Wednesday 29 April 2015

Mary Dalton at Harvard

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Reluctant Networker

Julia Corpus wonders if Charlotte Mew—whose poems were extravagantly praised by Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf—paid a price for being such a "reluctant networker":
There was too much at stake for her: much of her time and energy was spent protecting her personal life from exposure, so the family might maintain an air of respectability. Hers was a story that included significant financial struggle, insanity (two of Mew’s siblings died in mental asylums) and the suppression of her own, likely homoerotic, sexuality. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why Mew tended to spurn the attentions of those who might promote her work. Lady Ottoline Morrell, for instance, was a renowned society hostess and friend to artists. Her tea parties were attended by TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Henry James and DH Lawrence. She admired Mew’s work and was well placed to put in a good word for her. None of this counted with Mew, who snubbed Morrell’s attentions because she found them intrusive.

Alcoholic Logic

Michael Lista argues that John Thompson's breakthrough collection Stilt Jack gives us the "sound of a mind in its cups."
Published posthumously, Stilt Jack is a collection of 38 ghazals, a poem for every year of Thompson’s life. He includes a brief primer on the form as an introduction, where he explains the ghazal’s origin in ninth century Persia, and its formal conventions. The ghazal, he writes, “proceeds by couplets which (and here, perhaps, is the great interest in the form for Western writers) have no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.” That’s not quite right though, as the poems in Stilt Jack do have a kind of logic—alcoholic logic. Thompson ends his introduction by writing: “The ghazal has been called ‘drunken and amatory’ and I think it is.” Thompson’s interest in drinking, in other words, wasn’t strictly recreational. In 1962 he published a translation of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat.” In 1966, he edited and helped translate a book on Paul Claudel and his “l’ivresse poetique,” which Thompson himself rendered as “poetic drunkenness.” And in Stilt Jack, he managed, more than any poet since Baudelaire, to distill the feeling—and the meaning—of being intoxicated.

Monday 27 April 2015

Flash Interview #10—Asa Boxer

Asa Boxer is the co-founder of The Montreal International Poetry Prize. This year's $20,000 award is being decided by Eavan Boland. Deadline for entries is May 15.

Carmine Starnino: The Montreal International Poetry Prize continues to be the only award of its kind—delivering a huge sum for a single poem. What's the thinking there? Why the focus on the poem?

Asa Boxer: We wanted to signal to audiences that the poem is a work of art, at least as valuable as other, perhaps more visible art forms. Folks are willing, for example, to pay to see theatre, dance and film. I'm not sure a poem has equal purchase on wallets. Meanwhile the visual arts are currently in the midst of a parody of value, where a painting that fetches a mere six figures is a sign the creator has achieved only moderate success. So the idea, in part, was to announce loud and clear to a culture obsessed with measures that poetry had measurable value.

Back in 2010, when the idea of the Montreal Prize was conceived, there were few prizes offering big purses to poets. Mostly it was collections of poems that had a chance of landing a significant prize amount. The poetry competitions that awarded the largest amounts for single poems were old in 2010, and the sums they offered had lost their glimmer. We hoped to nudge those up by example. In many cases, literary journals were offering thousands to the winner of a short story competition, while insulting poets with a paltry sum, as though poems were what you wrote during a commute or during a lunch break. The message was, don't bother with this minor art form, nobody really wants it. We wanted to change that. So we designed a prize that would award tens of thousands for a single poem, no longer than forty lines.

CS: The prize's internationalism has ramped up considerably since its inception, with your current editorial board featuring poets from Trinidad, Nigeria and India. Why make the enterprise so diverse?

AB: I'd say we always had a strong international editorial board. What's changed is how far we can reach into poetry circles that were remote in 2010. By asking for recommendations from our African, Caribbean, Indian and Australian sources, we can now get to emerging poets and poets who were not in the major anthologies but clearly should have been. Then we can invite them to join our editorial board for a season or encourage them to participate as contenders in the competition.
The desire for this sort of diversity is rooted in curiosity and a desire to expand our notions of what poetry can be. Just as Ezra Pound looked to foreign poetries (like Japanese) to learn other approaches and techniques in the medium, the Montreal Prize hopes to keep apace of how folks are writing in different countries and to be a vehicle of cross pollination.

