Saturday 31 October 2015

That Fucking Merwin

Robert Archambeau reminds us that even Saint Creeley had anger issues:
I know a lot of people who loved Robert Creeley, who saw the old sage of Black Mountain and Buffalo as a generous mentor and friend, and he certainly was that. He may turn out to have meant more to more younger poets than any other figure of his generation. But if you read his letters, you see that he had as large a capacity for hatred as he had for paternal or avuncular love. He despises Theodore Roethke and Louis Simpson, hurls abuse at Helen Vendler, spews bile in the direction of Louise Glück and Charles Wright, dismisses Kenneth Koch as a lightweight, and talks about cutting Frank O’Hara (the editors of the letters work hard, in a footnote, to explain this away as metaphorical, and may be right). “Fuck him,” he says of Kenneth Patchen, and he tells us how “that fucking Merwin” is a “a symbol of rot.” He clearly sees battle lines drawn between a kind of poetry he admires and the kinds he does not, and he takes exception when the people who should be on his side appear to cross the line and embrace the enemy. “I will never forget this,” he writes to Kenneth Rexroth, when the older poet treasonously supported Roethke; and when William Carlos Williams spoke approvingly of W. H. Auden, Creeley demanded to know whether someone had held a gun to Williams’ back. Academics have a special place in Creeley’s inferno—even after so many of them had come to accept his views about who the important poets were. In 1985, he tells us that academics wouldn’t deign to write about Williams or Olson—and does so with such vehemence that I wouldn’t want to have been the one to tell him of the half dozen prominent academic articles on Olson that year alone, or the three dozen on Williams, or of the professor who’d just edited the sixth volume of Creeley’s correspondence with Olson. Resentment outlives its occasion, and those who harbor it don’t want to be reminded of the fact.

Friday 30 October 2015

Manifest Destiny

Ange Mlinko assesses Jorie Graham's challenging career:
Born in 1950 in the United States, raised in Italy, educated in France, and only returning to her native country as a young adult, Graham is, along with John Ashbery and Frederick Seidel, one of the very few living American poets to have advanced a worldly, Modernist model of the poem into the 21st century. She has seized for her own uses a patrimony rich with philosophical and linguistic experimentation, bypassing the sort of small-scale, homegrown free verse that has come to dominate the journals and university programs and public-radio stations of our time. Although she has not published collections of essays or lectures, she has taught for 30 years, first at Iowa and now at Harvard (where she inherited the Boylston Chair from Seamus Heaney), and has edited two major poetry anthologies, securing her influence on successive generations of poets and readers. Having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her first Selected Poems, she is now seeing the publication of her second. From the New World expands on the nearly 200-page The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974–1994, which spanned her first five books; the new Selected covers the six books she has written since then, and presents four new poems as well. To remain a “frustrating and problematic” public figure for 40 years is a hard labor: Everything in the television and Internet age militates against it. To mine the legacy of the Modernists—specifically Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore—while making apt references to Pascal and Heidegger and Rimbaud and Rilke, at a time when the field of American poetry is becoming an adjunct of pop culture, is also a feat of integrity requiring an antisocial streak in our crowdsourcing age. And Graham has been warily celebrated for—or is it despite?—resisting expectations of speed, amusement, and digestibility. This also means resisting some of the classical pleasures of poetry: epigrammatic wit (or the “memorable line”), phrase-making, and metaphor—­the Apollonian qualities, you might say, of contour, line, and limit, and hence closure, a concept that is anathema to Graham and perhaps her country. There is a certain irony in Graham’s resistance and Americanness: Her long-lined long poems expand into time like a lyric version of manifest destiny.

Bard of the Fallow Field

Stephen Burt traces poems by poets as diverse as John Ashbery, David Baker, Michael Dickman and David Morley back to a single progenitor: John Clare.
Almost everything that could have seemed, to a nineteenth-century reader, like a reason to count Clare as minor, or not to read him, makes him a resource for poets today. “Bard of the fallow field / And the green meadow,” as he called himself, Clare remained closely attentive to what we now call his environment, what he called “nature,” in a way that is neither touristic nor ignorant of agricultural effort. He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

A Mishmash of Multitudes

Todd Gitlin remembers the late C.K. Williams:
He and I once had an enjoyable argument—half playful, half earnest—on the question of whether too many books were being published. I thought so. He thought not. His was the greater democratic faith. He was a populist, not meaning someone tasteless or talking down, but a man who lives in the large—360 degrees around. He was large and he contained a mishmash of multitudes and privileged no objects, no cultural levels, over others. I heard him read his work several times in several cities, and I was always struck by the modesty of his demeanor. He knew his work was read, and loved, and he didn’t think anyone’s reading or admiration, or love, was more or less worthy than anyone else’s.

