Sunday 28 June 2015

Sunday Poem


Every Wednesday she came by and
apologized like a schoolgirl
although she was not really late,
smiling and pushing back her long hair—
she had been reading Musil, or
Lessing, or, it could be, Mann, and
there might be some query about
the lecture of the day before, or
she would mention to him that moment
by the sea, on the beach at the Lido,
where the celebrated author is
hallucinating in his deck-chair, 
and by now they would be
undoing each other and
as their bodies came open
there would be only 
a minute or so left
for this, their mouths
pre-empted except for
slight and perfunctory 
but still that image beckoned,
and still the little subdued slap
of the Adriatic mingled 
with the air-conditioning
so that even on the office couch, or
held up against some noticed space
when love was 
prompting her, she would see
what he had seen,
a kind of god, a stunning boy
on whom the sun paused 
turning to look back
from the curling shore, but
it meant nothing,
it was youth 
and she was impatient
with anyone who knew
so little. If she
could intercept 
that glance from the deck-chair,
oh, not to be seen by it but
to become it—
and at the thought of this, 
of pouring forth out of
that cache of mind, collecting
beach and sun and
stunning boy 
and returning inside to test these
against the thronged images
(think of it! always there, always
ardent for the light!) 
and teeming, stacked-up rhythms
of that severe, unswerving life,
why, she can hardly wait,
this is why she’s here, 
this is not Venice and
not exactly an aloof genius
either, but it’s the closest
she can get to 
things so boundless
she could spend her whole life
investigating them. As for him,
her dress and now the brief pause
and turn to look back towards him
from the door, he’s reminded of
something, a motion perhaps, 
some gesture, what is it, he wonders,
watching although she is gone,
he leans forward in his chair
by the sea.
From A Serious Call (Porcupine's Quill, 2015) by Don Coles

Arts Wants To Be Seen

You can pretend to indifferent, argues Adam Kirsch, but writing is premised on the hope of a readership:
Literary history knows of writers who have come to the very edge of oblivion: Kafka ordered his executor to burn his manuscripts; Dickinson left her hundreds of poems in a chest of drawers. But even Kafka and Dickinson gave enough signs of literary existence to the outside world that their posthumous discovery became possible, perhaps even inevitable. Such writers played a game of hide-and-seek with posterity, which may look like modesty in comparison with many artists’ blatant self-promotion, but which can also be considered a form of seduction. Surely they would have been dismayed if their tricks had worked too well and no one had ever read them at all.

Nor should this be considered a symptom of egotism or frailty. For the truth is that there is something in the act of creation that presses forward into the public realm, whether the artist goes on to seek publicity or not. To write a poem or paint a picture is to translate inner experience into outward form and presence; it is to objectify sensation, and the definition of an object is that it can be passed from hand to hand, its shape fixed for everyone. To want to be an artist without creating such an object is a contradiction in terms. And once the object is created, it wants to be seen, just as a flower or a wave wants to be seen. Art is a form of communication, and communication cannot be totally autonomous, just as there can be no such thing as a private language.

Messy Handwriting

Nathanial Woo ranks the ten most "bizarre" literary movements and genres. My favourite is asemic writing:
When we think about literature and writing, we often think about words. But asemic writing is a type of writing that doesn’t involve any words at all. It merely involves a bunch of pretty squiggles. Asemic writing is designed to have no specific meaning. In fact, the term “asemic” derives from a condition called asemia, sufferers of which are unable to understand signs and symbols. This meaningless state is achieved through writing in nonexistent languages.

This isn’t to say that asemic writing is totally meaningless or incomprehensible. On the contrary, the abstract and unreadable nature of asemic writing enables it to be broadly interpreted as having multiple different meanings. In this sense, asemic writing can be seen to establish a universal language that is accessible to all nationalities and cultures. Also, asemic writing can be viewed as capturing and reflecting emotions that cannot be fully explained through words. It can be pretty neat stuff, or it can be meaningless rubbish. It’s really up to you.

Similar to the calligram, asemic writing can be viewed as an art-literature hybrid. The genre’s nonspecific nature means that the appearance of the writing is important. Essentially, good asemic writing has to be made of attractive or striking scribbles, not just the messy handwriting of a two-year-old. (Unless you really like the messy handwriting of a two-year-old, of course.)

