Wednesday 31 October 2012

James Pollock

James Pollock has what one of my uncles would have called, with a laughing shake of his head, a "horseshoe up his ass." With the ink barely dry on its pages, Sailing to Babylon—his debut—nabs a nomination for this year's Govenor General's Award for Poetry. It then catches the attention of Michael Lista (no mean feat) who, in the National Post, praises its "vision of an old world, freighted with history, and still able to astonish itself with the novelty of its recurrence." Next month, James will publish You Are Here, a fearless, brilliant book of criticism on Canadian poetry that will help drag the whole sorry spectacle into the 21st century. He reads for the Atwater Poetry Project this Thursday. Don't miss it.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Wild Writer

Jason Guriel will be in Waterloo this coming Saturday for an "on stage" conversation with Tristanne Connolly for The Wild Writers Literary Festival. I've known Jason for years, and the guy is temperamentally unable to say anything uninteresting. So if you're in the area, go see him.

First We Take Manhattan

The Best Canadian Poetry 2012 trip to New York last Friday—with well-attended launches at the Lilian Vernon Writer's House and the Corner Bookstore—was a triumph. That's Molly Peacock up there, standing beside me in front of the bookstore (they filled their window with our books, which was a lovely sight). We then celebrated in style with a three-course meal at Pascalou. You'll find a recording of our reading here.

Claptrap Canon

Zach Wells comes down very hard on the Carcanet anthology Modern Canadian Poets, accusing the editors of, among other things, incompetence:
Legend has it that expat poet and tireless poetry activist Todd Swift, in what he has referred to as his “Flashdance moment,” stood up at a conference in Norwich and hectored Schmidt publicly about his offhand dismissal of Canadian poetry. Schmidt’s response? He gave Swift, along with fellow expat Evan Jones, the chance to edit an anthology of Canadian poems for Schmidt’s Manchester-based press. A cynic might say that Schmidt’s gift to Swift and Jones was just enough rope.
Read Wells' review here. More on the anthology here and here.

"The Poetry in Him"

poem by Zach Wells.

Sunday 28 October 2012


"I think the biggest challenge, for poets of any level of experience, is to both constantly expand their awareness of the traditions every poem talks back to, while writing playfully, with no monkey on the shoulder. We need the examples of our forebears to enlarge our sense of the possibilities for each poem, and yet we must trudge ahead, as Paul Muldoon puts it, with “a kind of willed ignorance.” It’s a crazy-making contradiction, but I think it’s essential. This is something I’ve had to learn and relearn. It’s endless. Read widely. Write wildly. Read. Repeat."

Julie Bruck offers up advice to aspiring poets.

Sunday Poem

Monty Reid has poetry forthcoming in a number of magazines, both print and online. He can't remember which ones. He lives in Ottawa. Yes, he lives in Ottawa.  
Writing as George Bowering, Monty Reid has published almost a hundred books. Many of them have won awards. He was in the air force for a while. 
Monty Reid wasn't always this way. He used to browse through each new issue, reading what caught his eye, going back to re-read pieces, often reading through the entire contents. Now, sadly, sometimes he never gets past the contributors' notes. 
When it comes to books, Monty Reid prefers the acknowledgements. He likes that they have gotten longer. There are just that more people involved. He counts how many of them he knows. 
The most annoying thing at a poetry reading is the poet, not just the sound of the poetry reading. Monty Reid's most recent collection of poetry destroys the comfortable notions of personal identity descried and then rehabilitated by postmodernism.  
Monty Reid is best known for his translations from the Spanish. His expansions of Machado are used in schools through Castille and his exquisite rewrite of Lorca is forthcoming from a Granada publisher. He was assassinated in 1936.

From Contributor's Notes (2011) by Monty Reid.

