Thursday 30 May 2013

Bad Alice

Christian Lorentzen doesn't think much of "epiphany-monger" Alice Munro:
There’s something confusing about the consensus around Alice Munro. It has to do with the way her critics begin by asserting her goodness, her greatness, her majorness or her bestness, and then quickly adopt a defensive tone, instructing us in ways of seeing as virtues the many things about her writing that might be considered shortcomings. So she writes only short stories, but the stories are richer than most novels. Over a career now in its sixth decade, she’s rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that’s because she’s a master of variation.
It gets worse:
It might be too much to call her an anti-modernist, rather than someone on whom modernism didn’t leave much of an impression, but her conventionality—a writer "of the old school" in Anne Tyler’s phrase—won’t quite do. For her admirers it needs to be offset by some kind of innovation. They usually point to her manipulation of time – her tic of adding a coda to a story, marked usually by the words "years later"—as if she were the Doctor Who of upmarket short story writing.
And worse:
Reading ten of her collections in a row has induced in me not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life. I became sad, like her characters, and like them I got sadder.


"I constantly meet emerging poets who are afraid of using an adverb let alone making an assertion in a poem, in case they find themselves unpublishable. I read an article in Writer’s Forum the other day that told poets to avoid adjectives. Such nonsensical ‘rules’ deaden poetry—it's fine to make students ask themselves whether they use too many adjectives, but obedience to a narrow list of dos and don’ts is quite another thing, and is leading to polite, dull verse."
Claire Pollard explains the "self-censorship" that afflicts contemporary poetry.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Sunday Poem

The ocean is the original mood ring.
Often, and for days, it convinced us 
we felt an industrial grey malaise with a deep heart
of blue. The occasional whip of whitecap idea 
would bloom in our plans. We'd sit by its side
while it slept, our pens poised like fishing rods. 
When it granted an interview, it refused to talk
about its film credits or its accolades of full moons. 
It was more interested in talking about what we thought
it tasted like: fish or tears, it wanted to know. 
And it loved stalking us. Some of us would wake
with that rear-view feeling of being watched. We'd skid out 
of our dreams only to sink over our heads. When we could,
we'd spear a good conversation and carry it, wriggling, 
to its mouth. We'd find the bones of what we were trying
to say later, washed up on shore. We'd boil them to drink 
their broth then wake hungover from the truth. Some days,
the ocean would convince us we were green 
with many small ambitions, and other days we were used
aluminum foil, an offshore of seagulls dipping 
and stealing morsels of our memories. In this way, we knew
we were aging. Some days, if we were to believe it, we felt 
nothing but a progress of sky, a fleet of spaceships shaped
like clouds sailing out of our harbour in search of somewhere new.
By Sue Goyette from Ocean (Gaspereau, 2013).

Saturday 25 May 2013

The Fall And Fall Of Canadian Literature

Michael LaPointe discovers that, after half a century of literary nation-building, Canadian writing still bombs in the classroom. The reason? The belief that it's not good enough.
As Baird’s report found, 30 years later, “there is an attitude within the high school educational system that Canadian literature is substandard and doesn’t merit being taught in schools.” Writing in The New York Times, Douglas Coupland facetiously characterizes the genre: “CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience.” As for its aesthetics, Coupland argues, “one could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes.”

What's Deena Kara Shaffer Reading?

Thursday 23 May 2013

When Did Poetry Become So Nice?

Evan Gottlieb has an answer:
In many ways, it was the Victorians who, reassessing and largely whitewashing the Romantic legacy, transformed poetry from the record of real life sought by Wordsworth to "the best which has been thought and said" touted by poet-critics like Matthew Arnold as a replacement for the waning power of organized religion. In this "improving" spirit, for example, the poetry of Percy Shelley—probably Wordsworth's most rebellious heir—was cleaned up and made fit for drawing room readings, such that he was known for many generations as the poet of ethereal verses like "To a Skylark," rather than as the author of much more strident, political poems like "The Masque of Anarchy" and "Song to the Men of England."
He singles out a favourite troublemaker:
An exciting blend of shamelessness, cynicism, and lust is the calling card of the 17th-century libertine poet John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, whose exuberant poems detailing his sexual conquests, both male and female, bear titles like "Signior Dildo" and "The Disabled Debauchee." Rochester's verses still contain plenty of power to make modern readers gasp, chuckle, and shake our heads in a combination of disapproval, disbelief, and—let's be honest—envy at his frankness, if not also at his exploits.
Tony Hoagland reminds us of why "talking mean" in poetry matters:
There is truth-telling in meanness, but that is not all of it. Meanness is also an aesthetic asset for its flavor of danger. Nothing wakes us up like menace—Menace refreshes. When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles. We feel intoxicated by that outlaw freedom, and we covet it for ourselves.  