This focus on appearance often results in asemic writing looking similar to calligraphy. In fact, some of the oldest recorded asemic writing is Chinese calligraphy from the eighth century. Specifically, the calligrapher “crazy” Zhang Xu was famous for his bizarre cursive calligraphy. It was all twiddly, squiggly, and rather pretty but nearly impossible to read. The calligraphy of crazy Zhang has been noted as an influence on asemic writing practitioners like Tim Gaze and Michael Jacobson, both of whom run asemic writing publications like The New Post Literate and Asemic Magazine. To these asemic writers, the movement is an important contemporary development that can progress and evolve conventional written language.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Was James Merrill a Closet New York School Poet?

Langdon Hammer's biography of James Merrill leads Andrew Epstein to discover some interesting links between the "consummate formalist" and the most avant-garde movement of the time.
Merrill was embedded in the New York School’s network of friendships and affiliations. For example, in a 1957 letter to John Ashbery, Schuyler discusses a friend being “bemused and thrilled to hear you have a mustache” and then adds “Jimmy Merrill described it as very French: otherwise he spoke very well of you, and made you sound as handsome as the dawn over Parc Buttes Chaumont or whatever it’s called.” Frank O’Hara’s letters casually mention “Jimmy and David” coming over for drinks, and refer to Merrill visiting Schuyler after one of his psychological breakdowns and offering his generous assistance.

Literary history likes to divide writers and place them in somewhat artificial categories and movements that often obscure the complex reality of affiliations, friendships, and influences. Fortunately, we now have Hammer’s biography to flesh out some of the details and remind us of the intriguing set of connections between Merrill and the poets of the New York School.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Whitman's Project

Lawrence Kramer believes Walt Whitman was wrong to absorb his stand-alone collection Drum Taps—a raw look at the U.S. Civil War— into his ground-breaking opus Leaves of Grass. Reviewing Kramer's reissue of the lost collection, Jack Hanson disagrees:
Perhaps the cause for the new-found solemnity is not a deflation of the spirit, but rather the emergence of a more complex poetic landscape in Whitman’s oeuvre that is deeper, more coherent, and even more inclusive than many champions of his work realize. In this scenario, Whitman’s rearrangement of Drum Taps, and his inclusion of it in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, is no denial of the darkness, but instead an embrace of it as an essential part of his poetic project.

My First Desk

Toughing it out in New York City when first moving there in the 2008—"I was able to set up an intricate couch-surfing map that stretched across three boroughs"—Ocean Vuong eventually found stable digs, and a desk:
My friend took me to my room on the second floor. When I opened the door, I was immediately plunged into a thick musty odor. It was the scent of air trapped for too long. My friend walked over and opened the window, which had a picturesque view of the red brickwork on the side of the next building. Of course, I didn't mind any of this. After all—I wasn't actually living in luxury at my previous residences, which, for two and a half weeks, included a stint in Penn Station (but we'll save that for another essay). Then, I saw it: an old wooden thing in the corner with only three and a half legs. A desk, lit with a small square of evening light falling through the window: a blank sheet of paper burning on its surface. "Can I keep that?" I asked, pointing at the sad-looking yet invaluable artifact. "If you want," my friend shrugged, "I don't see why not. It'd be a pain to move it anyways." I walked over and touched it, ran my fingers across the surface, the dust, the bolts, the cracks and seams and knots in the wood, I opened the drawers, I sat down and placed my hands and elbows on the table, testing the height for writing. It was fake oak—laminated to look natural, but it was perfect. Perfect not because of its quality (or lack thereof) but because it was mine. My first desk. It didn't occur to me until then that having a desk of my own, something I did not have even in Connecticut, somehow legitimized my identity as a writer. It was a badge, a label, a dedication. And, having no publication and barely any respectable poems, the desk was also an anchor, the promise of possibilities, that good work would be done, and it would be done right here.

The Harder Path

Peter Fallon is the publisher of Gallery Press, which specializes in Irish poetry. Here he discusses his process with new manuscripts:
I read carefully, keenly, slowly. I re-read. I think carefully, keenly... I make marks on a typescript. What you’d probably call a printout now. Insert a comma? Cut a line? A squiggle here to question the rhythm, syntax or sense of a passage. A kind of shorthand the authors seem to learn to read, bless them. No, no long letters. I’m useless at that. But we meet, we sit with my hieroglyphs and I try to elaborate my response and ideas – in general and in detail. I know I often have to play the devil’s advocate—and it’s important to remember, and sometimes to remind, that all of my suggestions, questions, quibbles exist within the realm of commitment to the work and enthusiasm for its possibilities, because it can be intense and it could appear like an assault on the work. It’s uncanny, though, how often I’ll point to a word or a half line and the author will nod, “I know, I tried, I was hoping…” They take away my marked copy and return an updated version. This can go on through several stages.
He gets praise from Vona Groarke, one of his poets:
Over the past 21 years, I’ve learned to trust Peter’s editorial instincts: he doesn’t dive into opinion but neither does he mince words; he’s careful and he’s honest, and if he’s definite about something, I take his attention as a compliment to the work. Sloppy editors say “Yes” to everything; good editors take the harder path, and get stuck in. And if, when I was younger, I found this sometimes a challenge, I learnt over years to be hugely grateful for his editorial nous and his forthright and rigorous help. My books are better for his suggestions, I know that for sure.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

