Monday, April 30, 2007

Gala Report

Back from Victoria. The gala was fun, even if neither Rachel nor Steven Price won in their respective categories. Rachel was beaten out by a book on the history of land surveying in BC (and really, how can you hope to compete with land surveying?) and Steve lost to Don McKay's Strike/Slip (and really, how can you hope to compete with Don McKay's land surveying?).

We stayed at a stellar inn, The Abbeymoore, conveniently located half a block from the Lt. Governor's house, where the gala was held. And if our accommodations were nice (and they were very nice; I highly recommend staying there if you ever need a roof in Victoria), the grounds of Government House were spectacular. And they're routinely open to the public, which I think is a very cool thing and almost makes me think our vestigial attachment to the British monarchy isn't such a terrible thing. Almost.

I've never been in a room with so many people I've reviewed. Fortunately, they weren't the only people there; 300 witnesses = 0 knives in the back. In all seriousness, everything was very pleasant. I met Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, who received the Lt. Governor's Award for his lifetime's work. Guess he can stop now. Some folks were visibly moved by his acceptance speech, but I found his suggestion that the Interior of BC didn't exist until he wrote poems about it a bit, um, problematic. After all, let's not forget the land surveyors! Oh yeah, and the native peoples. God save the Queen! (For the record, tho I've been critical of Lane's recent work as a poet, editor and mentor, I am still an admirer of his Selected Poems 1977-1997. Lane's best work, while limited in range, is powerful stuff and I think he is a very worthy recipient of this award.)

I also had a very nice chat with Eric Miller, whom I've only met once before, but I really like him. As a person and as a poet, he's a very original guy and quite delightful. I think I'm going to have to track down his essay collection, The Reservoir, which was nominated in the non-fiction category, but lost to the Nazis, who are even tougher competition than land surveyors. (A regrettable feature of this event was that, while there were tables on which the nominated books were displayed, there was no opportunity to purchase said books. Apparently, this has something to do with not being allowed to sell stuff in the Lt. Gov's house. Oddly enough, earlier in the day, there was a big plant sale on the grounds. Plants good, books bad. Sure.)

Eric introduced me to Patricia Young, who recently became a member of team Biblioasis. Wish I'd had the chance to chat more with her. A very outgoing, ebullient person, who did her damnedest to straighten out Rachel's nominee corsage, a lovely white rose which seemed bound and determined to follow the dictates of gravity.

As many readers of CLM probably know, I'm not a big fan of literary prizes in general, but it was great to see Rachel's book getting some official recognition. It was at times an uphill battle for her. At every stage of the game there were people saying that her book didn't work for one stupid reason or another. Many of those people were BC publishers, so it was particularly gratifying to see the book shortlisted for a regional prize that recognizes books that "contribute to the understanding and enjoyment of British Columbia." Also good to be in that category because it's outside the poetry ghetto and all the political bullshit that taints just about every poetry prize in the country. And it was great to share the event, two days before R's birthday, with several members of her family, since the book honours their heritage so beautifully.

Afterwards, we headed over to Steven Price's for a post-gala nightcap and post-mortem with Steve and his brother Kevin (who is also the designer of the very sharp cover for Anatomy of Keys). I'm now planning my theft of Steve's collection of framed letterpress broadsides.

Victoria's a great little city. I could see living there some day, should the occasion arise.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Off to Victoria for the weekend for the BC Book Prizes. Fingers crossed for Rachel and Steven Price. More on Monday.

Who said poetry makes nothing happen?

Another story to warm the cockles of David Solway's heart.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Went to Rachel's reading tonight at Cafe Montmartre on Main St. A decent venue (I read there 5 or 6 years ago) and crowd. Rachel's reading was strong and she sold a book and would've sold another, but the guy--after buying his beer--didn't have enough cash.

Carl Leggo, a Newfoundlander long resident in Richmond BC, read next. His stuff is Lyrical, but he had a good sense of humour and read with a lot of energy, even if without much variation of tone.

The last reader was Andrea MacPherson, who read from a new novel. When she was describing it, it sounded pretty interesting, but then she started reading it and I lost interest in a hurry. Very prosaic; it sounded like writing, and the characters, supposedly Scots in 1918, sounded an awful lot like 21st C. Canadians. There was also some of that awfully ponderous homiletic faux-wisdom that is such a stock-in-trade of earnest young Canuck writers. A friend at my table said it was during MacPherson's reading that she noticed there were a bunch of tricycles hung from the ceiling. Apparently, it's MacPherson's fourth book at the tender age of thirty (tho her site says three of those books are out this year). Thank you, UBC CW programme for producing such efficient graduates!

Peggy's at it again

Socking it to Stephen Harper. You know, I hate Harper and his party; more even than I hate the Liberals, whom I hate in turn more than the NDP, who are slightly less pathetic than the Greens. But Atwood's really on the wrong track here. Why the hell is she trying to convince a populist neo-liberal with a minority government that he should value the arts? Wouldn't that just make him more electable? Maybe Peggy wants Steve-o to have another term--with a majority. Maybe a better approach would be to criticise him for policy decisions more Canadians care about--and that are more important--like keeping Canadian troops in Afghanistan, for instance.

