Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Audio of me reading Van Toorn's "Dragonflies, Those Bluejays of the Water."
A dialogue review of Mountain Tea I did with George Murray at Bookninja.
A little essay I wrote about Van Toorn's sonnet "Mountain Leaf" (reprinted for the essay) for Arc last fall.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much else to speak of on the net. Which is a shame, because he's one of the most unique voices of 20th C poetry. Go out and read his book, damnit!
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 10:07 PM
What surprised me was how many I found. I decided from the outset that the book would have no more than 100 sonnets. I assumed, given how addicted most poets in this country have been to free verse, and how bad most of the formal verse that preceded the vers libre era was, I'd be including more than one sonnet by the best and most prolific writers of the form. As it turns out, I've got a book of 99 sonnets, written by 100 poets (one's a collaborative effort). Not only that, but I had to make a lot of very difficult choices to whittle it down to that number. I've left out a number of friends and acquaintances, and, more to the point, I've left out a lot of poems I actually quite like.
What impresses me about the group I've gathered is not only the quality of the writing, but the innovative varieties of sonnet that Canadians have come up with. I think the book explodes the stereotype of a "closed form" like the sonnet being a constraint, or some kind of patriarchal/colonial/authoritarian structure that squelches the voice of the unique individual. Far from it. The sonnet for these poets--for any good poet who works with it--is a departure point, not a goal.
It looks as though the book'll be published next year, possibly in the fall, but hopefully in the spring. I've finished the selection, introduction and notes, but a lot of less-fun clerical work remains to be done.
While you're waiting (I know, you can hardly stand the anticipation), here are links to a couple of essays on sonnetry by two of the more distinguished contributors to the anthology, Milton Acorn and Peter Van Toorn.
On a related publishing note, Language Acts (page 7 of the PDF) an anthology of essays on contemporary Quebec poetry in English, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift and containing an essay by yours truly on Van Toorn (previously published in Canadian Notes & Queries no. 69), will be launched by Vehicule Press in Montreal this April at the Blue Metropolis Festival.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 2:05 PM
Monday, February 26, 2007
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 10:28 PM
A new poem, with the usual disclaimers about poetry not being autobiography, etc. And in case you're thinking, "hey, waitaminute," yes, I know, it sounds like Plath. So?
I’m told that I resemble you. I do,
It’s true, like an Arab a Jew, I can see
Me in you, right to my left shoe, bootstrapped
And blue. Dear zeyda, dear grampa, dear Lou,
Let’s marry, let’s say our I do’s, our boo-
Hoos, our adieus. She never left you—you
Were threaded in her like a screw, staining
Her like a tattoo, drubbing and draining
Her blue. It was you, Lou, you who flew,
Old Lear, into rages and bottles and fugues,
Into the storm you flew—where I met you,
Cursing the gods and the fools who weren’t you.
And goddamnit, grandfather, I am you,
Stubborn, wicked and true. I never knew
You in life, but I didn’t need to—
And it’s not long now till I’m dust, too.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 9:15 AM
Friday, February 23, 2007
She's now moved on to bigger things. Huge things, which she told us about over coffee and cake. Her current project is The Shapetionary: An Impractical Reference Book. Basically, she's taken all the concrete object nouns out of the dictionary and is farming them out to people all over the world to be illustrated.
If you're interested in contributing to the Shapetionary, drop Margaret a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 5:33 AM
Thursday, February 22, 2007
I have to say, I don't keep up much with new American poetry, although I've enjoyed work by Thomas Lynch, especially, and Martin Espada. Our hyper-protectionist official culture doesn't help American poets any when it comes to getting exposure this side of the border. So Anne Caston was a complete surprise. She read very dark poems, from her 1997 book Flying Out with the Wounded (which sounds like a horribly poetic title, I know, but when you find out she used to be a nurse, the wank factor of that last word evaporates) and from a forthcoming book. The poems were near-morbid and flirted dangerously with sentimentality, but the risks she took paid off; she left more than one member of the audience agape.
This reading put a new set of shoes on a favourite hobbyhorse of mine: writers should do something with their lives that is not related to writing. Talent alone is rarely enough to bridge the gap from decent writing to ohmygodthatwasgood. Rachel Rose's best poem last night was about her past work as a phlebotomist and Caston's was directly informed by her nursing career. Things happened in these poems; people lived and died in them. The more contemplatively lyrical stuff was pretty darn pale--pretty safe--by comparison.
