Portrait of a Press: Canarium Books, A River of Songs




Portrait of a Press: Canarium Books, A River of Songs by Shane McCrae

July 11th, 2013 reset - +

CANARIUM BOOKS — edited by Joshua Edwards, Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, and Lynn Xu — is publishing some of the most compelling poetry being written today. I interviewed Josh, Lynn, and Nick, as well as managing editor Russell Brakefield, over the course of several months, mostly via chats. And it wasn’t long before I realized that the best way to tell the Canarium story would be to let the people who made the story tell it themselves, although I thought it might be helpful to add reviews of the three newest Canarium books, which — and this is always the exchange between a press and its books — are making the story anew: Farnoosh Fathi’s Great Guns, Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness, and Robert Fernandez’s Pink Reef.

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An Interview with Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu


Josh and Lynn were late. We had arranged to meet in a chat window at 1:00 p.m., and by 1:30 I had convinced myself, absolutely convinced myself, that the meeting wasn’t happening, and the interview wasn’t happening, and my career as a journalist was ending before my eyes, before it had begun. Fifteen minutes later, I had just started an apologetic email — “Hi Josh, hi Lynn! Sorry I missed you. I think maybe I was confused about the time?” — when Josh popped into the chat. He and Lynn had gotten lost in the snow in a forest in Stuttgart, and they had just made it back to the castle.

Josh is currently a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, located in Solitude Castle in Stuttgart, Germany, and the author of two books of poetry: Campeche, published in 2011, and Imperial Nostalgias, published in April. He and Lynn, who is a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and PhD candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley, and whose first book, Debts & Lessons, was also published in April, currently live in Stuttgart some of the time, and in Marfa, Texas, the rest of the time. I conducted the following interview with Josh and Lynn together, via chat, in January of this year.

SHANE MCCRAE: Why start a press?

JOSH EDWARDS: After running The Canary for six years [a literary journal founded by Josh as The Canary River Review in 2001], Nick, Robyn, and I decided a press would be the best thing to do next. Also, the magazine was a financial drain, even though we had some outside help from our friend Ed King (King Estate Winery) and some other folks. There were a few poets whose work we’d published that we thought would have amazing manuscripts. Ish Klein was a big part of starting the press.

SM: Did you think The Canary had gone as far as it could go?

JE: Not necessarily as far as it could go. We’d still love to do another issue sometime, but the thought was we could direct our energies in a more focused way.

LX: Just to throw in my two cents: I never had any pretensions to think that I could (myself) start a press. For me it was an accident, which seemed also a natural counterpart to a partnership that Josh and I were starting. I joined the editorial team just as The Canary was shifting gears into Canarium.

JE: I basically pitched the University of Michigan an idea just as I was finishing there, they liked it, and the press was born with a small book/anthology of new poems, nearly all by poets we’d published in The Canary.

SM: How does the editorial team make decisions?

JE: The editorial team consists of MFA students at UM, some UM alum (such as our managing editor, Russell Brakefield), and Nick, Robyn, Lynn, and myself. The UM readers help us go through the open submission period manuscripts (about 350 this year). Nick, Robyn, Lynn and I together read everything (meaning between the four of us we read all the submissions also). We all make comments, narrow it down, then we just sorta talk it out. As with The Canary, any decisions we make to publish something have to be unanimous. The conversations get longer the closer we get to choosing something. Also, we stick with our authors, but don't ask that they publish exclusively with us.

SM: Canarium doesn’t run any contests, correct? Given the near-ubiquity of contests, why has Canarium chosen to only hold open reading periods instead?

JE: I respect a lot of presses that hold them, but we’re primarily interested in the curatorial practice of the press. Because we have the benefit of funding and editorial assistance, we haven’t thought of contests. If it came down to having a contest or folding, I think we’d fold.

SM: Really? Why?

JE: Just because it’s already a labor of love, and the conversation is what is so interesting for me (and, I think, all of us). Also, I don’t think any of us like the model of people giving $20 to have someone pass their work onto a judge, although we’ve all entered contests and understand them as the norm.

LX: Also, I think that poetry itself (due to its alienation from the marketplace in some ways) is at its best when it provides an alternative economy. Although of course it cannot be entirely outside of it.

