Monday 30 December 2013

Gender Trouble

In a bid to correct the gender bias in his reading habits, Pasha Malla made sure half of the books he read in 2013 were by women. While he discovered novels he might otherwise have overlooked, the experiment left him with mixed feelings:
I don’t feel particularly better about myself having read 51 books by women. If the point of this project was to transcend numbers—to glean some understanding of a gender other than my own – I’m not sure how George Eliot’s Silas Marner, about a man, was a better selection than, say, Daisy Miller. (A master of human psychology like Henry James surely offers equally perceptive insights into any character, male or female.) In fact, my most revelatory experience of gender came reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog. The book’s particular flavour (“a revenge novel,” a friend of mine calls it) can be summed up here: “Women,” claims the titular character, “eat green salad and drink human blood.” All ironies aside, Herzog’s simplistic and hostile relationships with women felt cautionary: how blithely male resentment can extend beyond an ex-wife to half the people on earth! And isn’t reading most stimulating when we find ourselves not mollified by but in opposition to a writer and his ideas?

Sunday 29 December 2013

Sunday Poem

We chose a proper genre of night.
We embraced the bittery, the chocolatey.
We scraped a secret song with butter knives. 
We sawed the legs off chairs and gashed our seats.
We ate our memories in silent rage.
We searched for tiny birds in empty trees. 
We praised a pair of pants for seven days.
We set our trauma clocks quietly.
We embraced the lemon rind and marmalade. 
What else did we eat?
We ate all the soapstone sculptures.
We ate the elders with schnapps and black coffee. 
We ate the ivory letter opener.
We wondered at no warnings in the sky.
We double-locked the plastic cake server. 
We held destructed scarves and ties.
We ate a tiny bird we could not see.
We listened to piano wires cry. 
We read day-old bagels, silently.
We repressed bright memories into mirrors.
We daydreamed repeatedly, relentlessly. 
We sat, a row of subtle sudderers.
We held clandestine hissy fits.
We practiced ancient, sanctioned behaviours. 
We sat together in a wet soap dish.
We ate the funeral roll with open mouths.
We stood alone inside the alphabet. 
We tried our best not to cross ourselves out.
We taught our children how to sneeze.
We filled garbage bags with unspoken thoughts.
We stored away a useless ring of keys.
We fell asleep in garbage chutes.
We slept as if a tiny hive of bees. 
We bid our hats adieu, adieu.
We observed one meaningless thing a day.
We ate the people we once knew. 
We analyzed the dust inside the rain.
We ate the rules of proper mourning.
We counted all the garbage that remained. 
We sat alone in broken ice machines.
We waited for a box of wood to come.
We dressed quietly in anything. 
We found an empty garbage chute to plumb.
We fell asleep in abandoned dog bowls.
We tapped the white skin of a scarlet drum. 
We bound ourselves in shadows.
We crumbled cookie shards into our hair.
We burned a hole through what we didn’t know. 
We left our handprints on the walls of hell.
What else did we eat?
We practiced eating weiner schnitzel. 
We ate Atlantic salmon cured in bleach.
We unpacked harmless, morning fireworks.
We ate party sandwiches filled with cheese and grease. 
We ate twelve or thirteen socks.
We sealed our eyes with Saran Wrap.
We shared a suitcase of tattered prayer books. 
We reached for things beyond our grasp.
We grew superstitious.
We tried to make each other laugh. 
We said something kind, something vicious.
We organized a sympathy archive.
We attended to tedious business. 
We stared until we made our mirrors cry.
We raised ourselves for everyone to see.
We said hello, we said goodbye. 
We wore the same shoes aimlessly.
We walked a small parade around the world.
We passed the sunny corner where you used to be.
From What The World Said (Mansfield, 2013) by Jason Camlot

(Painting by Chris Flodberg)

Minor Epic

Declaring Virgil the "most inflated reputation in literary history," Amit Majmudar explores the areas in which he believes the Latin poet's Aeneid fails to measure up to the Greek epics he copied:
So we see that Virgil broke with Homer in two ways, and that it bit him both times. First, he improved on the Odyssey-pattern by having the jilted woman immolate herself; this was thoroughly successful, but it exerted intense power where it didn’t belong and created a break point, dividing the poem structurally. In his second break with Homer, Virgil inverted the Iliad-pattern, with Hector beating Achilles and the Trojans implicitly founding a city, instead of Achilles beating Hector and the Argives implicitly sacking a city. This second break was, manifestly, not an improvement. Virgil himself may have sensed this—after all, he did order his literary executors to destroy the Aeneid, although literary tradition assumes it was from a finicky Flaubertian dissatisfaction with minor points of diction and rhythm, invisible to anyone else. Overall, though, Virgil tried to make his epic out of sequential episodes, instead of episodes embedded in a single dramatic movement. Other Latin epic poets—Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, and Silius Italicus, among others—fell into the same architectural error. That sprawl and sweep is, contrary to what is commonly thought, antithetical to the classical epic, a secret of Homer’s power that Virgil failed to recognize, and hence failed to learn.