A few links to Caston on the web:
American Life in Poetry
These aren't as good as a couple of the new pieces she read last night, but it gives an idea of what she's about. You can also "look through the book" at the Amazon link above.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 8:29 AM
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Also in this issue are five poems by the inimitable Gabe Foreman. I met Gabe when I read in his hometown of Peterborough, ON last year and saw him read this past fall in Fredericton, NB at the annual UNB Poetry Weekend. In his quiet fashion, he is an hilariously funny guy, both in person and in print. He wasn't on the bill originally, but showed up for the weekend with his friend and mine, Jeramy Dodds (another talented writer). In the usual informal Poetry Weekend way, Ross Leckie added him to one of the reading sets. He stole the show with his off-kilter blend of humour and pathos. Richard Lemm probably said it best, something like, "he's doing what a hundred Language poets think they're doing." I passed this on to the Gabester, whose response was, "What's a Language poet?"
Update, March 5: I just found an audio recording of Gabe reading some of his poems at the Banff Centre.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 3:40 PM
Sunday, February 18, 2007
A few things that came up in her remarks and in a Q&A session after the reading struck me. For all her braininess, and considering that she's in her fifties and has spent most of her adult life working as a poet, she displays remarkable ignorance, or at least highly selective awareness, of prosodic technique and poetic heritage.
She read some poems from a forthcoming book that are inspired largely by her recent trawls through medieval Portuguese troubadour verse. In her preamble she said that these poets had a sense of the "lyric I" as a construct. I turned immediately to my friend and asked her, "Who the hell doesn't?" One runs into this sort of ignorant, self-congratulatory condescension amongst members of the avant-garde intelligentsia shockingly often. Who are these poor benighted sods who think the person speaking in their poem is actually them? Erin said later that there was something very postmodern about the troubadours, as if ironic subjectivity was a postmodern invention and any rogue evidence of it prior to 1979 was some kind of prefiguration of the Messiah's arrival. I kind of know what she's talking about, poets who write earnest, poorly examined poems in the first person. Only problem is, these are BAD POETS. As such, they should not be seen as representative, no matter how many of them are crawling about; they're easy strawmen to demolish, if you're looking for something to make your own search procedures look better and smarter.
She also talked about the conventional formulae of subject matter and the tight formal constraints employed by the troubadours, and how most of the poems consequently sounded the same. But then there were the "Masters" who, against all odds, managed to impart some kind of individual eccentricity to their verses, often by bending or breaking the rules. This is interesting to me, but not suprising. Erin, however, was talking about it as though it was some sort of stunning revelation. But really, it's metrics 101. Any decent introductory text on prosody will tell you this sort of thing; that metre, for instance, is not something that should be slavishly followed because it becomes monotonous; that poets' (again, real poets, not hack versifiers) pentameters are as individual as their faces and fingerprints. And you don't have to look back into the gloom of the Middle Ages to find this stuff. It's going on all around us. The challenge of making a French troubadour form like a triolet, for example, sound like something other than a mechanical exercise continues to stimulate efforts from good poets. Christopher Patton talks about this at the beginning of this review of In Fine Form. The triolet he analyses is Elise Partridge's. She lives here in Vancouver and published her book with a press in Montreal, where Erin lives, and has a new book coming out with Anansi, Erin's publisher. Not hard stuff to find. If you're looking, that is, and not just buffing your own prejudices to a bright burnished glow to better sell them as wisdom.
