Friday, June 29, 2007


Before I head out on my latest railroading adventure, I'll leave you with some long weekend reading material (just in case you're not into drinking beer, watching fireworks, burning flags &c.). The new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries is out and with it a big fat update to the website, including a whole lot of web-exclusive stuff. This issue, though I've yet to receive my copy, is probably the best one under the new management. I'm very pleased with and proud of the reviews I've gathered and edited for the issue; there's some seriously heavyweight content in them, from some very thoughtful individuals. And speaking of reviews, Alex Good has given us an in-depth analysis of the state of reviewing in Canada today. And, oh yeah, a long essay by me on the career-to-date of Peter Sanger, a very underrated Nova Scotia poet and critic. Lots of other chewy stuff to be found, so if you haven't got a subscription already, sign up, sign up! In the weeks and months to come, we'll be making periodic additions to the website, so check in from time to time.


Elizabeth Bishop, Maritime Poet

A cutesie little story about a new Elizabeth Bishop historical installation in Great Village, Nova Scotia, the poet's ancestral home.

The arguments over what makes a person, especially a famous person, Canadian or not can be pretty damn tedious. Bishop's usually thought of as an American poet, with no small justice, but her exclusion from most Canadian anthologies has always struck me as perverse. One editor actually told me she didn't include Bishop in her book because Bishop "never had a Canadian passport." If anything, Bishop was a quintessentially American poet, in the broadest sense of the word "American." She had ties not only to New England and Florida, but also to Nova Scotia and to Brazil. What is beyond dispute is that some of her greatest writing is rooted very strongly in the Great Village area. And it's not tourist poetry; she knows the region intimately.

Canada being a loose assembly of regions, I can see why Bishop's been overlooked as a Canadian poet. Maybe had she been writing about the Canadian Shield or the Rockies, she'd be more accepted by our anthologists, who knows? She's certainly not the only Maritime poet to receive short shrift from the canon-builders.

Another reason might be that she's too great a poet to admit to the ranks of Canadian poets; it spoils all our self-loathing special pleading for why we've failed to produce a major poet (speaking of tedious arguments).

Whatever, if you haven't read Bishop, you're missing out. There's a whole pile of her poems online, however, so get crackin'!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Railroading, Long Weekend, etc.

Finally, I'm heading back out on the rails tomorrow, so while most of you are enjoying the long weekend, I'll be picking up some sweet stat holiday o.t.--which should compensate some for the income lost due to my recent illness. It's been almost three weeks since I was at work, which sounds nice, but is a bit worrisome to me, since this is the season in which I'm supposed to make hay. And if there ain't enough hay in the barn come summer's end, she's gonna be a lean-ass winter, buddy. Oh well, naught to be done about it now but work when I'm called on.

I don't have a layover to speak of this trip, just a few hours between my arrival in Winnipeg, at 11:20 on Sunday, and reporting for my return west at 14:30--assuming both trains are on time, which no sane man would wager. So probably no action on CLM between Friday and Tuesday. No doubt you've got something better to do than sit in front of your computer screen anyway. Enjoy the fireworks, have a beer or six, burn a flag. Hasta luego muchachos y muchachas.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

For My Daughter

In keeping with the weary cynicism of my last post, I thought I'd read for you one of my favourite poems of negativity: "For My Daughter" by the enigmatic American poet Weldon Kees. There are few closing couplets more devastating in all of sonnetry.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Une pensée


In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man better keep his mouth shut.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Bush Goblins


Okay, get your mind out of the gutter! The other day, I chanced upon this strange poem by an obscure, long-dead Australian poet named HM Green. I kinda like it. Hear me read it.


Dhafer Youssef

Seems it was "culture weekend" for this east coast hick boy. Last night, Rachel and I went with Rachel's dad Mike to see a show at the Jazz Festival. Dhafer Youssef (pictured left taking a whiff of his musky manliness), a Tunisian vocalist and oud player, was accompanied by three violinists, a bassist and a percussionist. It was a pretty cool show, although Youssef's between-numbers patter got a bit irritating. The best pieces were totally mesmerizing. Youssef has this incredible vocal range and can create quite startling effects, enhanced slightly, but effectively, by an echo mic. Really dug the percussionist, too. He sat cross-legged in front of three small drums that he played with his hands. He also did a vocal duet with Youssef in one piece, which was amazing. The vocals, near as I can tell, weren't verbal, but instrumental, but still one had the sense of an intense contrapuntal dialogue going on.

