Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Against Project Descriptions, as such: an open letter to the Canada Council for the Arts

I just finished writing a grant application to the Canada Council. I decided, against the better judgment of sensible folk, to use the space allotted to a "project description" to explain why I am not including a project description. Because I wrote this in the hopes that it would generate fruitful discussion about these matters, I've decided to share my argument with a creative writing program officer at the CC, and with anyone else who cares to hear about it. I know there are a lot of writers who share my basic position on this matter; if you do, I urge you to share your thoughts with the Canada Council. Herewith, my non-project description:

Description of Project

In past applications, I have written several paragraphs describing the project for which I was requesting support. I did this even though I am not a writer who works from any sort of pre-formulated plan and therefore had no “project” per se. I did this because I believed that perfect honesty would hurt my cause. Because I am not overly fond of prevarication and because I am a perhaps unreasonably proud person, I toyed with the idea, this time, of tersely describing my proposed project as “a book of poems” and leaving it at that. I have decided, instead, to provide a reasoned argument defending my decision not to describe a project, as such.

This is, in many ways, more difficult and, I recognize, more risky an approach than the fabulation of a straightforward project description. I have been advised against proceeding thus by other writers who have read drafts of this text, as they are concerned that it is an arrogant approach that will potentially alienate jurors who might otherwise be predisposed towards supporting my application. I have decided not to follow my friends' well-intended advice, for several reasons. First, I see no cause to conceal my working methods; however erratic they may seem to an outside observer, they have stood me in good stead. Second, I think more writers need to apply for support from a position of pride and strength, rather than as duplicitous suppliants; if I am not willing to do this myself, then I am a hypocrite. The present government tends to regard publicly funded artists as parasites; rather than keep a low profile to avoid attracting the Conservatives' wrath, as I have heard several artists say we should do, I think this is the time to stand up and be counted, to be boldly unapologetic about our worth to society. A grant application may not seem the place or time to do this, but if we fail to model positive behaviour even within the relatively safe confines of our artistic enclaves, I do not see how there can be much hope of us doing it in a broader public setting. Finally, I am proceeding likewise because I believe that the notion one must have a project has had an insidiously pernicious effect on the sort of poetry books that have been written and published in this country, placing too much emphasis on the book as unit of production. Stuart Ross, a veteran of the Canadian writing scene whose work has won widespread acclaim and been nominated for a shelfload of prizes, recently spoke out about this in a column in Sub-Terrain magazine: “Does a focused Project or Theme make for a better book of poetry? Nope — more often than not it means oat-meal-like homogeneity. Or some interesting idea stretched beyond its natural limit to achieve “book length.” But it sure makes it easier to describe what you’re working on when you have to fill out a grant application.” Obviously, if a writer of Stuart's bent happens to be on a jury, he won't punish an application for want of a coherent description. Perhaps there are many such jurors out there, but the impression given, and received, is that the project description is important and that it must be adhered to if monies are to be granted. A writer friend confided to me once that she did not think her project was working out, but that she felt obliged to follow through on it, having received a grant. She cannot be the only such conscientious soul to have felt this way and to have therefore wasted time and energy in the production of mediocre work. The Canada Council exists to support artists, not to influence the genre of art being produced. Whatever the intentions behind asking for project descriptions, the effects are not altogether salutary.

First off, I must say that I do see the rationale behind asking for a project description, even if I don't agree that it should be required. The sums of money being disbursed are not insignificant, and one wishes to be sure that taxpayers' dollars go to people who will make good use of them. When it comes to writers without much of a track record, a well-written pitch can only help a jury, desperate for objective criteria in a highly subjective field, to form an impression of a writer's credibility. Young writers, aware that they work in a competitive field, will naturally try to outdo their peers in crafting the most persuasive-sounding descriptions possible. This is why I had no insurmountable qualms about writing detailed, albeit somewhat fanciful, descriptions of my projects in previous applications, two of which have been successful. When going to a job interview, one shaves and puts on a tie; one doesn't go as one's slovenly self.