There's a tempest brewing over in the Bookninja teapot over this. People shouldn't be surprised that Atwood's using economics arguments to defend arts funding. She's been in the business of sales and promotion ever since her catalogue--pardon me, her seminal work of literary criticism--of crummy Canadian books, Survival, first came out in '72. Maybe Atwood's making fiscal arguments because she has to-date produced no great art, so the profitability of it is all she has to fall back on. Just a thought. It's something my mother-in-law suggested to me the other day and, no surprise, John Metcalf agrees that Atwood's not one for the ages. I haven't read enough Atwood to say this with great confidence, but what I have read hasn't exactly set my heart and mind alight. As John says in his piece, I usually feel she disrespects her readers, always sticking her sharp authorial nose in, her nose like a fish-hook....

Our Way or the Highway

Or the Solway? Maybe David should move to Australia; sounds like his kind of people are running the show.


Sean Penn, Robert Pinksy,
Stephen Colbert,
a pair of soiled, bloodsoaked underwear.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rachel Lebowitz Reading--Vancouver

I'm going, are you?

Wednesday, April 25, 7 pm.
Montmartre Cafe, 4363 Main St., Vancouver. Free admission.
Launched! Carl Leggo (Come-by-Chance), Andrea MacPherson ( Beyond the Blue) and Rachel
Lebowitz (Hannus--BC Book Prize nominee) will read from their new books.

Poetry Website

Well, it's official: I'm a Canadian Poet. Check out my page at the U of Toronto's library site. It's not linked to their main list of poets yet, but will be soon, I'm told.

Solway and Solace

I often complain that Canadian writers make themselves socially irrelevant and don't pay enough attention to the world beyond their laptops--that they only get politically active when they perceive a threat to their precious public funding. But then, whenever David Solway writes about contemporary politics, I think maybe this is for the best.

I picked up the latest issue of Maisonneuve the other day. It's a magazine I've always enjoyed and have contributed to several times (which I haven't always enjoyed, but that's another story). In this issue, in "The Iconoclast Department," is Solway's latest volley in his campaign to convert us to his brand of Zionist, paranoid, pro-American xenophobia.

In the article, Solway responds to a review, by Cas Sunstein in the New Republic, of two books: John Mueller's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them and Robert E. Goodin's What's Wrong with Terrorism. I haven't read these books, but I don't think Solway has either. Anyway, that's not really the issue here. Solway's piece is a sort of review of a review, and this is a review of his review of Sunstein's review of the books--and more broadly, it's a review of the pernicious rhetoric and bogus logic Solway and his ilk need to resort to in order to sell their very dubious agenda.

Solway's article is framed by his dismissal of the argument that you're more likely to die driving your car than in a terrorist attack. He says this is "a tissue of the simple-minded inferences and deductions that rely mainly on the abstract power of comparative numbers." Please forgive me for quoting at length, but I need to in order to address this point by point. Solway says:

Take those reassuring statistical comparisons that tell us that air travel is far safer than driving. Sunstein himself regards it as a given that "driving is more dangerous than flying" and ultimately more destructive than terror attacks. But is this belief warranted? Do we ever stop to reflect how flimsy, even misleading, such quasi-mathematical structures really are? For example, a minor malfunction in an automobile will likely lead to nothing more than stopping by the side of the road, pulling over to a garage station or simply waiting for a convenient moment to address the problem; a similar malfunction in an airplane may plausibly lead to a hecatomb.

There is so much wrong with this paragraph, I hardly know where to start, but a few things stand out:

A) Driving is more dangerous than flying. Way more dangerous. It's not a question of "quasi-mathematical" manipulation of stats. And it's not just because more people drive than fly that there are more automobile fatalities than aviation deaths. A researcher in Chicago has determined that "about one of every 6,800 drivers in the U.S. dies in an auto accident while the annual rate of deaths for airline passengers is one in 1.16 million." Pshaw! Mere statistics! Yeah. Even if the numbers are a little off and even if they don't take non-statistical factors into account, as Solway makes the strained quasi-logical attempt to claim, that gap is fucking enormous, David. But don't bother stopping "to reflect how flimsy" your argument is...