A strange thing happened towards the end of the show. After the band was called back out for an encore, Youssef was talking and a guy at the back of the room started heckling him in Arabic. He explained to the audience that the guy was telling him to "hit his oud." He continued talking and the guy heckled him again. Youssef stopped, looked out towards the back of the room and asked the guy if he paid to be here and then asked if the staff could remove him because "he is real asshole." People kind of laughed uncomfortably (Youssef's demeanor had to this point been exclusively jocular, so no one expected such a turn); then he said, "no, I'm serious, get out of here and leave more room for us. Motherfucker. You should say in English what you just said so everyone can understand. You bring shame." Then apparently the guy left (I was in the second row, so I couldn't see what was going on at the back) and they did their encore set. I overheard someone saying afterwards that the guy had said something about how Youssef should hit one of the violinists. Crazy.

Anyway, you should check out his music if you ever get the chance. Made me think of Rumi a lot, so I wasn't surprised to learn that it has roots in Sufi mysticism.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Trevor Cole, the mad genius behind the wonderful site Authors Aloud, has uploaded what he calls an "insight" into my creative process on my page there. Not terribly insightful, really, just kinda descriptive, but there it is if you care to hear it.

Took in a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery (or VAG, as the stamp on my right hand says) today: Monet to Dali. Not bad, but perhaps a bit too much history crammed in; very few artists had more than one or two pieces on display. And our 4 o'clock ticket didn't really give us time to tour the show properly before we were hustled out at 5:30. Bit of a blur. Might go again on cheap night.

In other news, still fighting this damned virus. It's turned into a diaphragm-wrenching cough that only seems to afflict me when I lie down. On that note, I'm off to bed. Hope you're having a good weekend, wherever you are.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Where Have All the Editors Gone?

Picked up Books in Canada today. In it, an essay by John Barton called "Where Have All the Poets Gone?", lamenting the small number of poetry submissions he gets at The Malahat Review. He seems dismayed and a little puzzled by the whole thing. Which makes me think of a farmer who, after years of planting potatoes in the spring and ploughing in the fall, wonders why his once-rich field now yields such a paltry crop.

As I've mentioned in other posts here, I almost never submit unsolicited work to literary journals. Why? The short answer is I can't be bothered. The reasons why I can't be bothered are manifold.

I'm an email kind of person. The only things I send by post tend to be solid objects which can't be scanned or otherwise converted into a digital file. A poem can be encoded on a digital file. Hell, a hundred poems can be. What's the Malahat's policy on electronic submissions?

Electronic Submission

The Malahat Review does not consider submissions sent by email.

Not only that but

All submissions and queries must be accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Submissions without an SASE will not be returned or responded to. Do not ask us to inform you about our decision about your work by email in lieu of enclosing an SASE. Submissions without SASEs will be kept on file for maximum of six months after we have complete [sic] our review of them. Email queries about submissions, however, are acceptable.

So, not only do I have to print out my submission and cover letter, using approximately 11 sheets of paper, but I have to buy two stamps. More likely three, as I'll probably want to use a big manila envelope, so I can stuff all those sheets of paper and my SASE into it. So now I'm out $2 in postage and materials.

And now, I wait. And wait. And wait.

Response time will vary depending on the volume of submissions received. Please allow one to three months for poetry submissions, three to nine months for fiction submissions.

One to three months ain't bad, if it's true--which it may well be, given how few submissions they're apparently getting. My experience is that it's usually longer. Sometimes over a year. But at least while you're waiting, you can send those poems somewhere else. Oh, wait:

Simultaneous Submission

The Malahat Review discourages simultaneous submissions. Our editors spend an enormous amount of time considering submissions; it is very disheartening to learn that work selected for publication has been accepted elsewhere.

