Friday, December 13, 2013

Paris fundraising drive update

Since launching my funding campaign a week ago today, I've already raised $1549--over 70% of my funding target. As with the last time I undertook such a campaign, I am feeling the love. There are few public endeavours I've undertaken as a writer that have felt more affirmative. Unlike a grant, I'm not just getting money to produce work or to go somewhere, but I'm participating in an exchange, creating new works that wouldn't have existed without the funding drive and getting old works in front of some eyeballs. The postal receipts alone tell a tale of how many books and broadsides have gone out over the past week. Thanks so much to everyone who has contributed so far and to everyone who will in the days to come.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Further Adventures in Crowdsourced Funding

As anyone still following this sleepy blog knows, my poems are being performed operatically at the Opéra National in Paris next month. I applied to the Canada Council for a travel grant, but learned today that my application, along with composer Erik Ross's, did not meet with success. So, as I did last time something like this happened, I've decided to use Indiegogo to raise funds to cover my expenses. Lots of quid pro quo on the table. Check it out.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Baffle launched

Back from a couple of very well-attended and otherwise successful Baseline Press launches in Toronto and London. I was especially impressed by the turnout at the London event; a quite large venue space was packed to capacity. It's a city smaller than Halifax, but I couldn't imagine a similar-sized crowd turning up for an event here. So kudos to Karen Schindler and the other folks at Poetry London, who have clearly done much to cultivate a public for poetry in their city.

Pino Coluccio was on-hand at the Toronto event with his video camera and tripod. He kindly filmed and edited this little vid of my reading:


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Critic's Desk Sombrero

In many ways, book reviewing is the most thankless of literary endeavours, but Arc Poetry Magazine has long been exceptionally good to practitioners of this unpopular dark art. I learned the other day, and it has just been officially announced, that I have won Arc's Critic's Desk Prize for my long review of Bruce Taylor's No End in Strangeness. This is the fourth time I've won the CDP, but the first time I've won it for a long review. Awfully glad to win it for this piece, if only because it gives a wee bit more press for Taylor's truly stupendous book. The review, slightly expanded, is also forthcoming in Career Limiting Moves, the book, which I just finished proofreading about an hour ago. Huzza!

Poems in print

Very pleased to have two poems, "Swarm" and "Squalid," in the new issue of This magazine. Both poems have starlings in them, as it happens, but are otherwise quite different. The poems aren't up yet on the mag's website, but I am assured they are in the physical magazine, which I have yet to behold.

Upcoming Events

I have launches/readings coming up in Toronto, London and Charlottetown. Here be the details.

Toronto, Thursday November 7, 7:30 pm: Baseline Press and Frog Hollow Press launch, Black Swan Tavern, 154 Danforth Ave.

London, ON, Friday November 8, 7:00 pm: Baseline Press launch, Organic Works Bakery, 222 Wellington St.

Charlottetown, Sunday November 17, 7:00 pm: Joint launch of Baffle and Rachel Lebowitz's Cottonopolis, The Big Orange Lunchbox, 77 University Ave.

If you're handy to any of these events, I'd love to see you there.

Monday, October 28, 2013

“At least let us not be lulled into such a notion of our entire security, as not to keep watch and ward, even on our best feelings. I have seen gross intolerance shown in support of toleration; sectarian antipathy most obtrusively displayed in the promotion of an undistinguishing comprehension of sects: and acts of cruelty, (I had almost said,) of treachery, committed in furtherance of an object vitally important to the cause of humanity; and all this by men too of naturally kind dispositions and exemplary conduct.”

                  --Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

Sunday, October 20, 2013

More Boyd

The individuality of authors is no more a product of the West, the Enlightenment, or the bourgeoisie than is the individuality of apes, and has no more reason to be hushed up. As readers of others and readers of authors, we have always had an intuitive grasp of individuality that we enjoy and rely on and need to articulate more clearly as part of literary theory, and that we can now trace to the capacity ofr discriminating individuals and intentions evident in many animal species.