B) David clearly knows sweet fuckall about airplanes and the commercial aviation industry. Fortunately, I worked in that business for seven years, so I can counter his irrational beliefs with a few facts. "A minor mechanical malfunction" is incredibly unlikely to "lead to a hecatomb." Dave seems barely convinced of this himself as he says, hedgingly, "may plausibly." He's right to doubt his own rhetoric, but he doesn't push it far enough. For one thing, minor malfunctions in airplane instruments and systems are much rarer than they are in cars. Unlike car owners, commercial plane operators are required by law to subject their equipment to rigorous pre-flight safety checks and regular maintenance. Most mechanical problems are detected when the plane is very safely on the ground. Even if they aren't, most "minor malfunctions" in an airplane are, at most, as consequential as Solway claims they are for cars. When a problem is detected mid-flight, it is recorded, reported and corrected at the earliest opportunity. Also, in airplanes, unlike cars, there is significant redundancy built into most systems, so that if something goes wrong, it's not the end of the world; the airplane's designers anticipate problems and build the solutions into the plane. If cars were built this way, they'd probably be too expensive and large (imagine having two engines under your hood) for most car-owners to acquire and operate. And very few car owners are as skilled at operating their vehicles as commercial airline pilots, who go through intense training and regular recertification before they can ever take the yoke in hand. And in most commercial airplanes, there are at least two trained pilots in every flight deck, drastically reducing the likelihood of undetected human error. If you want to get anecdotal, Dave, I'd rather entrust such professionals with my life than, say, a sexagenarian poet...

C) People in the airline business tend to have a pretty dark sense of humour. "You crash, you die" was an oft-heard phrase on the tarmac when I was loading airplanes. During my seven years working for a very busy medium-sized airline, two pilots did lose their life and people in the business understand that this is always a possibility. The difference between those black jokes and Solway's observation is that people in the business also know how rare the first half of that equation is. The two pilots who died, for example, lost their lives not in a routine passenger flight, but in an off-strip cargo job. Solway's comparison of what happens in the case of a "minor malfunction" is not only factually inaccurate, it's completely specious. In a car crash, as in a plane crash, people are very likely to die. And if it's a bus crash, it could very well "lead to a hecatomb."

But Solway's never been terribly interested in facts. In one of the essays in his book Director's Cut, he says that "the factual is merely factitious." In the context of that essay, he had a very valid point. He was talking about poetry. But in the world outside of poetry, in the realm, let's say, of public policy, the factual is pretty goddamn important. But Solway thinks we should base our policies on how we feel about things, not about how they actually are:

Owing to their spectacular nature and the amount of immediate damage they can do, acts of terrorism are far more conspicuous and, indeed, "terrifying" than random traffic accidents. Statistics offer no solace and they cannot, no matter how the experts pontificate, diminish the collective feeling of threat and exposure.

This is quite astonishing. Basically, what Solway's saying is that terrorism is a squeaky wheel, so it needs greasing, whereas traffic safety isn't something most people notice, so we can ignore it. Forget responsible policy-making, what we need is more "solace." Maybe Hallmark should be our government, they're great solace-dispensers. Whaddya say, David, Maya Angelou for Prime Minister?

Funnily enough, after supposedly disposing of numbers as so much wool in our eyes, Solway hauls out a few to defend his position:

Three thousand deaths in one hour and in a single circumscribed spot of approximately one square mile--the 9/11 massacre--is a much different kind of event than forty thousand automobile deaths spread out over twelve months and across fifty states, or approximately 3,537,442 square miles, which scarcely registers on the psyche and certainly not in the same way as a terrorist atrocity. The effect of a massive and designed event such as 9/11 is like that of an asteroid slamming into the earth, which doesn't happen all that often. Once is enough.

Yes, that's right, he said asteroid; I guess if his numbers don't get you all freaked out, his hyperbole should do the trick. Leaving aside the fact (damn pesky facts) that the impact of a large asteroid would be more likely to wipe out the city of New York (and would probably have a devastating, world-wide ripple effect) than knock down two buildings and kill 3000 people, it's hard to figure out what Solway's suggesting here. That we should prepare for an asteroid collision? Forget poetry, he's in the realm of science fiction here.

But let's take him more seriously than he deserves. I don't think anyone is suggesting that we should ignore the threat of terrorism and just let the odd attack happen without doing anything to prevent it. Funny thing is, this was pretty much how the US has dealt with, and continues to deal with, threats to the safety of its citizens. Many media investigations have revealed that security at US airports is still, almost six years after 9/11, pretty lax compared with European countries. Maybe Solway should read this report, from a conservative think-tanker, who suggests that money spent on security improvements in US airports has provided more solace than real security. Oh, but wait, Solway wants more solace, never mind. Since Solway's into natural disasters, how about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans? This was an event far more predictable than an asteroid hit, and far more preventable than a terrorist attack. Or how about the fact that there was clearly no Emergency Response Procedure in place at Virginia Tech--an institution within spitting distance of Washington, D.C.--to deal with a terrorist attack?

But Solway's not interested in practical preventative measures, probably because they don't make him feel any better. Oddly, after saying that because we don't feel the scattered thousands of deaths in traffic accidents, then they don't require the same attentiion as fewer, more concentrated deaths in a terrorist attack do, he then, later in the essay, says that the "ever-cavalier Mueller['s] ... logic is abominable ... infantile ... shallow and barbarous." What was Mueller saying? Apparently that "deaths numbered in the thousands "can be readily absorbed."" Yeah, there's something icky about such a statement (not that I trust Solway not to distort it through quotation), but it's exactly what Solway is saying about automobile deaths. Dying in a car crash is the cost of doing business, according to Solway's logic, whereas dying in a terrorist attack is a senseless tragedy. If only the real world was as neat and tidy as this.

