Thursday 28 February 2013

Is Matthew Tierney's New Book Any Good?

Phoebe Wang thinks so:
There is a truly exuberant pleasure in language expressed in metaphors such as “tumbleweeds of O2,” “counterfactuals pile up like cornflakes pile up/like models of megamolecules” and “galaxies fanning out like patches of demin.” Tierney finds time, space, matter, particles and the processes that form life on Earth endlessly diverting and chaotic. He, or his poet-persona, would be the ideal party guest, someone who could explain different kinds of infinity over a few pilsners in a way that you’d be sure to remember.
Kevin Kvas disagrees:
When all is said and done—when all is Googled and parsed—the poems are simply more masterfully sententious lyrics (sentimental individualism propagandized) with enough basic stuff about physics, math, and philosophy mixed in competently now and then for the book to benefit from the science-in-poetry bandwagon that’s been created by a few actually innovative experiments with science and math in poetry.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Debating Rich

Reviewing Adrienne Rich's Later Poems, Ange Mlinko worries about the late poet's legacy.
Rich’s signature style—fragmentary (even halting), earnest, direct—did not alter much in the four decades covered by Later Poems. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost warned; I thought of this maxim more than once while reading this thick volume. I also thought of Wallace Stevens’s distinction between the poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination; I thought of Keats writing “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us” and his insistence that the poetic character “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” I thought of Sir Philip Sidney, who died of a gangrenous battle injury in his early 30s, writing of the poet: “he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit.” These were poets who made a strong distinction between art and the world, imagination and reality. Rich belonged to a tradition that collapsed that distinction. The fact that such poetry attracts large, committed audiences is not lost on either its proponents or its detractors. Even so, most poets are not willing to give up their prerogative to be uncommitted: ambiguous, ambivalent, negatively capable and, yes, playful. 
Carol Muske-Dukes is having none of it:
O those devil-may-care playful trickster poets—lazily stretching in their negatively capable workout clothes! So different than the rest of us, worker-drone poets, dully collapsing the distinction between art and the world and imagination and reality! Does Mlinko really believe that poets like Rich never offered themselves up to the aleatory in composing a poem—as ANY POET does who imagines the world, or worlds, familiar and strange... even (as implied) while dreaming of attracting those "large committed audiences"? Excuse me, is she talking about a Springsteen concert or "open mic" at the bookstore?


"Dean Young once said the form is a sort of advanced criticism of the poem. It draws limits on what’s acceptable. So the quicker you get to the form, the quicker you take away those wonderful moments when something unexpected happens. At the same time, you can’t write completely without any scaffolding for the lines. It’s a constant struggle."
Matthew Tierney describes the slipperiness of form.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Sunday Poem

the hawks are out hunting mice in grass past gold
now brown, dry and dead, the hawks, humourless
hunt, merciless and I miss you, done with waiting 
the mice cowering, then shitting paths scooting past
trying to get something to eat, getting et instead—I miss you
I said. puddles in the fields and raptor's wide arcs 
circles, patience—shadows inscribing the water
so the ducks and scoters scatter on the creek bulge
take to air awkward, half-winged, scurry and regroup 
red-tails and kestrels on the power lines glare at the grass
the steely creek, the cows hock-deep in melt-off—
miss you—waiting for the strike, for feathers to fall, hunting

or watching—wanting only to be fed: birds staring
groundward, me staring skyward: weeping
or bleeding out, wary, it's all been said.

From Dirt of Ages (2012) by Gillian Wigmore.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Flash Interview #7: Donald Winkler

