Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More Adventures on the Railroad

Sitting in a hotel room in Toronto now, having just railroaded east from Vancouver. Good trip. The first chunk, from Vancouver to Winnipeg, I helped out washing dishes in the dining car at the busiest meal sittings and got cut in on the tips for my troubles, which was a pleasant surprise. After Winnipeg, I took it easy, and spent some time hanging out with a couple of other travelers, who were very fine company. I've also been reading Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, which is providing much stuff for thought.

Shortly after arriving, I met up for drinks with Goran Simic and Colin Carberry at the Imperial Pub. Goran has published a collection of Colin's poems, Ceasefire in Purgatory, which Colin gave me in exchange for one of my books. An intriguing-looking collection, which I will be checking out when a bit more sober than I am at present.

Tomorrow morning, I catch a train to Montreal and then I board the Ocean Ltd. for Moncton. It'll be fun to see some of my old colleagues on board that one.

I'm renting a car in Moncton and driving to Fredericton for the annual Poetry Weekend. Twill be a blast, no doubt. More anon.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Can You See the Difference?

Saw "The Darjeeling Limited" this afternoon. Good flick, but not as good as "Little Miss Sunshine." I was struck by the uncanny resemblance between film-star Adrien Brody and poetry star Geoffrey Cook. Couldn't quite find the image-pairing that does justice to it the way I saw it in the moving Brody today, but still, can't you see it?

Doing some last minute prep before I hit the road. I'm working another terminal duty shift tomorrow, then hopping on the train eastbound. Hopefully, not working, but there's apparently a good chance, as a freight derailment has caused a significant delay to the inbound train, which would render the outbound train shortstaffed. Fingers crossed for a more-or-less timely arrival of the inbound train. It would be very nice to have a chilled out trip. Also, if I get called in to work return, I'll have to refuse the job, as working it would make me late to Fredericton. And I hate to be the guy who says no, believe it or not.

No resolution on our tenant situation. Really a tough spot to be put in at this time of the year. At least it's not the upstairs apartment, which rents for twice as much.

Updates as I go. Ciao for now.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Terminal Duty

Got called today to work tomorrow. I'm not going out on a trip--or probably not--but doing "terminal duty," meeting the incoming train and preparing the outgoing train for departure. Terminal duty--or standby, as it's also known--is about as fun as it sounds and being assigned all summer meant that I never had to do it. Now that I'm a spare, I'm getting my first terminal shift other than a familiarisation I had months ago. I'll likely have to do it again on Sunday, then off I go east on paid holidays, to attend the annual Poetry Weekend at UNB Fredericton. The Poetry Weekend bills itself as the most disorganized literary festival in Canada. Which may be why it's so damn much fun; basically, if you write, and you show up, you get added to the bill. Three sets of readings on Saturday, three on Sunday, and wicked parties that go all night (yes, 'tis a feat of endurance to make it to all readings after the parties). I went to the first one in 2004 and haven't missed one since. I'm super-pumped to see some good friends, including Sharon McCartney (who is always an extraordinary host in her riverside house), Wayne Clifford (who's in the midst of building his own waterfront domicile on Grand Manan Island) and the crowd from Littlefishcartpress (Jeramy Dodds, Gabe Foreman, Leigh Kotsilidis, Josh Trotter), also Poetry Weekend veterans (with the exception of Josh, I believe).


I wasn’t much on colouring inside the lines
or drawing straight lines
or standing in lines
or writing lines…

Now look at me!

Review Online

My review of Thomas Heise's Horror Vacui is now online at Vallum.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Better Late Than Never

Just found out that Rachel's book Hannus was shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction. Kind of a strange and anticlimactic way to learn the news, since the winner's already been announced. WLU doesn't seem to have their act together on publicity for this prize. So this is the second nomination she's received. Maybe you should see what all the fuss is about, eh.

A bit odd that Patrick Friesen was on the shortlist, since this is a prize meant "to recognize a beginning Canadian writer publishing a book with a Canadian subject or location," and Patrick's been publishing books for over thirty years. I guess this is a case of poetry books not counting. Because, you know, they're not real books, they're all skinny and the lines don't make it all the way across the page and all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Sunlight on the Garden

For the first time in days, the sun is out. I shall venture forth and stock up provisions for the rains to come.

In the meantime, I thought I'd record Louis MacNeice's poem "The Sunlight on the Garden." I first encountered this poem when John MacKenzie posted a recording of it on his now-neglected blog "Salt and Ice." (Unfortunately, John recorded it before he started using and the link to the audio-blogger post doesn't work anymore.) It's a gorgeous poem, full of the sort of aural densities for which I am such a sucker. I particularly like the anadiplotic feminine rhymes, not a device you see used very often. I am grateful for "The Sunlight on the Garden"!

Here's my recording of "The Sunlight on the Garden."

Monday, October 22, 2007

In Defense of Poets

In my post about the Poetry Bash, I mentioned the poem Niels Hav was reading while the techie was trying to set up a new mic. It's a terrific piece, bitingly funny, and was very appropriate for such a night. I've made a recording of it, which you can hear here. This poem is from We Are Here, which contains many other delightful and disarming things. Get yourself a copy!

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Attended the Nordic Literary Festival today, where Rachel was reading from Hannus. Not surprisingly, this was a very different sort of event from the flash and glam of last night's Poetry Bash. Didn't know quite what to expect. The event's organizer, a Finnish-Canadian man named Henry Lahti who has been for some time the galvanizing force behind Scandinavian cultural happenings in BC, died two weeks ago of a brain aneurysm. Naturally, he would have wished the festival to go on, but no one else really knew what was what. You wouldn't have known it to see the festival today. Everything went off without a hitch and the 40-odd people in attendance all left enriched.