Aw, I almost feel sorry for those poor disheartened editors! Imagine that! I wonder if it's as disheartening as waiting months to find out if your poems are going to get published, only to get a thin slip with a form rejection on it. Poor editors!

But just think of the cash rewards!


We purchase first world serial rights and, upon acceptance pay, $35 per published page, plus a one-year subscription. Copyright reverts to the author upon publication.

Woot! Granted, this is better than a lot of magazines, much better than the $5 I got paid for one of my first published poems, in a now-defunct magazine (at least it covered the postage), but not exactly a huge incentive for a freelancer. I usually get more than that for publishing a book review, which is a lot easier for me to write than a good poem and is almost guaranteed to be published a short time after I've submitted it.

So, if it's not the money, why should I yearn to be published in the eminently respectable Malahat?

Because it's an honour? Not really; they publish all kinds of boring stuff.
If I consistently see nothing there that much resembles the way I write, guess I shouldn't bother.

The best way to know what we're looking for is to order an issue at the address below.

Yep, don't worry about producing original art; they want house style.

Okay, but what if I'm a cynic and just want to use the magazine to put my poems in front of eyeballs? Don't kid yourself. No one reads these things. I bet few of those who subscribe read it cover to cover. Most of the subscribers are probably people who entered a contest, or who contributed to a past issue. For all your trouble, a very few people might glance at your poem once. Unless you're a "big name," in which case it's the page everyone turns to, so they can see your latest chef d'oeuvre. Sad as the statement is, the money's the best argument for submitting. Which is why I will publish poems in a journal when an editor asks me for them. And I find I tend to enjoy more the journals whose editors are pro-active in acquiring content.

Y'know, if I was an editor and I wasn't getting many high quality unsolicited submissions, I might just, oh, I don't know, SOLICIT SOME SUBMISSIONS!! If you're a poetry editor, part of the job description, it seems to me, is scouting, keeping an ear to the ground and seeking out work that will distinguish your publication from all the others. Boohoo, no one sends us stuff anymore, what are we to do? What will become of our poor little magazine? Why are my potatoes so puny and few? Oh well, guess I'll go out and get the ploughing done before winter.

And if I wanted to up my unsolicited submissions, I'd open it up to email. Yeah, you'll get a lot more crap that way, but it seems to me if you're complaining about not getting enough, you know... Anyway, it's not hard to filter and instantly reject the worst submissions.

And if I wanted to up my readership, I'd get web-savvy and build a site that complements and supplements the paper content of the magazine. Arc is, I think, the only lit journal to do a creditable job of this. Putting your table of contents on a web-page doesn't really cut it. All that is is information; a successful website combines information and entertainment.

Forgotten & Neglected (again)

A very nice, and substantial, piece in the Ottawa Citizen on the imminently- forthcoming special issue of Arc. Apparently, there are several photos in the Citizen's print issue. Someone once said that I was the Paul Potts of Canadian poetry, but it would appear that role has already been filled. Or was it "the Pol Pot of Canadian poetry"?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Landlording it

As regular CLM visitors may already have intuited, we managed to get our house leased. And to very nice-sounding young folks with stellar references. And in record time! We didn't find tenants for September last year until October (long story, many landlord lessons learned the hard way--short version: don't sign anything until you've got the deposit money in hand!). My thanks to anyone who helped spread the word and my regrets to anyone who was still hoping to rent it. Next step is figuring out where I'm going to be hangin me hat come September. But no rush on that yet.

Still under the weather, but better. A pile of freelance writing and editing work to do, so nothing much for now. Toodles.

Monday, June 18, 2007

To the Superb Lyrebird, that Cover Band of the Australian Bush

Mountebank dancer and manic mimic,
Is there a bush ruckus your syrinx can’t clone?
Bubbly corkpops and glassclinks at picnics;
Kookaburra’s cackle when its cover is blown;
Alarm panic, siren wail, chainsaw drone;
Motor drive’s whirr and black aperture’s click
As it captures your likeness; trigger-snick
And barrel blast of the shot that missed home;
Honey-eaters' chitter and moth-wings’ flutter;
Snoring koalas and colicky babies;
The lunatic howl of a dingo with rabies;
Wind-bang stutter of a torn-loose shutter;
All the ring tones of a cellular phone—
No song you can’t sing, but no song your own.


