Fuel: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose

Contemporary, Traditional, Experimental from Northwestern Ontario

(Burning Books Press, paperback, 152 pages, $20)

By Michael Sobota

"Fuel" is an anthology of Northwestern Ontario writing and contains 60 pieces of work by more than 50 writers. The anthology includes poetry and short prose.

There are well-known, previously published Thunder Bay writers in the anthology like Heather McLeod, Duncan Weller, Mary Frost and Douglas G. Livingston. But there are more than four dozen lesser know writers giving the collection both depth and diversity.

The opening piece, Flowers for Rachel, by Reija J. Roberts, sets the tone for this anthology. Roberts’ writing is both accessible and non-literal simultaneously. Her narrative piece is about girls and women, about how some of them you might call your friends are not, and about how you might not actually be their friend — though they think you are. Her writing is spare, clear and challenging. She drops loaded insights as though they are casual throwaways. Like this one: “At which point, they look at each other, shake heads and say: Girls. So much more vicious than boys.”

Eleanor Albanese also explores women’s relationships in A Thread To My Mother’s Kitchen. This is one of the longest stories in the collection, and one of the richest in both personal and universal insights. The story’s concluding paragraph begins “As I left my mother’s kitchen, I feel that something of enormous worth has been robbed from my childhood.” Then in a couple of short, focused sentences she tells us what that is and she nails it.

There is plenty of poetry in the anthology. I liked Chris Wait’s Imagine a Feeling and Lisa-Jeanne Jordoin’s 1980-2000 for their vivid imagery and ability to capture sharp messages with brevity. Steven Gothard’s A Right Turn Away from Ordinary lines out an entire world of growing up and then reflecting backward after moving on. Mary Frost’s On The Shell Strand is simply one of the finest poems I have read this year.

So there are treasures to savour here. In a selection this large there are also pieces that might leave you listless or confused. The book was put together under the gentle but firm guidance of editor Renee Marie Terpstra. Terpstra, who has her own work in the collection, is careful to point out that selections were judged by an impartial panel with specific criteria relating to quality and relevance and provenance.

So the criticisms I have of Fuel are few. They are less about its content and more about its scope. There is, simply, too much here. It is a daunting read — not without its pleasures — but nonetheless requires the reader’s concentration and time. You don’t read Fuel the way you might a novel or a collection of short stories. I paused after every single selection. Several I reread, either to be sure I understood what the writer intended or certain that I did not.

In her introduction, Terpstra explains that “the anthology’s theme of ‘fuel’, as a fiery elemental word, brings to mind the sense of excitement, inspiration, illumination and transformation that we hope readers will feel. . .” It is an excellent theme under which to gather these individual pieces, though not all of them combust with equal illumination or transformation. A tighter selection process leading to a smaller collection might give a more satisfactory read.

Fuel is nonetheless an essential addition to our small and growing collection of Northwestern Ontario literature. It is an attractive volume, both in design and weight. I recommend it for gift-giving to those relatives who have moved away, or the friends who are increasingly returning to build their lives here. Fuel provides energy for both a giver and the receiver.

Fuel is currently available at Definitely Superior Art Gallery. Check their website or ask at the gallery for other sales outlets.

(Michael Sobota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.)

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