Sunday 30 June 2013

Sunday Poem

At some point we blur and blend, make a shape of life,
stop defining the end of our skin by where
others begin, just the touch of two not enough.

I'm not sure I knew this when I first noticed those
conjugal conjunctions, phonemes bled to one,
marks in those spaces that seem to want to say, More.

We crossed at and, at et, then began to mesh,
body and meaning, consecutive letters bent
from sound to grapheme to print strike to &
Work, quiet symbols, what we wrap in on our selves,
an almost infinity, or infinity's
shape, almost. Two come one, struggling to stay bound.
 From Whiteout (ECW, 2012) by George Murray.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Unmade Beds

Lots of good moments in Daisy Fried's new interview over at the The Rumpus. On the question of whether she feels "frustration" with an "American vernacular tradition so dominated by dudes":
I’ve had a lot of success due to men: plenty of male editors, one instance where a male department head gave me better classes to teach the succeeding woman department head, male reviewers, a guy host who got me more money for a reading than his female-co-host told me was possible. Plenty of great women, too. Women have, in no sense, done me wrong—quite the opposite. The Poetess says, “A woman is no worse than a man,” and she’s quite right. I just mean I don’t perceive a difference in how I’ve been received as a poet and teacher by men versus by women. I will say that sometimes people say things that make me wonder if they’d have said them to a man. A guy says “you should take a more diplomatic tone” when you’re simply asking in a straightforward way for what you want, the way a man would. Most women have experienced this sort of thing. It’s tiresome. But overall, minor. I don’t feel frustrated about gender things. I’m very lucky on top of being pretty hard-working, and I don’t think I can complain.
On whether she's a "Mommy poet":
That said: what I get a little anxious about is talking too much about motherhood. This is not to say you shouldn’t ask. But am I going to be typed as a Mommy Poet? I don’t think I am one—motherhood and politics and sunlight and sex and work and money and weather and, good god, even kittens, are all what we have always with us, so why exclude them from poems? And it’s true I did just write potty training advice in my letter this week to my low-residency MFA student who has a daughter, but then I also went on to write to her about Francis Ponge and defamiliarization techniques, and whether or not she should include two long prose poems in her Master’s thesis. I do feel this all should be natural, not remarkable, this wearing of various hats, the code-switching between potty and poetry. Or should there be any switch at all?
And then there's this bright bit:
I don’t really have any thematic or strategic or formal goals; I just start writing and rewriting and basically harass the words and myself till I have a feeling the poem might be a keeper. I do want them to get better and better. I don’t want to repeat myself (and honestly am not sure how I would do that since I don’t really know what I do each time I write a poem). I’m sorry to be vague, but this is really all I can say. Of course when I’m applying for a grant or fellowship, this is also what I say, but in more detail and at greater length. So let’s try that: “Minds like beds all made up,” writes William Carlos Williams in the beginning of Paterson. The made-up mind is important for poets to avoid. How to stay open and unmade when it’s so much easier not to?

Sunday 23 June 2013

Sunday Poem


Too slight to nudge the needle
on a seismograph, a tremor swept
the globe of my eye last night.

Now every place the eyelid
lifts its shade, the same shred of wreckage
washes up on the landscape.

No more still life: over pears
glazed centuries ago on canvas
a fly in my eye grazes.

A phantom inkspot lands in
between inspiration and my hand
and tracks the clean white paper.

Broken away, a dark new
moon in erratic orbit, it draws
an ocean of doubts towards it

about the mother planet.
How stable is the old high roller?
How supportive? Taking in

the sights, we fix our tripod
on a bubble, terra no firmer
than filmy air. Earth's shifty—

rain-riddled, unsettled by
the drift of its own sleepwalking,
transfigured in journeys through

the tunnels of the bodies
of wormmouths that swallow, nothing
on earth or in it given

to rest. Like the globe itself
we're all floaters. What we see is one
with where we are and, inspired

by earth's refusal to shake
the dead hand of gravity, we see
ourselves in this buoyancy.

From Afloat (Brick, 2013) by John Reibetanz.