So I'm still sick. I've spent most of the last 48 hours horizontal and am just now starting to feel moderately human again. I had to venture out of the house this afternoon in order to get an insurance claim form filled in by a doctor so that I can get paid for my missed work. Doctor almost refused to see me, since I'd never been to his clinic before and he didn't know me or my history. I managed to talk him into it with the argument that I'd never been to any Vancouver doctor, and $75 later I had my illness certified. Now I've got to take the paperwork into my boss and have them certify my illness. For my trouble, I will receive 70% of my lost wages. Better than a poke in the eye, but on the whole far more irritating than the average trip on the rails. Missing work's grand when you can enjoy it properly, but between bosses and doctors and insurance cos., they make sure you can't even wallow in snot-crusted self-pity. I guess that's the point; if it was easy, everyone'd do it, right?

Richard Dawkins


Here's a video of a Richard Dawkins speech advocating "militant atheism." Personally, I don't see how an intelligent, educated person with democratic leanings could disagree.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Review Online

My review of Lorri Neilsen Glenn's Combustion is now online at Quill & Quire. Shortly after I wrote and submitted this review (but before it was published), I received, out of the blue, a very nice email from the book's author. This is one of the downsides of book reviewing: many of the books one doesn't like are written by people that one might very well like. I find it unfortunate that, in some cases, a negative review has made someone dislike me personally, but it's nearly inevitable, it would seem. A few people whose books I've been hard on, to one degree or another, I've become friendly with after the fact, and I treasure those associations. I wish everyone was so adult about it. At any rate, a review is not a discussion between reviewer and author, but reviewer and reader--even if it's not always easy to keep the strands separate.

"But it’s bad taste for a writer to write a response to a critic."

The title of this post is a verbatim quote from Christopher Wiseman's ill- advised response to Shane Neilson's review of his book. Once he wrote that sentence, he really should have thought about it and hit "cancel." It's not "bad taste," it's just dumb. Even if you have valid objections, which Wiseman does, it's hardly surprising to learn that you stand by your own poems and it's pretty hard not to look bitter and wounded in the process. (Also note the "Oh yeah, well other people like it" gambit employed by Wiseman, an airtight argument if ever there was one.) I was once invited to respond to an as-yet-unpublished review of my book and declined the invitation; it's not for the poet to gainsay a critic's verdict. That review remains, to the best of my knowledge, unpublished, but even if it had been published, it would be mostly forgotten. By posting his response months after the fact, all Wiseman's done is draw more attention to the reviews he so clearly despises.

Moreover, the poet is hardly in a position to see the content of the review clearly. In his response, Wiseman complains:

I wish he’d been more openly honest in his dislikes, more aware of my uses of form - from free verse, to nonces, to villanelles, to sonnets, etc. - as it seriously affects that fascinating line I like to walk between strongly expressed feeling and the pit of sentimentality. I’d loved, too, for him to have tried to fit me into a canon - whose work is like mine? Who are my influences? Etc. I give his review a B- and that’s slightly lower than I give ZW’s review, which he quotes, which likes my work less, but says why (wrongly IMHO), but which explains his reasons better.

This is a bit like a droning schoolteacher blaming his students for falling asleep in class and missing the best part of the lecture. How on earth could a critic be "wrong" in his dislikes? He might argue that I didn't adequately defend or explain my dislikes--he says the opposite--but dislikes are neither right nor wrong and I did say that 40% of a quite fat book merited reading. In a longer review (I was ltd. by the magazine to 500 words) I might have quoted more and gone into more depth and yes, spent a bit more time with the poems I did like, of which there are many, some of which I like a great deal (I'm including one in my sonnet anthology), but given the constraints of space and given the abuse of space in the book itself, I had no real choice but to give a great deal of weight to my dislikes. If I feel that over half of a book should've been left behind, I can hardly pretend otherwise and only write about the poems that were justly included. This is a book review, after all, not a work of literary criticism, and I was charged with reviewing the physical publication of Mr. Wiseman's Selected Poems, in which the quantity of second-rate content obscured the best work--and it is a poet's best work which a Selected Poems should preserve. Wiseman's less successful poetry is self-indulgent and he (and possibly his editor, though one never knows what kind of disagreements between author and editor precede publication) was self-indulgent in his selection, and self-indulgent again in responding publically to Shane's review. It appears to be the Achilles' Heel of an otherwise fine poet.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Frogs in My Throat