Friday 27 December 2013

"Those Winter Sundays"

Robert Hayden comments on his 1962 poem, written in memory of his foster father:
It's a sad poem, and one I had to write, almost as an act of expiation. The last stanza—oh, it's full of regret. Many people have told me this poem expresses their own feelings exactly. Some have even wept when they've heard it as poetry readings I've given. It seems to speak to all people, as I certainly want my poems to do. For quite a while after I wrote it, I couldn't get through a public reading of this poem because of its emotional impact on me. It doesn't affect me so much now, unless I'm tired or depressed. It's in a great many anthologies, although nobody paid much attention to it at first.
Marianne Boruch zooms in on the poem's ending:
"Austere" has to have one of the most violently beautiful effects in English, distant and vulnerable at once, public and hidden, held upright by enormous pressure, inside and out. And here, its sound—its iambic lift—the second syllable stressed, adds a brief and expansive counter-rhythm. We hear in that both contraction and expansion. But it's "offices" here that compels, and is brilliant, a word going straight into ancient practice. I remember a young priest in my childhood parish at dawn, reading the matins from his Divine Office, walking the streets as he read, never looking up as we biked by to early Mass. Something vast, nearly incomprehensible looms up in that word. In Hayden's poem, it brings humility—what's been done and done again; one merely partakes of that. But nobility's there too—ditto, done and done, this time into tradition and so heavy, we no longer even know how to weigh it. The power of a single word can be staggering. And finding it, trying to figure out why it works—really why other choices do not—can take a long time and is the writer's most essential, brain-fracturing job.
Robert Pinsky discovered firsthand how popular the poem had become:
Certain poems were written about by many different people who wrote to the Favorite Poem Project. Perhaps the most striking instance was the large number of various, intense letters about this poem by Robert Hayden, the first African-American to hold the post that came to be called Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The poem does pack remarkable power into its 14 lines. The cogency of phrases like "the chronic angers of that house" seems related to the wide appeal that brought letters from people of so many different ages, professions, regions, ethnicities. Maybe the partial rhyme with "dress" adds to the phrase's power: Certainly the poem demonstrates how like vowel and consonant sounds in an "unrhymed" poem can have tremendous effect. And the cold, ordinary word "offices" at the very end of the poem is like an icicle that touches the heart.
David Biespiel calls the poem a "heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece":
What it discovers is a synchronicity of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of reconciliation. Listen to the K sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. That percussive, consonant-cooked vocabulary is like a melodic map into how to read the poem, linking the fire, the season, the father, and his son. Then there’s what the poem defines, unspoken love. It begins with the father toward the son, when he makes the fire. Then, the unspoken love is returned, when the adult son asks, "What did I know, what did I know...?" The tone of that repetition—more statement than question—cuts from indifference to guilt to admiration. It’s a fast moment in the poem that blossoms into the last word, "offices," a metaphor that expresses the endurance required of long-term love, of manual labor, and of the official fatherly role. Yet it all begins with that quiet, understated opening line ("Sundays, too, my father got up early"), which defines Hayden’s initial memory, as well as bringing to mind the other unmentioned six days of the week—and for how many years?—when the father began each day in the cold darkness, to warm up the home for his still-dreaming child.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Sunday Poem

The Turnips
after bpNichol 
The turnips ooze a juice just visible on his chin.
Etiquette-bereft, the cad inturps the conversation I was in.
In the urn’s pit, ash accumulates: mortality’s pith.
A tin spur goads moans from the lover I lie with.
Poking the proxy doll with a rustpin makes for anguish.
Don’t stunrip the ne’er-do-wells. Just let ’em languish.
Pit urns fill with spit-out pits of fruit.
Baffling ritpuns offend the ruling brute.
Punstir the ticklish for a ribald effect.
A nut rips when the razor swipes. Your denim won’t protect.
On the suntrip, bronzed-up tourists tipple plonk.
Untrips are offered. The unship’s waiting at the dock.
Writhe and spin, rut and grunt among the scented sheets.
Runspit in thickets like a rabid boar in heat.
Pitnurs leave me stumped. From a small stump I orate.
Runt, sip that rancid wine. You’ll find it tastes of acetate.
Bail out the punt, sir, or the ferried souls will drown.
Your turn: sip the sugared venom, force it down.
The tip runs off on tipsy legs, leaving the servers broke.
Turps in turpish venues tell the filthiest of jokes.
            Spurtin’ depravity, he mounted the stump—and spoke—
From Water Damage (Mansfield, 2013) by Peter Norman 