Friday 21 June 2013

You Must Work Harder To Write Poetry of Excellence

Darren Bifford tries to find common ground with Donato Mancini's book on the state of Canadian poetry reviewing:
It’s easy for me to sympathize with the very general claim that one of the ways poetry reviews must work harder is to avoid the lazy kinds of hypostatization that Mancini discusses. The common reader is indeed no reader at all, and Mancini is probably right to say that such invocations often function as empty receptacles for the reviewer’s own ideological predilections. He is probably right to say that the specter of accessibility or humanity or craft or tradition can simply be a way for the reviewer to reify his or her ideas about what poetry is—and isn’t. Thus what I think most useful about Mancini’s argument, i.e., that it makes a case for the necessity of more imaginative critical practices in order to negotiate the very broad range of poetries that have developed in this country over the last sixty or so years. If that’s the case, the terms by which those postmodern poems are to be engaged by critics and reviewers ought not be identical to the way we might, for example, engage a book of sonnets.
But he finds plenty to dislike:
Take the tropes of craft and tradition, both of which Mancini goes to lengths to dismiss. I agree that when taken as static fetish-like ideals, they may be less illuminating than otherwise. But when I praise a collection for its author’s attention and attainment of a high level of craft and of interestingly engaging with the English literary tradition, it seems possible—indeed, good critics show that it is possible—that I’ve used those tropes to point to actual features of the work of art as such. Of course these are not neutral categories; but it takes more than pointing out that fact to give us grounds for rejecting them.
And he sometimes gets exasperated:
It’s not obvious to me, however, why judgment and assessment of any kind is either precluded or opposed to the sort of hermeneutics Mancini calls for. It’s thus easy, again, to distrust the strong dichotomy Mancini asserts. In art, as in life, we do well to encounter strangeness with curiosity and an open mind. Even that supposedly conservative critic, T.S. Eliot, disparages the “dogmatic critic, who lays down a rule, who affirms a value.” Such a critic, Eliot continues, “has left his labour incomplete… but in matters of great importance the critic must not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse or better. He must simply elucidate: the reader will form the correct judgment for himself.” Critics and reviewers are just those partial and fallible readers who publically articulate their responses to texts as best as they can. A good critic’s evaluations are always tentative; he or she knows very well the risk of attempting to judge a work of art. He or she will acknowledge that evaluation is never neutral and no perspective is from nowhere. Good critics, in other words, wear their aesthetic biases on their sleeves and, like Nietzsche remarked, match the courage of their convictions with the courage to challenge those convictions.

The Negative Accentuates The Positive

Declaring the American literary world a place where "consensus is considered normal and controversy is confusing," Clive James mourns the good hatchet job:
There was a time when the American literary world grew its own hatchet persons, and could rejoice in the thoroughness with which Mary McCarthy dismembered the reputation of Lillian Hellman. But among young writers, there seems a shortage of critics unhampered by excessive good manners. Why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. It could be that the typical established publication has become too impressed with its own self-imposed status as a journal of record, which must confine itself to the facts; and that a complex, nuanced statement sounds not enough like a fact, and hence must be confined to the blogs, where nobody has any manners anyway.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Poseur Alert

“I wish that my government had asked me to write poetry about immigration policy, about Idle No More, about Canada’s complicity in the Middle East, the Enbridge pipeline.”

Fred Wah summing up his tenure as the Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

Monday 17 June 2013


Michael Hayward profiles two master "typophiles":
The Elsteds have been operating Barbarian Press for more than thirty-five years. In that time they have done commercial work, such as stationery and cards, and fine press work, including broadsheets, pamphlets and forty books. They’ve published classic authors—William Shakespeare, Edm­und Spenser, John Keats—and contemporary ones, such as Theresa Kishkan and Tim Bowling. They have created, and live, what might be called a handmade life, carrying on traditions and practices that have remained unchanged in their essentials since the fifteenth century, when Gutenberg modified a grape press in Mainz, Germany, and used it to print a bible.

