Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some love for Meniscus

Dan Wells has pointed out a wee spate of reviews for Shane Neilson's outstanding collection Meniscus. I like that Jennifer Still, in the Free Press review, makes reference to Shane's "unsentimental range of emotion." Ezra Pound, for all his interest in experimentation and innovation, once said that "only emotion endures." Of course, in poetry, emotion of the sort that endures only occurs (for the reader) when the right combination of skill and guts (on the part of writer), not to be mistaken for a simple spill of guts, comes into play--and that combination is on display again and again in Meniscus; it's the brimming surface tension on which Shane's poems stride.

Dr. Ursus wants you... read Track & Trace. Couple of books--Johnstone and Pool--on that list that I haven't read. Guernica produces many worthwhile books, but for some reason they often fly under the radar. I have the second volume of Wayne Clifford's epic sonnet sequence, but have yet to sit down properly with it. The first was terrific and I've loved what I've heard of the second at a couple of launches.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The wrong arguments of unstupid people

The delightful Michael Robbins on reviewing. If only more reviewers displayed a sense of humour in their work. This is something about William Logan--whom Robbins cites as an exemplar of style--that I think most of his detractors completely miss the boat on: the guy is fucking funny. But poetry is serious stuff. No guff.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Everything Brian Palmu Read

Well, all the poetry, anyway. He includes a couple of brief reviews of Jailbreaks and Track & Trace:

Edited: Zach Wells, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. “What’s left out?” is usually the first question asked of an anthology. It’s a strange reverse take, especially in this case, since the title doesn’t include “The Best” before “99”. Hey, I would have liked something by George Faludy. But the initial question should always be “what’s in?”, and what’s in is very fine, indeed. A various, quality-saturated volume, surprising when considering that 99 poets (actually 100 since one poem is co-written) are included. Absolute favourites are hard to pinpoint, but perhaps my three top picks would be Eric Ormsby’s frightening “Childhood Pieties”, George Johnston’s moving “Cathleen Sweeping”, and the piece to which the volume owes its name, Margaret Avison’s gift-packed “Snow”. Lest these three point me out as a fossil (if praising the work of 50 years ago makes me such), I was both surprised and delighted to discover recent poems (and some poets) unfamiliar to me. Peter Norman’s “Bolshevik Tennis!” was delightful, especially so as a political sonnet immediately brings to mind message-stuffed solemnity. Here, Norman’s stripped-court conceit is fun, and the reader doesn’t have to choose different sides of the missing net to laugh. And there’s also a funny existentialist poem! I haven’t perused a thirty-pound tome of them, lately. David O’Meara’s “Postcard From Camus” lifts the philosophical weight from that polarizing author with the paraphrasable defence, “it was the sun!” Wells’ notes on the poems include intelligent historical context, but are also highly personal, and in that spirit, I’d challenge his take on Adam Sol’s “Sonnet With The Morning Paper” in which he claims a “suckerpunch” at the turn, “[b]y toying with the reader’s expectations”. The hints are more than subtle, though, in the development: “stealing morning” (the first word bringing out the homophone in the second); “enmeshed in … wire”; “raucous tribe”; “conspire”; “spooking”; “mesh fences”. As for “enmeshed”, a few duds were nestled in amongst the firecrackers -- David McFadden’s “Country Hotel In The Niagara Peninsula” and Mike Barnes’ “First Stab” -- but in a book covering one hundred years of sonnets, limited to Canada, from traditional subjects and form to any subject in forms at first hard to identify with the grand(ma)pappy (isn’t being politically correct cute?) of them all, Wells has worked hard to provide a living repository that colourfully fills a neglected alcove in our national literature.