Erin also talked about a bunch of Spanish sonnets she'd read and how struck she was by the individuality that could be achieved within the form. Now the sonnet is a particular favourite form of mine, precisely because of its combination of compactness and expansive flexibility. I'm editing an anthology of sonnets right now, and the variety of experiments with the form just within Canada is quite amazing. These innovatory explorations are very much in keeping with the history of the form, as, in the course of its heterogeneous seven-century existence, it has travelled across borders and into different languages; as it's been curtailed and caudated, compressed and widened. So when Erin said this, I piped up and said, "Yeah, it's a very plastic form." Her response to this was what a pity it was that some people insisted on blowing the trumpets of poetic conservatism, insisting on traditional forms, when their own work was actually often quite innovative. More than one person in the audience saw this as a direct dig at me. If it wasn't directed at me, I'm not sure who exactly it could have been directed against. Maybe David Solway, whose more intemperate statements sometimes resemble the sort of caricature Erin was drawing. But this seemed to me another strategically set-up, anonymous strawman. For the record, here's what I said about this debate almost three years ago. Maybe she was referring more to my review of her last book... At any rate, I've never insisted on formal orthodoxy in poetry. I do believe that it's stupid--and politically fatuous--for anyone to limit themselves by dismissing traditional methods entirely. And Erin did say that prior to reading these Spanish sonnets, she'd tended to "dismiss" the form. A bit disingenuous to blame the rhetoric of imaginary critics for her own close-mindedness. But to her credit, she is at least open-minded enough to be filling in some of the significant gaps in her poetic education now, which can't be said of very many new-school poets.
One of the great ironies of the evening came up in the Q&A (which was stiltedly confined to questions that had been submitted to Erin prior to the event), when she talked about her concepts of "signal" and "noise." A signal is the voice of authority (political leaders, corporate CEOs, mass media, etc.), whereas noise is the hubbub of the rabble (us citizens, in short). I wonder to what extent Erin is aware of her status as signal--at least within the context of poetry and academics. Postmodernism, as delineated by J-F Lyotard, is iconoclastic, characterised by skepticism vis-a-vis the "grand narratives." Humans are funny critters, in that they don't seem to be able to do without such narratives, at least not for long. The story that I think a lot of postmodern artists of Erin's generation are telling themselves--and the world, insofar as it's listening--is that they have broken the false idols. This tearing down of big stories thus becomes a Big Story in its own right, much along the lines--albeit more modest in scale, a "little theatre" of war--of Zeus's defeat of Cronus in the Titanomachy, or Luther nailing his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. I get the impression that Erin still thinks of herself--or at least wants to think of herself--as a subversive noisemaker (a feminist and a lesbian "reinventing" poetic modes of saying) when for a long time, and to an increasing degree, she has become a signal-sender (a multiple-award-winning poet--including 5 GG nominations and 2 for the Griffin--to whom a lot of people look for artistic and political answers, or at least roadmaps): she has crossed the Rubicon, taken the passage from iconoclast to icon. (There are even myths surrounding her: in her introduction, Pauline Butling stated that Erin has won the GG three times, when she has in fact only won it once.) She was very much The Voice last night, whereas I and perhaps a couple of other less than worshipful attendees, supposedly advocates of the Conservative Signal, were noise--and less than welcome noise at that, as her shoutdown of my rather modest comment testifies. Ah those perning gyres...
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 3:05 PM
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Just came across this lengthy, and very thoughtful, critique of David Solway's pamphlet On Being a Jew, written by Brian Fawcett. It helps to elucidate why Solway would want to snuggle up to Mark Steyn: he got beat up as a kid.
Another thought occurred to me. Solway's review of Steyn appears in an issue of Books in Canada in which the magazine's publisher and editor, Adrian and Olga Stein, put together an humongous piece on Conrad Black. Solway is also an editor at BiC and Mark Steyn is a notorious Black lackey (a blackey?). I wonder if Solway and the Steins are far enough up Lord Black's ass to lick Steyn's Hush Puppies.
And another thing: why is Books in Canada so shoddy about paying its writers their promised fees?
