Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Have book, will travel

I'm off Friday morning to attend the sixth annual UNB Poetry Weekend in Fredericton. This will be my fifth time attending; couldn't make it last year as I was at the Ottawa Writers Fest, which seduced me away with more money and beer. The Poetry Weekend is always a lot of fun, even if it is something of a feat of endurance to attend all the readings. This year, there are apparently 45 readers over the course of six readings on Saturday and Sunday.

It was looking touch-n-go for my new book making it to the weekend, but got word tonight that the good folks at Coach House have managed to bind up 20 copies each of my book and Shane Neilson's Meniscus (also published by Biblioasis and edited by yours truly), which they'll be delivering to Shane in Guelph before he takes off for NB. Kudos and thanks to publisher and printer both.

I'm also supposedly launching T&T in Charlottetown a week tomorrow, but haven't squared up all the details with the venue yet. More anon.

Another Moronic Minister

No wonder Harper is always keeping his people from talking to the media. Oy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Another Felicitous Find in the Rootbed

The English language is a similar historical mishmash of homage and pragmatism. We include Greek, Latin, French, Old English, and many other roots, at a cost known to every first- and second-grader. Linguists classify English as a morphophonemic writing system because it represents both morphemes (units of meaning) and phonemes (units of sound) in its spelling, a major source of bewilderment to many new readers if they don't understand the historical reasons. ... In essence, English represents a "trade-off" between depicting the individual sounds of the oral language and showing the roots of its words.

--Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

And that, brothers and sisters, is another reason why the English language poet is better off paying attention to the little bits than the big books.

The Pre-Poem Moment

I'm very pleased to be included in a new Frog Hollow Press anthology. My contribution is an essay on my poem "Achromatope," previously published as a Frog Hollow broadside.

Here's the bumpf:

APPROACHES TO POETRY: the pre-poem moment


The origin of poetry is presumed to be
song; but what is the origin of the poem?
This anthology attempts to explain the
origins of original poems by asking 27
poets to create a dialogue with a favourite
poem (their own) in the form of an essay.
The poets were given free reign in
answering; some were short and sharp,
others ranged further, thinking of the
essay as an opportunity to discover the
means of poetry, how biography and
image and the right words render them-
selves unto the poem.

The results are sometimes essayistic
and sometimes indivisible from their
poetic origins. Poets can be as various as
reaching back to Robert Browning, side-
ways to a heteronym, or forward to the
process of revision. Each of the poets
surprised themselves as they trawled
their consciousness, discovering not just
the elements of their poems, but their

essays & poems by:

mark abley
brian bartlett
john barton
stephanie bolster
tim bowling
ron charach
evie christie
wayne clifford
geoffrey cook
jason dewinetz
crispin elsted
ben hart
jessica hiemstra-
van der horst
amanda jernigan
jim johnstone
monica kidd
m. travis lane
nyla matuk
alison pick
harold rhenisch
claire sharpe
goran simic
sue sinclair
david solway
carmine starnino
sara tilley
zachariah wells

The Radish Patch

In my last post I went off on a bit of a tangent about roots and radishes. Then today, reading Margaret Avison's recently published posthumous autobiography, I Am Here and Not Not-There, I came across the following passage:

And is it today's defiant shrugging off of history that dictates the plastic quality of its new words? Plastic, not organic. There are roots and matted interweavings, across continents and down the centuries, underneath the words we have inherited, the language that shapes our responses, our understanding, our wit, e.g. (radical, radish, eradicate)!

Quick connections, and gradually resonant overtones: we need them both.

Love it when this sort of coincidence happens.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Projected Verse

Jacob Mooney has weighed in with a very thoughtful response to the dialogue Michael Lista and I were having the other day, and to the Jason Guriel interview that initially prompted it.

Again, I can't emphasize strongly enough that I don't object to the thematic collection, per se. What bugs me is the extent to which that approach has been normalized as The Way To Go for poetry. To me, a classic example of what I mean was a younger (i.e. my age) poet saying to me one day that she really didn't want to continue with the "project" she'd been working on, but felt obliged to do so because she'd received a grant for the purpose.

Another poet of my acquaintance once told me that she liked the project she was working on because she was never at a loss for what to write about on any given day. Which is understandable, but doesn't exactly sound like it's apt to produce the kind of pressure under which good poems tend to get written. And I should add that both of these poets are very talented writers. If it was only mediocre writers who got influenced by all this business, it would be of no concern.

