Friday, August 31, 2007

People Moving People

I'm back in Vancouver, but we're moving today and tomorrow, so won't be posting much, if anything. Not a bad trip back, busier than the trip to Winnipeg, but not crazy. Some very pleasant folk hanging out in my car.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lies and Reviews

There's new content up at Northern Poetry Review. Have only so far read two pieces. The first is Michael Goodfellow's thoughtful review of Lynn Crosbie's Liar. This is one of the very worst books I've read in recent memory, and it's good to see someone with the backbone to say it's bad. As an acquaintance said to me, "it's not even interesting as salacious gossip." The only reason I finished reading it was that I was being paid to review it. Which dovetails nicely with Shane Neilson's piece in NPR on why he reviews. Personally, I often suspect I've gone too easy on books I've reviewed, so I scratch my head whenever I run into this idea that I'm some kind of attack dog or even, as one disgruntled reviewee put it, "the Pol Pot of Canadian poetry." Seriously.

The Dullest Day

In Winnipeg now, after an incredibly slow trip from Vancouver. Not slow in terms of the train's schedule, as we were actually 40 minutes early arriving, but in terms of the pace of my work. Six of the twelve sleeping cars were completely empty and there were rarely more than a half dozen people in my car. It's been a bad season for Via out here. Strong dollar and new passport restrictions don't help.

I read quite a bit, but I was still in sleep debt from my recent travels and Saskatoon shenanigans, so focusing on what I was reading was a challenge. I did finally finish Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses, which I heartily recommend for its insights and laden prose (only slightly overwritten on rare occasions). I'm also working my way through Earle Birney's One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems. I haven't read a whole lot of Birney in the past, mostly his justly famous poems, like "Vancouver Lights," "Mappemounde," "Bushed" and of course "David." I'm working on a review of the book and wishing that its editor had taken more time to re-shape the canonical Birney. Basically, this is a reprint of his 1977 selected, with a few later things added, plus intro, biographical intro and some snippets of Birney's prose on poetry. Not all of the stuff included in the 1977 book has aged well and this collection, at over 200 pages (with different poems, annoyingly, often crowded together on the same page), could have been much more effective as a reassessment than as a reprint.

I'm also reading The Pony Fish's Glow, a book on "plan and purpose in nature" that I picked up at a bookshop in Saskatoon. More accurately, it's on "the problem of plan and purpose." Very interesting so far. It's very hard to talk about evolution without slipping into the narrative mode of this-was-made-for-that. George C. Williams argues that we don't need to ditch this way of looking at things, we just have to understand fully what we mean by it. And he makes the to-me-irrefutable argument against "intelligent design" that I've been muttering for some time: If we're so intelligently designed, then why are so many of the design elements so fucking flawed and stupid?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Poet Takes Extra 5 Minutes To Vague Up Poem



A whirlwind visit to Saskatoon for Carmine and Jennifer's nups. We had a wonderful time. Great to share in the official union of two such good, smart and delightful people. Met lots of other fine folks, mostly from Jennifer's extended family. Also enjoyed hanging out with Derek Webster of Maisonneuve fame, who I've met a few times in the past, but hadn't spent much social time with him. And did I ever do some dancing, which in more dionysian days was a regular thing for me, but it had been a long while since I cut a rug. Lucky I didn't hurt myself. Or anyone else. I'm expecting incriminating photos to turn up on the web sometime over the next couple of days. I know at least one exists...

I'm pretty freaking wiped now and have to go to work tomorrow. The house is in a state of chaos, as we're getting ready for our move to New Westminster on the 1st. Looking forward to a little bit of sanity, serenity and stasis in September. It's been well over a month since I wrote a poem, which is a long drought for me. Usually, these spells happen when the world is too much with me and my attention gets more scattered than it usually is. Which is saying a great deal.

I'll be in Winnipeg overnight on Tuesday, catching up on some reviewing and editing work. Maybe I'll have time for a wee post or two. Ciao, bellas.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Rachel and I are heading to Saskatoon tomorrow for the wedding of my good friends Carmine Starnino and Jennifer Varkonyi. Rumor has it they're both changing their surnames to Varkonino. Okay, so there's no rumor, but wouldn't it be cool? People like that make me feel rather humdrum with my oh-so-Anglo monosyllable. Sigh.

