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Summer Update

Such a summer it is.

I read poems and took part in a panel with Andy Weaver and Stephen Cain at the Canadian Writers Summit next to Lake Ontario, at Harbourfront. After the reading, my shoes melted.

As part of above/ground press’s 23rd anniversary, I read more poems, setting a few on fire (literally, not figuratively), and managed to not burn anyone.  Will add more pyrotechnics to the Fun With ‘Pataphysics show because it is hella fun to perform.

In love graffiti news, I photographed a lot of it, as there is more now than ever (can’t be a bad thing, right?). I’m excited by two new series, “Crushed Toronto” (featuring the word, “crush” hundreds of times), and “All the Feels” (featuring “feels”). Planning new shows.

I spent most nights this summer on baseball fields. Late in the season, I started photographing different elements of their landscapes, often with sunsets or sunrises. I fell in love with chain link, field lights, and lines of chalk. The project is tentatively titled Fields of Dreams.


Also working on four manuscripts – two non-fiction, two poetry. The poetry is almost ready to leave the house.

Two more days until fall. Will try to squeeze a few more things in.


Raw Optimism in Chris Hadfield’s Generator

Chris Hadfield’s Generator
Massey Hall, October 28, 2015

Chris Hadfield's Generator

After a great math class in eleventh grade, I wandered through the halls of Northern Collegiate, awestruck. I realized I was learning the same lesson in my music and art classes.

“It’s all the same!” I thought. “There is only one subject.” But I was never the same after that day.

As a poet, I’ve presented a series of faux-scientific lectures which are ridiculously fun for me because I get to pretend to be a scientist and wear a lab coat. So I was excited to attend Chris Hadfield’s Generator, a variety show featuring scientists and science-based artists. They seemed like my kind of people.

The show opened with an “elite squad of rock stars from the future” named Tupperware Party Remix and their friends, Ninja Sex Party. Appearing as spandex superheroes in KISS armour and miscellaneous Halloween costume bits, they led us in a cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In other words: futuristic funkadelic 80s sing-a-long perfection.

After we recovered, MC Robin Ince introduced himself as a “Renaissance idiot,” explaining that he had “read enough about a lot of things to be wrong about everything.” He was partly joking, partly serious, but extremely modest, as he is the host of BBC science series The Infinite Monkey Cage and has taken part in many science variety shows. In fact, Generator was modeled on his own work. His infectious enthusiasm (and “irreverence”) for science put those of us who are non-scientists at ease.

When Robin Ince introduced the man of the evening, Chris Hadfield, the crowd, so skillfully warmed, cheered loudly. Before the show began, I overhead conversations that indicated many audience members travelled far to see Generator. One student took the train from New York City and returned the same night.

Chris Hadfield shared his boyhood astronaut dreams, taking us through the non-linear career path of hard work it took to fulfill them. His voice quickened, rose, and broke at the pinnacle point in the narrative: the story of his first space walk.

Larger than life on-screen, we watched him traverse head-first through the airlock, like a birth, and then he froze – half inside the ship, half outside in space. Next, in a Road to Damascus sort of moment, he was blinded. The loss of sight was temporary (due to de-fogger in his eyes), and when it returned, he said he experienced a “raw, completely optimistic view of the world.”* I got the feeling that the reason all of us were here was to hear this message.

There are many possible paths which lead to the same revelation. But Chris Hadfield’s story is literal: he looked at Earth with his own eyes, and observed.

Throughout the evening, guest performers revealed they were asked to “tell a personal story,” a “story about what motivates me,” or to “share an anecdote as a metaphor that explains what you do.” Generator was billed as a science-based variety show, but it was also designed to inspire. To remind us of the power of human imagination, which seems to “get lost in the bad news of the day.”

Not surprisingly, the audience swooned when the band and Chris Hadfield performed David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” – a song rich in history and lore, the latest being that it has been to space and back. His re-write of the lyrics changes the song’s story: instead of ending in disaster, it ends on an optimistic note. No longer a work of fiction, it becomes an intense personal story. Again, the experience moves from metaphorical to literal.

“Inspiration” and “motivation” are important words that can be diminished by empty New Age quotes, the kind that well-meaning friends pair with photos of beaches or puppies and share on the internet. These words seemed to re-gain power as the presenters told their stories of science-based dreams and accomplishments.