Zach Wells, Track & Trace. If there are more than a handful of Canadian poets currently writing better music in which the poems are meant to be heard as cadence, dynamic shift, and sonorous repetition and variation, I haven’t chanced upon them yet. I could fill a lot of space here with examples, but that would be longer than a trailer, and would defeat the surprise, the discovery in the context of an entire poem. But here’s a few: “Tender tight fists of fiddleheads/fronding into bitter-leafed ferns.” (from the opener, “What He Found Growing In The Woods”, a fine metaphorical study of birth and death); “chunks of trunk thunking like dud munitions” (from “Nimble & Poise”); “[t]he sudden stink of mussel mud drifting” (from “Mussel Mud”). In fact, mud stink is a sensory motif wafting through T&T, decomposition as difficult beauty, the rot in life not only natural and inevitable, but strangely transcendent, at times. I’m not partial to Wells’ anaphoral poems; the procedure distracts from the back end listing, and the insistence dulls rather than amplifies. And there’s still a straightjacketed concision, at times, which strangles feeling. That those feelings are strong and honest makes this a greater frustration. I was delighted by the often subtle meaning, only apparent in elementary form after several readings, and that the meaning cohered in a curious winterized vision, creatively enacted in Seth’s specific sequence of drawings.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Jim Johnstone's Top 5

Jim Johnstone has posted a list of his five fave Canadian poetry collections of 2009. Mine snuck in to clinch fifth spot, for which I'm honoured, but with all due respect to Jim, I'd've put Joe Denham's Windstorm ahead of mine, for sure--possibly ahead of all of them. Some great company on that list. Of the other four titles, three are favourites of mine, including of course Shane Neilson's Meniscus, which I edited. The other book, Tonja Gunvaldsen Klassen's Lean-To, I haven't read yet, but seeing as it also made Carmine Starnino's recent top 10 list, I'm thinking I should give it a whirl.

I won't be posting any top 10 or five or any other-numbered list myself. For one thing, tho I read a fair number of contemporary collections every year, I'd feel fraudulent ranking the best without having read close to all of them. For another, creating a ranking would be a gross misrepresentation of my relationship to reading; obviously, I'm no relativist and believe in aesthetic standards--I believe in the more-or-less objective existence of the good, the bad and the ugly--but beyond that I think it's a fool's errand to try to divide good books into better and best. It's a bit like ranking people, really. I also think the year of publication is a pretty random basis for generating a list. What I will do, once 2009 has officially expired, is post a list of books I read over the course of the year, regardless of year of publication, that I enjoyed and think are worth reading.

A couple nifty interviews

One with Thomas Lynch, one of my favourite contemporary poets and essayists, who happens to live in Michigan.

And one with Damian Rogers, whose very sharp first collection Paper Radio I just finished reading and will be reviewing

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Savanna Hypothesis

for Arthur Danto and Dante Alighieri

As if modernism never happened,
people cling to recidivist models.
Rice Crispies are bland, but oh, how they snap and
crackle in their milk! The man in lederhosen yodels
his ass off on the Matterhorn, unaware
that he's a Swiss cheese cliche of outmoded
old-school pastiche. Worse: he doesn't fucking care!
A dozen avant-tarde blowhards just exploded:
Jesus was steeped not in piss but in piss-
warm Mountain Dew--he's stoked for a second
kick at Canaan. Or Kanata, perhaps. What is this?
I couldn't tell ya, but sure as hell's a fecund
stew! Brother, you had me at hello:
I know what I like and I like what I know!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review online

My review of Soraya Peerbaye's Poems for the Committee on Antarctic Names is now online. Bah humbug.

UPDATE: My review of John Barton's Hymn is also up.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gary Barwin on biodiversity

I first saw this post of Gary's as a note on Facebook, to which I responded:

1 3/4 thumbs up to this, Gary. As you know from past chats we've had, I'm all for the spectrum.

