Sunday 31 May 2015

Sunday Poem

If you were lucky, you said, by the end of the night
we would have the money for a holiday
on Evia or Alonissos, on Thassos
or Halkidiki—or we could even go to Crete.
All New Year's Eve you beat men at cards—
one by one they exited the game. 
I sat back at the bar and watched
and thought of the night we had met,
when you stated you foresaw deaths
then tried to forget—the neighbour, the relative,
the stray kitten you introduced to a mother
and her brood that hissed it away. 
And you told me you were a thief. I admitted
I, too, had stolen things—for a time—
but now to find metaphors was to pocket
new money. I wanted to steal a thing
from its class and marry it to an alien other.
You nodded at that—all contradiction, 
calculating, vicious in an instant,
yet frightened and soft-hearted
in a way you had to hide. People either died on you
or deserted you. But I had no choice—
I had to stay to see the constant startled look
in your green eyes, to see you perform 
your ritual behind half-closed kitchen door
with olive oil and floating flame
to keep away the evil eye, to see you dab
holy water on your throat in crazily driven taxis,
to see how you stood as at an interface
where gods and goddesses appeared. 
Nicotine addict, gambler, who thieved
everywhere, who also gave without thinking,
you foresaw nothing of the thief
who came for you yourself. Or did you?
Every holiday you took, you might have half-meant
to lose him in a lit street. That startled look, 
you sensing he had begun his work in you—
the way you somehow knew what cards
were in players' hands. What I knew was the cutting
of the New Year's Day cake going wrong,
the coin wrapped in waxed paper not to be had
by you or me that year—and then, not any year.

From The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books, 2015) by Russell Thornton

Saturday 30 May 2015

Tweets of the Day

Unintended Obscurities

For Simon Armitage, creative writing workshops aren't always smiles and giggles:
What concerns me, fascinates me, occasionally horrifies me but now rarely surprises me, is the number of times students bring poems to class which leave fellow students baffled and bewildered, and leave the tutor in much the same state. Poems which even after the most rigorous, in-depth reading they’re ever likely to receive, by several high-functioning individuals with a declared commitment to the cause, still resist the most basic analysis. The class might marvel at the clever use of a gerund in line three, or spend 35 minutes debating the relative merits of a semi-colon over a hyphen, or the poem might lead us into a discussion about recent breakthroughs in neuroscience. But by and large it remains a mystery. Which wouldn’t be a problem if mystification or deliberate vagueness was the author’s intention, but upon interrogation it usually turns out the poet had a very clear picture of the poem in his or her mind, a sort of framed vision, outlining a very definite set of circumstances. When I ask the author to replace the title, ‘Echoes’ it might be called, or ‘Conundrum in the Key of Clouds’ as I had recently… when I ask the author to replace the title with a geographical place-name appropriate to the poem’s subject matter, or to replace an adjective with some straightforward description of the poem’s whereabouts, seven times out of ten everything becomes clear. The poem’s unintended obscurities are resolved.

Infinitely Quotable

In an omnibus review of various new editions of John Berryman's poetry, Helen Vendler reminds us of the emotional and psychological misery the poet endured:
His life, as related in John Haffenden’s detailed 1982 biography, makes for excruciating reading. The maladies from which Berryman suffered—bipolar illness and severe alcoholism—ruined his abused body and shook his excellent mind. Since the medicine of his era could do little for these illnesses, his life became marred by successive hospitalizations, attempts at rehabilitation, divorces, the loss of at least one job, and desperate remedies (including a late return to his childhood Roman Catholicism just before his suicide at fifty-seven)
She also celebrates the art he was able to wring from those ordeals: The Dream Songs, which feature Henry, a talking Id, and an unnamed interlocutor:
Within the encounters of this nonrealistic pair, Berryman inserts the imperfect, grandiose, inebriated, wry, grieving, guilt-ridden existence of a greatly gifted poet possessed by the devils of mania, depression, and drunkenness. The Dream Songs, flawed as they are, remain infinitely quotable—the witty lament of a singular man with the courage to exhibit himself in shame, indignity, and exuberant speech. Nothing else in Berryman equals them.