Brian Boyd again

Much of Theory, since Roland Barthes's 1968 announcement of the "death of the author," has sought--or professed--to downplay the individual, using the rhetorical strategy of referring not to authors but to texts, as if they were self-created or the product only of "systems of cultural production." In fact even if they have nominally challenged the idea of the "single historically defined author," most critics have continued to discuss single historically definable authors in articles and books that they would be indignant not to have attributed to their own single historically defined selves.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Explanations in terms of cultural difference tend to lack many links in their proposed causal chains. "Refletionist" explanations of art, which assume that art immediately reflects its time or place, pre-suppose either that ages have a unitary spirit or that different pursuits within a period are inevitably contesting representations of the age. Film critic David Bordwell notes that top-down explanations in terms of an era repeatedly begin from preconceived notions and are very selective in their presentation of supporting evidence, first in the historical data and then in the artistic works they choose and the details they choose from them. He also observes that scholars who commit themselves "to a search for a single overarching pattern tend not to treat historical actions as shaped by a multitude of factors." Such sweeping explanations turn people into passive conduits of the impulse of the age or participants in an unavoidable common debate, rather than treating individuals as different in susceptibility to influence, according to their capacities, positions, roles, aims, and interests.

   --Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Poems online

It's always a nice surprise to receive an acceptance for poems you forgot you sent out. Which happened to me the other day, as I got an email from the poetry editor of The Island Review, a newish and very sharp-looking online magazine, telling me that they wanted to publish two of the poems I sent them last December. (Nowhere near my personal record for elapsed time between submission and acceptance, which belongs to Elysian Fields Quarterly, who wrote me an acceptance message some three years after I sent them a clutch of baseball sonnets.) 

TIR is based in Shetland and focuses on island-based and/or -themed writing. The poems they took are from Track & Trace, so nothing new to readers of my work, but I'm guessing that readers of TIR and readers of ZW are cohorts that don't much overlap, so it's nifty that these old poems have found a new home so far from my own shores. I'm also tickled about the publication because TIR's poetry editor is the redoubtable Jen Hadfield, whose work I admire a great deal.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Get Baffled

It isn't officially out till next month, but you can pre-order a copy of my new chapbook, Baffle, from Baseline Press now. They're only making 60 copies, so if you want one, I wouldn't dilly-dally.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Jeweller's "I"

Jeffery Donaldson has done a brilliant reading of my poem "I" over at his new video blog, The Jeweller's Eye. Really worth checking out all his entries. The blog is already a master class in close reading.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Stagger your seams. Vary sizes so that
large stones appear bolder. Resort to
the cold chisel only once all other
options exhausted. Stagger. Don't squander
your shims. You'll need them. So. Good drainage
is key. Stagger your seams. No such thing as too much
backfill. Stagger your. What's buried behind
matters as much as the face. Cultivate
a rustic, rough-finished ideal. Creeping
thyme will hide your mistakes. Stagger your
seams. The wall should lean back, ever so
subtly. If so, it will hold the hill's slow
surge a spell and come to stand for itself.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review online

My review of The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry is now online at Arc's site. Check it out.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tingling with anticipation

Karen Schindler of Baseline Press tells me she's put a couple copies of my soon-to-be-officially-released chapbook, Baffle, in the mail. This is how it looks, with a letterpressed cover by London's All Sorts Press:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A super-cool thing that is happening

I often, only half-jokingly, say that I started writing poems because I'm tone-deaf and can't sing. Well, it looks like I might have unintentionally become a song-writer.

Back in December, I got an email out of the blue from a baritone singer named Phillip Addis. He had come across my poetry and wanted to have some poems set to music so that he could sing them. I was, of course, enormously flattered. Addis said that it would be several months until anything happened, as funding would have to be sorted out, etc. Since then, I wondered occasionally where things were, but I figured that the most likely outcome would be that nothing would come of it.

Shows what I know. A few weeks ago, I got an email from composer Erik Ross, saying that he'd been reading my work and was zeroing in on a shortlist of poems to score. And then he followed up a few days ago, saying that he has selected my poems "I" and "Waypoints," both of which will also be published in my forthcoming chapbook, Baffle. The score is supposed to be finished by September 1. Not sure yet what's happening with Addis' performance.

Essay online

My essay on David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is now online for your reading pleasure at The Critical Flame.

Monday, July 22, 2013


My essay in appreciation of the poetry of Patrick Warner, "Mr. In-Between," is yours for the reading in the latest issue (# 71) of Arc Poetry Magazine. I've long admired Warner's poetry and think he should be every bit as feted as Babstock, Solie and others of his generation.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


For you, I have
dug and tend

this garden,
but I am

the sort of gardener
who looks with smug

upon the heap

of weeds just pulled,
only to realise

they are
the forget-me-nots

you'd asked for.

Friday, May 24, 2013


[Several things I've read recently, and a few conversations pursuant thereto, have put me in mind of a talk I gave for a graduate seminar course in contemporary British fiction at UNB a couple of years ago. Perhaps you'll enjoy reading it, though you'll definitely get more out of it if you've read McEwan's Saturday, which was not a novel I much enjoyed, as a work of art, but is nevertheless intellectually impressive.]