Monday 20 May 2013

Below The Salt

Arts Council England's recent funding decisions—which increased writer development but slashed funding to a slew of small presses and literary festivals—led to Salt's recent decision to stop publishing "single-author" poetry collections (the press is run by Chris Hamilton-Emery, pictured above). Claire Pollard regards the bad news as part of larger pattern threatening UK's emerging poets:
Courses, MAs, mentoring, pamphlets and prizes for the emergent are all booming – it is a golden age of celebration and support for new poets. The trouble seems to be what happens once you ‘emerge’. The poetry world is still geared towards the model of the (roughly 60 page) book – ambitious writers are encouraged to spend years entering competitions, sending stuff to magazines, performing, work-shopping, etc, with their eyes on the ultimate prize: a publisher signing up their first collection. Except these days, that’s where lots of talented poets are coming to a juddering halt.
She continues:
We seem to be moving towards a model where people are kept ‘emerging’ for as long as possible – preserved in a kind of hopeful limbo, where they can gain lots of encouragement and support, but also spend lots of money on mentors and Arvon courses and MAs and competition fees and retreats. It can take many years the truth to emerge: that for all their talent and investment, they are unlikely to get a book published, and if they do it will probably disappear without a review or more than a handful of sales. It seems to me there are choices to be made. One option is for arts bodies to start supporting ‘emerged’ poets as actively as those who are ‘emerging’. Another might be to accept that the days of the physical, 60-page collection are over and find a different model of poetic success.
Neil Astley, publisher of Bloodaxe, agrees with Pollard, but fills in some of the missing details behind the demise of Salt, a press that uses the POD model:
Salt has lurched from crisis to crisis, but because everyone loves Chris Hamilton-Emery and readers and poets like a lot of the writers he publishes, or published, everyone has been supportive of his efforts to keep going, responding to repeated appeals for sales, setting up readings for Salt poets, and keeping the Salt admiration society going on Facebook and Twitter. What no one seems to have noticed is that the main reason why Salt lost its ACE funding and why its poetry list has just gone up in a puff of smoke is that its business model was never viable except for a small press with a small list and modest sales. Print on demand isn't compatible with promoting poetry to a wider readership. You can't complain that your books don't get reviewed or noticed if you don't send out review copies to newspapers, magazines, radio producers and festivals. You can't complain that your books don't get shortlisted for prizes if you don't submit them for all the prizes that are going. You can't complain that your poets don't get anthologised if you don't give copies to anthologists who request them. All that requires running on 100 to 150 copies from your print run to use for promotion. Print on demand doesn't allow for that.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Sunday Poem

The seagull doesn’t like to be ignored, fans
out a white demi-bloom of tail, flies
breast to breast with the water gull below,
a show of sudden flight and reflected shadow

close or at a distance any eye that pans
this wake of flight is led to spaces
in trees where living branch meets dead;
below, spent cigarettes and blossoms, floating birdshit
and feathers where the willow trails its swimmer’s hair

these things are not what we’ve come for—what’s advertised
are peacocks, the more iridescently bright the better,
rhododendrons fuschia and puff-sleeved as bridesmaids
in procession and attended by fern fronds

more startling still, a short walk down the street—
ladies and gentlemen—scarlet ibis and flamingoes
under glass. In the land of the newlywed and nearly dead
everything’s arranged to please us

but not this misfit, this beautiful fan-tailed scavenger
who, more like us, eats garbage, makes from it ivory plumage,
tries to take over the world, calls out a raucous screed
on the subject of attention here where we’ve come to scavenge
an idea of the garden, cultivated in empire’s detritus

