Review: The Canary


“Our editorial role is essentially a statement of enthusiasm,” wrote Joshua Edwards in an interview regarding Canarium Books, a small poetry press that has its roots in the literary journal The Canary.

The Canary began in 2002 and ran for only six issues, a shame because the enthusiasm of editors Joshua Edwards, Nick Twemlow, and Anthony Robinson are evident in the quality selection of poems in each issue. Past issues have included Rae Armantrout, Ben Lerner, Aaron Belz, Brenda Hillman and Kevin Young.

In 2007, the editors took a brief hiatus to start Canarium Books and never returned; or rather the journal came back in the altered form of Canarium, an occasional anthology sponsored by the English Department at the University of Michigan).

At Canarium Books, the editors’ vision is to “publish poetry by established and emerging authors from the United States and abroad.” Once a year, they hold a month-long open reading period for manuscripts and publish two to three new books a year. Their emphasis on reading translated manuscripts is unique.

But it was the experience of editing The Canary that prepared them to launch a small press. In 2009, Nick Twemlow wrote in an interview with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux that “editing a journal is an act of curation. Part of a curator’s responsibility is to make use of the venue, ensure that works exhibited interact with the space, that the viewers move in a way conducive to viewing whatever is on display in the best possible way.”

Twemlow gives the example of finding two poems that reminded him of Frank O’Hara. Neither mentioned O’Hara and it’s possible that neither poet thought of him while writing or had even read him at all. But Twemlow brought his associations to the reading and let it shape his layout.

He says, “It is this hunger to name, to contain the named things and the way they approach it that creates a conversation. When we found each poem independently in the slush pile, we knew that they would have a richer life together and it was important to us to publish them in the same issue….So you place them next to each other, and leave the rest to the reader. The editorial art that gives me most pleasure is curating a conversation between poems, between poem and reader.”

Another example of this “richer life together” is in issue two (pg 42-43), where Olena Kalytiak Davis’s poem “Aloft in a Tangergine Cloud,” faces James Sanders’s “Poem with Erik Estrada Autograph.” Both use the imagery of fog, and where Sanders directly mentions disorder in the beginning (disorder the / butterfly / do not feelings), Davis implies it (without warning, the house was lifted / by a fog it floated in the orange blue). And As Sanders’s poem seems to descend into more chaos both in spacing and content, Davis pushes to closure:

this is how it will be light
light light years from now
when my children come to join me

in heaven, my god, look at me:
wreathed and blessed

I don’t know if the editors’ shared my thoughts or were particularly intentional about placing these poems together, but as a reader, I found similar themes addressed very differently and these poems resonated with me more than they would have if placed apart.

CPR shares a The Canary’s vision of publishing “established and emerging poets in the United States,” and I think CPR’s editorial board would also do well to share Twemlow’s philosophy of “editing as curating.” This gets to the heart of why we publish a journal at all. Yes, we want a poem that knocks the knee-high socks off our readers and we want a poem that resonates with a particular audience. But we also want poems collectively to do this. We need an audience for the journal as a whole and we need the poems to speak to each other, to hang together as a body of work. Allowing Twemlow’s philosophy to guide the selection process and the layout process will make for a stronger issue.

Another way that the editors fostered this conversation between reader and poem was through their online “Slow Readings” series. They solicited reviewers to write about one poem in the issue and told them to write as much as they needed to. They didn’t want the reviews to “read like blurbs,” and they recognized that poems took time to unravel. They were looking for an extended discussion. This is another strategy that CPR could do, using the blog and past contributors.

Twemlow also talks about how the poems in an issue interact with the physical space of their environment. A second aesthetic of The Canary is simplicity. The design of each issue’s front cover is a solid color, featuring only the name and number of the issue in the top right corner. The back cover features an off-center, one column list of all contributing poets. What I appreciate about this design is its recognizable brand. You immediately know that the book you hold is an issue of The Canary. While this strategy works well for The Canary, considering the same three editors compile each issue, and as much as I enjoy its simplicity, I think the varied artwork of CPR’s covers from issue to issue better reflects our changing editorial board and aesthetics.

One area where CPR could borrow from The Canary’s layout, however, is in its bio page, a two-page spread where the bios run together in one massive block of text. Two different fonts and unique spacing keep it legible. This format works as a space saver and is visually interesting. The varied format of poems throughout each issue makes the bio page’s layout a natural extension.

Simplicity as an aesthetic can be hard to do well. When it is, it shows a depth and maturity. Though The Canary is long gone, I expect we’ll be seeing good things come out of Canarium Books.

–Abigail Zimmer