Besides Rachel, there was Karen Autio, a children's novelist of Finnish descent from Kelowna, and Pessi Parviainen, a young man from Finland doing an MFA at SFU, whose thesis is a work of musical drama based on family stories and legends in Canada (Pessi described himself as a fourth-generation habitual migrant; he himself came to Canada first as a very young boy and stayed a couple of years before his family moved back to Finland). Three very different artists, but there were some fascinating points of intersection.

Most notably, something both thematic and structural that all three shared was gaps and bridges. A recent review of Rachel's book suggests that the story was weakened by the author's lack of confidence in an authoritative version of things. This is naive at best, as any historian or novelist can tell you, but particularly blind to the very importance of such lacunae and narrative layers in the sort of pieced-together patchwork she was making. Far from a lack of confidence, the approaches Rachel took, very deliberately and consciously, evince intelligence and respect for the reader. But some readers don't want respect, I guess, they just want to be led along by the nose. At any rate, it was certainly something that the mostly non-literary audience at today's festival appreciated and they voted with their wallets, scooping up a baker's dozen of Rachel's book. Interestingly, of the responses she's got from professional writers, novelists have cottoned on to what she's up to far more readily than poets. The reviewer I mention above certainly seemed to want the book to be something it had no intention of being, even referring to Hannus as a "collection," which it patently is not.

Following the readings and Pessi's presentation, there was a panel discussion moderated by UBC prof Mads Bunch, who posed interesting questions and received very thoughtful responses from all three. After that, there was some music and bilingual readings from Finnish poetry, blended with a presentation on the life of a 19th C Finnish poet, whose name escapes me now.

One thing this festival did have in common with the Poetry Bash was that after it ended, we went out into the poring rain and motorbiked home. Fortunately, the Scandinavian Community Centre is much closer to our place than Granville Island.


Apparently, Via's late a lot. Fortunately, I'm paid by the hour. Most of the problems on our line are caused by CN Rail. I've only been on one trip in which we incurred a delay because of mechanical problems. I've been on lots where we lost time because of freight traffic and/or derailments. CN Rail is an irresponsible company, spending as little as possible in order to make as much as possible. Our government used to own it, but apparently was no longer interested in the very lucrative business of rail freight. That's okay, because we run irresponsibly large surpluses every year, so we don't need extra revenue, right? Right.

(Thanks to Brenda for pointing out this story.)

Bashing the Poets

Just back from the Vancouver Writers Fest Poetry Bash, and what a Bash it was, with easily a couple hundred people in attendance.

The emcee was poet-cum-memoirist Ryan Knighton, and he did a fine job, very funny, very much at ease.

The first reader was Priscilla Uppal, whose Ontological Necessities was shortlisted for the last Griffin Prize. I scratched my head over it at the time and scratched my head anew tonight. The poems were prosy and laced with pseudo-philosophical semi-profundities and throwaway crowd-pleaser jokes, only a couple of which were actually funny. But she had a very nice hat, for which some exotic bird seems to have sacrificed its hindquarters.

Next up was American Richard Siken. He read one long poem, which was pretty decent. It had movements of crescendo and decrescendo, as longer works must have I guess, but it did make it drag a bit at times. By and large, I'm with Poe when he said that a long poem is a contradiction in terms. Still Siken read very well--almost well enough to make me want to pick up his book.

Barbara Nickel was up next and she read very well, in spite of being on heavy pain killers for a herniated disc. As I said in my recent post on the GG list, I think very highly of her book Domain. She also read a fine new poem, in which a fungal toenail infection metaphorically merged with the aurora borealis; I'm not sure how, but it worked beautifully. I also picked up a copy of her first book, The Gladys Elegies, which I've read before but never owned. Apparently, her publisher declared it out of print, but miraculously procured copies for the Writers' Fest. This is a sneaky game publishers play, holding on to just enough copies so that they can maintain copyright control without actually paying to reprint. Not cool.

Next up was Niels Hav from Denmark. He was very funny and unpretentiously casual. When he got to the podium, he said he was going to read some stuff from "this blue one," referring to his Canadian-published translation. In the middle of his reading, the mic stopped working. Rather than call for technical support, he just shrugged and kept reading, unamplified. In the middle of a longer poem, "In Defense of Poets," the audience started applauding spontaneously. A techie, presumably thinking the poem was done, rushed up to the stage with a backup mic. While he was setting it up in front of the podium, with the still non-functional mic flopping up and down in front of his face, Hav finished the poem. Then he and the techie looked at each other and both shrugged. It was a lovely live reading moment.

After Hav, a surprise guest was announced: American poet Heather McHugh. She wasn't on the bill, but she stole the show with rhythm and wit and finished with one of those poems that hits you like a spinal tap. I picked up her selected poems second hand some time ago and it sits unread in a box in my Halifax attic. Once my library and I are reunited, I'm going to have to spend some time with Ms. McHugh's work.

During the intermission, I tracked down Niels Hav. As I said in an earlier post, he'd emailed me saying he wanted to say hi at the reading. When I introduced myself, he said he was surprised I was so skinny and asked if I still worked with my hands. I told him I work more with my feet now. "That's good," he said, "too many poets in your country work on the campus. They are dull-ass, they need a kick in the pants." I told him I do my best. He told me I should come read in Copenhagen. I'd picked up a copy of We Are Here (the blue one) before the reading--and good thing I did, too, because they sold out in a hurry--, but before I could get him to sign it for me, someone butted in. I slipped him a copy of Unsettled and one of Sealift. He was nowhere to be found at the end of the night, so I never did get my blue thing signed, alas. Maybe in Copenhagen.

