Tuesday, July 31, 2007


If you haven't seen it yet, and you're looking for something to kill a few hours, you might want to check out Arc Poetry Magazine's "Portage" site. Basically, a compendium of links. If you see any glaring omissions, let 'em know and they'll add 'em for you.

Saul(way) on the Road to Damascus

Also in the new Books in Canada is a lengthy and thoughtful review of David Solway's (pictured left in his pre-conversion hippy-dippy free-love days--is that a marijuana cigarette he's holding there?) The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, by right-wing U of T Poli-Sci prof Clifford Orwin. Pretty telling, I think, that even a pro-American Zionist who believes Arabic Islam is a major threat to Western civ., writing in a magazine for which Solway is an editor, can find very little to recommend The Big Lie. Yet another reason not to read it, unless you're looking for a good laugh.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Review online

My review of Barbara Nickel's Domain is now online at Quill & Quire. I can't urge you strongly enough to read this book; one of the best collections published in recent years.

McGonagall, McGonagall

The Vehicule Press blog points to this news item about the disastrously bad Scottish poet William McGonagall, and they generously link to my little essay on James McIntyre, a Scots-Canadian who is one of the only serious rivals to McGonagall's status as world's worst poet. See, this is what's wrong with Canada: why aren't the residents of Oxford County, Ontario campaigning for a fitting tribute to their bad bard?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Starnino on McKay

Picked up the new Books in Canada today. In it is Carmine Starnino's bracing evaluation of Don McKay's latest, and Griffin-winning, book--a review that places the book within the context not only of McKay's oeuvre, but also of the school of poetry populated by McKay's ephebes and mentees.

Not surprisingly, Carmine's not on the McKay bandwagon and he has some pretty blunt words for those who are:

His popularity operates on the principle that anyone who doesn't venerate his work hasn't really understood it. Perhaps that's true. And perhaps his popularity reveals us to be a country of astonishingly easy graders.

No doubt the choir will be up in arms--even if only in decorously quiescent private conversation--over this assault on the high priest of contemporary CanPo, but the number of dissenting opinions vis-a-vis McKay's putative greatness is growing to an unignorable critical mass. Carmine adds his voice, as he points out, to Richard Greene's, Shane Neilson's, my own and, more surprisingly perhaps, Don Coles', in wishing that McKay's ample talents were not so often prodigally squandered and that his half-arsed verses weren't held in such veneration. None of us argues that McKay is a "bad poet" per se, just that he could be much better and that he is nowhere near as good as his champions like to think.

I've long suspected that McKay's inflated reputation has a lot to do with his personal charm. I run into the odd person who says some version of "I'm not crazy about his poetry, but he's such a nice guy." These folks, able to tease the poetry and the person who wrote it apart, seem to be in the minority. Perhaps on some level McKay's fans are moved to overestimate his importance because it makes them more special, too: not only is Don McKay one of the best poets writing in English today, but he edited my manuscript. Where would apostles be, without a messiah?

McKay has certainly done what a Canadian poet needs to do to find an audience in this country of big spaces and small population: travel and teach. He's from Ontario, has lived in BC, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, has strong links to Alberta and Saskatchewan, is connected to both the literary and academic communities, and has made many friends in the process. Almost everyone who writes glowingly of him knows him and has worked with him in his capacities as mentor, professor and editor. And when you know someone and love them--this side idolatry in some instances--it's only natural to gloss over their faults and shortcomings, or even to see them as positive virtues: "Oh, there's Don being Don again, isn't he just too much?"

I attended a reading he gave in Halifax a couple of years ago and certainly found him charming. But that's the extent of my contact with him. Maybe if I'd done a workshop at Banff I'd be more inclined to sing with the choir, but not having come under Big Bird's (wish I could say I came up with that nickname on my own) wing, it seems to me that he is not so much a choral conductor as someone waving his arms erratically, counting on the fact that the singers will get his drift.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sir Ken Robinson on Miseducation and Creativity

Watch this video. It's absolutely brilliant.