SM: Canarium book design is very distinctive and particular. Has this happened by accident, or did you know from the beginning how you wanted your books to look?

JE: For the book designs, it’s really a case of necessity being the mother of invention. I design them, but I’m not a designer. At the outset, we just knew we wanted them to follow in the tradition of The Canary, which was very simply designed.

SM: Could running Canarium become a full-time job?

JE: I wish. If we got some angel donors or something. But small is beautiful, so we’re happy as things are also. We’d like to do some pamphlets of poets writing about all sorts of things. Lynn and I will be moving back to Texas (to Marfa) after Germany, and we’re hoping to have a place there next to the house we’re going to build with my dad, and that’ll be a residency of sorts, a place for our authors to come and finish books, or recover from writing books, or just come hang out. So I guess we just want to continue to participate in the community the press has played a part in forming.

SM: Do you always keep the love of the work in mind? If so, how? If not, is that cause for alarm? What sustains your love?

LX: I think the love happens in very strange ways and is sustainable only as brief moments which flare up — like, when I was proofreading Paul’s new book, and I reread his poem “Teach me to Box" and I was like: holy shit. That moment was love, which is in itself an impossible emotion. Or, perhaps I should describe the moment as the suddenness of falling in love, because otherwise than action, I cannot actually call to love. And it is the possibility to make that moment sharable. In the concrete object of a book, which goes from hand to hand, and face to face, and voice to voice.

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Interlude 1: A Short Review, a Question, and an Answer with Paul Killebrew

Paul Killebrew’s second collection, the both subtly and startlingly conceived Ethical Consciousness, is full of cars. Initially, because the poems seem most often to concern themselves with the difficulties of bearing the great, ironically specifying weight of disaffection, I read for a different through-line. But it’s cars. Cars are everywhere. And most of the time they are simply that: “cars.” But they are never simply that.

The speakers in these poems — and sometimes the speaker of a particular poem will suddenly seem to become an entirely different person, which is always, when it happens, apt and even necessary, although it is also always surprising — mostly suffer from the same problem: they are alive in America in the 21st century. Each person is a specific individual, but to be a specific individual in this time and place is often to be embarrassed by one’s own anonymity. Specificity and individuality have lost their value, while, paradoxically but fittingly, the pressure on each person to acknowledge and respect the particular traits that make each individual a specific individual has increased. Cars symbolize this perfectly — they are anonymous, and yet they feel particular, and they must be respected lest great harm be done. They seem to unite us — the respect each of us must pay them feels like a bond inasmuch as they occupy our awareness — but they cannot unite us, lest great harm be done. They bring us together, but hopefully not all the way together, lest great harm be done.

In the long title poem, Killebrew writes:

Mute premonitions
glitter through
your fingernails,
cars stack up
at the exit like
words in a sentence,
the sky so
beautiful that
it seems
to be perceiving
you, your
short piano
of intuitions and
doubts, and how
dignifying is
its concern.
But do you stand there
and beam out
elementary particles
of your specific
regard like
the sun? Or do
the particles
fly inward,
condense into
unbearable truth
and disappear?

Notice first that the sentence in which cars are themselves compared to words in a sentence begins with muteness. Although a vehicle of communication is specified, that vehicle does not speak — the cars connect but also do not connect. And that parallel connecting and not-connecting recurs in the following image, in which the perceived beauty of the sky — the “specific regard” of the you in the poem — seems to infuse the sky with specific regard for the perceiver. So the questions arise: Is the individual’s specific regard, the individual’s particularity, an empowering agent? Or does the individual’s particularity function only to make the individual a specific vessel for external deposits? These questions can’t be answered, and this is how Killebrew answers them: cars work and they don’t work, they connect us and they don’t connect us, they are particular and they are anonymous, they are us and they are inexhaustible.

SHANE MCCRAE: What’s the story behind Ethical Consciousness?

PAUL KILLEBREW: I'd been living in New Orleans since 2008, and I had a typewriter with a rudimentary word processor in the form of a small screen that showed two lines worth of text but only about half the length of an 8.5 x 11–inch page for each line, which for my purposes was wide enough. You could write pages and pages of stuff that would be saved in the typewriter’s memory, and you could review the whole thing through that keyhole of two half-lines before printing it all out. When you hit “print,” the typewriter would type your whole text out like a player piano. I’d sit down and start a poem with line breaks imposed by the screen’s width, and as I went along I could only see the line just before. I tried very hard to resist the impulse to go back and review the whole thing from the beginning until I reached whatever I decided the end would be, when I would hit “print” and see the whole poem for the first time. It was a liberating experience. 