Filmmaker and translator, Donald Winkler won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation in 2011. His translation of Daniel Poliquin’s La Kermesse (A Secret Between Us) was a finalist for the 2007 Giller Prize. The Major Verbs—his translation of Pierre Nepveu's  Les Verbes Majeurs—appeared with Signal Editions in Spring 2012. He lives in Montreal.
Carmine Starnino: What drew you to Pierre Nepveu's book? 
Donald Winkler: I've been drawn to Pierre's poetry for a long time. I translated an earlier book, Romans-fleuves (Exile Editions, 1998), but I first translated a few of his poems way back in 1984 for the translation revue Ellipse. I felt an instant affinity. His poetry had—well, you would use the word "souffle" in French: a drive, a thrust, a muscularity and a concreteness that appealed to me greatly. And a capacity, out of its sheer momentum, to soar into surreal riffs without losing contact with reality. I can still remember trying to be true to that, wrestling with lines like "old archangel you know it all / you played the owl those canted nights / head trepanned with antennas and methanol / airs stirred up by sullen desire" (my version of it, of course). Translating him was a gladiatorial exercise. Still is. Pierre in person is gentle and almost self-deprecating, but something else kicks in when, as a poet, he puts pen to paper. I also like the way in which he feels his way into the characters in his poems. In The Major Verbs, one entire sequence, "The Woman Asleep on the Subway," imagines the life of an immigrant night worker in a high rise office building, her alienation, and her memories, or fantasies, of the land she left behind. Nothing formulaic or didactic, but a powerful, often dream-like evocation. The sequence in memory of his dead parents is a collage in verse that is both an affectionate tribute to them and an honest portrayal of lives that knew their share of disappointment, that were at times troubled. Between these two is a series of meditations on a small pile of pebbles on a table, a representation in miniature of the outside world's opacity in a time of anguish for the speaker. But the book ends with a long contemplative poem set in the Arizona desert, a coda imbued with grace. All in all, an impressive achievement. 
CS: If you had to nominate a Canadian poet as the anglo doppelganger for Nepveu in terms of shared subject and style, who would it be and why? 
DW: I'm afraid that any specific example I may come up with might be misleading. But let me say this. As a literary critic, Nepveu has taken as his field of study all of America, and has written eloquently about the continental landscape, and the contradictory urges to celebrate wide open spaces (Whitman) and to seek a protective nest when confronted by them (Dickinson), the latter impulse being less widely recognized, in his opinion, than it ought to be. His book Intérieurs d'un nouveau monde, which exists only in French, is a brilliant survey of Quebec, Canadian, American, and Haitian writers, as seen from this perspective. The book reflects his own travels (including a period when he lived in Vancouver), and deals knowledgeably with Canadian and American poets such as Dennis Lee, Atwood, Klein, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. He is perhaps the most pan-American of Quebec poets. And I believe the influence shows in the diction and the vision and the psychology of his poetry, although this is more of an intuition on my part than anything else. 
CS: You've translated a number of Québécois authors, often working closely with them. Have you ever resisted their suggestion in order to keep a word choice or phrase that you thought was closer to the spirit of the poem or story? Do you have an example? 
DW: I haven't had to resist too energetically. The poets' understanding of English is often quite good, but at times they may not appreciate all the nuances of the English word, which is in fact closer to the intent of the original than they suspect. I consider myself a "situational" translator where poetry is concerned, in that my word choices are predicated on the degree to which the original word was selected on the basis of its meaning, its music or its rhythmic compatibility, so that on one occasion, when translating Roland Giguère, I used a word with a totally different meaning, because his own word choice was almost exclusively based on the word's sound. The original poem read: "tant de vie pour un mort / tant de mots pour un mur." So you had mort, mur. But it literally translates: "for one death so much life / so many words for one wall." I wrote: "for one death so much life / so many words for one breath." So I had Death, breath. I ran this past him, and he was okay with it. 

Sunday 17 February 2013

Faber Photos

There's some amazing stuff archived at Faber's flickr photostream. Here's a sample.

W.H. Auden.

Ezra Pound.

Robert Lowell.

T.S. Eliot's office door.

Seamus Heaney.

W.H. Auden. T.S. Eliot and wife Valerie.

Craig Raine and Ted Hughes.

Sylvia Plath feeding deer in Ontario (yes, Ontario).


"Thick skin is not the thing to have if you are an artist of any kind. It’s got to be bulletproof in the sense that it lets the bullet in, and it travels through, and it comes out the other side."
Clive James describes his own relationship to bad reviews.

Sunday Poem

The woman asleep in the subway
conjures a hundred drawers that suddenly open
in metallic fury on screeching tracks,
she sees herself prone in one of them
deeper and longer than a woman’s body,
the way babies were at times laid down
during family gatherings low on beds—
she hears the nearby stirring
of files anxious to see the day,
she is lulled by the rocking
of laser printers and calculators,
a whole world of keyboards embraces
and enfolds her, she thinks of secretaries
who do entrechats in high heels
and young clerks whose creaseless shirts
speak to her softly of the smoothness of a cheek,
the touch of a fingernail ember red,
while deeper into the night she turns over,
jolted back still by the graceless ring
of a telephone blind to her presence,
she wonders if innocence
is enough protection, if to sleep during the day
was part of the world’s plan,
its violent and ambitious program,
its machinery for good and evil,
or if an invisible finger gently impels
the drawer to close back over her,
ushering in silence and eternal night.

The woman asleep in the subway dreams
of hundreds of closed doors
of drawers locked last night at five o’clock
but see, the night swelled
with the symphonic song of downloadings,
the exquisite chorale of RAMs
throwing off multihued showers of icons
and it was like the rustling of a world near at hand
the hypothesis of a prayer for a better life
the whole office an incandescent aleph
and she confessed to having sat for a moment
amid the magic of this place and its wisdom
wondering if midnight would sound,
savouring the happiness of not knowing.