That said, I wish there was a Q&A session at the end in lieu of a standing O. I have some reservations. I totally agree with Ken Robinson's assessment of the problems with our education systems and the root causes of those problems. I also sympathise a great deal with his critique of the disembodied mind (see my recent post on smell). That said, I think it's too simple to say that the education system is unilaterally responsible for the quashing of creativity in young people. There's something too idealistic about this idea, too Rousseauean, too rooted in the social sciences fallacy that we are all born equally gifted and inclined and it's only our environment that determines whether we turn out smart, artistic, or what have you.

I firmly believe, and science supports this belief unequivocally, that people's differences are fundamental and to a great extent hard-wired. If all children are creative, then they are creative not only in different ways, but also to different degrees. Call it a creativity quotient. No matter how much encouragement I might have received--and I did get some--and no matter how much training I took and how diligently I practiced, I would never be more than a competent musician. I am fundamentally incapable of musical brilliance. (Similarly, I was a very hard working athlete as a young man, but no matter how hard I worked at it--particularly baseball in my case--I could never be as good as more talented athletes, who were taller, stronger and faster than I was. I was good, but I worked twice as hard to get half as far as the star players.) Most people are. Most people, by extension, are probably also incapable of brilliance (or creativity, according to Robinson's definition of it as having "original ideas of value") in any endeavour. I expect that puberty, as much as or more than education, is a major determining factor in the decline of imagination and creativity amongst the least creatively inclined children. Brain and body chemistry change and with those changes come shifts in priority, and most kids who don't see painting or pottery as a good way to get laid aren't going to bother much with it.

Conversely, the kids with a higher Creativity Quotient can't have it bludgeoned out of them by an unimaginative school system. I went to an exclusive private school for grades ten to thirteen, a place where the future investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, software programmers and politicians were molded. And I did extremely well there, in the terms dictated by that place and its system: I scored high marks, played team sports and was given a leadership position as prefect in my final year. My road was paved with golden bricks to the career of my choice. And yet, even after a very successful undergraduate career, I wound up not doing what Robinson says the system was designing me to do--being a university prof--but loading airplanes, serving food and drink and writing poems.

Maybe if the education system wasn't as fundamentally uncreative as it is, I would have followed a different path. But it is that way. And I don't know if it's possible, on a mass scale, for it to be any different. Because for it to be different, it would have to be run and executed by, you guessed it, creative people. And if all people aren't equally creative, which they aren't, you're going to run out of creative folks long before you've got the system staffed. So while I am in fundamental agreement with Robinson's perspective, I'm not optimistic that it can ever be widely implemented, particularly not with the centralised bureaucracy of governments and school boards. In other words, it's only apt to happen in isolated private schools (and here, to be fair to my old high school, they had exceptionally good drama, music and arts curricula and extra-curricular activities), which makes this excellent, imaginative education available only to the economic elite (no surprise that Robinson's services are much in demand in the corporate sector and that, as a Knight and no doubt a wealthy man, he is mainly talking to and about other people in society's upper crust) or those poorer kids lucky enough to get scholarships (as I did; I wasn't poor, but my private education nevertheless put my parents--who believe in the value of public education in theory but saw how poor it was in practice--into debt, for which I will remain grateful forever).

In our present political climate, with most politicians--or at least those getting elected--gung-ho about cutting taxes and reducing spending, it's hard to see this changing for the better in the near future. Not many of our best and brightest go into teaching because a) the system stinks and b) the pay's lousy. Hard to blame them. The former factor has to be a greater one, since many teachers are willing to take a significant cut in pay to teach in private schools. And most teachers in the public system would rather be in well-funded schools in well-heeled neighbourhoods than in the inner city educational jungle.

That said, I think everyone has had those memorably excellent teachers in public schools that have made a difference to the course of their lives in one way or another. This is cause, if not for hope, then at least not to despair. Because people are willfully perverse by nature, there will always be teachers willing to do too much work for too little pay. They deserve an enormous amount of respect.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Fine Art of Service Recovery

Got back in 5 and a half hours late this afternoon, thanks to a compounding series of delays starting in Jasper. The trip back was pretty good. One of my busier sessions, I also had to assuage some savage beast Americans who boarded in Jasper and for one reason or another felt hard done by. Within an hour, I had them eating out of the palm of my hand and praising me for salvaging what had promised to be a disastrous trip. Probably didn't hurt that I served the guy and his wife eleven drinks in a couple of hours. The Service Manager also made a point of thanking me for my good work. Nice to have one's efforts acknowledged; it doesn't always happen.

