Wednesday 26 February 2014

Derek Walcott Likes Metaphor

Over the weekend, Teju Cole reviewed Derek Walcott’s The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013. David Biespel thinks the piece was a disaster:
A summary of Cole’s review of Walcott might go like this: Derek Walcott is a Caribbean poet who is from the Caribbean. When he writes, he uses grammar, rhyme, meter, and (too much) description. He likes metaphor. The review doesn’t really discuss what Derek Walcott has been writing about or why for the last sixty years. The review skims the importance of Walcott’s subjects, ignores who Walcott’s influences have been (well, I mean here I’m a frankly stunned not to have read the name Robert Lowell), and doesn’t define in what context Walcott’s poems have been fashioned, and why that matters, especially for a poet with worldwide influence and importance.

Every day Another Vanguard

In a long, thoughtful overview of the contemporary American poetry, Robert Archambeau pinpoints a trend that has echoes in Canada:
But there’s something else going on in American poetry, circa 2012, something related to the emphasis on poetry-as-language and the poet-as-specialist. There is also the urge to be au courant—something quite foreign to, say, Alexander Pope, who wanted to affirm the classics as lasting verities. There’s an accelerating replacement of one movement by another, in prestige if not in actual poetic practice. Confessional poetry? Long gone, replaced by a variety of identity-politics inflected forms of writing. Language poetry? Very hip, until the post-avant and ellipticism arrived. And the dominant ellipticism is now challenged, by “the new thing,” a term coined by Stephen Burt for the poets publishing with the Cultural Society; and, more prominently, by what Marjorie Perloff has christened “the conceptual generation.” Pierre Bourdieu calls this process of premature displacement “the social aging of art,” and notes that it comes about when the rewards of making art have taken the form of specific capital. Hollywood screenwriters write for the market and are relatively unconcerned with labeling their elders out-of-date. But American poets in 2012, like French painters in the late nineteenth century, tend not to have a market, or a heteronomous principle of valuation. They seek validation of a kind specific to the poetic field, and the way to gain it quickly is to delegitimize the older, more dominant practitioners. From this follows a flurry of movements, something approaching the condition of (to steal a phrase from the critic Jed Rasula) “every day another vanguard.”

The Garbage of Inattention

Lisa Robertson describes the process by which certain literary careers go extinct:
My reading into previous eras, reading into community and situated writing activities in different periods and places, suggests to me that at any place, at any given time—in early 19th century London, for example—there are many fabulous women writers. Do we read them now? No, mostly not. Can we even name them? No, not beyond Wollstonecraft and Shelley. But there have always been women writers. And they have been publishing and active and popular and read, bought, discussed, and have been vital parts of their societies and cultures. The problem, I think, that continues, what has been the problem and is the problem now, is that the institutional formations that are responsible for the continuity of literature as a canon have continued to resist placing writing by women in the macro narrative and economy of literature.

And so, continuously there has been this ongoing process of rediscovery. Like, wow, there was feminism in the 19th century, can you imagine? Every single generation we go through this ridiculous re-discovery. In the 80s we thought we were inventing feminism. In the 70s we thought we were inventing feminism. Every single generation is put in the situation where we feel like we have to invent this thing. Why? Because there is no continuity. No narrative has been formed. But women writers have always been present, brilliant, and even plentiful. Not rare.

And so, in this sense, I think it's the same situation now as it was for, say, this Paris expatriate women's modernist writing community. You could put your finger down in any city and find this vital, articulate, educated exchange of literary activity among women. Then the first thing that happens is that books go out of print. As soon as a book's out of print, it's dead. It can't be taught or exchanged. It can become a sort of absent cult object: did you hear that X did this. I mean, one major difficulty in the reception of the Paris women modernists is that all of those books were out of print for a long time. You couldn't even get your hands on their work. Often, the work does not leave its original micro-context. It becomes a kind of mythology. It has to be belatedly rediscovered. It can’t slowly develop a readership over time. The same could be said of women in Montreal writing from the 70s through til now. If publishers don't take care of the work and keep it in print, and if a seriously sustained discourse and scholarship does not construct itself around it, the very same thing will happen. It will fizzle, and, in a couple of generations, people will say didn't you hear there were once these interesting writers. The fact of this community of work will become a kind of retro culty thing. Whereas, everybody knows that the Montreal women’s writing experiment is the great and strongest thing that's happening now intellectually. The same garbage happens every generation, so far as I can see. The garbage of inattention.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Sunday Poem

I saw them. They came like ghosts out of ground-
mist, moving
over ruined earth in waves, running, 
no, walking, shoulder to shoulder
like a belt of bullets or like
men: tinned meat lined on a conveyor belt as the sun

exploded in thin shafts on metal
buckles, bayonets, the nodding
spires of helmets. I heard faint battle cries

and whistles, piercing through the shriek
of fire and iron falling, the slurred
cadence of big guns; as they funnelled

like a file of mourners into gaps
in the barbed wire I made quick
calculations and slipped the safety catch.

