Monday, March 31, 2008

Reviews Online

My reviews of Randall Maggs' Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems and Tim Lilburn's Orphic Politics are now online at Quill & Quire.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Anonymous praise for Hannus

This lovely little blurb appeared on the Pedlar Press Facebook page:

From Another Pedlar Author
"About HANNUS by Rachel Lebowitz"

Been rereading Hannus for the past 2 days on the subway on the way to work (working at Penguin at Yonge and Eglinton. . .) I think Rachel L. is such a beautiful writer. Music, really. No point turning on the radio when you got words like that coming out of a book.

Zuppa Circus

Rachel and I braved the hail and sleet last night to see the closing night of Zuppa Circus' show Penny Dreadful. Zuppa Circus is an ensemble theatre company from Halifax. Three of its members--Alex McLean (director of this show), Sue Leblanc and Ben Stone--are people I knew slightly when I was in university. Alex has also done quite a bit of work with my cousins Ker and Jane in their Number Eleven Theatre. The ethos of this type of theatre is collaborative and interdisciplinary, building plays together (and adapting them as players come and go from the company) and incorporating elements of dance and music into the drama; it favours an intimate relationship with the audience over the fourth-wall separation of the proscenium stage. It's a kind of avant-garde theatre thoroughly steeped in tradition.

Penny Dreadful is described thus in the publicity:

1863. Mice are gathering under the floorboards on a wealthy Halifax estate. In the servants’ quarters, Charlie is setting traps while Adelaide, the drunken scullery maid, has delusions of sainthood. The two servants become the fascination of their employer’s wayward son, home with stories of travels in strange lands. A love triangle develops, driven by greed, temper and a perverse sense of destiny, culminating in a violent murder and public hanging.

Minimally staged, with an intimate audience/performer relationship and a live musical score, Penny Dreadful is a tale of revelation and love in the age of syphilis.

The show was fabulously riveting. Tight script and pitch perfect performances of vividly realized characters. It wasn't as audacious as some Number Eleven shows I've seen (particularly Icaria, much of which is performed on stilts), but it wasn't the sort of script that called for that sort of audacity. Spare and fraught with emotional tensions, the four-person cast and the minimalist set were just right. If Zuppa Circus comes to your town, do yourself a big favour and get out to see them. If they're not coming to your town, invite them!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Jailbreaks Update

The proofs have been finalized and shipped to the printers and now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a cover design for my sonnet anthology, Jailbreaks. I think it's very handsome. If you'd like to buy a copy--as I'd like you to--there are links on the right to various online retailers. Ordering it from your local is of course always a noble thing to do.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Suzanne Buffam

Just read this interview with Suzanne Buffam, in which she is, as always, charming, wry and insightful. Her Past Imperfect is one of the best first books I've read and on the whole a damn fine collection. Her poem "Meanwhile" is included in Jailbreaks. A much-delayed review of PI I wrote should be appearing on the CNQ website in the hopefully not too distant future.

In the meantime, you can check out these three poems. The first one is, I think, my favourite of hers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How to Get Your Stats to Spike

I just took a look at my stats and did a double take when I saw that traffic for today was 7 or 8 times higher than it usually is and that my total for the day--before 1 pm!--had pretty well doubled the next-busiest day. A little closer look reveals the true cause of my newfound popularity. Go figure, people are more interested in naked women than poetry...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Burlap sacks of shorn wool, pungent
Cushions in the porch on which

To perch and tie a boot, until,
Unstuffed, soaked in the tub, hung up,

Carded into batts, pinched and twisted
On the bobbin to the treadle’s

Metric creaking, wound up in skeins
And clews, strung through heddles

And levered by pedals to let
Pass the shooshing shuttle through

The warp to form a weft—or purled
And knitted into patterns, into

Socks and toques and mittens, scarves
And gloves and sweaters, to the metric

Clicking of the needles as my
Mother counted stitches in a row.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I'm going to Lasqueti Island for the long weekend to celebrate the death of Christ and eat a rabbit or two. TTFN.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pacific Festival of the Book, etc.

Got back today (Sunday) from my weekend in Victoria. And a fine weekend it was, if not the best weather for interurban motorbiking.