The second half wasn't nearly as good as the first. Agnes Walsh led off. She read a bunch of homey-folksy Newfie stuff. She's not a very good poet, but she seems like a nice person.

Tom Wayman was next. I hate Tom Wayman's work. I find it flat, didactically facile and self-congratulatory. Wayman reads with a great deal of energy and charisma, but I still found his work flat, didactically facile and self-congratulatory. He's been making hay on his few years of industrial work during a 25-year academic career. He needs a big-time kick in the pants. And he pronounced trajectory tragic-tory.

Marilyn Bowering, on the other hand, pronounced simulacrum as similla-crumb. She was probably the worst of the bunch. I tried not to listen to her because listening to her was making me snort and giggle and Rachel kept nudging me. Bowering was the quintessence of the lyrically self-absorbed, self-indulgent sensitive soul--the sort of persona that gives "lyric poetry" such a bad name.

Finally, Dennis Lee read. He started off with an older poem, "400: Coming Home." Not a bad poem and read very well. He moved on to some stuff from his book for early teens. Wasn't crazy about this stuff and, as Rachel later said, it doesn't seem like stuff the target audience would be much into either.

One poem, full of fast and furious tongue-twisting rhyme (cans and toucans and pecans), was pretty damn fun, tho. He finished off reading a selection of bits from Yesno, including "dixie," which is to my mind one of the handful of fully successful poems in the Un/Yesno sequence.

After getting some books signed, we headed home in the rain on the motorciccle. It's been raining for days. It'll be raining for months. Guess I'll get some reading and writing done.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Deep in the Amazon Jungle

Dan Wells has a new post up about the evils of I'd heard about problems publishers have had with Amazon, but didn't realize how bad the situation is. Maybe I didn't want to know how bad it is. As Dan points out, I've been rather vocal in my loathings of Heather Reisman's Chindigo empire. In part, this is because their bricks-and-mortar stores have squeezed out so many independents. In part, it's because I find Reisman herself despicable. Amazon doesn't have bricks-and-mortar stores, so they don't provide the same nature of competition to independent booksellers. And I have no idea who runs Amazon, so there's no corollary to the Reisman-factor.

I've bought quite a few books from Amazon over the years, but I also frequent independent shops and give them a fair bit of my book-buying business. I tend to get books I know I want from Amazon and discover the books I didn't know I wanted at bricks-and-mortar stores. And I always urge people to buy my book from their local independent if they can. But I've lived in places where there was no bookstore, period, and online shopping was the only real way to get books. And I like the idea of people being able to order my book online; I don't see any inherent ethical dilemma in it. But if Amazon is running a shitty show, I guess I'm going to have to officially discourage people from shopping there and cutting it out myself. I'll be looking for other online options. Anyone know of good places to shop for new books online?

Poetry Bash

Rachel and I are off to the Poetry Bash at the Vancouver Writers Fest tonight. On the bill are Marilyn Bowering, Niels Hav (from Denmark), Dennis Lee, Barbara Nickel, Richard Siken (from Arizona), Priscilla Uppal, Agnes Walsh, Tom Wayman.

Eclectic, to say the least. I'm really looking forward to hearing Barb Nickel read and to finding out what Hav (who has a collection in translation published in Canada by Book Thug) and Siken are all about, especially after receiving a very nice email today from Mr. Hav.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Rachel will be reading and taking part in a panel discussion at the Nordic Literary Festival this Sunday, Oct. 21.

6540 Thomas St.
Burnaby, BC

12:30-4:00 pm

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Got an email today from a fellow named John Mutford. John lives in Iqaluit, works for First Air, the airline I used to work for, writes, and has his own litblog, The Book Mine Set. John's put forth a challenge on his blog:

The rules are simple: read 13 Canadian books (books by Canadians and/or about Canadians) before next Canada Day (That's July 1st for you non-Canadians in the audience). Make sure to blog about each one! Participants will have their name entered in for some kick-ass prizes. Well, not really. If you've ever seen a Canadian gameshow, you know we're not big on monetary rewards.
John was writing to me to see if I'd be willing to offer a copy of Unsettled as one of his prizes. I gladly agreed. I won't be competing, since I'm a professional reader of Canadian books (I often think I read too damn many of the things, not too few) and since I already have quite a few copies of Unsettled. He does have other books up for grabs. So get at it, bloggers!

Goran Simic

Thanks to Brenda for pointing out this interview with Goran Simic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

GG Poetry Shortlist Grumblings

When I got home yesterday, I heard about the Governor General's poetry list. As usual, it's pretty damn disappointing.

First, there's the presence on the list of Margaret Atwood's The Door. A friend of mine wrote me a one-line email complaining about Atwood and Dennis Lee being on the list, because it's not as if they need the attention. True enough, but this isn't why they shouldn't be on the list. Atwood's is one of the worst poetry collections I've read in recent memory; it's extremely dull, badly edited and self-indulgent. It's nowhere near as good as the early collections that made her name as a poet (not that I'm wildly enthusiastic about that work, but I recognize its merits). That hasn't stopped reviewers like Jay Parini and Molly Peacock from fawning all over it (note that both reviews use the same cliched phrase for their headlines...). Why? Because, to borrow and modify slightly a refrain from an Al Purdy poem, she's Margaret Atwood. I happen to know that a negative review of The Door was quashed by Globe & Mail books editor Martin Levin. Why? Well, you know. It was replaced with this (read it quick before the Globe makes you pay for the privilege!). The phrase "sometimes too predictably" stands out in this sticky paean to Atwood's Atwoodiness. It stands out because Peacock makes no effort to pursue this thread (Why? Guess.), because it's pretty much the only thing resembling a cavil, and because it's a huge understatement. How huge? Atwood huge.