But held my fire. Alongside me
the boys in the trenches worried them with
rifles, pistols, hand grenades,

but they came on, larger now, their faces
almost resolving out of hazed, hot
distance, their ranks at close quarters amazing

with dumb courage, numb step, a sound of drugged
choking in gas and green mud, steaming...
Who were these men. I saw them penitent,

sagging to knees. I saw their dishevelled
dying. And when finally they broke
into a run it came to me

what they had always been, how I'd always,
really, seen them: boys
rushing towards us with arms

outstreched, hands clenched as if in urgent prayer,
sudden welcome or a reunion
quite unexpected. Yes. And more than this

like children, chased by something behind the lines
and hurrying to us
for rescue—

I spat and swung the gun around. Fired,
felt the metal pulse
and laid them three deep in the wire.
From Stalin's Carnival (Palimpsest Press, reissued 2013) by Steven Heighton

Poet Portraits

Over the last couple of years, Norman Allan has been sketching some of the poets who have appeared in Toronto's Art Bar reading series. Below are examples of his work. You can check out the series here.

Aisha Sasha John
Alex Boyd
Alexandra Oliver
Susan Gillis
Karen Shenfeld
Ewan Whyte
Jan Conn
Rhea Tregebov
Steven Price

Friday 21 February 2014

Revenge Artist

For years, Louise Glück conceived of her poems as part of elaborate revenge fantasies in which her enemies would be "annihilated" by envy and awe.
It became my immediate response to all public and private failure, to scorn, to betrayal, but also to much smaller events and embarrassments to which such fantasies were wildly disproportionate. But they were not simply balm. They were also fuel. They fed an existing desire to write poetry, transforming that desire into urgent ambition. They could not replace inspiration, or bribe it into existence, but they augmented inspiration with a driving sense of purpose or necessity; they animated me when I might easily have been paralyzed. It was for many years intensely pleasurable to anticipate the leisurely unfolding, over time, of revenge, with its just and glorious reversals of existing judgments and power relations.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Sunday Poem

When I was eleven, I watched my cousin slice up a gopher
with the serrated top of a tin can. 
I see this cousin now: the type of woman
who simmers meats in vodka and cream. 
Straight shoulders, straight hair. Her stare.
Each eye bright and sharp as a rhinestone. 
She knows a thing will yield if spoken to gently,
so she doesn’t waste time on incense 
and Sarah Vaughan. She wraps each word in cashmere,
and carries on. Last night, three girls at a bus stop 
beat an old man to death with black umbrellas. And here I am
bound to elaborate on the state of his glasses, 
knocked off his head and spinning into air
that shimmered with rain. Yet everyone, when small, 
has come in from the river with something half-dead
in the bottom of a bucket. And no one expects that to become 
their defining moment. Now, I want to find a red door
and live behind it. I want to talk taxes and fiscal responsibility. 
I am sure neither of these things will happen.
Her under voice is sleepless as a shark. 
It says crack that window. Dial that number.
At eleven, it pulled me from the TV, it led me 
up the driveway, behind a parked Subaru, to a square
of dead November grass. The wind was fresh 
and sweet as an apple, as she brought the metal down
with a calm hand, and teeth denting her lower lip. 
And she steadied the animal, saying
shhh, stay still, don’t worry, my dad’s a vet.
From 1996 (Anansi, 2013) by Sara Peters

