Sunday 30 March 2014

Sunday Poem

The coffee’s shit, and the company greasy,
but the sun dazzles the bookshop,
our forty-eight-hour deodorizers failing,
the blank security barriers 
with their bludgeons, uniforms and lunch bags.
Two decades back, we’d all be smoking.
But now, sunsets play out behind clean glass, one-hour WiFi,
all our novels thrust into designer carry-ons,

and the merciful phones-off runway rules,
so our bodies end where the gates begin,
each fuselage hosting
a complex grand-staff of silence. 
In two hours, you’ll be in Kabul Korea Connecticut;
last calls, stand-bys, a sloppy seatmate’s missed
connections, the sure slope of the plane
down the grey ramp

past newspapers and perky pleasantries,
until they seal behind you
every step you might have taken
with every flight illuminated on the grand, black board. 
Were there similar ascents
when the ocean meant gales and doldrums,
the docks that knew the seas’ names
dreaming New York against dirty, concrete channels?

Buckle up. Leaf through the creased magazine.
Here’s the captain’s creed.
Your shoulder against the window, an inch from stratosphere.
The green earth down there will soon be mooring thunder.
From Old Hat (Nightwood, 2014) by Rob Winger.

Saturday 29 March 2014

One By Whom The Language Lives

Michael Hofmann raves about Karen Solie's UK debut The Living Option for The London Review of Books (the piece is behind the paywall, but registering should allow you 24-hour access to the site).
Introducing Karen Solie, I would adapt what Joseph Brodsky said some thirty years ago of the great Les Murray: ‘It would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives.’ Solie is Canadian (born in 1966, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, of Norwegian immigrant stock), the author of three previous books of poems, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005) and Pigeon (2009), and now this ‘new and selected’, and, yes, she is the one by whom the language lives. I wonder, a little bitterly, what the point of English as a soi-disant world language is, if our smug maps have only the UK and the US on them, and everywhere else is apocrypha or appendix, the province of specialists or pity. Enormous credit goes to Bloodaxe for commissioning this exhilarating volume, Solie’s first book publication outside Canada.

If I wanted to show someone—an agnostic—what a modern poem can do, I would show them something by Lawrence Joseph, or Frederick Seidel, or Karen Solie, all different but all modern, all modo hodie, all fresh today. A poem of Solie’s is sentences in unpredictable but deep sequence in unpredictable but braced lines. It seems out of control, but isn’t; it exhibits grace while falling, which is perhaps what grace is. It runs the gamut from nervous, garrulous charm to the glory and shear of impersonal style: it is idiomatic splicing in one voice. It offers wisdom, fact and bitter experience (yes, it is pessimistic, or negative, or critical, or ironic, depending on what one word one wants to use, but then so would Whitman be if he were back among us: in Musil’s The Man without Qualities Ulrich says ‘the man of genius is duty bound to attack’ and Brecht wrote in ‘An die Nachgeborenen’: ‘Truly, I live in dark times!/A bland word is foolish. An unlined brow/Indicates impercipience. The man laughing only/Laughs because the terrible news/Has not yet reached him’). It is a noticing, a naming and a connecting, an electric errancy. It is round-the-corner knight moves in a world of pawns, or almost worse, rooks; googlies and chinamen among dobbers. It is a widening and widening optic, that returns us unexpectedly (‘the variable/when the outcome is unknown,/as always the outcome is unknown’—take that, Mr Rumsfeld) to the place we began. It may be to comic or grievous effect. It is an adventitious gallivanting movement across country that makes denser, bunched sense than any more rational or measured or predictable progress. It looks baroque, but actually it’s stringent—and vice versa. (I’ve come to think you can’t actually have poetry without dandyism, and that includes all those I’ve mentioned: Frederick Seidel self-evidently, but also those seemingly austere figures Whitman, Brecht, Murray and Brodsky. As Wallace Stevens said, ‘It must give pleasure.’) It looks random, but like Thom Gunn’s blue jay scuffling in the bushes, it ‘follows some hidden purpose’. Other things, set beside it, look lame and tedious – like prose. It reminds me of another axiom of Brodsky’s, that poetry is a function of speed: it gets there faster than prose, and goes further.

Friendly Talk

Norm Sibum sizes up the recent poet-critic panel discussion in Montreal (audio below)

I was told to smile and do friendly talk. Accordingly, I am smiling and doing friendly talk. Not that what follows is in any way important, literature not much more now than a spectator sport, as is any stand-off between barroom arm wrestlers. But even so, an evening vouchsafed to poetry by way of a panel of critics (who also write the stuff—poetry, that is); an evening consecrated to—what?—the explication of, the interpretation of, the bashing of, the treating with poems in some way or other; an evening devoted to the separating of stalwarts from dullards, was had at the Word Bookstore. It was had under the aegis of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry’. Alright then. The panel, moderated by one of this fair nation’s leading literary lights, when all the dust had settled, seemed to have acquitted itself well. The Moesian thought so, and because he can be a surly bastard, I was inclined to take his ‘take’ on the matter. But then the man might have been preoccupied by the antics of Putin and American neo-libs gadding about in their stretch pants and limos, not to mention our very own Clown Prince and our very own Dragon Lady and the cartwheels they were effecting. In light of such events, how earth-shaking was this panel?

