Tuesday 31 March 2015

The Larger Light Show

Jason Guriel gives Clive James props for focusing on the "counterintuitive" aspects of poetic technique:
At bottom, James is loyal to poems, not poets. He’s concerned with the question of why some stretches of verse stick with the reader and why others don’t. It’s clear he has spent years white-boarding problems that contemporary poets no longer give much countenance. For example, most of us dabblers would delight to be able to manage a brilliant line or two of poetry per poem. But James is preoccupied with not just how to generate brilliance—feat enough—but how to muffle it slightly so that it serves a larger light show. As he says of Frost: “His easy-seeming, usually iambic, conversational forward flow is a deception, a way of not just bringing show-stopping moments to your attention but of moving them past your attention, so that you will form the correct impression that he has wealth to spare and does not want the show stopped for such a secondary consideration as brilliance.” Brilliance as a “secondary consideration” is, well, brilliant—a counterintuitive point at a time when the practitioners who tend to trend, like Frederick Seidel and Patricia Lockwood, specialize in show-stopping lines. Elsewhere, James reminds us that poets once taught readers how to pronounce a word simply by its placement in a pattern of stresses. He can talk couplets, alliteration, nuts, bolts. It’s not that Poetry Notebook is perversely arcane; it’s rather as if a ballet textbook had readmitted to its pages, after years of doing without, the pirouette.

The Right Answer

Jim Johnstone argues that Don McKay was one of the first Canadian poets to reject Margaret Atwood's influential victimhood vision.
Before his first major coronation in Canadian letters—the 1991 Governor General’s Award for his seventh collection of poetry, Night Field—Don McKay was nearly indistinguishable from his subject matter. A naturalist whose poetry reads as if it’s part field guide, part rural love song, he camouflaged his identity in the language of his preferred landscapes. In doing so, McKay eschewed the garrison mentality that pervaded Canadian literature at the end of the 20th century. By taking up cause for the wilderness itself, he flipped the script provided by Margaret Atwood in Survival (1972), a book of criticism that wrestles with Canada’s literary identity. Citing examples from the national canon, Atwood argued that the central characters in Canadian literature were victims, and grim survival their chief concern. For McKay, who was busy reclaiming language as a means of communication with the environment, the physical world constituted his protagonist, one that’s continually victimized by human interference. This is clear in his second book, Long Sault (1975), where he lays out an ars poetica when he writes: “Here was a map coming out in dotted lines / to be filled in with the right answer. Here was a rapids in the noose.” While contemporaries like Al Purdy and George Bowering continued down the road paved by Atwood, McKay began filling in his figurative map with birds, beasts, and reparations to his surroundings.

Sunday 29 March 2015

Sunday Poem


To think you slender necked majestic birds, mythical white,
were worn as shoes. Split open at the seam and tender female feet

urged in to keep the damp and mud at bay; slippers of a sort.
The only plunge you made a final one into the thud of earth

not the dive of arrows into the sea your sharp beaks
once made, a weapon for the abundant fish.

The sky so thick with gannet you resemble white ash
not birds that rise above the rock and fog.

Coupling pairs with yellow-crested heads dusted with pigment,
a solid crown, your skulls resistant to impact from impossible heights.

The only way to catch is from above. The fish are all your bounty here,
herring swallowed by the beak-full, under water.

Sea-bound boats bob and flail in winds too fierce
for any fisherman’s hook or line.

So they net you instead. From horsehair ropes bound with
the lining of sheep gut to keep from splitting off.

Men suspend themselves and poach you from your sea stack nests
dangle from cliff faces, their only implement a long stick

with a noose at the end to scoop you by the neck and snap it there
above the depths.

The goose-neck footwear only lasts four days, if that, then
tossed aside to sink into the ground, skin and carcass as mulch for crops.
From Leaving the Island (Signal Edition, 2015) by Talya Rubin.

Camp Life

Michael Prior reflects on his grandparents' internment 74 years ago:
My maternal grandparents are Japanese Canadian. They also grew up near Vancouver. Their families owned adjacent strawberry farms in a small town, until they were forced into an internment camp for the last four years of the Second World War—a fate shared by 22,000 other people of “Japanese racial origins” who were held in various camps across the province. Their property and possessions were auctioned off to pay for their own internment. Still, my grandparents’ love for this country remains greater than almost any other people I know.