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An Interview with Russell Brakefield

Russell Brakefield is the managing editor at Canarium. He works as a lecturer at the University of Michigan, and like Joshua Edwards is a graduate of the creative writing MFA program there.

SHANE MCCRAE: How did you get involved with Canarium?

RUSSELL BRAKEFIELD: When I started my MFA at Michigan in 2009 I was slightly familiar with The Canary. Josh Edwards was in to talk to students about the press, about opportunities for involvement, etc. I was immediately drawn to the aesthetic of the press and also the way Josh talks about that aesthetic and his hopes for the work Canarium does/can do. They were moving towards getting MFA students involved in a larger way in doing editorial work, proofing, helping with distribution and promotion, and with any extra initiatives that the students might want to take on, using the press as a platform. I started talking with Josh about how I might be of help, and I have been increasingly involved with the press ever since.

SM: Two questions, then: What is the Canarium aesthetic, as you see it? And: What do you do there?

RB: I do everything from proofreading to filling Amazon and SPD orders to editorial work. One of the big things that I do is organize a group of MFA students to read submissions for our open reading periods. Ultimately, the editors make the decisions, but this allows MFA students at Michigan (some really exciting young voices in poetry and fiction) to help inform the process and allows for a fuller editorial process for the press.

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I think Canarium’s aesthetic is an interesting one, and not always easy to pin down. I would say that Canarium’s intention is not necessarily a unified aesthetic so much so that our books are acutely or necessarily similar, but rather an attention/intention to choose books that are exciting, engaging, books whose authors display a strong embrace of sensibilities. When I say sensibilities I mean that we look for authors with a strong voice, a strong engagement with language, a strong and unapologetic sense of movement and innovation that positions them as an important addition to the landscape. I’m thinking of Anthony Madrid's book I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say as a good example — a book of ghazals that is irreverent and wild and that is exploratory in terms of its engagement with that form. Also indicative of Canarium’s aesthetic, I think, are poems or collections that move or gesture towards high modernism, combined with a sort of irreverent (to use that word again, although I’m not asserting that the press is essentially cheeky or flippant) relationship with modernism. It is high modernism that takes the piss out of high modernism.

SM: What about high modernism — if this question isn't too vague — draws the Canarium editing team?

RB: Any embrace of modernism is going to hopefully emphasize an engagement of the personal through more nuanced methods — objectivity, or the image or intellectual declaration, formalism, language. To your question, I think that the current literary climate is battling between a deep desire to see the personal presence (I'm thinking both of the popularity of memoir and poetic essay as well as the sort of voice driven poetics that dominates much of the independent poetry community).

High modernism perhaps allows for a layering. Poets are able to establish voice and personal presence not by saying, I did this and it felt like this, but rather through an attention to language, form, conceit.

SM: One last question: Do you have any managing editor stories of, for example, last-minute necessary things, or fun miscommunications, or other shenanigans?

RB: The first round of slush pile submissions we read were all physical manuscripts. This was before we began using the online system. I would load them up into this huge mail cart here at Michigan and go across the street to this bar called Scorekeepers where we would all meet and read them. It was a really strange undergrad sports bar/club type of place at night, but no one was ever in there during the day. The waitstaff was really confused/concerned when all these writers would come in at noon on a weekday with a cart full of poetry.

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Interlude 2: A Short Review, a Question, and an Answer with Farnoosh Fathi

Many things snailish populate Farnoosh Fathi’s debut collection, Great Guns — many things slow, many things armored and vulnerable, many things to be and not to be eaten. And snails, also, appear — early and repeatedly. The first snail shows up in the final lines of the first, untitled poem: “the waves explode but cannot kill a snail / whose castle is the quiet / on a nun’s navel.” The second snail arrives in “The Conductor,” the fourth poem in the book: “We don’t need proof — the storm that took the snail’s roof / is meaning enough to ache — and we feel, if our thinking is too late, / born for an earth turning away.” And later on, there’s a poem actually titled “Snail.” Snails abound; the snailish abounds.

