Saturday, December 29, 2007


Herr Leibniz believed that everything was monads
He clearly made inadequate use of his gonads!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

No, y'see, the trouble with poet is / 'Ow do you know it's deceased?

Rachel and I saw Sweeney Todd tonight. Bloody marvellous! Go see it. Anything that can provoke that combination of mirth, disgust and sympathy is true art.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


A lovely xmas dinner with the inlaws last night. A highlight was seeing Rachel's 99-year-old great aunt with our 11-day-old nephew. And the food and wine were top drawer.

I've been pretty scattered and distracted lately, for a variety of reasons. I intend to get more focused immediately. Which could mean more posts, or fewer, depending what it is I'm focusing on.

Happy new year. I'm looking forward to longer days.

Monday, December 24, 2007

George Johnston on Writer's Almanac again

George Johnston's "Brigid Newly Arrived" was broadcast today on Garrison Keillor's show "The Writer's Almanac." This is a fine example of Johnston's gift as a writer of occasional verse.

Here's Johnston's "Us Together."

And here is his "Farewell to Teaching."

Related: my post on The Essential George Johnston, including me reading his poem "Veterans."

Also, a review of TEGJ in the Toronto Star by Barbara Carey.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Who Talks About Himself This Way?

Since he has a habit of deleting egregiously self-flattering posts from his blog, I thought I'd copy it here:

In terms of publication history, the sore point of the last few years was the reluctance of any of the major British poetry publishers to read, or consider, publishing my collections here in England, where I reside. The response was shamefully dismissive, particularly from Bloodaxe (Astley sent me a brief little email saying he didn't like my poetry that much) and Salt (which said they'd never publish me). I suspect some energetic future literary historian will have something to say about the curious small-mindedness of shutting out someone as internationally dynamic and engaged as Todd Swift - but in the meantime, it just seemed spiteful, or petty. The irony was, I was misread by both the UK traditionalists, and the experimenters, equally - neither group quite hearing my complex shifting play between high and low registers, and various sometimes-comic, often-serious, rhetorics. It's been a painful thing for me to accept, especially given the extraordinary commitment I showed, from 2004-2007, to British poetry, with my Oxfam poetry series and CDs.

Boohoo. It's safe to say, I think, that most poets think more highly of their work than other people do, but in some cases, the gap is conspicuously wider.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Review online

My review of Robert Bringhurst's Everywhere Being Is Dancing is now online at Quill & Quire. I had an omnibus of four poetry titles in the same issue, but it doesn't appear to be up yet.

Friday, December 21, 2007

An Interesting Wrinkle in the Issue of Artistic Property

I was listening to Q on CBC this aft, and was particularly interested in Jian Ghomeshi's interview with photographer Jim Krantz. Krantz is primarily known as a commercial photographer and has done very well by it. This interview was about photographs he took for Phillip Morris's (in)famous Marlboro ads. Krantz is pissed off because "appropriation artist" Richard Prince has ripped off his photos, which he has displayed and sold (for over a million bucks in once case) as his own works of art.

According to this story in the NY Times, Prince's appropriations are legal, considered fair use. And as it turns out, Krantz doesn't hold copyright to the photos in question, Phillip Morris does. So this is an extra-legal issue. More of an ethical one. Prince, who refused/declined to be interviewed by either the NYT or CBC, says in an email to the NYT that he “never associated advertisements with having an author.” So, unless I'm radically misreading his position, he sees Krantz's original photos as being authorless, but his photos of those photos to be authored. Hm. No wonder he doesn't want to be interviewed (it would appear that his website has been taken down, too). Is this anything other than the self-entitled snobbery of an avant-garde phony, who thinks taking photos for money isn't art, but is okay with making piles of money himself from someone else's work?

Ghomeshi also interviewed an American philosophy prof who has written about "appropriation art." She defended Prince's case, saying that his photos aren't a case of taking something that belongs to someone else and pretending they're his. He has "re-contextualized" the images, making them bigger, putting them in a gallery, etc., and that this is intended as a critique or provocation. Fair enough; there's a lot of hay to be made analysing and criticising the use of images to sell things, particularly hyper-addictive health-destroying drugs. But what is our valiant soldier for good doing with the money he's made off of the sale of these photos? Donating them to the lung association? Buying nicorette for tobacco-addicted teens?

This one's for you black-n-white copyright advocates out there: How is Richard Prince's legal, but disrespectful and highly profitable theft of Jim Krantz's photographs better or more justifiable than Wendy Cope's fans' illegal, but admiring and unprofitable sharing of Cope's author-acknowledged poems on obscure websites? Because the law appears to say it is. Could it be that the law has some arbitrariness to it? Could it be that laws are not things empowered democratic citizens should follow blindly? Personally, I think Prince should be forced to smoke a carton of Marlies in a day. That'd learn him good. Call it cowboy justice.

Shmoliday Update

I pulled a muscle in my left leg when I was parking my motorcycle (my foot slipped on wet concrete) the other day and I'm not walking so well. And since my job involves a lot of walking, I thought it smarter to stay home than work. So I'm not going to Winnipeg after all. Humbug.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nothin but a Danahay between 'em

Ah, the Academy! May it ever be home to bald, shameless logrolling!


I got called to work a trip to Winnipeg tomorrow, getting back on Xmas Day, so things'll be quiet around here till after Boxing Day. Go spend some time with your family or something. Humbug.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

George Johnston on Writer's Almanac

I've been getting quite a few hits over the last few days from people in the States doing google searches for George Johnston. Turns out that Garrison Keillor has been broadcasting Johnston poems on "The Writer's Almanac." Here's Johnston's "Us Together." And here is his "Farewell to Teaching." There will be a third Johnston poem broadcast on the 24th, I'm told.

Related: my post on The Essential George Johnston, including me reading his poem "Veterans." (And for you copyright watchdogs out there, I got permission for this one.)

Also, a review of TEGJ in the Toronto Star by Barbara Carey.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Copyright, Copywrong

Regular readers of CLM know that I often post recordings I've made of other people's poems on What you might not be aware of--but I am--is that this is not legal in the case of poems protected by copyright.