CS: What are some trends you've seen in submissions over the last few years? Is English-language poetry in good health?

AB: Happily, I haven't seen trends in the sense of fashions. In other words, our anthologies haven't represented a dominant style or subject. There has been diversity on that front. I'm not in a position to say whether English-language poetry is in good health. It has become an industry, though, which is antithetical to its spirit: there are mechanisms that keep the presses running whether the material is worth printing or not. I suspect also that globalization along with the Creative Writing Program have contributed to what looks like an unnerving uniformity of expression. I have definitely seen less culturally inflected diversity than initially hoped for. For example, I suppose Caribbean folk couldn't keep writing in pidgin, but it's as though the sound of their work (on the page at least) has lost that Caribbean lilt and swagger. Things are in flux right now, I can say that much. The UK, for instance, once a leader in the poetry world, is now on a par with everyone else. The best African poetry seems the most urgent and most distinct. I think poets ought to be turning their attention there right now.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Sunday Poem

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.

The friar's hologram greets us thusly. Says if our souls
are pure and good we will see a vision of immortality.
Think St. Pio of Pietrelcina. He bore stigmata for fifty
years. Here's an image of Jesus bleeding. Worse

than my monthlies? The red of his thorn crown disturbs
me. The friar was a good man. He walked with a wicker
basket collecting alms while sporting a metal vest
beneath his blouse. Teeth dug into his skin, rubbed

his flesh raw. Like a ribbon around his finger, pain
reminded him of sin. So he made penance by gathering
bits of bread and pails of milk. I’m hungry, can you fetch
me a snack? My whip chases the devil out of my fat

and strikes the switch that turns me on. We enter
the monks’ undercroft and find six chambers candlelit.
Beside the mounds of holy dirt, I spy a human skull
with thigh bone wings, spiny light fixtures. Jaws locked

in intricate floral arrangements. Pistil, stamen,
mandible. Savour this. We enter the hall of pelvises,
the crypt of shin bones, skeletons with scythes crafted
artfully. The Princess of Barberini hangs from the ceiling.
We see couples drop to their knees. We are moved
along. In the Corridor of Exaltation, visitors lie
at the feet of friars half rotted away. Such displays
distract me from rear-wall detailing, a coat of arms 
made of crossed arms. One clothed, one muscular.
How can I keep my memory of this moment clear?
Like cartloads of bodies pulled to the friary and air-
buried, time eats at our memories, no matter how dear. 
Then the gift shop, and a woman I follow outside.
Her short black hair and Ray Bans. Wedged heels,
tight grey jeans. I wanted to be her, in Rome,
and disappear down the street talking on an iPhone.
From Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart, 2014) by Cassidy McFadzean

Thursday 23 April 2015

Circling a Big Idea

Josh Prescott describes his first encounter with John Thompson's poetry:
As an undergrad in Sackville, a professor of mine, unabashedly eager to evangelize about the greatness of Canadian poetry, was outwardly offended by my confession that I’d not read Thompson, at which point I was casually told that something monumental was missing from my literary tool belt. Thompson was a giant, I was told, and not to be overlooked.

And so I did read Thompson. But I did not encounter the giant as I was expecting. Instead I found a writer whose interest in language, whose precise use of subtlety and nuance, was at the forefront of each line. To me Thompson’s work seemed small and somewhat broken, circling a big idea but desperate to remain contained, limited perhaps. Critics often remark on the trials of Thompson’s personal life—the alcoholism, battles with university bureaucrats, failed marriage, illness. Undoubtedly, these experiences resonate in his poems. But my first readings of his work were innocent and unaware. Both eager and apprehensive, at the time of this first encounter with Thompson I was deeply engaged with a flurry of prose works categorized by their existential reach—Kundera, Camus, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and others. Thompson’s poetry echoed the sense of reaching I found in these writers. Each time I return to Stilt Jack, I recall that first encounter and the sense of grasping in his work.