Saturday 15 February 2014

Maxine Kumin 1925 – 2014: Reax

Philip Schultz:
Maxine, or Max to friends and family, was nothing if not a pioneer. A Jewish woman poet at a time when it wasn’t exactly fashionable to be any of those things, she knew firsthand how to make room for herself in hostile terrain. Even her farm (which she affectionately and ironically named Pobiz, after the perilous mixing of poetry and business) had to be imagined and then made out of brambles and hard labor over a period of fifty years. Her poetry represented both an alertness to and an investment in the sanctified details of the natural world, a love of the music of the commonplace. Her desire to experience and take note was unlike anyone else’s I know.
Dan Piepenbring:
Her precision earned her plaudits, though she was sometimes chagrined by the extent to which her gender tinted her reception; she said in 2005, “I so resented being told by male poets, ‘You’re a good poet. You write like a man.’ When you drove them to the airport to catch that flight at the last minute: ‘You did a good job. You drove like a man.’ It was such a different world. The expectations were so different … I was not influenced by women writing poetry. There weren’t any women to admire. I could admire Marianne Moore, but I certainly couldn’t write miniaturist poems like her. And I admired Elizabeth Bishop, but she was very classical and held everyone at a distance. Mentor was not a verb at that time. I certainly wasn’t being mentored by anybody.”
Carol Muske-Dukes:
Kumin wrote deceptively straightforward poems. The "below surface" artistry of these poems lay in their ability to transform familiar experience to precisely calibrated insights, couched in a quietly elegant style. She served up tart helpings of pure joy—but she could do "dark" as well as the gloomiest poets.
Like the horses she raised on her farm in New Hampshire, Maxine Kumin was a thoroughbred. She belonged to the line in American poetry that may be traced back through Robert Frost to Mistress Bradstreet. Her poems have the virtue of being meticulously observed and of dealing plainly with the things of the world.
Don Share:
The land got into her writing so deeply that when someone called her “Roberta Frost,” she accepted it as a compliment. Her sense of place sustained her and her poems, which now sustain us. “Poetry’s like farming,” she wrote: “It’s/ a calling, it needs constancy.”

Monday 10 February 2014

The Customer Is Always Right

A reader's complaint about the use of the word "crepuscular" in a Paris Review essay—calling it an example of elitist writing—causes Eleanor Catton to ponder on the consumerist nature of literary taste:
The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word—characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer—is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right.
Laura Miller agrees, but thinks Catton misses an important point:
The reader who found a writer’s use of “crepuscular” to be elitist wasn’t just annoyed at stumbling across a word he didn’t recognize and being made to take the trouble of looking it up. As Catton herself points out, when you’re reading online, the definitions of words are extremely easy to get. It seems doubtful the reader was, as Catton seems to think, put off by the “inconvenience” of this. Rather, I surmise, he was angry because the Paris Review piece made him feel ignorant. Another reader, also unfamiliar with “crepuscular,” might have reached the same point, invoked the digital dictionary and thought, “Cool. New word!” Learning something—including new and potentially useful words—is one of the reasons people read, after all. To decide instead that the appearance of the word “crepuscular” is the writer’s way of signaling that only people already fully conversant with all the synonyms for “shadowy” need apply to the select society of his blog post (and the rest go hang themselves!) is quite a leap. In truth, the only way an encounter with a strange word can make you feel ignorant is if you already fear and suspect that you really are ignorant.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Thanks, But I Prefer It My Way

Michael Lista's recommendation that young poets "Wait. Read more. Write more. Get better" hits a nerve.

Are Canadian Poets Publishing Too Much?

Michael Lista thinks so:
The interconnected system of publishers, granting bodies, magazines, reading series, etc. that, with the purest of intentions administers and disseminates what we call our literary culture, which by the numbers is as robust as it’s ever been, actively encourages, for its own survival, a writer’s worst attributes: vanity, assuredness, sophistry, mutual flattery, imprecision, inefficiency and an unselfconscious fluency that is the surest sign of a minor writer. The qualities that contribute to producing great work—skepticism, deliberation, patience—are not in the system’s interest. But this is Canada. Here individual achievement doesn’t matter as much as our ambient collective hum. We’re a country of collectivists, so it’s of a piece. To America’s Thomas Edison, whose light bulb couldn’t be more Promethean and singular, we politely answer with Alexander Graham Bell, whose invention is useless if you don’t have a friend.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Sunday Poem