ah look, a lone duckling, an ageing romantic
clucks at the loss of mother but her man looks at his watch,
holds her elbow in a slingshot grip, says
don’t worry, honey, it’s nature 
and along the groomed trails we shuffle out, leave spaces so our tribes
don’t meet in unmediated ways until we reach the street
the lights, the flashing crosswalk man we’ve made
and technobirdsong that must be obeyed
frozen in the sudden open glare, the man
picks a fallen petal from his love’s hair,
the signals change, and we walk on in unison
sprouting shreds of blown down and errant pollen.
by Carmelita McGrath from The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry (Breakwater, 2013), edited by Mark Callanan and James Langer.
(Painting by Tamara Bond.)

Energy Of Slaves

In an excerpt from his upcoming book on Leonard Cohen, Matthew Remski explores the uncomfortable ties between Cohen and his controversial zen mentor Roshi:
It was strange that Cohen and I both disappeared into ashrams at the same time. At least he was at the right age for it. He seemed to be quitting a global identity, withdrawing into silence and his campy apocalyptic songs to come. I was milking my reluctance to really participate in things, and consoling myself of the consequences. But I think we were both enthralled by charismatic teachers who offered a radiant and ambivalent image of patriarchal yet revolutionary confidence that seemed to allow us to relax into obedience and hiding, even as it validated our resentments. For so many men, the spiritual path is a road for those who don’t know how to be their own fathers, who crave to relive the crisis of clashing with authority, to retest themselves, perversely enthralled by the strange virtues of the bully. There’s an erotic self-hatred in it: it feels good to rub yourself raw and then to rub yourself away against an absolute. It feels like justice, like what you deserve. 
Remski goes on to clarify the nature of the acolyte-mentor relationship:
Tension is key. The tension of not knowing whether he will embrace you or castigate you. As a devotee, you need him to reject you as much as he accepts you, or the acceptance will not feel as sweet. We’re not talking about intersubjective relationship here, in which a dyad mutually feels and receives and responds to each other’s needs. We’re talking about an emotional and power imbalance that thrives on the teacher seducing through concealment, and the student desperately craving what is hidden, and only occasionally seeing it, and taking any attention at all as a sign of love. Part of me wonders if Cohen fell in love with the type of man he himself was to many of the women in his past.

Thursday 16 May 2013

The High Point Of The History Of English?

How about the Norman Invasion of 1066?
When the Normans, who spoke a dialect of Old French, ruled over England, they changed the face of English. Over the ensuing two centuries, thousands of Old French words entered English. Because the ruling class spoke Old French, that set of vocabulary became synonymous with the elite. Everyone else used Old English. During this period, England's society was diglossic: one community, two language sets with distinct social spheres. Today, English-speakers pick and choose from the different word sets—Latinate (largely Old French borrowings) and Germanic (mostly Old English-derived words)—depending on the occasion. Although English is no longer in a diglossic relationship with another language, the Norman-era diglossia remains reflected in the way we choose and mix vocabulary. In informal chat, for example, we might go on to ask something, but in formal speech we’d proceed to inquire. There are hundreds of such pairs: match/correspond, mean/intend, see/perceive,speak/converse. Most of us choose one or the other without even thinking about the history behind the split. Germanic words are often described as earthier, simpler, and friendlier. Latinate vocabulary, on the other hand, is lofty and elite. It’s amazing that nine hundred years later, the social and political structure of 12th-century England still affects how we think about and use English.
Robert Archambeau adds his thoughts:
In any given period, most people are unaware of the presence of the past in their everyday life: it is part of the darkness of their era, the darkness that only the true contemporary sees. This isn’t an obscure point, though it may sound like one. Almost no speakers of English, for example, give any thought to the fact that the words they speak are a living example of particular historical events. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 led to the domination of the Anglo-Saxons by a French speaking elite, and the language we speak was forged in that crucible of conquest, where French and Anglo-Saxon melted together, giving us the rich and redundant (Anglo-Saxon “underwater” and French-derived “submarine”) vocabulary we use. 1066 happens in every sentence spoken in English, it lives in every sentence, though the speakers of the language tend to have no notion of it whatsoever. And this lack of awareness, this darkness, means that most people don’t fully live vast portions of the things that live in them: that is, they don’t grasp, and never come into conscious contact with, the things that make them who they are.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Sunday Poem