The Importance Of Ugliness

Shane Rhodes argues that, in some cases, beauty can be dangerous:
If I have a worry here, it is that the quest for beauty in language, in art, in poetry so often over-rides the importance of ugliness in language, in art, in poetry. It is just as important to search out and study the ugliness (and, sometime, to look at the ugliness of what beautiful language can create) as it is to look for those instances of beauty. This is especially true when looking at issues like colonization, anti-indigenousness, and racism – there isn’t much beauty here, but there is a whole lot of ugliness. So often we are led on by ideas of beauty and deterred or stopped by ideas of ugliness and disgust – but it is important to think of how these terms can be politically motivated and used. Colonization has very real psychological manifestations in any settler society; one of these manifestations is an unwillingness in the settler to look realistically at the injustices of our histories and current actions in the name of settlement. In Canada, who wants to read the treaties? Who wants to read the Indian Act? Who wants to look at such blatant racism? All of these texts are ugly; they are ugly because they rub against the beautiful myths we have created of our just and peaceful society.

Negative Reviewing as Catharsis

Asa Boxer unpacks the ways in which a negative review might prove useful. The most important reason?
[H]ow it corroborates and articulates the feelings of certain readers. For those like myself, the moment of contact with a negative review with which one identifies can be at once a cathartic and inspiring aesthetic experience: it feels like one is no longer alone. This is especially positive for those who feel alienated from current writing trends and suspect that something mysterious and beyond their understanding is afoot, and who probably question their own sanity until they meet a kindred spirit in person or in print. 

Saturday 21 December 2013

Epoch of Likes and Follows

In his fourth—and final—column for The National Post, Jason Guriel recommends four collections of criticism that influenced The Pigheaded Soul. First up, The Portable Dorothy Parker:
A member of the Algonquin Round Table, around which New York’s wits famously assembled, Parker knew what we, in the Epoch of Likes and Follows, would like to forget: most of the art that wants our time is only going to waste it. Ruthless, maybe, but her devotion was to readers, not writers. “I tried, for my first duty is toward you…” she reports of one of her efforts to reckon with a book. “Unhappily, it was like counting those sheep over that fence; before I had listed the first hundred I was safely asleep.” Parker wakes you up.

Friday 20 December 2013

Tweet Of The Day

Pileup of Talking Points

In his third excerpt from The Pigheaded Soul, Jason Guriel recalls some of his formative influences: 
My senior-year writing teacher—a gaunt, sharp woman—could muster no patience for the Beat poet who finds his utterances too inevitable to revise. This wasn’t “conservatism,” that label a conservative mind will pin on those it decides aren’t liberal enough; this was concern for language. Anyway, what’s more conservative than a rigorously regulated subculture of rebels – you could opt in any number of avant-gardists, pre- and post-Beat – for whom innovation amounts to the same old pileup of talking points?

Once More Unto The Breach

Helen Guri's analysis of Jason Guriel's review of Alice Oswald's Memorial continues to dominate discussion online. Stewart Cole weighs in.
Guri has not shown convincingly that the implications she highlights in Guriel’s review are anything more than emanations of her own ingenuity. Those who want to bask in those emanations will presumably continue to do so, meanwhile ignoring and/or misrepresenting (as Guri does) the considerable descriptive and analytical work performed by reviews like Guriel’s. This is not to deny that the literary world in Canada and everywhere is fundamentally patriarchal (as our societies are) and that this fact should be railed against. I think it’s entirely probable that Guriel derives his pose of authority (and I mine in writing this) from a sense of white male privilege to which we are so firmly acculturated as to be almost oblivious. But I do not think it at all helpful to misrepresent his or anyone’s critical efforts so (and yes I do stand behind this) violently. Most basically, I would rather have seen the poet-critic Helen Guri use her evident talents to actually review one of the “too-large proportion” of books she loves that “don’t get their due in the public sphere.” But again, this comes from me thinking that the biggest problem in Canadian poetry culture is lack of discourse—especially lack of discourse on more than a handful of books per season—not the tenor of it. On the other hand, I’m utterly glad that Guri wrote what she did; as much I’ve found to disagree with in it, there’s no denying that it set me thinking (and writing!) unlike anything I’ve encountered in recent months.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Poetry As Escapism

In his second excerpt from The Pigheaded Soul, Jason Guriel wants us to stop "overburdening poems" with "the noble purpose of making some supposedly thoughtless reader think." He defends his favourite poets as being
far too intelligent to try to teach us anything, to condescend. Yes, their poems make us more alert, but the authors make no great claim to cracking open some mindless reader’s middlebrow and terraforming her consciousness. As with the best kind of “experimental” poets, the adjective is implicit. Entertainment, escapism—these are feats enough.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Tiny Gold Fawns