Monday 25 May 2015

Wondrous Metaphysical Depth

Zulfikar Ghose rediscovers the work of Theodore Roethke:
There are some reputations that fall into cryonic hibernation and are brought back to life when the epidemic of neglect and forgetfulness has passed. One of the American poets whose books I looked at again was Theodore Roethke (pronounced “Rhett-key”) who died aged 55 a few months after Plath in 1963. I had never doubted his major status and not having re-read him for some years, my high estimation of him was based largely on the retrospective pleasure that performs its charming dance in one’s memory from time to time when we remember past happiness. Now re-reading him more than confirmed that former high regard: some of the poems in his last book, ‘The Far Field’, are the work of an extraordinary imagination and constitute poetry of a wondrous metaphysical depth. One would have to go back to Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ to find poetry of comparable beauty.

Heightened Conversation

Patrick Friesen is a fan of Raoul Fernandes's poetry (sample poem here).
Raoul creates his own voice, a voice of heightened conversation. You wish people spoke that way, but they don’t. They could. The rhythms are drawn-out but tightened by a skillful balance of talk and precise image. The images are sometimes startling and unexpected. Raoul also occasionally employs unusual word orders making the reader see/hear the line a little differently. It feels as if his voice is on the verge of finding another texture, a deepening, but that may simply be an air of anticipation, as if one is watching the headlights of a car appearing and reappearing as it approaches on a hilly road. What could arrive is danger.

Sunday 24 May 2015

The Pay Back

Irish poet Elaine Feeney is interviewed about her poem "Mass":
Maeve Mulrennan: I prepared for this interview by listening to your work rather than reading it, and I was wondering about your poem, "Mass," which you performed to the camera. Did you find that an intense thing to do?

Elaine Feeney: Colm Keegan told me that he was talking to Séamus Rutledge about that poem, joking that it should have been nominated as the poem for Ireland. There was no decent recording of it, so Colm recommended that I record the poem and put it on YouTube. It was a scary experience, I did it in my house, I put it out there and within minutes it got two thumbs down in the comments section—probably from the local bishops!

MM: I’d find that so frustrating! I’d love to know who those two people were.

EF: "Mass" is not supposed to sit well, people are supposed to find it uncomfortable. Some people think that "list poems" don’t work and I agree to a certain extent, but this works as a list-piece. We had to listen to enough mass growing up, so this is the pay back. Some people are shocked when it turns nasty at the end, mentioning homophobia and how there won’t ever be a women’s mass. It is easier to delude ourselves and keep going to mass. When I see crowds going to mass it unnerves me.

Sunday Poem

You have this thing you can only explain
by driving me out to the port at night
to watch the towering cranes moving containers
from ship to train. Or we go skipping stones
across the mirror of the lake, a ghost ship
in a bottle of blue Bombay gin by your side.
I have this thing I can only explain to you
by showing you a pile of computer hardware
chucked into the ravine. We hike down there
and blackberry vines grab our clothes as if to say,
stop, wait, I want to tell you something too.
You have an old photograph you keep in your
bedside drawer. I have this song I learned
on my guitar. By way of clarification, you send
me a YouTube video of a tornado filmed up close
from a parked car. Or a live-stream from a public
camera whose view is obscured by red leaves.
I cut you a key to this room, this door.
There's this thing. A dictionary being consumed
by fire. The two of us standing in front of a Rothko
until time starts again. A mixtape that is primarily
about the clicks and hums between songs. What if
we walk there instead of driving? What if we just drive,
without a destination? There's this thing I've always
wanted to talk about with someone. Now
with you here, with you listening, with all
the antennae raised, I no longer have to.
From Transmitter and Receiver (Nightwood, 2015) by Raoul Fernandes