Canadian Oresteia

Robert Moore praises Chad Campbell's debut Laws & Locks:
As family drama—the family as the source of a curse passed from generation to generation—Laws & Locks is a Canadian Oresteia, only without the laughs of the original. There is in the entire volume, so far as I can tell, no lapse into the humourous or even the vaguely ironic (Nabokov’s line from Speak, Memory, “In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much,” could easily have made it to the shortlist for this volume’s epigraph). It is a very dark book. Over the course of its progress through two centuries of Campbells, very little emotional or intellectual light mitigates the gloom of the book’s opening reminder that death is only a breath away or that Canada, for all its apparent promise to an immigrant, “was a thought/ that couldn’t stopper the dark/ rank water of a dark/ rank hold.”

Along with the consistency of shadow, neither the basic subject matter nor the point of view, tone, or essential scheme of techniques of this collection much varies. And this, I think, is one of its strengths, especially for a first book. Campbell isn’t about to be distracted from his solemn agenda by the merely arcane. (This is the advice he tacitly offers in “Lighthouse Beats” to poets whose tastes might run to the postmodern: “Too easy to write of oddities, catalogue curious things—/ mistake a peculiarity of vision for feeling.”) As a result of this discipline, Laws & Locks isn’t what so many debut collections tend to be: a potpourri of voices—of attitudes either struck or borrowed—from a poet who has yet to find his or her own. These poems, rather, read as if they sprang fully formed from the settled and accomplished brow of a mature, mid-career poet.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Sunday Poem

The smallest cut has the fewest needs,
least of all attention. The largest cut's
requirements surpass our abilities.
It is impossible to find unless stumbled
upon, and then proves challenging to categorize.
Recognizable as flesh, is not slash or butterfly,
lance or scrape; neither prepared event or accident.
It exists between, a split not quite in twain.
The largest cut possesses unreachable depths
and blind, frightening fish. It's unlimited closets,
hidden attics, shakes with captured wind
from flapping birds' wings. To call it a sinkhole
wouldn't be totally wrong. The smallest cut
is your childhood and every memory a splinter.
The largest cut is your unused potential, a void
beckoning with ancestral moans like everything
you couldn't say, and everything you did.
By Allison LaSorda, from Playdate (Anstruther Press, 2015). 

Friday 23 October 2015

Gala Poetry Launch, October 17, 2015, Drawn & Quarterly

Joshua Trotter reading from Mission Creep (Coach House)

David Solway reading from Installations (Signal Editions)
Derek Webster reading from Mockingbird (Signal Editions)
(From left) Talya Rubin, Derek Webster and Pat Webster

Saleema Nawaz Webster and Jennifer Varkonyi

(From bottom left:) Jennifer Varkonyi, Carmine Starnino, Simon Dardick, Derek Webster and Saleema Nawaz Webster 

Sunday 18 October 2015

Sunday Poem

I don’t need you to tell me why I’m here
or solve the mystery of how I slipped so far
and came to, lost in a snickering wood,
your trill my sole directive.

No bewigged guardian of the law
will ever compliment my patience, or sense
of beauty, or your eloquence.
Like you I’m playing with a kingless deck,
bound to songs that others made,
and with my life I sing out the pale result,
my reputation like the heavy coat
of a Victorian postman.
Kindness makes me angry. It’s rough justice.

Now we’ve reached the final, spoofing call
when you parrot the morning bell—
melody dug in, song-fuse set,
then that spine-deep tingle
that bursts in your abrupt last line,
enlightening darkness, slowing time.
By Derek Webster, from Mockingbird (Signal Editions, 2015)

Friday 16 October 2015

The Philosopher Poet

Troy Jollimore reflects on the differences between philosophy and poetry:
My thinking on this continues to change. I always think of Randall Jarrell’s comment that “Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem.”