The closest Solway comes to any constructive suggestions in his essay is basically that we have to be tough on terrorism. We need "increased surveillance" at home and attacks on "the enemy in its bases, training camps, offices and military installations." Never mind if they don't have any such facilities, never mind if such tactics have proven ineffective, expensive and destructive in war after war and only serve to strengthen the resolve of "the enemy," which is protean, mobile and amorphous, quit bothering David with your damn facts, will ya, can't you see he's scared?

Oh, but these are crazy times, Solway tells us: "Paranoia may be the only sane response to the current state of affairs," echoing Kurt Cobain, that great philosopher of the late 20th C., who said "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." In times like these, democracy is, for Solway, a great inconvenience, one we can ill afford. This is not a good time to "doubt [the] bona fides" of our leaders or to suggest that they might be, in no small part, responsible for this terrorist threat in the first place. He actually goes so far as to say "There is no verifiable proof that our political leaders may be involved in ... nefarious practices, whether with respect to Iraq ... or homeland security." Actually, Dave, there's verified proof that America's present foreign policy is based on a foundation of lies and the willful misconstruction of questionable evidence. Sorry, facts again.

Finally, Solway finishes up with the devastatingly irrefutable argument that these terror-downplayers aren't to be trusted because, gasp, they're university professors: "A university chair is a sedentary thing; and, as often as not in today's PC climate, a tenured position is a neural carapace." Solway's safe in saying this because he's a retired college professor and so much more in tune with reality than these scholars in their "beta version of reality ... ensconced in safe and insular positions where words are the currency of exchange." He accuses their arguments of being "partisan." They likely are, but are we to believe that Solway's are not? Is the author of The Big Lie not at all biased against Islam by his Zionism? And are we to trust Mueller and Goodin less than Solway's exemplar of a stellar social critic, Mark Steyn, whose authority for his pro-Bush arguments comes from what? His experience as a reviewer of musical theatre? Yeah, he's out there in the real world, on Broadway, not in some ivory tower.

Reading Solway's risible political essays, I'm put in mind of Pound's equally uninformed advocacy of Social Credit and his defense of fascism. Not to mention his execrable racism. And I can't help thinking of Auden's observation that if poets are put in charge, what you'll wind up with is a totalitarian dictatorship. Solway can sometimes be very good when it comes to criticising poetry, but his political analysis is a perfect example of what can happen when a big brain like Solway applies himself to a subject he knows nothing about.

UPDATE: Thanks to Michael, who wrote in with the link to Mueller's article, which is worth reading for this bon mot alone: "Normally ... only children and lunatics rail at storms; sensible people invest in umbrellas and lightning rods."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Leg-in-Boot Square

Since January, I've been living in the False Creek neighbourhood of Vancouver, in a condo on Leg-in-Boot Square. Every time I tell someone my new address, I get some sort of response to the name, usually something about how cute it is. Well, it's not really. It's named for a mysterious severed leg that washed ashore in False Creek, still sporting its footwear. The name is pretty appropriate for this neighbourhood. It used to be highly industrial; any human residents were dirt poor, often squatters, and they shared their shoreside shacks with large, hungry rodents. Every now and then you still see a rat scampering across the seawall, but in the 70s, False Creek was transformed, almost overnight, into a gentrified, middle-class neighbourhood. This was part of the construction boom leading up to Expo '86 and now that the Olympics are coming to Vancouver, another massive construction project is underway, in SE False Creek, to house Olympians and Vancouverites after the games have ended.

George McWhirter has announced his intention to edit and publish an anthology of Vancouver street poems--a kind of verse atlas--as a legacy of his laureateship. Before he became Laureate, I'd already written a couple of theme-appropriate poems. Places seem to be important to what I write. I've lived in a lot of them and most of them have made it into my poetry in one way or another, so now that I'm living in Vancouver, it's not surprising that some site-specific Vancouver poems are happening, a couple of which I've already posted here on CLM. Here's my latest effort:


So much reflected, so much exposed, in facades
Of glass ringing this cobbled courtyard
Built on fill. This Creek not merely False,
But dammed, dyked and walled,
Cranes opposite intent on concrete erector
Sets, booms indexed to a boom in the sector,
Also false, fuelled by empty
Specs and green dreams of Olympian
           Once, rats scrabbled in the rattle-trap shacks
And sheds they shared with schizos and whacked-
Out addicts.
                        And once, a limb washed
Ashore, saltchuck sloshing
In the boot it still wore, unclaimed
By any owner.
                          Cute? No. This place is maimed.


Sunday, April 22, 2007


I know some of you poor benighted folk out there are still under snow, but spring is well underway on the left coast, and this city really knows how to do spring.

So does E.E. Cummings.



BC Book Prizes Soirée

Rachel and I went to the BC Book Prizes soirée hier soir. A pretty fun event, thanks to the presence of a handful of folks I actually knew. It was held in the "observation deck" of Vancouver's Harbour Centre, with awesome panoramic views of the city.