Dennis Lee's book is much more deserving, but it's still problematic. Basically, Yesno is half a book, since it starts at section VI, where its predecessor, Un, ended on section V. Should half a book be nominated for a major (even more major now the purse has been increased from $15K to $25K, finally making the award worth more than a mid-career writing grant...) award? I don't think so, but I'm sure this is good news to all those who hued and cried when Un was passed over for the GG, Trillium and Griffin. But even if it should, I don't think it's a good pick. I reviewed the book fairly warmly, but I've been questioning that assessment for a while now, nudged along by a couple of extremely incisive critiques of the book by James Pollock (forthcoming in the next issue of CNQ) and Jason Guriel (in the most recent number of Books in Canada). Actually, I think most of my review's fine, but I don't stand by its final paragraph and would re-write it if I were publishing the review tomorrow. The Un/Yesno combo is ultimately, I think, an ambitious and interesting failure as poetry--it should be commended, but not too highly.

The other three nominees I haven't read. Don Domanski's someone I hear a lot of good things about and I've been meaning to find out if they're merited for some time. There's a very short poem of his that I quite like in an anthology we're both in. But then hearing that his book is "a personal, spiritual meditation" doesn't exactly make me eager to dig in. That's two bad poetry adjectives and one bad poetry noun in one summary sentence. And this "Ars Poetica" is pretty darned awful; reads like Don McKay on lithium. This is Domanski's third nomination for the GG, so while he's not as high profile as Atwood and Lee, he's far from a dangerous or surprising pick.

Next up are the darkhorses. Brian Henderson's been around for a while, but I know very little of his work. Nerve Language has an interesting-sounding subject, but subject matter's secondary in poetry and the publisher's blurb--written by Henderson?--, these stellar highlights of his past work, and the samples on his site from the book don't augur well. There's also a big fat conflict-of-interest footnote on Henderson. He's the director of Wilfrid Laurier UP, which recently published a selection of poems by Christopher Dewdney, one of this year's jurors. Hm.

Finally, there's the requisite first book, rounding out this predictable, pedestrian and patronage-tainted list. Last year, Liz Bachinsky's Home of Sudden Service filled the first-book roster spot (technically, it was her second book, but it came out in the same year as her Curio, so which was first is an academic question); a pretty damn solid pick. This year it's another Nightwood Editions title, Muybridge's Horse, by Rob Winger. I haven't read it, but I did peruse it at some length a couple months back and decided I didn't want to read it. An ambitious book-length sequence, but the bits I read were pretty prosy; my impression was that it's part of that CanPo subgenre, the Doggedly Pursued Poetry Project.

Admittedly, I don't have particularly valid objections to the last three inclusions, since I haven't, unlike the jury, taken the trouble to read all of them. But my disappointments are more for what's not on this list than what is on it:

1) Time's Covenant by Eric Ormsby. Ormsby's not my favourite poet, and I'm not as high on his work as others are, but he is an internationally renowned poet of enormous virtuosity and this book gathers most of his career-to-date--which, if his previous collection Daybreak at the Straits is any indication, is far from declining-- in one volume. He has not been as successful a figure in Canadian poetry as Atwood, Lee or even Domanski, but this has more to do with the vagaries and vicissitudes of tastemaking and po-world politics (it helps none that Ormsby's an American expat now resident in England) than with his ability.

2) Recollected Poems 1951-2004 by Daryl Hine. Again, this is a retrospective selection of the best work of a very significant poet. Hine, another virtuoso verse master, is in the opposite quandary to Ormsby, being a Canadian-born lad who left for the States. He has a significant reputation abroad, but is mostly ignored in his home country.

3) Red Ledger by Mary Dalton. As I said in my review of it, this book's a bit uneven, but Dalton at her best is as good as anyone, and RL contains a lot of Dalton at her best. It would appear, too, that Dalton's regional verse travels very well. See this review by American poet and critic Stephen Burt.

4) Domain by Barbara Nickel. This is a book I was sorely disappointed to see passed over, one of the best single collections I've read lately. Coming ten years after her last collection, it shows every sign of having been carefully put together, with no sacrifice of emotional intensity in the bargain.

5) The Rush to Here by George Murray. Okay, so George is a friend of mine, so I can't be objective, but I think this is probably his best book and it's an exceptionally tight sequence of formally innovative poems.

A good darkhorse candidate would have been K.I. Press's Types of Canadian Women, Vol. II, which I found wickedly witty and sharp. There's a case to be made, too, for Fraser Sutherland's The Matuschka Case--tho not as strong a case as for the other retrospective selections above. Kenneth Sherman's Black River was also a strong book.

A couple of first books that could've held their own on this year's list are In the Lights of a Midnight Plow by David Hickey (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I know Dave and that I had a hand in finding a publisher for his book) and the formally dazzling Ox by Christopher Patton. (And then there's Rachel's Hannus, already shortlisted for a BC Book Prize, but for some reason her publisher submitted it in the Non-Fiction category of the GGs. The jurors in that category must've scratched their heads when they came to it.) Nick Thran's Every Inadequate Name and JD Black's Black Velvet Elvis wouldn't have been bad either.