A Canadian Poet To Watch

Shoshanna Wingate is hotly tipped for great things by Patrick Warner:
Ultimately, it is the lived-in quality of Wingate’s poems, the authenticity that comes from tough negotiation with experience and with poetic form that makes her work a valuable recent contribution to Canadian poetry, a poetry which, in 2015, is overly-indebted to affected language, to literary theory and to the incomprehensible. Among the wash of contemporary poems, many of which read as non sequitur followed by non sequitur, Wingate’s poems stand out for their realism, for their narrative candor, for their emotional heft, and (contradictory as it may sound) for their restraint.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Has Social Media Been Good For Poetry?

David McGimpsey thinks so:
My anecdotal psychological insight into this is that Facebook and social media has made younger people generally better poets than they used to be, and the reason why is that now it becomes a thing that people just know how to do without being told how to do it: How to materialize the self. The function that poets often engage in to where your speaking self as a poet is a kind of materialization of an aspect of your personality. It’s not you, but a version of you. And good version of you. One where you’re more articulate, more on point, one where you’re more perceptive. Your Facebook is like that. It’s a materialization of who you are.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Sunday Poem

The power was out when we went to bed
that night, remember? It had been out
since suppertime—one of those late
afternoon thunderstorms
that used to roll through the valley
like a tidal wave. We blew out the candles,
forgetting which lights had been on,
forgetting about the radio
till, soon after we’d drifted off,
it jumped to life, full volume,
(along with the bedside lamp)
for a brutal second—just long enough
to jolt us awake with a dire,
frenetic male voice proclaiming, “Too late!
For an instant we blinked at each other,
stupefied. You lunged for the radio knob
as the room went black again,
and there we lay, in country dark
(so much darker than city dark)
with that voice still echoing in our heads.
Was it too late? For what?
There were numerous possibilities.
Even back then, there were numerous
possibilities. The kids slept on, oblivious,
in their little rooms, their wooden bunks
under the flyspecked windows,
and after a moment we began to laugh,
a laugh we can reignite
with those words to this day.
Too late!
We dissolved in each other’s arms
in helpless laughter.
From My Shoes Are Killing Me (Biblioasis, 2015) by Robyn Sarah

Signal Editions, Montreal Gala Launch, April 16, 2015

Chad Campbell, reading from Laws & Locks.
Talya Rubin, reading from Leaving the Island.

(From left) Ewa Zebrowski, Marsha Courneya, Carmine Starnino, Chad Campbell, Nancy Marelli

Carmine Starnino, Talya Rubin, Robyn Sarah

Thursday 16 April 2015

Hating the Haters

When Jason Guriel tweeted his unhappiness with the poetry reviews on Slate, Jonathan Farmer, the site's poetry reviewer, took notice. The result? A utterly fascinating—and pointedly diplomatic—exchange on the nature of reviewing:

None of your reviews, in and of themselves, are particularly egregious. As one-offs, they are clear and articulate, with stylish turns of phrase. But in the context of Slate – a magazine I go to for lively, feisty prose – your reviews strike me as, to quote the Tweet, "conspicuously safe," especially in the aggregate. You like a lot, but hate very little. When you write, "It's hard to resist, but it's also a stretch, this sense that if we can keep other people from loving what they love, we can get back to – or on to – something worthy of us, at last," I'm put on red alert and in mind of recent the debate about smarm, snark’s antimatter. Who's keeping anyone from loving what they want to love? Critics who steer me away from the bad (by acknowledging it) and towards the good are, in fact, teaching me how to love. In other words: don't hate the haters.
I'm not sure I can think of any examples of a review that feels legitimately skeptical to me, though I'd be very curious to read one. To expand on a point I made in an earlier email: I think there are all kinds of ways in which a poem can create value for someone, and very few of them do me or anyone else any harm. There are plenty of people who love a style of poetry that seems, to me, excruciatingly unambitious and aurally inert. And yet there are these large (at least by poetry standards) communities of people who are deeply invested in this kind of poetry. Are they deluded, ignorant, inferior? Maybe. Or more likely their needs are just different from mine. Either way, I think any attempt to say, publicly, that this has no value would have to reckon with the fact that so many people value it.