Speaking of which, I met with my boss when I got in. The investigation of my "insubordinate" act a few weeks back is complete and I've got off without so much as a slap on the wrist. I'll be paid for the trip back, as I felt I should've been, according to our contract, and I'll have a "coaching letter" on my file stating that my manager talked to me about the issue. So basically, no disciplinary action at all. Because I was in the right all the way. I'm glad I took a stand and glad I successfully made my point without a fight. I was also glad to see, in the highlights of our new tentative agreement, that the issue at hand has been properly addressed in the CBA. One for the little guys.

A request: I don't want to discourage anyone from posting comments on this blog, but I would appreciate it if folks would sign their comments. It lends them greater validity if they contain strong words--and it leaves the commenter open to criticism. If ya can't take it, ya really shouldn't dish it, eh. Moreover, it's a more respectful way of arguing. Gloves up.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Elizabeth Bishop Interview

Just listened to this recording of Elizabeth Bishop reading her poetry and being interviewed afterwards. I have a CD of Bishop reading and when I put it on and listened to it, I was very disappointed. She's not a poet who does her work much justice aloud, unfortunately. I wasn't surprised to hear in the interview that she isn't comfortable with public reading. Not surprising, given what a private person she was.

The interview is wonderful, however. Great to hear her take on feminism and its place in poetry. Another highlight is her very quiet dismissal of Charles Olson's poetry. If ever there was an overrated figure in 20th Century poetry, 'tis he.

Faint Praise

A thoughtful review by Steven Beattie of what sounds like an interesting book on present-day book reviewing, which seems to be a hot topic in literary circles of late.

The background for Pool’s analysis is a culture that actively discourages critical thinking, one that would rather have enthusiastic cheerleaders (like Oprah) than incisive critics. Although one of the persistent complaints about book critics is that they are too nasty, Pool finds that the opposite is in fact true: often, critics aren’t nasty enough. It is interesting that both Pool and Marchand make the same comment: both stand by every negative word they ever wrote, but both confess to some retrospective reservations about reviews in which they feel they treated their subjects too kindly. Pool attributes this to “weakness,” and points out that “it takes courage and confidence for a reviewer to go his own way and tell readers that the latest ‘masterpiece’ isn’t very good. Amid the waves of praise, he risks not only what all critics risk, being wrong, but being wrong alone.”

Yup, sounds about right.

Summerpeg and the Schnozz

I'm sitting in a very cool hotel room on a very hot Winnipeg evening, watching the Jays play the Twins in Toronto. An uneventful, even dull, trip here, with the exception of four slightly rowdy fellahs from New Zealand, whose presence was a positive relief--but they got off in Jasper. There weren't many people in my car--or on the train as a whole after Jasper, which is probably what allowed us to arrive here 15 minutes early. On-time performance is a goal much more readily attained when you're making little money...

A pleasant consequence of my lack of work was a bit of time for on-the-job reading. I've got Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses along with me and I finished the first chapter, "Smell," on my way here. The writing occasionally gets a bit purple, but her style's excellent for the most part and the subject matter fascinating. She says one thing in particular that caught my eye (and nose, I suppose): "One of the real tests of writers, especially poets, is how well they write about smells. If they can't describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?" I like the thought in the first sentence, but the second is an example of how she can get carried away in her prose. It strikes me that "the scent of sanctity in a church" is reminiscent of the overpowering ripe-cheese reek of an industrial hog farm and the suburbs of the heart are dark and dismal precincts full of bored teenagers and frustrated adults.

I remember, during my brief stint as a student at Concordia University, writer-in-residence Anne Dandurand complaining that very few English writers lead with their noses, that the olfactory was a nil factor in their atmospherics. She's probably right. The example par excellence of smell-lit, of course, is German novelist Patrick Suskind's Perfume, a book brilliant in parts, if somewhat uneven on the whole (his novella The Pigeon is a more uniformly excellent book).

