Saturday 31 January 2015

Spells for Enchantment

Smitten by the "strange idiolect" in Lucie Brock-Broido's Stay, Illusion, Helen Vendler reflects on the effect of linguistic "deviation" in poetry:
Deviations in language, though not rare in poetry, awaken mixed reactions. Ben Jonson, repelled by Spenser’s archaisms, said, “Spenser, in affecting the Ancients writ no language,” and yet a few lines later allowed for the attraction of unfamiliar words:
Words borrow’d of Antiquity, doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the Authority of yeares, and out of their intermission do win to themselves a kind of grace-like newnesse.
Deformations and deviations, generations later, become less peculiar; nobody flinches now at Dickinson’s subjunctive grammar and metaphoric definitions (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”); nobody finds Dylan Thomas’s “a grief ago” strange; and even the words of “Jabberwocky” have entered the common sphere. The constant refreshment of language (not necessarily by deviation—think of George Herbert) is the stressful obligation experienced by poets. In one of his Dream Songs (#67), John Berryman explains the oddity of his own linguistic performance: “I am obliged to perform in complete darkness/operations of great delicacy/on my self.” Brock-Broido’s “operations,” like Berryman’s, often emerge from a darkness (of bewilderment, of pain, of loss), and produce linguistic distortions peculiar to the necessities of each poem, spells for enchantment.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Turning the Page at Esplanade

When Esplanade Books relaunches this spring, Véhicule Press’s fiction imprint will be publishing more authors under a wider mandate. For the past year, new Esplanade editor Dimitri Nasrallah and co-publisher Simon Dardick have been working to curate a list that aptly represents the imprint’s revitalized vision.  This new list represents a clean start for Esplanade’s second decade, balancing fearless debuts and internationally lauded authors as it straddles Canada’s two official languages.

We’re honoured to be publishing the first collection of stories by Croatian writer Josip Novakovich since he was named finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize and became a Canadian citizen. Heralded by the Kirkus Review as “the best American short-story writer of the decade”, Novakovich arrives at Esplanade with a formidable international reputation already in hand, but no Canadian publication record to match. Novakovich’s first Esplanade title, Ex-Yu, will appear this fall. A second collection is due in 2017.

Novakovich is in the good company of Québécois writer Éric Plamondon. Author of the 1984 Trilogy, which includes the novels Hungary-Hollywood Express, Mayonnaise, and Apple S, this contemporary Québécois classic offers a wildly experimental look back at the twentieth century through the lens of Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller, counter-culture author Richard Brautigan, and Apple mastermind Steve Jobs respectively. The translations are being undertaken by Esplanade editor Dimitri Nasrallah and will be published between 2016 and 2018.

Plamondon was first published by the innovative Quebec house Le Quartanier, with whom we’ve cultivated a productive working relationship that has also resulted in the acquisition of Geneviève Pettersen’s runaway bestseller, The Goddess of Fireflies, which has been all the rage in Quebec since it was first published last spring. Neil Smith, author of Boo! and Bang Crunch, is translating Fireflies for publication in 2016. Both Pettersen’s and Plamondon’s novels represent a new pursuit for Esplanade: giving Quebec’s English writers the opportunity to translate the French-language novels to which they feel a deep kinship.

We’ll be kicking off the new Esplanade list with Toronto author Andy Sinclair’s first novel, Breathing Lessons, a deeply provocative and powerful exploration of what modern life can be like for gay men.  Canada Reads finalist Angie Abdou writes, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that Andy Sinclair is doing something no other Canadian writer has done, possibly something no other Canadian writer has dared to do,” while Giller Prize finalist Marina Endicott writes, “Sinclair’s ferocious and straightforward prose bares a broken, still-open heart searching for something better.”

Sinclair’s debut will be followed by Montreal writer Anita Anand’s first collection of stories, Swing in the House. Anand paints a devastating portrait of Canadian families in their most private moments. She pulls back the curtains to reveal the unspoken complexities within the modern home, from sibling rivalries to fracturing marriages, casual racism to damaged egos.

Our 2015 list rounds out with Sheila Fischman’s translation of Jacques Poulin’s brilliant novella, English Is Not a Magic Language.  Best known to English readers as the author of the classic Volkswagen Blues, which was a finalist for the 2005 edition of Canada Reads, Poulin is enjoying something of a revival lately, having had three of his last English translations published by the esteemed American house, Archipelago Books.

