Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sunday Poem

The power was out when we went to bed
that night, remember? It had been out
since suppertime—one of those late
afternoon thunderstorms
that used to roll through the valley
like a tidal wave. We blew out the candles,
forgetting which lights had been on,
forgetting about the radio
till, soon after we’d drifted off,
it jumped to life, full volume,
(along with the bedside lamp)
for a brutal second—just long enough
to jolt us awake with a dire,
frenetic male voice proclaiming, “Too late!
For an instant we blinked at each other,
stupefied. You lunged for the radio knob
as the room went black again,
and there we lay, in country dark
(so much darker than city dark)
with that voice still echoing in our heads.
Was it too late? For what?
There were numerous possibilities.
Even back then, there were numerous
possibilities. The kids slept on, oblivious,
in their little rooms, their wooden bunks
under the flyspecked windows,
and after a moment we began to laugh,
a laugh we can reignite
with those words to this day.
Too late!
We dissolved in each other’s arms
in helpless laughter.
From My Shoes Are Killing Me (Biblioasis, 2015) by Robyn Sarah

Signal Editions, Montreal Gala Launch, April 16, 2015

Chad Campbell, reading from Laws & Locks.
Talya Rubin, reading from Leaving the Island.

(From left) Ewa Zebrowski, Marsha Courneya, Carmine Starnino, Chad Campbell, Nancy Marelli

Carmine Starnino, Talya Rubin, Robyn Sarah

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Hating the Haters

When Jason Guriel tweeted his unhappiness with the poetry reviews on Slate, Jonathan Farmer, the site's poetry reviewer, took notice. The result? A utterly fascinating—and pointedly diplomatic—exchange on the nature of reviewing:

None of your reviews, in and of themselves, are particularly egregious. As one-offs, they are clear and articulate, with stylish turns of phrase. But in the context of Slate – a magazine I go to for lively, feisty prose – your reviews strike me as, to quote the Tweet, "conspicuously safe," especially in the aggregate. You like a lot, but hate very little. When you write, "It's hard to resist, but it's also a stretch, this sense that if we can keep other people from loving what they love, we can get back to – or on to – something worthy of us, at last," I'm put on red alert and in mind of recent the debate about smarm, snark’s antimatter. Who's keeping anyone from loving what they want to love? Critics who steer me away from the bad (by acknowledging it) and towards the good are, in fact, teaching me how to love. In other words: don't hate the haters.
I'm not sure I can think of any examples of a review that feels legitimately skeptical to me, though I'd be very curious to read one. To expand on a point I made in an earlier email: I think there are all kinds of ways in which a poem can create value for someone, and very few of them do me or anyone else any harm. There are plenty of people who love a style of poetry that seems, to me, excruciatingly unambitious and aurally inert. And yet there are these large (at least by poetry standards) communities of people who are deeply invested in this kind of poetry. Are they deluded, ignorant, inferior? Maybe. Or more likely their needs are just different from mine. Either way, I think any attempt to say, publicly, that this has no value would have to reckon with the fact that so many people value it.

Knight's Move

David Wheatley reminds us that poetic influence can move in strange ways:
If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. Most poets would bridle at the idea of writing out of ‘blind or timid adherence’ to anything, but the ‘handing down’ or handing over present in the word tradition can have other, less comfortable meanings too. Tradition is also ‘the act of delivering into the hands of another’, as in a prisoner swap, and the connecting lines from generation to generation can swerve in unexpected directions. A map of poetic influence rather than of croneydom would look strikingly different from the flow-charts one sometimes encounter in the wake of prize-giving scandals, showing all the who-knows-who connections of the poetry world. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky proposed a ‘knight’s move’ theory of literary history, in which decisive steps are taken in an oblique or diagonal form, my variant on which would be the crazy uncle scheme, which I will confess to deriving from the works of Flann O’Brien, an author whose world is strangely lacking in father-son relationships but full of cranky uncles. I could name Flann O’Brien as one such New Gen crazy uncle, in his influence on Ian Duhig’s Celtic-tinged, anarchic wordplay. Others would include Weldon Kees for Simon Armitage and Michael Hofmann, Raymond Roussel for Mark Ford, Emil Cioran for Don Paterson, and McGonagall for W. N. Herbert.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Purest Form of Generosity

What's one of the most important ideas that shapes Matthew Zapruder's poetry?
It’s pretty simple: talk as if someone’s listening. When there are flaws in contemporary American poetry, a lot of times you can trace it back to a failure to even consider the fact that people might be listening. Even if you were to reject that notion or say, “That’s not for me, I have other considerations,” you’re thinking about it. You have to take that seriously, as a fact of the world. Simone Weil has this very famous simple statement: “attention is the purest form of generosity.” The flipside of that is, when you have someone’s attention, you have a kind of responsibility. It doesn’t mean you have to be serious about that or even respectful of it. But to not even deal with the fact that’s happening just seems like such a grievous oversight. I think a lot of poetry seems oblivious to the fact that someone might be reading it or hearing it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


