Sunday 24 November 2013

Trust Me

Kathleen Rooney wonders if it's time to revise our default notion of poetry as a species of nonfiction.
What if we found out that Wilfred Owen hadn’t actually fought in World War I? Would his condemnation of “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” be any less moving if we did not know that he was killed at the age of 25 in November 1918, just one week before the Armistice? Or what if we found out that the collection Black Aperture, about the author’s brother’s suicide, a finalist for the National Book Award, was totally made up and that Matt Rasmussen was an only child who not only didn’t have a brother who killed himself, but didn’t have a brother at all? Would it matter if Patricia Lockwood, author of the phenomenal viral poem “Rape Joke,” had not been raped?  In short, if we are angered, confused, or disappointed upon discovering that a poem we took as autobiographical is not, then whose liability is that? If we feel as though we’ve somehow been cheated, is that on us? I’d argue that it probably is. Every text has a narrator or speaker, and we assume at our peril that any given “I” either is the narrator or is even closely associated with some poetic persona the narrator is crafting as an alter ego.


"When I feel most powerful, as a writer, is not in the art of composition. I feel I am at the mercy of the hour, the moment, or the eccentricities of my own circuitry. As an editor of my own work and others’, that is where I feel at my most powerful. I am Edward Scissorhands."
Lucie Brock-Broido explains her "long-term faith in violent concision."

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Picture Perfect

Calling it "an incredible feat of vision and voice," Michael Lista is impressed by Alexandra Oliver's debut, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway.
Oliver, who also holds a degree in film studies, writes poems that have dual purchase on the senses; she is equally gifted at picture-perfect scene making and image construction as she is at stitching those scenes together in an unforgettable aural fabric.
And more:
Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway should go a long way toward establishing Oliver as one of the country’s best stanza makers, with a fluidity and ambition aspiring to Dylan Thomas or Yeats.
Sample poem here.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Sunday Poem

(manic cycle) 
…go, my songs, verse through the ears of the smilers-in-their sleep, bridge them to their wakes, sound both familiar as a tick when heard with a tock, and strange as the aura of a living-room where a family along with CNN counts down the minutes of the last day on earth…
Go, too, my songs, blast the campers off the piggying back of great-great-great grandpa Dada.
Go to the poets skipping over the limbo-bar of poetry;
Go, my songs, inspire the overthrow of phony poets professing to pliable neophytes: behold: here is how to leap over poetry’s limbo-bar, and into the Antigonish.
Go, my songs, bridge an ephebic seer to his first awakening.
Go to the tear-skinned, wasp-cored souls that hang my offshooting street; tell them: if you have been granted equality you have not received it.
Go to those fuck-stick rich kids cultivating an enviable ennuis and reading campy pamphlets on how to become a heroin addict, who cultivate cliches as ways and aim to be properly impoverished…
Bring, sing, get morning bells to ring
while I the wise Mulciberian am still young…
Go like a closet-moth fluttering toward the sun…
Go my wannabe muses, transmute into muses…
Go through women who awaken aroused, who see their rosy breasts at dawn then fondle them then smile…
Go knowing passion is vision and compassion is vision and the world’s first incision; go, my songs, but try to try one world at a time…
Go as a soft, songed, warm wind on my blood sister’s spirit-lesion…
Go, too, songs, toward them, electrify both dance-floors and psych wards.
Try to soothe the world-wide wound as blindly as heating bath-water would overflow the blobby or sculpturly body…
Let the old recluse see sunset’s red salamander-cirrus.
Let your tyrant-torched melody-lines re-vein Poetry.
Feel free to possess Ezra’s tweed skeletons digging on the Island of the Dead because I only hear the splashing of his jewels in the sea…
Go you clubfooted songs, go in bulldozing throngs over America’s rhetoric, then shroud it with sheets of its amateur anthems.
Cardiac arrest the tyrant’s rhetoricians, including myself, if I should become one.
Nerve-wrack all the tyrants with your by-produced seductiveness; inspire rioters to hang all the tyrants with slack.
Go, my fucking songs: assassinate the assassins, then sing me and bring me their hit lists.
Go my manic’s afflatus:
no back-turn’s wind will sweep the shardy stars;
no Agency will waste Nature’s nurse—
no iron hand will bend your bars of verse.
Go my songs, go whisperingly singing to the silken souls of those who are hunch-backed in media.
Go, my songs, bitch in the voice of my brothers, sing in that of my fathers—go toward those who are feeling their ages or not, whirl in their bodies’ wisdoms, then spin on the tops of your high notes then
halt, in those who see we know they are broken, O peace-keepers in pieces, O hunchbacked-in-the-media, O so-deformed-unmockables, whose damages they, nor I can estimate, then hum for them softly
when you are acquainted, tell them you wish you could fix them with your presence—
tell them you know a less fortunate boy, even if he does not exist;
tell them you know a less fortunate girl, a teenaging degenerate.
Go now me and mine through those I still am too proud to sleep with.
Songs toward and through them all, but jive with what is sleepless.
Chorus in the souls of the hideously bodied.
From Sanatorium Songs (Palimpsest 2013) by Marc di Saverio