Sue Sinclair captures quite nicely her experience of reading Sara Peters' debut 1996.
I admire Peters’ skill in juxtaposing sweetness and innocence with abandonment and cruelty. Such stark contrasts could easily have been heavy-handed or melodramatic, but Peters has an eye for the particular, which allows her to create images of distinctively creepy beauty. There’s the green net bag of oranges in the poem in which two sisters act out being raped; there’s the wind blowing fresh and sweet as an apple while a child vivisects a gopher. And I can’t get out of my head the image of tiny gold fawns that jerk and shudder as they dangle from the ears of the mother-abuser in a poem that addresses the real-life murder of a four-year-old. The earrings are partly a display of power in miniature, tiny hunting trophies. But as an element of the mother’s dress, they also reflect her: I find myself wondering about how vulnerable she has felt, and about the strange bond that can exist between abuser and abused. The beauty of the image is disturbing in its evocation of the child’s helplessness and suffering. Every time I think of the gold fawns, the beauty of the image gives me a certain uplift, one that I reject in the same moment. But the spark of pleasure I feel is inextinguishable—I feel it every time—and it makes me complicit in the crime even as I’m overwhelmed by compassion. Such is often my feeling as I read these poems. I’m no fan of delving into disturbing experiences for a thrill, but Peters is instead (or also?) asking readers to confront the complex intertwining of innocence and cruelty, compassion and complicity in each of us.

Low Hum of Hedging

In his first excerpt from The Pigheaded Soul, Jason Guriel shares his discomfort with the online world:
My brief stint as a paid blogger was fun for a time, and I’ve preserved some of the posts in my book. But it also permitted the young critic too much of the wrong kind of freedom: freedom to go on at length; freedom to qualify; freedom to moisten an otherwise wick-crisp phrase for fear it might inflame the comment stream; freedom to take the real-time responses of those kind enough to read one’s writing—and, by extension, to take one’s writing—too seriously. I gathered I was expected to set a tone: to stay on top of the comment stream by pouring into it enough courtesy to ensure the poisonous comments were merely parts per million. (Thank you, reader; may I have another?) But in the utopian interest of dialogue and community, I often made like the failing teacher who has to put up with a certain amount of petulance if he’s to keep the class moving along. What the former editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman, says about teaching—“The chief difficulty is the sound of your own voice, the assuredness that inevitably creeps in, the sheer volume of talk that, after a few weeks, you feel flabbing around you like a body gone bad‚" is what I want to say about our endless, editorless, online adventure. Except that it’s not even “assuredness” that’s the real problem in the poetry world (flame wars, sparked by the self-assured, can be trusted to flame out); it’s the low hum of hedging, a commitment to consensus, that high-speed Internet encourages.

Monday 16 December 2013

Mea Culpa

The Véhicule blog doesn’t belong to me. It’s an extension of the press I work for. Everyone at the press makes use of it, but not as heavily as I do, and to date, it’s become a useful way to hype Signal poets along with other Canadian poets I like, and place links to cool essays and interviews and discussions. I do some self-promotion, but I try to keep that to minimium, and I’ve tried, as best I can, to keep it separate from my full-on criticial ventures (but sometimes, alas, I slip up).

I took down the “Just So We’re Clear” blog post today because as I watched, to my horror, very smart people continue to find ever more dubious (to me) evidence of my misogyny (case in point) I began to be seriously concerned that the growing narrative of my "gender myopia" would ensnare my authors and, ultimately, the press. It sounds paranoid, I know, but it’s clear a lot of people are very pissed at me—or the version of me comprised of body parts messily sown together from various resentments and grievances—and guilt by association is a big worry of mine when it comes to Signal (I’m acutely aware some poets I publish want no truck with my poetics). Also, as the hyperbolic bickering about my CV2 interview has gone on unabated over the last week, it's become hard, for some, to notice how unhinged the language, and arguments, have started to sound (soon someone will say I eat babies).

For the record, I did sincerely mean to praise Sina’s ability to attract smart female contributors (and believe me, I will never use the word “pack” in polite conversation again). I also concede that I was mistaken in some of my facts about CWILA. I think people could have found more interesting ways to draw attention to those errors that didn’t involve promptly demonizing me. But then, that’s the fire I play with. And I’m totally fine with that. I was just concerned that, by using the company blog, I may have risked fanning those flames to the press, and my poetry series. Already one of my poets has been singed: privately attacked for being, of all things, a “Starnino Booster.”