The question is: Is what I do a victimless crime, or is someone losing something as the result of my actions? Not being a malicious fella by nature--honestly, I'm not!--I firmly believe the former to be true. If anything, my recordings, from which I derive no monetary gain whatsoever, might be helping poets' work to reach a broader audience--at no cost to the poets. I also often read other people's poems at live readings and sometimes *gasp* I photocopy a poem to share with others in a poetry discussion group held in a private home.

Some people feel very strongly that copyright should be respected to the nth degree, that a violation is a violation and there are no shades of grey. Fair enough; the law supports them in this belief (except insofar as a judge would probably be a little miffed if asked to adjudicate a case of harmless poem-sharing). But the thing is, copyright law exists, in theory, to protect authors from having their work stolen. A theft involves loss to one person and gain to another, so if there's no loss and no gain, then where is the theft? Posting a recording of a single poem is hardly the same as, say, uploading scans of an entire book.

British versifier Wendy Cope is cheesed because she thinks people sharing her poems with each other over email and other online media is costing her money. Oliver Burkeman thinks she's wrong. So do I. However, I respect her right to be an idiot and the law is technically on her side, so I won't ever post a recording or transcription of a Wendy Cope poem on this blog or anywhere else.

I can, however, point to others who have posted her poems hither and yon. Now wasn't that naughty?


Finn Harvor and I are having a conversation about this whole mandatory canlit in the schools thing over at his blog, if anyone cares to eavesdrop or contribute.

Audiopost: The Baby, by James Reaney

In my last post, I mentioned the anthology The Naked Astronaut. In it today I found "The Baby," a strange and wonderfully unsentimental poem--and how the world badly needs unsentimental baby poems!--by Canadian poet James Reaney. I've been meaning for a while to read more Reaney. Now I really mean to.

Some Thoughts on Occasional Verse

Thanks to Bookninja for the link to this story about teaching teenagers the value of writing occasional poems for strangers. I love reading about stuff like this for a number of reasons. First, it challenges the high-romantic ethos (most thoroughly embodied today by the "avant-garde") of the poet-against-the-world, in which the public is not something to be addressed, but despised and alienated. Second, it focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of craft. Third, related to the foregoing, it does not allow a young writer to follow the path of least resistance and indulge in the constructed tics and mannerisms of his or her own "voice." Fourth, occasional poetry gets a real bum rap. This is not entirely undeserved, since much of what passes for it is the worst kind of treacly doggerel you see on Hallmark cards. But it doesn't necessarily have to be.

Writing poems on demand is challenging. I've done a bit of it myself, as for the CBC Poetry Faceoff (in which case, I thought it only appropriate to take the piss out of the whole idea of writing poems for money). My friend's mom, who was a second mother to me and several of my friends when I was a teenager, once asked me to write a poem for her. I responded with this sonnet:

You rose, rosy-fingered, as Homer sang,
In the east, paused to cause lucent morning
In Orléans, where you shone on a gang
Of wayward rapscallions. Adoring
Mother, your home was another for us,
So much more than a port in the storm
For raggle-tag sailors in search of warm
Shelter. And now, listen, as a chorus
Of songbirds sings awake a shining day
And tulips turn groggy heads to the east,
One, long a stranger, rides in from away,
Astride a rumbling dark shadowy beast—
He returns to his erstwhile second home,
He returns here to bring you this poem.

This poem is occasional in more than one sense and its references aren't obvious to anyone outside of the poem's context. Dawn is my friend Jesse's mother's name; she comes from New Brunswick ("the East"); they lived in Orleans, an Ottawa suburb, where they used to welcome several of us, many of whom, like me, were far from their own families, to stay for weekends; I wrote the poem after riding my motorcycle (a Honda Shadow) to Ottawa from Montreal on a spring day after not seeing Jesse and his family for several years; Ottawa is famous for its tulips. It's not a poem I'd ever publish in a book because its intended audience is a small circle of friends and family, but I'm quite pleased with it for what it is, a lighthearted tribute. Jesse's dad, a retired Canadian Army colonel, asked me after I wrote this if I might be able to write a poem about the Canadian Army's role in the Korean War. At the time, he was working to get this more widely recognised and memorialised. I told him I'd have to do a lot of research before I could do that sort of poem any justice; nothing ever came of it.

Last year, I was approached by a co-worker at Via Rail who was organising a special train to honour the War Brides. After a couple of false starts and a bit of reading on the War Brides' website, I came up with this acrostic sonnet in couplets:


Waves washed my foreign love onto my shore
And wind blew him headlong into the war.
Red was the sky as tenements burned,
Bombs fell like rain and calendars turned,
Reducing to rubble the home that I loved.
Into this hell came the man I would love.
Dashing and doughty, he took me away—
in ruin, men trampled in clay—
Set my feet on a strange shore, a cold shore,
To rebuild a life in the holes that death tore.
Red is our hearth as our homefire burns,
Ashes and dust as the calendar turns.
Into the night I walk with my love,
‘Neath the flicker and gleam of stars above.

I accompanied the poem with this note:

When I was asked to write a poem for Via Rail’s War Brides Train, my first thought was: What’s a war bride, anyway? I’m glad now that I was asked, because what began in ignorance has ended in inspiration. I thought it would be difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem not only about an era I didn’t live through, but about women’s experience in that era. But once I started reading the stories of this eclectic—but uniformly gutsy—group of women, all my qualms rapidly evaporated. It is an honour to present this small token of my esteem for all of your lives lived.

The poem and the note were printed on a scroll, a copy of which went into each of the Brides' rooms on the train. I didn't work that particular train, so I never got to find out how the War Brides reacted to it, but a couple of the Via staff were moved to tears, so I figured it was doing what it needed to do for this occasion. Again, this is not a poem I'd ever think of publishing in a book and its style is nothing like what I'd write for my own reasons, but what Douglas Goetsch says in his essay about negative capability ("
acceptance of a task no matter what, the assumption of capability, and tremendous empathy") is, I think, very important. Too many poets make no effort to step outside of their own perspectives and values.