Prehistory stands in the saltmarsh
on stem-thin legs sinewy
as a sailor's twisted hemp
and cries once, brief and hoarse,
the bugle blast of a tubercular angel
heralding another apocalypse 
then lifts into the ashen sky
and skims the tufted cattails
along the muddied riverbank,
large eyes still reflecting
an earth before time,
blinking away with jaded calm
armies heaped below China's Great Wall
the first stigmata cooled on the cross,
the basketed pallor of French aristocracy,
all the race's casual carnage
running dark and constant beneath
the beating of awkward wings

now flies through the light drizzle,
an umbrella with a broken spine
swept against the darkening sky,
a failed sketch for Kitty Hawk
slowly erased from the page 
and reappears at dawn
alone as always, perched on a rotted piling,
hunched in its shabby raincoat
like a terrorist, smoking long
cigarettes of mist,
coolly staring at life,
waiting for the final bomb to go off,
waiting for the end of history.
From Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2013) by Tim Bowling.

Those Who Came Before

Steven Heighton, proud owner of "a loud blue polyester shirt" once worn by Al Purdy, remembers the last time he saw the famous Ameliasburgh poet.
In the spring of 2000 I saw him for the last time, dying at home in Sidney, BC. Jay Ruzesky and I drove up from Victoria and sat at his bedside for a couple of hours, talking with him and at times just sitting there as we waited for him to wake from another short nap. At one point he tried to eat a piece of bread we brought him, but he couldn’t manage. Some people may die in their boots, but no one really dies on his feet. And no eighty-two-year old, horizontal for the last time, exhausted and unable to eat, rages at the dying of the light. That, after all, was a young poet’s prescription. A heroization of the mechanics of dying....And what do you, the apprentice, feel now in watching the mentor leave? Along with the inevitable sense of loss, you suddenly feel (like a child watching a parent die) much older. You sense how promise is no longer enough and it’s necessary for the real work to begin. You feel the truth of George Eliot’s insight—that it’s never too late to become the man you might have been. Death as the gift of a call to life. Seems the front-line trench, long occupied by elders, who stood between you and mortality and other apparent failures, has suddenly been vacated. You and your generation are going to have to fill it, as you’ll have to fill, or try to fill, the shirts of those who came before.
Emily M. Keeler recounts a story by Margaret Atwood from her on-stage interview at the Al Purdy A-frame fundraiser:
Atwood keeps calling Purdy a terrible tease, and recalls the time he, drunk and thinking it funny, peed on her car. Enright asks if she cleaned it up, and she sensibly says, “What clean? It was just pee!” Everyone laughs, and she says something about rain eventually falling. Atwood tells us one of her favourite stories about the six-foot poet. “I was in Montreal working on a screenplay with an English producer,” she remembers, “Al happened to shamble along the street. He was wearing galoshes—it was winter—and they were unbuckled.” Atwood imitates, for a second, the rhythm of clomping around in unbuckled boots. “He had a mermaid printed tie that he got at the Sally Anne, and a great baggy overcoat.” She introduced him to the stuffy Englishman, who, after Purdy had ambled away, said to Atwood, “Now that is a real Canadian.”

Saturday 11 May 2013

Bovinities and Grey Tote Launches

Deena Kara Shaffer with husband Andrew Lorrison and daughter Evelyn (Montreal launch)

Robert Moore, Judith Mackin and Chris Lloyd (Montreal launch)

Jim Johnston (Toronto launch)

Deena Kara Shaffer reading from The Grey Tote (Toronto launch)

Robert Moore reading from The Book of Golden Bovinities (Toronto Launch)

