Thank you to Anne Nesbitt, a volunteer with the Deep Bay Artist in Residence Program at Clear Lake.
"He thinks that, nowadays, prairie culture, particularly in Manitoba, is more defined by lake life than by farm life."
Ian Goodwillie's review of The Imagination Manifesto: Book Three appears in the current issue of The Winnipeg Review.
From Out of Nowhere by John Toone
Reviewed by: Karin Cope
The Dalhousie Review – Spring 2010
Written in a tough-guy's one-liners, John Toone's From Out of Nowhere is a marvelous compendium of wordplay and contemporary business, political, cow¬boy and advertising clichés set to stagger in single broken lines. I like the way Toone lets words run down the page—ragged on the left, but (often) towing the line on the right, neatened up, like a fence. For this book is about the occupation (loss) of the land, its colonization, line by line, its shift from wilderness to farm to suburbia, where temporary profits "revolution eyes / the great wide open" ... "untitled / free and clear / site unseen" (85). The speakers are small-town heroes, ancestors or shysters—now and then, their words run into one another; they contaminate one another's utterances, the way clichés do, staggering in single lines down dusty tracks. The book ends with the forever hope that someone will ride out of the wilderness with the answer—even to questions we've not asked. But the poem knows the hero is just a mirage. He's no more a game changer than any of the speakers, who must admit to themselves: "chances / you will spend your life / looking both ways before / deciding to stay put" (21).
Sometimes, particularly towards the end, the neatened lines of the book are broken up; words slide back and forth, cluster—"this is the church's / secret hand/shakin g/ orders / ... finger pointing" (96)—in the middle. It seems as if a new order will assert itself; what is rotten, exposed, what is hoped for emerging, but this in the end, is too just cliché: "i know what you are thinking /... / i give a way I catch the drift / right before our eyes / remains / a straight shooter / at the crosswalk / appearing / from out of nowhere / the end" (102). The would-be game changers—businessmen, cowboys, developers, farmer ancestors—change no games. Only art can do that, slipping the tongue in sideways, showing how "plain english" never is.
KAREN COPE lives in Nova Scotia. Formerly a Gertrude Stein scholar (Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein), she chose, as Stein did, the happier risks of a creative life. She is currently at work on a novel about a girl who flies (Signs Taken for Wonders) and a play, as well as a book of very short horror stories (Terrible Tales), and several long illustrated poems.
Winnipeg in Words
From Out of Nowhere by John Toone
Reviewed by: Rhiannon Rogstad
The Goose – Issue 6 Fall 2009
A Journal of Literature, Environment & Culture in Canada
The first glance at John Toone’s collection of poems warrants a small shiver—the form with which he writes looks as barren as the Canadian plain in winter. Sparse is a word that comes to mind, or thin and bare. But, like the Canadian plain in winter, there is a power in the simple presentation of characters and scenes, and the intrepid reader will find the same sort of harsh beauty to be found in a winter windstorm. Toone takes old clichés, washed up caricatures of cowboys, especially, to illustrate his bleak and dismal prairie. As land is cleared for development, titles change hands, and men who worked the land are forced to find jobs in the city, Toone questions whether we can find the kind of meaning in an office building that we once found on a farm.
There are moments when Toone’s insight is so fresh and new regarding things that have always been written about that it raises the hair on your arms. His innovative wordplay and use of a staggered structure make you consider the weight of each word carefully. In the section titled “the urban cowboy,” especially, Toone demands we consider the contradiction of a cowboy in town—how can he truly fit into the structured business of the city or how can he truly understand the power of the natural world? He is, by definition, a soul trapped between the two worlds and, as Toone writes, “bordering on / instable, insecure.” Toone delights in taking worn metaphors and turns of phrase and reusing them in many ways. He unmasks their power to show their banal meaning underneath, uses them in a different sort of situation to give them new meaning, or dismantles them, which in effect deconstructs them so much as to render them silly and ineffective, as they of course are, upon close scrutiny.
There are other moments, however, when Toone’s form is distracting and disconnected, and the reader wonders whether he is attempting to show the jarring differences between the prairie and the city or if he has not managed to illustrate the ways in which they do, in fact, blend together. Though the prairie is a place of such immense space as to allow a similar space in a poem, the spaces are at times too large for a coherent idea to emerge, even upon a second reading. Perhaps this is intentional—the dizzying spaces at the edges of “civilized” Winnipeg are, to be sure, at odds with the city, but there is also something attractive about the structure that the city offers that is lacking in Toone’s collection. At times his lines are just a seeming string of words on top of words, and while the words themselves are heavily weighted, their relationship to one another is somewhat muddied.
Regardless, the reader who tackles this book ought to be ready for a challenge to his or her notion of spaces, both urban and rural; and, the rewards found in conquering the blanks must be not unlike the rewards one must have felt upon wandering into the prairie, homesteading, and conquering the brutal natural forces that are a constant reminder of the frailty of human nature. Toone’s often wry commentary on the contradictions of prairie life is delivered at a precise and measured pace, and a reader willing to slow his usual bustle will find much richness in the carefully selected lexicon of Toone’s landscape. His poems demand that you not get ahead of yourself, just as the landscape he writes of asks you to plan ahead, consider your surroundings, acknowledge your limitations. The natural world is both friend and foe, and in Toone’s poems, even “friend and foe” are to be questioned.