Data artist Jer Thorp makes large amounts of information understandable and accessible with beautiful visual representations, giving it meaning and narrative. “Data holds story,” he said. He shared an anecdote about a project in Africa for which he collected data as evidence that an ecosystem there was worth saving. Some of my visual poet friends might enjoy checking out his work (his TED Talk was heavily shared in that community).

Planetary scientist Marianne Mader explained the motivation behind SteamLabs, “a non-profit makerspace dedicated to empowering kids and adults to create and innovate.” Throughout childhood, she watched her brother, a tech-oriented learner, struggle through school. The experience inspired her to create a space where kids with similar talents could thrive. She shared a heartfelt letter of thanks by a mother whose son’s life was changed by his experience at StreamLabs.

Engineer and host of YouTube’s popular Smarter Every Day, Destin Sandlin, demonstrated his Backwards Brain Bicycle experiment, showing that it takes perseverance and focus to truly change our behaviour. We can easily acquire knowledge, but it doesn’t equal understanding. It was also a reminder to be aware that our views —on absolutely everything we encounter—are always biased, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Comedian Mark Little parodied a TED Talk and reminded us not to take ourselves and our sincerity too seriously (as comedians should). He also played an amusing role in an onstage interview between Chris Hadfield and NASA systems engineer (“Mohawk Guy”) Bobak Ferdowsi. Ferdowsi told his story of becoming a media sensation after his mohawk was seen on NASA’s live broadcast of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. Sketch comedy troupe Templeton Philharmonic made us laugh, too.

One important role played by poet Marshall Jones: he strongly reminded us to question everything (as poets should), and that technology is a double-edged sword. From his poem, “Touchscreen”:

iPod iMac iPhone iChat
I can do all of these things without making eye contact
We used to sprint to pick and store blackberries
Now we run to the Sprint Store to pick Blackberries

Mitch Bragan, who was paralyzed after being hit by a drunk driver, demonstrated his self-balancing exoskeleton suit that supports him so he is able to walk upright. The robotic suit “allows paraplegics and other wheelchair bound individuals the ability to rehabilitate and to walk.” If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.

If you’re lucky enough to have a moment in which you experience a “raw, completely optimistic view of the world,” you can’t un-see it, you can’t un-do it. It changes you, and it alters the path of your life. For most people, it’s a metaphorical moment – an event occurs which causes us to draw similar conclusions.

Chris Hadfield’s gift to us is that, as an astronaut, he literally viewed Earth as a whole, leaving nothing to the imagination. When we hear such a clear first person account, we can’t un-hear it. We’re changed, too.

Raw optimism based on pure observation is sometimes difficult to come by on this planet, but on this night, 2600 people at Massey Hall believed. For a few hours, our attention was directed towards inspirational stories told by thoughtful people who are doing their part to co-create a much bigger and brighter future together. Generator, indeed.


Notes and Shout-outs

*I would like to factcheck this sequence of events as I understood it. The details were confirmed in another talk, but the order was not. If I’ve made a mistake, I apologize.

Best wishes to the young woman with astro-biologist aspirations who sat beside me. It was great to meet you.

Truly magical moment: when one of the Ninja Sex Partiers took the mic, made a plea for beauty, and gave an epic rant on Higgs Boson calculations and the pros of supersymmetry. Turns out he is theoretical physicist Brian Wecht.

Prediction: if you want to see the next Generator, you’ll probably need to buy tickets early. It will sell out due to favourable word-of-mouth reviews.


Latest Chapbook: Like

aboveground harris likecover

Available at above/ground press.

It’s difficult to write about your own work, but I think it’s safe to say I seem to be an experimental love poet who is interested in our most basic language of affection. I studied the countless ways we express love’s quintessential statement, “I love you,” (in art, science, religion, history, popular culture, and more) for seven years. The main theme of my first book, Avatar, was connection through various online technologies (2006: pre-Facebook and Twitter).

Like examines the words of social media — Friend, Follow, Like, and Favourite. At the click of a virtual button, they cover a wide range of emotions for us.

When I was a kid, the art form that most represented pure emotion to me was pop music. Couples chose “our song,” teenagers curated mixed tapes for friends and crushes, and songs were dedicated on radio programs. The right song seemed to know how I felt — or were my feelings influenced by the song? Sure, I might fancy someone, but did I need to feel that every breath he took and move he made needed to be watched, or that I couldn’t live with or without him? My young self felt every note of these songs, anyway.

