Monday, March 30, 2009

Jailbreaks Review

There's a review of Jailbreaks by Sarah Neville in the new issue of the journal Qwerty, out of UNB in Fredericton. It's the best-written and most in-depth take thus far, I think.

A labour of meticulous, scrupulous love

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets
Edited by Zachariah Wells
Biblioasis, 160 pages, $20

When her Break, Burn, Blow first appeared in bookstores in 2005 to explain 43 short canonical poems to masses unacquainted with the stalwart best of English verse, Camille Paglia made it known that she sought to turn close-reading into a practice attractive to the dysfunctional attentions of popular culture in order to save poetry from the tiresome homogeneity of poststructuralist identity politics. “Poetry does not simply reconfirm gender or group identity,” Paglia wrote. “It develops the imagination and feeds the soul.” Though the more insular among us can at last breathe easy now that we have something else assuredly Canadian to hold up against the encroaching succubi south of the 49th parallel, Zach Wells’s latest editorial enterprise, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, is a work in much the same vein — one which endeavours not to sell Canada back to Canadians so much as to awe, arouse and edify them. As Paglia’s book took its title from one of John Donne’s sonnets, Wells’s finds its source in a sonnet of Margaret Avison’s which opines “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes. / The optic heart must venture: a jail-break / And re-creation.”

Through Wells’s deft collection of sundry sonnets written by Canadians, Jailbreaks manages to foist responsibility for such “re-creation” upon the individual members of its readership, as Wells stubbornly refuses to stuff the works into an artificial overarching metaphor or unifying theme. Instead, Wells revels in the possibilities of the anthology form, letting the contents of individual poems bleed outward to resonate in broader, linear readings. Here, George Elliott Clarke’s “Negation” (“Le nègre negated, meagre, c’est moi”) comes close on the heels of David O’Meara’s “Postcard from Camus” (“I only love the brown bodies—young, alert, / and full of joy”), both unwittingly calling into question the black/brown imagery of Charles G.D. Roberts’s otherwise-innocuous “The Potato Harvest” a page earlier. Here, six sonnets about boats float directly into two about rope, which in turn lead into the opening lines of John Barton’s “Saint Joseph’s Hospital, 1937”: “My heart, a knot undone with pain, forgot / a beat, the message cut.”

In his introduction, Wells claimed to have assembled his roster with an eye to demonstrating the “portmanteau portability and cosmopolitaneity of the sonnet”, and that indeed he does. But in reading Jailbreaks, Wells’s more successful editorial gambit was not only in locating Canadian works that demonstrate proficiency and virtuosity in form, but in juxtaposing poems with content that rewards repeated interlinear reading.

Indeed, the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “You have no form”, alone serves mostly to remind readers that Cohen’s lyric skill lies primarily in free verse, but when its concluding couplet (“and I get up to love and eat and kill / not by my own, but by our married will”) is read against that of Sharon McCartney’s “Impending death of the cat” (“And yet, remark her purr, her carriage, / how capably she embodies the state of our marriage”), readers are left breathless recognizing the spreading darkness permeating the Canadian connubial tundra. Flip backwards a few pages, and Elizabeth Bachinsky’s “How to bag your small town girl” seems less regionally bittersweet than informed, responsive; the volta of Molly Peacock’s “The Lull” (“only its head was smashed. In the lull / that it took you to look, you took the time to insult / the corpse…”) returns, echoes—have we always been this jaded? And why does it sound so good in fourteen often-decasyllabic lines?

But Jailbreaks’ best comes last, with Wells’s “Notes on the Poems” demonstrating the interpretive possibilities of a careful reader’s “optic heart.” For once, a critic declines to over-analyze his texts, enabling rather than infantilizing his audience. To read Wells’s commentary you need to be well-versed in Frost, Avison, Sanger. He is a skilled prosodist, and he is at his best when he is beard-deep in scansion. In other hands, such grey matter could seem pedantic, petulant, or dry, but through Wells’s froward refusal to anatomize the sonnet form and its prosody, his readers have no choice but to inform themselves of the relevant poetic lingo if they want to keep up. While terms such as “anadiplotic volta”, “ekphrastic”, “consubstantiality”, and “caudated” flow unapologetically from Wells’s “Notes”, his direct address to the reader throughout keeps the tone casual, immediate. Wells is right here, he’s having a beer with you, wrangling over what Richard Sanger isn’t saying, telling you not to be fooled by Don Coles’s “Sampling from a Dialogue”, or offering an irrelevant anecdote about a hungover John Newlove. Did you know that “girdles for women were once made from the baleen of right whales?” Doesn’t that somehow draw you back to page 65, where Eric Cole’s “Right Whale” gasps, “the nostrils on the head / from each black fathom”?