RHIANNON ROGSTAD is an American in Canada. She holds an MA from the University of Idaho and iscurrently a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario. Originally from Seattle, Washington, she presently lives in London with her husband and two small sons.
“John Toone is in the midst of perfecting the prairie roar, the long poem of multiple perspectives and precise insights. There are echoes of Cooley, Hunter, and Kroetsch in these pages. From Out of Nowhere is a relentless and exhilarating text.”
- Jon Paul Fiorentino, stripmalling
“From Out of Nowhere is poetry written against paperwork and the banal language of bureaucracy and control. John Toone’s phrases slip out of the rut of conventional meaning through surprising turns. This book brooks no lazy readers: instead, it fights for a fresh engagement with words and the ideas they carry.”
- Alison Calder, Wolf Tree
“The cowboy poems as told by Sixgun Quixote is like an audio track on paper, reads like music, antic and dark, wholly evocative of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic masterpiece, The Road, the boys lull you into the dusty, outlaw world of gunslinger and the shoot the shit out of you when they drag you back home. Again with the themes of apocalypse, death and the isolation of the lonely, nasty hero, words and pictures move sensuously, texturally in unison with the absence of hope. This time it’s not fear as beauty, but hopelessness as nostalgia. Sweet.”
- Susie Moloney, The Dwelling
“Sixgun Quixote is a strange and unusual publication - a dream of a western cowboy – running amok in the vivid imagination and mind of a big city homeless man”
- Ben T. Traywick
Author and Official Town Historian of Tombstone, AZ
John Toone debut swift, startling
By: Jennifer Still
Winnipeg Free Press – May 24th, 2009
Winnipeg poet John Toone's debut, From Out of Nowhere (Turnstone, 102 pages, $17), has boldly emerged like a call from the shadows of the Fort Rouge bridge: swift, startling and resonant.
This collection of long poems, which mythologizes the prairie-city boy landscape, challenges "the rules of language / and the game" with a cowboy-cum-word-slinger wit, "giving life to the tired / the old / cliché."
Toone's strongest swing is in the line, his linguistic lasso, which he draws with a tight hold on the sublime: "the line is dark the line is bold / and this is where I am at home."
Invigorating and alive to the risk and play of language, "starving for the undivided attention, a vacant lot," Toone's poems seek an attentiveness in form and content: "tell me something / I don't already know / in a different way."
After Seven Years, Writer Gets His Words Out
First book paved way for three more to come in 2009
By: Melissa Martin
Canstar News – August 20th, 2009
Traditionally, a writer’s prerogative is to write into the night and rise well after the sun does.
John Toone might be like that too, if it wasn’t for the pint-sized energy of son Jackson, 5, and daughter Gloria, 2. As it is, by 9 a.m., Toone has already been up for hours. But with the kids at the library, the writer has a chance to nurse a coffee on the deck of his gallant old Fort Rouge three-storey.
“I would argue,” he says, when asked about his role as past-president of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, “that Winnipeg in particular, and Manitoba in general, are producing some of the best writers in Canada.”
If early reviews are any indication, Toone himself may soon be counted among them. In April, his debut poetry collection From Out of Nowhere “boldly emerged like a call from the shadows of the Fort Rouge bridge: swift, startling and resonant,” raved Winnipeg Free Press reviewer Jennifer Still.
Toone chuckles. “It sounds better than my writing,” he says. But the review suggests he succeeded at his stated goal: capturing “the contrast between the city and the country, a book about growing up in Winnipeg and having that connection to the prairie, how that is acquired and how it is perpetuated.”
True, he had a long time to study that question. Seven years ago, Toone, 34, left his corporate job, where he travelled the Arctic managing properties for The North West Company. He threw himself into authorship, earning an English degree from the University of Manitoba and workshopping his writing through the guild.
Now, Toone is poised to celebrate 2009 as his breakout year, with a poetry collection out from Turnstone Press and two children’s books slated to be released in October.
The latter, Catch that Catfish! and Hope and the Walleye, funded by a grant from the Manitoba Fisheries Enhancement Fund, will teach kids about the importance of conversation and the “fish in Manitoba that are real characters,” Toone says.
The kids’ books were illustrated in rich, mixed-media palettes by local artist GMB Chomichuk, who is also working with Toone on a darkly provocative graphic novel, Sixgun Quixote.
“Working with John is more like making music than making art,” says Osborne Village resident Chomichuk. “You can tell him exactly what you’re thinking, he’ll tell you exactly what he’s thinking. It’s not about feelings, but about doing your best work, because being nice doesn’t help anyone get better.”
Now, Toone, who grew up in St. Vital, is challenging himself. Traditionally, he’s been happy to retreat from the world – Toone doesn’t have a television or a cell-phone, and homeschools his children with his educator wife Carol Drosdowech – but now, he’s gearing up for the launch of his website, johntoone.ca.
And he’s ready to see what other opportunities come his way. “Will I ever derive 100% of my income from writing? Probably not, no matter how successful I become,” he shrugs, noting that he’s been recently doing readings in schools.
“But I’m a writer not only in the time I commit, but the focus that I have: after my family, it’s on my writing.”