Friday 26 October 2012

Glickman on Matuk

Susan Glickman's introduction at the launch of Sumptuary Laws in Toronto, October 24th 2012:
I just met Nyla Matuk last spring at a poetry reading here in Toronto when she introduced herself as a fellow Véhicule author, so it’s a bit odd to be introducing her to you today as though I have a profound and longstanding insight into her life or work. But in another way it’s delightfully appropriate, because when you read a Nyla Matuk poem, it’s best to approach it as a stranger, without preconceptions. Something as banal as a Sunday afternoon game of croquet at Trinity Bellwoods Park or a drive along Weston Road can evoke a meditation on the British Empire in splendour and decay, an octopus “neglected for some month,/leaps out of the living room tank/ and flails on the furniture, settling on the floor like a thing/ that claims not to be a pipe,” and the euphonious trio of “Mortadello, Pirandello, Martello Tower” is revealed as a crossword puzzle clue for Stephen Daedalus’s picnic. 
Before Sumptuary Laws was published, Nyla asked me what I thought of the proposed cover. I said it suggested that the collection was surreal, sensual, mischievous, and funny, and asked her if this was the impression she wanted people to have. Well, it turns out you can judge a book by its cover, although now that I’ve read it I can add to “surreal”, with the deadpan insight of dreams, and to “sensual,” lyrical and elegant, and to “mischievous,” seriously intelligent, and to “funny,” with an undertow of grief. Reading the book, I kept having flashes of Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery: there’s a similar nonchalant brio at work here and, above all, the same loopy delight in words. Then Nyla sent me a forthcoming interview with rob mclelland in which she talks about her childhood as the source of this linguistic playfulness:
“Growing up, I spoke English at home but I was at a French school... My parents’ mother tongues are Urdu (my mother) and Arabic (my father) ... there is something to all of that, that must have made me want to write … to understand but not speak seems a strange but essential education for a writer.” 
And then I thought hmmm, to Stevens and Ashbery maybe add the metaphorical logic of the Urdu ghazal and the stubborn idealization of beauty in Arabic love poetry, although those are subjects for a much longer talk, and one I am not competent to deliver. So I’ll leave you with a final thought from Nyla herself, from the same interview, which is a better introduction to her work than anything I can say:
“The larger culture, it seems to me, is concerned now with the image, the instant response, the sardonic tweet, the sound or news bite, the status update and its attendant narcissistic after-effects. Maybe poetry, by asking us to listen to language again, carefully, uncovers something buried? There is a generosity to both writing it and reading it—the time required. The attentiveness and the mindfulness.” 
If you are familiar with Nyla’s work you will understand exactly what she means. If you’re not, you’re in for a treat.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Sumptuary Laws

In his most challenging, insightful and keen-minded review to date, Stewart Cole zeroes in on why Nyla Matuk's Sumptuary Laws is such an extraordinary debut.
Matuk’s work continually raises aesthetic questions, prompting us to examine where we stand in relation to the choices it embodies—and this, I would argue, is a telling sign of Sumptuary Laws’s essential excellence. With mediocre poetry, we either can’t see significant evidence of the poet’s grappling with the many spectral aesthetic possibilities she may or may not have actualized, or we don’t care because her choices aren’t made with great enough talent or high enough stakes. In Matuk’s work, however, talent and stakes are everywhere, leading us as readers to fully invest in the aesthetic risks she takes.
While Cole exposes some weaknesses in Matuk's method, I'd like to push back on one point. He seems unhappy with the Commentary the book ends on, believing that the annotations somehow give too much away. My suggestion for him, and anyone else struggling with that last section, is to lighten up. The section is meant as a joke, a send-up, a lark. A bit like the digressive notes in Pale Fire, it's a product of Matuk's "duplicate self," and thus was designed to appear (while being couched in witty and lush prose) as unhelpful, faux-pedantic and counterproductive as possible—playing up the notion of the poet as a wildly unreliable narrator of her own ideas.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Sunday Poem

Come, my little eunuchs, my tender virgins,
it's high time you were home and in bed.
The wind's cold and strong in the streets now,
and it's almost ten o'clock.
Soon whores will be obvious at corners,
and I wouldn't want you accosted or given the eye;
soon drunks will be turned out of beverage rooms
and you could be rolled or raped up a dark lane. 
So quickly find your houses, turn the latch-key, set the night-lock,
remember to dress with the blinds down. Then safe in bed you may dream
of Pickthall walking hand in hand with her fairies,
of Lampman turning his back on Ottawa.
From Collected Poems of Raymond Souster, Vol. 1: 1940-55 (1980) by Raymond Souster.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Glut It Up

Ben Masters believes that one of the most important literary lessons writers like Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter can teach us is that, to do it well, you sometimes need to overdo it.
"The novelists I find myself attracted to are those who cannot resist the extra adjective, the additional image, the scale-tipping clause. It feels necessary to assert and celebrate this, for we are living in puritanical times. The contemporary preference seems to be for the economical, the efficient, for simple precision (though there is of course such a thing as complex precision). Books, it appears, should be neat and streamlined. Language shouldn’t be allowed to obscure a good story. There is a craving for easily relatable and sympathetic characters. Among critics and reviewers, the plain style is more likely to be praised than the elaborate or sprawling. Embellished prose is treated with suspicion, if not dismissed outright as overwritten, pretentious or self-indulgent. Drab prose is everywhere."

Bovinities Launch

Robert Moore reading from The Golden Book of Bovinities, launched last night at a packed Irving Hall, in Frederiction, NB.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Bukowski's World

Zach Wells' comment on my Tuesday post brought to mind Adam Kirsch's excellent essay in the New Yorker from 2005 where he brilliantly, and somewhat mercilessly, exposes the nature of Bukowski's appeal:
Such poems offer the same kind of vicarious wish fulfillment that differently inclined readers might find in spy novels or gangster movies, with their parodies of unbound masculinity. (In one poem, Bukowski acknowledges this affinity, boasting: “don’t believe the gossip: / Bogie’s not dead.”) And Bukowski is best read as a very skillful genre writer. He bears the same relation to poetry as Zane Grey does to fiction, or Ayn Rand to philosophy—a highly colored, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing. He has two of the supreme merits of genre writing, consistency and abundance: once you have been enticed into Bukowski’s world, you have the comfort of knowing that you won’t have to leave it anytime soon, since there will always be another book to read.