That Wells is well-read in the history of Canadian poetry is clear, but his choices veer towards the recent and the living. Most poems in the collection were written in the previous decade. Such a focus is unsurprising from one determined to illustrate how “many younger poets…are hungry for change. It’s getting hard to open a journal or a new collection without stumbling over some sort of sonnet, or even a book-length sequence of them.” More troubling perhaps is Wells’s almost exclusive use of poems from single-author chapbooks and collections — if a reader as determined as Wells can’t be bothered to invest in the poetical works published in Canada’s literary journals, what message does that send about their relevance?

What other criticisms there are are few, and personal ones at that. Wells, a poet himself, is perhaps too fond of meta-sonneteering — a reader with a less cheek-enjambed tongue than his might grow weary by the fifth or sixth time she encounters a poem about writing poems — but the enthusiasm Wells displays in his notes begs forgiveness for such indulgences. That Jailbreaks is a labour of love is clear, but it is a love as meticulous and scrupulous as that of a strict parent, one who applauds “inventive innovation” in poetry only so long as it is accompanied by a concomitant “rigorous vigour”.

Because it is requisite in Canadian journals to point out that Wells is a “PEI-born writer who now lives in Vancouver”, this reviewer shall do so, thereby espousing the yawning tedium of geo-biographical detail even though Wells himself declines to offer such banal trivia in his own volume. Jailbreaks mercifully contains no bios, no cringing boilerplate included to supposedly illuminate the socio-cultural impressions possible within each poem’s 14 lines of verse. “Who knows not Colin Clout?” Edmund Spenser asked sometime towards the end of his Faerie Queene of 1596, ushering in a swell of ego that the debacle over the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and resultant sour grape mash of the so-called Salon de Refusés demonstrates is still widespread amongst writers of our little Dominion. In such a climate, Wells’s avoidance of traditional Canuck self-congratulation is invigorating, even audacious. “Most anthologies are about poets, or generations of poets, with photos and bios and all the trappings of quasi-celebrity,” Wells told Literary Photographer in a July 2008 interview. “This one’s about single, small poems.” Because Wells organizes the poems in his anthology according to his own private thematic and poetic logic, Jailbreaks is not a typical act of ennuish Canadian canon-building, commemorating regionalism or post-Charter multiculturalism or whatever it is that “makes us Canadian” (really, is there any nation but ours so committed to talking unremittingly about itself?) but instead celebrates a small poetic form whose “deceptively ample cargo space can accommodate…pithy wit and irony, intellectual investigations and expressions of sincere feeling.”

Hefting the quarto-sized Biblioasis codex, with its luxe red cardstock cover, clean lines, and the wry learned humour of its assiduous editor, one feels most astutely that Jailbreaks’ form does indeed echo its content. Such deceptively ample cargo space is still enough to break, blow, burn — and make the sonnet new.

Sarah Neville
Fredericton, New Brunswick

30 in 30 preview

Julie Wilson has posted a trailer for her 30 in 30 poetry podcast series, featuring Karen Solie, Jeramy Dodds, Dani Couture and Michael Lista.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Palmu reads Wells

My phone and internet are cut off preparatory to moving out of our flat on Saturday. I'm at the library taking care of last minute mad deals for our worldly possessions on Craigslist. But my ever sharp-eared Google alerts let me know that the equally sharp-eared Brian Palmu had posted a very nice reading of my poem, "Heron, False Creek."