Given Ian McEwan's avid interest in science and this book's particular focus on the functions and pathologies of the human brain, I thought it would be fitting to examine it through the lens of a couple of key scientific concepts.

The first of these is “patternicity,” a term coined by psychologist Michael Shermer.


Basically, this is the innate human tendency to, as Shermer puts it, “find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” According to Shermer, “our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.” We do this because it has survival value; when things are in fact connected, we gain crucial knowledge of our environment.

The downside is that our instincts for pattern-recognition often lead us to forge erroneous links between things that are best left unconnected. Shermer provides a few examples of false patterns: “UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.” He encapsulates all this with a nifty aphorism: “people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.” If the distal cause of these misconceptions is embedded in our DNA, the proximal causes, or “priming effects” in Shermer's terminology, are rooted in the specific cultural milieu of the individual.

So, if you're doing your duty as a pattern-perceiving hominid, you've likely guessed that I'm next going to talk about Henry Perowne's early-hours plane-spotting episode, which begins on page 13. Strikingly, Henry “doesn't immediately understand what he sees, though he thinks he does.” First, he mistakes the streaking flame for a meteor. Then, realizing the trajectory's all wrong, he corrects this misreading with another one: it's a comet. Then, with the help of a bit of auditory stimulus, he realizes that it is, in fact, a plane.

This bird-plane-superman process happens very rapidly; on page 14, the narrator says “Only three or four seconds have passed since he saw this fire in the sky and changed his mind about it twice.” Once he knows what it is, his imagination is “set free” and patternicity kicks into overdrive. On Page 16, Henry imagines “The fight to the death in the cockpit, a posse of brave passengers assembling before a last-hope charge against the fanatics.” Etc. He sees a pattern because it's human nature to see one. He sees the particular pattern he sees because of the priming effect of 9/11. Henry clearly isn't a marginal conspiracy theory wackjob in thinking this way, as the media, throughout the day that follows, repeatedly report things that accord more with what one expects or wants to be found, than with the actual facts of the case: fundamentalist Islamic pilots, Koran in the flight deck, etc.


Before I say anything further about how patternicity relates to Saturday, I'd like to briefly explain a related concept: Theory of Mind. This sounds pretty highfalutin, but psychologist Martin Doherty explains that it is, essentially, the practice of making “inferences about the psychological states of others.” This is something that virtually all (neurotypical) humans do as a matter of course.

In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker situates Theory of Mind within what he calls the practice of “intuitive psychology” and, like Doherty, says it's something everyone does instinctively:

We mortals can't read other people's minds directly. But we make good guesses from what they say, what we read between the lines, what they show in their face and eyes, and what best explains their behavior. It is our species' most remarkable talent.”

And it is a talent that becomes manifest in human beings, typically, by the age of four, regardless of what culture they come from, as research conducted by Doherty and others has shown.

Saturday is rife with examples of Perowne practising Theory of Mind in trying to anticipate, interpret and understand the words and deeds of other people. The two Baxter episodes are the most obvious—and the most fraught, because Baxter, whose “face is never still” (222) is far from neurotypical—but think also of the brief moment, which you can find on page 141, when Henry, stuck in traffic, looks over at a TV screen in a storefront, where he sees a close-up of Tony Blair's face and tries to determine, by reading Blair's features, if he's being honest.

Here, the narrator comments on Theory of Mind explicitly:

For all the difficulties, the instinctive countermeasures, we go on watching closely, trying to read a face, trying to measure intentions. Friend or foe? It's an ancient preoccupation. And even if, down through the generations, we are only right slightly more than half the time, it's still worth doing.”

Which is a neat recapitulation of Shermer's argument for the evolutionary benefit of patternicity.

When I started thinking about how to approach this presentation, I had the idea of using McEwan's interest in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology as a foil to Barthes' “Death of the Author.” I was motivated in part, I have to admit, by my disagreement with Barthes' thesis and my distaste for the dogmatism with which he propounds it. The reading experience has long been for me, fundamentally, a matter of communication between the person who wrote the text and the person who's reading it, an extension and refinement of the face-to-face storytelling that is such a big part of daily life.

Far from limiting the possibilities of the text, as Barthes says, this conception of writer-reader intimacy enriches it for me. If anything, Barthes' view seems to me mistily naive, a kind of nostalgia for the innocence of the child's reading experience, uncluttered by awareness of the publishing industry, book prizes, celebrity gossip, etc. It seems to me exactly the sort of theory that might be espoused by a writer who lived with his mother most of his life...