A necessary function of such events is the rollcall thanking of sponsors. Unfortunately, after the assembled crowd had been bored to tears by this catalogue of gratitude, the MC said, seemingly as an afterthought, that we were also to toast Patrick Lane for a lifetime achievement award and George McWhirter for his appointment as the first poet laureate of Vancouver. These things should have pride of place, it seems to me, but the way it was done highlighted that these awards are far more about commerce than art. George then read a poem written for the occasion, which could hardly be heard above the hubbub of people relieved finally not to have to listen anymore. I thought it was a pretty lousy way to choreograph things. Also, the nominees were thanked, but not by name as the sponsors were (we were also told at length about how we could and should buy a Petro Can gas card), just a perfunctory thanks-to-all.

Another dissatisfying aspect of the event was a poorly stocked book table. Rachel's book sold out, which is good news in a way, but shouldn't be allowed to happen at this sort of event. Presumably, it's for the writers, so why can't they order an overstock of the writers' books? Some of the nominees' books didn't appear to be there at all. Shoddy.

Nevertheless, a good time. We're off to the prize gala next weekend in Victoria. Rachel's publisher was gracious enough to pay for our tickets. Yep, that's right, the nominees don't get in free. Classy, eh?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Rachel Lebowitz on CBC

My award-nominated wife, Rachel Lebowitz, will be interviewed tomorrow, April 21, on CBC Radio's North by Northwest (the local morning show in BC) at 8 am. Be sure to tune in.

A week from tomorrow is the prize ceremony in Victoria. Fingers crossed. Toes too.

UPDATE: Rachel's interview is now online if you missed it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Admirals and Apothecaries

The last couple of days, the lofty and literary have been upstaged by baseball and the evil, addictive invention known as Facebook. My reading has been likewise vulgar. I picked up the other day a lovely little hardback called The Vulgar Tongue: Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence, a dictionary of street idioms compiled in the 18th C. by the aptly named Francis Grose.

I'm reading it cover-to-cover, on the pot (appropriately) and in-between innings of the ball-game. A couple of grade A "A" entries:

ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS: One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite to him. Seaphrase.

I guess this must've happened a lot at sea...

APOTHECARY: To talk like an apothecary; to use hard, or gallipot words; from the assumed gravity and affectation of knowledge generally put on by the gentlemen of that profession, who are commonly as superficial in their learnings as they are pedantic in their language.

I quite prefer this to "theory pig," the modern equivalent used for those purveyors of sophistry and pseudo-scholarship, the pomo poser pontificators harboured by most university English departments.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Syringa Tree

Rachel and I went to the theatre tonight to watch The Syringa Tree, a one-woman show starring Caroline Cave. Yes, there's only one actor, in a non-stop 100 minute performance, but to make things even more challenging, Cave portrays a couple dozen characters over the course of the play. It's very well-written, brilliantly performed and deeply moving. The run ends April 21 in Vancouver, so hurry up and see it if you haven't. I see that this production will be staged in Montreal at the Centaur Theatre--check it out.

Monday, April 16, 2007

She Had Some Horses

I picked up a copy of Herbert Kohl's book A Grain of Poetry: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them a Part of Your Life the other day. Obviously, I'm not the target audience for this book, but I was interested in it because a)I read another book of Kohl's recently (on pedagogy in American public schools) and quite liked most of it and b)I'm interested to see how contemporary poetry gets portrayed and treated in this sort of introductory book.

One of the very nice--and necessary--features of this book is that Kohl quotes not just excerpts of a poem, but quite frequently the whole thing. One of them that I don't think I'd encountered before was Joy Harjo's "She Had Some Horses", which I found beautiful and powerful. I always have been a sucker for anaphora.

Here's AUDIO of me reading Harjo's poem.

Yann Martel's Stillness

Oy vey! Yann Martel is on a crusade to make writers look like a bunch of insufferable righteous wankers. (He might just be right, but that's another matter.) Right target, wrong weapon, Martel. I'd say more about this, but Nathan Whitlock's done such a bust-up job, I'll just send you his way.

I'll just add that it's a lovely irony for Martel to pick Tolstoy's Ivan Ilich as his first gift to Harper. A great book to be sure, but Tolstoy? A nobleman who had no regard for culture and progress, hated literary society, and started his own Christian cult? Maybe not the best courier for Martel's message. Harper might like to send Yann a biography of Tolstoy as his response... Then again, Leo was known for his philanthropic charity--which is precisely what one can imagine Harper suggesting as the proper way for artists to get paid. Way to go, Yann!

Update: There's a pretty lively discussion about this over at Bookninja. Is Harper an undesireable? Yes. Should we vote him and his gang of neo-liberal rednecks out of office? Yes. Does that make Martel's project any less irritating? No.