I've also written the odd poem for occasions when not asked to, such as this epithalamion (another sonnet; formal constraints are especially useful as a control factor when writing this kind of thing, I find) for the wedding of two very dear friends:


Love that’s as yet unrequited, thought I,
Is a fool’s reason for cohabitation,
But kept this advice—though doubtlessly wise—

Private; such counsel spells deprecation

No matter how well-intended. Omens,
Too, were not on your side. Your domicile:
An old flophouse, the roof so weak no man
Dared venture to fix it. (One sign did smile

On you: the pigeons that cooed in the rafters
Must have been doves.) That house has been levelled
Since to a vacant lot strewn with gravel,
But your love’s survived transit. Now, after

Rethinking, I’ll admit—this once—I was wrong.
I wish you a life that’s happy and long.

Like the poem for my friend's mom and unlike the War Bride poem, the references in this are specific and personal, intended for a very small audience. Again, it's not something that I'd attempt to publish in a magazine or book.

Which is not to say that occasional poetry is necessarily confined to its occasions. Poets like George Johnston and Peter Sanger--to say nothing of Yeats, Frost and Auden, to name a few famous masters--have published occasional verse that extends beyond its initial impulse. In a special issue of The New Quarterly dedicated to occasional verse, Sanger writes:

The defining crux of a poet: whether he or she can write a poem of occasion with conviction and inspiration.


Why should greeting card poets be the public’s almost sole resource?


To dismiss occasional verse is to collaborate in severing poetry from life, the life of others.

It's something of a false dichotomy to distinguish occasional verse from the rest of poetry. (Auden said something to the effect that anyone who wished to call him or herself a poet should be able to write serviceable verses, on demand, about the queen's hat, which sentiment Sanger echoes in the first quote above.) Every poem, after all, has its occasion, be it personal, familial, political.

A number of poems that I've written and published refer to specific occasions. If I don't think of them as occasional poems, per se, it's only because I didn't sit down to write them specifically for an occasion. An example is this poem, another sonnet, published in Event magazine and slated for inclusion in my next book:


Here we are on the Island’s northern tip.
A black and yellow checkered road sign stuck
in the frozen ground hard by the crumbling lip
of the cliff warns that we can take our truck
no further. As if we needed telling:
before us, the Gulf spread out, resplendent,
white and crystal blue, a blank abundant
field of floes, heaved, humped and swelling
over each slow tidal wave. The wind’s fierce,
love. This is the first you’ve seen a solid
ocean? Yes, it happens here most years.
We could step across to other islands,
no matter what the sign says. We could go
and get lost in the million acre flow.

This is a love poem for my wife, on the occasion of our first visit together to PEI, when we were just a few months into our relationship. But I don't think one needs to know that to read the poem.

Another is "Sointula Sitka," which John Mutford posted on his blog as part of my recent interview with him. This poem's occasion was our visit to Malcolm Island this spring, where Rachel and I saw and touched a 200+ foot high Sitka spruce, and it was inspired specifically by this photograph. I had the photo and poem made into a broadside and gave it to Rachel as a belated birthday gift, but I think--I hope--it resonates beyond that occasion.

Come to think of it, the kids book that Rachel and I co-wrote (forthcoming next fall), originated as an occasional poem, written to celebrate the birth of Rachel's nephew Charley. As it turned out, it wasn't finished until well after the occasion itself, but like they say, it's the thought that counts, right?

Speaking of birthdays, I was invited recently to submit a poem on the theme of turning thirty to Arc magazine for its 30th anniversary special issue. I started mucking around with something, but haven't figured it out yet. But browsing at a second-hand shop the other day, I picked up The Naked Astronaut: Poems on Birth and Birthdays; I'm hoping to find some inspiration in it. It's not long ago that I turned thirty myself, but it really wasn't particularly significant for me; increasingly, it seems to me that the only birthday of real importance is the one that gets relegated to zero by erroneously calling a child's first anniversary of life its first birthday. I appear to be in a minority in this view--which adds a bit of an extra challenge to the task.

Friday, December 14, 2007

And here I thought it was a Canadian thing...

From Stephen Fry's blog:

We must begin with a few round truths about myself: when I get into a debate I can get very, very hot under the collar, very impassioned, and I dare say, very maddening, for once the light of battle is in my eye I find it almost impossible to let go and calm down. I like to think I’m never vituperative or too ad hominem but I do know that I fall on ideas as hungry wolves fall on strayed lambs and the result isn’t always pretty. This is especially dangerous in America. I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed an statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

This kind of friendly antagonism was par for the course for me growing up, and I've had several friends over the years who are similarly inclined to shout bollocks, so I've never broken the nasty habit. The tendency to take personally statements like "your argument is garbage and makes no sense" or "your book is sloppy, derivative and dull" is one of the least attractive qualities of Canadians. I tended to assume that frank talk was valued more highly south of the border, but not so, according to Fry. Maybe I should move to England. But it's so wet. Unlike Vancouver.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hey! Writers! Leave those teachers alone!

I just got invited to support an initiative to legislate an increase in CanCon in public school English classes. This lobby is spearheaded by Jean Baird, who happens to be the spouse of George Bowering, one of our foremost literary nationalists (in spite of the fact that his influences are almost all American). Baird has received funding from the Canada Council to research the state of Canadian literature in our classrooms. Here, in full, is her appeal:


Reply requested by December 21, 2007

Over the past few years several national research studies have documented the lack of attention paid to Canadian literature in Canadian schools. Currently our classrooms are dominated by some British but predominately American novels.

A report for The Writers’ Trust of Canada that was commissioned by the Canada Council made a series of recommendations about what could be done to improve the situation.[1] Through ArtStarts for Schools, a project is being developed and a group of stakeholders has been identified and has met to address these recommendations.