I came to see McEwan, particularly in Saturday, as an ally. The more I read about him and his book, the more I saw a rejection of critical theories such as Barthes'. Not only does McEwan favour peer-reviewed science over abstract theory and intuition, but he falls very much on the side of the things against which Barthes rails in the conclusion of “The Death of the Author”: i.e., “reason, science, law.” As opposed to the surrealism and automatic writing championed by Barthes, McEwan favours prose and plot that are the quintessence of tidy, disciplined, sequential order.

Moreover, in Henry Perowne McEwan has created a protagonist who, we learn through various profiles and interviews, lives in McEwan's house, plays McEwan's squash game and prepares the same fish stew served to Dr. Neil Kitchen in Mr. Ian McEwan's dining room. Henry also has a mother, Lily, who, like McEwan's mother, Rose, has vascular dementia. McEwan has gone so far as to say that “Henry is probably closer to me than any of my (characters).”

We sometimes catch McEwan using Henry as a mouthpiece for his creator's views. Henry, for instance, has no truck with fairy tales and magic realism. At the bottom of page 67, McEwan/Perowne opines that “the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.”

In the New Yorker profile by Daniel Zalewski, McEwan says, in what seems like a broadside against one of the other books on our reading list [Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus]: “It's enough to try and make some plausible version of what we've got, rather than have characters sprout wings and fly out the window.”

McEwan's use of free indirect discourse in the narration of Saturday further blurs the line between himself and Perowne.

So, armed with all of this good, hard evidence, it isn't so great a leap to say, if not Henry Perowne = Ian McEwan, then at least that the author is alive and well in Saturday. It's certainly a leap that John Banville was willing to make. His review of Saturday, in the New York Review of Books, is literary criticism as Patternicity and Theory of Mind par excellence. Consider some of the things Banvillle says:

Few passages catch the flavor of this extraordinary book as well as the one in which, apparently without a trace of authorial irony, Perowne is made to recall an epiphanic moment on a fishing trip when his eye lit on his beloved car”

The hard-fought match between Perowne and his American-born rival is meant, we assume, to illustrate the competitive, indeed warlike, nature of the human male, and to show us that McEwan is not entirely Mr. Nice Guy.”
This fight seems meant to be a further display of McEwan's tough-mindedness, but is merely as tedious as any other overheard squabble between youth and age.”
The awful possibility arises that Perowne's ignorance may be intended as a running gag; if so, it is the only instance of humor in the book, if humor is the word.”
Note all of the iterations of intention and meaning in these quotations. Banville—or his editor—appears to know he can't get away with saying these things with absolute certainty, but the cumulative impression is that he's pretty darn sure what's going on in McEwan's mind. Towards the end of the review he elaborates on why Saturday is a “dismayingly bad book,” which is deeply rooted in Banville's theory of McEwan's mind:
It happens occasionally that a novelist will lose his sense of artistic proportion, especially when he has done a great deal of research and preparation. I have read all those books, he thinks, I have made all these notes, so how can I possibly go wrong? Or he devises a program, a manifesto, which he believes will carry him free above the demands of mere art—no deskbound scribbler he, no dabbler in dreams, but a man of action, a match for any scientist or soldier. ”
Banville concludes by saying that Saturday's “arrogance” gives it “the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair—who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity—were to appoint a committee to produce a "novel for our time," the result would surely be something like this.”

If reading Barthes made me run to McEwan as an ally in the cause of the live author, reading Banville made me long for a bit of Barthes's scribocidal hemlock—in much the same way that Henry, when talking politics with the unflaggingly self-assured Jay Strauss, finds himself drifting towards the anti-war side of the Iraq debate, I found myself drifting towards Barthes.

It's precisely this sort of drift from fixed positions that Banville's patternicity, primed by McEwan as best-selling outspoken celebrity author, has to edit out in order to make his reading of Saturday hold up. If the presence of the author in this book is to be detected, it is not so much in isolated, offhand statements made by Perowne, as it is in the overall pattern of speculation, error, doubt, backtracking, correction and revision that is the hallmark of a devotee to reason and science.

Molly Clark Hillard's essay on Saturday, in part a response to Banville's reading, is salutary. In it, she observes that McEwan's “novel ... turns upon reading and reading again, that apparently requires re-reading to amend misprision. ... [Hillard] would remind us of our own capacity for misprision, for taking the newspaper interview for the novel, the man for his text, the narrator for the protagonist.