As I wrote in my post about Margaret Atwood's similar op/ed, while there's no doubt that arts funding isn't a big priority for Steve-o, it's factually inaccurate to say that he's conducting any kind of assault on it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reviews Online

My reviews of Dennis Lee's Yesno and Shane Rhodes' The Bindery are now online at Quill & Quire.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sealift Afloat

Avatar Records (that's me) is pleased to announce the launch of Sealift, a CD recording of 24 poems from my book Unsettled.

If you'd like a copy of Sealift, you can send me $10.00 (CAD) plus $2.00 for shipping & handling within Canada or $5.00 for international shipments. If you're in the USA or elsewhere, the same amounts apply in USD. Please contact me to arrange payment options (cheque, money order, paypal). If paying by credit/debit on paypal, please add $1.00; if transferring funds from your paypal account to mine, no extra funds required. If you'd like a signed copy of Unsettled along with it, add $10.00.

If you'd like to hear a sample of the work included on Sealift, click here or here.

Calling all Godless Heathens

Got an email from Paul Vermeersch the other day with a call for submissions of essays on "atheism and the arts." This is a topic near and dear to my heart and I agree with Paul that there seems to be a lag or a lack when it comes to artists of various types defending the values of secular humanism. A lot of poets, at any rate, seem more than happy to wallow in a mystical sty, happily ignoring recent (and not-so-recent) discoveries in various scientific domains that make their points of view seem silly, if not downright stupid. I pointed out one example of this in my review of a book of essays on memory, a topic which, while still full of unsolved mysteries, has been explored extensively by neuroscientists--work which, to me at least, does nothing to diminish my awe at the inner workings of the mind, but actually enhances it. Critical understanding and wonder are not necessarily mutually exclusive phenomena. The work of many contemporary poets seems to me little better than the romaniticisation of willful ignorance. So yeah, I'm starting to cook up a submission for Paul's anthology.

For more details see:

Sointula 3

On our last full day in on Malcolm Island, Rachel and I went for another hike, this time from Bere Point (opposite Mt. Waddington, on mainland BC) to a canyon and back along the beach. The path made me think of nothing so much as Middle Earth. One of the highlights is a 212 ft. Sitka Spruce. Here's Rachel taking her measure against it:

Here's the view from Rachel's perspective:

You really get a sense in a place like this of how harmful logging practices must be. The forest is full of nurse logs, some of which have multiple trees growing out of them:

The soil in the rainforest is shallow and relatively poor (we could really see this as we walked along the beach, where in spots there was about a foot of soil on top of exposed rock) so the biomass of those dead trees is of vital importance to the health of the ecosystem.

It was neat to see several older trees that must have started off life on a nurse log that had long since rotted away to dirt, leaving the massive trees propped on a sort of root tripod. Here's Rachel in a root cave:

And here she is peeking through the rootmass of a fallen giant, giving a good picture not only of the size of the thing, but of how shallowly rooted it was:

Yesterday, we took the ferry over to Alert Bay (immortalised by Karen Solie in a powerful poem from Short Haul Engine). This is a funny process. You have to get on the ferry in Sointula, go to Port McNeil, drive off the ferry and get back in line to go to Alert Bay. So it takes about 1.5 hours to get from one place to the other, even though they're spitting distance from each other across the channel. In Alert Bay, we checked out the Umista Cultural Centre/Museum, a very well-run facility full of repatriated artefacts. The Centre is designed to resemble a traditional Nimpkish big house. It's a stark contrast to the building next door, a severely austere and dilapidated residential school.

After that, another ferry ride to Port McNeil, followed by a long drive and a final boat ride from Nanaimo back to Vancouver. Think I'll stay put for a bit...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mystery Photo

To the first person to correctly identify this photo... free copy of Sealift, my brand new cd of not-so-brand-new poems.

Update: It's not a snapdragon, nor any sort of flower.

And no, it's not the home of a tunnel-spider, nor any other man- or creature-made structure.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sointula 2

Rachel's reading was, unfortunately, sparsely attended; there were, myself excluded, nine people there. One likely reason is that it was on at the same time as a Water Board meeting. There has apparently been much heated debate about the Water Board in Sointula (Finnish for "place of harmony"). But what the crowd lacked in numbers, it made up for amply in interest and it was an excellent reading.

We're spending one more night here before heading back to the mainland. We went on a great (viz wonderful and very long) hike yesterday on a beautifully maintained trail through the woods. The trail passes through the site of a huge forest fire that happened in 1923. A lot of charred snags are still standing--some have the look of art installations--and they completely dwarf even the broadest new growth trees. I wish I'd thought to bring my camera. I stood beside one felled monster and it was over a foot wider than I am tall (almost 6' in my boots); it was far from the biggest we saw on our tromp. We're going on another wander today.

Here's a slice of the view from our cottage:

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The dearth of posts the last few days is due to travel and patchy internet connections. Rachel and I spent the long weekend on Lasqueti with her mother, her sister and her sister's partner. In between chores (my big job was reaming out the gutters), we ate royally, chatted, read, relaxed. No surprise, I love island life.