But the poetry itself moves quickly, propelled forward by assonance and internal rhymes — ahead of the reader always, but not so far ahead that the reader feels abandoned, but far enough ahead that the reader runs (as Fathi herself writes, “We’re running, outrunning our say”). The reader runs after the many things flying that fly through Great Guns — snails and worms fill the poems, but sparrows, too, addressed, in a poem titled “Sparrow,” in a slower, end-stopped music: “Because you will so easily disappear / I think of you as infinitely near.” So, then: Snails are sung quickly, and sparrows are sung slowly. These poems are poems, after all, of “an earth turning away.”

In other words, something in the poems seeks to reorder nature. These poems are often exuberant, often funny, always running — sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly — but these poems sound against a background music of never-ending lament. The only possible authorial subject-position in Great Guns is that of the mourner, and every poem is an elegy. The disconnect between human beings and the rest of the natural world is so profound that the disconnect itself has taken the place of the natural world. The people in Great Guns, and the people speaking it, seek to reorder the constituents of the first, displaced natural world — the “earth turning away” — to make manifest their sense that if they themselves are not a fixed and stable part of that world, nothing is.

SHANE MCCRAE: What’s your sense of Canarium's aesthetic, if it could be said to have a particular aesthetic? And how does it (Canarium? its aesthetic? however you want to interpret that) fit in with contemporary poetry?

FARNOOSH FATHI: My answer is mostly a quote from one of Ashbery’s earliest poems:

So far is goodness a mere memory
Or naming of recent scenes of badness
That even these lives, children,
You may pass through to be blessed,
So fair does each invent his virtue.

I don’t think Canarium has a particular aesthetic, but my sense is that each poet is encouraged to “invent his [or her own] virtue” — which might be just one poem’s invention or particular discovery. But the spirit of that encouragement is generous, even heroic, and boundless in aesthetic possibility.

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An Interview with Nick Twemlow

Poet, filmmaker, and Canarium editor Nick Twemlow lives in Iowa City with Robyn Schiff, who is also a poet and Canarium editor, as well as the director of the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Iowa. We chatted in March. We were probably within a few hundred feet of each other at the time.

SHANE MCCRAE: Do you have any tales to tell about the three books Canarium is publishing this year?

NICK TWEMLOW: Well, let me go back a bit further to get to one of this year's titles. Back in the olden days, when Canarium was an annual magazine, The Canary, we received a packet of poems in the slush, from one Robert Fernandez. They blew me away. I brought them to our weekly editorial meeting, and the other editors concurred. They were intense, hyper-focused, strange. Pretty much like Robert’s poems today. Didn’t know squat about the guy, but we knew he had written at least two good poems! So, we published them, and then radio silence for years. Come the first round of unsolicited manuscript submissions for Canarium, we received We Are Pharaoh (Canarium, 2011), and blam! It was a force, this manuscript. Like his earlier poems, but bigger and better. I think we all read the thing in a few days, and then Robyn called him from a balcony in Chicago, to see if we could publish it. I still remember the evening, remember hearing the joy in Robyn’s and Robert’s voices. That’s why you do something like Canarium. For that moment (and, of course, for the poems). Real, unmediated joy. But the real point behind this anecdote of our history with Robert is that he came from nowhere (his mother wouldn’t say that, of course, but he was unknown to us), out of a small magazine’s slush and is now a Canarium author, hopefully for life. This is the beauty of small press publishing. This is how it’s supposed to work.

SM: How has Canarium changed over the years? How are the challenges Canarium faces now different from the challenges Canarium faced in the beginning?