A Different Degree of Awakeness

What is poetry? Damian Rogers takes a stab at an answer:
I feel like poetry is an experiment with consciousness. And it’s funny, people who are very sophisticated about other areas of the arts feel very shut out of poetry. No one stands in front of a Mark Rothko and goes, What does it mean?!—actually, that’s not true, some people do. But people who would absolutely accept that painting on its own terms, or a Basquiat, something that is maybe somewhat figurative but moving into some kind of abstraction—it’s an experience. They accept the idea that, standing in front of this painting, you experience the painting. It’s not a Rubik’s cube.

Poetry is text, and we’re still very attached to the idea that language is supposed to communicate something clearly. But I do think all good poetry does communicate something clearly, it’s just that, for me—and there’s some narrative, very straightforward poetry that I really enjoy, but there’s a lot of poetry that I really enjoy because what it’s communicating to me very clearly is either an atmosphere, or a state of consciousness. A different degree of awake-ness to experience.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Rare Books, Ctd

It's time, once again, to marvel at David McGimpsey's gift for nosing out unbelievably unique titles in Montreal's used bookstores. (Curious about his previous purchases? Look here and here).

Coming Into Her Own

Alex Cigale touts Toronto poet Kateri Lanthier as a "master craftswoman":
There is so much sonic energy here, and the other tools Pound spoke of, phanopoeia and logopoeia, image and wit. Moreover, what I admire in her work, desiring so much to fulfill it in my own, is a quirky playfulness that is yet not divorced of sense. She is one of a growing handful of the younger generation of poets now coming into their own.

Debating Place

Vanessa Place' six-year-old conceptual project— tweeting, word for word, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—angered the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, who petitioned successfully to get her dropped from a selection committee for the AWP’s annual writing conference. Kim Calder grapples both with Place's provocative project (which the poet claims was expressly meant to highlight the novel's racist imagery and language) and the arguments marshalled against it:
Indeed, the material engaged by these performances is unquestionably racist. The more salient question in this moment, however, is whether this makes the performer, and the performances themselves, racist. If the former question seems as though it does not belong in a piece of art criticism, this may generally be true, but, in this case, when the attacks have been in part “about” Vanessa Place as an alleged racist, it becomes relevant. Place’s critics say that these performances uphold white supremacy, knowingly or unknowingly, by perpetuating racist text and images. Because Place has disseminated racist material, she is racist. Other critics are more concerned with the second question: do these works successfully perform an anti-racist critique, or do they unnecessarily retraumatize people of color (and black Americans in particular) for sensationalist purposes? Place, these critics say, utilizes abhorrent methods while telling us nothing new. We know Gone With the Wind, for example, is a racist text—and if we don’t, the battle is probably already lost. In this case, the performances are failed experiments. The former group would argue that they are experiments that would only be undertaken by a racist.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Sunday Poem


is a skill I learned at camp. Our neighbours went
to another kind of church, something more effusive.
One summer I went with Scott to his church's
camp. We were told to open our mouths and speak
as the spirit moved so that the devil wouldn't
understand. I made up sounds. garbled with
belief. Decades later I read from the devil
himself: James Joyce's jigsaw of bluddlefilth, Finnegans
Wake, intoned as the spirit moved me through
accents and volumes and felt as if a geyser had opened from
my chest. I got a cheque for my performance.
Confidence powered me through an evening of drinks
with strangers and poets. Sometimes words
mean nothing and everything. Open your mouth and see.
From Jabbering with Bing Bong (Anvil Press, 2015) by Kevin Spenst.  

Saturday 13 June 2015

Clean Copy

Emily M. Keeler describes her perfect book review:
The writer covering the book has a keener-than-average grasp of the material, and can pull from more than just the book under review to make some kind of original insight that positions the book for a reader. The writer files clean copy, on time, and likes being edited and, if necessary, pushed a little bit farther in a clearer direction. The review is a well-written artifact in its own right, and it’s interesting to read whether or not I’m interested in the book itself. Sometimes this means the ideal book review has a large element of the uniquely personal response of the reviewer tied up in it; sometimes the ideal book review is a nimble argument about the themes or formal elements of the book under review; sometimes the ideal book review is an incisive close reading of the book under review to illustrate a larger point about both the book and its greater context. I’m greedy and I want all these things, all the time. I want book reviews that are appealing in myriad ways, even if the particular books under review aren’t.