Friday 14 June 2013

The Score

Last night, David W. McFadden was awarded the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize for his collection, What's the Score? Rhonda Batchelor is a fan:
He’s revered for his dis­tinct­ive voice, a play­ful off­beat style that invites you in, sits you down, and charms you with dis­arm­ingly detailed, multi-levelled nar­rat­ives full of odd char­ac­ters, mys­tical twists, and quirky asides. Then, before you know it, a lever’s been pulled that drops you through a trap door in your con­scious­ness. For read­ers, the exhil­ar­a­tion of not know­ing where you’ll end up can be addict­ive. It’s kept this reviewer read­ing McFad­den for sev­eral dec­ades.  
Chris Shalom has some trouble with the Griffin-winning book:
For me, many of the poems exist only as a vague sense of emotion; the words yield feeling, perhaps, but sometimes so little sense of meaning that they don’t even provoke thought. The incredibly wide-ranging allusions, from Spinoza to Lauren Bacall to Eurydice to Proust, may be partly to blame. But sometimes the poetry is frustrating, as just as one begins to grasp a narrative strand or a sense of meaning, the next stanza switches topics, time, space completely. Possibly this is intentional defamiliarization of thought patterns, asking us to expand our comfort with juxtaposition and decrease our reliance on familiar connotation. Possibly, it is an unintentional lack of clarity. I don’t know. But for me, the connections sometimes just aren’t there.
George Bowering already warned us about those missing "connections" over thirty years ago:
Sometimes the reader will feel herself invited to make conclusions but unsure that she really knows what the "product" should be. The compositional method that makes for such "confusion" or uncertainty is at the heart of McFadden's poetic. Often he will seem to offer implied comparisons of bits of information or events, giving only the implication of the comparison, not the spark that one wants to see leaping across the space between the details, the impulse, say, to settle the order implied in coincidence.
Gary Barwin hopes McFadden returns to his old stomping grounds, Hamilton:
Maybe when he returns, they’ll change the street sign outside the Y that says ‘Franz Liszt’ and rename the street after Dave. Cul de Sac of Endless Radiance. Why are You So Long and Sweet Road, Park of Darkness. From here on in all road surfaces will be known as the Davement. Maybe they’ll just create a statue of him in dried plums and put it on Anonymity Street. But really, I don’t think that they should name a physical thing after him. They should name a certain kind of bemused happy/sad wonder after him. A quirky curiosity. Kids in Hamilton will be graded on this on their report cards. You got an B- in McFadden? You could do better. "Get on the bus and find out about people’s past lives. Take a trip around something. Plug your legs into the ground and become electrical. Become coincident. Now, and I mean it."
In any case, he seems like a nice guy:
Q: Name one poet, living or dead, it seems everyone loves but you. A: I like everybody’s poetry, living or dead. With the possible exception of myself.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Griffin Tale

KJ Mullins fawns over the founder of the Griffin Trust, which will hand out $150,000 in prize money tonight:
Scott Griffin is not what one thinks of when you think of poetry. He is a daredevil, a business maverick and an all around man's man. He also loves poetry and has loved it all of his life. He also knows that while he may have money to spend those who follow their inner muse often do so without a heavy wallet.
Jared Bland argues that the Griffin Prize should do away with the Canadian category:
This prize, and the art it is designed to promote, would be greatly enhanced if it stopped contending that we have a separate history, that we require a provincial playing field of our own.
Andrew Faulkner has his own complaints about the awards:
Chrisian Bök’s criticism of the Governor General's Literary Awards regarding homogenizing tastes could potentially also be leveled at the Griffin Prize, and an eyebrow deserves to be raised at how the prize recycles one year’s shortlisted poet as next year’s juror.
Jason Guriel's report on the 2008 prize still holds up pretty well:
David McFadden, the last poet, seems the most nervous. He’s a short man—the mike’s almost eye-level—-and wears a dark suit, a red dress shirt, and an oversized yellow flower pinned to his lapel. His voice quavers a bit, but his poems sound nice enough, with crowd-pleasing references to donut shops, Toronto’s Bloor Street, and rooftop dancing. A lot of the poetry tonight has been introduced as “avant-garde,” which, given the examples on hand, must mean mildly disjunctive imagery in the form of free verse or prose. Such poetry is surely preferable to what “avant-garde” poetry usually means (funny noises) but is much less entertaining.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Hooking, Newfoundland Launch

Mary Lynn Bernard

Mary Dalton and Don McKay

From right: Stan Dragland, Beth Follett and Leslie Vryenhoek

Sunday 9 June 2013

Sunday Poem

No one will find us in this city—not your valentine,
not the line of dogs he’s chained by the throat. My collar
blooms chin-high, is perfumed with lilac where you
finger buttons, parse leaves and hook a flush of green 
to my breast. Tell me you’re good. Tell me we’ll
lend our touch to the nearest MG, drive south on a
sucker bet until we run dry in the desert. There are
others who’ve come uninvited, who’ve come to free 
themselves from their slouching skin, lose their grip
and trace in a mess of coins. Here’s my loss—fist
lodged in the maw of the first guest to speak, our
honour run aground. To stay we’ll need to slap down 
the pin that adorns your jacket, bet against a snail being
able to survive the edge of a straight razor. I’ve been
told that nothing can live to know such a lean blade.
When we drive land rises and our hearts rise with it

From Epoch (Frog Hollow, 2013) by Jim Johnstone.

Saturday 8 June 2013

What Did Dante Invent?

