Register Monday | June 18 | 2018

Looking Back on Lemon Hound

                                          Sina Queyras, founder of Lemon Hound.  

Kevin Spenst: What holds Canada together beyond anthems and the peacock posturings of federal politics? The arts? Feats of physical endurance? Terry Fox wasn’t the first to try to cross Canada and Steve Fonyo wasn’t the last successful failure of a life on a one-legged run. Poets and other artists have been crossing, criss-crossing and crossing out large portions of our geography for well over a century. 

When I think about the role that Lemon Hound has played in the world of Canadian poetry over the past ten years, I think back to Milton Acorn’s pre-web-connected life from Charlottetown to Montreal to Toronto to Vancouver back to Toronto and then Charlottetown. So many other poets’ biographies are also written on the go. Poets, after all, are curious creatures. We seek out the linguistically new. Moving or staying put in the midst of a pandemonium of books or conversations is the manifestation of this souped-up, knowledge-seeking drive. 

The past ten years have been difficult economically as the cost of living has gone up and wages have remained stagnant. Have poets been affected by this? Have poets traveled less? Has Lemon Hound been there to provide a much needed cross-country conversation of particulars around an appropriately spiked water-cooler? From the comfort of our homes, commutes, writing retreats, offices, Employment Insurance line-ups or coffee shops, we can read new poetry and commentary springing up from all corners of the country and sometimes beyond. Is that fair to say, or am I myth building in the manner of a post-modern, anything-goes railroad?

Andrea Bennett: I’m going to avoid a last-spike pun here (should I? You set me up so well) and say that any attempt to sum up the history and import of a site of poetry and criticism is bound to be a bit of a myth-builder. I’m not sure that anything does hold Canada together, particularly not the poetries and poetics of Canada—and I’m not sure that we need this kind of unifying force in the first place. But I’m curious about your assertion about class and travel, and the idea that online spaces like Lemon Hound provide a gathering place for geographically disconnected poets and critics. I wonder if Lemon Hound has allowed a poet from, say, Cornerbrook, the opportunity to feel as engaged in Canadian poetry as a poet from Toronto. I feel like many of us who come from the backwaters spend more time listening to conversations about poetry that take place in Toronto or Montreal than we do participating in them. 

Before we get into the thick of it, I’m also wondering if we should start this conversation off by defining Lemon Hound, or agreeing on terms? To me, Lemon Hound is at least two things. 

One: it’s a website that Sina Queyras founded in 2005, after the publication of her eponymous book. In that way, it reminds me of Joyland, which Emily Schultz founded after she published her eponymous novel. I remember Schultz saying something along the lines of, “Hey, this website’s not really needed anymore for book publicity, so maybe I’ll open it up as a space where other fiction can be published.” Eventually, Schultz brought on other editors, and the site grew. Similarly, when I think of Lemon Hound, I think of a space that started off as Sina Queyras’s blog, and grew into a sort of multi-layer, multi-editor site that has managed to publish a fairly broad range of different kinds of (mostly Canadian) poetry and criticism, different kinds of poets and critics: everyone from Don Share to Erin Moure, Jonathan Ball, Sue Goyette, Linda Besner, Jason Guriel, Jeramy Dodds, Sonnet L’Abbe, and so on and on. In this sense, the site is a rich and diverse literary magazine that manages to publish a lot of Canada’s most interesting poets and poetic viewpoints. It’s also a site for which I’d be hard-pressed to define an aesthetic in the way I could for TCR or The Malahat Review or Grain. Another aspect I like: Queyras set an example for the site in terms of criticism. Lemon Hound doesn’t shy away from strong opinions when it comes to its short takes, criticism and reviews.

Which brings me to the second thing I think Lemon Hound is: a toothy-as-fuck Twitter account. We joke a lot about the poetry wars up here in Canada (and we seem to scare off our American brethren, which is full-stop saying something). I often keep quiet, which is something I continually regret. Queyras, via the Lemon Hound Twitter account, does not keep quiet. She’s vocal. Super vocal. And super sharp. I really have to acknowledge how important this is to me as a very opinionated and loud-in-person-but-quiet-online woman, to see Queyras holding her own and dishing it out online. I don’t need to agree with her position or opinions to be grateful for this.

Let’s regroup: do you agree with my terms and definitions? Dissents, recalls, double-downs?