Friday night, after having a drink and a good chat with my friends Harold and Amy, recent émigrés from Montreal who generously put me up for the weekend, I footed across the bridge from Esquimalt into Victoria to see another friend Mathias Kom, whose band The Burning Hell was playing a gig at a café. I've said it before in these virtual pages and I'll say it again: I love Mathias' songs and I love the way he sings them and how the band, in its ever-shifting configurations, plays them. What I loved less was the film, Chronic, that was screened after the music stopped. Chronic is a 45 minute story of hapless potheads in Peterborough, ON, scheming to score pot, sell pot, and scam other people selling pot. There were a few bright moments, and a couple of Burning Hell songs were in the soundtrack, but not a work of cinematic brilliance.

Saturday morning, I rode back into Victoria to attend the events at the Pacific Festival of the Book. I showed up at 10:45, in what I thought was plenty of time to catch Peter Trower's reading, which I'd been told was going to be at 11. I walked in and saw Pete signing books. I said hi and asked him when he'd be reading. He said he already had, at ten. This was somewhat symptomatic of an overall problem the festival seems to have had with organization and communication. Pete's reading shouldn't have been so early on a Saturday morning; he came all the way over from North Vancouver, only to read for five people. Another problem was that it was very hard to actually find out who was reading where and when, as the website for the festival didn't have any specifics [update: I just figured out that, although the downloadable PDF "full schedule" doesn't have details, the "schedule at a glance" does list what happened when; a problem of terminology, methinks]. Hard to say how many more people might have come had it been more effectively publicised.

At any rate, there was a very professional-looking glossy printed program, which I picked up on entering, so I consulted it to see what all was going on. And I noticed that my old friend Peter Richardson was reading at 12:30 (which might have been a better time for Peter Trower's reading). Until he retired from Air Canada and I quit working for First Air, Peter R. and I were probably the only two baggage-handling versifiers in the country. I wasn't even aware that he was part of the festival, so this was a very pleasant surprise. He wasn't supposed to be originally, but when Chris Patton backed out due to other commitments, Vehicule Press sent Peter in Chris's stead. I love Peter's work, so full of verbal brio and playful wit, and I picked up a copy of his third collection, Sympathy for the Couriers, which I'm really looking forward to spending some time with. Unfortunately, Peter was reading with two much less skilled poets, all three crammed into a half-hour (from introductory bio notes to get-the-hell-out-so-the-next-event-can-start. Another example of slipshod organization.

I also spent some time in the festival's exhibition hall, browsing the tables. I picked up what looks to be a very interesting issue of The Pacific Rim Review of Books, featuring an interview with, and review of, Robert Bringhurst, as well as a review of John Newlove's A Long Continual Argument, and much else besides. I bumped into John Barton at The Malahat Review table and we had a good chat about the perfidy of publishers and other writerly complaints.

At 1, I went to what was supposed to be a talk by Robert Bringhurst on "The Art of the Book." Robert started off saying that he was told he'd be doing a reading, not a lecture (yet another gaffe), and apologised to anyone who had come hoping to hear a lecture. He did present a beautiful handmade edition of a polyphonic poem for three voices he'd written. It's hard to describe the thing, but basically it consists of four books, one for each voice and one containing notes and other para-textual things. The individual books fold out from the centre, so that each speaker might stand around the book reading his or her part; the individual books can also be detached, for greater ease of performance. Really neat piece of work. At any rate, after the show and tell, Robert read some excerpts from his two recent prose works (which regular CLM readers know I can't recommend highly enough) as well as a good clutch of unpublished poems, which were very fine.

After Bringhurst's lecture/reading, PK Page was supposed to read in the same room. But a festival volunteer made the sad announcement that Ms. Page was ill and unable to attend. I wasn't the only one disappointed by this news; I only hope that the illness isn't serious. Page is around 92 now, so any talk of sickness can be scary stuff. The volunteer said that if there were any other poets in the room who'd like to read, the room was free for half an hour. I figured what the hell and volunteered. So did Peter Richardson. Only five of the dozens who'd come to hear Page read stayed, so it was an intimate little event, but the audience made up for its smallness in attentiveness, and I actually peddled a copy of Unsettled. This sort of thing is why I almost always have a copy or two on me.