Re footnote 2: I would say that an appreciation of a 16th C poem _independent_ of its historical or social context is 100% possible, if not to all encounterers of same, then at least to someone who's read a lot of poetry and has a broad and deep knowledge of the language. Most, if not all, of the words are, after all, parsable--even if orthographically odd-looking--and the person who wrote it, for all his or her paradigmatic and circumstantial differences, is still equipped with, for all intents and purposes, fake hips and codpieces notwithstanding, the same bits as the 21st C reader, including, most importantly, a brain that has physically evolved very little in the intervening eye-blink. Knowledge of context naturally _enriches_ one's understanding and hence appreciation of the old poem, which is why I personally like to read unobtrusively annotated versions of such texts. But I'd emphasize "unobtrusively" here because I prefer to encounter a poem first as something spoken from one person to another, rather than as a curated artefact. Such encounters often provoke my curiosity about the ground in which the poem grew, in the way that tasting a really good wine makes me wonder about the soil conditions and climatological circumstances of the place and time of its vintage. But an oenophile don't need to know these things to savour the vino (a real clever one could reverse engineer them, but that's another matter). Which is one reason I have a hard time buying the oft-heard argument that certain types of art are under-appreciated because we lack the critical vocabulary to discuss them properly. Critical vocabularies, it seems to be, get built of bricks made of man-that-was-awesome and how-the-fuck-did-they-do-that.

Last Minute

Just found out that Rob Taylor has included Jailbreaks on his list of last-minute gift ideas. It's probably too late for xmas now, but why stick to a regimented gift-giving schedule, eh? Some fine company on that list; the Newlove, Solie and Guriel books are all recent faves of mine. Haven't read all of the Ferguson book yet, but have already come across some delightful things in it. That said, I would be remiss in not pointing out that Jailbreaks is the best per-poem bargain on the list. But if you're looking for real bang for your buck, Unsettled has 87 poems--yeah, I know, but it's too late to change that now--and retails for a mere $11.95!

Did a bit of railroad work over the last week and family stuff for the next few days; off to PEI tomorrow morning after opening up the gifts presently piled under our potted pine. Happy whatever-you-do-this-time-of-year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hat Trick!

I found out about this a while ago, but it's official now: For the third time in five years, yours truly, despite what some deem a loutish insensitivity to the intentions behind poets' work, has won Arc magazine's Critic's Desk Award for best short review, for my review of Don Domanski's selected Earthly Pages. Fellow snarkist Carmine Starnino took the prize for best long review, for his essay on David O'Meara's Noble Gas, Penny Black. The judge this year was the esteemed Russell Brown, U of T prof and literary editor extraordinaire. Carmine and I plan to celebrate by eating a bad poet's liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Erratum: I initially said that Carmine won for his review of Atwood's The Door. As he has pointed out, he actually won for a much more appreciative review. Our celebratory meal plans, however, remain unchanged.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cowboy Small

Saturday, December 12, 2009


A very nifty essay on sonnets and maths in a UK fusion journal, which cites a few of yours truly's observations on the sonnet from my intro to Jailbreaks. (PDF link; essay starts on p. 48)

So. Friggin. Cool.

Thanks to The Afterword for posting this.


I'll have one because the night is young
And one because it's old
One to try and buy some fun
And one because it's sold
I'll have one for the coming dark
And one more for the road

I'll have one for my wife and son
And one for burning coal
One because the job is done
And one to fill my bowl
I'll have one for the dying spark
And one more for the road

I'll have one because my heart is lead
And one because it's gold
One to help me lose my head
And one I'd like to hold
I'll have one for the shooting stars
And one more for the road

I'll have one to pour the plaster out
And one to break the mold
One to make me rave and shout
And one to stop me cold
I'll have one for the speeding cars
And one more for the road

I'll have one for the hand I'm dealt
And one because I fold
One to make me meek and mild
And one to make me bold
I'll have one for the circling shark
And one more for the road

I'll have one to stop the falling rain
And one to kill the cold
One to slow my swirling brain
And one to still my soul
I'll have one for the singing lark
And one more for the road

Best Canadian Poems

Al Moritz talks to The Afterword about his editorship of The Best Canadian Poems. Haven't seen this yet, myself. The first edition was a very pleasant surprise.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Millestones (sic)

It's somehow appropriate that the dumb bit of doggerel preceding this post was the 1000th post to appear on this blog. And this vapid observation is the 1001st! Long live teh internets!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Feel like you're stuck
in the same old routine,
bogged and clogged in a rut?
My friend, you're in luck:
Claudette has twenty-nine types of poutine!