I resist this, of course, because it seems to me that any decent piece of philosophy will tell us something new and significant about the world, and so can’t help but be interesting. But let’s suppose that Jarrell meant something else, that the poet, unlike the philosopher, is allowed and even required to do anything to make a poem work—to make it interesting, to make it a good read. You can include falsehoods, questionable statements, stuff you don’t know, stuff that just sounds good, stuff you just make up. Whatever works. Just as the poet gets to twist and violate the rules of grammar and syntax, to stuff her poem full of non sequiturs and illogical swerves, etc—it’s all part of the same package, the package that gets called ‘poetic license,’ I suppose.

Whereas when doing philosophy, while you may end up saying something interesting, something that gives pleasure or delight, something that is memorable or moving, you aren’t allowed to aim at being interesting, delightful, moving, etc. in the same way; you have to aim at understanding, at achieving an accurate and insightful picture of things, and you are bound by the rules and practices that govern that sort of inquiry. And then, once that is done, being interesting—or giving delight, or moving the reader, or what have you—is something that can happen, but only as, in essence, a kind of side-effect.

The Rules of Writing Poetry

John Dennison doesn't believe in them:
What is this talk of rules? A successful poem is not a matter of rule-keeping or breaking, but of faithfulness—trust in the possibilities of language and the various poetic traditions. Some forms have constraints, and I am very interested in the possibilities generated by working within and against these constraints. The question is not whether to use free-verse or strict forms, it’s about what’s needful, about the way each form sets up a micro-economy of agency and possibility within language. Free-verse, in an apparent paradox, foregrounds a kind of existential bind of constantly having to choose, having to assert control over language, to use it as a means of expression. In terza rima, on the other hand, one is constantly getting ahead of oneself (with the b-rhyme in the tercet) while glancing back from where you’ve been; it’s a promissory kind of form, constantly entrusting itself to unknown possibilities.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Flash Interview #9—Derek Webster

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Derek Webster grew up in Beijing, Toronto and London. He received an MFA in Poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied with Carl Phillips, Erin Belieu and Yusef Komunyakaa. His poetry and prose have appeared in Boston ReviewThe WalrusThe Fiddlehead and The Malahat Review. The founding editor of Maisonneuve magazine, he lives in Montreal. His first book, Mockingbird, is being launched this Saturday at Drawn & Quarterly bookstore.

Carmine Starnino: The presiding spirits of your book include Americans like Frost and Stevens, as well British poets like Auden and Larkin, and, of course, that transatlantic enigma Eliot. What draws you to their work?

Derek Webster: Frost’s Virgilian dialogue “Home Burial” was important for me as I put together my long poem “Intervention.” The knife-twisting and sardonic rhymes of Auden and Larkin and the traumatized psyche of Eliot’s The Wasteland helped me make sense of many other things as I went along. All these writers use iambic pentameter as their starting point. I found that using it as a default meter helped me in the early stages of creation. It’s the cabernet sauvignon of meters—a robust, full line that, the more you absorb it, the more it pulls unexpected things from you as you strive to complete a line. Thinking about meter also helps distract from some of the more charged aspects of writing—too much emotion can overwhelm. Of course, rely on it too much, put too much weight on it, you can end up with lines that feel like guide rails. Much Victorian poetry feels that way to me.

CS: It's interesting how your poems often measure things in relation to the past—you’re always looking back at the bigger, bygone, picture.

DW: Well, the past is where ideals go to die, so it’s a rich, complex place for poetry. I like art that captures an unsentimental feeling of history, a connection with people who once stepped spritely where we tromp today. We exist on a very limited scale—modern science tells us we’re barely here at all, that there are other scales unimaginably larger and unobservably smaller than ours. These things make me look for what’s most human in us as a kind of answer, and for me that means love, history and family. I’m not sure if these qualities come across in my own writing, but I think of them when I write, and take pleasure and solace in playing out different results in different poems. There’s a brilliant contemporary poet, James Pollock, who has written a long poem called “Quarry Park” that captures exactly this sense of things.

CS: Has your experience as a magazine editor helped you as a poet?