One Time Only

James Arthur ponders his reading style, in which he performs his poetry from memory:
When I started reciting my own poems in public, I worried that it would seem too theatrical, but now I find recitation very natural, because it allows me to address audiences directly. When you recite you’re giving a performance, in the way that an actor or a singer performs, and some poets are not interested in doing that, maybe because they’re writing for a readership as opposed to an audience, or because they see poetry as a very private art. I have no quarrel with them. But, in my case, performance is part of the medium. Sometimes I feel that it’s my main medium, and that the presentation of my poems on the page is secondary.

I often write from memory by walking around and talking to myself. Even when I’m working at a computer I write out loud, so that I can hear the poem’s rhythm. Every time I hear the poem, I know it a little better. By the time I’ve finished revising a poem, I usually have it committed to memory, or almost committed to memory.

And treating poetry as a performing art emphasizes its ephemerality. A printed poem can be endlessly reprinted, photocopied, scanned, uploaded, cut and pasted—but a performance, even if somebody’s there with a video camera, is one time only: the audience experiences something that won’t exist when the performance is over, and which won’t ever be reproduced in exactly the same form. I find that appealing.

Thursday 26 March 2015


Where does Kateri Lanthier get her best material? Her kids.
I certainly steal from my kids. There's a lot of kidspeak and kidthink in [Reporting from Night]—while I worked on it, I was listening to under-fives acquire language, collide images, fracture expressions and coin words. It was delectable. I followed them around with a notebook to capture what they said. Some poems draw on "life," in terms of settings or scenarios, but I think the greater debt is to the way kids speak. "As we strolled past the mannequins,/ you said, "This is the fashion store/ for ladies with no heads." And "Moon, moon, help me, I'm stuck!" or "On the snow hill, you say/ "We are running/from our footprints." The kid's-eye view started to affect what I saw, so that even when I'm not quoting them, I see things their way: "Mitten foliage is scattered by the door./ The floor wears many hats."

Interpretive Powers

In an interview with Stewart Coles which appears on Boxcar Poetry Review, Jim Johnstone explains his notion of poetic "difficulty":
I'm not concerned with difficulty as much as I'm concerned with perspective. There's always going to be a gap between what a poem means to its author and what a poem means to an individual reader — to me that adds a layer of perception that makes difficulty a secondary concern. Poetry demands the interpretive powers of its readers, and I'm comfortable leaving that challenge in their hands.
Over at Maisonneuve, Johnstone talks to Chad Campbell about his relationship to revision:
Sometimes it feels like I spend all my time revising. That time feels like work. There’s a stark contrast between writing and revising as far as I’m concerned—writing is creative, joyous, almost ecstatic, whereas revising is necessary if you want to publish your work. There are times when I leave my initial draft in a journal and keep it for myself... I find holding back work refreshing; as long as they remain unseen, my poems belong to me completely. The same principle is necessary in a healthy relationship or friendship. Without mystery, the self can suffer.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

The Surreal Solidarity of Metaphor

In a long reply to Chad Campbell's review of Sue Goyette's Ocean, Phil Hall rebuts Campbell's assertion that bad metaphors cause her book to sink like a stone:
Piled up, protean, Goyette's metaphors of ocean and society just make no sense, says Campbell. Clearly.

Which is not the point.

Campbell misses, in his procedure, by his template, the surreal solidarity of metaphor, how it smears logic to expose deeper & wider unity.

This is the alternative tradition of Neruda & Lorca. This is Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Ocean is not coming out of the tradition of Milton's Lycidas & Tennyson's Maud with their track-able system of similes & symbols.

This poem does not come out of the tradition that is being used here to judge it.

Fast Food of the Pseudo-Intelligentsia

Got an opinion? Susan Glickman doesn't want to hear it.
Opinions give me the heebie-jeebies, and opinions seem to be, increasingly, what people expect writers to have. And I don’t mean opinions about books, which are, after all, one’s business if one is a writer. I mean opinions about daily life, or politics, or the environment; the kind of opinions people seem compelled to share with each other on talk shows and editorial pages and even, alas, on Via Rail. Opinions are to judgments what sushi is to bouillabaisse: superficially pretty and chic, but ultimately raw and indigestible. The fast food of the pseudo-intelligentsia; something to be ingested on the run in that heedless North American way so disdained by the French. Insubstantial sound bites prepared by food stylists instead of chefs.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Chairing of the Bard