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 1:40 AM
Monday, February 12, 2007
I'm reading Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus right now. Conrad's description of Donkin, in the early pages of the book, has to be one of the most memorable bits of character painting in all English fiction. I've met this fellah once or twice myself in various worksites:
ANOTHER new hand--a man with shifty eyes and a yellow hatchet face, who had been listening openmouthed in the shadow of the midship locker--observed in a squeaky voice: --"Well, it's a 'omeward trip anyhow. Bad or good, I can do it on my 'ed--s'long as I get 'ome. And I can look after my rights! I will show 'em!" All the heads turned towards him. Only the ordinary seaman and the cat took no notice. He stood with arms akimbo, a little fellow with white eyelashes. He looked as if he had known all the degradations and all the furies. He looked as if he had been cuffed, kicked, rolled in the mud; he looked as if he has been scratched, spat upon, pelted with unmentionable filth ... and he smiled with a sense of security at the faces around. His ears were bending down under the weight of his battered felt hat. The torn tails of his black coat flapped in fringes about the calves of his legs. He unbuttoned the only two buttons that remained and everyone saw that he had no shirt under it. It was his deserved misfortune that those rags which nobody could possibly be supposed to own looked on him as though they had been stolen. His neck was long and thin; his eyelids were red; rare hairs hung about his jaws; his shoulders were peaked and drooped like the broken wings of a bird; all his left side was caked with mud which showed that he had lately slept in a wet ditch. He had saved his inefficient carcass from violent destruction by running away from an American ship where, in a moment of forgetful folly, he had dared to engage himself; and he had knocked about for a fortnight ashore in the native quarter, cadging for drinks, starving, sleeping on rubbish-heaps, wandering in sunshine: a startling visitor from the world of nightmares. He stood repulsive and smiling in the sudden silence. This clean white forecastle was his refuge; the place where he could be lazy; where he could wallow, and lie and eat--and curse the food he ate; where he could display his talents for shirking work, for cheating, for cadging; where he could find surely someone to wheedle and someone to bully--and where he would be paid for doing all this. They all knew him. Is there a spot on earth where such a man is unknown, an ominous survival testifying to the eternal fitness of lies and impudence? A taciturn long-armed shellback, with hooked fingers, who had been lying on his back smoking, turned in his bed to examine him dispassionately, then, over his head, sent a long jet of saliva clear towards the door. They all knew him! He was the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work. The man who is the last out and the first in when all hands are called. The man who can't do most things and won't do the rest. The pet of philanthropists and self-seeking landlubbers. The sympathetic and deserving creature that knows all his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship's company. The independent offspring of the slums, full of disdain and hate for the austere servitude of the sea.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 11:03 AM
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Friday, February 9, 2007
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Margaret Atwood recently wrote an op/ed piece for the Globe in which she said "it seems to be the intention of the Harper neocons to bleed and starve Canada's cultural institutions until they croak." I have no doubt that Harper and his merry band of neocon clowns has no interest in supporting the arts in Canada. However, Atwood's basis for saying this is that, while the Liberals promised a $300 million topup to the Canada Council's funding, the ReformAllianceCons have delivered a mere $50 million. It should be noted that the Liberal promise was made as a campaign gambit from the deck of a sinking ship, and whether or not they would have delivered on said promise if elected is moot. It should also be noted that any increase of funding, however arguably inadequate, is an awfully strange way to bleed a critter dry.
But Atwood wasn't finished hyperbolising. She continues "In the sixties, the Canadian government began to actively encourage individual artists through the Canada Council, and then Ottawa and the provincial governments began investing in institutions and infrastructure, and now we have an artist-stimulated "creative economy" that's worth -- so they say -- $40-billion dollars a year. Why invest money in the arts? Because -- simple answer -- it's a great investment: A few dollars in means a lot of dollars out. Without the arts, the average Canadian citizen would be poorer, and I don't mean just spiritually." This is a strange mix of fact (let's assume the $40 billion figure is more or less accurate, for argument's sake) and skewed interpretation. First, there is art produced in this country that does not benefit from government subsidies and the money generated by this art is part of that $40 billion--probably a big part, since the CC tends to favour less commercially successful artistic endeavours. Secondly, it's bad logic to say that the economy would be in worse shape without the government's investment in the arts, since there is no doubt any number of other things that money could be spent on that would yield a much more significant return on investment. Like gambling machines. So this argument in favour of arts funding, while superficially persuasive, is dangerously double-edged. It is an attempt to meet the Money-Idolators on their own ground and can only tempt them to sacrifice arts funding on their bloody, oil-permeated altar.