Thursday 11 June 2015

The Writer Without Whom

On the 100th anniversary of Saul Bellow's birth, Vivian Gornick reminds us of the writer partially responsible for Bellow's breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March:
Delmore Schwartz is to Jewish-American writing what Richard Wright is to African-American writing. He is the writer without whom, the one whose work most supremely constitutes the bridge between immigrant writing and the writing we now think of as authentically Jewish-American. As such, his work is both moving and instructive. It embodies the step inevitably taken by a marginalized people on their way to cultural equality, the one that requires them to practice imitation at the highest level at the same time that their own native material is subverting the conventional rules of the game.

An epitome of this arriviste generation of Jewish intellectuals, Schwartz was both precocious and reverential, an original and a keeper of the culture. His personality, like that of Bellow’s—shaped by an amalgam of immigrant culture, urban street smarts, and a besotted adoration of European modernism—was marked by a mesmerizing torrent of words that poured incessantly from him. At one and the same time that he was this brilliant, fast-talking New York Jew he was yet imprinted with the conviction that to serve the literary culture formed by modernism was his vocation. Talking with friends in a Greenwich Village cafe, he was where he came from; on the page, he was where he wanted to go.

The Far End of the Chessboard

In the running for the next Oxford Professor of Poetry, A.E. Stallings reports back from the rabbit-hole of the election:
I kept thinking, as I wandered through Oxford this past week (I was there to give a reading at Rhodes House), what a curious and curiouser turn of events the whole matter was. As a young and insecure American graduate student twenty years ago, Oxford intimidated me: I felt awkward, that I didn’t belong, I was out of my element. Now I seemed to be collegially accepted, claimed even, staying at the Lodgings of the Principal of my old college, collaborating in the campaign with my former tutor, having a strategic coffee in the Senior Common Room in Christ Church, meeting with students at the Eagle and Child (watering hole of the Inklings—C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, etc.), attending a dinner at high table. Had I made it somehow, a pale anonymous pawn, to the far end of the chessboard? 

Walking through the gorgeous gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, in their full glory at the beginning of June, by the banks of the Cherwell fringed with doilies of Queen Anne’s lace, I was ambushed by a bewildering mixture of melancholy and joy, gratitude and wonder. I would sometimes take a turn on the path and feel a stab of—not of nostalgia, since surely a place of brief sojourn in my youth could not be called home—but chronalgia, as if the soul of the young woman aspiring to be a poet, and the soul of the poet I had become, passed right through each other, coming and going.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Empty Signifier

Winning a poetry prize wasn't enough to rescue Phoebe Wang from the sense of isolation that comes with being a writer of colour.
I have often wondered about the importance of visibility; after all, my ethnic identity is a category that has been arbitrarily created. What is “Asian”? “Of colour”? “Minority?” These terms fail to capture the often contradictory positions of both shame and privilege, doubt and power. Therefore, what I share with other writers of colour is the experience of having our identity determined by reductionist terms, by an empty signifier of stereotyped traits and characteristics. I cannot address my racial category, because it is addressing me.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Writing Both at the Same Time

Drawing on the example of Shakespeare ("everyone knows his plays and no one worries too much about what genre they fit into"), Susan Glickman believes we waste too much time trying to classify books.
Since Aristotle first divided poetry into epic, lyric, and dramatic, students of literature have found genre a very helpful way to talk about the structure of works and the transmission of traditions. But I’m not convinced that thinking within such tight aesthetic categories is equally useful for writers themselves, whose job, after all, is to represent life.
Our obsession with those "tight aesthetic categories" may even have harmed her second novel's reception:
When asked the genre of my second novel, The Tale-Teller, I described it as “feminist picaresque”—after all, its realistic framework of life in 18th-century Quebec was constantly being interrupted by heroic tales of feral children, pirates, and escapes from harems. I was informed by agents and editors who admired the writing but disliked generic miscegenation that my book ought to be either historical fiction or fantasy, and I wasn’t permitted to write both at the same time. I stuck to my guns and found a publisher (Cormorant Books) that got what I was doing. But still, the French translation by Boreal has done better than the original; reviewers in Canada’s other official language celebrated the work for exactly those qualities—philosophical engagement and linguistic playfulness—overlooked by English reviewers who insisted on reading it as historical fiction.

Friday 5 June 2015

Illustrating Eliot

Julian Peters adapts Prufrock into comic-book form. You can check out the rest of the pages here.