Fact is that smells are, as Ackerman acknowledges, very hard to capture in words. I've made a few attempts over the years. It's probably not coincidental that I included two versions of the poem "A Whiff of Mussel Mud" (for the other version, you'll have to buy the book!) in Unsettled. Not just because I was unsure how to write about smell, but because smell is so closely linked to memory, far more than other senses, and the poem is explicitly about the kind of intense déjà vu that a smell can occasion, so having two versions of the same poem, spaced out in the same book, might create a similar feeling of "hey, wait a minute..."

A more recent poem of mine was published by Liz Bachinsky in a recent issue of Event:


The dim stink of skunk carried in
From the woods isn’t unpleasant—
Distance and diffusion
Make it more perfume than weapon

And it mingles in the brainpan
With a memory you can’t put a finger on
But linger over anyway—a vaccine
Couldn’t be, without a speck of infection;

Anti-venom is drawn from pure poison;
And the life you lead on this land
Was allowed by the death of your parents.
It hurt, but diffusion and distance

Make it bearable. When you live with a constant
Scent in your nostrils, you can’t
Stand it at first, then come to love it, then
It grows so faint you forget its existence.

Again, the link between stink and think--or at least recall. The poem's fictional--both my parents are alive and I would have it no other way--but is based on a statement I've heard my dad make on more than one occasion, about liking the distant smell of skunk spray. (I too am fond of the smell, but can't say to what extent that fondness is linked to my father's statement, and to the man himself, because I think of him whenever I smell skunk now--which is quite frequently in East Vancouver.) Indeed, many expensive perfumes are made from a trace of the foulest odors known. And I tried formally to build that idea into the poem, ending each line with a variation on an n-sound, a rhyme scheme that, while incessant, doesn't declare itself boldly, but which I hope might enter the brain, through the ear (as nasal proxy), obliquely and insidiously. It's a very quiet poem compared with much of my other recent stuff.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Ackerman's book. I have a definite bias towards poetry that embraces the sensuous, poetry with tangible texture, vivid imagery, aural resonance, and maybe the odd drifting aroma. A lot of the poetry that dissatisfies me seems to be merely verbal, to lack other dimensions, to be writing or idle chatter rather than the by-product of living and the embodiment of urgent speech--to be, in short, the work of a disembodied mind. Of course there's no such thing, pace Descartes and all the other ghost-in-the-machine fallacists he spawned, so I suppose it's more a matter of a mind insufficiently engaged with the sights, sounds and smells of the world it inhabits.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Hannus Review

Some eight months after its publication and four months after it was nominated for a BC Book Prize, Rachel's book has finally received its first review. Unfortunately, it's a very brief and superficial one.

Ever since Hannus was a manuscript in utero, it's received two widely divergent kinds of response: a) wild enthusiasm and a perception of great emotional intimacy and b) head-scratching confusion and a perception of emotional distance. There doesn't seem to be much in between. When Rachel was at Concordia working on the book as her MA thesis, she had a prof who told her point-blank that people wouldn't have the patience to work out all the intricacies and contradictions of the book and that no publisher would be interested in it. Unfortunately, that fatuous prediction has only been proven partially false. Despite its distinctly west-coast subject matter, no BC publishers were interested in it; it took an unorthodox publisher like Beth Follett of Pedlar Press to see its merit. Another publisher's first reader loved the book, while the second reader complained that the book "spoke when she wanted it to sing." Presumably, she was talking about the passages that are written in prose... It was a lovely bit of literary comeuppance when Hannus was nominated for a regional interest prize in the BC Book Prizes this spring.

I guess what this means is that this is not a book with "universal appeal." It is not a book that can be easily or passively consumed. It is, however, a book that receptive readers, willing to do their fair share of work in piecing Ida Hannus' story together, have loved. Which is as close to an objective statement about it as I can get.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

On the Road Again

Well, a strike has been averted, so I'm back on the rods tomorrow. Just as well; it's pouring buckets here in Vancouver and showing no sign of letting up soon. No word yet on the details of the tentative settlement, but the union says it's a very good deal. I'll be getting one of my favourite things as a result: retro pay! All the way back to January, I believe. Unfortunately, I was unemployed from early January to mid-May, so it's not as sweet as it might be, but still a welcome windfall.