And now R and I are on Malcolm Island, a small isle off the northeast coast of Vancouver I. We're staying at a lovely little cottage, just outside the town of Sointula. Sointula was originally, a hundred-odd years ago, a socialist utopia founded by immigrant Finns. Rachel's great-grandparents were among the first colonists and her great-grandmother is the subject of her award-nominated book, Hannus. When R launched Hannus in Vancouver, I invited my friend John Howarth (retired railroad engineer and poetry enthusiast) to come. He did, and brought along his daughter and two of her friends, who happened to be visiting Vancouver from Sointula. They of course were taken with R's book and invited her to come and read. So here we are, with the reading set for tonight. There will be at least one person present who knew Ida Hannus/Peippo/Strom personally.

Sointula is gorgeous. Our cottage has a view across Broughton Strait/Cormorant Channel of Cormorant Island and the mountains (still snowy on top) of north Vancouver Island. We're going to check out some trails around the island today. We're shopping for potential homes (R's doing her teaching certificate and is starting to look for a job for this fall), and I have to say, I think I could live here quite easily.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Troubadourish Mountaineering

Well, the new Biblioasis Blog is already proving to be too damn much fun. David Helwig, in a post about writing pantoums, said that he'd been challenged by a friend to write a canzone as well, but declined. I put in a little shot about him not being up to the task, to which Dan Wells responded that if I was going to drop the gauntlet thus, I'd better have a canzone up my own sleeve. Having nothing else to occupy my time this morning--nothing that couldn't be put off, that is--I set about the task, following the scheme that Auden used for his mountaineering bash at the form. I took a great deal more liberties than Auden did and had a ball in the process. I got started by pinching five words from Mike Barnes' poem "When His Mom Found a Lover in the Neighbourhood" (since it was posted on the blog, I thought it an appropriate place to get them); those words became the five end-words used to end the 65 lines of the canzone. Having nothing resembling a subject to write about, I started off answering Auden's initial rhetorical question and followed up with a very, um, meta-poetical discourse. Hope it's half as fun to read as it was to write. Unfortunately, David surrendered without firing a shot.


I don’t think I’ll ever learn; I’m always
Biting off too big a chunk, finding myself under-
Equipped—that mo-ped goof putputting down the highway’s
Fastlane convinced his Rocinante nag’s a way
More impressive machine than it is, with more
Power than a hundred Arab horses—to thread the ways
Wended by the big boys, always
Stumbling blind, as through a maze, no means to leave,
No strategy to break the weave of branches and leaves
Some clever bugger designed and made
To trap me. Catch is, that bugger’s me, I’ve made

This maze and caught myself, just as I’ve made
All the problems that ensnare me. I always
Do this, I’m like a bee attracted to pomade,
Expiring in an over-gooped hairdo, drowning in limeade
For following my nose to sugar, crushed under
A tire for schnozzing up a roadside flower. Unmade
By drink and lust, slapped down by every barmaid
On this coast, I still keep coming back for more—
And all I get is more
Rejection. Well, I guess I’m lying in the bed I made,
To cadge a clichéd phrase. I should probably leave
Now, but I don’t want to leave,

Not just yet, there’s work to do before I leave
For good. I don’t want to quit until I’ve at least made
Something of myself. I find it hard to believe
This world’s such an awful place of unrelieved
Tedium and pain as some poets seem to always
Say it is. If that’s how you feel, please leave
It for the rest of us to love and cleave
To. Me, I like to wander streambeds, poking under
Stones to see what creeps and crawls beneath the under-
Story, what clings to the shady side of leaves.
No matter how much I see and learn, there’s more
Waiting at the stream’s next turn, so much more,

Even in the acidic pine-needle mor
Strewn on the forest floor. So please, believe
Me when I say there’s more
To this than mere survival on a soulless, mor-
ibund sphere. Yes, we kill, but look at all we’ve made.
Nothing’s killed that’s not reborn—sometimes more
Beautiful than it was before, or at least no more
Evil. This is how it’s always
Been, change the only constant, always
Shifting, ever flowing, like a stream—but more
Like the old man’s river: no new thing under
The sun and no great harm in blunders.

Yeah, I know, I’m nothing but a dunder-
Headed fool with no more
Sense in my skull than a child, but wonder
Trumps sense so often, I can’t help but wonder
If children don’t know more than we do. Believe
What you like, but don’t under-
Value strangeness and love; listen to the thunder
Abaft your mother’s breastbone. The world’s not made
For you, but you can make it yours if you’ve made
The right commitments and plundered
What you need. There’s always
Time to change tack and find new ways

To travel trammeled roadways.
Now I part with you, this thing I made,
But before I take my formal leave,
I would like to have just one more
Line, and then I’ll wriggle out from under…

Update: AUDIO
of "Canzone."

On Onions, Russian Dolls and True-badours

There's a fascinating epistolary exchange at Slate between Dan Chiasson and Meghan O'Rourke (two writers I know nothing about, but they have smart things to say) about autobiography and poetry.