Gotta run!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review online

My review of James Langer's Gun Dogs is now up at Quill & Quire. This is a book I'd been looking forward to for a while, as I've heard Langer read from the manuscript a few times on my travels thru Fredericton, NB, where he attends university. It doesn't disappoint.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I fancy the longer a poet writes the better he knows what he is doing: it is an advantage and a danger. An advantage, for the task of a poet is to make his imaginative world clear to himself. A danger, for that world in becoming clear may grow hard and shallow and obscure the mystery which it once embodied. We do not know enough about such things. --Edwin Muir, An Autobiography

Monday, March 23, 2009

"It's not like they're going to learn anything anyway."

Just read this fascinating article about essay mills (thanks to Goodreports for the link).

There was a time I seriously thought about selling old essays. When I floated the idea to a couple of friends, they were aghast. I never did sell any papers, but I still think there's nothing really wrong with it. This relates, in no small way, to the big fuss over the U of Ottawa prof handing out free A's. I think if you got rid of letter grades and emphasised learning over performance, a lot of the demand for these churned out essays would dry up. If the essay mills are flourishing, it's because the universities are sausage mills themselves.

Funnily, one of the people who told me I shouldn't sell my essays later asked me for an old Paradise Lost essay of mine because she needed to write one and was feeling too harried or something. I gave her my essay; she wound up not using it because she disagreed with my thesis. See, she was a smart person who cared about such things. She belonged in a post-secondary English class. So many students enrolled really have no business being there, but being there is good business for the school.

When I was in the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King's College in Halifax, cheating was rampant. Students were divided into different tutorial groups, with different tutors. As long as two students had different tutors and the papers they submitted were sub-A (A- and higher papers had to go to the Director for approval), both students could submit identical papers with very little risk of detection. I don't recall hearing about anyone getting busted in my year.

When I posted my 4th year paper on Wallace Stevens here on CLM, I had the feeling that some particularly lazy--and stupid--cheaters would be using it. Sure enough, a few months ago I got a hit on the blog from an American university server searching for the precise wording of my essay's opening sentence. After that, I put a caveat emptor up before the essay--which is a bigger favour than those idiots who would copy it verbatim deserve.

When Rachel was a TA at Concordia, she had a student who plagiarized her paper from four different online sources. All just a quick Google search away. I think this might be the way to sell papers and still sleep well at night: cache an archive of paper titles and key sentences, so that suspicious profs can track them down. By and large, if profs don't catch cheaters, they're just as dumb and lazy as the cheaters themselves.

Sunday, March 22, 2009



Noticed this little gem as I was packing today:

Friday, March 20, 2009


Rob Taylor pointed out this nifty site called Wordle, which takes a piece of text and generates a graphic out of it. I plugged in the ms. of my forthcoming poetry collection and got this.

Nigel Beale on CNQ 75

With a couple of nice words for yours truly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why I Love Site Meter

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One-Stop Shopping

Julie Wilson of Seen Reading fame is curating a pretty cool thing for National Poetry Month (or NaPoMo, for those in the know): 30 poets (including yrs truly), reading two poems each (one of their own and one cover) in 30 days. And more:

30 in 30 from Seen Reading on Vimeo.

What's That Word Again?

Just read this article that Dan Wells posted over at Thirsty. It made Dan think of short fiction. It made me think of something else. It's on the tip of my tongue. Oh, what could it be?

Tom, Dick 'n' Harry

Sometimes, they just pop in randomly to drop an off-topic list of proper nouns.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More Goodyear

Gary Goodyear is proving to be a font of bungled English. Turns out he does believe in evolution after all, but he doesn't understand what it is. I think the word you're looking for is adaptation, Mr. Minister. Either that, or he subscribes to Lamarckian theory...

"it increases the problem."

More religious idiocy.

"we have to do discovery"

Looks like we need to add Gary Goodyear to James Moore on the list of Ministers with the Wrong Portfolios.

Review online

My review of Margaret Avison's posthumous collection Listening is now up at the Quill & Quire site.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

There are three poets from Canada

A facebook status update by Edward Nixon this morning alluded to there being three poets from Canada, according to the illustrious Poetry Foundation. I looked it up and sure enough. You'll never guess who they are.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Magazine that James Moore Can't Kill

Just got word that Rhythm Poetry Magazine, an online outfit affiliated with the Dalhousie University English Department (from which I graduated, migawd, 10 years ago), will be publishing four of my poems in May. Editor Mary Kathryn Arnold asked me to pass on the word to anyone writing metrical verse that Rhythm welcomes your submissions. You can also join the Facebook group.