NT: As I mentioned, we started out as a magazine. Josh Edwards, who is a great friend and, in my humble opinion, the best publisher pound-for-pound in the literary world, launched a print magazine called The Canary River Review. He did it as a young man because he loved poetry. We met in Eugene, Oregon, and he asked me to advise on the second issue. By issue three, I was on the editorial board, and that was that. We published seven annual issues, with all of us moving constantly. It was quite a chore to keep up with everything, especially since we had no money beyond what magazine sales provided us as well as our own pockets. Anyhow, Josh was finishing up an MFA at Michigan, and we had been talking about converting The Canary into a book press, and so he pitched the idea to Michigan for some financial assistance. And, being the generous people that they are, they agreed to help us get started. Michigan has been extremely helpful in getting Canarium off the ground, and in helping us stay afloat. We return the favor, I hope, by providing an entity that their graduate students can interact with, learn about the editorial and publishing production process. That’s the nuts and bolts. In the beginning, we had to not only figure out how to literally produce books (Josh and Lynn do the design and layout), which included finding the right printing press, distribution (a different deal for books than for a magazine), etc. But also we now had to think as editors of editing a book, not just a single poem.

This was new to all of us, except it wasn’t. We all had completed an MFA, and so I suppose you get some kind of indirect experience editing a manuscript in school, as you finish your thesis, edit friends’ theses, etc. But still, we had to now find beautiful, excellent manuscripts, and then edit them! And then launch them into the world and ensure that people would know about them. It was all very daunting. But when you have a special person like Josh Edwards as the leader of your team, you know, in your heart of hearts, that things will be just fine. If I weren’t an editor for Canarium, Canarium is exactly where I’d want my book to be published. Partly because Robyn and Lynn are spectacular minds who edit like nobody else (they have real vision) and partly because Josh ensures that Canarium’s books get looked at. They are his children. But the question today, as we’ve now brought 14 books into the world, is how to manage our growing list (we hope that all Canarium authors will remain with us as long as they want, which is hopefully forever) while keeping space open for new voices but also for poets who have had trouble, perhaps, finding a home for their third or fourth or 14th book. This is not to mention the whole digital book world that is no longer a whimsical thing that crusty old New York publishers can poo-poo; it’s here, it’s growing like kudzu in boring Southern poems, and we’re going to have to figure out how to reckon with it, or how to embrace it.

SM: How hands-on are you as manuscript editors?

NT: We are all very hands-on as editors. I've talked to many poets who, upon winning a contest, receive little to no editorial input from the press. Which makes sense, in that a guest judge has picked the book, and their payment likely doesn't include editorial work. But how many books go out into the world in need of a little extra care? We don’t use the contest model, nor will we ever. This allows us complete editorial control over what books we select for publication, as well as the final form of those books. Typically, our process goes something like this: We open submissions in October of any given year. Once the submission period ends, we begin to go through the manuscripts. Josh, Robyn, Lynn and I will read them, but also our fantastic editorial team of Michigan MFA students will read them and choose a manageable number of submissions that intrigued them, usually giving us a semblance of an order of preference. We will compare their notes with ours, then winnow things down to two to three books we really love, and then haggle over them until we decide on the ones we want to pursue. We also solicit poets whose work we love, and consider their manuscripts with the same care we look at unsolicited work.

Once we actually offer a contract for publication and the author accepts, the four of us figure out who will be the lead editor on that particular book. While all of us will carefully read each book we publish, and offer suggestions, we typically rely on one of us to do the heavy lifting for one book. This is for a number of reasons. First, it allows our writers to become comfortable with one editor, as the relationship between an editor and a poet is complex, loaded with emotion. We don’t want four different sets of suggestions pouring into the inbox of some poor poet who cannot make sense of all these different edits! As well, each of us has had a particular book or poet whom we simply bond with. And really, I mean whose work we bond with. I have been lead editor on both of Robert’s books, and that’s largely because his work simply slays me. I am frightened by it, as an editor, because Robert’s vision is so immense and intense, and his syntax and intelligence is daunting. But that makes the work of editing his poems a serious challenge — I cannot be lazy! I must be as on as I hope I am when I’m writing. Robyn has taken on Tod Marshall, whose third book we will publish in 2014, largely due to her affinity for his sense of history as it illuminates and complicates the domestic. I have always felt that poems and books of poems should be edited, even when I worked for literary magazines. Poets don’t always want their poems stepped on, and I understand this. But most of the time, a poem can use some tweaking, whether at the level of the line break, or at the level of the poem’s larger logic. So, we are extremely hands-on, and I think the poets on our list would say they like it that way. I hope!