Sunday Poem

after Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome  
It knocked at the window,
and you didn’t let it in. You complain
about how they painted the clouds the
wrong colour
you complain they painted the
clouds at all, but the wash
left grey paint all over
the cement. Flyers and signs
gather at the sewer drain and
put a cast around the corner
like the time you broke your
ankle. You drained English Bay and
carried it in a bucket to the shore,
where the sand sealed. You
collected the doors to hang, left
the cars for insects.
When the time came, you packed
your short-shorts, sailor hat,
the past, a book for reading and brought
a six-pack to drink the ride.
You and me, we jumped
in the U-haul, drove east until
I felt easy. It rains here too, but
someone painted the clouds purple
and the rain spreads his ashes,
even though we never asked him to.
For a brief moment, you thought
it was sunny, but that was just me
painting the sky a different colour.
From Davie Street Translations (2012) by Daniel Zomparelli.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Half the Fun

Christian Wiman covers a lot of ground—Modernism, mystery, religion, the lyric, poetry's place in our culture—in his introduction to The Open Door. But the following passage jumped out at me. Keeping alive the possibility of an "eccentric canon" is one of the most succinct defenses of why it's essential (contra Jan Zwicky) that reviewers and critics be given a wide berth when expressing their opinions:
"For all the canons and anthologies, for every rock-solid reputation and critical consensus, poetry is personal or it is nothing. That is, until a poem has been tested on your own pulse, to paraphrase John Keats, until you have made up your own mind and heart about where you stand in relation to it, and it to you—until this happens, all poetry is merely literature, all reading rote. It’s true that some people are better readers of poetry than others; that some people’s judgment matters (for the culture as a whole) more than others; that, just as with music or art, there are elements of craft and historical perspective essential to being able to formulate a meaningful response. But still: poetry is made up of poems, and poems repulse and entice in unpredictable ways, and anyone who reads independently and spiritedly is going to carry an eccentric canon around in his head. This is half the fun of it all."

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Crumb and Bukowski

In the mid-1990s, R. Crumb illustrated two books by Charles Bukowski. You'll find more examples of their creative hookup here. Can't say I'm a fan of the work of either men, but in terms of sheer grotesquery, the result does seem like a perfect marriage of peanut butter and chocolate.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Sunday Poem

for Barry Bonds 
We had to fill him up with the feats of mythical giants—Zeus and Goliath,
"Hammerin' Hank" and "The Babe." We had to fill him up with the where-
were-you-whens? The fictitious baseball works by masters like Roth  
or DeLillo. We had to fill up his trophy case, his endorsement deals.
Had to fill up the Jumbotron with his image, the ballpark with our bodies,
the newspaper columns with box-scores, OPSs and Slugging Percentages—  
fill them with the details of his daily performance considered by rights
to be in the public domain. Used him to fill awkward silences
over dinners with our partners' fathers, our granddads, clients— 
inhuman feats to bring up as we ironed out our own human details.
We had to fill him up with fake wars, fake breasts, fake reports.
Fill him up with the false sense of affirmation that men of a certain stature existed  
well beyond the pale. We had to fill him up with our own hard luck,
our nine-to-five jobs, our paltry salaries. Then we had to fill up his bank
account as we paid for the soaring prices of tickets, jerseys and hot dogs, 
lining his pockets by filling the stands for each and every game. We had
to fill him up with scientific advances, bad advice, tough choices, then
fill him up again with what we would have done, the decisions our senses  
of decency, of respect for the game's history would have compelled us
to make. When he didn't return the wild rounds of applause, we had to
fill him up with our loathing. We had to fill him up with test results 
and government-sanctioned inquiries, just to make sure we were able
to set the record straight. And after we filled him up almost to bursting
we finally had to let him go, as a child, indifferent, lets go of a balloon  
in a parking lot, and watches the asterisk
beside his own name floating away.
From Earworm (2011) by Nick Thran. 

The Instinct for Imitation

In an essay on the "poetry of description," Zach Wells defines the rival views of what he calls "an ancient, and occasionally intemperate, debate." The careers of contemporaries John Clare and John Keats appear to draw out the sharpest contrast, especially regarding their duelling nightingale poems. When compared to Clare and his "all-terrain ornithology," Keats doesn't seem to fare so well:
In Keats, the self is foregrounded, from the very first word, and sentiment doesn’t so much prevail over description, as rule it out. It’s nighttime, after all, and Keats “cannot see what flowers are at [his] feet.” Even were the sun shining, we sense he wouldn’t be looking too hard, preferring to soar “on the viewless wings of Poesy.” The nightingale’s song is a trigger for lyric reflection, rather than the subject of the poem; the speaker has no wish to acquaint himself with the flesh and blood feathered source of the music.