Anyway, that was my worry. The post is back up mostly because I realize it was stupid and a bit cowardly to take it down, but also there needs to be some pushback, somewhere, to what seems to me an increasingly acceptable form of literary criticism: suggesting white literary critics are latent rapists. I’m writing this extended note because I’d like to try to change the conversation regarding Guri’s piece, and that means making a full disclosure (one that may surprise my good friend Jason!). I’m an admirer of Alice Oswald. And I mean, a big admirer. I think she’s exhilarating. Dart is one of my all-time favourite books of poetry; for a while after it came out, I pressed it on everyone I came across. I pre-ordered Memorial, and relished it as well (maybe not as much as Woods etc. or the more recent Weeds and Flowers, but then these are all very different projects) So, I don’t like to see her get panned as much as the next fan.

But I’m a professional, and that means—or what it means for me—is when I read a skeptical review of a poet I really like I strive to decouple my own feelings from the work in order to assess the strength of the argument. The possibility that Memorial may be a flawed effort can’t be wished away because it’s unpleasant for admirers to think about or because the person raising that possibility is white and male. So, is Jason right? I mean, is it at all possible that Memorial is weak in the ways he insists it is? He finds fault with the “willed breathlessness” of Oswald writing, he cites examples of her “easy, go-to solutions” for creating what he calls her “Brutal Hyperreal Lyricism.” In short, while he admires parts of the book, he finds it “boring.” Helen never really addresses any of that. I mean, yes, she quotes those complaints, but they inspire her to instead pore over every clause and syllable of Jason’s review, looking for evidence of “prejudices, privileges” while leaving the substance of his argument untouched. 

Is that good criticism? Not for me. Helen suggests Jason is wrong. Fine. Is he wrong because he gravely misunderstands the way Oswald constructs an image? Is he wrong because he utterly fails to appreciate the subtle ways she builds music into a line? Is he wrong because he completely misunderstands the sophisticated philosophical framework the poem’s anti-war message hangs on. No. Jason is wrong because his neural circuits are simply too “loaded” with white maleness to properly appreciate Oswald’s beyond-all-argument genius. I admire Oswald greatly—and if pressed, I might even use the word genius when it comes to her magical line-making—but I have a fundamental problem with Helen’s line of attack. I would love to read a piece where she takes on the specific terms of Jason’s aesthetic complaints, rather than appear to take down the entire review because of his gender. Am I digging in? Damn right. I don’t like this sort of critical approach AT ALL. Helen’s “spidey sense" is useless to me. And so warning white male reviewers—or any reviewer—to “tread carefully” when it comes to female poets (and here I think the taste-as-rape argument clearly motivates her word choices) demeans Oswald’s poetry because it suggests that the poetry is too eggshell-fragile to survive a robust defense of its very real literary merits.

Like I said, the blog post is back up. I’m sorry if I inconvenienced anyone, and want to underscore it was done out of concern for my charges—the men and women who have entrusted me with their excellent books, and who I don’t want to see hurt at all by this increasingly bizarre imbroglio.   

Sunday 15 December 2013

Sunday Poem


It rains.
My heart disintegrates for other reasons
while the bald eagle gazes at me
from the lifeguard’s chair.
His head is not white but scuffed, dirty.
He may look like a bird of prey but in fact
he is a fifty-two-year-old man
who has just crawled out of bed
with a hangover and a wife
he never loved well. 
was fine weather
in his life has turned
to the swamp-sky of March,
rain in April, through June,
and tomorrow is the first of July
though it’s hard to consider
celebrating Canada Day
with anything but a scream.

Which the bald eagle does:
the serrated thrust of his voice
shreds the grey light as he opens
his wings and lifts, lifts,
heaves himself into the heavy air.
There he goes, flapping over our stunned heads
toward the jungle that stalks Vancouver
like a panther, the same jungle
I fought in cold blood this morning,
so much fierce bamboo.

You and I walk the wide sand flats,
slick grey acres of seaweed,
cracked shells, crabs scuttling sideways
like our desire. We are so close
to the barges that we see
a modern galley slave moving
feverishly about on the long deck.
He is silent in labour, I am silent
in sympathy, listening to you tell
how you think maybe you can’t marry her.

I suddenly remember my hedge clippers
lying on the grass in the back garden.
Tools rust if you leave them out
in this rain. They teach us, every year,
not to do it again.

Why it’s all wrong takes so long to explain
that the tide begins to slide in around our cold feet.
You could save yourself by drowning
but do not: we walk back to the stony shore
littered with condoms and weddings,
one of which will take place in exactly
forty days. You ask, a tear in your eye,
How much longer will it rain?

I reply, You’re lucky enough
to have choices. Old lover,
surprise yourself and make one.
Useless advice, like all advice
must be at this moment. You wring
your heart on the beach while on the far shore
landmines explode, men labour on
prison ships, children drown in wet sand
similar in weight to this wet sand
but lethal, marbled with blood,
impossible to walk away from. 
You say you cannot walk away.
I say I know, I know, and think again
of my clippers in the grass,
the speed of rust. I say,
You are a good man
and she is a good woman.