Dimitri Nasrallah
Editor, Esplanade Books

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Fires of Wonderment and Possibility

Owen Percy reviews Mary Dalton's Hooking—recently shortlisted for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry—and praises the collection for its "curatorial sublimity":
In the poem “On Silk By Hand” Dalton’s composition boasts that “Not even the pharaohs dug so far / to take you to the city of your ancestors— / I call this my work, these decades and stations.” And indeed it is; when it works, it works in a way that stokes the fires of wonderment and possibility of poetry as a pursuit in the first place.

The News That Stays News?

In her provocative preface to Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014, Anita Lahey explains the link between poetry and journalism:
The poet, like the journalist, is a conduit. And, like the journalist, the poet must stick to the truth. We are not, like fiction writers, necessarily making up plots. We are not, like essayists, necessarily arguing points or drawing conclu- sions. We are, like journalists, fact gatherers and posers of questions. We look, we ask, and we listen. We hunt down data of all kinds, from the intense emotional variety on down, or we simply await its approach: we take note, absorb, distill. We give it all back, rearranged in a way that, we hope, lets it speak clearly. We can mean different things when we speak of journalistic truth as opposed to poetic truth, but the basic realities upon which verse and metaphor are built are those that even poets, with their famously freewheeling ways, may not disregard. For a poet to exhort a reader to see, say, the unswept corner of a room in a new light, the poet cannot ignore the fundamental truths about such a place—indeed the poet must know these truths intimately, and the poet must understand, or at least sense, why he or she is compelled to call attention to them. When the poet directs our eye to the dust-ridden corner, and points behind that scene, or to an idea gathered within it, the poet is sharing important information with us, gleaned through rigorous research.
Lahey also proposes a deeper reason for the comparison. 
Amid global political and economic volatility, and in consequence of the vast breadth and reach of free digital media, the very fundamentals of the fourth estate, the tenets of free speech and the ideal of the journalist as society’s truth-teller are faltering. The work of actual journalists has somehow been left out of the budgetary models erecting around the new media. We are making do, more and more, with what I think of as sort-of journalism, almost journalism: sloppy and incomplete and inexperienced reporting, poor writing, rushed editing.  At the same time, counter-intuitively, something exciting is going on. The popular satire of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—even the homegrown satire in YouTube videos—provides many viewers with the double-whammy of current affairs embedded within their underlying absurdities and hypocrisies. Many people now chiefly get their news from such shows, or from strings of Twitter feeds, where events are filtered through tweeters’ reactions, which can be, often as not, linguistically creative and layered with meaning. This speaks to a growing sophistication in how a population living in a media-saturated culture learns to process information: lightning quick, able to synthesize, critique and reconstitute, all at once.  
The upside for poetry?
One, for all the handwringing over contemporary poetry’s supposed inaccessibility, readers are becoming ever more astute, and instinctively attuned to the types of tricks poets like to play: layering, juxtaposing, recasting, fragmenting. The corollary to this is that what poets do naturally should become more compelling and more relevant to potential readers, even nontraditional readers of poetry. Is this optimistic? Maybe. But the second thing the current climate means for poetry makes that optimism feel at least somewhat justified. As traditional journalism flails and its online incarnations scramble to find their way, the work of the poets becomes that much more important as a record and reconsideration of our times, past and present. There is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, an ever- increasing need for poets to be visible and to be heard in the general discourse. The more I see and feel this to be so, the more I find myself noticing, when I pick up a literary journal, that it’s in the lines and words and in-depth investigations of the poets where we can find, in large measure, the most urgent news of our day.

Sunday 25 January 2015

Sunday Poem

Performs its trick: to get smaller as it fills.
More a recipe book than mere concordance. All’s logged
there in its padlocked proportions: weight, density,
ease of repair. It’s meant to tweak our deepest hunches
for superinsulating aerogels, concrete cloth,
cost balanced perfectly against production. 
But it’s published in paperback and gifted to say
your troubles will not always be your troubles.
Some read it to their kids; some plumb
it in a welder’s helmet of caution.
We’re taken aback to know the housefly
has a protein in its wafery wing
that makes the lightest and most flexible brace.
And that no matter the crosscut we elect to take
we’ll walk on an unchartable sea of rare metal.
Whole millennia are ground down and engrained
in the pulp like plant stalks that can be
transmorphed to burnable fuel. But it’s tough not to meddle.
Tough not to annotate it with rebuttals
while someone we’ve talked all we can talk to
buoys up from a widening pool of morphine,
says read me something, anything...
and so your thumb lets flap each treated page
that makes a quiet breeze of our many days.
From Safely Home Pacific Western (Goose Lane, 2015) by Jeff Latosik