Knight's Move

David Wheatley reminds us that poetic influence can move in strange ways:
If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. Most poets would bridle at the idea of writing out of ‘blind or timid adherence’ to anything, but the ‘handing down’ or handing over present in the word tradition can have other, less comfortable meanings too. Tradition is also ‘the act of delivering into the hands of another’, as in a prisoner swap, and the connecting lines from generation to generation can swerve in unexpected directions. A map of poetic influence rather than of croneydom would look strikingly different from the flow-charts one sometimes encounter in the wake of prize-giving scandals, showing all the who-knows-who connections of the poetry world. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky proposed a ‘knight’s move’ theory of literary history, in which decisive steps are taken in an oblique or diagonal form, my variant on which would be the crazy uncle scheme, which I will confess to deriving from the works of Flann O’Brien, an author whose world is strangely lacking in father-son relationships but full of cranky uncles. I could name Flann O’Brien as one such New Gen crazy uncle, in his influence on Ian Duhig’s Celtic-tinged, anarchic wordplay. Others would include Weldon Kees for Simon Armitage and Michael Hofmann, Raymond Roussel for Mark Ford, Emil Cioran for Don Paterson, and McGonagall for W. N. Herbert.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Purest Form of Generosity

What's one of the most important ideas that shapes Matthew Zapruder's poetry?
It’s pretty simple: talk as if someone’s listening. When there are flaws in contemporary American poetry, a lot of times you can trace it back to a failure to even consider the fact that people might be listening. Even if you were to reject that notion or say, “That’s not for me, I have other considerations,” you’re thinking about it. You have to take that seriously, as a fact of the world. Simone Weil has this very famous simple statement: “attention is the purest form of generosity.” The flipside of that is, when you have someone’s attention, you have a kind of responsibility. It doesn’t mean you have to be serious about that or even respectful of it. But to not even deal with the fact that’s happening just seems like such a grievous oversight. I think a lot of poetry seems oblivious to the fact that someone might be reading it or hearing it.

Tuesday 14 April 2015


"I find it very hard to say anything complimentary about myself. My parents thought that self-congratulation was gross. The adjectives I might add would include unsure, arrogant, small-minded, controlling, worrisome, and lucky, but I don't spend much time applauding or criticizing myself. I prefer to wash the dishes."
—Ron Padgett on the occasion of winning this year's Robert Creeley Award.

Monday 13 April 2015

Flash Interview #11—Talya Rubin

Poet, playwright and theatre creator/performer, Talya Rubin’s poetry received the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. In 2011 she was short-listed for the Winston Collins/Descant prize for Best Canadian poem and was a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. She lives in Montreal with her husband and son. Leaving the Island—launched at Drawn & Quarterly on Thursday, April 16—is her first book of poems.

Carmine Starnino: The opening section of your debut describes the Scottish island of St. Kilda as a pretty grim and deprivation-ridden place. If those poems were made into a film, which director would get it right?

Talya Rubin: Lars von Trier would no doubt do a stellar job of making the landscape particularly miserable, but the human aspect would most likely get lost in the abject misery. He tends to be so heavy handed in his bleakness these days, although I am a big fan of his earlier films. Breaking The Waves could almost be a modern day St Kilda story. It's interesting that you think film and drama right away, as the poems do seem to contain a lot more than geography. The ghosts of that place spoke to me in so many layers. I think someone made an opera about St Kilda—heightened human drama and intensity that lends itself to opera, no doubt. Andrea Arnold is my favourite UK filmmaker alive right now. She is very contemporary and deals with working class urban issues, so not an obvious fit, but she did do a re-make of Wuthering Heights, so I think she would be my first choice. She knows how to hone in on a detail and tell a human story like no one else making films right now.

CS: You won Harbourfront's Battle of the Bards in March. A number of people in the audience later told me about how powerfully you read. Are the theatrical and aural aspects of your poetry important when you write?