The four poems they're taking are all from my forthcoming collection, Track & Trace, due out with Biblioasis in the fall. I handed in the ms. a few weeks ago and am told I should be getting an edit back before too long. I'm very glad not only to be publishing with Biblioasis, but to be working with Carmine Starnino as editor, moonlighting from his regular gig at Signal Editions. If anyone can catch the gaffes in the thing and tighten its strings, 'tis he. Colleagues and friends in this racket don't come much better than Dan Wells and Carmine. Cheers, gentlemen.

Open Letter to James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage

Dear Mr. Moore,

I'm writing to you as a concerned Conservative. I am troubled by the recent news that your department plans to change the funding paradigm for Canadian magazines. In particular, I think the idea of restricting funding to magazines with a subscription base of 5000 or more is a serious mistake. Why so? Because of what it will do to the artists, Mr. Moore.

Now, I imagine your office has already been inundated with letters decrying this potential deathblow to small arts and literary magazines. Personally, I could care less about the fate of these rags, filled as they are with the noodlings and doodlings of pretentious fifth-rate phonies. But the continued existence of these magazines serves a very important pragmatic purpose, which I think your party has lost sight of in its zeal to return money to people and corporations that already have it--and why not, they've earned it after all!--and take it away from wobbly, weak-kneed calves suckling at the public teat.

What purpose, you wonder? It's very simple, Mr. Moore: they keep the artists busy, complacent and quiet. You see, the "average Canadian" so prized by Mr. Harper isn't even aware of the existence of these magazines, much less is he reading them. In third world countries and totalitarian regimes, however, the artists, marginalized by the state, have the public's ears and eyes. They have real influence. And they are generally not in favour of the status quo. They cause trouble. They spark opposition. They foment unrest. They are dangerous people, Mr. Moore--and in Canada they do not like your party and its aims.

As long as the government throws artists--dogs that they are--the odd scrap and bone, they heel nicely, without being asked. They argue amongst themselves about matters of no public consequence. They circulate in their ghettoes in near-perfect isolation from the average Canadian. They compete fiercely with each other for the meagre funds available. They publish their little magazines that aren't even read by other artists. They whine occasionally about not being appreciated, but aren't sufficiently motivated to do anything real about it.

If you start taking this appeasement away, Mr. Moore, all you will be doing is kicking a sleeping dog in the ribs. Poets and playwrights will turn to satire, sculptors and painters will produce grotesque nude effigies of your leader (they will not be kind to his manly bits), folk singers will start writing protest songs instead of celebrating the faded glories of their piece of rural heaven. They will acquire an edge. They will gain relevance. Their ideas and images will begin to infect the public, as they will have to take public presentation of their work into their own hands with no more subsidized outlets available. And your party's government, barely scraping by as it is, will be defeated.

Nobody wants that, Mr. Moore. As Mr. Harper is always saying, Canadians--40% of them!--voted for a Conservative government. Conservatives, as the name implies, do best to leave things the way they are. Please, sir, believe me, depriving the little magazines of their piddly pittance is a very bad idea. For the love of all that's holy, hands off and laissez-faire, don't piss off the poets.

Sincerely yours,

Zachariah Wells,

PS: When I clicked on the link to your email address, the subject line "Hi James!" came up automatically. Please, sir, have some dignity. You're a cabinet minister.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Along with some good I had borrowed from Heine a quality which did not become me at that stage of life: a habit of speaking about everything ironically. This complicated my relations with my friends, who did not appreciate irony, especially bad irony. I became ruthless towards sentimentality, like so many people in their early twenties. The reasons for this phase is comprehensible enough. It is that a young man is keenly aware of his feelings and at the same time unsure of them. His awareness of them makes him despise conventional emotion, which seems a caricature, and his unsureness makes him distrust deep emotion in case it should be false. He needs a standard of criticism, and, not having it, falls back on sarcasm. Heine had initiated me into the art of feeling and laughing at my feelings; but if one laughs long enough the feeling dwindles, and the laughter usurps its place, until there is very little left to laugh at, unless one manufactures it.
--Edwin Muir, An Autobiography

James Moore's Little Blue Choo-choo

Rob Taylor has written a delightfully funny letter to Heritage Minister James Moore about the planned revisions to magazine funding. Alas, this will probably just reinforce the neocons impression of artists as delinquent reprobates, but I think this sort of humorous defiance is way better than, say, the hand-wringing earnestness of Yann Martel. It's got a few ideas brewing in my ol' noggin now...