Looked at a couple of potential apartments today. One was spacious, bright and clean, but small windows and cat-allergic owners made it a no-go. The other was lovely, or at least would be after about 10 grand worth of renovations. Heritage home with lots of character. Also lots of grunge. Sad, because it would've been a nice spot otherwise.

I'll be in Winnipeg on Tuesday with a full report on my exciting eastbound trip!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Poet Robert Bringhurst reads from Nine Visits to Mythworld

Related to my last post, here's video of Bringhurst reading from his great work of translation, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, by the Haida poet Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas. The intro's a bit annoying and the recording quality's not shit-hot, but it gives you an idea of what an amazing reader Bringhurst is, on top of all his other accomplishments.

The Beauty of the Weapons

A very nice reading by David Seymour of Robert Bringhurst's brilliant poem, "The Beauty of the Weapons," is online at Arc.

CNQ Responses

Several of us editors at Canadian Notes & Queries have been receiving tremendous responses to the new issue from readers--responses which tend to affirm our opinion that it's our best number yet. If you haven't got a subscription, you should sign up and see what all the fuss is about. Or pick one up at your newsstand if less inclined to longer term commitments. If you've already got the issue and have something you'd like to say--whether in praise, condemnation or just to argue a point--please drop a line, either to me or Dan Wells. Private words are always welcome, but it's public discussion we aim to spark.

UPDATE: See also the post on Vehicule Press' blog about CNQ 71.

Mental Rentals

Our tenancy in our lovely house-sit is nearing an end and we still don't know where we're going to be in September. For the sake of convenience and the potential of employment, we're considering staying here in Vancouver, but the market is pretty crazy. And it makes people crazy, too. Check this out. Fortunately, the nature of my work allows me to commute from pretty far away, but Rachel's trying to break into the teaching racket and so far no one's hiring. Anyone know of a cheap and nice place to live in BC?

I Can Die Now


Look! I've been immortalized in a really bad poem!


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Morley C and Papa H

Over at Thirsty, Dan Wells has posted an hilarious parody of Morley Callaghan by Michael Darling, my predecessor as CNQ reviews editor. It's been ages since I read any Callaghan, but this sounds pretty damn good. Oh well, at least Morley was the better boxer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Supreme Being and the War Amps

John MacKenzie points out this very amusing site in a post in which he asks:

And why won't he heal them? Any believer inthe christian god as a supreme being is helpless to answer that last question without resorting to self-delusion and intellectual dishonesty.

Actually, John, the answer has one of two very simple answers. Either a) the amputee is being punished for venal wickedness or b) s/he is having her faith in God tested. Because, you know, how else would God know if we were really worshipful of his greatness? Duh.

And then there's the Jews, who seem to maintain that God loves only amputees (oh, groan!)--and male ones at that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Iqaluit, Iqualuit

My pops just sent me this very nice article on my old home town. I'm shocked and appalled that the Tulugaq Bar (a.k.a. "The Zoo," with which readers of Unsettled will have a secondhand familiarity and with which I, during my stints in Iqaluit, had probably too intimate a relationship) has been renamed "The Storehouse Grill." This is a bar where, while I lived there, you weren't allowed to take photographs--bar management was really just trying to save the locals the trouble of beating the crap out of you if you did snap a shot.

Iqaluit was already becoming yuppified when I pulled up stakes for the northern frontier of Resolute Bay in 2001, so I can only imagine the tragic hipness of the place now, eight years into Nunavut. Still, it will ever and always be a freaky little town (even if officially a city now). This guy gets the character of the place pretty well.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Log Update

For those of you who've been asking (Brenda), I've finally got around to updating the reading log on my website. Between travelling, work and ADD, I've been having a hard time finishing books of late and have been reading a lot of magazines, manuscripts and internet stuff, cutting into my book-reading time. Looking forward to a relatively idle winter.

Reviews Online

My reviews of Agnes Walsh's Going Around with Bachelors, Tom Wayman's High Speed Through Shoaling Water, Alex Boyd's Making Bones Walk and Kenneth Sherman's Black River are now online at Quill & Quire. These were originally published as one review in the print version of Q&Q; not quite sure why they've split them up for the web while preserving references to the disembodied paragraphs.