TR: Hugely important. I'm a theatre maker and a performer as well as a writer, and when I write for theatre I literally speak the text up on my feet. I then transcribe what I've written onto paper. I believe I write poetry in a similar way, only it is by its very nature a more formal process. Most of the poems arrive with some kind of whispering in the ear though, a niggling feeling that there is language there, a rhythm of some kind, an urgency or insistence on an arrangement of words into particular meaning. I often hear things before I write them and when they arrive like that I know a poem is there. Sometimes I carry a poem around in my head for a while before committing it to the page, so voice is very strong for me, and where these words come from is certainly an inner kind of listening. And then, because I am naturally a person who likes to read words on a page out loud I have an innate desire to bring those words to life as a performer. As though the blood and heart beat behind the poem needs to get out. When I read poems by other authors, I often have to read them out loud to really know them, to hear them. The voice in our heads is one thing, but what a liberating, enlivening thing it is to read poetry out loud. I see it as a performative and a visceral experience, not in any forced way, but almost by necessity. I think it is part of what poetry is—this very aural thing at both its source and the way it gets conveyed, like you are writing/speaking from your own inner ear to your reader's/listener's. But I still think poems written with this inner ear need to have rigour on the page. There is an expectation (rightfully so) that poetry in print is going to work visually and read in a more literary, fixed way, and this aural aspect is never going to replace an awareness of line and form. It is about how that listening is translated into something more formal that is going to work on the page.

CS: The last section of the book is comprised of prose poems describing a stay on a Greek island. Why the prose poem? What can it do that a traditional poem can't?

TR: I think the prose poem is a perfect example of this aural tradition. It compresses language so that lines are bumping up against one another, so that breath is almost compressed as well. The prose poem also has an inherently lyric aspect, it sinks us into language so deep we are drowning. And for me, the job of the prose poem is then to make sure the reader can swim, can get to the surface for air—but only just. That the rush of language doesn't entirely overwhelm and the choices that are made are still exacting and ripe with precise meaning. I tried to break those prose poems into more traditional line breaks at one point as an experiment, and it was completely off, it was like trying to force something into the wrong space. Not because the lines wouldn't hold on their own, but because the form is entirely different. I like Charles Simic's take that a prose poem is: "a burst of language following a collision with a large piece of furniture." There is action in a prose poem and an absurd leap. And I think this particular suite of poems was asking for that. It is a series of poems about a really heightened experience, it contains the personal and the mythic, it holds a vast span of time; ancient history and the here and now. So the form seemed right for the content. There is something impossible about a prose poem. The image of those glass bottles with boats in them comes to mind. I always think, "how did those things get in there?" And a prose poem to me is like that, it is like an impossibly large thing fitting into a small thing. And the impossibility of it—the wonder of it—is the form itself.

Sunday 12 April 2015

Sunday Poem

Longings brittle as the crooked
branches of October elms that line the residential
streets where families incubate
behind glass. Be to me as rain, asked the rain.
Be to me as wind, asked the wind.
Be to me as darkness, asked the darkness
& only the darkness answered, siphoning
light from under the garden’s leaves.
Dogs scratched one backyard tree season
after season, until one season the leaves refused.
The burgundy trees are almost mute, it seems,
when before in blushes of colour they would return
now pale images of places something terribly burnt
stole itself away replace them: the shoal beside
the sea that stored heat in frigid evenings,
cave on a cliff that hid two painted horses,
the empty double seats of a streetcar that cut off the track
to ring a kettle lake, deep in winter trees.
Be to me as rain, I ask the rain, wash
away this stiff turf, just the smallest patch, show me
the door in the earth so I could
descend and for a time, just a time, experience
the root’s eyeless dedication, relieve
what worries the wood, emerge a courage of leaves.
From Laws & Locks (Signal Editions, 2015) by Chad Campbell  

(Drawing made out of soil, from a series called "Dirt," by Marsil Andjelov Al-Mahamid)

Saturday 11 April 2015

Fool's Errand

Dan Wells reveals the story behind Biblioasis's windmill logo:
Three or four years into establishing Biblioasis as a press, it hit me that publishing, or at least literary publishing, is a fool’s errand. There was a moment of real despair when I finally realized both the task I’d set for the press and my inability to walk away from it. I think almost everyone who cares deeply about something most people care nothing about has experienced this kind of despair at one time or another, and the concomitant realization that the despair doesn’t change a thing, and that they are going to continue on out of some odd mixture of love and compulsion. That despite everything, they’ll keep tilting at those windmills. The logo was a way to acknowledge this.