Part of the work has included a survey to BC teachers of English Language Arts. In that survey completed at the end of October 2007, 97.8% of responding teachers indicated that they think it is important to teach Canadian literature in secondary schools. 88.9% indicated that they think more Canadian literature needs to be taught.

Both the teachers and the stakeholders noted that a key to achieving a higher presence for CanLit in the classroom is clear direction from the provincial curriculum. Currently only Saskatchewan has a mandated CanLit course, the grade 12 course. Elsewhere in the country it is possible, and often probable, that a student can graduate having never studied a Canadian novel during high school.

The BC Ministry of Education has posted a draft of the new English Language Arts Curriculum for grades 8 to 12. We will be taking the opportunity to respond to the new curriculum and have suggested that in each year from grade 8 to 12 each student should “read, both collaboratively and independently, to comprehend a variety of literary texts, including one or more significant works of Canadian literature.” The proposed amendment allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics.

We believe the Ministry needs to know that the publishing and writing community, parents, and educators are concerned about the decline of Canadian literature in our schools. This is your chance to voice that opinion by replying with your support.

Please respond indicating your support by providing the information below.

Contact information:
Position (i.e., writer, publisher, educator, parent):

Please send in an email message to Jean Baird, jeanbaird@SHAW.CA

A formal response to the draft with the above recommendation will be send to the Ministry of Education and also to Premier Campbell and Shirley Bond, Minister of Education.

Jean Baird
Consultant, ArtStarts in Schools
CanLit in BC Schools Project

Hmmmm, if the teachers think it's important and that more of it should be taught, then why aren't they teaching it? Maybe they'd rather be teaching something else, but when surveyed by someone who clearly thinks it's important, they said what they thought they should say. Are they being blocked from teaching Canadian books? Apparently not. One thing's for sure, if they're forced to teach Canadian books, they'll have less freedom to form their own curricula. And it's interesting to note that Ms. Baird does not provide stats on the answer to question 19 on the survey, concerning support for a provincial policy requiring a set percentage of Canadian content. I wonder if maybe these numbers don't support her cause so well...

Teaching's like any other human activity, I figure. The more you like what you're doing, the better you're going to do it. Forcing disinclined teachers to assign books they're not passionate about can do nothing good for the teaching of literature. What matters most in English classes is not what content is taught, but how it's conveyed. Our education system is plagued with bureaucratic imperatives to standardize. What is needed isn't more standards, but the encouragement of teachers with ability to follow their own eccentric courses.

I took two Ontario Academic Credit (grade 13) level English classes in high school. The highlights of those classes were Shakespeare, Coleridge, Mishima, Dostoevsky, DH Lawrence (poetry, not fiction) and Conrad (I read Heart of Darkness so many times that if you quoted me a passage from it, I could tell you what page of the Norton Critical Edition it was on). We did some Canadian books (a couple by Laurence and Marie-Claire Blais' Mad Shadows in translation) and I enjoyed that, especially Blais, but had my fantastic--and more than a little crazy--teacher been forced to teach a majority or any other set percentage of Canadian content, I can't see how my experience wouldn't have been impoverished.

Prior to that, in grade 11, we got a steady diet of Greek and Latin classics: Homer, Lucius Apuleius' Golden Ass (which probably wouldn't get taught in most schools because of how outraged idiotic parents would get about their kids reading a book that has bestiality in it), Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus. For a kid one year removed from the PEI public school system (I can't remember a single book I read for school in grade 9), this was a cornucopia.

John Oliver, the founder of the facebook group formed to aid this campaign, has started a thread for people to share their school experiences of Canlit. Here's his contribution:

I went to high school in the 1970s when CanLit was first introduced in the education system in a big way. I can't imagine what my life would be like without that early discovery that introduced me to the ways of the entire country through essays, poetry, plays, novels, and philosophy, and brought sense to my national, regional, and local identity....
Boy, that sure is inspiring, ain't it? "The ways of the entire country"? "Brought sense to my ... identity"? How about brilliant thought, exceptional language, memorable characters? He's talking about literature as tho it were an extension of "social studies," but people don't voluntarily read books of fiction or verse or drama to learn lessons or to see their own point of view and experience reflected back at them. People read books to be moved by strong feelings and new thoughts, to delight in language that lifts off the page, to laugh and cry, to be entertained. Note that Oliver says nothing about what books he actually read--probably because he doesn't remember. If he can't imagine what his life would be like without "that early discovery," it's probably because he doesn't much understand what his life is like now, at least not to judge by the staggering number of cliches in such a short paragraph. Perhaps he should read a bit of Rilke or Nietzsche...

Increasingly, there is no such thing as a Canadian identity. Increasingly, the students in our schools are from other places. Hey, maybe the books we teach should reflect that. And no, this doesn't mean assigning M.G. Vassanji, who would no doubt be a big feature of a compulsory Cancon curriculum. Because, you know, his themes are important. Yawn.

I'm not against teaching Canadian books in school. I'm against making it mandatory. I read mostly non-Canadian books in school, went on to read a lot more non-Canadian books in university, and look at me now. Not only have I published a highly regional book about a part of the country most chest-thumping patriots have never even fucking seen, but I write extensively about Canadian poetry and have a book of essays on same in the works. Let teachers teach, let kids find their own way.

LATE-BREAKING NEWSFLASH: John Oliver has just posted a link to a news story that establishes irrefutably the necessity of mandating the teaching of Canadian literature in high schools. Had I realized that not doing this would lead to the Death of Canadian Literature, I'd've never voiced opposition. How could I have been so blind?

UPDATE ON LATE-BREAKING NEWSFLASH: Apparently, I was indeed blind. I checked the date on that story and it's five and a half years old. And yet, there's still a very active writing and publishing sector in Canada. How about that?

UPDATE: For those of you who don't have access to the Facebook group, BC teacher Terry Taylor has posted a very well-considered argument--and moreover, an argument based on her experience as a teacher in the public school system--for not adopting a mandatory Canlit policy. Here it is in full:

It is an interesting debate we have going on here, lads... and what appears clear is that we all are on the same team - valuing Canadian writers and wanting to see their work also valued by the next generations of young people. Where we differ is in how we envision getting there. I believe that teachers do play a vital role in ensuring that Canadian writers are read. Of course, I support Canadian literature in BC schools! The question then, is how is this goal best realized?