Like mixes the lexicon of pop song titles and social media. When I Follow someone on Twitter, the accompanying earworm is U2’s “I Will Follow.”

Maybe the default emotions of social media limit the wide range of possible feelings, as a radio mix of a pop song flattens its frequencies into a small band optimized for broadcast. Maybe it’s easier to feel that which is suggested and deemed acceptable. Or it’s easier not to feel.

It ain’t easy being a love poet when the dominant emotion is Like. If you find these poems flat, and if you feel a little bit disgusted after reading them, I feel all the things.

Another manuscript in progress, Chemical Valley Girl, addresses Valspeak — another language of repressed emotions. Maybe my work is about the understanding of repressed emotions, rather than the expression of emotions, and the unwritten rules made by unseen powers who benefit from an emotionally lazy populace.

I can’t even.


Jennifer Lovegrove Longlisted for 2014 Giller Prize


Congratulations to Jennifer Lovegrove, whose novel Watch How We Walk (ECW Press), was longlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize! I’m honoured to have photographed the above portrait of Jen, which appears on the book.


robford_firetruck Photo: CTV News

 “Billion Dollar Lie” is an arrangement of direct quotes from two politicians who are are well-known to Torontonians (hint to others: their names are Rob and Doug, and one of them is mayor of North America’s fourth most populous city).

The poem contains a line that is not attributable to the Fords because folks, everyone lies. Can you spot the lie?


Received my contributor’s copy of The Broadview Introduction to Literature: Poetry today! Thanks to Editors Lisa Chalykoff, Neta Gordon, and Paul Lumsden.

I’m honoured to be included in this anthology alongside Chaucer, Blake, Dickinson,  Plath, Ondaatje, and many others; it’s a thrill to find my name at the end of this impressive Table of Contents.


A Toronto Tree Primer, after Ice Storm 2013


Before the storm, Toronto had approximately 20% forest cover—10.2 million trees—providing $60 million in ecological services each year. The urban tree canopy is a vital city asset with an estimated structural value of $7 billion. Toronto’s urban forest improves air quality by intercepting 1,430 metric tonnes of air pollutants annually. (Every Tree Counts)

Also, 8.4% of our canopy is ash, which is being wiped out by the Emerald Ash Borer. Pretty much all of our ash trees are expected to die by 2017.  A U.S. study showed that with the loss of canopy there, human health suffered: there was a significant increase in cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illnesses.

In just a few days, we lost approximately 20% of our 20% forest cover, roughly 2 million trees. (my mistake: urban tree canopy (UTC) is the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above — not the number of trees).


With amalgamation, Urban Forestry was deeply cut. In 1990, prior to amalgamation, the old City of Toronto spent $128,000 per square kilometre per year maintaining the urban forest. By 2007, the city spent less than one quarter of that amount. Then, there were more budget cuts in 2012, all the while having a plan in place to increase the canopy.

“Total funding for the Hazard Tree Abatement Program will be reduced by $0.800 million from $1.400 million to $0.600 million in 2012. $.8M reduction in 2012 meant the Tree Abatement Program became a ‘reactive response to hazardous trees in parks and natural areas.’ The 2012 Operating Budget for Parks, Forestry and Recreation included $0.174M reduction by eliminating 3 permanent positions.”


–Tweets by Jude MacDonald (@judemacdonald)

Meanwhile, in 2007, Toronto City Council adopted a plan to significantly expand the City’s forest cover to between 30-40%.


Ecological Services Provided by Toronto’s Urban Forest (from Every Tree Counts)

a. Toronto’s urban forest provides the equivalent of at least $60 million in ecological services each year. The benefits derived from the urban forest significantly exceed the annual cost of management.

b. Toronto’s trees store 1.1 million metric tonnes of carbon annually or the equivalent of annual carbon emissions from 733,000 automobiles.

c. Gross carbon sequestration by trees in Toronto is estimated at 46,700 metric tons of carbon per year with an associated value of $1.3 million. Net carbon sequestration in the urban forest is 36,500 metric tons.

d. Trees affect energy consumption by shading buildings, providing evaporative cooling, and blocking winter winds. Toronto’s urban forest is estimated to reduce energy use from heating and cooling of residential buildings by 41,200 MWH ($9.7 million/year).

e. Toronto’s urban forest improves air quality, intercepting 1,430 metric tonnes of air pollutants annually (the equivalent value of $16.1 million/year).

f. Urban tree canopy helps to mitigate storm water runoff. Simulations that doubled the tree canopy in the Don watershed indicate a 2.5% decrease in overall flow. Simulating removal of impervious cover in the watershed reduces total flow by an average of 23.8%.