Michael Lista tallies it up:
He invented conceptualism; the idea of his book, and how it’s executed, is so brilliant that it predates by some 700 years Kenneth Goldsmith’s formulation that the best books are so good you don’t need to read them. The Divine Comedy is unlike any other poem in that its architecture alone is enough to make it famous; three books, or canticles, in the three realms of the afterlife, each containing 33 poems, each poem of which is composed of interlocking three-line stanzas, all pointing to the perfection of the triune god’s design. He prefigures the defining feature of post-modernism, the comingling of the high and low. For centuries scandalized commentators didn’t know what to do with Dante, who could marry the classical and the contemporary, who would dare debase the epic form by writing it in a vulgar vernacular, and pay equal attention to the afterlives of both the Virgin Mary and his political enemies. He revels in gossip, the come-back imagined too late, High Fidelity curatorial taste-making, and the essential, divine judgment of The Voice and The Bachelorette.

Friday 7 June 2013

Street View

Michael Schmidt became briefly infamous in Canada in 1998 for two words that appeared in his 900-page book on the history of English-language poetry Lives of the Poets. In that study—which included mention of only a couple of Canadian poets—the Manchester-based poet and critic dismissed Canadian poetry as a "short street." An interview with Schmidt appears in CNQ 87 which revisits that controversy and covers other aspects of Schmidt's thoughts on Canadian literature. The interview, conducted by Evan Jones, isn't available online, but here are some highlights.

On the dearth of Canadian poets from his 1998 study:
I’m afraid that when you are doing an international historical survey a lot of local darlings get neglected because in that context they are invisible. Lives of the Poets started from a hypothesis of continuities, between poems and between poets, between seemingly discrete literatures. There are major poets who work well beyond borders, and there are those who don’t. Ashbery versus Ammons, for example, or Larkin versus Betjeman. This doesn’t mean that a local or national poetry is necessarily enervated or lacking in shape and even distinction; but the absence of substantial figures to appeal to a visiting reader (I was not the first to stand at Seven Dials and reach such a conclusion) with a very large wave of poetry carrying me forward from the fourteenth century, is what I was experiencing. Much as I admired Margaret Atwood as a wry presence and novelist, her poetry did not seem very good to me. Anne Carson was not at that time where she is today. Mark Strand and Elizabeth Bishop had shaken the dust of Canada off their feet. Earle Birney seemed a colossal joke, a product of Arts Council policy. I have long admired Klein, as you know. So I was a traveller from an antique land and I was looking for mountains or monuments or at least enormous feet of stone
On Earle Birney:
I think I heard him at a Poetry International back in the 1960s or early 1970s. He was the Canadian poet everyone had heard of, the one Canada promoted as the Voice of the Nation. It is possible that I enjoyed his reading. Someone, a publisher or the Canada Council, sent me a very heavy and substantial two volume edition of his poems, hardback and boxed like a Folio Society classic. There was his ‘David’, carried away by its sounds. The problem is that they are, many of them, especially the thick alliterations and assonances, overdone. The effect is achieved and then overwritten again and again. In this case Poe’s prescription is right about the extent of poems, and the treachery of narrative when the impulse is, as I take it to be here, essentially lyrical-elegiac. There were also many poems about his travels for representing Canada. Poetry as diplomacy, poetry as outreach, poetry not as journalism—it did not have that kind of precision—but as enthusiasm, with descriptions of things or of how things affected the travelling bard. My sense was that the whole thing was too easy: the writing, the editing, the publishing, the binding, the privileging. The man was a living monument, but not like A.D. Hope a poet of formal and thematic substance, or like James K. Baxter a volatile genius. It didn’t seem serious.
On hybridity:
Hybridity nowadays is deliberate, a matter of choice and design, treating the genetic chain like rosary beads. Formal choices seem often to be preceded by political calculations.
On anthologies:
You mention anthologies, a subject dear to my heart. Anthologies of poetry needn’t be indiscriminate. They may be bigger because the anthologist rebels against the Golden Treasury approach and feels that if a poet is worth including s/he is worth reading in extenso. For my part, I subscribe as a reader and as an editor to Thom Gunn’s ‘spectrum’ argument which he proposed eloquently in an essay in PN Review, demonstrating a continuity in American poetry from the work of Edgar Bowers at one extreme to that of Michael Palmer at the other, with gradations between. It is this sense not of oppositions, cliques, encampments or interest groups, but of contiguous and interdependent strata. It’s the sort of approach that leads to [Carmine] Starnino’s kind of anthology (which I do find a little too optimistic in its harvest of fifty poets from two decades, but still compelling in its intelligence), but not to [Roddy] Lumsden’s. There are borders, of course, but they are permeable. Note that Starnino’s title proposes a canon, which implies the creation of a diverse, common and authoritative poetry; Lumsden’s proposes a triumphal parade of discreet identities, marching obediently forward. A generational victory parade.
How he would revise Live of the Poets today;
If I was to be revising LotP, of course, I would be under various constraints, not least that of space, and I am not sure how long the comparative street would be, or how Canadian with a Capital C it could be given that so many Canadian poets are Canadian more because of the deliberate erasure of another nationality, or by nurture not nature… I wonder how many Canadian poets insist on Canadianness, and how many are marshalled into that category by those who want to consolidate the notion of a distinctive and definable Canadian poetry? 
On prizes:
On the whole, prize culture, like performance culture, seems to me a distorting thing. Many poets can’t perform and most poets don’t win prizes. The creation of a culture of plausibility becomes restrictive. The fruits are obedience, writers writing for toffee apples, as in fiction the presence of the big screen and its rewards actually impacted on the pacing and texturing of novels. Odd how many novelists, for two long generations, made some of their money from script writing, and the lucky ones from film deals. Performance and prize culture are aspects of the commodification of poetry and the dumbing down, the decorum of relevance and accessibility.