Part of what bugs me about the project paradigm is that it can be a kind of reification of a Protestant work ethic which, to me, is antithetical to art. Maybe this is just because I'm basically lazy, prone to procrastination and have a lousy attention span, but I'd really like to hear more people say, hey, if you don't know what to write about, don't worry about it. Not writing is OK. (A nifty bit in Guriel's book is an unfinished sonnet corona; the form itself says "Look, it's okay to quit.") It might even lead to better poems, who knows? It can certainly lead to fewer bad-to-middling poems. I often go weeks without writing a poem; occasionally months. This makes for a really crappy grant pitch.

What bugs me is that the methods of people like me and others of my acquaintance--sporadic, scattershot, unsystematic, unpremeditated--get treated as tho they're somehow inferior to the more diligent, blueprinted, cohesive-from-the-getgo efforts of those who write "projects."

At the risk of repeating myself--but Mooney seems to have overlooked this part of the exchange between me and Michael, so perhaps it bears repeating--none of this is to say that I think a book, if/when one does choose to publish poems in such a format, should necessarily contain just any old poems that happen to be your best. When I was assembling the ms. of Unsettled, I didn't put in any poems not related to the Arctic, altho I'd written plenty, some of which were better than most of the poems in Unsettled. In putting together the ms. of Track & Trace, I left out a whole lot of what I think are strong poems because they don't fit the book; I also cut poems that fit, but weren't ... fit, as I did with Unsettled (tho, in retrospect, not nearly enough). A similar thing will happen when next I take stock of what I've got.

But this is manifestly different from deliberately setting out to write a thematically unified project--not that there's anything wrong with that--so Mooney's closing comment about a book's theme being “the thing we cared the most about while writing it” is something of a red herring. Because the thing about poetry, when it's done well, is it tends to resist reduction to any such single theme--because, as Empson has taught us rather persuasively, ambiguity is a qualitiy intrinsic to poetry. Even if Jason said that X was the thing he cared most about while writing the poems of Pure Product, that tells us very little about how those individual poems work and what they're about. And anyway there's no way you can consider "valuing the individual poem over a poetry book" is a theme in the same way that "film" or even "pop culture" is. And some clever reader will invariably point out something you didn't know you were doing, but is undeniably present in the work.

The way I do things is not in line with the literature-as-cottage-industry approach fostered by university writing programmes and the CC because I don't know what my "project" is until I've finished writing the poems it contains (which brings to mind a recent quip by Stuart Ross, when asked about what he was working on). In the case of T&T, we're talking about a period of about eleven years to write 34 poems. Which would make for a helluva long MFA, or a pretty damn paltry annual income, given one CC grant for the creation of the book.

I'd like to take on a couple of specific things in Mooney's column. At one point he says:

I would argue that the question we should be asking about an individual poet is this: What is the atomistic, indivisible unit of measure for their work? Is it the phoneme, the sound? The word? The phrase? The line? The stanza or graph? The poem? The sequence of linked poems? The book? Or the lifelong collection of books? There are major figures in the history of English Language poetry who’ve hung their hats at every hook on this wall. At one end there are the poets who’ve built their work from the elemental slivers of our language, from a world far below sense or even language, from sound itself. Here you’ll find the radical sound poets and some formalists as well. Zach Wells claims to be a part of this group during his argument with Lista, though I’m not sure if I see it. His poems, at their best, are too thoughtful and concerned with communication to have not avoided sacrificing some part of this radical beginning.

First of all, thanks for the kind words, Jacob; I'm glad to hear you think my poems are thoughtful. But I never said that my work was pure sound. I quoted the Frostian maxim to beware of the sound and let sense take care of itself. Language being a system of signs as well as sounds, it is intrinsically communicative. One has to work very self-consciously against the grain of language for it to lose its link to communication. While I've written a fair number of poems that can't readily be paraphrased because they don't have an explicit narrative, I've never been interested in the Quixotic task of stripping language of its status as tool of communication. Oh, but the way it communicates is so darn tricky... By "radical" I don't mean extreme, I mean "root" (cf. radish). See now, that's something that fascinates me, how a radish both comes from and is a radix. And how a radix, over time can come to mean a branchtip. I'm interested in how our modern words are racinated in the soil--and oh hell, in the soul too--of dead language. This is what I mean by paying attention to the small units out of which a poem is built, their intersections and disjunctions of sense and sound, because every word within a poem is a poem in its own right, ambiguous, polysemous--to say nothing of promiscuous. And I think this is more the fundamental (and don't forget that a fundament is also a business end) business of writing poems than a book or lifetime body of work is. Which isn't to say that you should do one and not the other, but that if you pay attention to the one the other, as per Frost's dictum, will take care of itself.