This is a topic of particular interest to me, and it relates to past posts on CLM, one about Erin Moure and the lyric subject, the other an elegiac poem addressed to my late grandfather (NB: I've changed the title of the poem to "Kaddish" because my mother recently told me that her father, though he never practiced the Jewish faith, was worried at the end of his life, having only daughters, about who would perform kaddish for him. This is a "true fact," to use an abysmal phrase one hears all too often, but it's because it's what's right for the poem (in part because of the allusion to Ginsberg) that I'm doing it.)

I'm particularly interested in this stuff because I write what might be classified (or dismissed, by some) as autobiographical lyrics, but I also write dramatic monologues and have a nasty habit of appropriating/adapting other writers' poems as my own (Ludicrous Parole, e.g., contains very free adaptations of Nelligan, Rilke, and Mandelstam and the other poems are all about protean subjectivity in one way or another). I don't really draw distinctions between these categories in my own work; to me, they're all simply poems, the sum of me+language+versecraft at a given spot of time. Some of the "autobiographical lyrics" are whole-cloth inventions and almost all contain significant "embroideries" of fact. On the flipside, I often use the conventions of the monologue or the voice of another poet to--paraphrasing Peter Van Toorn in an essay on translation--slip autobiographical material in the back door; to say things that I don't feel I can get away with in a less heavily mediated lyric.

There are interesting things going on in poetry right now, simultaneous backlashes against the conventions of the very worn-out genre of the prosy North American freeverse lyric and against the increasing homogeneity--perceived or real--of the original backlash against the confessional impulse from avant-garde and the absurdly named post-avant garde (a handle that positively sighs exhaustion) poets. As Dan Chiasson puts it in the Slate piece:

The feeling of mass-produced surprises doesn't apply only to autobiographical poems, by the way. You mentioned the Language School. To me (despite the attempts of excellent critics—Marjorie Perloff, Stephen Burt—to convince me otherwise), Language poets are all alike and always boring. They demonstrate the same already-granted points about linguistic indeterminacy over and over; like Rube Goldberg machines but without the wit, they set an enormous mechanism in place to move a marble several inches.

Leading figures of avant-garde poetics, it should be noted, are turning back towards the lyric to find new directions, freshness, surprise. Lisa Robertson's latest collection is, by her own description, "a lyric book" and Moure explicitly embraces the lyric in her new collection (she has also, of course, been engaged in the kind of appropriative translation I mentioned above), with Robertson drawing inspiration from Petrarch and Moure from medieval troubadours. (What's that line about that which is old...) And so many younger poets of a less "revolutionary" bent are looking to form and figure as means of backgrounding content--or at least bringing it back into balance with form--which has been worshipped this side idolatry by so many prominent North American poets (most of whom can be seen as badly misreading Lowell, Plath et al) and their disciples.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Thirsty: A Biblioasis Miscellany

Dan Wells (no blood relation, and not to be confused with the eponymous actor) of Biblioasis fame has set up a collective blog for writers associated with the press in various ways. That would include me, as reviews editor for Canadian Notes & Queries and author and editor of future Biblioasis books. I hope that a lot of people end up participating, because a great number of smart talented folks have been drawn into the orbit of Biblioasis in the short time it's been around.

On a related note, I was very glad to learn that Dave Hickey (not to be confused with the guy who makes music with molded crystal bowls) has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award for his book, In the Lights of a Midnight Plow. I played matchmaker for Dave and Biblioasis, suggesting to Dan, after seeing a number of Dave's excellent poems in magazines, that he ask Dave for a manuscript. So I'm glad to see it all working out so well. Two of the other poets nominated are Steven Price, about whom I posted recently, and Nick Thran, who I saw read in Toronto a few months ago and whose book I very much enjoyed. Three very different voices, all strong. I don't envy the judges their final decision. If I was forced to pick, I think I'd have to go with Steven's book, but it's hard to say for sure. The major disappointment in this household is that Rachel's book was nominated for neither the Lampert, nor the Pat Lowther Award. Booooooo! Hiss!

Imagine the Angels of Bread

I'm tempted to rename this post, "Imagine the Devils of the Internet" after losing an almost-complete, but unsaved, post due to a browser freeze-up. I don't have the heart to try to rewrite the whole thing. It was about political poetry. It was very wise. You'll have to take my word for it.

Anyway, it was all leading up to this poem, by Martin Espada, a poet my uncle Chris introduced to me several years ago, when he insisted that I borrow and read his copy of Espada's excellent collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread. Here's audio of the title poem.

Readers looking for an Espada overview might also check out Alabanza, his recent volume of New and Selected poems.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison, one of my favourite--one of the most inspiring, to me--contemporary poets profiled in the Guardian. My grandmother thinks I use too much bad language in my poems; she's clearly never read any Harrison...

Seems he's got a Collected Poems coming out, which is great news. High time I replaced my old edition of his Selected.

The Guardian also has a links page to other Harrison stuff--why don't we have a newspaper like that here???--and here's a link to some of his poems online. If you're going to read just one by him, make it V.