Wednesday 5 June 2013


"As you move into language, it teaches you something else. It's older and wiser than you; it makes connections you don't or which you consciously don't. Maybe it's a bit like that moment when you're tired and thought mutates into dream, where you're not controlling your thoughts anymore and another agency takes over. And I suppose this is one of the reasons that I've never got on with what's called free verse because I feel that if you're writing like that you're making it harder for that agency to take over. Because you're prioritizing what you normally think; your normal thought-processes, your prose thought-processes. But if you've got any kind of relationship with a white space or rhyme or sound or metre, any of those things, then you're allowing something else to begin."
Glyn Maxwell describes how poems establish their independence from inspiration.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Larkin's Leavings

For years now, so-called completists have been polluting Philip Larkin's ouevre with all the sub-par work he ruthlessly culled from his books. In what is surely a major statement on the reckless activity, James Fenton reminds us why the stakes are so high in helping a posthumous poet "look his best."
A few years ago some of the contents of the visionary English painter Stanley Spencer’s studio came up for sale, and I went to the auction house to see if there might be some slight work that I might be able to afford, and that might give me the pleasure of hanging a Stanley Spencer on my wall. There were, it turned out, many slight works, too slight, and as I went through the pile a depression began to sink in, and I began to think the worse of Spencer as a draughtsman. In due course, I came to a series of drawings he had made—no doubt when paper was scarce—on a roll of old-style Izal “medicated” toilet-paper. Unrolling this series of sketches released an evocative antiseptic scent of 1950s gents’ toilets—an association so depressing that it put paid to any residual interest I had in Stanley Spencer as an artist. Indeed I’ve hardly looked at his work since. The moral is that Larkin’s admirers were not wrong: artists and writers need careful and sympathetic curating and editing, and the first, best way of guaranteeing they get this attention is for them to curate, to edit, themselves. That is why artists burn canvases. That is why writers are not always wrong to consign that tragedy to the flames. And that is also why conscientious executors whose job it is to sort through the accumulated rubbish of a study or a studio are not always wrong to go in there with a stack of bin-bags.

Sunday 2 June 2013

The Greatest English Poet You Haven’t Heard Of?


Daniel Westover takes a stab:
In my estimation, the most neglected “great” poet of the twentieth century is Lynette Roberts (1909-1995), a wonderful, difficult poet who was born in Argentina to parents of Welsh extraction, moved to London as a Spanish-speaking child, and lived in Wales as an adult. Her work was championed by Edith Sitwell and Dylan Thomas, who was best man at her wedding. T. S. Eliot thought she was a tremendous writer, and he published both of her volumes at Faber. Wyndham Lewis (of BLAST fame) championed her work and sketched [the above] image of her. Like the work of most Modernist poets with experimental inclinations, Roberts’s work is uneven, but in the words of Robert Graves, who called her “one of the few true poets now writing,” “her best is the best.”
Patrick McGuinness, who has done yeoman's work in bringing Roberts' opus back into the light, calls her poetry "radically modern, almost futuristic":
Roberts's work stands out for its originality of conception, its bold and experimental use of language, and for its conviction that the present is as dramatic, extreme and finally as heroic as anything to be found in the world of myth and legend.
Ange Mlinko has written a cantata for her.