Tips for Train Travel

Had a very good trip back. The people hanging out in my dome car were by and large very nice and many tipped accordingly. In answer to John MacDonald's comment two posts ago, tipping is not strictly de rigueur on board the train, but in a job like mine, which involves bartending as well as a great deal of commentary on the scenery, local economy, history, culture, etc., I sometimes get a little extra for my troubles. Porters and dining car staff also get tips. The transcontinental train is very different from the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor routes. The former is an "experience," whereas the latter is more of a utilitarian mode of transit.

As usual, I was serving people from all over the place: Canada, the US, England, Ireland, Australia, France. One of my passengers was an American monk, who was travelling with his joke-cracking father. I asked his father if he called his son "father." Apparently he does. Father Mike was a very nice guy, but not much of a tipper. More into faith and hope than charity, I guess. Dressed as he was in his monastic garb, he was something of an anachronistic sight when he was using his video camera. When we were going through the Rockies, after I had said something about the cycles of geology (the Fraser River carrying Rocky Mountain silt towards the Pacific, forming the Fraser Delta in the process) he told us that the fossil record on the Matterhorn confirmed the historical veracity of the great deluge. (Funny, because I didn't know there was any reference to the Swiss Alps in the Good Book; I wonder if the Bible's authors even knew of the existence of the land mass now known as Switzerland. I wonder if there were mountain goats on Noah's Ark? Ararat is a bit taller than the Matterhorn, so I suppose it's possible the latter was completely submerged, while the former poked above the flood--possible, at any rate, if you throw out everything we know of the hydrological cycle. Hmmmm...) He seemed otherwise mentally competent. He asked me once if I was Catholic. I answered in the negative, without elaborating any. I'm reading Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything right now. I didn't bring it up in conversation, wishing to poison nothing whilst on the clock and fishing for silver.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The end of anything resembling productivity

I've just been made aware of a very dangerous thing: email Scrabble. I'm not generally much on board games, but I'm something of a Scrabble fanatic. Anyone wanna play?

Got back from Winnipeg this morning. There's a chance we're going on strike next week, but I hope not. More anon.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Back on the rails this evening, hoping for a smooth trip with big tippers. I'll be home Sunday; wherever you are, hope you're enjoying your weekend. A tantôt!

David Yezzi Interview

A pretty sharp interview with poet and editor David Yezzi.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


It's not out quite yet, but if you're looking for some Zachariah Wells ephemera, you can pre-order "Achromatope," a broadsheet published by Frog Hollow Press in an edition of 100 signed and numbered copies. Caryl Peters of FHP makes beautiful books, chapbooks and broadsheets and I'm mighty chuffed to have a poem published by them. At $10, this is a steal for what will one day be a collector's item.

"Achromatope" is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a colour-blinded painter, a verse adaptation of an essay by Oliver Sacks in his book An Anthropologist on Mars (a wonderful book). And for what it's worth, I think it's one of the best poems I've written and is not at this point published anywhere else.

ERRATUM: I erroneously reported earlier that "Achromatope" would be selling for $15. Caryl informs me that she's dropped the price to $10. $10! How can you not order one?

Look, Listen, Live

On my mid-trip layover in Winnipeg now. Once again, an eventful trip. Not so much onboard, tho there was one loutish fellah hanging out in my car, bugging other passengers and annoying me mildly. No, everything was going smoothly until last night, when the train lurched forward in the repetitive, abrupt manner I've come to recognize as emergency braking. Any time a train goes into emergency, the employees go on high alert. After making sure no one was injured by the sudden halt, I made my way up to the dome in my car to see what I could see. About half a click behind us, something was on fire. The radio communications that followed made it clear that we'd hit a pickup truck at a level crossing. A few employees made their way to the site, as did a passenger, who happened to be a paramedic. No details of what they saw were discussed. This means that the driver was dead. After about an hour, following an inspection of the train to insure no damage was done to it, we were on our way again. We could have been delayed much longer, particularly had the engineers decided to book off, which they are well within their rights to do, and no one would have blamed them for a second. Crossing accidents are about as traumatic as it gets for railroad engineers.