I've come down with the virus that Rachel's been fighting for the last week or so and the frogs from the bog in Madeira Park have taken up residence on a lily pad in my larynx. Not good timing as I'm supposed to work tomorrow and calling in sick means losing two weeks' pay in my line of work. But the train is also a lousy place to be when one's feeling lousy and six days of lousy lousiness might not be worth two weeks' pay, so I might just have to "book off" tomorrow, as I think this thing's gonna get worse ere it gets better.

I was reading some Edna St. Vincent Millay t'other day. She has apparently fallen out of fashion and is rarely talked about or taught by academics (although there's an interesting, albeit deeply flawed, recent biography in print), but I like her best work an awful lot. Hear me croak her lovely, simple "Tavern" if you like.

Text of "Tavern" HERE.

Hear Millay herself read her poetry HERE.

Conflict of Interest

An interesting post on book reviewing and conflict of interest, a topic I think about quite a bit, over at That Shakespehearean Rag. I'm with Steven (whom I've never met, but have emailed a couple of times) on this one. I've reviewed a few books by people I've met, but almost always try to avoid reviewing an author with whom I've had some sort of relationship. And yes, even though the literary world is small and I've become friends with a number of people in it, that still leaves the field pretty darned open.

A Delightfully Dirty Sonnet


Courtesy of Brenda Schmidt.


Lions Ridden Roughly

The Lions lost, but the night was this good:

And this good:

Me with Adam Getty and my very good, very old friends Jon and Jesse:

Friday, June 15, 2007

Madeira Park, downpours, Getty sightings

Had a nice, if brief, trip up to the Sunshine Coast. Adam Getty's staying in the home of Franklin White, the father of Harbour Publishing's Howard White and grandfather of Nightwood Editions' Silas White. I had thought that Silas would be around, but it turns out he's in Toronto. No matter, we trekked around the Francis Peninsula gawking at the estates of the rich and famous and enjoying the hilltop views of sheltered coves.

We had supper at the Grasshopper Pub, which is high on the hill above the village of Madeira Park, with great water views. I figured I'd be able to find a shortcut back into town, but I was wrong, so we had to trudge back up a very steep hill to make our way back down around on the road. The delay meant we got caught in an absolutely torrential downpour walking back to Franklin White's. Fortunately, we were fairly well-fortified and the liquid within was in homeostatic balance with the liquid without. When we finally got back to the house and changed into drier duds, we ruined that balance completely.

Next day (yesterday), we made our way to the ferry, Adam on the bus and me on my motorcycle, and crossed over to Vancouver. Rachel read that night with Chris Patton and Shane Rhodes. Despite a bad cold, Rachel's reading was very strong. A couple of her favourite teachers from elementary school--one, Robert Heidbreder, an accomplished writer of children's poetry--showed up and bought books, which made it a very special event, since Rachel herself is on the verge of becoming an elementary school teacher.

Chris Patton read second. The writing was very interesting--I was especially taken with his translation of the Old English poem "The Wanderer"--but he read in a halting, stutter-and-flow manner that I think worked to the detriment of the poems. I picked up a copy of his book, Ox, and I look forward to spending some time with it. His language is just jam-packed with soundplay and semantic nuance, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Hopkins. I was also glad to learn--and not surprised--that he's a charming fella.

Shane Rhodes read last and was thoroughly charming and engaging. He read two of the poems I liked from his new book and another one from his first book, about a rural general store, that I'd like to take a good look at.