My perspective is that prescribing an amount of Canadian content in the new BC ELA curriculum, though honourably intended, in practice may not meet the desired goal.

In addition, I question a number of the statements made in the article. I am not convinced that there is a “decline of Canadian literature in our schools”. What was the baseline for this statement and what schools or classrooms were measured to come up with this conclusion? A decline since when? Likewise, who says that there’s a “lack of attention paid to Canadian literature in Canadian schools [and that] currently our classrooms are dominated by some British but predominantly American novels?” Again, where was this data gathered? Are we talking about K-12 classrooms or secondary classrooms or both? Both these statements contradict my own lived experience, as well as that of my teaching colleagues. And -- I am assuming that the survey data alluded to was completed by respondents who are members of the secondary English Language Arts PSA. While many teachers of secondary school English are members of this group and apparently some completed the survey, many other teachers are not. And – so what? If all those folks believe that Canadian lit is so important, then perhaps they are all teaching it in their classrooms… Kind of a fallacious non-sequitur, though. Finally, the article makes the point that only Saskatchewan has entrenched Canadian Literature into its schools by having a CanLit course. Hmmm… I am not certain whether this serves Canadian Literature best, to be in a separate elective course, not a part of all children’s educational experiences… And, of note, BC now boasts an excellent new English 12 First Peoples course, which focuses on aboriginal literature and story. First Peoples 12 can either be taken as an elective course or count as an English Language Arts course for graduation. By far, most of its content is Canadian – as in - the first Canadians!

Perhaps I have misunderstood the essence of the proposed amendment but as I read that it, "allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics." I read this as a list of Canadian literature that could be studied, but also as a list of what ought to be covered each year in each classroom. Not to do so, then would mean that a teacher was not doing their job and not completing the learning outcomes of the curriculum. The concept is not a bad one, but is it always one that can be followed in every BC classroom and by every BC secondary teacher? And can it be done with passion?

It is my experience over the past quarter century of teaching secondary English, that every group of children is different. Each classroom has a range of learners with unique and idiosyncratic needs and interests. Already it is incumbent upon teachers to ensure that the literary experiences we offer students span a spectrum of diversity -- that we represent diverse voice by including aboriginal writers, that we ensure gender balance, be thoughtful about multicultural and global perspectives, and of course, that the literature we choose, represents the best of new and proven Canadian and world literature.

These are a lot of factors to consider: Who are the kids in this class? What are their needs/reading levels/interests/passions?
How do we ensure that the literature we choose demonstrates a diverse range of writing voice and experiences? In addition to teaching literature, how do we make sure that we also teach students skills in reading and responding to informational text, that their oral language experiences are rich and evocative, that they learn to write and respond in a wide range of genres and for a wide variety of purposes? That they learn to present information and represent their learning in a broad range of ways?

Personally, I believe it is preferable to allow teachers the freedom to choose literature that works best for their context and with their students.

It bores me to tears to teach the same novel over and over again, or to use the same poems or plays the same way. I am kept alive by reading and reading more inspiring text, with an eye always, to what may captivate my students. And, it is crucial to have the flexibility to tailor the literary experiences to who the learners are in my classroom, and to my school and community context.

Sometimes the amount of Canadian content in my English class is 90% of what we read, listen to and see. Sometimes, it is 10 or 20%. I love the podcasts and found them a terrific vehicle to hear Canadian writers, both amateur and professional, as we studied the art of writing the personal essay this fall. The podcasts allowed my students with special needs to have both an audio and written version of the text. And all my students benefited from seeing so many Canadian examples, a large range of how to write short personal essays, and succinct models of how to take a stand or espouse a passion or belief. We counterpointed the CBC podcasts with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" address. But next year, my learners will be different and I will have to consider their unique attributes and intelligences and alter my teaching and the literary models accordingly.

This year, with the group of students in my senior English class, it is the perfect year to teach Anosh Ironi’s Song of Kahushna as one of the novel choices in my online Literature Circle. They all loved The Kiterunner, by Khaled Hosseini this fall, and now we are really digging into global issues and developing a consciousness for the world outside our small community and country. Yet, last year, the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon, was magical - a way to examine humour, a novel structured in a unique form, and to consider the impact of point of view. We were engaged in thinking about tolerating difference and learned more about Aspergers’ Syndrome and autism as we connected the novel to friends, family and community members who struggled with being misunderstood. This year, I have a group who will be stimulated and engaged in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, while last year, a group in my class was spellbound by Obasan by Joy Kogawa. This year, I am certain that a number of my students will be thrilled to read Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden; last year The Sweet Hereafter was a way to get an American novel, but a Canadian film into the classroom. Last year, we were blessed to host two Cannes award-winning filmmakers from the NFB and watch with them some of the best animation from Canada and from around the world; this year, our entire school – from K-12 - is engaging in a week of writers in residence. All of them Canadian, by the way…

I believe with all my heart that good teaching is good teaching. If the goal is to get more Canadian literature in the hands of BC teachers and students, then, I posit that a more powerful vehicle to make this happen is to create opportunities to showcase promising educational practices with great Canadian books.

Rather than legislating that at least one piece of Canadian lit be studied per year, why not work to create powerful and inspirational Literature Circle book lists filled with amazing and relevant Canadian titles? Why not work in concert with passionate BC educators who know kids and classrooms and then get these exciting resources in the hands of teachers? If the goal is to make Canadian literature more visible, then why not seize upon the growing practice of literature circles in BC schools as a tremendous opportunity for Canadian publishers and writers, since each classroom needs 6 copies or so of a wider range of novels than ever before, and then work with teacher librarians and the ELA PSA to integrate great Canadian books in these literary discussions. If the goal is to celebrate Canadian poets and get their work studied, then why not have poets work more closely with teachers in classrooms in using the BC Performance Standards in Writing Poems or Narratives as self and classroom assessments as students study poetry and write poetry and fiction? If the goal is to get more writers into BC schools, then why not approach school districts to spend some of their Literacy Innovation grant funding (the deadline for this year’s is January 11, 2008) working with Canadian authors and hosting school or district writers festivals or writers in residency programs?