Sunday 23 March 2014

Sex Fail

Germaine Greer is turned off by Sophie Hannah's anthology of sex poetry, a book she calls "far less raunchy than the average collection of rugby songs":
Sex is as difficult and various as convers­ation; it is to be found on every page of a novel by Jane Austen. It drives every poem that was ever written, whether it makes reference to incidences of sexual congress or not. It is not surprising that when Hannah began to look for the poetry of sex she lost her way, for she was afloat on a vast sea of human endeavour with no guide. An historic overview might have given her something to hang on to, but the attempt to organise such lawless material was always bound to fail. Sex knows no bounds and respects no boundaries. It was folly to think of clapping it up in a single book.

Sunday Poem

The morning offers evidence of a rain you slept through,
pavement like grease soaked through a sandwich bag,

and there’s definitely a fire burning inside the metal Muppet-mouthed
industrial garbage bin open outside No Frills. The fire’s low and mangy,

like a nest where light hatches, and the air out here
smells like a dentist’s office in its busy time: overheating rubber,

periodic elements, a fresh mess of fragile membrane
cut into, pulled back—every hard, impacted thing removed.

This is a pretty good day for evasion, and you’d like to
volunteer your service for something clean and memorable,

maybe running interference for the No Frills shoppers tenderly
nosing their way past displays shocking as capped front teeth,

performing what reads as a well-considered dumb show. This course
of action has all the vision, all the hoist of a boom lift. Now seems

as good a time as any to admit: you’ve never seen something so thoroughly
as to forget its name, and more than once, the constellations have let you down.

You can feel the day’s details waiting to pitch towards you like an airbag
deploying an ultra-white, full-frontal bloom of goodness in your face.

The fire in the bin is still brooding.
You’d like to tell someone its meaning isn’t lost on you.
From Failure to Thrive (ECW, 2014) by Suzannah Showler 

Failure to Thrive by Suzannah Showler © 2014 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.

Friday 21 March 2014

Artistic Daring

Brian Palmu celebrates Mary Dalton's book of centos, Hooking, as "a surprising document in artistic daring":
In Hooking, Dalton ups the ante—she has taken the Oulipian route of restriction. In each of her centos, every line comes from the same numbered line in the original poem. For example, “Gauze” is composed of twenty-seven lines from twenty-seven poems from twenty-seven poets, and each line is the fourth from those poems. This brings up the obvious question. Why? Wouldn’t eliminating this restriction free up many more possibilities for better linkages? Perhaps, but it’s also possible that by forcing oneself to hunt far and deep, the cento maker can eventually steal a better line than a quicker perusal would permit. 
Fraser Sutherland finds a great deal to like as well:
The lines are so smoothly blended that even a famous one like Ezra Pound’s “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world” doesn’t seem extraneous or intrusive. They are almost exclusively of the twentieth century; we are mercifully spared Shakespeare. So smoothly and aptly does she quote it’s as if she could pluck Edgar Guest’s “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’make it home” and incorpo- rate it coherently and cohesively. Given such varied sources, it’s remarkable how natural, connected, and consistent, though not monotonous, the lines are in mood and treatment—and notable how often their rhythms approximate her own work.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry: Montreal

On March 19, 2014,  I moderated a poet-critic panel at The Word bookstore. Jason Guriel, Zach Wells and Anita Lahey debated the state of poetry reviewing in bare-knuckled fashion. Some blood was left on the floor.

From left: Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel, Adrian King-Edwards, Zach Wells, Anita Lahey. 
Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel
Anita Lahey
Norman Cornett, Carmine Starnino
Dimitri Nasrallah

Sunday 16 March 2014

Linda Besner Down South

On February 19th, Linda Besner—author of The Id Kid—visited UNC-Wilmington as the first participant in the "The °C / °F Reading Series," curated by Alessandro Porco. "It was a wonderful event," Porco writes on his Facebook page, "students and faculty filled—and even spilled out of—the venue."

Sunday 9 March 2014

Language Absolutely Unliterary

In reviewing a collection of Robert Frost's savvy, cultivated letters, Michael Lista reminds us not to mistake the cliché of Frost as "a sensible, tender, humorous" poet for the hard-worn achievement of his poetry:
In this first volume of letters, we get to see how that plain-spoken sausage, for which Frost became so famous and misunderstood, gets made. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it turns out it’s an affected literary voice, nothing like Frost’s erudite, wide-referencing letters, which revel in multi-level puns and literary riddles as much as anything in Joyce. “In North of Boston you are to see me performing in a language absolutely unliterary,” Frost writes in December 1913. “What I would like is to get so I would never use a word or combination of words that I hadn’t heard used in running speech.” But since we find no evidence in the letters that Frost’s neighbours had the happy habit of speaking in masterful paragraphs of blank verse, or lived their lives, as Frost said of the poems in North of Boston, “in a form suggested by the eclogues of Virgil,” we should take him at his word that these unselfconscious colloquialisms are actually artificial, rehearsed performances.