BC Book Prizes

A little late on this, but the BC Book Prizes shortlists were announced t'other day. Great to see Elise Partridge on the poetry shortlist--but where the hell is Matt Rader's Living Things? Instead, we have the supremely boring oldguard avant-garde stalwarts Marlatt and Stanley and a book published by Frontenac House, whom I've never seen publish a book that wouldn't justly be rejected by a first-tier press. Are these crappy things in her book? Boo.

Also, no love for Anything But Hank!, alas. We had high hopes for this book in terms of nominations, mainly because of Eric Orchard's awesome artwork. Of course, we didn't make the Atlantic shortlist in part because Eric's other book was nominated. Oh well.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Best leave this to the professionals, son.

Russell Smith inveighs against the bitter, twisted Amazon critic. A bunch of unwashed nobodies respond.

Steven Beattie deals with the same subject, only much better.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Just in case you thought the government was wasting your money on my writing grants...

The Teddies. $40,000 for a flying banana. 'Nuf said.

"It's not just the lowbrow, it's the quiet"

Bookninja has posted a terrific interview with Adam Sol about his recent book Jeremiah, Ohio, one of my favourite books of the last few years.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cruisin' the Hershey Highway

Germaine Greer on sodomy.

Une Pensée

God in the 21st C: all that and a bag of chips.

Monday, March 9, 2009

No Way, Man

Brian Palmu goes to town on Tom Wayman's most recent book.

I couldn't agree more, but didn't have the space to get into it with any gusto. Wayman might just be the worst poet in Canada with a substantial reputation. But there's a lot of competition, so I won't say that definitively.

My new favourite photo of the boy

More on Mag Funding

Speaking of CNQ and how good it is, herewith an impassioned--and informative--post from Dan Wells on the threatened kneecapping of small magazines and how it will affect our mag in particular. If you haven't yet written to your MP, the Heritage minister, Heritage critics et al, please do so. Even self-proclaimed conservative Dr. Ursus has written to the PM.

CNQ Best of the Rack

Thanks to Lyle Neff for pointing out that James Adams of the Globe & Mail has highlighted the new issue of CNQ--and particularly Steven W. Beattie's take on last year's Giller shortlist--as being one of the best reads on the Rack. Nice.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The City of Vancouver Wants You

My nomination would be Elizabeth Bachinsky. Can't think of anyone in town better suited for the job. But apply away, you crazy Vancouver poets, you.

Only 1 week remains until the deadline, please submit your applications postmarked before March 11, 2009.

City of Vancouver Poet Laureate - Call for Expressions of Interest

The City of Vancouver is requesting submissions for the position of Poet Laureate. The Poet Laureate position was created in December 2006 and the successful applicant will be the City's second Poet Laureate. The Poet Laureate must be a Vancouver resident.

Please see the Vancouver Verse website for details:

Deadline for expressions of interest - March 11, 2009

Hard copy expressions of interest should be sent to:

City of Vancouver Poet Laureate Selection Committee Library Administration
7th Floor
Vancouver Public Library
350 West Georgia St.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada, V6B 6B1

Friday, March 6, 2009

Canada Continues to Read

I've not bothered posting anything about the Canada Reads proceedings to-date for a few reasons. 1)I've read none of the books. 2)Steven Beattie and Alex Good have been doing a bang-up job over at TSR. 3)It's all about fiction and I have little interest in contemporary fiction, per se. Not that I don't ever read it and haven't enjoyed some works of it, I just don't have the time or energy to sift thru it looking for the best of it.