A feed o tongues

Jacob Mooney has a very fine post about one of my fave books of the '00s, Mary Dalton's Merrybegot. I had the pleasure of meeting and reading with Mary in Ottawa last year. For all the sharpness one encounters in her poems, she's as charming as she is talented. I also recommend her more recent collection, Red Ledger.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Question of Ethnicity

If you watched the "cage match" between Carmine Starnino and Christian Bok and you stayed with it till the end, you would have heard a question addressed to both speakers about women and minorities. That questioner has now posted a report on the evening, in which she elaborates upon her concerns:

When I asked why they thought, in a country as ethnically diverse as Canada, that the most prominent writers they could call to mind were white men, neither Bök nor Starnino answered completely. With the exception of Starnino’s brief mention of the difficulties aboriginal writers perceive in publishing their work, both avoided the question of ethnicity, focusing on the role of women in their respective genres. Starnino asserted that as an editor he always invites women to submit either critical or creative work, and claims that these women often fail to answer his invitations. Bök claimed that the conceptual writing movement to which he belongs was started by accident with his friends in a bar, and it just happens that no women were there. Bök concluded by saying that the avant-garde would welcome a stronger female presence (I should mention here that I studied with Dr. X for three years at the Uof C, and he was, indeed, supportive of my experimental feminist poetic practice).

Despite their claims that they would welcome more diverse voices, both Bök’s and Starnino’s arguments throughout the debate reveal a problem with their approach to solving the issues they perceive in Canadian poetry. Faced with diminished readership, insufficient critical attention, and a growing cultural irrelevance, both writers argue that more needs to be done in Canadian poetry to reduce, restrict, and reject. But perhaps the decline of Canadian poetry needs to be answered not by putting more bars on the windows, but by throwing open the doors. Bök wants poetry to be culturally relevant. Starnino wants poetry to speak to people. But how can poetry do either of these things when most Canadians are poorly represented in the Canadian literary scene? Instead of trying to further limit poetry to make it relevant, to make it speak to people, what can we do to break poetry wide open, and let everyone in?

These are questions worth asking and they deserve a good answer. But the answer seems to me to be that if Bok and Starnino are closing doors, it's against writing that they perceive to be sub-standard, not against people of specific genders or ethnicities. It seems a particularly odd charge to sling at Carmine, given that he's the son of Italian immigrants. Who better than a child of non-English speakers, from a working-class family in a predominantly French-speaking city, would appreciate the challenges facing non-majority citizens aspiring towards literary legitimacy?

Leaving aside the question of Bok and Starnino's particular role, what about Ms. Hajnoczky's assertion that "most Canadians are poorly represented in the Canadian literary scene"? I'm wondering what metric she's used to come to this conclusion, because it seems to me to be manifestly incorrect. For one thing, "most Canadians" actually are white. Here are some statistics on ethnicity from the 2006 census:


Here are some stats on visible minorities:

Year ↓1996 ↓1996% ↓2001 ↓2001% ↓2006 ↓2006% ↓
South Asian6705902.35%9170703.09%12332754.00%
Latin American1769700.62%3042451.00%
Southeast Asian1727650.61%2314250.70%
West Asian1567000.50%
Multiple visible minorities615750.22%1042150.30%
Visible minority, n.i.e.697450.24%714200.20%
Total visible minority population319748011.21%398384513.44%506809516.20%
Non-Visible Minority Population2533064588.79%2565518586.56%2617293583.78%
Total Population28528125100.00%29639030100.00%31241030100.00%

Furthermore, it has to be taken into consideration that a fairly high percentage of visible minorities will be relatively recent immigrants, many of whom don't speak English as a first language. Here are the stats on language:

Languages by mothertongue:[16]