3D Poetry

Alan Michael Parker offers five "theses" on how to organize a poetry manuscript. His fourth? "A book of poems needs to aspire to the condition of three-dimensionality." He explains:
Yes, readers read a volume from left to right; however, books of poems are also read jumpily, intermittently, whimsically, peripatetically, and other -lys. I think that reading a good book of poems is more like going to an art gallery than sitting in a theatre and watching a ballet. So here’s what I do, and what I tell my students to do: build a shed, pay extra rent for a month, lease a Self-Storage unit, squat in a cave, disown a child or a parent—whatever it takes to get yourself a room of your own, do so, and then wallpaper it with your poems. Hang them up, live in them, move them around, trade teams. Walk into the room where your poems are hanging, cover one eye, and look at them cock-eyed. Step out of the room. Come back in, cover the other eye, and look at your poems moon-eyed. Step out of the room. Come back in, close your eyes, and look at your poems dream-eyed, picture which poems are where. Admit you’re obsessed. Go get help. Step back into your room and swap the first poem for the last, or move other poems around arbitrarily—reorder them again. Live inside the book as though it were itself a room. 

Sunday Poem

Forget the fiddle faddle,
make do with just one fact:
blueness runs deep as this ocean
he stares at from the bench
here where the bay narrows
to a stone throat words rush through
gushing at full throttle
as if with too much to say
and hardly the breath to say it
while he, scrambling events from his life
with fiction and the TV soaps,
nudges the scales in his favour
but getting no purchase on truth
has almost convinced himself
that, throughout,
he merely did what needed done.
From Some Dance (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014) by Ricardo Sternberg

(Illustration by Christopher Nielsen.)

Saturday 8 March 2014

What Ginsberg Saw

Allen Ginsberg liked snapping pictures of his Beat sidekicks and sundry celebs. Now the world’s largest stash of his prints—7,686 photos—have ended up at The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. You'll find a selection on Flickr. I've posted a dozen here.

Warren Beatty and Madonna, 1990

Bono, 1993

Allen Ginsberg and Tony Bennett, 1985

Iggy Pop, 1990

Philip Glass, 1992

Sinead O'Connor, 1992

Self-portrait, 1995
Self-portrait, 1953
Paul Bowles, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, 1957
Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky, 1957

Jack Kerouac
William Burroughs, 1991

Saturday 1 March 2014

Dead End Media

Stewart Cole is worried that social media is having an "erosive" effect on Canada's poetry culture:
Facebook (as does its midget cousin, Twitter) encourages the knee-jerk; there’s nothing wrong with spontaneity, of course, but when first or truncated or undeveloped thoughts—the only kinds Facebook really encourages—come to take precedence over considered, crafted, elaborated discourse, discussion is so impoverished that it no longer warrants the name, becoming mere chatter.
He wants writers to put their "social-media minutes" to better use:
We have a unique opportunity in Canada to forge a literary culture rooted in mutual awareness, engagement, and respect—even amid sometimes voracious disagreement. And make no mistake, I acknowledge that such a culture is already being forged, as the emergence in recent years of public venues like CWILA, Lemon Hound, and Canadian Poetries as well as the continuance of such venues as Michael Lista’s column for the National Post, the Véhicule Press Blog, Northern Poetry Review (and of course literary journals like The Puritan) attest. At the same time, however, it seems clear that too much of the limited energy that might be used to craft contributions to such public venues is being squandered in engagements with the broadstroke, binaristic, too often uncivil, and ultimately insubstantial pseudo-public spaces of social media.While such spaces often serve as powerful tools of dissemination (indeed I myself have been directed to interesting articles, books, etc. by peeking in on people’s Twitter feeds, and my own reviews get widely shared on social media), as platforms for considered discussion they present us with dead ends.
Phoebe Wang seems to have similar concerns:
The venues where literary critical debates take place matter and can mold that debate into rigorous shapes and larger arguments. Do we lack public forums for literary debate? Maybe not, though the amount of space allocated to reviews and criticism in national publications is hard-won. The platforms that are available are segmented and imperfect—the recent open letters and responses to Carmine Starnino’s interview in CV2 that took place on individual and publisher websites, a smattering of magazines, the CWILA blog, and on Facebook were exasperating, yet engrossing. Surely Canadian writers deserve better forums. If these online venues are the reality of the critic’s production, I would call for a closer awareness of how they affect our capacity for attention, and the kind of discussions that they deliver.