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Interlude 3: A Short Review, a Question, and an Answer with Robert Fernandez

Often, when I want to return to a book of poems I’ve read and liked — and, for some reason, I do this with selecteds, collecteds, and completes even if I haven’t yet read them through — I’ll just flip the book open and read whatever poem I happen to land on. And I find this usually satisfies my desire for the book’s particular sound, or way of thinking, or way of using words — if the book is sufficiently unified, I’ll get a taste of the whole. But I don’t think this would work with Robert Fernandez’s second book, Pink Reef, even though it is a book I love and will return to, and even though it is an especially unified book. I don’t think this method of returning would work, in fact, because it’s such a unified book. Pink Reef demands to be read from beginning to end, every time; I would go so far as to say that the best way to read it would be to read it from beginning to end twice, the second time immediately following the first.

Pink Reef begins before the beginning, with a poem that seems to put forward what I take to be one of the reasons the book got written. Fernandez’s particular skill, the thing at which he’s as good as — or, really, better than — just about any poet writing, is charging philosophical investigation with lyric intensity:

I chose
pink reef surging toward
the name of the dog

pink reef shedding under the tree,
snapping at masks

. . .

I wanted to understand
this ethos of cameras
strung through juniper leaves,

juniper lenses seeing
at the tops of the trees

Here, I think, the impetus behind the book is explained. In Pink Reef, Fernandez explores the interrelations between artists and the natural world, between the cameras and the juniper leaves surrounding them, infusing what could come across as a purely intellectual exercise with blood, and terror, and life.

Fernandez is, of course, implicated in this exploration. He is both explorer and explored. He does not, however, romanticize his position:

the artist has
blood in the stomach

the artist has
blood &

bubbles of blood
in the stomach

the artist has
organs announcing themselves
as organs

I cannot argue with the flesh
I cannot argue with the meat
across which I speak
across which I grapple
& beat

The “meat”/“beat” rhyme here is important — Fernandez refuses to deny artifice, refuses to pretend that artifice isn’t what artists do. And yet by breaking just before the rhyme, so that the stanza doesn’t signify as an A, B, C, B quatrain, he suggests that the artist cannot prioritize artifice, that the artist “cannot argue with the flesh.” And the book bears his point out. There is moral authority here, and throughout Pink Reef. To my mind, it is one of the most important books of the year.

SHANE MCCRAE: What has working with the folks at Canarium been like? Was your experience prepping Pink Reef — editing, choosing the cover art, etc. — any different from your experience prepping We Are Pharoah, and if so, how?

ROBERT FERNANDEZ: I would say that Canarium’s editors have integrity and vision; they’re also tireless and tirelessly professional. It’s inspiring being around that kind of dedication and character. The process of preparing Pink Reef was nearly identical to that of preparing We Are Pharaoh. I pick the covers, in consultation with Joshua Edwards, which then get stamped with Canarium’s signature font and layout. I give the book to Twemlow then chew on his suggestions — a very anguishing process, for which I require some time. I find myself second-guessing and polishing and making changes up until the last second. This year, after the manuscript had already been formatted, Josh was kind enough to listen to my chagrined explanation of having made a grave mistake by cutting eight poems from the book, and would he please put them back. He was, as ever, generous enough to accommodate me. All of which is to say that I feel that I can talk to the editors and that they are gracious enough to work with my process. 

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A Very Short Interview with Joshua Edwards

My final interview with Josh took place in March. I had one last question about The Canary River Review, the journal that would eventually lead to the press. In 2001, when The Canary River Review was founded, Josh and I lived in the same valley — the Willamette Valley in Oregon, named after the Willamette River — about 90 miles from each other, and there’s no Canary River there.

SHANE MCCRAE: So, why the name?

JOSHUA EDWARDS: I don't remember the exact genesis of the name. I know now, in retrospect, that the word “Canary” is one of my favorite words for its etymology. The Canary Islands were named after the wild dogs (Canaria) that lived there, and of course the bird was named after that. So we’re calling a bird after an island after a dog. I think at the time it had more to do with the idea of the poet as a “lightning rod of civilization” or whatever Pound said, and so the Canary in the coal mine metaphor seemed appropriate. The river part I think I added because it was a river of voices, a river of songs.

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Shane McCrae is the Whiting Writer’s Award author of Mule and Blood. He teaches in the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding University.

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