In sum, Canadian literature will have a hold in BC classrooms when BC teachers are passionate about what books will make a difference for their students and when those teachers have models of how to find good books and how to use them. Merely amending the curriculum to include Canadian lit won’t cut it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vowel Movements

Almost thirty years before the publication of Eunoia, Canadian expat poet Daryl Hine wrote a poem called "Vowel Movements" (and you thought this was Carmine Starnino's pun!), consisting of 12 12-line stanzas, each dominated by a single vowel sound, and a thirteenth stanza, taking a line from each of the previous twelve. That poem has resurfaced in Hine's new volume of Recollected Poems, now hanging by the handle "Yucatan." (I guess taste did turn away her face...) It makes for strange music and occasionally strong sense, and it's a bravura performance. Christian Bok's neurotic magnum opus, it should be noted, is composed in prose. Hine's is in metrical verse, and tho, yes, "monotony is the drawback to [his] song," it at least does not go on so long as Bok's book does--nor is it so dogmatic in its strictures.

It's funny. Hine has been vilified by Ron Silliman and others as the very worst kind of reactionary conservative "School-of-Quietude poet," yet here he is doing something--way earlier--that one typically associates with a latter-day avatar of the avant-garde. Hey, just maybe these labels are reductive, eh?

I've had a bash at reading this tongue-twisting devil. It's a very flawed reading, I'm afraid, but the best I could do with several takes and a bit of editorial cutting and splicing of tracks. You can hear it here.

Guest Appearance

Steven W. Beattie is posting lists of various people's favourite reads from 2007 over at That Shakespeherian Rag. Today, it's my list.

Soulja Boy Tell'Em CRANK THAT

My buddy Brad sent me this today. Poetry reciting at its finest. Enjoy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ethics in Book Reviewing

Thanks to Bookninja for the link to this post at Critical Mass, summarizing results of the National Book Critics' Circle survey on ethics in book reviewing.

Naturally, being a reviewer and a book reviews editor, I have my own opinions on these questions.

Here they are:

Should a book review editor assign a book to a casual acquaintance of the author -- e.g., someone the reviewer may have met at a writing conference, party or on a panel, but who is not a close friend?

This isn't usually a conflict of interest. I've reviewed books by quite a few people I've made casual contact with; some of those reviews have been glowing, others much less so. It depends largely on the reviewer's level of professionalism. As an editor, I try to avoid assigning books to people acquainted with the author, but if I feel that an acquaintance is the best person for the job, then I think it's stupid to give the assignment to someone less qualified.

Should a book review editor assign a book to a friend of the author?

99% no. It is important here to distinguish between a review of a newly published book and a more scholarly or personal essay, however. Tho in most cases, the latter is probably best avoided as well.

That said, I did once write a review of a friend's book--perhaps appropriately, a collection of criticism--but only after I told the editor I couldn't do it for ethical reasons and he insisted that I was the reviewer he wanted. I made it very clear in the review that I had certain favourable biases towards the author of the book. As I said in my caveat, I was an admirer of the author's writing long before we became friends. This is often the case in the literary world, and it complicates matters somewhat.

Should a book review editor assign a book on subject A to a reviewer who has also written a book on subject A, or a subject extremely close to that?

Whenever possible, I try to assign reviews, especially of non-fiction books, to people with some expertise in the subject matter. In some cases, I've sought out reviewers whose evaluations I figured would be strongly critical; in others I've assigned reviews to people who would be more likely to be sympathetic. I'm not a believer in the "objective review" and even if such a creature could possibly exist, I don't think it'd be much to look at. Reviews should be informative and entertaining--and friction is a factor in how entertaining a review might be.

Is it right for book review editors to allow reviewers to request a particluar book, even though that practice occasionally leads to backscratching and attempted set-ups?

I don't have a problem with reviewers requesting particular books, since people tend to write best about what they want to write about. It's an editor's ultimate responsibility, however, to say yes or no to that request, using his best judgment to decide the matter.

Is it the book review editor's obligation to question a prospective reviewer about potential conflicts of interest, rather than the reviewer's to raise the subject?

If the editor has reason to suspect a potential c.o.i., she should ask about it. If the reviewer does not disclose an actual or potential c.o.i., he is behaving unethically.

Is it ethical for a reviewer to decline to review a book he has already accepted for review, on the ground that he didn't like the book and doesn't want to say negative things in print?

Absolutely not. Reviewing is journalism and choosing only to report good news is grossly irresponsible. If you don't like the job description, seek other work. Similarly, an editor shouldn't reject a commissioned review on the grounds that it is too negative. This happens all the time, however, and it's a despicable practice.

Sometimes an editor gives me a range of titles from which to choose, and I deliberately avoid books that look crappy because I don't like wasting my own time reading bad books, but if I've agreed to review a book sight-unseen, then I believe I'm bound to honour the commitment.

It's interesting that, as per the NBCC blog post, this is a question on which perceptions have shifted from my position towards favouring it more. There is a lot of hostility out there towards the practice of "negative reviewing" or, more pejoratively, "snark". I wonder if the anti-snark lobby has had an influence on this shift.

Should anyone mentioned in the acknowledgments of a book be barred from reviewing it?

Yup. If the person's acknowledged, presumably they had a hand in helping the writing process somehow. As a friend and collaborator of the author, they can't be expected to have a reasonable degree of detachment.

Should authors who publish with a particular house be permitted to review other books published by that house?

While as a reviewer I feel perfectly capable of doing this responsibly and have no particular feelings of loyalty towards my publisher, the appearance of a c.o.i. is no different from an actual c.o.i, so as an editor I see this as ethically dubious.

Should a writer be allowed to review the book of someone who shares the same literary agent?