A bunch of folks went out afterwards for food and drink, after which Elizabeth Bachinsky, her husband Blake, Adam, Rachel and I convened at our place for a glass of wine and fine conversation. Adam and I, as we seem to do on the rare occasions we meet up, stayed up till 3 am talking craft. Tonight, Adam and I are joining some old friends of mine to see the BC Lions in pre-season action against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I predict the Lions will romp and run roughshod over those rotten Roughriders (just for you, Brenda!). Adam heads back to the Runshine (his coinage) Coast tomorrow and I hit the rails again on Sunday. I hope all my time off this summer is so fun.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Adam Getty

Off to Pender Harbour this morning, to visit Adam Getty, who's staying there for the summer, working on a manuscript, and Silas White, who's hosting him.

If you're in the Vancouver area, you should come out to Rachel Lebowitz's reading with Chris Patton and Shane Rhodes, Thursday at 7 pm. It's at the UBC bookstore in Robson Square, downtown.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Steven Price Wins

Heard through the grapevine last night that Steven Price, who has guest-starred in a number of CLM posts and is a top-drawer poet, not to mention a fine fellow, has won the League of Canadian Poets' Gerald Lampert Prize for a first book of poetry. Not surprisingly, this news is nowhere to be found at this point on the League's site or anywhere else on the internet, so this appears to be a CLM exclusive. As most of you know, I don't think much of awards, but nice to see a deserving poet get some notice and dough, however little. And there was some legit competition this year, too, with books by Dave Hickey and Nick Thran also being shortlisted; no strawmen, those, both books I like quite a bit, especially Dave's.

Monday, June 11, 2007


The secret to my success? I show up,
I keep my head down and I toe the line;
Do nothing special, just put in my time.
Half-full or half-empty, my cup’s
Content is constant and so is my shine:
Medium matte. I’m the mat everyone steps
On--thank you, you’re welcome--; if I stooped
Any lower, I’d be downright supine.
Yes please, another double scoop
Of that poopchute spill. You won’t hear me whine,
I don’t call in sick, I’m always on time.
I’m the bad seed in a bumper crop,
But know what? I’ll be your boss one day
And you’ll have to do whatever I say.

Indigo and Israel

Canadian writers can't ever get it right, can they? They protest the Harper government for its arts policy and its potential damage to the publishing industry--and now they're saying don't shop at Indigo--because of its owners' political affiliations and support of a foreign regime's military. Sometimes I wonder if I've gone through the looking glass.

There's a big fuss on the go over Heather Reisman's support of the Israeli army. I'm astonished that people are surprised about this. This is the same person, after all, who banned Mein Kampf from her stores. And that people are using this latest manifestation of her overall ickiness as a reason not to buy books at her stores! Even before the Mein Kampf episode, I started boycotting Chindigo and I tell anyone who cares to listen why. Back in 2001, if I recall correctly, is the last time I bought a book in one of their stores. I go in occasionally to browse and use the lieu--a symbolic gesture--but that's about it. It's a terrible fucking business with awful practices owned and operated by people who don't really give a shit about books. These are the reasons not to shop there, not because Heather supports the Israeli fucking army. That's just another reason to despise Reisman.

There's been some back-n-forth over this at Bookninja and a couple of good points have been made, not least among them the fact that the most vociferous protestors are hardly disinterested parties. But mostly it's of the "I'm shocked and appalled by this" variety. But like I said, this is hardly earth-shattering news. I'm stunned by how many writers I know who don't seem to have a problem patronizing Chindigo. The general public's ignorance I can understand, but anyone with a modicum of inside knowledge about publishing and bookselling should be ashamed. And I think anyone who jumps on a bandwagon slamming a private citizen for her private spending whilst saying nothing about their government's foreign policy is behaving like cattle.

A little perspective. Each and every taxpaying Canadian is supporting a military that is involved in a dubious war in Afghanistan that has led to the pointless death of several dozen Canadians and Christ-knows-how-many Afghanis. We're none of us innocent. But what are Canadian writers protesting? Cuts to arts funding--which at this point don't seem to actually exist, but everyone's afraid they will. Natch. Keep fightin' the good fight, Yann!