Now, obviously it's highly unlikely that any shortlist is going to match my ideal lineup--and I've read only a fraction of the 136 (groan) titles submitted--but a list that contains none of the above books, while allowing a total dud like The Door in the, um, door, is appalling. That neither Ormsby nor Hine made the cut is, frankly, fucking ridiculous. But then, so's a jury composed of Christian Bok, Christoper Dewdney and Lillian Allen. So are most of the Canada Council's procedures. You'd think, given a jury like that, there'd be some real surprise picks, but it seems the CC jury system itself is designed to prevent the possibility of individual taste becoming manifest in the shortlist. So yeah, disappointing and irritating, but no big surprise.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Back from my final scheduled trip of the season, my job having been abolished to offset dwindling ridership. Hard to believe this is my fourth season working on the rails now. It passed quickly, but I'm glad to see the end of it. Lots of other stuff to do.

Pretty quiet trip till we got to Jasper, more than five hours late. I wound up pitching in to help the dining car, so that they could serve all the new passengers in one sitting, instead of having people sit down for supper at 10 pm. I was thanked heartily for this by the dining car staff, but it wasn't really a selfless act. People generally, I find, have a very poor understanding of self-interest. By doing what I did, I didn't have to listen to people in my car bitching about how late they were being made to eat, nor did I have to try to appease them--and I didn't have to wait till 11 pm to have supper myself. Helping out just made sense. No, I didn't have to do it, but I saved passengers, co-workers, company and myself some grief in the process. Not to mention the fact that I knew it would be appreciated by my co-workers, which could only stand me in good stead down the road. A win-win-win-win situation. But I gather very few of my colleagues--my colleagues being a fairly representative sample of humanity--see their self-interest so clearly. I had a supervisor in Iqaluit who said that the truly lazy person does the job right the first time so he won't have to do it again. Simple philosophy, but as uncommon in practice as any other article of common sense. I'm thinking I need to re-read Bentham and J.S. Mill. I haven't read either since I was nineteen, and I think I was probably too idealistic at the time to appreciate their ideas properly.

So the GG shortlists have been announced. Naturally enough, I have some thoughts on the poetry list, but I'll save 'em for tomorrow, for I'm pooped.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

A lovely piece by my cousin Jane on her involvement in "Slow Dance with Teacher," a very cool-sounding event -- especially as experienced and expressed by Jane.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In 'n' Out

Train in was late, but not late enough to save me from working home. Train home's even later, tho, so I do have an hour or two to rest my weary head. Which I shall do. Hasta luego.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Off the Air

I'm off to Winnipeg shortly, for my last scheduled trip. It's one without a layover, so I'll likely not be posting till I get back on Tuesday. Shalom aleichem!

Ted Hughes on Literary Life

The Telegraph has serialized excerpts of Ted Hughes' letters (coming out soon in book form!). Here's a favourite of mine:

And 'literary life’, closely examined, turns out to be a chance juxtaposition of individuals who wish to be known as “writers” held in a semblance of community by the watchfulness of their mutual envy and malice.

To enter 'literary life’ is in fact to enter a small windowless cell, empty, under a stunning spotlight, and left to your own devices in the knowledge that millions of invisible eyes are watching through the walls. It’s not 'life’ at all, you see. And it cuts you off from life.

True dat.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Well, it always takes a bit longer for things to reach Nunavut and it's never too late for a bit of good press, so I'm delighted to see that Unsettled has just been reviewed in The Nunatsiaq News, a Nunavut weekly. Not surprisingly, the reviewer--John Thompson, one of the paper's editors--understands a few things better than any southern reader possibly could.

Backroads (2)

I've revised the poem I posted a few days ago. Here it is in its present form. And here's the AUDIO.


Rennie’s, St. Patrick’s, Perry and Princetown
Roads like a lattice laid flat on the lawn
Roads like dendrites, arteries, scars
Roads sprouting chanterelles in the shade of their shoulders
Roadside ditches full of fireflies and bottles

Rennie’s, St. Patrick’s, Perry and Princetown
Unploughed roads crisscrossed by fox-tracks and hare
Smooth roads and rough roads
Roads rucked, ruddled, riddled with ruts
Roads kicking up billows of dust
Roads frost-heaved, pitted and pocked with potholes
Frozen roads thawed to boot-sucking mud
Washboard roads and corduroy roads
Closed roads
Abandoned roads gone to alders and grass

Rennie’s, St. Patrick’s, Perry and Princetown
Roads dappled with tree-filtered sun
Roads strewn with worm-lousy apples
Roads to hell
Roads over streams running through culverts
Roads for the tractor from farmhouse to field

Rennie’s, St. Patrick’s, Perry and Princetown
Roads heading home, roads leading away
Roads to nowhere
Roads up blind hills, roads into valleys
Roads ending at crumbly clifftops
Private roads
Your road, my road
Low roads and high roads

Rennie’s, St. Patrick’s, Perry and Princetown
Roads like crazy-quilt seams between swatches of potato, tobacco
         and hay
Wide roads and tight roads, straight roads and bent roads,
         forked roads and looped roads
Roads well-travelled and low-traffic roads
Floodlit roads and roads lined with eyes
Roads leading to roads leading to roads leading to roads

Rennie’s, St. Patrick’s, Perry and Princetown
Roads you can wander unsure of your bearings without being lost

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Satan on the Floor

In my post about Carmine Starnino and Jen Varkonyi's wedding back in August, I mentioned the possibility of "incriminating photos" of me dancing. Well, when I got back from Osoyoos yesterday, there in the mail was a mysterious package from Kodak. It contained the image below, which I post here to preempt any attempts at blackmail:

'Nuf said.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Another Pig Pic

Here's another illustration from our kids' book that Eric Orchard has posted. The pig, as you may have guessed already, plays a pivotal role in the plot.