UPDATE: My mother has helpfully pointed out that if I get tired of my little name, I can always adopt her ancestral surname, Dovgonos. Hm, Zachariah Dovgonos. How exotic!

Why Nathan Writes

Nathan Whitlock on Jim Crace on writing.

Steven W. Beattie on same.

I think I write because most everything else I've done and most everything else I do, ends up boring me. Oh yeah, and my profound love of language and humanity, that's key. And because I'm fucking good at it! And I suck horseballs at visual art, music, sports and computer programming. Believe me, were I not tone-deaf, I'd be the frontman of an obscure rock band. You know, the sort that music nerds think make them cool, because they've heard of it and you haven't.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Got my copies of "Achromatope" from Frog Hollow Press yesterday. As anticipated, the finished product is beautiful. (Crappy scanned facsimile to the left.) And a damn good deal at $10. Get 'em while they're hot.

UPDATE: Since I'm asking you to buy this basically sight-unseen, I figured I'd at least not make it sound-unheard. Hear me read "Achromatope."

Trudeau, the Opera

Went to see George Elliott Clarke read at Liz Bachinsky's Robson Street Reading Series tonight (yesterday, now). I've been reading George's work for years, am a big fan of his best work (especially Whylah Falls, Execution Poems and Blue) and have attended a number of his readings. As usual, tonight's was an energetic epic. He arrived late, but already in high gear. He read a bunch of poems from Black, and then read sections of his latest book, Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path, a biographical libretto about the late great PM. After reading each section, he played a recording of the same section, as performed by the singers, with musical accompaniment--during which George remained standing, grooving to the tunes. I and others agreed that we preferred him reading it to the recording, and we were a bit puzzled by his decision to duplicate the way he did.

While I can't say that I love all of George's recent work (there were a few pretty cheesy passages in the opera), I absolutely love his unflagging positivity and energy. Some of you might remember that I was involved in an editorial SNAFU last year, when I reviewed an early manuscript draft of Black instead of the finished page proofs, due to an error made by Raincoast. George didn't hold it against me and even, after the review was published, judged me the winner of Arc's annual Critic's Desk Award. All the thin-skinned precious darlings of our literary world should take lessons from George in grace and large-heartedness.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Resolute Skidoo Crew

My northern buddy Paul just sent me this photo, dating back, I figure, to the spring of 2003 (possibly '02) in Resolute Bay. What a fun, fine day that was.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Nathan Whitlock on the Pragmatic Reason for Reviewing; and Notes on Joseph Conrad's Supposed Racism, Prompted by a Discussion with a Passenger

An excellent post from Nathan Whitlock on why we need reviews.

"It sounds crude, ignorant, intellectually lazy, and ant-art, and it can easily lead to unearned smugness (which should really be the subtitle of this blog), but it's a fact. There's only so many hours in a day, years in a life – we often need reviews for no more than a friendly heads-up or a thumbs-down."

Call me crude, ignorant, intellectually lazy and anti-art (I know you probably do, already), but this just makes too much sense to be denied. Those who would deny it are probably, as usual, mixing up the social and intellectual functions of book reviewing and literary criticism.

Decent trip back, but I've come down with some sort of bug, the only symptom of which so far is a wheezy cough that only gets bad if I laugh. Which for some reason diminished my desire to talk to people, which is 90% of my job description. Still, had a very nice conversation with a retired prof from Trent U. He started the Post-Colonial Studies programme at Trent and we commiserated over our distaste for the theory-pigs who've hijacked so many English and PoCo programmes. I asked him what he thought of Chinua Achebe's charge of racism against Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (possibly my favourite novel of all time). He said he thought it was "nonsense."

If I ever have a son, I want to name him Conrad. A friend of a friend, who's an English PhD candidate, said she thought this a very nice name, the only problem with it being the association with Joseph Conrad. (Funny, since that's why I want the name!) Turns out this person has never read Conrad, much like the nodding frowners who think that Nietzsche was an anti-Semitic proto-Nazi. I can understand and forgive this kind of blind following from most people, but if you're pursuing a doctoral degree, you're supposed to be good at engaging your critical faculties. Anyway, now she's saying that she'll have to read it. But not buy it, maybe take it out of the library. Oy.