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Why Does The Walrus Bother Publishing Poems?

Poetry Editor Michael Lista attempts an answer in his preface to a free ebook of the magazine's best poems:
Although The Walrus is known first and foremost for its journalism, it is also, strictly by the numbers, the largest publisher of poetry in Canada. But what’s in it for the reader who looks to the magazine for news of Canada and its place in the world? I’m tempted here to quote William Carlos Williams in a zealous moment: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack // of what is found there.” What is found there is the direct line to another human being, the raw data of personality and sensibility articulated through the sort of aesthetic decisions that led Emerson to write, “Man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” A key component of our education about the world, and our ability to live peacefully in it, is an intimacy with someone else’s linguistic decision making, our other half. Yet the poems collected here also constitute what Pound would call “news that stays news,” reports filed from the foreign bureaus of individual minds that, unlike pieces of journalism, will never grow old or obsolete, but will stay as true and urgent as the day they were conceived. Nonetheless, it is a gamble, and maybe an impolite one, to appeal to readers’ humanity with the aim of encouraging them to read poetry. To shore up the odds, during my tenure as poetry editor I have followed a rule (which grew out of Pound’s injunction that poetry be at least as well written as prose) that the poems we run in The Walrus be at least as interesting as everything else in the magazine. They should be at least as good as Richard Poplak writing about sports, or Ron Graham writing about Michael Ignatieff; as nuanced and complicated and concise as Rachel Giese writing about bullying; as beautiful as Brian Morgan’s art direction.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Sunday Poem

They were all called Jennifer or Lynne
or Katherine; they all had bone-blonde hair,
that wet, flat cut with bangs. They pulled your chair
from underneath you, shoved their small fists in
your face. Too soon, you knew it would begin,
those minkish teeth like shrapnel in the air,
the Bacchic threats, the Herculean dare,
their soccer cleats against your porcine shin,
that laugh, which sounded like a hundred birds
escaping from the gunshot through the reeds—
and now you have to face it all again:
the joyful freckled faces lost for words
in supermarkets, as those red hands squeeze
your own. It's been so long! they say. Amen.
From Meeting The Tormentors in Safeway (Biblioasis, 2013) by Alexandra Oliver 

(Illustration by Jacqui Oakley.)

Thursday 7 November 2013

Trading A Life For Poetry

Jason Guriel pens a moving essay on the late American poet—and neglected master—Samuel Menashe:
Samuel never married nor had children. I suspect that for New Yorkers of a certain generation, he was a kind of constant, an institution on foot, the neighbourhood flâneur. It’s tempting to romanticize such a life. “Are you attracted in any way to the image of Blake as a kind of outsider?” I asked him once. “No, I would love to have been an insider,” he sighed without hesitation and (it should be recorded) an eye to his image: a good thing for a young poet to witness. Several times, he told me he wished he’d married, gotten a steady job at a college, and moved out of the walk-up that, he recalled all too often, his father had called a “hovel.” My interview notes are silent on what I said in reply. “You shouldn’t say that,” is probably all I mustered. There isn’t much else to say to a person who traded a life for poetry and maybe regrets the trade. (If there is, Canadian graduate school doesn’t teach it.) I looked out the window of my sister’s bedroom, as I often did when talking to Samuel, there to find two lawn ornaments, a plastic swan and rabbit, floundering in uncut grass.
And here's Guriel's poem inspired by those lawn ornaments.

Monday 4 November 2013

"Every Critic Finds Their Own Way to Hell"

As part of its November feature on "rethinking" poetry reviewingThe Volta conducted interviews with 22 critics. Here are some answers that stuck with me.