After saying goodbye to Peter, I got back on the bike and headed down to Frog Hollow Press to pay Caryl Peters a visit. I was almost out of copies of Achromatope, so I figured I'd take advantage of being in Victoria to pick up a fresh supply. Caryl told me that it hasn't been selling all that well, even if better than some of the broadsides she's done. She's talking about getting out of doing broadsides altogether, because there's so little apparent interest in them. The problem is, I think, that the authors aren't doing their bit to move them. It's hard to persuade someone to order a collectible piece of literary art sight-unseen. You've got to show it to people, live, in order for those people to realize it's something they might want to own. Anyway, I picked up 25 copies, and I know that, given enough readings, I'll move them all and order more. The relationship between a writer and a specialty private press like Frog Hollow really has to be a collaborative one. You can't just let them print your work and then do nothing to help the work find an audience. And why Frog Hollow wasn't invited to the PFB, I can't imagine, but given the other oversights and errors, I'm not surprised.

From Caryl's, I headed back to Esquimalt, where I had a beer with Harold before heading back over to Victoria to meet up with Steven Price, his brother Kevin and Steve's partner Esi Edugyan. After a glass of wine, we went out for a delicious sushi meal, after which, I went back to Steve and Esi's and we carried on our dinnertime conversations. Over the course of several meetings during the last year or so, I've really come to like Steve. He and I have very similar literary predilections and he's just a lovely guy, a true gentleman. Esi I hadn't met before, as she'd been out of the country on a residency, so I was glad to find out she's a perfect match for Steve. The talk was so engrossing, I quite unintentionally stayed till 1:30. It's a shame we don't live in the same city.

Too early Sunday morning, I was up and getting ready to go. I bade Harold farewell and good luck (he's doing edits to the manuscript of his forthcoming short story collection) and headed out to the suburb of Langford to meet up with a good old high school friend and his family. After brunch and a walk along the creek with Mike, his wife Natalie and their charming 16 month old daughter Anna, I motored back to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. A tad too cold for pleasurable riding, but at least not raining, as it was when I left Vancouver. Very fine regardless to get out and see so many good people and good writers. Probably enough social life to do me for a few weeks.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

David Prashker's Career-Limiting Move

Just read this story about the Director of a private Jewish school in Toronto, who's in trouble deep for posting poetry with violent and sexual imagery on his personal website. First off, the poetry, or at least the excerpts reprinted in The Star, is terrible. Second, Prashker's a goddamn idiot for posting it a quick Google search away.

But... what if it had just been printed in a book? Maybe it would never have been discovered and circulated. Maybe if it had, there wouldn't be such outrage about it. A lot of the commentary seems to imply that it's the fact that it was on the internet that's so reprehensible.

As stupid a hack as Prashker probably is, there's something terribly wrong if he gets fired for this, because the writings are not his opinions. They're poems, and they're made of metaphor, however ineptly. The fact that they don't hit the right-hand margin is a great big signal that they are artificial. And they have nothing to do with his ability to supervise the education of young children. I don't know if Prashker has kids, but if the content of the poems means he shouldn't be in charge of children, then any kids of his own should be made wards of the state. Where do you draw the line? As Stacy May at Shameless Magazine says

This kind of thinking really opens the door for discrimination - If a man who writes and publishes “sexy poetry” in his other life is not allowed to work with children, what next? Imagine what kind of limitations we’d be able to impose. Parents are arguing that full access to his writings on the internet suggests an error in judgment on his part, but where is the problem in adults accessing his site? The man is a published poet who writes for an adult audience - students that he works with certainly do not have the same kind of access if their parents are monitoring their internet use. I think the real question is, why are we all so damn afraid of sex?
Some of the discussion at Bookninja has leaned in this direction, such as Rob Wiersema saying what if Prashker's site

rather than highlighting the poetry, instead focussed on (and I’m making this up, now) an interest in alternative sexualities, say S&M? What if it included photos of the principal in a ball-gag, with a pony-tail, being ridden by a dominatrix?
Again, the MAN IS NOT IN THE POEMS in any way like he would be in those hypothetical photographs. There's absolutely no comparison.