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Waking Up in the Writers' Room

by Anita Anand
This is a story about errors, dreams, and other ways of seeing.
I never thought I would get a book published. I am happy, a little bewildered, and very apprehensive about the next step in the process, the attention that this book may or may not get. My book is not perfect; parts of it were written by my sub-conscious, and its beauty and its flaws will be in the eye of the beholder.
Two years ago, I took a correspondence course in creative writing at Humber College. A text was assigned. I don’t remember its title. What I do know is that somehow, I ended up ordering the wrong book. This wrong book was From Where you Dream, by Robert Olen Butler, and it contained strange but ultimately profound and helpful advice. One of the strange things was that it was very specific: “Write in the morning!” it exhorted. Yes, when you are still groggy! Write from where you dream!
The author provided many samples of writing that positively echoed with wonderfully lyrical, evocative, yet unobtrusive metaphors, which he felt certain emerged from the author’s unconscious mind.
His words rang true to me. It doesn’t happen often enough, but I have noticed a few clever, almost sly metaphors in my own writing that I don’t even remember writing. It is as though my keyboard were being operated by two sets of hands, one of which is connected to my unconscious mind. When someone else points out these metaphors first, I don’t know whether to marvel at the surprising wisdom and poetry of my own unconscious thoughts, or be embarrassed by what I might be revealing.
The dreams I remember are embarrassingly obvious, and they are almost always about embarrassing situations: finding myself half-naked at work, or in a public bathroom with no doors on the stalls, or voiceless, or in the wrong room, one reserved for people more worthy than me. In the past this was the white room, but recently I think it has represented the real writers’ room, the one I seem to have stumbled into by mistake.
I have always regretted not writing a letter to Margaret Laurence. She was one of my favourite authors when I was a teenager, and when she died, I was very moved to learn from reading her obituary that, first, we shared a birthday; second, she was very shy and found it impossible to believe that anyone enjoyed her books; and third, when she reviewed other authors’ works, her editor had to tell her to be more critical, more negative. I imagine her blinking in surprise. She told her editor that it was very hard to write a book, and that she couldn’t imagine tearing another author down.
I wished that I had known all this and had written to her that people really did love her books, they weren’t just being kind, but that, on the other hand, I agreed with her attitude of kindness when it came to writing reviews. I know that very few people would agree with us. Reviewers, we are told, are there to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is their job. I can’t agree, can’t understand why anyone would believe there is anything like objective worth in a work of fiction.
One critic’s wheat is another’s chaff.  For one thing, from the reviews I have read recently, everyone seems to be looking for something different. Jonathan Franzen wants “the internal lives of characters, with an emphasis on their emotions.” Sarah Woolf, writing about Véhicule Press’s own short story anthology Salut King Kong, wants innovation; fiction that will take her away from “the thematic stomping grounds of sex and youth” and depart from something she calls “Short Story Style”.
Steven Beattie, writing in Quill & Quire, would never enjoy anything I have written. “As a(n)… editor,” he writes, “I am not terribly interested in identity politics, which I realize is easy for me to say as a white man who has surely benefitted from the status quo ante…” For him, the writer’s focus “should be on story and technique, not the importance of the theme or the potential for improvement in readers.” Such concerns must never be “the foundational reasons” for writing anything besides essays.
So a person like me, who writes about such things as identity issues because they matter to her, even tend to haunt her dreams, should stifle this impulse in writing fiction because this would be writing for the wrong reason. If you have something to say, write an essay.
Personally, the only kind of story I dislike is one that has no point to it at all.  I like learning about life through fiction. That could make me an earnest, humourless sort of person, but a lesson I actually enjoy learning over and over is that everything is potentially absurd, from the Seinfeld moments of everyday existence to the self-doubt that plagues writers in contrast to the certainty of critics and editors. Life’s absurdity is a theme worth exploring. This is what drives me to write: something bugging me, something that I understand well enough to communicate, but which lends itself well to an easily accessible metaphor, like a dream about shyness. So that I don’t have to go and rant about it in an essay.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Sunday Poem

And I came to in a room with a draft
that issued from beneath a swinging door,
my head plugged up like a sink stuffed
with months of shed hair,
shaving stubble, other things
that thought to disappear. 
And the covers were bunched
at my waist like a marble effigy
of Christ newly sprung from the cross,
unveiling an inch of midriff,
my navel, which in the hospital light
looked like a wound from a hollow-point. 
And the old man in a nearby bed
kept dying. The monitor would shriek
its air-raid warning and he would die
and come back. That was his trick.
He did it and did it. The slap-slap
of the nurses’ soles was deliberate

applause. Then he left for good.
My wife said that when I was dead,
or during my death, she paced the garden
with my jacket on, cupping votive flames
to cigarettes. She killed each
match with a flick of her wrist, 
then laid the burnt corpses to rest
in a packet scored with scratches
from matchstick heads that sought
to light the way, and did, and died.
Tendrils of smoke grew into the sky
as vines climbing from tomblike shade.
She stood, then, and helped me to my feet,
led me down the corridor
to find a cup of tea—past an orderly
who wheeled an assemblage
of bed, old woman, and IV—
not looking back to see if I was there.
From Earth and Heaven: An Anthology of Myth Poetry (eds. Amanda Jernigan and Evan Jones, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015) by Mark Callanan.  