General Facts about Trees


a. Help to settle out, trap and hold particulate pollutants (dust, ash, pollen and smoke) that damage human lungs.

b. Absorb CO2 and other dangerous gases and, in turn, replenish the atmosphere with oxygen.

c. Absorb enough CO2, on each acre, over a year’s time, to equal the amount you produce when you drive your car 26,000 miles.

d. Trees absorb stormwater, preventing the contamination of streams, rivers, and lakes.

e. Studies suggest that loss of trees increased mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness. This fınding adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefıts: see The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health.


Strategically placed trees can be as effective as other energy saving home improvements, such as insulation and the installation of weather-tight windows and doors. Trees can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent and can save 20 – 50 percent in energy used for heating.

Well-treed neighbourhoods = higher real estate value. A tree increases the property value of your home (up to 20 percent).


Trees absorb and block noise from the urban environment.


a. Add natural character to our city.

b. Provide us with colours, flowers, and beautiful shapes, forms and textures.

c. Screen harsh scenery, softening masonry, metal, and glass.

d. In a study of inner city neighbourhoods , greener residences had lower crime rates.


Trees create local ecosystems that provide habitat and food for birds and animals. They offer suitable mini-climates for other plants that would otherwise be absent from urban areas. Biodiversity is an important part of urban forestry.


I’m a poet who loves and writes about trees. Many people think I’m sentimental and romantic when I say trees are vital for our well-being, so I’m spouting science and statistics, saving love and poetry for last. But not least, etc.


“We have tons of parks, but unfortunately, that tree can’t employ anybody … As a businessman, I have the experience of creating jobs, meeting payrolls, and I understand how the real world works, the business world.” -Rob Ford

“Urban forestry has as much to do with sociology as it does with ecology. One of the largest threats to the trees in our city is the attitudes of humans and the actions these attitudes engender.” -Todd Irvine, arborist

I’m not a tree expert. Please add to this list, which was compiled in about an hour. There seems to be much misunderstanding about trees as infrastructure. It would be best if those who enjoy breathing get up to speed.

This list does not include suggestions for the future — that’s a whole other conversation. It is estimated that summers will be hotter and storms will be more extreme, so we have a lot of work to do.


Hello world!

Yes, hi there. This is the first blog post even though the website isn’t finished; kinda hoping it’s presentable before Google gets around to indexing it.

Meanwhile, I’m appearing on Ottawa radio station CKCU‘s Friday Special Blend tomorrow morning (Dec. 6) at 7:35 a.m. Will be chatting with host Susan Johnston and reading poems.

Heading to Canada’s capital Saturday to help launch the first title of Chaudiere Books’ re-launch, Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003-2013, edited by rob mclennan. Ground Rules includes poems by Artie Gold, Mark Cochrane, Suzanne Zelazo, derek beaulieu, Stephanie Bolster, Amanda Earl, Nathanaël, Lisa Samuels, Rachel Zolf, D. G. Jones, Julia Williams, Eric Folsom, Gregory Betts, Natalie Simpson, Monty Reid, William Hawkins, Emily Carr, Cameron Anstee, Helen Hajnoczky, Marilyn Irwin, Stephen Brockwell, Robert Kroetsch and rob mclennan.

Stoked to read with poets Marilyn Irwin and Stephen Brockwell in Ottawa on December 7 at 5 p.m. rob mclennan will host the event, which is co-sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers Festival and The Plan 99 Series at The Manx Pub. There’s a nice write-up about the launch in Ottawa Tonight.

Thanks to Mitchell Kaplan for having me on his radio show, Click Here, last night. A recording will be online at CHUO for one month.

The anthology arrived from the printer today! It’s available at Chaudiere Books. Co-publisher Christine McNair writes, “I finished all the typesetting whilst 40weeks pregnant and confirmed the cover stock with the printer during labour. (Really.)”


 Photo: rob mclennan and Christine McNair