A thoughtful and fascinating piece on Achebe vs. Conrad, from Caryl Phillips in the Guardian. The unasked and unanswered question in it seems to me to be: if we are going to hold a 19th/early 20th C. white author accountable for his depiction of Africa and Africans, how have Europeans been depicted in African literature? Have they come off more complex and fully human than Conrad's "flabby pale devils" and ironically labelled "emissaries of light"? Achebe's claim that there's a white-good/black-bad dichotomy in HofD is completely untenable. Just think of Brussels, which Marlow likens to a "whited sepulchre," whitewashed on the outside, but containing death and corruption at its core. And how could Marlow have depicted the Africans he encountered as fully formed human beings when he was never given such an opportunity by his own culture, when the Congo was little more than a storehouse of ivory and he was hired to recover it? Achebe seems to fault Conrad for writing a book that is not true to Achebe's experience as an African. He wants the book to be African. Which is a bit like asking Achebe to write Things Fall Apart in such a way that it satisfies the narrative expectations of colonial Europeans. Is it Conrad who is racist, then, or is it Achebe's reading of Conrad that's racist? (For the record, I don't believe Conrad is completely innocent of charges of racism--any more than most people are, at any rate--but to reductively label his book as thoroughgoingly racist is a abomination of critical thought.) Is Achebe's resentment anything better than racism reified by his membership in the oppressed race and by Conrad's in that of the oppressor?

I think Achebe too glibly--especially considering he's a great writer himself--dismisses the narrative structure of HofD as trickery. After all, Conrad really had no need to make himself look non-racist at the time (1902)--given that his audience would have, almost to a man, already have seen Africa as benighted and primitive--now did he? Achebe's expectations that Conrad should levitate above the tide of his time is unrealistic. Undesirable even. Conrad's greatness is due in no small part to the fact that he swam in and against the currents of his age. And his work transcends that time; just look at how brilliantly it was adapted to the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now. I read HofD first in high school and read it so many times that year that if you quoted me a passage, I could tell you what page it was on in the Norton Critical Edition (in which is included Achebe's essay, which I also read at the time). I've re-read the novel several times since, and have probably read it cover to cover ten times, if not more. I still have my battered Norton, but it's very hard to read for all the underlining and marginalia. It's quite simply one of the most brilliant, frank and fearless novels ever written.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mid-trip Report and a Few Notes on Ron the Silliman

A relaxed and uneventful ride to Winnipeg. Other than a brief excursion for food, I've just been sitting in my hotel room, writing a book review and watching the Jays fail to sweep a series against the Angels. No TV at home, so a nice treat to watch a game instead of listening on the radio.

It would seem that Ron Silliman is piqued about being unknown to a mainstream journalist.

The truly difficult poets--my friends, for example, not to mention that good-looking guy in the mirror--are so far beyond the horizon that Carroll doesn't know he's left them (us) out.

I have to say, I don't get it, but maybe I'm just not "attuned" to his argument... Seems to me that a mainstream journalist is going to recommend poetry that a broad audience will respond to. Makes sense, right? It's kinda the job description of a columnist: write about what your audience wants to read about. And Silliman is saying that the sort of poetry he and his buds are into writing is the sort of poetry that only other poets read--a fraction of other poets at that, since he tends to dismiss everything else as being glorified light verse, tuneless pop music, imitation-British or otherwise "School of Quietude" (a vague term he is increasingly unable to define, as he seems to keep expanding its broad net to catch just about everything he's against, including most poetry that gets more "mainstream" recognition than his). Why one would want to be read exclusively by poets, I don't understand--unless of course one is an aesthetic snob--but then I'm sure he'd think there's a lot I don't understand about his brand. Hey, that rhymes! Bad poet! Regardless, that's clearly what he does want, so what's the freakin' problem, eh? Wouldn't his appearance in a newspaper column destroy every shred of the "artistic credibility" he clings to so doggedly? Wouldn't that represent his descent to the nether world of Billy Collinsesque shlock? Isn't it, like, way cooler to be on the fringes fighting evil? Silliman, like so many others, wants badly to be cutting-edge and avant-garde, but also wants the love and recognition afforded to people like Collins. The difference is, Collins doesn't overtly despise and contemn the people doing the recognizing. Silliman should scoop the cake out of his gob if he wants to hang on to it so badly.