Sunday 15 March 2015

Sunday Poem

Weeds discovered huddled at the tower’s base, in cracks,
were gassed. At last inspection, none had sprung back. 
Feisty but mortal, a gangsta tag was wiped
from the north wall, leaving the merest smear, like soup on an elder’s bib. 
Some vague flaw vexing an exec’s window was effaced,
amendable warp in her expanse of plexiglass. 
All seems well and the marble’s polish gleams unscuffed and chipper.
The dining room revolves, revealing dreamy views of gloaming vista. 
So I sign off, yours truly, humble super, bowing out,
handing my torch to the night shift guy with his paunch and laden belt. 
The chimes of his keys will chatter in halls until the dawn’s cheeks blush.
His nametag will be accurate, his hounds on their leash robust. 
Let’s turn in, those hordes of us who need not know the night;
snore ensconced among the folds of Incident Logs unfilled. 
Dozing, let’s patrol the fabled room immune to grime, or sweep
with brittle straw the pristine floor that greets the newborn feet. 
Pupils shifting under lids, wait, wait for the report:
the gun that starts the race, or kills the lights.
From The Gun That Starts the Race (Goose Lane, 2015) by Peter Norman

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Noblesse Oblige

The Spring 2015 issue of CNQ includes a deeply considered, hard-hitting 12,000-word essay by Alex Good (not yet online) on Canlit's ruling gerontocracy. He argues, among other things, that Canada's worship of its literary establishment—the hard-won creation of millions of dollars in grants and a colluding academic industry—is crushing the ability of interesting new careers to properly take root. The essay begins with a description of Alice Munro's decision to pull out of the 2009 Giller prize—an act, Good goes on to explain, that should have given us serious pause.
As Canada’s literary award season started to gear up in the fall of 2009, a polite bombshell was dropped on the media oddsmakers. Alice Munro, widely recognized as not just one of Canada’s top authors but as one of the greatest writers working in the English language (she had already won the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work, and in 2013 would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature), withdrew her new collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness, from consideration for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize. She had already taken home the Giller twice, and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction three times, and, it seemed, had had enough of awards.

Such a withdrawal was not without precedent. Both Munro and Margaret Atwood had previously removed their books from Giller consideration, but that was because they were also serving on the jury that year (only a slight conflict of interest, given the history of prize). The reason Munro gave for pulling out of the contest in 2009, however, was noteworthy. “Her reason is that she has won twice and would like to leave the field to younger writers,” her publisher explained.

Munro’s decision was applauded in the media for its generosity, and understandably so. But her statement also dramatically laid bare the thinness of the field she was leaving open. Meryl Streep found herself nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in the film Julie and Julia in 2009, despite having already received 15 Academy Award nominations, more than any other actor in history (she would win for the third time in 2012). Should she have withdrawn her name from consideration in order to leave the Oscars open to younger talent? That would not have gone down quite so well. And yet in the run-up to the prize that had established itself (at no small expense) as Canada’s most prestigious literary award, Munro’s act of noblesse oblige was simply accepted for what it was: a recognition of the foregone conclusion that with her in the race, no younger Canadian writer (and, at 78 years old, the field of “younger writers” was rather large), would have had much of a chance. The winner’s name would, in turn, forever have an asterisk beside it, like a baseball record from the steroid era.  

Sunday 8 March 2015

Sunday Poem


Drawn by a scent,
a body without bone—
move with the ease of silk. 
Upward, slugs seek
an overhang. 
Hermaphrodite contortionists
spin on a rope of mucous.
Entwined, dangling aerialists in courtship. 
The intrusive mind, endless swing
as if overtaken by a current.
Optical tentacles, skirt and mouth,
fringe against foot, press
in a knot that spins. 
The penis is in the slug’s head:
they both evert a phallus and tangle.
It can take hours
to unwind the appendages.
They drop like a seed
to its place on the earth.
From Proof (DC Books, 2014) by Larissa Andrusyshyn

Total Hedonist

Steven Beattie gets serious about the seriousness that enfeebles a great deal of Canadian literature:
The books we tend to elevate in this country are ones with subject matter that is intended to educate rather than entertain, and the dominant tone is almost painfully sombre. Which has never made sense to me. Canadians are great at being funny: why is it we seem so reluctant to embrace humour in our literature? Why do we assume that just because a book happens to be funny, it must therefore lack serious intent?