I also wanted the windmill as a reminder of the essential comedy underlining this enterprise, as a reminder to try and keep the proper spirit, to laugh and not take myself or this whole Biblioasis thing too seriously.
(Illustration taken from the concept art to Terry Gilliams' upcoming Don Quixote project.)

Good as Gone

Anna Pottier has published a memoir about the 14 years she spent with Irving Layton in his declining years, leaving him in 1995 when she was 35. She explains the genesis of her title:
Towards the latter part of our time together when stress and anxiety began creeping into Irving like arthritis into bones, he would turn to me with increasing frequency for answers and reassurance as to who was coming over or had such-and-such a letter been answered, etc. My joking response was to say that I could title my eventual memoir One Minute and Forty-nine Seconds: My Life with Irving Layton. “Why?” “Because that is how long I have between questions.” I began writing Good as Gone in January 2006, almost immediately after Irving’s death. Some seven years later, I was writing the chapter about an epic road trip I took in 2008. In it, I respond to a Craigslist ad from a singer-songwriter seeking a travel companion from New York to LA. My email made an impression, and when Ray Tarantino called, saying meet me at Nietzsche’s Bar in Buffalo on Saturday, that’s all it took. I was good as gone. The moment I typed that line, I knew I’d found my title.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Nuts and Bolts

Teaching Jim Johnstone's poetry collection Dog Ear to U of T undergraduates renewed Laura Ritland's appreciation for the book:
Each lecture started with the nuts and bolts of poetry—the image, poetic devices, meter, set forms – and moved into reading a poem from Dog Ear alongside something more traditionally canonical from Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets and Poetry anthology. For our lecture on imagery, we untangled the “white oak’s” branches of Johnstone’s “Ariadne’s Thread”; for metaphor, we looked at the “tuba, quartered” slipped within “Parenthesis.” “Drive,” read during our week on musical devices, was a favourite. The poem soars in long, songlike lines: “No one will find us in this city—not your valentine,/ not the line of dogs he’s chained by the throat.” Even if some students remained staunch enemies with prosody by that point, the music of Johnstone’s language wound its way into their hearts. All it took to enjoy these poems was to sit down and make the space to listen.

Sunday 5 April 2015

Sunday Poem

It didn't bleed, but would seep a bit of lymph
on Sundays. It could be kept covered
by clothes, but liked to be exposed as much
as possible—though fresh air did little
to close it. It was a portal, a wormhole
between the time of its infliction
and infinite points in the future. It breathed,
and if, in perfect stillness, you inclined
your ear toward its puckered lips, you'd swear
it muttered in a foreign tongue. Somehow,
it staved off infection, was odourless
but for a faint floral whiff. Once, I saw
a hummingbird moth hover above it,
then bury her proboscis deep in the folds.
From Sum (Biblioasis, 2015) by Zachariah Wells.  

Friday 3 April 2015

Oneiric Weirdness

In an omnibus review of four works of fabulist writing, Zachariah Wells wonders if our fiction is sometimes too rational for its own good:
In a recent interview Molly Peacock, talking about her collection of unconventional fictions Alphabétique, says “we’re missing out on the fable. Literature that comes out of essential needs for identity is necessarily realist. But there’s a different tradition of literature that comes out of the play of imagination. Because fantasy traditions come out of folklore, folk tale, fairy tale, mythology, and what we think of as 'old culture.' I’m wondering: is Canadian culture old enough to make a literature of fantasy?”