This is the first train-caused fatality I've experienced, but in the three-plus years I've been working--seasonally, I might add--I've been on board for 4 "crossing incidents." I will never understand how people can be so stupid as to take chances with a train like that, but it happens all the fucking time. An analogy: a car being hit by a train is like a beer can being run over by a car. For Christ's sake, don't assume that you can beat the train. It's not worth the gamble.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Brief Hiatus

I'm hitting the rails once more. Hopefully, this trip won't be as ... eventful as the last one. I've got a layover in Winnipeg on Thursday, so if I'm feeling inspired, might post something then. Toodles.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Just read this post about poetry readings by Irish poet Billy Mills at the Guardian blog. This topic seems to come up a lot: should poetry be read aloud to an audience or read quietly by oneself? Seems like a non-starter to me. I mean, you wouldn't hear a similarly framed argument for other forms of artistic presentation. Imagine: "The book: good or bad?" With readings, as with any other sort of format, there are good approaches and bad approaches, good performers and bad performers, good venues and bad venues--and everything in between.

It should be clear to readers of CLM that the oral performance of poetry is very important to yours truly. Not only do I post readings of my own poems and those of others here, but I've toured the country doing readings, self-published a CD of poems and have vague plans for expanding this venture to include CDs by other writers. When I read poetry to myself, I also read it aloud, because poetry at its best is an oral pleasure as well as an aural, emotional and intellectual one. And, frankly, I probably only write poetry instead of song lyrics because I'm too tone-deaf to be a rock star.

I love doing readings, even though I've done some crappy ones, in which either my performance, the venue, the audience or some combination of the three, were subpar. But the buzz I get from one really great, enjoyable reading makes up for nine mediocre ones. Same goes for readings I attend as an audience member. I go expecting crap most of the time, but hoping for gold. Enough turns up in the pan that I find it worthwhile to keep prospecting. And I'll travel a fair distance to attend a reading I know will be good. I drove to Victoria a few months ago, for instance, to catch Geoffrey Cook reading. I've read with Geoff in the past and know he does a knockout job. He didn't disappoint. And as an added bonus, I got to hear Martin Hazelbower's incomparably weird and brilliantly virtuoso performance that night. For me, such readings easily rival theatre or music as live entertainment.

I think most of the people who argue against readings don't like doing them. Solution: don't do them. If you do decide to do readings, for the love of Pete, RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE. Rehearse what you're going to read beforehand, don't make it seem like this is the first time you've seen this strange piece of text in your hand. And try not to use the audience like a captive clutch of guinea pigs for testing out brand new material. Read the stuff with a bit of life, don't try to mimic its textual 2-dimensionality on the page. Whatever, please don't sublimate your own discomfort/dislike/ineptitude for public performance into some kind of "readings are bad" dogma. Yes, most readings are bad. But then, so is most "poetry" on the page. Not a coincidence.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Song of the Shirt

Thomas Hood is a Romantic era poet who doesn't get talked about much these days, although his work was very popular in his day, and some of it remains memorable. It's probably because he was a writer of light verse, which is never a good career move for a poet.

Hear me read his "Song of the Shirt," a much heavier poem than is typical.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Notes & Queries

Finally got my copy of Canadian Notes & Queries in the mail yesterday. It looks terrific, very meaty. I have a bias, naturally enough, but if you're looking for engaged and engaging discussion of Canadian literature and art, you should seriously consider a subscription, if you haven't got one already.

Friday, July 6, 2007

In Service

Got a call from my boss today and they've decided that, while I'm still under investigation, my actions weren't sufficiently nefarious to warrant unpaid suspension, so I'll be back on the rails on Tuesday. A step in the right direction, anyway.

Thursday, July 5, 2007


I found my role
hard to accept—
and yet
I found it droll

I found my hole
hard to inspect—
and yet
I found it full

I found my parole
hard to dissect—
and yet
I found it dull

I found the Demerol
hard to inject—
but then
I found a hole

I found the pole
hard to detect—
and yet
I felt its pull

I found the toll
hard to reject—
and so
I sold my soul

I found my role
hard to affect—
and yet
I played it cold


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Lowlands Low

Arc poetry magazine, as part of their special "Forgotten & Neglected" issue, has posted podcasts of featured poets' poems, including my reading of Kenneth Leslie's "Lowlands Low." Hear it here.