Thanksgiving Among the Sagebrush

Rachel and I headed out to Osoyoos on Saturday to spend the long weekend at R's aunt and uncle's place. Osoyoos is located in the Okanagan, near the US border on Lake Osoyoos in ...

We had the guest house

...all to ourselves. Here's the view from the deck:

On Sunday, we went to the Silver Sage Winery near Oliver. The wines were divine, especially their Sage Grand Reserve, a Gewurtztraminer that's been fermented with sage plants. Completely unlike any other wine I've tasted and utterly sublime (and I'm usually a red wine feller). I bought 2 bottles of it, one for Thanksgiving dinner and one for later, as well as two bottles of "The Flame" hot pepper aperitif wine, which I raved about in an earlier CLM post, a pinot noir and a couple other dessert wines. A wee splurge, but well worth it; anyone who puts such craftsmanship and flair into their products deserves the business. If you're ever in the Osoyoos/Oliver area, do yourself a favour and stop by Silver Sage. It's worth it for the vintner's patter alone, as she serves tasters at the bar.

After the tasting, we had lunch in Oliver and headed up into the hills, where we met this cow.

We stopped at a good vantage point for a view of Vaseux Lake (which I spoiled by putting us in the foreground):

Rachel in her best brooding Bronte pose:

On the way down, we startled a herd of California Bighorns. Here's a blurry shot of one jumping the fence between the road and a horse pasture, hot on the heels of his pal:

Thanksgiving dinner was grand; good company (R's mum, 2 aunts and their hubbies and Ron, a retired marine engineer from Lancashire), good food and lots of it. We ate royally the whole weekend really. Last night we had turkey leftovers while a house or two across the lake on the US side burned to the ground. Quite the blaze. The irony gods were at least kind enough not to make it happen on their Thanksgiving.

Lovely drive back today. Now to get some work done before I head out on the road for my last scheduled trip on Friday. My job's been abolished, as of the 23rd, so I'll be running as a spare until I take my holidays and get laid off. Pretty good luck, only having to work the spareboard for a week or so.

Back from the Okanagan...

...and off to see Mary Dalton read at the Railway Club downtown (7 pm--be there!!). Updates anon on an awesome long weekend.

UPDATE: Changed my mind. Too damn tired and it's too damn wet for me to go downtown. I need a nap. Then a report on the weekend's events.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Sometimes, my job's not so bad

The trip back was one of the most enjoyable of the year. There were some fun people in my car, with whom I got on famously. The trip wasn't all positive. The steward in the dining car next to my dome-car pissed off quite a few people with his rude, abrupt manner. A lot of my job consisted, therefore, of what we call in the biz "service recovery." Fortunately, I'm pretty damn good at it. If anything, the contrast between my friendliness and the steward's rudeness, just made me look better. I got lots of praise from both the customers and the Service Manager for my work. Which I have to say does have some impact on how I feel about the job.

One of the things that made this group enjoyable was, I think, the fact that there were several people travelling alone. In an earlier post after my last trip, I mentioned how much I despise people in tour groups. They seem to behave, for the most part, like a herd, and they can be very demanding. But the solo travellers on this trip were making quite genuine connections with each other and with other passengers who did have travelling companions. It was quite lovely. My interactions with the passengers was more peer-to-peer than server-to-customer. Although they kept me quite busy at the bar, it didn't feel a whole lot like work.

This morning one passenger, a delightfully assertive older woman from Hamilton, asked where she could find a copy of my book. I always have a copy or two on hand, so I said she could get one from me. She bought one and proceeded to read two poems, "Rip Rap Reprise" and "Mussel Mud," aloud--quite well, I should add--in the dome. Another passenger, a travel agent from Nanaimo, said she wanted a copy too, so I sold her my last one. Had I had a half-dozen, I could've sold 'em all, with no prompting from me. The other passengers present took down the information and said they'd be ordering it from Amazon. Which they may or may not, probably not, but it's heartening nonetheless. It just serves to reinforce my belief that the only thing that poems and their writers need do to find a general audience is not turn their backs on that audience. If people can see, in a natural spontaneous fashion, that poems are the extension of a life lived--or its exhaust and ash, as Leonard Cohen has said--and not some kind of riddling obscurity, they will "get" what's going on pretty readily, even if not on the same level as the expert reader.

One of my former co-workers from Via Halifax got on the train in Jasper. I didn't see much of her, as she was honeymooning, but we did have a brief chat in which I found out that the new hires in Halifax only got about a month of work this year. Not a good sign. This is the second year in a row that new hires have barely worked because of low ridership. Start taking the train, people! Before it's gone, eh...

Speaking of which, my job's being abolished on the 23rd, so I have one more trip, hopefully (I could get "bumped" by someone else who's abolished before me), before going on the spare board for a week or so until my layoff. Pretty good luck on the whole. Had I stayed in Halifax, no way I could've held an assignment all summer.

Rachel and I are off to Osoyoos, in the Okanagan Valley, for the long weekend. I'm hoping to score some of that delicious "Flame" aperitif from the Silver Sage Winery in Oliver. One of my passengers told me that the owner of the winery died a couple years ago in a freak accident; overcome by CO2 fumes, he tumbled into a vat and drowned. Which is goddamn awful, but if a vintner's going to go, could there be a more appropriate way?