DW: It’s helped me to discern what’s valuable and alive in my own poems and to leave out things that aren’t. About half of the poems in Mockingbird have been around in some form or another for twenty years. Before I edited Maisonneuve magazine, I was rarely sure of what I had written or why and I had no idea how to make them better. I ran my poems through a gauntlet of drafts and forms that ended up fracturing my confidence because the results weren’t an improvement (the poems got worse, usually). That and some other events pretty much stopped me in my tracks for eight years or more. But when a need compelled me to return to poetry, desperate and a little terrified, I slowly realized something had changed; I knew what to do with my own words now, both the rough scribblings of raw experience and the labouriously reworked “finished” pieces of earlier years. Things started to fall into place then.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Sunday Poem

The march against my father, who art alone,
Wandering the heavenly echelons of the food chain,
Whose will be done unto plot upon field of fiction
In the name of abundance, unknown known be thy name.
He whose skyscrapers rose to the occasion
Of snakes and ladders, brass ring rashes and gold holed up in silver mines.
He whose boss is a dick hungers to be in pole position.
He who made a first name for himself with the Lord in mind,
Pithy and civil, knowing it takes one feeling farmer to know another 
And commodify the countryside.
Here was a man who never found out
What the third fork was for, whether love was the eleventh province.
He who reads after burning, knows what you need to know,
Who was and is and is to come, whose appearance would be his vanishing,
An invitation to an art opening thousands of years ago.
He who is unwelcome in his own Edenic dream
Of a nuclear family. Redemption is a hell of a thing,
Though they rarely roll the tape that far. 
The march against the march against those with absent fathers
Shall inherit the earth, the birds in faulty feathers, the Father, the Ghost,
And the You within You, the saving lie of three being better than two.
In the name of all the time before you were born, and all the time
After you die, let beer bottles sweat before firepits
Like Christmas in July. Life's too long to edit. It's never too late
To become what you already are. Here is what you need to know.
All will be forgiven. What doesn't kill me disappoints me.
For the love of God, go to reception and ask for Andy.
By Andy McGuire, from Country Club (Coach House, 2015)

Saturday 10 October 2015

Maker of Shapes and Images

Matthew Sperling thinks it's time to get serious about Anglo-Welsh poet and painter David Jones:
Though some of Jones’s engravings and paintings share with his writings a superstructure of recondite mythological, religious, and symbolic meaning, they present none of the immediate difficulty that his poetry does. Instead, the extraordinary fluidity and variety of his mark-making shine out freshly from his greatest works on paper, carving out shapes in flat, two-dimensional space which produce compositions of graceful rhythm and mysterious, timeless balance. His genius was for activating the ‘lyricism inherent in the clean, furrowed free, fluent engraved line’, as he put it in his retrospective introduction of 1964 to the copper engravings he made to illustrate Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1929. And his draughtsmanship was much more various than this emphasis on the ‘engraved line’ might suggest. Just as he confessed that his ‘method’ in writing—a dry, technical word he held apart in inverted commas—was ‘merely to arse around with such words as are available to me until the passage in question takes on something of the shape I think it requires’, so in making a picture, he said, he was simply trying ‘to make the lines, smudges, colours, opacities, translucencies, tightnesses, hardnesses, pencil marks, paint marks, chalk marks, spit-marks, thumb marks, etc., evoke the image one requires as much as poss.’ Several decades after Jones’s death, with his rather overbearing ideas about myth, religion, and the decline of civilisation faded to remoteness, he can now be appreciated afresh as a startlingly original maker of shapes and images.
(Painting: Elephant, 1928, by David Jones)

Thursday 8 October 2015

Poetry vs Prose

For Steven Heighton, the difference between writing poetry and prose is "the ratio of pain and pleasure involved":
Working on a poem is always, on some level, a pleasure, and I think one of the main reasons is that there's no risk and hence no anxiety involved. Why? Because a twenty-line poem is a small thing, physically, and I know that if it doesn't work I can just walk away from it. Also, the "career" stakes couldn't be lower. Few people read poetry, so my livelihood can't and doesn't ride on it. Fiction is different. People do read it, and publishers sometimes pay decently for it, and you actually can make a modest living from it, if you have sufficiently low material aspirations. So there's always a touch of anxiety there. It's not just play. Plus, it's simply hard to walk away from a botched piece of fiction without agonizing over all the time and effort you've spent. To give up on a thirty page story, after months of work—as I've had to do at least twice now--is painful. To walk away from a three hundred page novel you're struggling with after eighteen months or three years—that's just about unfaceable.