Hillard cites several instances of misprision in Saturday, many of which I would say are the product of patternicity, and focuses in particular on the “Dover Beach” scene as a case of multi-layered misreading. I'd like to conclude by looking at that scene as a reification of patternicity.

On page 220, the narrator says that Henry “only half remembers” the poem that Daisy is reciting. This is likely true, since—as Banville points out, missing the irony, as usual—what English schoolchild of Henry's generation can have escaped exposure to “Dover Beach” altogether? But because he is primed by the context to believe that Daisy is the author of the poem, Henry shoehorns it into his memory of reading her work, even while he recognizes that the “wilfully archaic” tone of the poem is unusual in Daisy's work.

In the first reading of the poem, Henry commits speaker-as-author fallacy, an irony apparently lost on Banville. Primed by the unexpected revelation of Daisy's pregnancy, he deduces that the poem must be about her, her lover and the child they're expecting, set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, as he accidentally substitutes “desert” for Arnold's “ignorant.” He does this even though the poem is not supposed to be a new work of Daisy's, but is included in the Van Dykes of her book and therefore almost certainly predates her pregnancy, which is only in its first trimester.

On page 221, at Baxter's insistence, Daisy “reads” the poem again and Henry realizes that he “missed first time the mention of the cliffs of England” and this time sees the poem not through the eyes of its “author” but rather through those of its auditor, Baxter. Strikingly, Henry imagines Baxter “standing alone, elbows propped against the sill” of an “open window.”

This brings us back to Perowne “standing alone” at his window, watching the flaming plane streak by. On page 126, we learn that Henry has come to regard the story of the Russian cargo plane “as his own,” much as he comes to see “Dover Beach” as, first, Daisy's story and, second, Baxter's, before he is finally disabused of these erroneous perceptions and learns that the poem is Arnold's—the “truth” of which he mangles further by wondering about Arnold's surname.

Saturday is loaded with instances of miscommunication, misunderstanding and misidentification. As Ruth Scurr puts it succinctly in her review of Saturday: “free people with choices are sure to mess up.” If the book's author intends a moral lesson, it is nothing so crude as what Banville posits, but perhaps something along the lines of: because we are human, we will err, but by revisiting our assumptions, interrogating our beliefs and rereading people, events and texts carefully, we might make fewer and less grievous mistakes. As Mark Lawson put it in a review for The Guardian:

Saturday ... is subtle enough to be taken as a warning against either intervention or against isolationism. Is the foreign policy of Henry's government exposing him to danger, or is his moneyed, bouillabaisse-eating existence a self-delusion in a threatening world? As in the best political novels, the evidence and arguments are distributed with careful ambiguity.

Pace John Banville, it's awfully hard to imagine Tony Blair's stamp of approval on a book in which he is made to look foolish – by mistaking Perowne for someone he isn't, and yet carrying on boldly as though he had the right guy all along.


Banville, John. “A Day in the Life.” New York Review of Books 52/9 (May 26, 2005). (May 26, 2007).

Barthes, Roland. Trans. Richard Howard. “The Death of the Author.”

Doherty, Martin J. Theory of Mind: How Children Understand Others' Thoughts and Feelings. New York: Psychology Press, 2009.

Fray, Peter. “The Enduring Talent of Ian McEwan.” The Age. January 29, 2005.

Hillard, Molly Clark. ““When Desert Armies Stand Ready to Fight”: Re-Reading McEwan’s Saturday and Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, (6:1), 2008 Jan, 181-206.

Lawson, Mark. “Against the Flow.” The Guardian. January 22, 2005.

McEwan, Ian. Saturday. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2006.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997.

Scurr, Ruth. “Happiness on a Knife-edge.” The Times. January 29, 2005.

Shermer, Michael. “Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise.” Scientific American. November 25, 2008.

Weich, Dave. “Ian McEwan, Reinventing Himself Still.” April 1, 2004.

Zalewski, Daniel. “The Background Hum: Ian McEwan's Art of Unease.” The New Yorker, February 23, 2009.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wall of Miracles

So here's a cool thing that happened recently. Through expat poet Suzanne Steele, I heard about a call for submissions for a project at the University of Exeter, where Suzanne is a PhD candidate. The project is called The Wall of Miracles:

A unique collection of original nature poetry printed onto handmade cards the size of luggage tags from writers around the world will be exhibited on a wall outside Reed Hall on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The Wall of Miracles poetry installation makes use of a particularly beautiful section of masonry near Reed Hall, hanging poem cards about animals and nature by string to the wall. 