Once a writer has established something of a pedigree and amassed a basket of awards and credentials, however, it seems that past performance, along with a sample of recent writing, should be amply sufficient to judge their application's merit. I could tell you all manner of fine things about what I intend to write—I have spent much of the past dozen years, after all, turning out polished verse and magazine prose, so eloquence and balderdash come to me naturally—but it is the poems I have already written and the books I have already published that should make or break my case, regardless of whether my description is an honest plan, a cynical strategy or a half-cocked fantasy.

None of my poems has been written according to a pre-conceived blueprint. The variety of subject matter, form, voice and technique in my enclosed writing sample reflects my credo that with every poem one writes, one starts fresh. Having composed a poem on one subject and/or in a certain manner, I am not interested in following the same patterns again. I want to surprise myself and my readers, which is, as a goal, rather difficult to convey in advance of its advent. Writing for me has always been experimental, a process of discovery, rather than an agenda of tasks to be checked off upon completion. Sometimes, I write prolifically. Often, I don't. Much of the creative work I do does not qualify as grantable art, much more yet fails to amount to anything worthwhile, but most if not all of what I decide to publish contributes to literary culture. If I were perfectly honest in a project description, I would have to admit that there is some chance that I will not write a single poem during the period covered by the grant. History suggests otherwise, but it is nevertheless a potentiality I confront on a regular basis. The thing is, one never can say how much work a poet gets done when she appears to be doing nothing at all. One year, I spent several months in an anhedonic funk, during which I wrote almost nothing despite having a wealth of free time; at the end of it, I wound up producing what I think will stand as one my very best poems. This is why “project descriptions” are, frankly, absurd for so many of us (even while, I concede, there are some who seem to work very well within the parameters laid out by a project description).

I may not have much of a clue what it is I will do next, but patterns established over the past decade-plus suggest that it will be something—and that the something in question will have an impact on culture, in however marginal a way, as tends to be the case with small-press literary activities. I won't rehash my C.V., as you have it in front of you already. I have done a substantial quantity of good work and that work has received positive notice, grants, prizes, anthologizations. One thing I do know is that the less I have to chase after income to ensure that my family continues to enjoy a reasonably high quality of life, the more likely I am to get good work done—the more opportunity I will have to read, reflect and learn what it is I might do next. I look forward to discovering what that work will be, and a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts will go some distance towards helping me do so. I have every confidence that a grant at this stage of my development as a writer will be money well spent. I hope that you agree.

Poetry Weekend!!!

I'm heading to Fredericton tomorrow. Nothing noteworthy about that, I head to Fredericton every Wednesday morning these days. But this time, instead of spending one night, I'll be staying till Sunday night. This weekend is the annual UNB Poetry Weekend, an awesome marathon of verse that's been happening since 2004. In that time, I only missed once, a couple of years ago when I was reading at the Ottawa Writers' Festival. Rachel and Kaleb are coming along. Not sure how much K will get out of it, but R will be reading along with me and who knows who all else. Ross Leckie calls the PW the most disorganized literary festival in Canada ("unorganized" would perhaps be more apposite, as the "dis" prefix suggests that it's accidental, which it ain't) and in keeping with that, I haven't yet heard who's reading when. I'll be making every attempt to record the readings, as I have in the past, but the challenges of running a poetry marathon while parenting may overwhelm me. We'll see. Should be a good time, regardless.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Audio: Wells, Compton and Klaassen in St. John

Another old reading, newly uploaded. From April, my reading with Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen and Anne Compton in the gorgeous UNBSJ bookstore in downtown St. John, NB:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Audio: Wells and Klaassen in Charlottetown

I was cleaning up files on my audio recorder and found a few things I never got around to uploading and posting. Some five months after the event, here's my Charlottetown reading with Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Speaking Sense to the Silly

Just when you think the last embers have gone cold and the fire can safely be declared dead--up it flares again! Jeet Heer continues to argue with old whassisname. Who is nothing if not verbose.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On the opportunism of anthologists

Shane Neilson in the Globe on why editors shouldn't put their own work in their anthologies. I agree (Shane is kind enough to point out that I avoided this sin). Every anthologist should repeat as a mantra: Don't be Louis Untermeyer. Don't be Louis Untermeyer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A bit of love for Kenneth Leslie

This appears to have been out for a while, but I just stumbled upon it now. The Midwest Book Review has published a warm little blurb about The Essential Kenneth Leslie. The page it's on is ridiculously long, so I'll just reproduce the review here:

The Essential Kenneth Leslie
Zachariah Wells, editor
The Porcupine's Quill
68 Main St., Erin, Ontario, N0B IT0
9780889843288, $14.95, www.porcupinesquill.ca

Passion is something that can be felt through text. "The Essential Kenneth Leslie" is a collection of the man's work compiled by fellow poet Zachariah Wells. Kenneth Leslie's prime was decades ago, but his work still holds up well today, providing much insight and thought from his time to today. "The Essential Kenneth Leslie" is a treasure trove of poetry, highly recommended. "Success": There was a dream;/he fulfilled it./There was a wish;/it came true./There was a fire;/and he killed it./There was a spark;/and it flew!

Reviews online

My reviews of Steve McOrmond's Good News About Armageddon and Alice Major's Memory's Daughter are now up at the Quill & Quire site.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My readership just exploded

Picked up a copy of the October issue of Reader's Digest today. I've been doing freelance work for RD on contract for almost a year now. My main role is editorial (drumming up material for stories, editing stories and digesting "pickups" from other magazines, acting as a liaison with writers, etc.), but I parlayed that into a writing assignment for them, which has just been published. Hence the title of this post. More people will probably read this article than all of the books I'll publish in my lifetime, combined.

My article, entitled "Doctor Igloo," is a profile of an old friend of mine, Dr. Paul Stubbing, who worked as a physician in Iqaluit for three decades. I came to know Paul through his kids--his son Mike, now a partner in the accounting firm Grant Thornton, was in my grade at high school in Ottawa, and we became, and still are, good friends. I got to know Paul better when I went to Iqaluit in the mid-'90s, and would have the occasional meal at the Stubbings' bay-side home. A poem in my first book is based on a story he told me over one such dinner, and is dedicated to him. So it was very meaningful for me to have the opportunity to shine a spotlight on one of the country's unsung everyday heroes--the sort of guy who would never seek out this kind of attention, and deserves it all the more because of that. (My story is far from the only recognition he's received of late, as Paul was also recently appointed to the Order of Canada, thanks to the initiative of some fellow long-time northerners.) The story is not available on line, but RD can be purchased pretty near anywhere.

This issue of RD also features a digested version of a story I scooped from my good friends at Riddle Fence magazine: Monica Kidd's harrowing experience of breaking her back on a canoeing trip in BC. Very powerful piece. And neat to see an essay that originally appeared in a small literary mag get reprinted in as big a forum as RD. Conventional wisdom says there's not much overlap between these two types of magazine, but the more I work with RD, the less fervently I believe it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Old School

Regular CLM readers--if there are any left out there--will recall that a few months ago I said I was going back to school, after an almost decade-long hiatus. Well, the time has come. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I'm riding my motorcycle to Fredericton for my first couple of classes at UNB. The good folks there have been most accommodating. Not only have they accepted all of the credits from my earlier foray into grad school, but they're paying me to attend. Part of the deal is a TA-ship, which will take the form of an editorial role with The Fiddlehead. I'll be taking one academic course this semester and a CW course of my own devising next semester (I've yet to work out the finer points, but it will have something to do with rhetoric and description in poetry and will involve some public lectures), along with a non-credit Research Methods course and, of course, my thesis (which will be a collection of poems).

It's a good time for me to finish this degree, as I'm laid off from work long enough to get the courses in. What use the degree might be I don't yet know, but it'll be a way for me to refocus my attention on literature that isn't necessarily Here and Now, which I've been meaning to do for a while, being rather fatigued with the general mediocrity and petty intrigues that predominate at any given time in literary circles. I'll still be a busy freelancer while studying at UNB and might get the odd railroad trip, particularly over xmas, so I don't expect CLM--which has always been the fruit of my idleness--will be as dynamic as it has been in the past. Then again, some of the things I dig up in my studies may well spur blog posts. We'll see.

Happy autumn, everyone. My favourite season.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New online look for Biblioasis

Thanks to my good friends at Sobule Design, my good friends at Biblioasis now have a brand new website. There are still bugs to be worked out and some finishing work to be done, but it looks great. I love it when friends do good work for friends who do good work.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In Praise of Limestone

Above, a shot of what I've been up to in my "spare" time this summer. More here, for anyone interested.