You can also hear Arc editor Anita Lahey reading Leslie's "No Poem Is Ever Ended" here.

Jab with Twenty

An interesting and entertaining, albeit chaotic, unedited and ill-transcribed interview with one of my favourite living poets, Peter Van Toorn. Very flattered to see Peter speaking highly of my essay on his work, even if I become "Zachary Weld" and the essay's title morphs from "Jabbed with Plenty" to "Jab with Twenty"!

I can't urge you strongly enough to read his opus magnum, Mountain Tea. One of the best books of poetry published in the last century. Some poems from it are reprinted as accompaniment to the interview.

UPDATE: I had the pleasure once of talking on the phone with Peter Van Toorn and, as Mr. Ede says in the comments field of this post, the interview is extremely faithful to what a conversation with Peter is actually like. Which is something I appreciate in the interview, its warts-n-all immediacy, up to and including the errors in my name and the title of the essay. The adjectives I apply to the interview are merely descriptive, not censorious. The errors and confusions are part of what make the interview interesting and entertaining.

I Sing of Olaf Glad and Big

For some reason I've had this poem running through my noggin the last couple of days.


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Potentially Career Limiting Move

My idea for the title of this blog came not from my activities as a swashbuckling book reviewer, but from a comment made by a former boss, who felt that comments I'd made in a resignation letter constituted "a real career-limiting move." Yes, that's right, in a resignation letter. No irony intended. In certain situations, I just have a hard time keeping my mouth shut and my head down, in no small part because whenever I have done that, I've felt dirty afterwards.

I won't get into the details in public, but basically what happened is my employer tried to tell me I couldn't do something that my collective bargaining agreement says I can do. Against the counsel of a few co-workers (who agreed that I was in the right but figured I'd get in shit), I stuck to my guns. Sure enough, when I got back into Vancouver today, I was called into the office and told that I was to be "investigated" and held out of service without pay until the investigation was complete. This is part of the intimidation/bullying/harassment arsenal they employ on a semi-regular basis to get people to give up their contractual prerogatives. I'm quite confident that I'll win in this case, but even if I do, I'll have a bullseye on my back for a while. Nothing I ain't used to.

The trip itself was a bit crazy. Everything was running smoothly, until the morning of the third day, when I woke up and realized we were still in Melville, SK, which we should've left an hour or so earlier. Turns out a train ahead of us had derailed, so the road was blocked. The derailment of freight trains is a pretty routine occurrence, so I didn't think much of it. It could be as minor as a car or two being off the tracks, but still upright. That wasn't the case here, however. After moving up the line from Melville to Yarbo, we finally got the go-ahead to proceed, the derailment having been "cleaned up." As we approached the bridge over the Cutarm River, I could see that it was a pretty bad derailment, a couple of cars completely tipped over. But as we crawled over the bridge, I looked down into the river valley and saw this incredible wreckage of cars and containers. Seems a wicked wind had blown some double-stacked container cars off the bridge and they took a whole bunch of other cars with them. Crazy mess. I was looking for some pictures on line, but the media don't seem to have picked up on it much.

After that, we were delayed again by some bozo trying to use the train as the instrument of his self-destruction. Unfortunately, he failed in his objective. Then, because of the compounded delays, our engineers ran out of legal driving time and we were delayed further waiting for a relief crew. I never did make it to Winnipeg, as the train I was supposed to head west on left the station before we got there. So at Portage la Prairie, I and all the other Vancouver-based staff hopped off one train and onto another. Which was the point at which I did what got me into trouble. Fortunately, I have a spotless record with the company to-date, which I think lends a great deal of credibility to my case. We'll see.

Unsettled Review

My book Unsettled was published almost three years ago, but it's never too late to receive a review. Which I just have, courtesy of Rob Taylor at PoetryReviews.ca. In keeping with my policy of not commenting publicly on reviews of my work, I have nothing further to say, but would appreciate it, as I'm sure Mr. Taylor would also, if you'd check it out.

I'm back from my rail trip, and it was eventful. More anon.