Kissing you goodbye, I wonder if
that is how bad marriages are made:
the hungry shovel of the heart
wants to break the clean surface of goodness,
get to the rich filth underneath.

I like how mistakes wait in our hands
like the orchids we crave for their beauty
though we don’t know how to grow them.
I like that we want to learn.
I love how we fail.
From Cold, Cold River (Quattro Books, 2013) by Karen Connelly.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Good Things, Small Packages

Carl Wilson gives a close look at the growing interest in "little books":
Such books can bring the urgency of a manifesto. They can provide literary sustenance without the commitment a thick tome demands. And, properly designed, they stoke a fetish for tiny, perfect, collectible objects. What could be better? It’s an in-between form for transitional times. It’s a nod to collective attention-deficit and the Internet’s “too long; didn’t read” syndrome.

Just So We're Clear

When Helen Guri says this:
This brings me to a review I read a while ago, “Rosy-Fingered Yawn,” by Jason Guriel, about Alice Oswald’s work of poetry Memorial. It appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of the PN Review, although I did not notice it until a year later, when a link was posted on what would become a baroquely awful Facebook thread, the kind we Canadian poets seem to love to make, and which some might argue is our true genre of artistic achievement. 
The "baroquely awful" thing that happened was this:
On a recent Facebook thread, a female critic suggested that my review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial was the “poetry world’s version of a Twitter rape threat.” The critic had badly misread and misrepresented my relatively mixed and innocuous review. (For example, I called Oswald’s writing solutions “easy”; the critic decided I had called Oswald “easy.”) Nevertheless, Gillian Jerome—the Chair of CWILA—concurred immediately, and commissioned a blog post from the critic. Eventually, there was pushback on the thread— from no less than Tabatha Southey—and both thread and accusation were promptly deleted. The blog post has yet to appear. But for a few hours there, CWILA was in the business of libel.
Surprised that someone would compare a skeptical poetry review to a "rape threat"? Don't be. Jan Zwicky ushered in that kind of discourse over a year ago, by describing negative reviews as non-consensual sexual encounters, or rape:
Some people write negative reviews because they enjoy feeling hatred; they find it erotically satisfying. That the writing of viciously negative reviews can satisfy sadistic impulses does not surprise me; but it is a weakness of my essay that I failed to discuss such satisfaction as a conscious motive. Is it, in fact, a good moral defence of the practice of negative reviewing? No. In sexual encounters, our culture condones sadistic behaviour only between consenting adults. I see no reason to think that our standards should be different for critics and the critiqued.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Tale of Two Editors

Chris Wiman
Don Share
When I asked Don [Share] if it was even possible to manage keeping up with the world of contemporary poetry—as multiplicitious and ever-evolving, in both form and dissemination, as it is—he simply asked if any of us would go see a doctor who “couldn’t keep up.”—"CPR Visits the PoFo"

I think a strong case can be made that the more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs. There is a limit to this logic, of course, or else Plato would be the patron saint of the art. But still, an overdeveloped appetite for poetry is no guarantee of taste or even of love, and institutionalized efforts at actually encouraging the over-consumption of poetry always seem a bit freakish, ill-conceived, and peculiarly American, like those mythic truck stops where anyone who can eat his own weight in rump roast doesn't have to pay for it.—Chris Wiman, "In Praise of Rareness"

The Familiar Anew

Mark Yakich wants to know what a poem really is:
I’ve heard other poets define poems in organic terms: wild animals—natural, untamable, unpredictable, raw. But the metaphor quickly falls apart. Such animals live on their own, utterly unconcerned with the names humans put upon them. In inorganic terms, the poet William Carlos Williams called poems “little machines,” as he treated them as mechanical, human-engineered, and precise. But here too, the metaphor breaks down. A worn-out part on an automobile can be switched out with a nearly identical part and run as it did before. In a poem, a word exchanged for another word (even a close synonym) can alter the entire functioning of the poem. The most productive thing about trying to define a poem through comparison—to an animal, a machine, or whatever else—is not in the comparison itself but in the arguing over it. Whether or not you view a poem as a machine or a wild animal, it can change the machine or wild animal of your mind. A poem helps the mind play with its well-trod patterns of thought, and can even help reroute those patterns by making us see the familiar anew.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Sunday Poem