I shy away from literature that is more self-consciously good for you than simply good. That is, if the primary intent in a novel is to teach the reader some kind of moral lesson or to convey a message about, say, tolerance or acceptance, I tend to tune out. That is the job of an essayist, a teacher, a polemicist, or a priest, not a novelist. The novelist should be primarily concerned with story and technique, not the importance of the theme or the potential for improvement in readers. (If this happens as well, so much the better, but it should never be the foundational reason for telling a story.)

There also seems to be an idea afoot—still—that books should be edifying, but not necessarily enjoyable. Where did that idea come from? I am a total hedonist in this regard: when I read, I want to derive pleasure from the experience, not be preached to or lectured at. Why bother reading—fiction, at least—if it isn’t enjoyable? We spend so much time lamenting the fact that young people don’t read anymore, then we try to force-feed them the most self-consciously upright, moralistic stuff on the assumption that it’s good for them. No wonder they run screaming in the opposite direction.

Saturday 7 March 2015


"Give me Tony Hoagland or Brenda Shaughnessy or David Berman. Give me a story. Don’t draw a picture of a bullet using only vowels and then tell me it’s a poem. That experimental shit is for grad students and grants. I want poems to make me laugh then break my heart, borrowing a phrase from Donald Bartheleme."
Mike Spry on what he looks for in poetry. 

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Hear It Sing

Kevin McNeilly reports on Stephen Burt's recent lecture at UBC called “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place.”
He concentrated on the work of two key poets, for him: C. D. Wright and Mary Dalton. Quoting from Wright’s “Ozark Odes”—“Maybe you have to be from here to hear it sing”—Burt developed the homonymy of here and hear to suggest that Wright’s poems generate the textures and particularities of place apophastically, allowing the reader access through lyric attention, through the melopoeic richness of her geographically precise diction, to a phenomenologically rich encounter with that particularity. You hear the place, you sense it, palpably, in Wright’s words, despite and even because of her skeptical refusal to claim communicative success. The withdrawing “melt” of her language, in other words, is also recombinant and evocative, a plenitude. Burt gestured at Elise Partridge’s poem “Dislocations” (from Chameleon Hours, 2010 version) which also presents a “hybrid” form of lyric apophasis, refusing to lay claim to any naïve or grandiose transcendence while also, at a moment of surprising intensity, discovering how poetic intelligence still fuses to its descriptive objects, as “you feel your strengths intermingling.” One of the pleasures of Elise Partridge’s poetry, Burt said, is that its “attention to place does not preclude migration from one place to another,” and that some of her best work inheres in those transitions and intermediations. He concluded his talk with an investigation of some of the poetry of Mary Dalton. He was especially taken with how human geography and dialect words, in her poems, “imply the physical geography that the words produce.” He focused on the seductive estrangements of encountering the moments when she seemed to open her Newfoundland word-hoard. “Maybe you don’t have to be from there,” he concluded, “to hear it sing.”

School of Outsiderism

While finishing up edits on an absurdly overdue book of essays by Michael Harris, I came across, in an interview he gave Sonja Skarstedt in 1990, a pretty decent definition of the Signal Editions aesthetic.
I have always been attracted to the writing of so-called “outsiders.” Which is not to say “experimentalists” or whatever, although those are partly included—but people whose voices tend to be somewhat solitary or unique. I have great difficulty with “schools”—the school-oriented poets…that is to say “language” or “sound” or “concrete” poets or whatever kind of group of poets. Because I find that the truely interesting sensibilities come from people who have a unique vision of things and so they’re—I mean, my feeling is that there isn’t any particular “voice” that Signal has—there are a range of poetries written by people who have something unique to say. Or a unique way of saying it. And that is what has always interested me about editing: finding those particular voices of people who have worked something out—one thing, or one way of looking at things.
(Photo by Terence Byrnes)

Sunday 1 March 2015

Sunday Poem

As if I have to watch you
A thousand times a day
Moving away from me, moving away from me, moving away 
Construction workers in bright vests, grey
Boots, hard hats in orange, white, blue
And every one of them is who 
You were—a young man—new
Dreams in his speech, all his movements, play
Moving away from me, moving away from me, moving away 
Putting in the hard hours, taking home his small pay,
Slow to admit he's still uncertain what to do
And every one of them is who 
You felt and didn't feel yourself to be: crude,
Beautiful, beyond whatever they could say
Yes, every one (every last one) of them is you
Moving away from me, moving away from me, moving away
From Designated Mourner (ECW Press, 2014) by Catherine Owen

("X-Men at Union" by Stephen Andrews)