"I find it very hard to say anything complimentary about myself. My parents thought that self-congratulation was gross. The adjectives I might add would include unsure, arrogant, small-minded, controlling, worrisome, and lucky, but I don't spend much time applauding or criticizing myself. I prefer to wash the dishes."
—Ron Padgett on the occasion of winning this year's Robert Creeley Award.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Flash Interview #9—Talya Rubin

Poet, playwright and theatre creator/performer, Talya Rubin’s poetry received the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. In 2011 she was short-listed for the Winston Collins/Descant prize for Best Canadian poem and was a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. She lives in Montreal with her husband and son. Leaving the Island—launched at Drawn & Quarterly on Thursday, April 16—is her first book of poems.

Carmine Starnino: The opening section of your debut describes the Scottish island of St. Kilda as a pretty grim and deprivation-ridden place. If those poems were made into a film, which director would get it right?

Talya Rubin: Lars von Trier would no doubt do a stellar job of making the landscape particularly miserable, but the human aspect would most likely get lost in the abject misery. He tends to be so heavy handed in his bleakness these days, although I am a big fan of his earlier films. Breaking The Waves could almost be a modern day St Kilda story. It's interesting that you think film and drama right away, as the poems do seem to contain a lot more than geography. The ghosts of that place spoke to me in so many layers. I think someone made an opera about St Kilda—heightened human drama and intensity that lends itself to opera, no doubt. Andrea Arnold is my favourite UK filmmaker alive right now. She is very contemporary and deals with working class urban issues, so not an obvious fit, but she did do a re-make of Wuthering Heights, so I think she would be my first choice. She knows how to hone in on a detail and tell a human story like no one else making films right now.

CS: You won Harbourfront's Battle of the Bards in March. A number of people in the audience later told me about how powerfully you read. Are the theatrical and aural aspects of your poetry important when you write?

TR: Hugely important. I'm a theatre maker and a performer as well as a writer, and when I write for theatre I literally speak the text up on my feet. I then transcribe what I've written onto paper. I believe I write poetry in a similar way, only it is by its very nature a more formal process. Most of the poems arrive with some kind of whispering in the ear though, a niggling feeling that there is language there, a rhythm of some kind, an urgency or insistence on an arrangement of words into particular meaning. I often hear things before I write them and when they arrive like that I know a poem is there. Sometimes I carry a poem around in my head for a while before committing it to the page, so voice is very strong for me, and where these words come from is certainly an inner kind of listening. And then, because I am naturally a person who likes to read words on a page out loud I have an innate desire to bring those words to life as a performer. As though the blood and heart beat behind the poem needs to get out. When I read poems by other authors, I often have to read them out loud to really know them, to hear them. The voice in our heads is one thing, but what a liberating, enlivening thing it is to read poetry out loud. I see it as a performative and a visceral experience, not in any forced way, but almost by necessity. I think it is part of what poetry is—this very aural thing at both its source and the way it gets conveyed, like you are writing/speaking from your own inner ear to your reader's/listener's. But I still think poems written with this inner ear need to have rigour on the page. There is an expectation (rightfully so) that poetry in print is going to work visually and read in a more literary, fixed way, and this aural aspect is never going to replace an awareness of line and form. It is about how that listening is translated into something more formal that is going to work on the page.

CS: The last section of the book is comprised of prose poems describing a stay on a Greek island. Why the prose poem? What can it do that a traditional poem can't?

TR: I think the prose poem is a perfect example of this aural tradition. It compresses language so that lines are bumping up against one another, so that breath is almost compressed as well. The prose poem also has an inherently lyric aspect, it sinks us into language so deep we are drowning. And for me, the job of the prose poem is then to make sure the reader can swim, can get to the surface for air—but only just. That the rush of language doesn't entirely overwhelm and the choices that are made are still exacting and ripe with precise meaning. I tried to break those prose poems into more traditional line breaks at one point as an experiment, and it was completely off, it was like trying to force something into the wrong space. Not because the lines wouldn't hold on their own, but because the form is entirely different. I like Charles Simic's take that a prose poem is: "a burst of language following a collision with a large piece of furniture." There is action in a prose poem and an absurd leap. And I think this particular suite of poems was asking for that. It is a series of poems about a really heightened experience, it contains the personal and the mythic, it holds a vast span of time; ancient history and the here and now. So the form seemed right for the content. There is something impossible about a prose poem. The image of those glass bottles with boats in them comes to mind. I always think, "how did those things get in there?" And a prose poem to me is like that, it is like an impossibly large thing fitting into a small thing. And the impossibility of it—the wonder of it—is the form itself.