But I still tuned in to all episodes this week. I think it was a particularly weak year. I don't think Jian Ghomeshi did a very good job hosting it. As Steven and Alex have pointed out, he wasn't exactly an impartial mediator. He also asked a lot of questions that led to inevitably trite and repetitive answers. I also found the repeated insistence on the commercial impact of the show needlessly crass. But all the blame can't rest on him. The champions, on the whole, didn't seem all that well chosen and were content for the most part to wallow in generalizations and feelgood vagaries. There was caginess, particularly on the part of Avi Lewis and Jen Sookfong Lee, but very little by way of eloquent--or even accurate--testimony on the books' behalf. Hardly any quotes from the books were provided over the course of the week. We heard that Adamson had the best prose, but we heard none of the prose itself. This seems a significant shortcoming when you're talking about supposedly literary books.

And tho I haven't read any of the books, as I said, The Book of Negroes was hanging out in my apartment for a couple of weeks while Rachel read it, and I was subjected to numerous "listen to this" recitations of incredibly bad, cliche-drenched expository prose from it. Rachel did finish the book because the subject matter's of interest to her--she said that she could see the seams where Hill was integrating material from non-fiction books she'd read on the topic--but hated every minute of it. I don't see how the other books could have been worse than this one. Style isn't everything in a novel, but a total dearth of it has to be damning at a certain point. (Then again, MG Vassanji keeps winning awards...) The book's style never came up once, at least not in any substantive way, during the debates. And it won. And it's a bestseller. And it won the Commonwealth Prize. It's got an awful lot of miles out of its gripping subject matter.

I like the idea of this kind of round-robin discussion of different books, but it doesn't seem that the "Survival" format's any more conducive to picking a good book than any other prize jury. The only book from Canada Reads '09 I'm likely to check out is Tremblay's. But better to read it in French. I've read and/or seen performed two of his plays, Bonjour là, bonjour and Les belles soeurs, and the language he uses is so much the point of his writing--unlike Hill, who seems deaf and indifferent to linguistic felicity--that it's exceptionally difficult to translate without losing a great deal of the original's elan. One could imagine a typical paragraph of Hill's, on the other hand, actually being improved in translation. Say, into a film. Or, better yet, a mini-series! Cha-ching!

I think they should really do one of these Canada Reads with a panel of experts. Bring in Philip Marchand, Zsuzsi Gartner (a past participant), Steven Beattie, Alex Good and Stephen Henighan. Now that would be an interesting discussion.

Site back online

On the off chance that someone out there's been jonesing for my website, it's back online now that the domain's renewed. Took longer than it should have. I know I was sick of that antiseptically pretty blonde girl that came up instead of my ugly mug.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Poem Online

My poem "Rhythm" is now online at Riddle Fence. Check it out. The RF site has an automatically generated "possibly related link" feature. For mine, it's a blog post about the movie Apollo 13. I was mystified by this until I realized that both the post and my poem contain the word "shuttle." Ah, polysemy.

This poem, along with another, "To the Superb Lyrebird, That Cover Band of the Australian Bush," will both be appearing in the print issue of Riddle Fence. Can't wait to see it.


for Art Moore

Listen to wisdom. Ignore bum advice.

Bad plan to borrow. Likewise to lend.

Don’t wear jackboots when you’re crossing thin ice.

Spend what you get and get what you spend.

Steer clear of the poor. Don’t piss off the rich.

If the glass is half empty, drink it quick.

Keep your stick up and your pickup out of the ditch.

Feed on the healthy, abandon the sick.

Don’t leave any gas when you siphon the tank.

Take out insurance on your aging mother.

Win the lottery. Hold up a bank.

Buy her down pillows in hopes that she smother.

Don’t fight a war on more than one front.

And never kick a gift horse in the cunt.

Fun With Acrostics

I have a bit of a weakness for acrostics. Formally, you can't really get much more intentional than an acrostic. This is the first accidental acrostic--and oh, what a place for it!--I've ever seen. Thanks to Franklin Carter for pointing it out on a discussion thread at Bookninja.


A pretty cool story in the NYT about a gathering of "fisher poets." If some of the verse sounds wretched--but really, not much worse than the Andrew Motion poems I linked to previously--it doesn't sound half as bad as the wide-eyed comments of the non-fishers present:

“I have to set aside my English-teacher hat now and then,” said Fred Chancey, recently retired from Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., who showed up for the second year in a row, just to listen. “But a lot of it is really good stuff. I like the blue-collar school of poetry.”