Friday 15 May 2015

Inverse Snobbery

Steven Heighton tries to put Al Purdy's legacy in perspective:
For me, unlike some young male poets, it wasn’t hard to resist imitating Al’s voice, syntax, and signature mannerisms, partly because I’d already found other acoustical models, other musics, that better suited my sense of rhythm and tune: poets such as Dylan Thomas, G. M. Hopkins, Sylvia Plath, W.B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Wilfred Owen, and P.K. Page—all in their diverse ways great acoustical technicians. Plainspokenness didn’t appeal to me. It bored me. And I felt that some of my Canadian male peers, who were trying to imitate Al’s seemingly plain voice, were really just caving in to good old North American anti-intellectualism – the fear of seeming unmanly, fussy, heady, elitist, European. I sensed something spurious in their embrace and veneration of the demotic and colloquial. I thought it a kind of inverse snobbery. When Al invented himself, he had good reason to react against the Edwardian models he’d encountered in school—and at the same time to find a voice that squared with his own background, class, and autodidacticism. But his middle-class, college-educated acolytes were not forging a voice under the same urgent, and solitary, pressures. They were just mimicking.

Come On Home

Drawing on a memory of his father at Galveston Island, David Biespiel describes the way inspiration "whistles" its way into a poet's life:
Late in the afternoon my father would stand near our station of half-buried, sand-dotted towels held in place by a styrofoam cooler and then he’d tongue-stab his bottom lip to whistle us all to come in and reunite—brothers and dog alike, who needed to be located from somewhere down the beach near one of the jetties. My father had a high and loud stab of a whistle. It was nearly impossible not to hear it even among the beach din. Like sending an uncoded message, he whistled in high-pitched, naval blurts. Spread out as far as we might have been on the beach or in the waves, we could hear him whistling all right and knew well to heed the summons. Woe to him who offered the weak excuse that he hadn’t heard the call.

A poem too always begins with a call like this, like a whistle, to come in. Woe to the poet who does not hear it. You! a poem calls to the poet, up and at ‘em. Let’s go. Get in here. Time to gather, time to remove yourself from the day-to-day and return to being alert to your psyche where your language is always, already, at home. You’re not yet in the place you need to be, a poem says as it calls the poet in, so come on home.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

On Growing Up and Writing

by Andy Sinclair

Writing is hard.

That’s the rote comment exchanged between me and my writing partner, Angie Abdou, whenever we are stuck, or have had enough on-the-page frustrations for the day, or just... don’t feel like doing it. It’s the phrase that we text or email or say to each other that requires no thinking. It’s as easy as hello, goodbye, even WTF.

Like any aphorism, it’s not universally true. Sometimes writing is as easy as sitting down and allowing it. Sometimes it occurs when you just stop trying so much (although this strategy is not foolproof either). Deciding to put down words on a page is a practice that requires being comfortable with the idea of elusiveness. Because trying to safeguard something elusive is excruciating.

And yet, sometimes we get enough down. I’m very happy that my book Breathing Lessons is being published. It feels funny to say, “I have a book coming out,” and I usually feel like a fraud for saying it, and so I often avoid the subject completely. A book seems like something an adult would produce, and therein lies a discovery for each of us, one that we sometimes avoid: I am a grown-up now. Most of us are. But ever since Dimitri Nasrallah emailed me to say that Véhicule Press was offering to publish the manuscript and that he would be my editor at Esplanade Books, I have had to chew on it.

When I handed in the final revision, he asked if I was ready to stand by every word, and I said yes, somewhat solemnly. Does it sound like a marriage ceremony? My sister was pregnant at the time.