KS: Poetry wars! (I wish this could be presented in scrolling Star Wars text against a backdrop of tundra. Dear reader, can I ask that you imagine it as such?) From print to Facebook, Canadian poets have occasionally been at each other’s throats more for blood than hickies. I suppose a lot of this conflict stems from different conceptions of the terrain covered by the word “poetry.” Lemon Hound has entered the fray in a number of ways, but I think the most “high-ground” has been in presenting an entire section called “On Reviewing.” It hasn’t resulted in anyone in the various camps or factions dropping their pens exhausted of ink and rushing into each other’s arms, but it has given writers and readers the important opportunity to reflect upon the process of arriving at an aesthetics of “good or bad.” In this “On Reviewing” section, we can read insights from Sonnet L’Abbé: “a review condenses one knowledgeable and generous reader’s full experience of a book,”; Ken Babstock: “I come to every book with a sense of climbing up toward it lacking the proper gear and training,”; David Orr: “A good review is a persuasive judgment entertainingly delivered,”; Matthew Zapruder: “I am much less interested in a critic’s opinions than in her or his analysis. I used the analogy of a math or science teacher requiring students taking a test to ‘show your work,’ i.e., to reveal the thinking and reasoning process that led to the answer,”; and Jan Zwicky: “But a good review will always convey respect for the process of discussion; it will be clear that its own standpoint is particular … In the case of art, a good review always conveys respect for the attempt to make art.”

Lemon Hound has done a most bodaciously beneficent service to Canadian letters by allowing for a space for this discussion. Of course, there is no one “stance” of the blog as it is made up of many voices. It’s supposedly “more bark than bite since 2005,” but I think it’s mostly very big ears.

I agree with everything you’ve laid down, but I have some questions for your perusal: What sections, articles, interviews have you been drawn to? What would you put into a print version? How would you translate Lemon Hound into a game show? “Toothy-as-fuck Twitter account?” Could you expand upon that a bit?

AB: “Very big ears”: I think that’s apt. You know the other thing that was prescient about Lemon Hound? It’s online-only. That’s not exactly novel, but 2005 predates the time in Canada whereby a literary person could decide to establish an online lit mag and seek out proper Canada Council funding, which too often also equates to some kind of respect or legitimacy in Canada. Lemon Hound gained respect and legitimacy anyways. (I have no clue about what kind of funding Lemon Hound did or didn’t receive, but there are no telltale Canada Council badges on the site.) So when you ask me what I’d put into a print version, I’m not sure. Would it look (structurally, I mean) like Arc? Part of its power is that everything is online and accessible, a quality that was and is still sorely lacking from Canadian lit mags.

Anyhoo, on to your questions. I was half-planning to edit out that “toothy-as-fuck” Twitter comment because, as I mentioned before, I’m a coward. But you’ve got me now. It’s a really small community here in Canada, right? And that means, I think, that very few people feel comfortable being critical of other writers, or calling out shit when they see it. Mostly we subtweet, text our poet friends, gripe at our lit events or Legion roundtables. Lemon Hound’s Twitter engages directly with subjects that most of the rest of us avoid publicly. It also offers forthright comments and forthright analysis. To me it feels tuned-in and like it has very little filter. And it approaches Twitter like any good poet: purposeful in one part for incisive commentary, and for another in Dadaist snippets. I’m into it.

I think it would actually be super fun to have a Canadian poet game show. Like one of those United Kingdom-style game shows that Stephen Fry is always on. It could work. The wardrobe room would be half taken up by scarves.

My very favourite section of the site is the “How Poems Work” section. I love it, I love it, we should all be so lucky as to have these kinds of close readings done on our poems by other poets. Some favourites: Marilyn Hacker on Gwendolyn Brooks; Will Vallières on Rae Armantrout; Chris Hutchinson on Gabe Foreman.

Are there things you think Lemon Hound could have done better? 

KS: Better? I cower and quake at the thought of hurting anyone’s feelings over this, but let’s throw off our oven mitts and bare-knuckle this question: somebody should have stepped off-line and put something into print. There should be at the very least a chapbook series of “How Poems Work,” “On Reviewing,” or some anthology of poetry. I’m sure that would take some effort in terms of getting approval from poets and in some cases publishers, but I think that would have made Lemon Hound’s presence felt all the more. Here, of course, I’m defining “better” as reaching more people. In the physical presence of print, you have the opportunity for an event with people coming together. I know this is getting close to the “C” word, but don’t we want people coming together in a non-kumbaya kind of way to discuss poetry and whatever else jazzes them? 