I'd never thought of this one before, but I guess not, for the same reasons as writers sharing a publisher.

Should a person who has written an unpaid blurb for a book be allowed to write a fuller review of the book?

Absolutely not. Even if it's unpaid, this is work that a writer has done on behalf of the publisher. If you want to be able to review the book, you shouldn't blurb it.

Should an editor ever assign a book to a reviewer who is known to hold aesthetic, political or literary views contrary to those of the author?

Yep. As I say above, it can make for very interesting reading.

Should an editor ever assign a book to a reviewer who is known to hold aesthetic, political or literary views similar to the author's?

Yep. Again, this can be interesting, tho the friction factor's likely to be lower. That said, subtle differences in similar viewpoints can often be grounds for serious disagreement.

Is it ever ethical to review a book without reading the entire book?

Only if you make it clear you've not read the whole thing and have a good reason for it.

Should literary blogs adhere to the same rules of ethics, whatever the consensus may turn out to be on them, as newspaper book-review sections?

Depends on the sort of blog you're talking about and whether there's any money involved. I don't write formal reviews for this space because no one pays me to do it. But I do mention a lot of books, some of which I have blatant biases for or against and would never review for pay. But a site like Bookninja, which has paid advertisements, pays for some contributions and is more of a magazine format, should be bound by the same ethical considerations as print review fora. Ditto for a site like, in which an editor assigns books to reviewers.

Should literary journals, serious popular magazines (e.g., The Atlantic), and so-called opinion magazines (e.g., The Nation) adhere to the same rules of ethics, whatever the consensus may turn out to be on them, as newspaper book-review sections?

Don't see why not. The most explicitly scrupulous publication I write for is Quill & Quire, which is a trade magazine. In my experience, they set a standard that any other review forum would do well to follow.

Should a literary blogger review the book of another literary blogger to whose blog she or he links?

Again, this depends on the nature of the blog.

Should freelance book critics request only those books from publishers that they're likely to review or judge for an award, or is it okay for freelancers to request a much larger number of books?

As many respondents to the survey have noted, this is an oddly phrased question. Personally, I tend to request only titles I intend to review or have reviewed by someone else. I have occasionally not followed thru on this intent for one reason or another, and this is bound to happen. I don't think anyone should request a book just because they want to read it, with no intention of reviewing it. That strikes me as dishonest. If you want to read a book, go out and buy it. But if a publisher sends you an unsolicited copy, you're under no obligation. When a publisher or author approaches me about sending me a review copy, I make it clear that they're free to send it, but that I can make no promises about it getting a review. As long as everyone understands the conditions of the transaction, there's no ethical problem.

If you think it's okay for freelancers to request more books than they can review or judge, is it okay for them to sell whichever ones they don't want to keep?

You shouldn't sell a book you've requested and not reviewed; not only does the publisher lose money in such a transaction, but you have now profited materially. Dirty pool. It's okay, however, to sell books you either didn't ask for or have already reviewed.

Is it okay to assign a book by author A to reviewer B, when author A has served as a major source for B in a book that B has already published?

I'd say generally not okay.

Is it okay for a book review editor, in deciding which books to review, to favor books by writers who also review regularly for that book section?

The key word here is "favor". If there's a marked bias towards reviewers for the magazine/paper getting their books reviewed, there's a problem. But I don't think it's fair to disqualify a freelancer's book for review simply because they've written for me. I try to find good writers and interesting thinkers to write reviews for me--and good writers and interesting thinkers are likely to produce books worthy of notice. But at CNQ we have an official policy against reviewing books by members of the editorial team and books published by Biblioasis.

Should a reviewer read other reviews of a book before reviewing it?

Absolutely, if they exist. I'm surprised that more people answered No than Yes to this. Reviews are part of the conversation about a book and a review that acknowledges other reviews is more likely to be part of the conversation than a monologue. If being unduly influenced is the concern, then the reviewer should probably be doing something other than reviewing books.

Is it okay for a reviewer to regularly review books from the same one (or two) favorite publishing houses?

I don't see this as a problem as long as there's no ulterior motive or under-the-table arrangement for doing so.

Is it okay for a reviewer to repeatedly review books by the same author over years and even decades?

Generally, yes. The more of an author's background a reviewer knows, the more textured the review is apt to be. That said, I tend to steer clear of books by authors I've reviewed negatively in the past, if only because of the perception that I might be "gunning" for said author. Also because, as I say above, I don't like wasting my time with bad books.

Should a reviewer sometimes be allowed to crib from his or her past reviews in writing about an author years later?

I don't see this as a problem unless it's blatant self-plagiarism with no new material.

Is it ever acceptable for a reviewer not to say what she or he really thinks about a book?

No. But there are many different ways of achieving this, some more subtle than others.

Is it okay for a book review section to both feature an author through a podcast meant to promote traffic to that book section's site, and also review the author's book, at more or less the same time?

As long as the decision to do this hasn't compromised the ethics of reviewer selection and review acceptance. If the review is intended more as an extension of the profile than as an independent critically-minded acceptance, then it's a problem.

Given that some companies -- payperpost, blogvertise, reviewme -- pay bloggers for reviews of products and services, should any book reviews commissioned in that way be identified as arising out of commissions?

Hey, how come no one ever tries to bribe me? No fair.

Should a review of a book be linked to its Amazon page or any other site that sells the book?

I don't see this as intrinsically problematic. Part of a book review's function is commercial, in the same way that movie reviews are; they help people decide if they want to read the book. A standard way of acquiring the book is to purchase it. Pointing out where it might be purchased isn't ethically questionable, unless it affects the content of the review itself--and as far as I know, links to a retailer come with no strings attached.

Is a book review that exists exclusively as an MP3 or other-type digital audio file less objective than a traditional print review because of its delivery elements (e.g., tone of voice)?

No, that's stupid. A skilled writer has no trouble conveying tone in a review. And anyway, objectivity, as such, is not all that important.

Is it okay for a newspaper or magazine to review books by current or former staff members?