It's a nice, comforting story--an us-n-them narrative all-too-familiar--for Silliman to say that he and his crew are "beyond the horizon" of ignorant rubes like Jon Carroll. I think what Silliman is most loathe to confront--or is oblivious of--is the fact that most of the sort of poetry he champions, on the rare occasions that it is encountered by "ordinary readers," does not cause rage, or perplexity, or reactionary screeds, but indifference. If students get mad at profs for making them read it, it's the same reason I was mad at the prof who made me read Middlemarch: the fucking thing bored me to tears. Unlike George Eliot's fiction, however, this sort of "poetry" is forgotten almost as soon as it's encountered, because, verbal Teflon that it is, it can't get any purchase on the imagination of those unindoctrinated in its intricacies, or unconvinced of the earth-shattering claims made for it by its high priests. People don't find it hostile, they find it boring. So often, I hear grumblings about how "behind the other arts" poetry is (it comes up, predictably, in the comments to the Silliman post), because in visual art and music, radically disjunctive non-representative techniques are widely accepted. This to me says more about the grumblers' misapprehension of the medium than it does about the puerility or stupidity of its hidebound audience. Language, unlike shape, colour and sound, is fundamentally, organically representational. Every word is already a metaphor, a poem in miniature (a point made eloquently by Robert Bringhurst in The Tree of Meaning). Words don't exist independent of human culture, whereas colour (at least as light waves if not in what we know as "green" or "red"), shape and sound do. You can warp and stretch language and break it into its component parts, but the result is rarely successful unless you keep intact some recognizable structures of grammar and syntax (and for that matter, an analogous case can be made for painting and jazz--unpatterned, unstructured chaos is simply uninteresting, probably because most things in nature have some kind of formal patterning or other). Because of language's basic recursiveness, the possible combinations of words, within the organic, internal rules of grammar and syntax, are literally infinite--so it's bogus to say that these rules are in any way confining or oppressive.

Developments in psycholinguistics indicate that language is not an invention, so much as an instinct human beings are born with. Failed attempts to invent rational languages like Esperanto tend to reinforce this idea. You can't impose language on people. Pomo theorists and their acolytes would have us believe that we are victims of language, but language is in fact too radically plastic in the human mind--not to mention too fundamentally ambiguous, a fact much exploited by poets since time immemorial, as identified by Empson--for it to control the way we think. Or for us to do it permanent damage.

Far from being ahead of their time, Silliman et al are starting to look like crusty relics of linguistic theories badly compromised by superstition and error. Far from radical, they've become the new reactionaries.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Silver Reaches of the Estuary

Margaret Avison died last week at 89. I'd say it's sad, but by all accounts she led a very full life and left behind an important body of work. While I respect and admire her writing a great deal, I can't say I'm a huge Avison fan. In particular, I'm not crazy about much of her explicitly Christian verse, which readers of this site might chalk up to my general anti-Christian bias, but it's not a problem I have with other writers of the Xian sacred (Dante, Milton, Donne, Hopkins). That said, she is one of the finest writers of metaphysical poetry this country has seen--and who knows if she could have been without her Christianity--and I do like a number of her poems quite a lot. There's a serious playfulness and a linguistic resourcefulness in her work that is rare indeed.

One of her most anthologized poems is "The Swimmer's Moment." It's not my favourite Avison poem (her sonnet "Snow" probably occupies that position), but it breaks every workshop show-don't-tell rule beautifully and I love the intersection of introspection and outward critical judgment that happens in it. And it seems appropriate for the occasion. Hear me read it here.

See also Paul Vermeersch's post, which includes links to a number of obituaries.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Burning Hell

Rachel and I went out tonight to see and hear a bit of music. "The Burning Hell," consisting of Mathias Kom (pictured left with 99 red balloons) and Nick Ferrio--a pared-down touring version of the band--played at the Railway Club downtown. I met Mathias when I crashed at his place in Peterborough on my own tour last year.