The marine glory of gotcha, and gotcha back. Chloronic
holding pen of those we schmucked. Hocking a lugie kicked
up a notch—systemic—made ungainly, the mass

of a full-sized four-door beater. Gallons and gallons of the colder
the better suspended between clear perspex, the safest
glass-like plastic on the planet, its hind square painted
radiant college-slut blue. The seat—like a fin, a skateboard
deck made hinged, spindly—cupping the bum of a gym
teacher in a swim suit. Not the coquette, the run and hide, the hermit—
thrush in the pool’s mouth kisses his feet.
A game of social studies, three balls for a dollar, three
chances to overturn the static, the goading, drop a bully 
like a bully drops a bran muffin, chances that depend
on how eager the arm is to catch the light, how rigged it is.
Equitable estoppels, a ratio of vex to velocity, you’ve made your bed, 

now swim in it cut with it’s all for a good cause.
And after, they’ll empty, collapse; it’s rented,
so whatever was in us that's gleeful, a truck hauls off at four.
 From The Hard Return (Insomniac, 2012) by Marcus McCann

Saturday 7 December 2013

Writing Is A Job

Daniel Mendelsohn's interview in Prospect magazine is my new favourite thing. I've rounded up some highlights:
I am a great believer in deadlines. I come from a scholarly background, having done a graduate degree in Classics before I ever dreamed of being a writer; and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything. So for a person like me, with that training but making a living as a writer for the past 20-something years, it’s useful to impose limits, as I could spend years researching a piece.
I often like to incorporate the reaction to something—whether a book or a movie or a TV show—into my analysis of it. This, to a large extent, betrays my training as a classicist: I’m always writing as if everything has been over for 2000 years. I like that angle because you get to see the whole of a phenomenon, and part of that is how other people have reacted to it.
For me, the crucial thing is the beginning not the ending: the piece cannot be written unless I have my lede. And often I’ll be agonising because I have an idea of what I want to say about the work in general—I know what I’ve been thinking, I’ve been pondering for a long time, I have the “middle”—but unless I can think of the first sentence—which often comes on the train or eating a piece of pizza or something—then the whole thing won’t flow. I’ve never been a person who can write different parts of the piece before I start. I’m working through my thoughts as I’m writing the piece, which I suppose is why they have the shape that they do.
But I still think it’s imperative, even if you’re a weekly critic, to do more than read the book in question. It’s still inconceivable to me for anybody, including a newspaper critic with a weekly beat, not to read the other works by an author. It’s just irresponsible not to do that because you’re failing to do your job, which is to make things interesting and coherent for your reader. If you haven’t read the author’s other books, you don’t know if the book that you’re reviewing represents an evolution, an improvement or whatever.
I’ve been writing for a living for over two decades and nobody has greater respect for people who can turn in good snappy copy, at length and on time, than I do. Only real writers understand that writing is a job. 
It was my great friend, the editor and writer Bob Gottlieb, who said it. Right before my first book, The Elusive Embrace, came out in 1999, he took me to lunch and gave me a lecture about what it was like to be reviewed. He told me that the only thing worse than a stupid bad review is a stupid good review, and I have quoted him ever since—because it’s true. I think that any serious author wants one thing: to be comprehended, to be read intelligently and generously. Whether the reaction that stems from an intelligent and generous reading is praise or blame, one wants to feel that the critic has wrestled meaningfully with one’s work. What could be the value of praise that’s based on an unintelligent reading?
I like to joke that when I review things I act as if the author has been dead for 200 years, but the fact of course is that they’re not like Euripides, they’re not dead. That said, when I review a person’s work, that person is reviewed as an author, not as “a person.” When I’m reviewing a book by an author, I’m not thinking of that person as a father, husband, son or whatever… unless of course it bears interestingly on the work. The work is what matters.
I will repeat that if the review of one’s work is intelligent and legitimate, one doesn’t feel hurt personally. I can be grumpy professionally—I don’t like it when someone says that I got something wrong, that this or that in my book didn’t work, or whatever—but I’m not personally hurt.
This is precisely what editors are for: they rein you in, they keep you honest and don’t let your arguments run away with you. Bob Silvers at the New York Review is always saying, “But isn’t it also the case that the author did this or that, too—are you sure you’ve got it right?”, or “Don’t you think you should tone it down?” The best advice anybody ever gave me was when I was working on my dissertation. I had what I thought was a grand theory of the two Euripidean tragedies I was writing about, and when I first started writing the temptation to ignore everything that didn’t fit into my theory was terrific. My dissertation advisor pulled me into her office one day and said, “Your problem is that you think that what looks like inconsistencies, what doesn’t fit, are “problems.” What they really ought to be are the keys to developing a larger and more interesting thesis.” The point was that, instead of sweeping the anomalies under the rug you have to expand and adapt your argument so that it can accommodate everything in the text. I’ll never forget that moment—it literally changed that way I think about and interpret texts.
First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.