The organizers of the WoM chose my poem, "Doe," which I think is pretty darn cool.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Wee update

Been a while since I posted anything, largely because my computer decided it no longer wanted to connect to the internet and I had to get a new one more willing to do my bidding.

I returned home on the 6th from the Irving Layton symposium at Ottawa U, where I gave a talk on Layton's improbable relationship with Black Mountain. I recorded said talk and will be uploading it once I get it off my defective PC and load it on to my shiny new MacBook (a purchase I could ill afford, but I just couldn't face the prospect of continuing to use the invective-inducing Beta-grade software known as Windows).

Anyway, the symposium was very stimulating. Kind of fun to take part in such a thing as a non-academic interloper, if only for the sociology of it all.

More anon.

Monday, April 29, 2013

I don't think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.

--Christian Wiman

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What are virtues in a person can be liabilities of poems. Diffidence, gentleness, satisfaction with one's self, a certain sort of immediate sympathy for the troubles of the world and of others: all these can keep a poem from rising above the merely pleasant. Frost once remarked that poetry was a way of taking life by the throat, but for so many contemporary poets it seems a way of taking life by the hand. Certain tactics become deadeningly familiar: the privileging of specific subject matter ("Relate to me," you can almost hear some poems cry); the primacy of personal experience and the assumption that language can contain it; the favorite foreign country that becomes a sort of grab bag for subject matter; the husk of anecdote cracked for its nut of knowledge; the serious intellectual and psychological issues that do a soft-focus fade-out into imagistic unknowingness; the ease, even pride, with which the poet accepts such unknowingness. much of this poetry isn't "bad," exactly; you wish it were worse, in fact, because then you could more clearly explain to yourself why a large dose of it--a batch of books to review, say, or an hour spent browsing magazines--leaves you feeling not simply numb but guilty for that numbness, as if you were the only tainted thing in a world where everything was perfectly clear, perfectly pleased with itself. Intensity is the only antidote--of language, of experience, of ambition. In the presence of that intensity, all that is merely pleasant falls away.
--Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Audio: ZW and Rachel Lebowitz in Tatamagouche

Finally got around to uploading and editing the audio from the reading Rachel and I did at Fables Club in Tatamagouche, NS, earlier this month. Not a huge crowd, but a very attentive one. Fables is such a great venue.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Christian Wiman on poets who review

I'm not at all sure what causes or enables some poets to persist. ... Less generous motives are not difficult to imagine. it's easier to make a name for oneself as a reviewer than as a poet, though anyone who would value this lesser recognition is probably not a real poet anyway. Then, too, there are always those who are keen on accumulation "power" in the poetry world, and reviewing may be just one more means of doing so. One hardly knows what to say about this. Wielding power in the poetry world is roughly the equivalent of cutting a wide swath through your local PTA.
--"A Piece of Prose," from Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On Mentors and Tormentors

Alexandra Oliver talks about her forthcoming collection, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, a book I had the pleasure and honour of editing for Biblioasis. It's a good one, kids.

"The poems in Tormentors are not all about bees or bullies, but they do deal with the way in which life torments one in small ways, in the most mundane of environments. When I wrote these poems, I was living with my family in a bedroom community reputed to be the third best place to live in Canada.
If you’re the kind of person who longs for a split-level home with a two-car garage, who likes lining up for an hour at festivals to buy ribs and listen to Guess Who cover bands, who enjoys doing boot camp fitness, playing laser tag with co-workers, campaigning for the Conservative party, or getting plastic surgery, this would definitely be your kind of town.
It wasn’t my kind of town."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Initiation Rites

I had a fabulous time last night being inducted into the University of King's College's Haliburton Society, the longest running university literary society in North America. I wasn't quite quick enough on the draw with my dictaphone, so the recording starts in the middle of Haliburton President Ariel Weiner's introductory remarks, alas.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Upcoming Doings

Just got back from a two-week jaunt in southern Portugal with my mother and my son, and I'm now looking forward to a spate of events over then next couple of weeks. If you're in the vicinity of any of these gigs, I'd love it if you dropped by:

Monday, March 25; 8:30 pm; University of King's College, Senior Common Room: I have been named this year's "Honorary Member" of UKC's venerable literary club, The Haliburton Society, and as such will be giving a reading. This is particularly cool from my p.o.v. because I attended King's way back when. Snacks and drinks, I'm told, will be provided at the post-reading reception.