Better? How about more interactivity. Think Sachiko Murakami’s Project Rebuild, which invited people to “squat” in poems that were put up on her Rebuild website. Could there have been a digitally interactive component of Lemon Hound where people “remixed” content and poems? (Or sent in video interpretations of the question: “How does your face move when you hear ‘Lemon Hound?’”)

Better? More audio recordings of poets and writers reading their work.

Better? Some kind of “in the classroom” component where high school teachers are given some tools and suggestions for incorporating content into their English, social studies or history classes. 

Better bitterness? Better batter to mix into the cake of CanLit? Better butter to spread over the crunchy toast of critical issues? Better … yours is an essential question that has brought me to my knees. It’s especially vital for new sites like Rusty Toque. How can they benefit from the various directions that Lemon Hound took? 

What do you think Lemon Hound could have done better?

AB: To answer this question, I’m going to return to some advice that Keith Maillard gave us ages ago in poetry workshop. He told us, when workshopping a poem, that we should meet that poem where it was coming from rather than workshopping it in the direction of a poem we might write ourselves. Very good advice!

I think that Lemon Hound attempted to pivot from blog to lit mag without undertaking the necessary redesign to their website. It was redesigned, and that redesign was fine for a blog, but not an online lit mag. That affects the way a reader will approach the site—whether the writing on the site will be considered polished and timeless, or transient and tossed off. Hazlitt, which came along much later, and probably with a bigger budget, is a great example of a Canadian site where the aesthetic supports and properly presents the writing. A more holistic approach like this would’ve helped Lemon Hound’s continuing relevance online. And it’s probably an important lesson for other magazines: is your website a blog? Does it look like a blog? Are you putting as least as much energy into it as you’re putting into your print magazine? Do you have a proper mobile site? (For the love of everything holy, do you have a mobile site?

My second critique is a bit similar but on a different track. I get the sense that Lemon Hound grew because of the way the writing was solicited and came together. Lots of great people were willing to come forward for interviews and with writing. It’s hard to assess without having seen the mag’s internal workings, but I get the sense that there probably came a time in the development of the site where they could have used a heap more resources to continue growing beyond the fruits of the site’s hard work and goodwill. I guess this ties in to my earlier assertion about not seeing any Canada Council badges on the site: most literary magazines in Canada today rely on the institutional support of universities (for office space, and maybe subsidized staff positions), and organizations like the Canada Council, Access Copyright and the provincial arts councils. Oh! And non-fiction, fiction, and poetry contests, which can drive a fairly significant percentage of annual subscriptions. Looking at Lemon Hound, it doesn’t tick off many of these boxes (it did run a poetry contest). For example: there’s a callout for donations, a chunk of which are to go towards establishing “a prize for the best piece of critical writing by a woman.” That prize is an amazing idea. Did it ever come together? Could Lemon Hound have taken a different tack in terms of funding? Would the creation of a podcast, or a more frequent publishing schedule, have been helpful to draw funding? 

I realize that I haven’t really engaged with the actual writing in this critique I’ve offered, and that’s for a reason: I think that the writing is strong, and my only criticism is that there could’ve been more writing, posted more frequently. 

One last thing! I haven’t engaged much here with your critique about the necessity of print, but now that you mention it, I think it would be really great to see some kind of anthology come together. Something along the lines of NeWest Press’s Writer as Critic Series. There’s still time! Sign me up; I’ll buy one. 

Andrea Bennett’s writing has been published in The Atlantic, Walrus and Maisonneuve. Her first poetry book, Canoodlers, came out with Nightwood Editions in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @akkabah.

Kevin Spenst is the author of Jabbering with Bing Bong (Anvil Press) and the chapbooks Pray Goodbye (The Alfred Gustav Press), Retractable (The Serif of Nottingham), What the Frag Meant (100 Tetes Press) Snap (Pooka Press), and Surrey Sonnets (JackPine Press). His work has recently appeared in BafterC, Poetry is Dead and the anthology Best Canadian Poetry 2014. Follow him on Twitter @kevinspenst.