What Gets Left Out

Sussing out trends during a round-up of new Canadian poetry, Evan Jones reminds us that there is always unseen "variety" beyond the large reputations:.
In the 90s in Toronto, there were only two poets any young buck with his tail in the air talked about: Al Purdy and bpNichol. I remember because I was reading George Seferis at the time. Purdy and Nichol were opposites, sort of, in a way, signs of kids hanging out in different kinds of crowds. The one a poet of the nation and the land, of horse-piss beer and backbreaking days, the other zany, inventive, in cahoots with St. Ein and St. Anza. Purdy had shit on his boots, Nichol was barefoot. Both had lived in Toronto, at least for a spell. Neither was very good. But at least we knew where people stood, on one side of the fence or the other. Or, as in my case, wondering why all these people were standing round a stupid fence. These were the starting points, the gateway drugs, for many of the Canadian poets of my generation, following either Purdy into the country or Nichol into conceptualism. That such a small country—there are more Texans than Canadians—locks onto certain figures, invests in them, holds them up and hopes for more than the best, shouldn't surprise. The problem has always been what gets left out when there is only room for the select few.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Art is Artifice

Reviewing David Seymour's new collection For Display Purposes Only, Michael Lista zeros in on an essential truth:
Poetry is performance; art is artifice. And it’s essentially entertainment. When it works, it’s not because its Romantic soul spelunking was to a record depth, or because its confessionalist moral laundering was the most Tide Fresh. It’s because its maker believes enough in what’s real to wander off and master what’s artificial. 
(Illustration by Diana McNally

Peter Norman

Stewart Cole is back with a piece that makes you want to rush out and read Peter Norman's new collection, Water Damage. In his praise of Norman's poetry, he reminds us that the pleasure we take in a poem sometimes owes less to how well it is made, but rather how it is made and then unmade:
He seems capable of writing anything he wants—ranging in his two collections from brilliant sonnets and rhymed quatrains to fragmentary free-verse narratives and prose poems—and yet every display of metrical virtuosity or musical uplift seems counterpointed by a moment of bizarre incompletion or even just silliness. Put simply, Norman is a master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage, and—and this is the kicker—rightly so, for in continually emphasizing our fallibility, the worldview embodied in his work depends for its persuasiveness on the poet’s showing himself to be fallible. Thus, in addition to exemplifying all the fine qualities I’ve named above, At the Gates of the Theme Park also presents itself as a catalogue of lapses, and it is all the better for it.

Friday 3 May 2013

What's Jim Johnstone Reading?

Steampunk Sighting

In a review of two new poetry anthologies, Peter Riley spots more evidence of the avant-trad hybridization I've dubbed "steampunk."
This contrast is evident in a lot of the poems in the book; they conform one way or the other rather than agree to the editor’s hope for a unified new poetry. On one side, unproblematic deployment of explanatory, chatty or story-telling language retailing anecdotes of the self or symbolic narratives; on the other, disrupted syntax, impossible leaps, ill-fitting words thrust together. On one side a deliberated placing of counters, on the other mimicry of uncontrolled mania. On one side a plain often child-like vocabulary held close to a conceived subject, on the other a barrage of obscenities, remote technical and academic terms and names, and interventions designed to destroy any subject-matter. Where then is the hybrid centre? Sometimes these contrasted modes seem to be straining to meet each other, which insofar as it happens is the point of the anthology, but the stubborn oppositions remain more evident to me. Could it be that the centre is in fact not hybrid, that poetry is not best defined from its outer limbs?
Riley also unpacks some of the tendencies he sees in the poetry:
What presides over the greater part of the anthology is the preponderance of a clever and zany prosaic patter, obliquely twisting ordinary percepts this way and that, as an exercise in its own right. Perkiness. Finding ways of not quite making sense. Messing around with the superficies of language. Perfectly ordinary discourses with little arresting features attached such as inappropriate diacritics, or unnecessary foreign words. Name-dropping or collage from cultural history. But none of the melancholy which has dominated twentieth-century lyrical poetry, thus rejecting the modes of big-name poets such as John Burnside or Carol Ann Duffy. The recent distressing revival of “Martianism” in young poetry also seems to be ignored for the most part. No prosody, and a lot of prose. No history either, not of poetry anyway, beyond immediate precursors and basic twentieth-century European masters. It is a poetry which is very much at home, mentally and culturally, and happy to stay there, sustained by verbal jolts now and then like shots of whiskey after work.