Let's say I'm a school teacher or principal and word gets out about these lines in a poem I published in a chapbook:

D'you think the girls hated him? Not a chance.

They lined up at his step to drop their pants
And roll over. I swear, the motherfucker
Musta had two cocks the way they'd carry on,

Those bitches, like jackals on carrion
Fighting and biting for a quick fuck or
Suck on that bugger. No doubt the bastard

Was some kind of Don Juan, a true master
Of the boudoir when he was through being

But, but, I'd protest, that's not me speaking, it's a lobster! A likely defense, Mr. Wells, you sick sonuvabitch.

Now, I've gone into high school classes as a guest speaker and intentionally read only poems with less salacious content and less salty diction, particularly to younger grades. That's only proper, and I didn't feel censored by it. Had Prashker posted his poems on his office door or read them to an English class in the school he ran, he should face some kind of discipline, for sure. But as teacher and poet Chris Banks and others say in the discussion of this article at Bookninja, there are way better reasons to fire teachers, most of whom will never ever get fired because they embody Woody Allen's maxim that 80% of success is showing up. Go to work, read from a textbook, assign things from the exercise book, grade leniently, never challenge students, retire after 30 years and collect the pension, never breaking the rules, much less a sweat. It's harder to get away with that in a private school, where parents expect more from teachers and administration, and given that this school hired Prashker away from another private school in England, it seems likely to me he's quite good at his job. Prashker's poems might be shit, but they've got enough spunk behind them that I can believe he at least gives a shit. Wouldn't bother me a bit if he was in charge of my kid.

Pacific Festival of the Book

I'm off to Victoria tomorrow, to see some friends (including Mathias Kom and his band, who are playing a gig tomorrow night) and attend readings by Peter Trower, PK Page and Robert Bringhurst at the Pacific Festival of the Book on Saturday. I'm not taking my computer with me, so I'll report back on the readings etc. on Sunday or Monday.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"There's no point unless you're trying to do something interesting."

A very interesting discussion with Paul Muldoon. Muldoon's someone I've had trouble getting into, but there's no doubt that he's one of the smartest dudes in contemporary poetry and one of its most ingenious makers. Think I might dig into his Oxford lectures now.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Rita Wong Forage Launch: an Evening of Good Intentions and Bad Verse

It was a full house at Café Rhizome last night for the launch of Rita Wong's Dorothy Livesay Award-nominated collection Forage. She started out reading a piece called Powell St., requested by Liz Bachinsky (who lives on Powell). Good piece for a reading, driven by the anaphoric repetition of "pride." There were good things in terms of wordplay and soundplay in many of the poems, but pretty much all of the work she read was undercut by a streak of naive, yet heavy-handed didacticism. Wong is a political activist and that aspect of her life doesn't so much inform her writing as overwhelm it. Not that I don't sympathise with the causes she was espousing last night--albeit with less enthusiasm or optimism--, just that I don't see the point of using poetry--rather, attempting to use it--to promulgate a definitive political stance, if only because the only people likely to read it are those who already agree with you and who are by and large already pretty well-informed about the issues.

Information and ideology don't fit well in poems and putting them there certainly limits the exposure they'll get; neither poetry nor ideology is good for the other. Putting the stance front and centre in the poems, wearing it like a badge, therefore becomes little better than an act of self-affirmation and a demonstration of solidarity with comrades.

An interesting thing Wong said was that, as a life-long city dweller, she didn't really know much about "nature." Well, if you're going to write poems about ecology, you should really make it your business to learn about nature in something other than an abstract, theoretical manner. Like the proto-ecologist John Clare, who does far more to win the sympathy of an indifferent reader with a few lines of exact, immediate description in a poem like "The Nightingale's Nest" than could ever be accomplished with whole books of politically correct attitudinizing. This is a political poem because it asserts, urgently but obliquely, that the life of this bird is a sacred thing and that violating it needlessly and heedlessly would be shameful. This is how poetry can be, in Auden's phrase, "a way of happening, a mouth," and not just empty hectoring.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I love my home province

Big contraband bust on P.E.I.!!!!

