Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Top Ten of 2011

I didn't read everything, but here, in no special order, is what I liked from the dozens of Canadian titles that crossed my path this year. Not included—but highly recommended— are the books I published (The Id Kid by Linda Besner, Skullduggery by Asa Boxer, Gift Horse by Mark Callanan and Spinning Side Kick by Anita Lahey) and the books I edited (Carapace by Laura Lush).

Earworm by Nick Thran (Nightwood)
As promised by its excellent title, Thran’s second book offers arrestingly memorable poems. His phrase-making is idiosyncratic, often unpredictable, enticing us with a left-handed mind adept at fresh, newly angled speculations about contemporary life.




Lil’ Bastard by David McGimpsey (Coach House)
A great deal of the myth that McGimpsey’s poems live in a hostile environment can be traced to an early review collected in my critical book, A Lover’s Quarrel. I’m happy to serve as the villain in this morality play, if only because it helps make my moments of praise more noteworthy. McGimpsey’s new book of “chubby sonnets” underscores the fact that when his high risk, high-caloric poetry works—as it did in Sitcom, and does again here—the results are marvellous, provocative and original.

A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno by Matt Rader (Anansi)
One of the most formally exciting books of the year. Sometimes, alas, the craft is most of what we get (like his editor, Ken Babstock, Rader is a poet who is good at being good). But when craft yields to feeling, Rader can train tremendous, nearly Lowellian rhetorical power onto his subjects.



Methodist Hatchet by Ken Babstock (Anansi)
Complaints that his poems traffic in “nothing” have provoked a response from this immensely gifted poet. If you share those complaints, this book won’t do much to correct that impression—his subjects still sometimes disappear inside wordplay at once fast, flittering and opulent. But there’s an emotional streak in Babstock’s new poems I don’t recall seeing before: the vision is broader, bolder, more generous. The best pieces feel lived in, peopled, emotion-rich, packed with narratives-within-narratives.

A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth by Stephanie Bolster (Brick)
This book, which represents a further key-change for Bolster, beguiled me with its exquisite, pinpoint play with syntax. I didn’t like everything. More than a third of the poems were too brittle, too cut-short and barely did the job. Yet her minimalist accounts of animals and (and in) zoos have a sly way of disclosing in extremis psychological states.



A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People by Gabe Forman (Coach House)
I was utterly defeated by parts of this book. But in my bafflement, there was always something—a funny bit, a crisp image, an apt metaphor—I could pocket. Forman’s absurdist, anti-prose-sense "personality profiles" are events in themselves, and I found myself gladly tacking to all the linguistic shifts in his shaggy-dog-storytelling.



Open Air Bindery by David Hickey (Biblioasis)
Hickey’s second book is a model of transparency, lightness and simplicity. What I admire most, even envy, is his tonal clarity: a spectrum of experiences come alive in crystalline speech that shuns inflation.





Hypotheticals by Leigh Kotsilidis (Coach House)
A promising debut. Unquenchably attracted to the sound of scientific sense, Kotsilidis is wickedly good at using line-breaks and stanza shapes—often short, tense couplets—to locate unexpected pressure-points in her well-timed sentences. The collection is studded with terrific turns of phrase.



No End in Strangeness by Bruce Taylor (Cormorant)
This collection, which brings together highlights from Taylor’s previous two titles with magnificent new work, is the best book—in any genre—I read this year. In Taylor’s hands, domestic details become the crucible for elegant, textured, virtuosic observations on fate (“Kafka with kids” is how someone once described Taylor to me). He is a master at combining heart-breaking self-portraiture with ironic self-counselling (like a witty therapist giving himself a talking cure while staring in the mirror) and has a superb ear for description: his visual close-work is full of sonic surprises. I don’t think there’s a stronger English poet in Canada.

All This Could Be Yours by Joshua Trotter (Biblioasis)
Only his first book, but Trotter has already forged an unmistakable style: dream-like without being esoteric, ludic and lucid, deadpan and insinuating. Under formal pressure, ordinary experiences become delivery-systems for very odd, and oddly moving, ideas. And as verbal objects, the poems are ravishing.



Honourable mentions: Groundwork by Amanda Jernigan, Folk by Jacob McArthur Mooney, Guesswork by Jeffery Donaldson, Lines of Flight by Catherine Chandler,

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

"The Wound"

A new poem by Zachariah Wells.

What Falls Between the Cracks

Using our own reissue as a starting point, Evan Jones tries to get to the bottom of why Anne Wilkinson's wonderful poems keep getting overlooked:
She had chops and finesse, style, substance and a verse that was steadily and uniquely her own. She fit into her age and responded to it with verve. But sometime after she had departed, her tradition turned just enough in her native country that what she was doing was deemed unattractive. That’s a shame, as what falls between the cracks in these kinds of poetical shifts is often worth as much if not more than what comes to the surface.
Get a PDF of Jones' essay here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

What Do You Do When a Poet Can't Stop Revising?

David Wheatley is exasperated by Derek Mahon's inability to leave well enough alone:
Critics of his revisions, Yeats wrote, needed to grasp “what issue is at stake: / It is myself that I remake”, but self-reinvention is one thing and tinkering for tinkering’s sake another, the low-level molestation of poems to no discernible end or advantage. The guard who awoke to find Bonnard retouching a painting of his on the gallery wall chased the artist out of the building, we might remember.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Holiday Recommendation, Ctd

"A delight to read and read again. Asa Boxer is a true master of language—and he knows it. This collection [Skullduggery] is at once belly-shakingly funny, piercingly insightful, ironic, and melodically composed. If poetry was ever 'meant' to be some way, this is it." —Jury citation for the 2011 QWF A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry.