My, how enlightened! Or how about:

“This is the closest I’ve been to a boat like this,” said Ted Osborn, an architect who, with his wife Wendy, is waiting for their new retirement home overlooking the Columbia to be completed. “We lived for 30 years in Southern California, where pretentiousness is king. This place is much more real.”

Oh, Ted and Wendy, please tell me what you mean by this horrific cliché. Perhaps you can contemplate the matter in your no-doubt ostentatious riverside retirement home.

There have, of course, been fishermen who have produced really good poetry. Scottish poet WS Graham is probably the best known. We've got a couple of good 'uns here, too, in Tim Bowling--whose work is frustratingly uneven, but sizzles at its best--and Joe Denham. Bowling hasn't fished in years, but Denham's still at it, working out of Sechelt. I have the feeling that, besides mending traps in the off-season, he's working on some good poems. It's been six years since his first book, Flux, was launched. It was uneven, probably, like most of our first books, mine included, published too early--but the best work in it's excellent, and quite unlike anything else published in this country.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How Ninjas Work

A very nice reading, by Nigel Beale, of George Murray's poem "Hunter," is up at the Arc site. They've screwed up the formatting, as you can see by Beale's reference to the "unrhymed couplets." This made for an interesting reading for me; I think it works better without the stanza breaks. All of the poems in The Hunter are in unrhymed couplets or tercets and those stanzaic forms often struck me as flaws in the book, as they seemed arbitrarily super-imposed, working at cross-purposes to the headlong momentum of many of the poems. Beale also picks out what I see as the only significant hiccup in the galloping drive of this otherwise exceptionally good poem.

UPDATE: Since I posted, they've fixed the formatting. I still think it's better without stanza breaks.

Another Barfily Cute Baby Video

Silliman in Motion

Ron Silliman "goes negative" on Andrew Motion's ass. With good reason. Plenty good reason. I've never read a book of Motion's, in large part because the poems I've read here and there--generally in anthologies or on sites like the ones linked above, in which the poems selected are presumably indicative of his best efforts--have been so thoroughly underwhelming. If the laureateship led to a decline in his productivity as a poet, I can't say that the reading public is any the poorer for it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Eric Orchard and Lillian Shepherd

Learned today that Eric Orchard, the uber-talented illustrator of Anything But Hank!, has been shortlisted for the Lillian Shepherd Award for illustration. Alas, it's for another of his books, but wonderful news nonetheless. Congrats, Eric!

Humpy McDimplemitts

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Keep on Neggin' in the Free World

Harking back to the debate about negative reviewing that started on Squandermania and spilled on to other blogs, the full text of Jason Guriel's review (the opening of which sparked the discussion) is now up at Poetry. Really not all that controversial, but some interesting discussion follows it. I particularly like the point made by one commenter about short reviews vs. long reviews. As someone who has written, and continues to write, both, I know exactly what he's talking about. You really have to boil things down in a short review; there's no space for nuanced contemplation and not much potential for bona fide literary criticism. The short form has its satisfactions, but often frustrates me, particularly when it comes to books about which I feel ambivalent. A longer review gives me the chance to work out and explain (to myself, as well as to readers of the review) my mixed feelings, whereas a short review of the same book can come off sounding equivocally tepid or, worse I think, can lean more in one direction than the reviewer actually wants it to.* Some books I just like so much that I want to quote more and really get into what makes them hum. Canadian Notes & Queries continues to be a haven for the 2000+ word review. I have no interest in publishing brief reviews and am usually disappointed if a reviewer hands in a perfunctory 7 or 800 words. Even in 2000 worders, I find I'm often prompting the reviewer to expand on one point or another. But, given that we have a payment ceiling, I can't really blame reviewers for not wanting to go deep. Vita brevis and all that.

*An illuminating contrast from my own work is my 350 word review of Peter Sanger's Aiken Drum vs. the 9000 word essay I wrote on his work. The former was written in the midst of the latter, and was I think unduly influenced by it. At any rate, I think the short review dwelt more on the faults of the book than it should have, given the scope of the review. Not that I disagree with what I said, just that I didn't adequately represent the range of what I thought of the book, which made the praise at the end seem perfunctory.


Did someone say FREE?