In the coma of the machines, in the night time
of programs collating the universe,
she makes a wide swipe to sweep away the dust,
wipes the coffee ring left by a cup,
and suddenly the vibration brings a screen to life,
a half-naked woman’s smile seems to have pity on her,
then it’s the picture of a tropical beach,
the lace cathedral of a European city,
Monet’s water lilies, Corcovado’s Christ—
she pauses her hard-working hand for a moment,
breathes the dry air of the large office,
dumbfounded as by a comet’s passage,
her two sore feet lifted from earth,
her two feet afloat
on the heights of this tower
lighting up the night.

Each night her soft skin yields
to the hubbub of machines,
the bristled brushes,
her head lit up by rainbows
in the toxic whiff of disinfectant,
while it’s a field where jasmine grew that she remembers,
and great cool shadows stitched by eucalyptus,
and it’s as though horses haunt her body,
and mournful donkeys,
and brute bones beneath their fur that she recalls,
and their huge orphan members—
then nothing but sea and fog,
and in her mind as childhood cooled
journeys already pledged,
that and accomplishment, but never
this barking of weary hours at eight in the morning,
when the great swell of wage earners,
bank tellers and clerks,
advances like a wave,
with herself the ocean’s quarry,
and the day dawns
with sand and clocks without hands.

From The Major Verbs (2012) by Pierre Nepveu, translated by Donald Winkler.

(Painting "Woman Sleeping" by Carola Moreno.)

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Poetry Is An Operation Performed on Language

In Seizing: Places, his translation of Helene Dorion's 2005 collection Ravir: Les Lieux (sample some of it here), Patrick McGuinness reflects on the difference between French and English-language verse. His argument—that we are made uncomfortable by the "quasi-philosophical, spiritual language" of French poetry—might help explain why appreciation for much Québécois poetry in Canada lags behind where it should be.
We in English-language poetry write as if we somehow disdained poetry but had faith in language—it’s a facet of our national irony perhaps, our suspicion of abstraction, and a sense that poetry somehow denatures ordinary speech. Our quest for the demotic and the democratic makes us suspicious of the grand claims of poetry, and of its grand words: the soul, memory, the spirit, and the quasi-philosophical, spiritual language by which much European and some North American poetry has orientated itself. French-language poetry, one might say, is the other way around: it suspects language, which is why French poets always seem to be remaking it, asking the impossible of it, making it fail on a scale which makes mere success look petty. But it retains faith in poetry: the lyric urge, however broken its movement, damaged its materials, or ironic its gestures, retains its necessity. For Paul Valéry, poetry was not just a language within a language, but an operation performed on language. Poetry may reclaim its birthright from music, Valéry contended, but it always repays it debt to thought.

Sunday 10 February 2013

The Banal Peculiarity Of Everyday Speech

Barry Schwabsky's insight into John Ashbery's affection for "found contemporary language" also goes a fair distance toward describing what, for me, makes the work of many younger Canadian poets so interesting:
What Ashbery shows is that in modern poetry—“underperforming texts,” to borrow a phrase from his poem “Far Harbor”—sincerity can only be attained by passing through the banal peculiarity of everyday speech. At the end of the introduction to his ground-breaking 1969 anthology The Poets of the New York School, John Bernard Myers recalled a drive in Amagansett with Elizabeth Bishop. As they passed a roadside dive called The Enchanted Cottage, “’Enchanted?’ she cried, ‘Enchanted?? One more word I’ll never be able to use again!’” His point, of course, was that the aesthetic—or better, maybe, to call it the ethic—of poets like Ashbery (and of successors like some of the poets associated with language writing and, in spades, those who go under the moniker of flarf) is just the opposite: When a piece of language has been degraded in this way, that’s exactly when it especially comes into the poet’s purview. In Ashbery’s poems, mock Jacobeanisms jostle slang from the screwball comedies of the forties and the latest management-speak, but mostly the shadings are harder to sort out.

Sunday Poem

The wind.—
And you’re falling
through the landscape:
the silent wave
closes around your steps, your hands.

Far off the burned-out day
tilts. The birds tear up
the sky as they come
to meet you.

Mouth that the rivers cross
—where all life is crushed, a stranger
to the wind and the night
that lift it, towards itself— 
stone carried off by the sand.
There’s no journey you return from
without your life, from its
far-off bank, coming closer. 
Arrows plunge
into the water
and the water trembles
—the wound

on the lake’s back
obscures the night
that tried to fall.