The Case For Daryl Hine

Bill Coyle makes it ("one of the most gifted poets alive")—but not without caveats:
Too many times, I have had the experience of recommending Hine’s work to readers essentially in tune with his esthetic, only to have them report back that they find him remote, cold, mandarin to the point of unreadability. In distinguishing between those poems of his that contain an embarrassment of riches and those that are so rich as to be indigestible, then, I’m not so much trying to establish a Hine canon as assure new readers that such distinctions can profitably be made.
Read the rest of Coyle's excellent essay here.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Holiday Recommendation, Ctd

Brian Palmu calls D.G. Jones' collected The Stream Exposed With All Its Stones one of his favourite books of the year. One poem in particular knocked him sideways; he claims "it'll haunt one with its dark fathoms." To find out more, go here.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Holiday Recommendation, Ctd

In an entertaining round-up of "five newish Canadian poetry books," Rob Taylor recommends Where We Might Have Been by Don Coles, a poet he calls "the king of the killer ending." Read it here.

The Hitch on verse

Christopher Hitchens muses on the importance of poetry in his life and the "gold standard" of knowing the stuff by heart.
Originating from a naval family, and brought up in all-boys boarding schools, I was full of Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Even cornier heroic and patriotic poems and songs have a hold on me to this day. (The hymns and Bible verses have lost their grip, without being forgotten.) This helped rather than hindered my later exposure to W. H. Auden and Wilfred Owen, the latter of whose poems had the effect of a swift uppercut to my chin
More here.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Winner

Australian poet Mark Tredinnick is awarded the inaugural $50,000 Montreal International Poetry Prize. Read his winning poem here.

(Photo: Tony Sernack.)

Ampersand

Kevin Nance sheds some light on the history of the decorum-tweaking punctuation mark and its place in American poetry. Watch for an appearance by Signal alumni John Reibetanz near the end of the article.

Holiday Recommendation, Ctd

The Id Kid gets more praise. This time from poet Amanda Earl, who compares the mouth-music of Besner's poetry to "pop rocks." You can read her plug here.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Sunday Poem


DON DRAPER

—after Lavinia Greenlaw


Moths feather your far gazebo
like young sailors on first leave.
You know something, and keep reminding me

of my own needs. You see an audience
of blooming heads and sugared bank notes,
and act accordingly. The swallows see it at five o’clock,

a Wolfman’s tragedy.
They hang themselves upside down,
handsome sienna prizes in the semaphore of bats.

Swayed by a summer night, I swing out
to your silk pocket square standing at attention,
a bird about-face. You’re the dark dew on the green grass of home.
by Nyla Matuk, from CNQ #83.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Friday, 9 December 2011

Words to tattoo on the bodies of Canadianists everywhere

Martin Amis, on Don Delillo.
When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?
[...]Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are.
More here:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Poetry Drama

The Economist isn't impressed with the news that Alice Oswald and John Kinsella have withdrawn their books from the £15,000 TS Eliot poetry prize to protest the award's sponsorship by a hedge fund:
If there is a specific grievance against a particular company, donor or backer, then refusing to take their money makes sense. But I haven’t heard any such complaint in the case of the TS Eliot award. There just seems to be a generalised dislike of the idea of money and art rubbing together. These are tough times and government arts funding is falling. The poets should watch out, or they may soon have only their own words to eat.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sunday Poem


NEW YEAR'S DAY

Others speak. They call for time
to come meet them. We do not

speak. We rest. We look
for nothing and do not stretch

to find ourselves different
in the new year. We lie together

under wool blankets, the baby kicks
my back, pads my shoulder

with her fingers, roots for what is hidden
until she cries herself awake.

I lift my shirt, eyes closed, and offer her
my breast and she squirms into me.

My leg moves sideways to find
his warm leg. We three knot ourselves

together in sleep, content in
knowing what we’ll find when we awake.
From Homing Instinct (Frog Hollow Press, 2011) by Shoshanna Wingate

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Ouch


Publisher A.C. Fifield's 1912 rejection of a manuscript by Gertrude Stein. Not only one of the best rejection letters ever, but also one of the cleverest acts of literary demolition.

Struck like a bell

The ongoing Callananization of Canadian poetry continues with a new interview at Salty Ink where Chad Pelley says the poems in Mark's new book Gift Horse leave him "struck like a bell." Though Mark admits to some frustration with his own process:
I find writing extremely difficult to do; I’m too concerned with doing it well to actually enjoy myself. That being said, there’s a moment that comes, countless drafts in, when the elements that constitute a poem start snapping into place, when all its little gadgetry suddenly works and those disparate pieces unite to a single purpose, when the trajectory of the poem seems inevitable—that’s the good bit: when the poem works, when it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, it would seem like a lot of pointless toil and frustration.
More here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

"What Was That Poem?"

Perhaps the most moving poem in David McGimpsey's new book Li'l Bastard (2011).

(Painting: "The Shadows of Beauty Lengthen" by Mary Harman)

Nick Thran

Dubbed "Genuinely, impossibly cool" in a recent review, Nick Thran attempts to define the term in a new interview:
'Cool' is one of those words that one can throw over a lot of more specific, helpful ones; a burlap sack kind of word. I guess maybe a more positive way for me to see the word cool would be as a kind of neon sticky-note on a page; a Whoa, this is something interesting and appealing in a way that I can’t quite articulate on first pass, but I’m going to come back to it soon with some more questions. Cool should be a precursor to a more rigorous engagement. It’s not, to my mind, a sustainable quality in and of itself.