It has to be further taken into account that most immigrants are fundamentally concerned with improving their material circumstances and it is a proven fact that writing poetry is a poor method of achieving such goals. I attended a private high school in Ottawa, where many of my peers were the children of economically successful immigrants. For most of these kids, if artistic pursuits were encouraged at all, it was in the name of becoming a more well-rounded person, not as a career goal. Many of those kids had serious talents in one artistic field or another, but none that I know of went on to make an artistic pursuit their vocation. Those kids' kids, it seems to me, stand a far greater chance of being encouraged to pursue artistic goals, as their parents will want them to have what they lacked--just as their immigrant parents, in their turn, wanted their kids to possess a measure of the financial stability and security that they worked extremely hard to obtain.

The vast majority of poets in any culture come from the middle and upper classes because people entrenched in such circumstances in general have more leisure, financial security and education. To be a poet, in any meaningful sense of the word, requires not merely competence in, but mastery of, the language in which one writes, as well as a deep and broad knowledge of the poetic traditions in that language and in the poetries of other cultures, to say nothing of the technical and critical terminologies pertinent to the art form. So it should come as no surprise if the vast majority of Canadian poets writing in English are white and middle class. Or stupid and lazy, if you prefer Doc Bok's terminology.

Given this, are minorities actually under-represented, or do we see them publishing books of poetry in precisely the proportion one would expect? I don't have numbers on this, but consider the following facts. In 2001, South Asians represented a little over 3% of the Canadian population. It could reasonably be assumed, then, that South Asian females represented approximately 1.5% of the overall population: approximately 450,000 people. In 2004, Mansfield Press published Red Silk, an anthology of South Asian women poets; there were eleven contributors to the anthology. Assuming that the editors got all of the eligible contributors, that means about 1 in 40,000 South Asian females in Canada are poets. There are slightly fewer than 500 full members of the League of Canadian Poets, according to their website. Assuming there are as many poets publishing books with recognized presses who aren't members of the League, that means that there are approximately 1000 English-language poets in Canada. Going by the same 2001 population numbers, that means that 1 in 30,000 Canadians is an English-language poet. So, by this rough math, it does look like South Asian females are somewhat under-represented. But again, you have to take into account things like English-language competency, which is bound to be lower in a population that originates in countries whose official languages are not English. Given that the percentage of South Asians in Canada went up 1% in five years between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, it seems very likely that there has been a significant influx of new immigrants from the region. The probability of first-generation ESL immigrants becoming competent English-language poets is extraordinarily small. So it would seem that, in fact, South Asian women are not having doors closed to them in the "poetry scene."

There are of course serious social issues mitigating against people from other demographic cohorts becoming English-language poets. It is a well-established fact, for instance, that aboriginals are disproportionately poor, disproportionately ill-educated and disproportionately incarcerated. These are all factors that make your average Native Canadian quite unlikely to become an English-language poet. I hope it will be generally agreed that this is a trivially minor problem facing Native peoples. And I think it's safe to say that they are in the situation in which they find themselves directly as the result of discriminatory policies on the part of Canada's conquering peoples (predominantly white Europeans). This is not the result, in other words, of systemic or systematic barriers within the poetry publishing establishment of contemporary Canada. If Native Canadians are not punching their poetic weight, statistically speaking, it is the product of much larger socio-economic issues. In other words, if aboriginals were on average wealthier, healthier and better educated, there would be more Native poets writing in English. (The complex post-colonial ironies of writing in the language of your traditional oppressor is a topic for another post.) There are certainly many presses who have demonstrated an openness to publishing such Native Canadian poets as Sky-Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe, Philp Kevin Paul, Randy Lundy, Gregory Scofield and Beth Cuthand, to name a few.

At any rate, the field is ripe for further statistical analysis, but one thing, I think, can be safely stated: Any perception of inbuilt bias against minority Canadians in the poetry publishing establishment can be nothing better than an assumption. In order for poets to be welcomed with open arms, they first have to exist.