amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Ampersand, a poetry workshop group


For a brief period, possibly a little over a year in the mid aughts, a group of writers met once a month or so to discuss, get advice about, commiserate over their poetry. They began in the Royal Oak basement on Laurier St. E., then moved to a small café in the Byward Market, then another café in the Market.

The time period wasn’t long but from the point of view of this member of the group, the experience led to collaborations, better poetry & deepened friendships.


At one point, Roland Prevost & I were discussing our editing dream teams. He mentioned that his would consist of me, Marcus McCann, Pearl Pirie & Nicholas Lea. I’d worked with Roland on his Bywords’ chapbook, Metafizz after he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2006, & I’d been in a poetry workshop with Pearl, Nick & Marcus around the same time.
A while later, I invited Roland, Nick, Marcus & Pearl Pirie, to form a workshop group. I was already in a fiction workshop group with rob mclennan, Kate Heartfield, Steve Zytfeld, Tina Trineer, and Wes Smederle (with the addition of Spencer Gordon and Emily Falvey later on) & I found the experience to be worthwhile.

After Nick left the group, I invited Sandra Ridley to join.

We put out two chapbooks via my new small press, AngelHousePress:

Whack of Clouds (2008) & Pent Up (2009)

Marcus left town & Roland left the group to focus on other priorities. I got sick in 2009. We invited Christine McNair to join us in 2010, met at my place, but the group didn’t continue. From my perspective, I was just recovering from my health crisis & wasn’t writing that much at first, then less interested in meeting regularly & frankly, without Roland & Marcus, it didn’t feel the same.


Sandra: “my best memory was sitting in the Tea House and seeing a shetland pony walking by, outside on the sidewalk. surreal time-warped reality? or hallucination?”

Nick: “I remember it being a really productive/supportive group, easily one of the best groups i've worked with.”

Pearl: “There was one at the hotel lounge out the east entrance doors of Rideau Centre, Besserer, Pressed Cafe out of Les Suites Hotel, where there was Nicholas, Amanda, Marcus and I at least. It was dark, inclement weather, cold, blustery. The seats were tall and deep and squeaked leather. drinks were on the table. some cold. one steamed. Energy was lower and more conservative. It must have been an earlier one before the free for all pile ones of one poem after the next until the pile was thru. Getting bolder with detailed comments as people learned there’s the poem and the person. That all came eventually. Lightning edit rounds for ratcheting the poems.”

Roland: “My best sessions with the group were the ones where everyone had one or two fresh works. A few sessions at the tea room come to mind. People were obviously pushing the envelope, experimenting with form and voices. A very rich soup to be writing in. In addition to the meetings, I had email exchanges with many of the group members over time, where all sorts of things, including sometimes poetics and poetry, were discussed. For me, it was a hothouse period for poetry writing. An awesome group, to say the least. Very smart. Well read. And especially willing to play.”

Amanda: “the main thing I remember is not specific, but it was a feeling of relief that I was among kindred poets when the critiques I received were germane & helpful without asking me to bring more cohesive narrative into the work, etc.”

Origins of Ampersand

We never actually agreed that this was our name. I have no idea why some of us called it that, other than our tendency to use the &… but here are two possibilities from Marcus & Roland:
Marcus: “I think "Ampersand" was your idea, Amanda, and came about after Nick left. It was an acroynym of sorts: A(manda)M(arcus)Pe(arl)R(oland)Sand(y).”

Roland: “On the origins of the name ampersand. You’re the one who came up with that name, Amanda. I believe this was in response to an email I’d sent showing something like the following names in a sort of a scrabble pattern. Something like, but not identical to this:


 Since not everyone in the group had “an & in their names” it never occurred to me that the entire group could be called that. You suggested the name, I think, saying at the time that we all had a tendency to use &s in our writing, which was true.”

Where Are They Now?

N.W. Lea has a new book coming out with Chaudiere Books soon.

Pearl Pirie: “Making wee micro chapbooks, a few a year for various writers. between chapbooks and books from phafours I’m at 30 titles this year with new ones coming by Phil Hall and Monty Reid. I’ve been doing layout design printing for other people’s self-publishing projects. I’ve had 6 chapbooks since we met as Ampers&s including one from AngelHouse. I have  2 books out and 1 more coming and 3 more at various stages of incomplete. Since then I started organizing the Tree Seed Workshops, started doing workshops and talks on poetry for various organizations. Oh, and following the lineage of Literary Landscapes taking over from Christine McNair who took over from Marcus.”

Sandra Ridley was writer-in-residence for Open Book Toronto in September. Her third book, “The Counting House” came out with Book Thug last year. Sandra & I worked on a collaborative poetry manuscript together in 2009/2010. The manuscript was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Innovative Poetry Award.

Marcus McCann moved to Toronto, & became a lawyer. His second book “The Hard Return” was published by Insomniac Press in 2012.

Christine McNair married rob mclennan, had baby Rose last year, become co-publisher of the newly relaunched Chaudiere Books with rob, & is working on a new manuscript. Her first poetry book, “Conflict” was published by Book Thug in 2012.

Amanda Earl is up to her usual shenanigans, living a great life with Tom & Charles. “Kiki,” her first (assuming there may be more) poetry book was published by Chaudiere Books this year.
Roland Prevost’s first poetry book, “Singular Plurals” was published by Chaudiere Books this year after previous publication of four chapbooks.


We are still in contact & some of us have worked together or consult one another on occasion on our poetry. We are all friends. What we all had in common, still have in common, I believe, is the help, support & encouragement of rob mclennan, whether it be through workshops we’ve taken with him or conversations over beer or his reviews & publication & promotion of our work, he has been there from the beginning. Thank you, rob.

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