You’ve got to get to the country. The fields are empty 
as if all farmhands have the clap. The trees have taken 
off their fatigues yet no one’s wives rise to shoo 
their houseplants out for exercise. Acne-scarred planets 
are light years, soufflé years away, but toddlers 
with twig pistols guard the cisterns. I’ve met albino elves 
who harvest the guano smokebats leave in my lungs. 
I suction-cupped a Baby On-board sign in the rear 
window of a hearse. Clouds suck sun-sheen off the rocks. 
I’ve a mound of creased choir gowns that need irony. 
My favourite dog’s buried in the yard. She was dead 
but she got better. Now I have a Mennonite’s fear 
of the automobile. A raven puts on his soot and goes 
to work the warmth from my algebra. Most guys in these parts 
grow a goatee even though it’s cattle country. Come on 
to the country, there’s still seats in the nosebleeds. It’s like living 
below a dam built during budget cuts, loving a geography this much. 
Why must this landscape look like luggage left unattended 
in an airport to get our attention? Any resemblance 
is purely reciprocal. I have an ex who’s on the run in Mexico, 
or who has the runs in Mexico, or who is running Mexico.   
I don’t know, is her hair art or a gaslamp mishap perhaps? 
My dog and I were like two peas in an escape pod. 
When cattle rose from those valleys, cankles in frost shackles, 
I watched silent films with my eyes shut. My biggest mistake 
was wearing white jeans to Rib Fest, but it’s for fun 
us waxwings set controls for the heart of the sun. 
Get thee to the country. I've fletched every sparrow in this war. 
Our ash-eyed cremators have decided all’s lost and paused   
their little holocausts. The mollusks shushed. 
When the killswitch sun kicks on you can watch 
the lunar rogues beeline into miles of turnstile trees, trees 
belching out birds like a salesforce at the brink of banking hours. 
Sucked in at dusk the way a rainbow sucks back 
into an only child. Each tree the scale model of a skyproof roof 
giving up its life goals. Each tree a little town like Jonestown. 
I’ve used a mirror to repel myself down the mountain to these trees. 
Break one’s wrist and you’re an arborist. Each night the police chief 
sings my alibis as lullabies to his sweet niece. Anyway, 
there's a dog over there. I've got to go. Come, 
come tend to me, I tend to disagree with victory. 
If there was a book about Long Winter Farm 
it would begin, A river is always too curious of its end.

From Long Winter Farm, a broadside (Odourless Press, 2013) by Jeramy Dodds 

("Saturday Safari" by Osamu Yokonami)

Damn Lies

The reliably provocative R. M. Vaughan weighs in on Canadian literature. Some good bits:
I can remember having a conversation nine or ten years ago with my friend Andrew Pyper about how Canada has this chronic fear of so-called “genre” writing. Andrew writes these fantastic “mystery” novels—I don’t believe in these modifiers, but the industry insists on applying them. Yet if you think about it, every type of writing is “genre writing,” and what gets praised and awarded and over-rewarded in this country is in fact a genre of writing: the family domestic-trauma novel. And I would have hoped that by now, given that we have access to limitless amounts of information about writing from all over the world and in any available language, that Canadian publishing would start to reflect the fact that we have really good science fiction writers here, really good horror writers and action-adventure writers, and stop privileging the family trauma novel. But no.  
The alcoholic underclass abuse novel is a genre in this country—we just happen to have naturalized it as “Canadian literature” and it just won’t go away. I look at who gets awards every fall; everyone once in a while I’m shocked—but most of the time it’s just that really boring book about a sad family in some rural part of the country again. 
This notion out there that ordinary people aren’t capable of or qualified to talk about art: It’s a damn lie. It’s not real; it’s something we’re taught, it’s a learned thing. We live in a culture where we all watch pop-music videos, we all listen to contemporary music, we all watch movies and TV—we all engage in popular culture all the time and we all feel completely free to comment on it. By comparison, there is nothing special about art. It’s all on a continuum. After 40 or 50 years of conceptualism, people have been conned into thinking that only the educated elite are permitted to look at, understand and discuss art. If I can in any little way kick at that con game, I’m gonna do it.  
I was on a panel in late summer, I had only been back in Canada for about a month and I was asked to be on this panel with some other cultural-commentator types, and we were talking about an exhibition that was on in the city, one that I had mixed feelings about but that I mostly liked. Toward the end of the discussion, a prominent curator in the city stood up in the Q&A portion, and said that the way that I talked critically about culture made me the equivalent of the police officer who shot the kid on the streetcar...that is the level of crazy you encounter in a daily basis in the Canadian arts scene. And I think that is tied into the fact that we have made it all so precious. When you make culture seem like it’s the equivalent of, I don’t know, curing cancer, then of course people are going to get hysterical.