A little further on, Atwood trots out the old truism of Canada as "a small country threatened by a supersized popular culture from elsewhere washing over it like a tidal wave ... [that] need[s] to fund its arts defensively." No doubt that American pop culture is ubiquitous and I personally have strongly mixed feelings about this. But is American pop culture really a threat to Canadian ballet? Poetry? Theatre? Maybe it is, but I have a hard time seeing it. At any rate, the use of the term "defensively" makes me uneasy. How about we fund our arts aggressively, because they're strong and intrinsically valuable, rather than because they're vulnerable and under siege? In her regrettably influential treatise Survival, Atwood identified survival as the prime obsession of Canadian literature. One of her key concepts was the "victim position," of which she identified several varieties. In spite of her own enormous domestic and international success, and that of many other Canadian artists, she seems intent on keeping us bent over in the victim position. Good for sales of the new edition, I guess.
Scroll down further in Atwood's article and you'll find a list of possible ways an artist can make a living, two of which are: "4) Those peddling their wares in the marketplace (see "soul," losing of, above); 5) Those with day jobs that can destroy their talent." This is pretty disingenuous, especially coming from her, unless she believes that in the course of "peddling" her own "wares" in the "marketplace" she has lost her soul; perhaps this explains her invention of the "ghost in the machine" Long Pen. And what about her protégé, the recent Giller-Prize winning author Vincent Lam? Has his extremely demanding dayjob as a medical doctor "destroyed his talent"? Where would his prize-winning book about doctors be without it? She's been careful in her phrasing; she has said "dayjobs that can destroy," not "dayjobs that inevitably will destroy," but she has also neglected to mention 'dayjobs that, while time-consuming, are personally enriching and that can help tether an artist to the world outside of an often claustrophobic arts scene.' Probably because this option isn't germane to her thesis.
She also doesn't mention that it's impossible for an artist to replace a dayjob for longer than a few months with grants. For example, the most money a writer with my publication history can obtain in any given year is $10,000. You can live on this for a year if you're single and have no dependents, you live in a low-cost area, you are very frugal and have no debts. But it's less than a third of my present gross annual income, which represents about 3/4 of my household income. Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive a CC grant for this amount. It was nice. It meant I could turn down overtime without decreasing my wages. But I couldn't leave my job because, guess what, when the money ran out, the job wouldn't be waiting for me. And I like my job. It's a good job. It pays reasonably well, has a competitive benefits package and gives me lots of free time. And it gets me out in the world, in contact with all kinds of different people. All of which a writer needs.
There are, I know, those out there who would argue that I shouldn't have applied for and accepted a grant because I didn't strictly need it. But the Canada Council insists that grants are handed out based on the merit of the artist's work and the merit of their proposed project. I wouldn't apply for a grant if I had a much higher-paying job and if I didn't dedicate a substantial amount of my personal time to writing. This is a personal decision and one I wouldn't impose on anyone else--and the question arises of course: how much income is too much? I don't begrudge anyone a grant on the basis of their income. You make $90K/annum and the jury thinks your work's good enough, take the money and run. You make $15K and the jury judged your work wanting, better luck next year. I've encountered the argument from several people that, to paraphrase and synthesise, "arts funding is good/necessary because I'm an artist and I can't make ends meet." This is analagous to Atwood's argument for defensive funding. But again, art should be funded because IT is good, not because its creator is indigent. My employer keeps me working because I'm good at my job (good enough for the company's liking at any rate), not because I need the money; they could care less about that in head office. If need and skill happen to coincide, all the better, but need alone is a basis for social welfare spending in a democracy, not for arts and culture spending.
To return to Atwood's article, she wraps it up with a doozy of a rhetorical question: "rid your society of the artists and you'll end up in Plato's Republic, which -- closely examined -- is a nasty little dictatorship. Who would want that?" Okay, but how did we get from a $50 million increase in funding to the expulsion of all artists? Wowzas. I think it's a very good thing for a democratic government to fund the arts. The arts are very important, not only to me personally as a sometime-creator of hopefully-literature, but as a private citizen. I think we should give money to the arts and probably give more than we already do. (There are a number of problems with the existing models for disbursement, but that's a topic for another day.) But to say that even so draconian a measure as the dissolution of the Canada Council (which I don't think anyone has proposed, at least not in public) would lead to the death of art and a dearth of local culture is completely bogus. Culture is something that happens any time you have two or more people in a given place. Art is something that has been created by hominids probably ever since they first stood on two feet. It has proven itself, over aeons of time and in some of the most brutal conditions imaginable, to be completely unkillable. And that is why we should continue to fund it.
Posted by Zachariah Wells at 12:31 PM