Back Home

What with freight trains, flooding and broken rails, hauled into Pacific Central Station yesterday 7 hours late. One of the downsides to being assigned instead of a spareboard employee is that such delays rarely result in any overtime, since I'm guaranteed 40 hours a week and if all my trips are on time, I come in well under an average of 40 hrs./week. Still, it was a good trip--almost no passengers from Jasper to Vancouver--and nice to have a run of six days off. I'm heading up to Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast Wednesday to visit Adam Getty, who's left Hamilton for the summer to write out here, and Silas White. Adam and I hung out once, a couple of years ago in T.O., staying up till all drunken hours yammering about metrics (yeah, we're that cool). Silas I've corresponded with a fair bit over the last few years, and we've had some rousing disagreements, but we've never met in person. Should be fun.

On Thursday, back in Vancouver, to catch Rachel reading at the Robson Reading Series with Christopher Patton and, apparently a late edition to the bill, Shane Rhodes. I reviewed his new book and found most of it uninspired, but there are a couple or three very good poems in it. Patton's writing I've been following for a while and am looking forward to reading his book, recently published by Signal Editions. He's an excellent, intelligent critic and I've liked very much several of the poems I've seen. Speaking of metrics, he's one of a rare breed: a devotee of syllabics. I've always found syllabics, because basically visual, a bit of an odd, even arbitrary, method to use in a stress-heavy language like English (my own bias is towards the accentual side of the accentual-syllabic divide), but there's no denying the fact that Marianne Moore--and now Patton--have fashioned fascinating verse forms from it. Another example of why one should make an orthodoxy of nothing in this craft and sullen art.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Heading Home

I'm on layover in Winnipeg after my first assigned trip as Activity Coordinator. I think I prefer the more Soviet-sounding Coordinator of Activities... The title is something of a misnomer, as the bulk of my work consists of talking with passengers and providing them with information. Most people take the train to see and learn about the landscapes, not to play games.

I had a good bunch of passengers on the way to Winnipeg and my dome car wasn't too crowded. Ironically, May ("off-season") was very busy, whereas June (beginning of "peak season") is forecast to be pretty slow. Which is okay for me personally, but I sometimes worry about the future of our priceless, but unprofitable, passenger rail system.

Anyway, everyone seemed to have a good time and one passenger even gave me a plug on his blog! One thing about this job, you meet people from all over the world and a lot of them have led pretty interesting lives. I had a chat the other night with a woman about my age who's on her way, via St. Catharine's ON, to grad school in London, England. She used to study at UVic, where it turns out she was a student of Eric Miller's. She seemed relieved to meet someone younger (the demographic cohort of 1st Class train travellers tends to be 50-85) with an interest in books. Speaking of which, on the first night of the trip, I came across a co-worker, David Streit, tapping away on an old Smith Corona portable typewriter. Turns out he's a writer-type in Winnipeg, on the board of CV2. Very cool guy; we had some good chats on the way here and he bought a copy of my book. At one point, he said that sometimes he feels like "the only one" (i.e. writer on the crew); I know how he feels. But I kinda like it that way.

I'm reading a wonderfully strange long poem, The Mundiad, by an Aussie named Justin Clemens. Funny and bawdy. Very much in the style of Pope, highly allusive, but very contemporary, too.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


I'm not sure exactly why,
But when I looked up to the sky
And saw an airplane flying high,
I thought on Slough


[Hear Betjeman himself read a couple of poems HERE.]

Forgotten and Neglected

No, this isn't a post about how I feel today. I can sense your love, CLM readers.

This is a post about the new issue of Arc, which is launching in a couple of weeks. This is a special issue focused on Canadian poets who've been, as the title suggests, forgotten and/or neglected. I know that the editors and contributors have put a lot into this issue and I've been looking forward to it for months--not something you hear often from me about lit journals. I've contributed an essay on the late Kenneth Leslie, who really should be brought back into print.

Okay, so I was wrong...

Babstock didn't win the Griffin. I guess they figured it would look pretty bad to make McKay bridesmaid thrice over. Babstock's book is better than McKay's, but these awards so often seem to recognize things outside the covers of the actual book. But then, I have serious reservations about McKay's poetry, which seems to be a minority view. I'll simply note that most people who've taken the trouble to disagree with me know the guy personally, which I don't.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Hittin' the Rails

Yep, again, no rest for the Z-man. After this trip, however, I settle down into my regular schedule of 5/6 days on the road and 6 days at home. Can't wait.