K. Silem Mohammad:
Rather than thinking in terms of positive or negative, I want to see critical intelligence at work. Negative reviews can be just as superficial as positive ones. I consider a review good if it makes me think in ways I hadn’t thought to think before.
Marjorie Perloff:
I’d like to see more critics ask the hard questions of the poetry they review. Why does Jorie Graham use those long lines and set some of them over on the right? Is that a tick or a meaningful gesture? How has John Ashbery’s poetry changed in recent years? In the case of conceptual poetry (now causing such a brouhaha), how is the work in question actually put together, what governs length and word choice? If a poem involves appropriation, why appropriate that particular material? Too often, reviewers depend upon the poet’s statement of intent and ignore what’s actually there on the page (or screen). I still believe, with D. H. Lawrence, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.” I was taught to avoid the “intentional fallacy.” No matter how often Kenneth Goldsmith declares he is a boring or “uncreative” writer, or how energetically Vanessa Place insists her own feelings are not involved in her work—and these are good old Duchampian and Cagean gestures—the reviewer has to read the text itself!
James Pollock:
Too much of our criticism is undermined by a refusal, or inability, to see contemporary poetry in the context of poetry per se, by which I mean, world poetry from antiquity to the present. Many of us seem to want to leave that up to the scholars and academic critics. But criticism of contemporary poetry needs this wider context, too; otherwise the whole literary culture quickly becomes ingrown and provincial. It’s easy to assume that the U.S. is the center of the poetry world, even though that’s not necessarily true. And I won’t be the first to say that, generally speaking, American culture tends to be culturally biased against the past, and that’s deadly for criticism. Cultural amnesia is planned obsolescence.
Elisa Gabbert:
One wrong way to write a review is to spend too little time with the book, to come to it with a closed mind or a preconceived idea of what it should be, and then write your review as a kind of rationalization of your kneejerk opinions. Another wrong way is to like it but have nothing interesting to say about it, thus filling your page with empty adjectives like “beautiful” or making weirdly aggressive statements like “I loved this book so much I wanted to tear off my own head and stuff the pages down the hole.”
Brian Reed:
I find it mystifying that I run into so many poet-critics, my age and younger, who continue to venerate the same thinkers who were Marquee Names back when I was in college in the late 1980s. It’s a full generation later, and we’re still hearing about Adorno, Benjamin, Butler, Derrida, Lacan, Zizek, and so forth, lightly augmented by the likes of Agamben and Bourdieu. True, these assorted figures are nowadays generally invoked in relation to the politics of/in literature, not so much to ground an abstract inquiry into language and form. Even so, I feel sad when I turn from discussions of poetry to, say, debates over computer games, where you’ll find a slew of inventive attempts to create new humanistic tools adequate to talking about contemporary realities. Go read Ian Bogost on E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)—a notorious stinker of a console-based video game—in Alien Phenomenology (2012) and you’ll discover somebody pell-mell and energetically inventing a method of analysis that is suited to, and in dialogue with, the artifact being analyzed. That’s what I’d love to see more often on our side of the fence. And fewer covers of the hit parade circa 1988.
Craig Morgan Teicher:
Focus on your prose, which should be at least as good and important to you as your poems. Cultivate skepticism, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone, otherwise you will always be on the poets’ side, which makes the prose boring.
Raymond McDaniel:
Every critic finds their own way to hell, but remember this: if you are going to hell regardless, you might as well go on the strength of your own sins and passions and tastes and thoughts. There’s nothing to be gained other than the chance to share and to be increased by another’s willingness to do the same, so make sure what you chance is yours. The most effusive review doesn’t matter if the subject knows the praise is tactical or impersonal, and the reader is even better equipped to detect chicanery than the poet. Even if the truth you tell is only one of many possibilities, make it one a reader can trust.

Sunday 3 November 2013


"Many poets experience a sort of 'Stockholm syndrome' where they begin to let the general public’s distrust of poetry rub off on them, then feel guilty and attack their own commitment to beauty for being indulgent and superfluous. They might feel there is something antiquated and obsolete and irrelevant about what we do. But we are all 'of our time', regardless of what we might think. I think that an apprehension about seeming somehow archaic or old-fashioned is what causes poets to put images and ideas into their poems that strive for a ginned-up sense of the present."
Geoffrey Nutter discusses his concerns about the state of poetry.

Friday 1 November 2013


Don Share, the new editor of Poetry magazine, has a fan.