BC Book Prizes

The shortlists for the BC Book Prizes have been announced. Good to see Robert Bringhurst's Everywhere Being Is Dancing up for the non-fiction prize; haven't read any of the competition, but that is a brilliant book by a brilliant man. (See my review here.) We've got an in-depth review essay in the works for CNQ, by Christopher Patton, who, as it happens, is up for the Livesay poetry prize for his very fine first collection, Ox. Also up for poetry is George McWhirter's The Incorrection. I haven't picked up a copy of this yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed his last collection, The Book of Contradictions.

A notable absence from the poetry shortlist is Barbara Nickel's Domain, one of my favourite new collections published in the last few years. This is not only disappointing, but actually surprising, given that Domain is predominantly written in traditional forms and one of the jurors is Kate Braid, who included a sonnet of Barbara's in the anthology In Fine Form (I've included the same one in my soon-to-be-published sonnet antho) and another one of the jurors, Liz Bachinsky, writes a lot in traditional forms herself. Also, two of the shortlistees are pretty obscure (even by poetry standards!) first-time authors publishing with regional presses; doesn't mean their books aren't good, but profile so often has as much to do with shortlists as artistic merit does. And Arleen Paré's book is listed as fiction on the publisher's website. Odd.

Also good, and not at all surprising, to see Tim Bowling's The Lost Coast up for the Haig-Brown regional interest prize. This is a better category than non-fiction for it, because it's a bit weak on facts, as Terry Glavin pointed out in his Globe and Mail review of it, but it's a very compelling read.

I'm off to catch the launch of another poetry shortlistee, Rita Wong's Forage. I'll see if I can bootleg a recording of it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Back Online

We're all settled in to our new digs in East Vancouver. Only 15 km or so from the old place, but a much better situation altogether. Our moving day was an interesting contrast in generosity and pettiness. On one hand, we received much excellent help from friends and family, which made the process quite painless. On the other, our old landlord, hellbent on finding something wrong with the state we left the place in, has deducted $12.50 from our $550 damage deposit for the half hour it took him to sweep up 2 square inches of dirt in a 900 square foot apartment. He has been considerably less than friendly ever since we gave notice that we were looking for a new place to live and would be assigning the balance of our lease to other tenants. At first he tried to tell us that we couldn't do that--altho the law's quite clear that we can--and that he'd take us to arbitration if we did. I pointed out to him that he could only reject tenants of our choosing if he had reasonable grounds for doing so, and that it's the tenants, not the landlord, who would have recourse to arbitration should the landlord reject an assignment. So we had an open house, collected applications, checked references and sent him a shortlist of four excellent candidates. He went with our top pick, and decided to release us from our lease and sign a new 12 month lease with the new tenants. Which is what I'd've done right away, were I in his position and wanted to have total control over who lived in my property. Especially in the Vancouver area, with it being such an excellent market for landlords, with next to no vacancy. At any rate, instead of having tenants for a guaranteed 12 months, he now has tenants for a guaranteed 18 months. So we've done him a favour, in any rational analysis of the situation. But he was obviously still pissy about the whole situation on Saturday, saying that it was we who had "taken this to the letter of the law" so we couldn't really complain if he did so as well. In fact, I'd've been glad not to take it to the letter of the law had he been reasonable about our reasonable proposal in the first place.

I expect part of the reason he's in a snit is he's made a bad property investment and is taking out some of his frustration on us. Since we've lived in the place, there have been two major plumbing incidents in our apartment, bookending our stay there. The latest one resulted in five holes in the bedroom wall and damage to the laminate flooring in the kitchen and living room. (And laminate being what is, all interlocked and floating, damage to one section probably means tearing the whole works up.) I ran into my next-door neighbour who said that the permanent solution to these leaks will involve replumbing the whole building--both plumbers who dealt with the leaks said the same thing--which will cost each unit-owner about $30,000.00. Maybe our landlord will be putting our $12.50 towards that expense!

Anyway, we can more readily spare the hit after the news we received today: Rachel and I were both successful in our applications for Canada Council creation grants. One of the few occasions in which it's of material benefit to have two writers in one household! Good news after a tough winter. Things are generally looking up. We really like the new digs. It's a basement suite, but spacious and very well laid-out; great neighbourhood with great neighbours. It should be a good first home for our forthcoming addition.