Almost Islands is a powerfully introspective memoir of the author’s friendship with legendary Canadian poet Phyllis Webb – now in her nineties and long enveloped in silence – and his regular trips to see her. It is an extended meditation on literary ambition and failure, poetry and politics, choice and chance, location, colonization, and climate change – the struggle that is writing, and the end of writing.
I go to see her because she is poetry’s old crone and I am seeking. I go to her – usually three, four times a year – because it is a small ministration I can perform for her, and for her poetry, as she slowly reaches into the finite – a long, slow embrace of nothing … If living is a process of learning how to die, then is writing a process of learning how to stop writing? I go in search of lost words, in search of the hoped-for defence against the loss of words, drawn to the shaping sounds of fate and mortality.
A meticulous collection of poetic, political, and philosophical digressions, Almost Islands weaves numerous themes together. At its crux lies a literary project: to build upon and extend Webb’s exposition of a “poetic” sense of the political, by proposing a political agent, the “Biotariat,” a government of Life, that is both human and more than human – arrived at after following as many pathways as possible through Webb’s own reading and thought. Ultimately, Almost Islands is a book obsessed with the problem of Webb’s not writing, and the implications of this for a writer like Collis who, in his own words, may be writing “too much” – as well as the wider social, political, and world-historical implications of withdrawal, self-silencing, and not-doing.
About the author
Stephen Collis is an award winning poet, activist, and professor of contemporary literature at Simon Fraser University. His poetry books include Anarchive (2005), The Commons (2008), On the Material (2010 — awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry), and the forthcoming To the Barricades (2013). He has also written two books of criticism, including Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (2007). His collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation (2012), comes out of his activist experiences and is a philosophical meditation on activist tactics, social movements, and change. A Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellow at Simon Fraser University in 2011/12, Collis has read and lectured across Canada, the United States, and Europe. The Red Album is his first novel.
"My first read of [Almost Islands] was like a surprise party. With the turn of every page, I found another friend: Montaigne, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, Thoreau, C. D. Wright, Susan Howe, et alia."—Poetry NorthWest