You thought you saw
some mauve, a little blue
mixed with the crumbs
the day casts  
over the world.
You open your mouth
open your hands
and everything that still held  
by a breath
topples inside you. 
Tonight, the moon
slices the lake, digs
a sheer well of silence
on the horizon.  
The world trembles
—eyes closed
you cross it. 
What shadow
undoes the dawn
hour by hour?
What fragmented  
word is it piecing back together
time after time? 
The wind.—
and the lake
stirs suddenly, the dark
herd of waves
stampedes the bank 
melts into the earth
where our faces pass
into dust.
From Seizing: Places (2012) by Hélène Dorion, translated by Patrick McGuinness.

Friday 8 February 2013

Look No Further

Rob Winger celebrates Linda Besner's first book, The Id Kid, for "dis­play­ing a wry matur­ity and aes­thetic self-awareness most debut poets can only dream of":
"If you’re seek­ing 'a tiger rodeo,' 'de futuro ducks,' or 'stone­henge for black flies,' you’ll find them here. If you’re look­ing for inter­tex­tual nuance and ter­rible puns, they’re here, too. And if you’re seek­ing res­ol­u­tion for the sup­posed con­flicts between high and low, base and super­struc­ture, petty and pro­found, look no fur­ther."

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Faking It

Jason Guriel fetes a school of poets too amazing to be believed:
"From 1916 to 1918, the Spectrists had the attention of figures like Edgar Lee Masters and editors of magazines like this one. Harriet Monroe accepted Spectric poems; Alfred Kreymborg kitted out an entire issue of Others with the stuff. Knish and Morgan’s anthology, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (1916), was covered in the papers and, like all novelties perceived to be cutting edge, divided readers. An impromptu fanbase dispatched letters to Pittsburgh, the improbable locale where the movement’s masters made camp. Even William Carlos Williams struck up a correspondence. Knish was said to be Hungarian, the prized object of suitors’ duels. Morgan was said to be one of the 
duelists. That the Spectrists have largely been forgotten shouldn’t be counted against contemporary memories, however, or some vision of stubborn, steamrolling history; oblivion is the proper fate of figures who never quite existed in the first place."


"It's a risk. I mean, I think the risk is sounding simple, simplistic—and Frost, for God knows how long, was dismissed for that very reason. He's blatantly not simple, or anything like it, but that's the risk. I know I've said this before, but I think there's a kind of fruitful risk in also playing it as close to sentimentality as one dares—and maybe a dumb sort of clarity, and adopting an almost pretentious rhetorical height. You fall off the tightrope and make a fool of yourself, but I think you have to risk it. It strikes me that that sort of game is worth playing, because the stakes are a lot higher; potentially you win a lot more in terms of the force of what you communicate, the strength of feeling you can share with or elicit from the reader, the coining of speech that is both familiar and radically destabilizing. But you have to run the risk of looking like a pretentious dick. An idiot. A sentimental buffoon. Many of our late-mod, non-conformist friends never look so silly, but then they risk very little."
Don Paterson discusses the high stakes of writing poems readers can follow.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Sunday Poem

My friend works medium security and says
Of his mad charges, “You can’t be angry.
They’re sick—shouldn’t be here.” To the near-sane,
he doles punishments when “Fuck you, screw”
is prelude to a shank—some soup spoon snatched
and ground against the whetstone of the bars,
a razor blade bound into a pencil’s
eraser tip, or merely the handle
of a toothbrush made sharp as murder-one.
And stranger things: back in stir after
his biopsy a man threatened to force
a pen through the hole and crush his liver
unless given Tylenol Three. He settled for
Extra Strength and the promise of a doctor:
“I was just joking,” he added meekly,
knowing threats of self-harm bring sanctions too—
days apart in an observation cell,
diaper-clad and deprived of any thing
imagination could turn into a noose.
Others would cut themselves or even rip
open the skin and muscle with their hands;
one inmate slashed deeper than his scrotum,
poured blood and half his entrails on the floor;
luckless, he missed the artery and lived.
Some lifers, almost done, can no longer mount
the stairs to the range or have left their
wits at the scene—time’s muddled fugitives
who could not pick themselves from a line–up.
Beyond correction, a man with one leg
weighs 500 pounds and may no longer lift
himself. Torpid, he pisses and shits among
the blankets, cannot wash or move,
cuffed to a history of offences,
manslaughter (released) and then child rape.
His heart and kidneys wind down—my friend,
tall as a linebacker, joins a staggering
scrimmage of guards and paramedics,
as they hoist the stretcher down stairwells
and across a lighted courtyard to the gate
where an ambulance waits to parole him.