Happy thanksgiving.

Wizard on Pig

Eric Orchard has posted another (damn fine) illustration from the kids book Rachel and I wrote.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The umpteenth death of the critic

Not sure about this--much as it makes for a comforting narrative--but no time to post at any length about it. Maybe when I get back to Vancouver.

Splurged today and bought a fancy digital recorder. I'll be using this mainly for archival purposes, recording live readings, literary conversations, etc.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


The other night I had supper and drinks with my old friend Courtney--on his way to PEI from S. Korea--et al. Courtney's from the west end of PEI, where my father's family is from, but we met in first year university, when we were both in residence at Radical Bay, King's College. Our don, and the Dean of Men, was Eddy Rix, also from the west end of PEI. Eddy figured he and I and Courtney were all related, vaguely. (I know, I know, aren't all Islanders related? Harhar.) Eddy would know better than we would, as he's something of an Island historian and an avid collector of its literature and lore (he's probably got the most complete collection of Zach Wells books and ephemera of anyone).

Anyway, Courtney and I got to talking about PEI and its roads. PEI has the most kilometers of road per capita of any province. This relates to Milton Acorn's observation that "since I'm Island-born, home's as precise as if some mumbly old carpenter, shoulder-straps crossed wrong, had figured it down to the last 3/8 of a shingle." (That was from memory; I've looked it up and this is how it oughta be:

Since I'm Island-born
home's as precise
as if a mumbly old carpenter,
shoulder-straps crossed wrong,
laid it out,
refigured to the last three-eighths of shingle.

Not bad, considering how lousy my memory typically is.)

I grew up on a red dirt road in central PEI called the Princetown Road, a couple clicks off Highway 2. The road, in summertime at least, rejoins the highway a few clicks further west. My uncle's house--next to his son's, which is next to my brother's (still unfinished), which is across the road from my grandmother's, which is up the hill from my parents'--is the last one on the road. In winter, the homeless section of road between his place and the highway doesn't get ploughed, as no one requires access to it. Between my uncle's and my cousin's place is a long-disused logging road called the Old Princetown Road. Not much good for driving on, but great for walks or snowshoes through the woods; unfortunately, snowmobilers use it quite a bit in the winter. (To their credit, however, I think it was the snowmobile association that rebuilt the bridge over the stream.) Just beside my brother's place is the Perry Road, which runs between the Princetown Road and St. Patrick's road. The Perry's a "heritage road"--meaning that it's not to be altered in any way, just maintained. The Perry has no ditches, but raised shoulders, is wide enough for one car, and is perfectly shaded in summer by the canopies of trees growing on either side. We used to go down it after rainfalls to pick scrumptious chanterelle mushrooms, which more often than not got cooked into crepes. It was a favourite cross-country ski trail in the winter, as the plough doesn't go beyond the two houses on the Princetown Road end of it, and it's perfectly sheltered from the wind. When I started working summers in Cavendish, I biked down the Perry Road just about every day on my way to work, as it cut several kilometers--and a couple of nasty uphill climbs--off the trip.

Confused? Here's a visual

Anyway, there are so many interconnecting roads on the Island that it's practically impossible to get lost--or at least to stay lost for long.

Then, going thru George Ellenbogen's new book, I read the fine poem, "Driving the Back Roads," which opens

The routes you choose seem aimless
at first, and the day--you've forgotten--
Thursday? A time to go nowhere,
when even hawks and crows forego
habits of swooping for the dead
or slow footed.

So roads have been much on my noggin. They seem often to be so, in one way or another. My new book-in-progress is called Track and Trace; travel and its various vias crops up a fair bit. Where Unsettled was largely about being a resident alien and started out in media res, as it were, T&T is something of a prequel, dealing much with home and departure. (A thematically reductive summary, but not untrue.)

Here's a draft of a new poem, possibly destined for the book, possibly for the dustbin.


Rennie’s Road, St. Patrick’s Road, Perry Road, Princetown Road
Roads like a lattice laid flat on the lawn
Roads like dendrites, arteries, scars
Roads sprouting chanterelles in the shade of their shoulders
Roadside ditches littered with bottles
Unploughed roads crisscrossed by fox-tracks and hare
Smooth roads and rough roads
Roads rucked, ruddled, riddled with ruts
Roads kicking up billows of dust
Roads frost-heaved, pitted and pocked with potholes
Frozen roads thawed to boot-sucking mud
Washboard roads and corduroy roads
Closed roads
Abandoned roads gone to alders and grass
Roads dappled with tree-filtered sun
Roads strewn with worm-lousy apples
Roads to hell
Roads over streams running through culverts
Roads for the tractor from farmhouse to field
Roads to nowhere
Roads up blind hills, roads into valleys
Roads ending at crumbly clifftops
Your road, my road
Low roads and high roads
Private roads
Roads like crazy-quilt seams between patches
Wide roads and tight roads, straight roads and bent roads,
forked roads and looped roads
Roads well-travelled and low-traffic roads
Roads leading to roads leading to roads leading to roads
Roads you can wander unsure of your bearings without being

UPDATE: I received the following response from Eddy Rix, which he has graciously allowed me to post here:

Just read your yesterday's blog. No small irony that you wrote those wonderful words on my birthday. I expect Courtney (who actually is my cousin - my Great-Grandmother Minnie Rix was born Minnie Matthews whose brother, Fred Matthews adopted my grandmother as an infant - yes, that mean's my grandparents Rix were first counsins, but only by adoption!) will be happy to be back in Elmsdale soon.
I know the Perry Road well...I used to turn left after the Bagnall farm (Mrs. Bagnall, such a sweetie, was still in the Legislature when I was a page in 1988) and my favorite Sandstone Cottage (who owns that place across from the Bagnalls?) and drive down your road all the time, just making that loop for the heck of it, especially when the leaves were turning. I recall a friend from High School saying "that's where Jane's cousins live" once while passing your place. Anyway, one day I decided to turn down the Perry Road and never regretted it. A thousand small roads cross back of fields and across streams all over the Island (there's one through our property from Howlan to Duvar and a wonderful one running through my uncle's farm in Miminigash from the Old Palmer Road to the Smith Road called the Tom Road that's pure magic. However, the Perry Road is wonderfully accessible where the others aren't.
Do you know the song "O'Holloran Road" ? Theresa Doyle recorded it a few years back and fairly butchered it, in my opinion. It was written by a great-great-great uncle of mine from Cambelton, Daniel Riley. In the familiy he is always "Uncle Dan" - one of his other songs, actually called "Uncle Dan" was recorded by Lennie Doyle a few years back, utilizing as a refrain a fragment of a song called "Let Her Go" by Larry Gorman, a more famous Island poet from the Western end of the Island. The two probably got put together because of their being recorded on the same side of an LP by the Museum and Heritage federation in the 1970's, call "When Johnny went Plowing for Kearon." It's quite hard to find now, but I bet your family has a copy. The artists were Tommy Banks and John Cousins (Andrew's Dad, who, again, is my mom's first cousin!). John's version of O'Holloran Road is the one to hear - just stunning. It's a song that was taught to John by His mum, just as her brother, my grandfather, taught it to my mother and her to me. I now sing it to my daughter Gwennie at least once a week at bedtime (she asks for it when she gets sick of hymns). I see it''s on the web in pdf at
It doesn't credit uncle Dan as the author! The text is mostly that which I learned, though "memories" was always singular in my version, the fourth line of the first and last verse omits "the" (the meter is improved by this) and the first word of v. 5 is "Just" rather than "But" as I know it. I think the music score is bit different too, but the old style of singing these tunes has alot more of what Dr. Sandy Ives always notes as "parlando rubratto." I recall Theresa Doyle's version reading "me father and me mother" in verse two. My grandmother's only comment was "uncle Dan had better grammar than that!" The over rustification of our folk-ways is such a sham!
Any way, your new poem is beautiful, I look forward to the new book and I appreciate the homage to my meager efforts to preserve the rich culture of our island. The blog, though I'm sure not intended, was a great birthday gift and I send you O'Holloran Road in turn.
With all best wishes,
P.S. I've picked mushrooms on the Perry Road too - sorry if I depleted your clan's stash of chanterelle!

P.P.S. Further to my yes...I realize re-reading my original and hastily written note that it's right that one turns off of Rt. 2 coming from Ch'town to go down your road and of course it was Lennie Gallant (not Doyle) who did the recording that combines "Uncle Dan" and "Let Her Go."

Slamming the Door

My review of Margaret Atwood's new poetry collection, The Door, is now up at Quill & Quire's website.

Would Pierre Berton Be Welcome as a Writer in Residence at His Old House?

The Writer's Trust of Canada is taking over the Berton House writer's retreat in Dawson City, Yukon. What the linked CBC story doesn't tell you is why it had to be taken over in the first place. Ken McGoogan reported in the Globe back in August [thank you, G&M, for making your back articles inaccessible; real slick] that a Canada Council jury declined funding for one of the house's guests, sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer. Smacks of snobbery (not elitism, since chances are Sawyer is more accomplished, objectively speaking, than the jurors in question). I guess Sawyer was probably too popular a writer for their tastes. Pierre Berton was also a popular writer--and continues to be. Kinda makes you wonder, eh...

One way to deal with criticism... to pound the snot out of the critics. Don't get any ideas.


A very quiet trip to Winnipeg; there was rarely more than a handful of people in my car at any given time, and it was often completely empty. Still, the few folks who did frequent my dome were very friendly, and quite generous at trip's end. I had $53 in sales and $51 in tips. Not a bad percentage! We got into Winnipeg 3:20 late, thanks to a combination of a mechanical problem before we even left Vancouver, costing us 2 hours, and bad freight traffic congestion.

I did a fair bit of reading on the way. I finished George Ellenbogen's Morning Gothic: New and Selected Poems and took a fair bite out of Robert Bringhurst's new essay collection Everywhere Being Is Dancing, which is a companion volume to The Tree of Meaning. (Gaspereau's offering both books as a set, which I recommend if you haven't got the TofM yet--and if you've got a spare brown bill hanging around.) I'm reading both the Ellenbogen and the Bringhurst in bound galleys for review in Quill & Quire. Nice when you can get a bit of night-job work done during the day job. Ellenbogen's an underrated, if not virtually unknown, Canadian poet, probably because he lives in the States; I get the impression he's one of the rare cases in Canadian poetry of being better known abroad than at home. I'm not crazy about everything in this book, but the best work is very strong. The Bringhurst book I'm loving. He's one of the great minds of our era, I think.

Rachel interviewed for another job yesterday, substitute-teaching reading and writing to adults at the Vancouver Community College. Not surprisingly, given her background in adult literacy and newly acquired creds as a teacher, she was hired on the spot. It's a foot in the door to a possibly very good-paying job. Which isn't what one goes into teaching for, but it's never unwelcome.

Working on a new poem tonight. If it doesn't turn out utter garbage, might be posting it soon.