Friday 23 January 2015

Poet of the Periphery

In his review of Derek Walcott's new selected, David Mason takes the measure of a literary giant:
Walcott found it a blessing to have come from the cultural periphery, not from the imperial center. Not only was he given access to astonish­ing natural beauty, an island of abrupt green hills in a colorfully teeming sea, but several empires surrounded him in language, educat­ing him not only in classrooms but also in the streets, where English and French dialects were being remade. He told Hirsch, “I have felt from my boyhood that I had one function and that was somehow to articulate, not my own experience, but what I saw around me.” Of West Indian literature he said, “what we were deprived of was also our privilege. There was great joy in making a world that so far, up to then, had been undefined.”
Walcott fulfilled that "function" to an unprecedented degree:
Walcott’s facility proves that nobody owns poetry. It can come from anywhere, including tiny islands bereft of substantial museums or monuments. With his mixed African and European blood, his schooling in “the mighty line of Marlowe” and the pidgin of the streets, his painter’s eye for color and detail, his social conscience and theatricality, Walcott has been able to bring a fresh Renaissance complexity to Caribbean literature. My own anthology of his best poems would be shorter than this, but so what? The occasion is not one for niggling, but for noticing what is most substantial and rewarding in the work—what is likely to remain when the fame has withered away.

Flash Essays?

Martha Nichols takes a stab at defining an emerging genre:
I love essays for many reasons, not the least of which is their rambling quality. But now, I also find myself drawn to flash essays. At a thousand words (give or take a hundred), flash essays are very short compared with the classics. By “flash essay,” however, I still mean an essay—prose that’s driven by ideas rather than the narrative techniques of creative nonfiction. Flash essays may include an anecdote or two, but they’re not memoir. They’re not “lyrical.” They don’t narrate a personal story in the second-person (you went into 7-11, wondering if the blood running down your legs would pool around your socks) or third-person voice. Flash essays resemble a first-person opinion piece rather than a fictional short story.
As an example, she points to Jennifer S. Holland's piece "Wild Messengers."

Pierre Berton on How to Roll a Joint

Sunday 18 January 2015

Sunday Poem

Sausage makers, salt farmers, whose wives and daughters
smoked menthols. Their bake sales baffling displays
of unexplainable choices. They'd built themselves
an indoor pool by 1979. We had none. Our curriculum
embraced partnership for the sake of our physical
education, so each swimming lesson was a lesson in defeat. 
Our cries rang off the Quonset hut’s corrugated steel.
As our school failed, theirs thrived, its sprung wood gym floor,
ceiling domed and beamed, classrooms around a mezzanine,
they wielded it like an unassailable proof, assaulted us
with it. All in that ridiculous accent, the inexplicable
outfits. Now our school is gone. Where once we fought them
in the parking lots, the arenas, left our blood and teeth
in the arenas, on the street in front of the bar, after band concerts
and ball tournaments and grad, and sometimes during,
now must we compel our children to be bused there,
to disembark the Bluebird like prisoners on work detail. 
Will our heirs go on to name their own after the wrong
soap opera characters and country music stars? Thirteen miles
down the road, and you’d think it another planet, a hostile
one, or overly friendly, in any case backward and impossible
to understand. No doubt, they’d say the same about us.
Which only serves to confirm what I’ve been telling you.
From The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 (ed. Sonnet L'Abbe) by Karen Solie

Wednesday 14 January 2015

T.S. Eliot Prize: Twitter Reax

David Harsent (seen above) walked away with this year's £20,000 T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry collection Fire Songs. One of the three jurors for the competition was Fiona Sampson. The last major award Harsent won was the $75,000 Griffin Poetry Prize in 2012. On the jury for that year? Sampson. The TLS finds the coincidence troubling ("Isn’t this the sort of thing a journalist, even an arts journalist, ought to find curious?").

Others are far more pointed about it.

Maybe the best way to fix a prize (short of scuppering it) is create a better one.

Sunday 11 January 2015


"I think if a book doesn’t scare me in some way, if there isn’t something about it that feels beyond my abilities, I shouldn’t write it. I want the book to push me out of my comfort zone. Otherwise I’m just going to be repeating myself."
Michael Crummey discusses the challenge of writing his new novel Sweetland.

Sunday Poem

I was the more deceived.
-Ophelia, Hamlet, III.i

It’s hard to stay angry on a bed of water.
Harder yet to remain above the tide— 
hence the anchor, hence the dive.
For those of us who practice our Ophelia,

we creatures of conscience, let it be known
that I have keened the lake in colder 
seasons, seen the loves returned by acts
of ice. Olive bottles, agate necklaces

bought in beachfront shops for cheap.
I shall th' effect of this good lesson keep.