It was an interesting set, because Nick and Mathias have very distinct styles as writers and singers. Nick is more seriously intense and a bit Neil Youngish in his sound, while Mathias' lyrics, delivered in his throaty baritone, are tinged with just the right amount of irony. First they played a few of Nick's songs and then a handful of Mathias'. The set was too short by far; I wanted more. There were a couple of other bands on after, but we headed home, CDs in hand, whilst Mathias and Nick hit the road in their Toyota Echo, so they could make a show in Sault Ste. Marie on Thursday. A friend of Mathias' observed that no one has ever been in such a hurry to make it to the Sault.

I'm on the road myself tomorrow, the usual Winnipeg-n-back deal. It's been a hectic time off this time, so work should be restful by comparison. Hopefully. Much packing and cleaning and procrastinating to be done when I get back. Deadlines are starting to pile up on me too. I blame it on Facebook's Scrabble application.

Forgotten & Neglected (encore une fois)

If the poets featured in Arc's special "Forgotten and Neglected" issue haven't got enough attention lately, the same can't be said of the magazine. A nice article in the Globe and Mail today, courtesy of Guy Dixon. Unfortunately, Dixon doesn't mention Kenneth Leslie at all. And he makes the bizarre assertion that Irving Layton's vast oeuvre is characterized by "sparseness," which is a bit like saying that Layton was shy and retiring as a person.

More Martin Espada

A nice profile of Martin Espada, courtesy of PBS.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

New Pad

I mentioned the other day that we've found a new place to live. It's a lovely, spacious two-bedroom on the ground floor of a low-rise 70s-era building. We're signing the lease tonight and looking forward greatly to our tenancy, which starts Sept. 1. The apartment's in New Westminster, which, for people unfamiliar with the greater Vancouver area, is an old, small city on the banks of the Fraser River, about 20 clicks away from downtown Vancouver, and easily accessible by the Sky Train. And for baseball fans, it's the hometown of Minnesota Twins' slugger and last year's American League MVP Justin Morneau.

Here are a few pictures of the place, as furnished by its present resident:


Master bedroom:

Kitchen/dining area, which looks out on the living room:

Living room (note the functioning wood-burning fireplace and French doors):

My study/spare bedroom:

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Big Balls--or Why Joyce Kilmer is not William Shakespeare

Over at the Guardian Blog, Shirley Dent has made a call for balls. Leaving aside the fact that this is a strange choice of anatomical metaphors for a woman in the twenty first century (guts? spine? nerve?), she makes some good points.

In a recent "debate," I encountered this "Oh yeah, well that's just your opinion" relativistic argument. For some reason, this feeble line of thought seems only to get trotted out as a reason for not voicing negative opinions; nice opinions are okay (or nasty opinions, if they happen to be directed towards nasty opinionaters). Naturally enough, no one has anything resembling ultimate authority and there will always be a strongly subjective element to criticism, but as Dent says, concrete knowledge is necessary for a critic's--or anyone's--opinion to carry weight and water. In poetry, this means not only knowledge of what's current, but what's past and the vast array of techniques and devices that poets around the world have employed. When you see many people using the same borrowed trope, dollars-to-doughnuts it's a cliche. When something sounds like fortune cookie prophecy or the banal consolations of a self-help book, you have triteness and sentimentality. When you see someone using diction, syntax and rhythms that very closely resemble another poet's, the writing is most probably derivative. When there is a complete absence of figurative language and soundplay, chances are you're in the realm of expository utility prose. These are fairly objective judgments, which is to say that evidence can be summoned to back them up. If you fail to recognize these things, you're probably ill-equipped to be a critic and your opinion--terribly sorry!--isn't worth as much as that of someone who does recognize them.