“Two new arrivals for the Sinclairs in 2015!” proclaimed my mother happily. It’s a lot of responsibility.

And also just a book.

Breathing Lessons is a very personal novel that describes situations that are hard to write about. I surrendered to any energy that allowed me to write freely and uncensored; afterwards I took out lots of stuff and made lots of things up, but tried to stay true to what I meant (I originally wrote that last bit and tried to keep the elusiveness, but I’ve already touched on how problematic that can be).

Since finishing it, I have bid adieu to the protagonist, Henry Moss. It was not a sad goodbye; I was ready to move on. And writing about Henry was good practice for writing down things that are hard not just to express, but to say. Henry does drugs and has lots of sex and can be jealous in a way that makes him come across as very ugly. But I wrote about those things. And now I’m writing (no new book yet!) about other things that are difficult to share, because they might make me seem disagreeable, and I would rather people find me likeable. Some of these are observations about our governments, worries about new security laws, and questions about why big industries seem to have such disproportionate input into new legislation. These topics have always been written about, and I haven’t made much headway into saying something new yet. But I wouldn’t have even started if I hadn’t had Henry to practice being scared with. So, I am grateful to him.

I’m curious about the power of fiction to make social commentary, and the way it evokes rather than describes truths. I’ve also had more time to read since the book was done, and the more I read, the more I am struck by how much people are thinking. I just finished The News by Alain de Botton and found it to be a helpful guide to selective information acquisition. And Families Are Formed Through Copulation by Jacob Wren, which makes a fitting adjunct and is a soothing balm for surveillance angst. And by the time you read this, I will be excited about something else.
Often I find something so nuanced and perfect that it makes me want to not bother with writing anymore, because I can barely follow it (sometimes I can’t), let alone try to expand on it (I have read similar statements by other writers but it deserves to be said again, for we must believe in our own adequacy if nothing else), but mostly I am just inspired. I hope we all are. I’m aware of how everybody has moments when ideas coalesce, when dots connect, or when reality becomes a speck more tangible. These revelations are unique, and some of us try to write about them. Others paint them, or put them into a dance. Many of us simply sit with them, without urgency, and accept them as they come.

But we are the grown-ups now. And I would encourage anyone with something to say, to say it. Or write it.

Even if writing is hard.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Sunday Poem

eight arched arachnid legs
giant ice picks en pointe
joints knobby, ropey muscles twined
tight as a girl’s braids 
at once nurturant tent
rigid mother superior
gargantuan black
widow    how 
to flee this vault of exalted
expectation, detoxify
the paralyzing venom
of self-doubt   the porous 
space between
the sinewy legs of steel
unbarred but charged
with the force field

of your mother’s love how sharp
the bite of disappointment, nagging
disapproval     why can’t you sew
your own clothes like Elizabeth, practise

piano as regularly as Grace, help
in the garden like Carol Ann

summa cum laude not
enough, good manners never

good enough, and though
you broke free never out
from under the smothering
ambivalence of Maman, her power

to gestate, loom, enmesh
From Realignment (Palimpsest, 2015) by Ruth Roach Pierson

Saturday 9 May 2015

I Contain Multitudes

Shane Book—whose second book, Congotronicis nominated for this year's Griffin poetry prize—muses on his allegiance to the maple leaf:
I think there was something about growing up in a family of travelers, a family that lived in different countries and was itself made up of multiple nationalities, races, ethnicities, and so on—that seemed to me to be very Canadian. Perhaps this is because I have always associated Canada and Canadians with a certain inquisitive internationalism, an outward-looking curiosity about the world. Also, I have always felt like and been, an outsider. To absolutely generalize—I think there’s a certain quality of the “onlooker” or “spectator” that is part of being a Canadian. This quality of “watching” probably goes along with being from any smaller, peripheral nation: we’re looking to the centres, at what the empires are doing. Then again I have always felt like a citizen of several nations, so maybe that cancels out everything I just said. Apparently, like anyone, I contain multitudes, contradictions and some platitudes, as well.