So the Griffin Prize is being announced tomorrow, but I won't likely know the official result till Thursday when I get into Winnipeg. Most of the speculation seems to have Don McKay as the winner, but I figured, as soon as I read the jury announcement, never mind the shortlist, that this was Ken Babstock's year to take home the golden lottery ticket. All the instruments agree. Babstock's been a poetry superstar (how's that for an oxymoron) ever since his first book was published in '99--fortunately, he's a poet with ability more or less commensurate with his reputation--but prior to this year had won none of the big prizes. Airstream Land Yacht has so far been shortlisted for the Governor General's Award (of the titles shortlisted, it really should have won, much as I would've liked to see Liz Bachinsky take the prize) and just yesterday it won the Trillium, a prize that seems to have more cachet than other provincial awards, probably because Ontario/Toronto is at the centre of the Canadian book industry, and the Trillium, at $10,000 is more money than any other regional prize. Some might say that his notice for these other awards reduces his chances, but the recent example of Roo Borson suggests that the "spread-it-around" mentality is not as significant as one might assume.

Airstream Land Yacht, although I have mixed feelings about it, is a book worthy of notice and it contains a handful of Babstock's best poems, especially "Palindromic" and "The World's Hub." But that's not why I figured it would win the Griffin. Like I say, it was the announcement of the jury, not reading the book, that led to my prediction. The big problem with these prizes isn't that they always go to unworthy winners--although they often do--but that, even when the winner is a good pick, the decision is too often traceable to nepotistic networks. The Griffin Jury consists of Karen Solie (an old friend of Babstock's), Charles Simic (co-editor of the anthology New British Poetry, published and prefaced by Babstock at House of Anansi, and John Burnside, a contributor to said anthology. McKay is also connected to Solie, through Brick Books, Solie's publisher: McKay is a central member of Brick's editorial board. Priscilla Uppal seems to be the sacrificial lamb of the shortlist. It may or may not be significant that, on a list whose favourites are both pale-skinned fellows, she is neither. Call me a cynic, but what I've read of her poetry makes me doubt she was chosen for literary reasons. Back to Babstock, it has also been pointed out that Babstock is not only published by House of Anansi but is also employed by said press, and that House of Anansi is owned by Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. In theory and possibly in fact as well, this should have zero impact on the decision, but added to the mix, it makes the integrity of this prestigious prize pretty easy to doubt, don't it?

I've long had serious reservations about the awards culture that predominates these days. I was recently asked to judge an award. I was tempted to accept, if only to see firsthand what went on. But I was informed by the prize administrators that the entries were pre-screened and that I would read only the ones deemed appropriate by the administrator. I said that I'd only agree if I could read all the books. They said no. So did I. I imagine one form or another of this kind of backroom manipulation occurs in most prizes. (When I wrote a column on the Griffin Prize a few years ago, I asked if I could see a list of titles submitted to the award. The administrator I wrote to accidentally cc'd an email to me intended for another Prize official in which she said, "If we tell him what was submitted, then he'll know what wasn't submitted." And we can't have that, now can we?) The ReLit Award has gone so far, this year, as to keep its jury composition secret, presumably to deflect attention away from political speculation towards the books themselves. But really, all this does is add fuel to the speculative fires and give jurors who want to reward their friends more protection from criticism. Let's face it, these prizes, no matter how scrupulously run, are not objective, so to pretend otherwise is to perpetrate a fraud of sorts.

So, you ask, why do I care at all? Why not just ignore the whole sordid business, take the high road, etc.? It's mostly because, as a reviewer and critic, I try to spark honest, engaged discussion about poetry. These awards are also about shining light on poetry, but it's more of a spotlight than a floodlight, leaving far more obscure than illumined. Whereas criticism should strike a balance between censure and celebration, these glitzy prizes are all good news and marketing (it was clear to me, attending recent BC Book Prizes events, that the sponsors were far more important than the authors). I know several poets who have been nominated for these awards have come out of the process highly disenchanted, feeling more than a little used and abused. The prizes aren't about to go away, however; the more people chip away at their tarnished credibility, the less influence they'll have on what gets taken seriously by the public, media and academies. At least, that's what I like to think...