I rearrange my lost and found. That man
who was discovered rooting the bottom

three decades after his death: in his boat,
a fish still writhed the line. Hear me out. 
Even the swans’ necks don’t shape a heart
when they hunt beneath the dark.
From Swan Dive (Frog Hollow, 2015) by Michael Prior 

Total Goddamn Clusterfuck

Last February, Pasha Malla travelled to Montreal to attend the Canada Council for the Arts' National Forum on the Literary Arts. He expected that "having so many people in one room who share a passion for literature would make for some good conversations." In a cutting essay, he counts the ways he was disappointed.
What happened was closer to a 250-person choir in simultaneous competition to be the lone soloist. The roughly 400 takeaway points included: the calamitous loss of our independent bookstores; “the digital revolution;” the potential for libraries to operate as community hubs; the dearth of outlets for literary criticism; the lack of respect for the timeless art of spoken word poetry; the lousy food; and then there was some guy from Ottawa who told heartwarming, possibly rehearsed stories in both official languages about his unique relationship with books, and in private confided to me he’d not been able to tolerate living in Toronto’s east end “what with all the Indians.” In a similar vein, when I commented in my working group at the overwhelming whiteness of the delegation, and wondered if it was a fair representation of the country at large, I was told that I “need to get out of Toronto more.” So. Some diversity of thinking. As you might imagine, the result at times was nothing short of a total goddamn clusterfuck
(illustration by Gary Taxali)

Saturday 10 January 2015

Cultural Heroes

Daniel Menaker makes the case for literary gatekeepers:
Right now, the principal intermediaries between writers and readers continue to be publishing companies, large and small. They make their choices, pay more or less for them (usually less), more or less support them (usually less), hope that they have good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing. In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who—along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps—have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.

As an analysand and an armchair analyst, I can’t help suspecting that whether they consciously know it or not, people like Jeff Bezos and the New Republic’s Chris Hughes want some of that. Well, they can’t have it. Like patrons of old and some of new, they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge. (More darkly and Freudianly still, since they can’t have it, maybe they want to kill it.)

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Page-Turning Prayer

Andrew Brobyn unpacks one of the anxieties behind Jim Johnstone's "rationally painful" book:
As I close Dog Ear, the purpose of Johnstone’s page-turning prayer becomes clear; this is the perpetual, ritualistic practice of a writer conquering by writing that feeling that most afflicts writers—fear. Fear of being forgotten with death; fear of being not-gotten in life; fear of not fitting in with the rest; and fear not doing your best with the time allotted to you, regardless of what convention expects.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Writer, Interrupted

The final title in Patrick Leigh Fermor's famous trilogy of travel books was published posthumously in 2014. Jason Guriel ponders the reasons for Leigh Fermor's inability to finish the manuscript.
The Broken Road, however, is far from the fully realized book Leigh Fermor’s fans were hoping for. It covers the last leg of his journey, from Bulgaria to Constantinople, but as editors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper explain, the new book was composed before its predecessors, in the early 1960s, when a magazine invited 5,000 words from Leigh Fermor on “The Pleasures of Walking.” Leigh Fermor, then in his forties, finally began to set down the European journey of his youth, and came to focus on the final stretch. But in the mid-1960s, he abandoned the manuscript. When he resolved to return to the subject of his European travels in the 1970s, he started over, repositioning his narrator in London, the day of departure. The rest we know: Leigh Fermor’s renewed effort produced the two best works of travel writing of the twentieth century.

But for the next two decades, he was unable to make headway on a book that would bring the trilogy to an end. The editors describe a “long ice age”: the “loyal and long-suffering” publisher was lost in 1993, the wife, ten years later. Leigh Fermor consulted a psychiatrist, but his energy had been flagging for some time. “The whole subject was beginning to feel stale, barren, written out, and he feared he no longer had the strength to bring it back to life,” is how Cooper puts it, darkly, in her recent biography of Leigh Fermor.

10 Most Popular Sunday Poems from 2014

  1. "Long Winter Farm," Jeramy Dodds
  2. "Slack Action," Jeffery Donaldson
  3. "Cruelty," Sara Peters
  4. "Depiction of a Man and a Woman on The Pioneer 10 Space Probe Plaque," Donna Kane
  5. "Suffer The Little Ones," Ross Leckie
  6. "Day for Evasion," Suzannah Showler
  7. "Local Union 64," Tim Bowling
  8. "10 Sections from Ringing Here & There," Brian Bartlett
  9. "Carp," Dani Couture
  10. "Judgment Day," Michael Lista
(Illustration by Jacqui Lee)