A Space For Pleasure

David Wheatley reminds us why JH Prynne remains one of Britain's most fascinating contemporary poets:
JH Prynne is the ultimate poet of anti-pathos. Everything about him spells distance and difficulty. He does not give poetry readings; he does not appear in anthologies and is never nominated for prizes; his books have Captain Beefheart-like titles such as Her Weasels Wild Returning and Streak—Willing—Entourage—Artesian; he attracts acolytes and execrators, rather than run-of-the-mill readers, and, most important, no one knows what any of it means. Such are the familiar assumptions where this poet is concerned. Passions run deep: when The Oxford English Literary History had the temerity to suggest that Prynne was more deserving of notice than Larkin, the brouhaha ended up on the Today programme. 
Those assumptions need adjusting, argues Wheatley, who complains that "Prynne’s reception stays mired in discussions of accessibility and elitism rather an engagement with the actual work."
There is something impersonal, inhuman even, about Prynne, but the challenge for the reader is to move beyond the obligatory prefixing of the poet’s name with the word “rebarbative” and find a space for pleasure. It can be done: no other poet gives us “the acrid wavering of language, so full / of convenient turns of extinction” with the same steely beauty and memorability.

Friday 8 May 2015

Quality Control

Danny Jacobs' poetry has a happy relationship with his reviewing:
I strive for some amount of clarity in both pursuits, but also (I hope) linguistic energy. I want readers to enjoy the piece, in either case. Review prose does not have to be dull. My review jobs also inform my poetry in that they continually force me to question what I think constitutes a good poem. When you review a book, you give its poems room; you can’t suffocate them with bias. But you also knock on them to find their hollow spots; you hold them at eye-level to look for wonky angles. You drop them from a height. Do they hold? Ideally, you then go forth and subject your own poems to the same quality control.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Sunday Poem

My lover spent his summer in the south,
carving armadillos from their husks. It was, to hear him
say it, an experience—the term people save 
for the places they hate. He spent June in the sunroom
with a pitcher of sweet tea and a picture of me.
By August, just the tea, watching hicks 
suck cigarettes through long, aristocratic
sticks, papaya seeds stuck between their burnt
sienna teeth. Everything was burnt there. My lover 
carved years off his life with the very same knife
the armadillos learned to fear. Where are they
, I asked him as snowfall took care 
of the candles I'd lit. The not-quite-rodents, the not-quite-reptiles,
not-quite-right gatecrashers of the ark?

How does their nudity suit them? Do they sigh 
all cool, how we sighed last year, when we threw our anoraks
off and found we had that chalet to ourselves?
If we were ever blameless, it was then. I held your locks
in a Chinese bun as you went south indeed,
throwing, upon my balls, your tongue, how sea urchins
throw their stomachs upon the coral reefs they eat.
At which point my lover raised his knife
to my hairline, scalped me masterfully and poured,
into my open brain, a tea so cold and sweet.
From Otter (Coach House, 2015) by Ben Ladouceur.

Friday 1 May 2015

Weather Front

Peter Richardson's writing day begins in the cellar:
Every morning before breakfast, I descend two half-flights of stairs to one of those venerable pine secretaries with a folding top which you sometimes see at auctions.

There, on a rickety cane-seated chair, I jot in a spiral notebook, using blue pencils with smudge-proof erasers. A stylus and clay tablet would do as well. I write on one side of a page because I like to return to old notebooks and cull through them. When I go back to them many months later, I want those tomes legible.

The desk is a hand-me-down. My mother used it as the platform for her letter-writing campaigns of the Fifties and Sixties. Often coming home from school, I would hear her Smith-Corona clacking away in the study off her bedroom. The fact that we lived on a decommissioned farmstead six miles from the nearest town may have nourished her need to write to The New York Times or Commonweal on issues of utmost importance. Yet I think if we had stayed in southern Connecticut rather than decamp to northern Vermont in 1960, she would still have found time to correspond with a grab-bag of different people.

Sitting at the same desk, I record thoughts about a book I’ve been reading, scraps of dreams, or observations of clouds, and by that, I mean, what weather front is sweeping towards me across the spine of Gatineau Park. Living on a ridge above the Alonzo Wright Bridge not far from Cantley, Quebec, I find we get our share of blustery hill country days. With snow whipping against two transom windows to my left, I suppose that I hope to find myself riffing on a subject I won’t know I’m writing about till I’m about three sentences into it.