Sunday 4 October 2015

That Money

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Lista published a blockbuster article linking the Griffin poetry prize to a $15 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. Zach Wells tackles the Canadian poetry commentariat's equivocating response:
So yeah, the world is complicated, and complicity is impossible to avoid. But equating our complicity in purchasing commodities and making ignorant investment choices with that of Griffin is nonsense. Griffin is making money directly by selling shock absorbers to a company that will put them in tanks, which will be sold to a country that is one of the world's greatest human rights abusers. It doesn't matter if "that money" isn't the money that funds the prize. The prize bears his name and you can't divorce his present business dealings from his involvement in the prize. If, knowing what we now know, you take his money and keep your mouth shut, you are not merely complicit, you have given yourself an upgrade to tacit condoner. Past shortlistees and winners of the prize become part of the Griffin circle and go into the pool of potential future jurors and even trustees. I'm not going to call out any individuals who have accepted, or will in future, accept prize money from the Griffin foundation because I think calling people out on blogs and social media is fucking gross and because yeah, life is complicated and I don't know what other pressures are driving other people's choices. I've made a conscious choice not to depend on writing for my living and I've never been a part of the Griffin inner circle, so it's a lot easier for me to speak my mind. So no, I won't call you out. But I am calling on you to abandon the exercises in rationalization and look deep into your conscience and decide if this is something you can sanction. Maybe people are already doing so, but I'm not seeing much evidence of it yet.

Sunday Poem

You are thirty-eight Michigans away from me,
thirty-eight wolverine states into your cups
in the sky, because being dead is like being
profoundly tanked, profound as an empty silo,
with your thoughts and your arms and your
credit cards ignoring you, just eyes, eyes, and behind
those eyes nothing, or the sky, or the smell of manure,
or thirty-eight Michigans of black, bloated ice.

One Michigan is bigger by far than a football field,
and two or ten is one of those I’m a man who needs
no woman type of motorcycle trips and fifteen is all the
old routes of tea or silk or spice or Trans-Siberian
misery rolled; but thirty-eight is the size of the space where Oh,
I need to call you, though laying hands upon
the phone I am repelled by a forcefield of practicality,
grasping at the incongruities of the calendar year and my
desire and your non-existence. Thirty-eight Michigans away
you are no doubt somewhere or other, balking at being,
polishing off a sandwich made of rare, impossible air.
You are as likely as the apocalypse. I can almost hear
you on my radio, the cracks in your voice of clay.

I summon up photos of our planet as seen from
invented places like e.g. the moon and it looks
like a Rubik’s cube. Peel off the stickers and
solve the black plastic beneath. Solve this blank
sheet of aluminium. Solve this anteater.

Yes, I recommend walking in the rain,
sluicing in the lake, howling at the shadow
of the moon behind the moon. Say Go long
before you throw long. Say Heads. Give the
dead more than their due. Yes, I recommend
cutting and running. Can you hear me, thirty-eight
Michigans down the line? Go long.
By Eva H.D., winner of the 2015 Montreal International Poetry Prize.

(Photo of empty silo in Michigan by Keith Blandford)

Friday 2 October 2015

Atlantic Cannibalism

Mary Dalton celebrates Frank Barry's flesh-eating play, Wreckhouse, first performed in St. John's in 2002:
Bringing to bear on his creation a wide-ranging knowledge of modernist and contemporary European drama, Barry draws on Brecht and Beckett, among others, in creating a surreal world, a postindustrial wasteland inhabited by a small band of cannibals who survive by trapping stray tourists, dancing them through mockeries of the usual tourist rituals, and cooking them up at a "folk feastival." The premise is grim indeed, but the analysis is astute, and the language play is stunning. In addition to its other strengths, Wreckhouse captures the fizz and spit, the ragged energy, of Newfoundland speech. With Early Newfoundland Errors, a later radio play by Ed Riche,Wreckhouse casts a cold eye on the way we live now. It is at once a dazzlingly funny play, and one of the darkest works in the literature, as bitter a piece of social commentary as Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Christopher Bond's play Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
(Illustration by Alberto Elia Violante)

The Unclothed Emperor

If you're thinking of buying Mary Karr a book this Christmas, best stay away from John Ashbery:
I feel like a turd naming names, but the poet John Ashbery’s reputation is inflated enough to take it. He’s a smart guy with a genius ear for music. In my besotted youth, I wrote a 100-plus-page essay on “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” then later recanted. His poems are about (he admits this) zippo, and his seductive voice is the most poisonous influence in American poetry. You know those page-long pieces of his in The New Yorker you can’t comprehend? Neither can anybody else. A brilliant, modest guy, immensely charming, but the most celebrated unclothed emperor in U.S. letters today—an invention of academic critics.