Friday 6 December 2013

Dalton and Szymborska

Lynn Davies responds to one of Mary Dalton's poems, reprinted in The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry:
Her poem “The Boat” reminds me of Wistawa Szymborska’s "Funeral” in which Szymborska simply lists the comments of people attending a funeral. I can’t help smiling at the end. How pragmatic but vulnerable we are around death. In “The Boat”, Dalton describes the broken boat that sails down from the heavens and lands in a bed of petunias, and then she lists the people trying to use or make sense of the miraculous boat. In the “ballyhoo” at the end, as the people are arguing among themselves, the boat simply takes off into the blue again, “battered planks clanking.” It’s a noisier, more colourful poem, but I hear a similar vulnerability and pragmatism in response to mystery. Dalton makes me laugh here, as she often does in her poems.


Tom Scocca exposes anti-snark hysteria for what it truly is—a "type of bullshit" or "a kind of ethical and moral misdirection"—and in the process coins an excellent term: smarm.
What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves. Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?
Daniel Mendelsohn sees evidence of smarm in his classroom:
One of the courses I like to teach is a Great Books course that’s mandatory for first year students, and after I read their first papers it’s always very clear to me that they have no model, no template for what a critical essay is supposed to do—what (or how) you’re supposed to be arguing when you’re writing about a text or a movie or anything. They don’t understand there is a rhetoric of criticism—that there’s a stance you have to have, that you have to position yourself, that you don’t just blather about your impressions or your “opinions” or, worse, your “feelings” about a work. They literally have no idea, at first, what the point of being critical is—no doubt because, in part, they are being raised in a culture where a bland, everything-goes, multi-culti niceness is the paramount virtue. 

Monday 2 December 2013

The Weight of Words

Donald Winkler won a 2013 Governor General's Award for his translation of Pierre Nepveu's poetry collection The Major Verbs (Les verbes majeur). The following were his remarks at the awards ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on November 29, 2013:
Tonight, in this hall, we are honouring language and its practitioners who, however unlike they may be one from the other, are all intensely aware that this human attribute is a thing of great power and nobility, but also that beyond this precinct there are arenas, not far off, where it is systematically tarnished, degraded, and impoverished. Where words of insight, words of wonder, are recast as words of pretence, words of evasion, words of belligerence, words of contempt. 
It has ever been thus.  
As a translator, my responsibility is to treat every text as an offering, to be transformed, but hallowed, as it is shepherded from one tongue to another. And my accountability is not only to my words and to their readers, but to one whose words, in another language, were set down at great personal cost, perhaps, and whose endeavour and intent must be given their due. This can only heighten one’s sensitivity to the fact that in a world where much hangs in the balance, that balance may be tipped significantly by the weight of words, and how we choose to deploy them.

"We will anxiously monitor
the storms on the sun,
we will welcome its fiery tongues,
we will be nothing but spirit
when the cold centuries come."
Pierre Nepveu. 
May language be not a smoke screen, but a beacon. 
Thank you very much.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Sunday Poem

The wind stirs in the branches of the women
Pure as unthreaded pearls…
—The Thousand Nights and One Night
Sonja is not on this beach as it happens,
but a woman in a black bikini is peeling and splotching—
Please, Woman in Your Black Bikini
put on a shirt and save yourself!        Sonja

is not on this beach today, but a girl,
roughly the age she was,
has turned the colour of
chocolate ice-cream she was, that summer,
a colour still much prized among the young. And look,
there is an adult in deep desiccated brown
to illustrate what fate holds in store for them,

though surely not for Sonja—
because she is not on this beach. Brünnhilde, however,
so athletically hulking, the
dangling drawstring of her shorts
below her strong belly, sun goddess
in cornrows,
is. Planted in the sand.

Sonja is not on this beach but there is
an ostinato rolling with songs, screams, laughter, blue
dragonflying against the drone of waterskiboats,
families spilling out of canoes,
above the pianissimo güiro aspen. And Sonja,

not on this beach, has another emanation in
that woman whose truck is parked next to mine
(pink bikinis must be in style this year)
whom I saw applying lipstick
(which adhered to her cigarette butt),
in her sideview mirror.

Sonja is not on the beach this decade but
a shrieking child on the waterslide, a beachball
barely touching the lake,
a look not entirely suspicious
from a teenager walking through the lozenges of
the waves of the sun in the water
            are. And there’s a gap to represent
Sonja, who is not on this beach to witness
                                                                us, us men,
moving so awkwardly in our near-nakedness—the
incomplete uncoiling of our spines not quite
adapted to our upright posture, stiff rectangle of torso
stumping, the strain of restraining our extraverting
abdomens and the strain of concealing all this—
the lithest of teenagers could scarcely carry it off! Though
Sonja could, Sonja
who is not likely ever to visit this beach
a beach where bottles of tanning lotion continue, innocently, to be
passed, and I am hopeful
of some benevolence for my solitude amongst those,
laid out so larvally in rows,
the deeply connotative sand, and this perhaps illusory
                         sense that there is community on the beach.
From The Civic-Mindedness of Trees (Wolsak & Wynn, 2013) by Ken Howe