”
I leave outside the poem)

as one time when during
a tour of the English
department an honoured visiting scholar
upon being introduced to some
poets asked—do they bite?

It was then I knew
how firm the manacles round
my wrists were—and how
free of tooth marks too
(no more mind forming mandibles)

But I wonder if we
can ever understand each other?
Marketing is everything and we
can only make this exchange
because capital (or our little

dogs) know us (i.e., ‘interpolation’)
our pasts are primitive accumulations
and our futures accumulations too
(though hard to say whether
primitive or its unknown opposite)

Here’s where it gets gushy
where I really do feel
for all my self googling
fellow poet gangstas—we really
are alone (or at least

that’s how a certain mechanism
wants us to feel—click
clicking across spaces we imagine
connect us but actually keep
us farther and farther apart

Dear Garry

Everything is overflowing a greenness
I’d spied the first time
words overwhelmed the world or
first time I wondered what
world existed outside of words

No simple or mock organicism
motivates my movement to or
from the poem—no need
to access some unlettered wood
or ride line and stanza

to some mythy place “outside”
language (as if we’d ever
travel there and live to
tell the tale)—but neither
am I suggesting a critique

of each and every aspect
of this thing I call
“capitalism” (old fashioned as I
am)—it is everything—even
poetry—though a garbage strewn

alley off some lesser street
or maybe—here it is
again!—some vacant lot or
“waste” or “common” covered in
vines snaking about Styrofoam cups

I just want to be
conscious of the deeper structures
(poetry’s so good at structure)
and sometimes yes critique its
more onerous abuses of humanity

and the earth and these
other creatures—but most of
all let’s find in our
fabrications the lineaments of new
worlds—corn buildings and collections

of nesting material flocks of
summers a dish of ink
labyrinth of rolling things and
us running collectively into a
bewilderness of our own making

I can’t be and not
be up against it—maybe
there’s always been some It
to be up against—no
matter—poetry has always pushed

language up against form (ah
sweet structure) trying its blade
against soft thumbs— even a
forest falls for lack of
words—here—take a bough