And some people simply have bad taste. We recognize and acknowledge this without flinching in the realms of home decor (commemorative plate and spoon collections) and music (Billy Ray Cyrus), so why not in poetry? If kitsch (Maya Angelou) exists, and genius (Hopkins) exist, it stands to reason that there must be shades and degrees of each in between. Most people can agree most of the time on what writing is brilliant, but for some reason we're supposed to pretend that mediocrity and awfulness are completely foreign to both readers and writers of literature. Which is bullshit (or bollocks, to return to Dent's metaphor) because writing is not a rarefied endeavour. Like anything else, it can be done well and very well, poorly and very poorly. And far more of it is done poorly than well--because it's actually quite hard to do. And some of what is done poorly is lauded as brilliance, for one constellation of reasons or another, most of which have little or nothing to do with writing as such. Acknowledging these things and pinpointing where and how and how far a book goes awry is useful. Doing so with style and wit, moreover, is engaging. A very old principle: instruction through delight. Horace, who wasn't above the odd barb, said that. If you haven't read him, you might want to. It'll help you form intelligent opinions on poetry.

UPDATE: Steven W. Beattie weighs in on this.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Touch 'n' Go

Home for a few hours, so a quick, point-form post:

-We've found a place to live, a very nice 2-bedroom pad in New Westminster. Moving in Sept. 1. We need a lot of stuff, so if you live in Vancouver and have stuff to give/sell, lemme know.

-Spent a lovely couple of days on Lasqueti, unfortunately narrowly missing Suzanne Buffam's visit there.

-Off to the Sunshine Coast early tomorrow to help Liz Bachinsky move a thousand lb. antique printing press.

-Looking for a show to see in Vancouver? You should check out The Burning Hell. I met these guys when I was on tour in Peterborough; super people and talented musicians. See you there?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Birkerts, blah, blah, blah, blog

Alex Good on the stupidity of the blogs vs. print reviewing question. He's bang on. I don't review books on CLM because no one asks me to and certainly no one's going to pay me to. I only started reviewing books in the first place because I was asked to do it. Book reviewing is journalism and, as Dr. Johnson said, writing for reasons other than payment is foolish. Granted, I'm frequently foolish, but my folly knows limits. Sometimes. I have reviewed books for no, or nominal, payment in the past, but I'm less and less inclined to do so. Vita brevis and all that. The cheapest work I do now is $40 for 500 words. Although if you worked out a per-word--or worse, per-hour--rate for some of my longer essays, it would make sweatshop sneaker assembly look lucrative by comparison.

Re: the naked dude

Pretty uneventful trip to Winnipeg--with the exception of a railside camper, no doubt well-fortified by long weekend libations, doing a dance for us in his birthday suit. On the way home, we got mooned by swimmers in the Pembina River. Why am I not surprised that both of these displays of pallid manflesh happened in Alberta?

The trip home was hyper-hectic. There are two people working my job on my crew: myself and my counterpart Renee. Renee is senior to me, so she gets to pick her car first. Normally, she picks the much busier front car, for which I am very grateful. She didn't feel like it this time, however, so I was left to work it. It was very good for tips, but exhausting.

We're off to check out a promising apartment in New Westminster. Hope it's the one, as I want to go to Victoria tomorrow to sign my Frog Hollow broadsides, and then motor over to French Creek to catch a ferry to Lasqueti Island for a couple days of R&R.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Cock and Ball Story

No time to post now, just a quick turnaround in Winnipeg. I'll explain when I get home.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Linda Besner on the CBC

Readers of CLM may remember that I was interviewed this spring by Linda Besner on UBC's radio station. Well, I just got an email from Linda, who's relocated to Montreal, and she successfully pitched her show to CBC's "Definitely Not The Opera." And she used my interview as her pitch sample! Pretty cool. Looking forward to hearing the show on national radio.

I'm heading out on the rails this afternoon and don't have a layover in Winnipeg, so CLM'll be quiet till Tuesday. And I'm on the run after that to Lasqueti Island and the Sunshine Coast, so posts will be scarce. Full reports anon. Ciao for now.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Martin Espada

Here's an interesting interview with American poet Martin Espada. The interviewer's a tad annoying, but fortunately, Espada does most of the talking.

Fine to hear, at the end of the interview, Espada read his terrific poem "Imagine the Angels of Bread," which I audio-posted here on CLM a while back. He reads it better; if only I had that dreamy Bronx accent.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


A little epigram by Samuel Butler, read by yours truly.