Another thing Mooney brings up:

There are even poets who look beyond that and see their life’s work as the indivisible “product” of their creative output. The most obvious example is someone like Walt Whitman, who spent his years constantly editing and shaping a single book (Leaves of Grass, high on my list of favourite books of any decade). He added poems, removed some, rewrote others, and advanced this single volume piece by piece until he was no longer and only the book remained behind.

See, I actually see Whitman as a bit of a poster/whipping boy for what I'm talking about. Whitman was an occasionally brilliant, but more often long-winded, poet who would have done well to focus more on the individual poem than on his life-long project. Just because it was of paramount importance to him doesn't mean I have to agree. As a book, Leaves of Grass is practically unreadable. Hands up: how many people have actually read it cover to cover (anyone who had to for a course doesn't count). Now, of those who read it all, how many would recommend the undertaking to others? I have no shame in admitting that I could only get about halfway thru. It's long and monotonous. Far better to read a well-edited selection of his best poems. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" is a way better argument for keeping Walt in the canon than Leaves of Grass is, as academically interesting as his project--which, by the way, is the antithesis of an ordered, unified book; that whole containing multitudes thing-- undoubtedly is.

Anyhoo, I'm not calling for a moratorium on thematically unified books. Everyone has his or her own way of working and I can't presume to say that one way is right and another wrong. I'd just like to see a more widespread acknowledgment on the part of our cultural institutions that there's more than one valid way to go about one's business as a writer of poems. Or poetry. Or whatever.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First review for Track & Trace

The book's not off the press yet, but there's an advance review of Track & Trace in the new issue of Quill & Quire, courtesy of Fraser Sutherland:

Born on Prince Edward Island, currently based in Halifax, frequent Q&Q contributor Zachariah Wells is a Maritime poet of direct speech and muscular lexicon, both of which can be counted among the legacies of fellow Maritimer Alden Nowlan. However, Wells boasts more cosmopolitan affiliations than Nowlan did: he takes his book's epigraph from Ivan Klima, and recasts poems by Rilke and the baroque sonneteer Jean-Baptiste Chassignet.

Since Wells works for Via Rail, one might supppose that the track in his title alludes to the transcontinental routes he travels. But this is no railroader's verse: he is interested in the tracks we follow and the traces we leave. Such abstract concerns are conveyed with admirable, if sometimes too effortful, exactness. In "Slugs," the titular creatures are "creeping beads / of cool snot"; in "Briar Patch," ploughing a cane thicket, the poet's father "John-Deered the patch." Sometimes he leans a little too heavily on line breaks, creating a stuttering effect, as in "The Pond," in which a creek is "percolating into a reek- / rich bog." On rare occasions, he succumbs to jarring metaphors, as in "Fool's Errand," in which a valley in a snowstorm is a "bowl of stirred-up curdled milk."

Yet, taken overall, such poems are among the most powerful in the collection, to which may be added the impressive "Dream Vision of the Flood," in which the poet, a Noah retreating to a hilltop, dreams of his island home becoming "redrawn / by water." Since PEI in winter is more or less an iceberg floating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it's not surprising that snow figures in many poems. Then, too, snow relates to his theme, given its ability to erase both tracks and traces.

Unashamed of end-rhymes or reworking the sonnet form, Wells also varies his work with incantation-like poems, in which line openings reiterate words or phrases like "Roads...," "Out with the...," and "It was a winter of..." Such litany-like exercises in parallelism are less successful than the poems in which variations on a theme are smoothly melded.

Even in Vancouver, Wells finds traces of his island home. Indeed, his most resonant poems reach back to the cormorants, red earth, and mussel mud of the province nicknamed "the million-acre farm."--Fraser Sutherland, whose next poetry collection, The Philosophy of As If (Bookland Press), is forthcoming in 2010.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A string of one-night stands

An interesting interview with Jason Guriel. I'm totally with him on his valuation of the single poem over the book of poetry. And it's refreshing to hear anyone champion the entertainment value of poetry.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Deny the Devil

Deny the devil at the doorstep
Deny the devil in the grass
Deny the devil in the forceps
Deny the devil in the pass

Deny the devil in the bottle
Deny the devil in the snow
Deny the devil in the throttle
Deny the devil you don't know

Deny the devil in proteins
Deny the devil his church
Deny the devil in bluejeans
Deny the devil his perch

Deny the devil's in the details
Deny the devil his show
Deny the devil buys retail
Deny the devil you know

Tuesday, September 1, 2009