Even if one bristles at the too-oft-repeated canard about the youth of Canadian culture, it's hard not to nod along with Peacock's main point. While Canadians have made top-calibre contributions to the canon of the short story, the heavy-hitters we think of immediately—Munro, MacLeod, Gallant—are famed for crafting stories that reflect plausible, “real life” dramas. Which is not to say that such stories could ever be written without bringing to bear “the play of imagination,” nor that such stories are not, in their way, stylized artifices. Rather, the conventions of the realistic short story do not typically permit acts of magic, surreal leaps, or oneiric weirdness.
(Illustration of Inuit folktale by Eva Widermann)

Iron Age

A.E. Stallings discovers that Hesiod's Works and Days (an excerpt of her translation appears this month in The New Criterion) remains as fresh and relevant as ever:
I live in Greece, a transplant from over the sea. Translating this poem during the Greek financial crisis, I have, to my surprise, found it topical and resonant. The ancient poem speaks eerily to the moment, with its concerns about debt, corruption, justice, employment, and poverty. And who in Greece is not in a lawsuit with his brother over an inherited property? (Greece still lacks, disastrously, a complete land registry.) When Hesiod declares, disgustedly, that “this is an iron age indeed,” it is a line that could be spray-painted on the walls of Parliament. The Works and Days, far from being a fusty relic, demonstrates Pound’s dictum: “literature is news that stays news.”

Thursday 2 April 2015

Hypnotic Qualities

Michael Lista tries to get at the magic of Ricardo Sternberg's poetry:
Magic, by definition, is an exemption to the natural order, and the first thing readers notice and admire about Sternberg’s poems is the overwhelming sense that they shouldn’t work as well as they do. Their constituent parts are too simple; the language is that of everyday speech, sparingly multi-syllabic and rarely sending you to the dictionary. Faulkner once said something like that to Hemingway and intended it as an insult, but as Hemingway knew, it’s hard to cast a spell on someone whose nose is in the OED. And that’s just it: Sternberg’s poems operate the same way that spells do. He describes his own technique as “slowly blowing breath/ into each syllable,” and even here we can see the magic at work: the expertly weighted lines balanced by alternating alliteration, the bookending L sounds, the enjambment machine-tooled to correspond to the length of a breath. But what puts the lines over is that the mechanics of the artistry are hidden in the rafters, leaving only the illusion onstage. The sense is less that the magic has been muscled into place than that Sternberg has divined the secret connections between the words, unlocking their hypnotic qualities. As Quintilian said, “the perfection of art is to conceal art.” The effect is a feeling that the laws have been upended, of discovering that the magician’s coin has vanished from his hands and, abracadabra, appeared behind your ear.

Nice Fat F

Peter Norman comes clean about his dirty mouth:
When I do curse, why do I? Because I’ve stubbed my toe. Because I’ve missed an important transit connection. Because I’m copy-editing a bibliography and have just realized that I need to go back to the beginning and check for consistent application of Chicago Manual style in inclusive page-number ranges. Because I slept through the alarm. Because I’m in the company of friends, feeling happy, have a few pops under my belt, and feel like sloughing off my usual circumspect persona.

Am I a fan of the F-bomb? That depends on context, kind of like whether I’m a fan of fire. When it’s used with maximum artfulness, fuck can be an excellent word. Typically it’s a rose-on-casket deal: a single fuck is a more potent, elegant gesture than a machine-gun barrage. But not always. Some of my favourite movies crack the all-time Top 30 roster for quantity of F-words: Do the Right Thing (240),The Big Lebowski (260), Pulp Fiction (265), Goodfellas (300). I’m not aware of a similar list for literature, but James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late apparently contains four thousand of the motherfuckers, and I enjoyed all of them. And then there’s music. One of my upsetting mistakes in the early days of online commerce was purchasing and downloading a Tupac album, only to discover I’d shelled out for the clean version.

In the poem in question, “I Pipes Up,” the “I” is patently not me; he might be the farthest from me of all the speakers in the book. I don’t know exactly who this weirdo is, or more accurately what part of me he represents, but he’s got a lot of bitterness, bile, and spittle in his soul, and when it explodes into verbal form it’s inevitably gonna have a nice fat F at the start of it.