Tuesday, March 26; 7:30 pm; Dalhousie University Killam Library, Special Collections Room (5th Floor): I'm reading with Rachel Lebowitz. This will be the first Halifax reading for Rachel from Cottonopolis, following a very successful mini-tour in Ontario and Montreal. I'll be reading more or less exclusively from my not-yet published chapbook, Baffle.

Thursday, April 4; 6:30 pm; The Company House, 2202 Gottingen St., Halifax: I will be hosting the launch of Rachel Lebowitz's Cottonopolis. Joining Rachel from Ottawa will be her fellow Pedlar Press author Sandra Ridley.

Friday, April 5; 7:00 pm; Fables Club, Tatamagouche, NS: Rachel and I will be reading at this fantastic venue, one of Nova Scotia's hidden gems.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Reading lessons

The notion that it was animals who taught us to read may seem counterintuitive, but listening to skilled hunters analyze tiger sign is not that different from listening to literature majors deconstruct a short story. Both are sorting through minutiae, down to the specific placement and inflection of individual elements, in order to determine motive, subtext, and narrative arc. An individual track may have its own accent or diacritical marks that distinguish the intent of a foot, or even a single step, from the others. On an active game trail, as in one of Tolstoy's novels, multiple plots and characters can overlap with daunting subtlety, pathos, or hair-raising drama. Deciphering these palimpsests can be more difficult than reading crossed letters from the Victorian era, and harder to follow than the most obscure experimental fiction. However, with practice, as Henno Martin wrote in The Sheltering Desert, "you learn to rread the writing of hoof, claw and pad. In fact before long you are reading their message almost subconsciously."
--John Vaillant, The Tiger

Review online

My review of Walid Bitar's Divide & Rule is now up at Arc's website.

Cottonopolis Tour

Rachel's book arrived from the printer the other day and, as we've come to expect from Pedlar Press, it is drop-dead gorgeous. If you'd like a signed copy, you can drop me a line. It's $20, but can also be purchased along with her first book, Hannus, for a total of $30, or with our children's book, Anything But Hank!, for $35. All prices include tax, but not S&H, if required.

Speaking of which, if you'd prefer to get a copy from her in person, Rachel will be touring Cottonopolis in Kingston, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal very soon. Details:

Monday, March 11: Kingston, The Grad Club (upstairs, 162 Barrie Street), 8 pm. Reading with Michael e. Casteels and Elizabeth Greene. 

Tuesday, March 12: Toronto, Art Bar, Q Space, (382 College St West). 8 pm. Reading with Robert Colman and Clea Roberts.

Wednesday March 13: Toronto, Pivot Reading (The Press Club
850 Dundas Street W), 8 pm. Reading with Dave Cameron and Cary Fagan.

Thursday, March 14: Ottawa, Raw Sugar Cafe (692 Somerset St W), 5:30 pm. Reading with Sandra Ridley.

Friday, March 15: Montreal, Argo Books (1915 rue Sainte-Catherine ouest) 8 pm (doors open at 7:30 pm). Reading with Stephanie Bolster and Sarah Burgoyne. 

There will also be readings and launches coming up in Halifax, Tatamagouche and Moncton. I'll post about those as the dates draw closer. I'll be sharing the stage with Rachel for some of these and also have some events of my own over the horizon. Seems the winter ice is starting to thaw.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


life's abrupt abatement
expiry robbed of its last breath

dead pledge paid dearly
negative legacy left

a loan is only heavy
when the borrow's badly spent

Friday, February 15, 2013


I returned home from an unexpected railroad trip last night and waiting in my mail pile was The Puritan Compendium I. In it are poems and fictions drawn from five years and eighteen issues of The Puritan. This includes two very weird poems of mine, "New Standards" and "Dramatic Stories." The book is beautiful, contains lots of good writing and has been printed in a ltd. edition of 100 copies, so if you'd like one, you'd best act fast. The Puritan has been very good to yours truly over the years. Besides the poems, they also published this great interview I did with Jesse Eckerlin.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Don Paterson interview

Don Paterson, besides being a brilliant poet and critic, is one of my favourite literary curmudgeons:

Unfortunately [experiment] is a word we do sometimes use in that context—as if there were any sexy virtue in experiment for its own sake, which I just don't believe. I mean—so you've done a homophonic translation of Cavafy in three-letter words and substituted every noun for one four entries along in the dictionary—big fuckin' deal. It's kid's stuff, only kids wouldn't trouble themselves with it because Minecraft is far more fun and creative. Wee word games.