Current, definitely not. Past, depends on the time elapsed, connections of past staffer to present admin, etc.

Is it okay for a newspaper book section or magazine to ignore self-published books that are submitted, e.g., iUniverse-type books?

A valuable point is made in the comments on the NBCC blog post: self-published books are not the same as vanity titles. A professionally produced self-published title deserves a chance to be reviewed as much as a press-published title. In some cases, it deserves more of a chance.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Interview and New-to-You Poems

John Mutford has posted an interview with me and five previously unpublished poems of mine on his blog.

Studio 58's Richard III, or the School of Shouting Shakespeare

Last night's show was a bit of a mixed bag. There were some good performances, especially by Bob Frazer in the lead role, whose delivery and physical carriage were spot-on. Also strong were Gaelan Beatty as Buckingham, Meghan Kinsley as Tyrrel, Luke Camilleri as Clarence. Jessica Hill wasn't bad as Queen Elizabeth. But there were an awful lot of weak performances, too, especially David Villegas' Richmond and Georgina Beaty's Duchess of York. There was an awful lot of shouting substituted for palpable rage and a lot of the actors didn't seem to have fully digested the sense of the lines they were spewing out. To be fair, this was a student production (Frazer was the only pro actor in the show), but they're still charging admission and I've been to other student shows--with much smaller budgets and with actors who had less formal training--that were much stronger. If it hadn't been for Frazer, the show would've been a wash. Some of the scenes that didn't involve him were giggle-inducingly bad. But his performance made it worth seeing, nonetheless.

There were also some questionable directorial decisions, like a choreographed Madonnaesque dance scene and the odd anachronistic bit (e.g. Ricky Duke of York rockin' out to Skee-lo's "I wish I was a little bit taller") that seemed thrown in as sops (look, Shakespeare can be cool!). The costume (consisting of a lot of leather, mainly) and makeup (exaggeratedly stylized) also added little but distraction, giving the impression that the characters had all just escaped from a rave. The stage and set design were effectively minimalistic, but lighting could have been used to better effect, particularly, as Rachel noted, in Richard's monologues.

I wonder about the value of theatre schools. I've known quite a few good actors (I'm related to quite a few, actually), but not many of them went to theatre schools. And the shoestring budget mainstages put on by the King's University Theatre Society were consistently as good, or better, than the much more lavish, professionally directed shows put on across campus by the Dalhousie Theatre department. Maybe it's that theatre programs attract people who want to be actors, more than people who already are. Bob Frazer is a graduate of the Langara program and as I said a couple of the students did stand out, so obviously this isn't exclusively the case, but still, it's hardly a good argument for the value of the institutional study of the art.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Winter of Our Discontent

Rachel and I are off tonight to see a production of Richard III at Langara College. It's got pretty favourable reviews, so hopefully it'll be decent. I've seen a couple of film versions of it and read the play a couple of times, but I think this is the first staging of it I'll have seen. An interestingly flawed play, very much a transition from Shakespeare's slighter early work and the great plays he'd go on to write.

I've been reading Daryl Hine's Recollected Poems for review the last couple of days. I knew he was very damn good from having read a few poems here and there and his 20-sonnet sequence Arrondissements (which is reprinted in Recollected Poems), but I didn't realize just how brilliant he was. Besides the technical virtuosity I knew he possessed in spades, there's a penetrating intelligence in these poems, terrific wit and an astonishing emotional range; he's equally adept at biting satire and intimate lyric. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: it's damn near criminal that Hine was overlooked for this year's GG shortlist. I'm going to try to post some audio soon, but I have to decide which poem first. I read his poem "A Bewilderment at the Entrance of the Fat Boy into Eden" at the UNB Poetry Weekend, which you can hear here.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ode to My Socks

I was at the Salvation Army today and found a very fun-looking anthology called Clotheslines: A Collection of Poetry & Art, which features poems by mostly well-known poets, alongside images of various works of art, all clothing-themed. (Instantly made me think of Anita Lahey's fine collection of poems, Out to Dry in Cape Breton, and Anita's fascination with laundry lines.)

We've been having problems with the heat in our apartment, viz. there hasn't been enough of it. Part of the problem is that we're on the ground floor and our floor is a thin layer of laminate or tile over the concrete ceiling of the unheated parking garage. Fortunately, my mother (if you want to see pictures of me before heredity and hormones took care of my hair, click here) makes the most wonderful woolen socks, of which I have several pairs. She doesn't knit these commercially, as no one would pay what they're worth in terms of the labour that goes into them.

Flipping through Clotheslines tonight, I came across Pablo Neruda's Ode to My Socks, as translated by Robert Bly. Very appropriate poem for my present situation, and I thought I'd read it for you.


They say that Ming the quahog’s got
The secret to longevity—this is not
A poser: stay low and don’t get caught!


A friend of mine sent me a link to this story in the Star today.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people I meet who say with pride that they've never collected unemployment--yes, unemployment, not EI-- benefits. If you've never had to, bully for you, but there's this common misconception that UI is like welfare. It's not. It's insurance. Everyone who works for someone else pays for it, whereas most recipients of welfare are on welfare precisely because they're unable to pay for things. And as this article makes clear, it's not individual citizens abusing the system, it's the government. Max benefits have gone up by $10/week in ten years! That's fucking criminal.

I've collected UI every year since 2003. I just opened a new claim, upon the expiry of my old one, the other day, in fact. And this winter, I'll also be taking advantage of a program my employers have, topping up my benefits to 80% of my weekly wage for up to ten weeks. I don't feel a single pang or twinge about this. It's my right--and it's every citizen's duty, as far as I'm concerned, to collect UI whenever they're eligible. If not, that money's just going into someone else's pocket, Jack.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Rumour has it the new issue of CNQ is on its way to a newsstand (or mailbox--have you subscribed yet?) near you. I can't wait to get my copy. There are some truly top-notch pieces of criticism in my section of the mag, if I do say so myself, including James Pollock on Dennis Lee and Mark Callanan on Mary Dalton. Much else besides.