Thanks to Carmine for pointing out the interview.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The terrible thing about ... any of the mechanisms and patented insights that make up so much of any style, is that they are habit-forming, something the style demands in ever-increasing quantities. We learn subtle variations or extensions we once would have thought impossible or nonexistent; but we constantly permit ourselves excesses, both in quantity and quality, that once would have appalled us. That is how styles--and more than styles--degenerate. Stylistic rectitude, like any other, is something that has to be worked at all the time, a struggle--like sleeping or eating or living--that permits only temporary victories; and nothing makes us more susceptible to a vice than the knowledge that we have already overcome it. (The fact that one once used an argument somehow seems to give one the right to ignore it.)
--Randall Jarrell

Monday, February 4, 2013

Essay in Print

I received my copy of The New Quarterly 125 today, in which you can find my essay, "A Walking Shadow." It was one of the hardest, most personal things I've ever written and while looking at it in print saddens me, I am very proud of the essay. The issue looks like it has some really fine stuff in it, including work by D.W. Wilson, a talented young fiction writer I read with last year at IFOA, and the always interesting Jeffery Donaldson.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

[Yeats] has redeemed the dullness of the 'raving autumn' passage, but it has served its turn because a poem cannot be always elevated, always sublime, it has to have flat passages. Just as acrobats will sometimes appear to make a mistake, so poets know that poems are performances which must now and then seem to put a foot wrong in order to make the words dance perfectly the next moment.
--Tom Paulin

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rachel Lebowitz, poems in print

If you're browsing the racks at your local purveyor of fine print media, you might keep an eye peeled for the latest copies of Geist and Prairie Fire. The former has three poems in it by my enormously talented wife, Rachel, and the latter has two. All five are from Rachel's manuscript Cottonopolis. Poems from the book have been getting a lot of play, including ten in a past issue of Grain, five of which were selected by Carmine Starnino for The Best Canadian Poetry 2012. Rachel has just finished proofing Cottonopolis, which will be off to the printers for a March release by Pedlar Press. This will be an event not just for this household, but it should be for anyone interested in contemporary literature.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Years earlier he had decided that too regular a beat was bad art. He had fortified himself in his opinion by thinking of the analogy of architecture, between which art and that of poetry he had discovered, to use his own words, that there existed a close and curious parallel, each art unlike some others, having to carry a rational content inside its artistic form. He knew that in architecture cunning irregularity is of enormous worth, and it is obvious that he carried on into his verse, perhaps unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle in which he had been trained – the principle of spontaneity, found in mouldings, tracery and  suchlike – resulting in the ‘unforeseen’ (as it has been called) character of his metres and stanzas, that of stress rather than of syllable, poetic texture rather than poetic veneer; the latter kind of thing, under the name of ‘constructed ornament’, being what he, in common with every Gothic student, had been taught to avoid as the plague. He shaped his poetry accordingly, introducing metrical pauses, and reversed beats; and found for his trouble that some particular line of a poem exemplifying this principle was greeted with a would-be jocular remark that such a line 'did not make for immortality'. The same critic might have gone to one of our cathedrals (to follow the analogy of architecture), and on discovering that the carved leafage of some capital or spandrel in the best period of Gothic art strayed freakishly out of its bounds over the moulding, where by rule it had no business to be, or that the enrichments of a string-course were not accurately spaced; or that there was a sudden blank in a wall where a window was expected from formal measurement, have declared with equally merry conviction, 'This does not make for immortality.'
--Thomas Hardy, Life

Monday, January 14, 2013

Forthcoming ISBNs etc.

Yes, it's been a while. I've been much occupied with matters non-literary, having co-purchased, with my wife and mother, an income property in Moncton, NB. I also picked up a surprising amount of railroad work over the xmas holidays, so it's been a busy time.

But a more literary 2013 awaits. I just sent edits of a chapbook manuscript back to Karen Schindler of Baseline Press. The chappie is titled Baffle and will be out this fall in a ltd. edition run of 60 copies. This fall will also see the publication of a rather more hefty volume: Career Limiting Moves, a collection of my essays and reviews from the past decade or so. That manuscript needs a fair bit of attention in the weeks to come, so I shan't be idle, lack of day-job notwithstanding.

Speaking of which, funding was cut for my editorial contract at Reader's Digest, which was not a great shock, given the state of the magazine industry, but still has left a sizable income hole for me to fill. I'm actively interested in picking up additional freelance editing work, so if you've got something you think I could help you with, drop a line and we can discuss rates. Once I get my desk cleared off, I plan to set up shop formally as a red pen for hire. I'll be offering such services as manuscript consultations/pre-submission edits; essay and thesis editing; consultation on grant applications; copy editing; proof reading; etc.