Monday, October 31, 2011

IFOA post mortem

Thought I'd share a few impressions of my week at IFOA as I roll towards Montreal on the train.

The number one impression is the incredible hospitality I enjoyed while I was at the festival. Geoffrey Taylor and his staff, as well as the many volunteers, do a top-notch job of making writers feel like royals, while also managing their slew of events with military efficiency. Kudos! I'll never forget this incredible week.

While I encountered a lot of stimulating writing at IFOA, I was just as impressed with the people who produced it. I met so many warm, witty, whipsmart people in Toronto, people from all over the world, some of whom I have the feeling will be friends for a long time. Rachel and I had a particularly fine time in the company of some Scots writers our own age, Alan Bissett, Kirstin Innes and Rodge Glass. Also the German novelist and journalist Thomas Pletzinger, English novelist Linda Grant and Danish poet Niels Frank. And this is only naming the people we talked to the most. Too many smart and gracious folk to name.

Highlight readings for me were Daniel Woodrell and Zsuzsi Gartner, who had the crowd at the Giller shortlist reading in stitches with her spirited reading from an absolutely explosive short story. I'm very sure that I missed a number of equally good things because they were on at the same time as events I was attending or participating in.

My own readings went well. The highlight for me was being approached by an audience member for a signature and being told, "This is the first book of poems I've ever bought." This kind of reader is inordinately important to me. Usually, I just have to imagine that he or she exists, so I was humbled to actually meet one face to face.

I can't wait to see my son after more than a week away, and I'm looking forward to getting more landscaping done before the weather turns cold, but I have to say, real life has a tough act to follow.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Last reading at IFOA!

READING: Marx, McWatt, Wells, Wilson

Sunday, October 30, 12:00pm, 2011
Patricia Marx, Tessa McWatt, Zachariah Wells, and D.W. Wilson read from their latest works. Mark Medley hosts.

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Patricia Marx

Patricia Marx is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a former writer for Saturday Night Live. She is the author of several books, including the novel Him Her Him Again The End of Him, which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humour. Marx was the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon, the world's longest continually published humour magazine. Marx presents Starting from Happy, the story of a reluctant girl who finds her perfect, yet absurd, romantic match.

Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt was born in Georgetown, Guyana and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of five novels, including a Governor General’s Literary Award and Toronto Book Award-nominated Dragons Cry. She developed and leads the MA Writing: Imaginative Practice Programme at the University of East London, and is currently working with the British novelist, art historian and painter John Berger to develop a film based on his novel To the Wedding. McWatt’s latest novel, Vital Signs, takes readers deep inside a marriage at the edge of an emotional abyss.

Mark Medley

Mark Medley is the National Post's Books Editor and co-edits the paper's books blog, The Afterword. His work has appeared in publications across North America, including the Globe and MailWalrus andThis Magazine. He currently sits on PEN Canada's Board of Directors.

Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is the Reviews Editor for Canadian Notes & Queries and the author of Unsettled, a collection of poetry about the Arctic. He is also the author, alongside Rachel Lebowitz, of the children’s book Anything But Hank!, and editor of the anthologyJailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. Wells presentsTrack & Trace, a collection of poetry that uses an eclectic array of techniques and forms to represent a post-industrial nomadic restlessness in a rootless age.

D.W. Wilson

D.W. Wilson is the recipient of the University of East Anglia’s inaugural Man Booker Prize Scholarship – the most prestigious award available to students in the MA programme. His stories have appeared in literary magazines across Canada, Ireland, and the UK, including the Malahat ReviewGrain and Southword. Wilson’s debut collection of stories, Once You Break a Knuckle, tells tales of good people doing bad things: two bullied adolescents sabotage a rope swing, resulting in another boy’s death; a heartbroken young man refuses to warn his best friend about an approaching car; and sons challenge fathers and break taboos.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tomorrow! Please come.

READING: Coady, van der Pol, Wells, Wolitzer

Saturday, October 29, 4:00pm, 2011
Lynn Coady, Marieke van der Pol, Zachariah Wells, and Meg Wolitzer read from their latest works. Michael Lista hosts.

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Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady is an award-winning author, editor and journalist. Her previous novels include Saints of Big Harbour, which was a national bestseller and a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, and Mean Boy, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book. Her popular advice column, "Group Therapy," runs weekly in the Globe and Mail. Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, follows a man who, formerly cast as an enforcer and goon by all who knew him, discovers that, almost 20 years later, a once trusted friend has published a novel mirroring his life.

Michael Lista

Michael Lista is the author of Bloom, the acclaimed collection of poems. He is the poetry editor of The Walrus and he writes a popular monthly column on poetry for the National Post.

Marieke Van Der Pol

Marieke van der Pol is the author of the prize-winning screenplay for the international hit film The Twin Girls. Her debut novel, Bride Flight, has also been made into a film in the Netherlands. Bride Flightfollows three women who took the last great transcontinental flight from London to New Zealand in 1953 and their eventual realization, years later, at a fellow passenger’s funeral of how tightly their lives have been bound together.

Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is the Reviews Editor for Canadian Notes & Queries and the author of Unsettled, a collection of poetry about the Arctic. He is also the author, alongside Rachel Lebowitz, of the children’s book Anything But Hank!, and editor of the anthologyJailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. Wells presentsTrack & Trace, a collection of poetry that uses an eclectic array of techniques and forms to represent a post-industrial nomadic restlessness in a rootless age.

Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer is the author of eight previous novels, including The Ten-Year NapThe Position and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. She lives in New York City. Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Uncoupling, is a Greek drama-inspired novel about a tight-knit group of men and women in a high school community who are forced to look at their shared history and at their sexual selves in a new light.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


I'm off to Toronto tomorrow for a couple of readings at the International Festival of Authors. Been looking forward to this for some time, but just at the moment, with frighteningly unseasonable Indian summer conditions making a massive landscaping project immensely enjoyable, I'm almost wishing I was staying home to finish it. I'll get over it. If you're in Toronto at month's end, I'd love it if you came out to my readings. Looks like some pretty damn good company I'm on stage with. TTFN.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The CC says everything's cool

So the Canada Council has responded to the comments I made about the most recent GG poetry shortlist. Here's what they have to say:

The Council does not see a conflict of interest in authors assessing books by other authors that are produced by their publishing house. Peer assessors are professionals and dedicated to making the best decision possible. If authors were not able to sit on a peer assessment committee to discuss books produced by their publisher, it would be impossible for the Council to have qualified representation on these committees. As noted by Mr. Wells, Mr. McCaffery has a stellar reputation in the poetry community. The Council benefited from the expertise of all three members of the jury in this selection process.

A number of things to address here. First off, I agree in principle with the first sentence. Obviously, peer jurying would be inconceivable otherwise. I have my issues with peer jurying, but I've never said that no poets should ever be on the jury. However. Agreeing with this a priori does not mean that one need agree with it a posteriori. When three titles by a single press make it onto the shortlist, one immediately looks for an explanation. The altruistic explanation is that it was just an exceptionally good year for BookThug. Bravo, BookThug! This could also be the cynical explanation, depending on your angle. The altruistic explanation only holds water if you can't otherwise account for such a high number of shortlistees. (Keep in mind that BookThug submissions accounted for 6% of books under consideration for the award, but 60% of shortlisted titles. Just having one title on the list defies the odds; having three is akin to the mathematical improbability that saw the Tampa Bay Rays make the MLB playoffs this year.) We could speculate endlessly about how this extremely improbable scenario took shape--and we must speculate, as the CC insists on acting like some kind of goddamn Star Chamber--but Occam's Razor insists that we pin responsibility on an interested party.

Enter Steve McCaffery, BookThug author and Champion of All Things Avant Garde. The spokesperson from the CC said that I made reference to Dr. McCaffery's "stellar reputation in the poetry community." I said nothing of the sort. For one thing, I've never held Dr. McCaffery's work or opinions in high regard. For another, I'm far from alone in this. I said that McCaffery is an eminence grise. Which he is. He is a polarising figure who has dedicated his life and work to the promotion of one stream of poetry and the diminishment of all others. If he is to be placed on a jury, this needs to be taken into account. Dr. McCaffery is not simply a variable to be inserted into a jury equation. He is a theorist and poetic ideologue dedicated to the promotion of postmodern values in poetry, who would have a number of preformulated arguments at his fingertips, which he would no doubt bring to bear in any discussions with fellow jurors to determine a shortlist. If your average possible juror is x, then McCaffery is 5x. For a jury including him to be balanced, the other jurors must be similarly formidable figures. Douglas Burnet Smith is a good writer and a smart man, but has nothing like McCaffery's stature or zeal. Joanne Arnott, to be frank, is little better than an amateur. In the absence of disclosures from the CC, it is only reasonable to assume that McCaffery had a disproportionate influence on the shortlist. The CC is to blame for this, for choosing an unbalanced jury in the first place and for failing to redress the unbalanced shortlist in the second.

Something that's gone unmentioned is the fact that the unbalance isn't restricted to the presence of 3 BookThug titles. Besides those, there is also a book by a writer, Garry Thomas Morse, associated with the Kootenay School of Writing, which is aesthetically aligned with BookThug and its pedagogical arm, the Toronto New School of Writing. So, four out of five titles have "avant garde" credentials. And we're to believe that McCaffery, a longtime avant-garde general, had no more say in this than the other two. Who have no avant-garde affiliations, by the way. Uh-huh. A likely story. Occam? Not bloody likely, you say? Oh. (And please note that the CC carefully avoids saying that all jurors had equal input.)

As usual, the CC is owning no responsibility for this cock-up. Same thing happened a couple of years ago with the Di Brandt/Jacob Scheier mess. They said everything was okay. But then they started cracking down hard, going so far as to remove juror Brian Bartlett from jury duty because a poet he barely knew happened to dedicate one poem to Bartlett (because the poem borrowed a line of Bartlett's). The CC doesn't seem to realize that conflict of interest is something that has to be watched more on the back-end than the front-end of a juried competition; a potential conflict of interest is immaterial if the compromised juror selects no books to which s/he has an affiliation. Had this year's jury only turned up one BookThug/avant-garde title, you shrug and go "okay, that's to be expected." Three?! Then, you need to go back to the jury and find out, pardon me, what the fuck is going on. Let me remind you: there were 170 titles submitted to this award. 11 of them were from BookThug. Let me also remind you that this is a press that fairly prides itself on its own counter-culture marginality, on being "experimental" and "innovative." For them to have three books on this most mainstream of lists means either that they've sold out hardcore or that they've been given an unfair boost by an ardent fan.

Finally, I think this situation proves conclusively that the three-person peer jury consensus model is too broken to be fixed. Scrap it, and stop pretending it's the only way this thing can be done. I've made many suggestions in the past how this might be effected. Mark Sampson has recently made more elaborate, but eminently reasonable, suggestions. Canada Council: start listening to your constituents. Don't be like Steven Harper. Because even if you are, he'll still cut your ass.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Richard Outram

I got my contributor's copy of Richard Outram: Essays on His Works in the mail today. It's been a long time in the works. I submitted my essay to editor Ingrid Ruthig back in '07, so very glad to see it in print. And in fine company, other contributors being Brian Bartlett, Michael Carbert, Robert Denham, Jeffery Donaldson, Steven Heighton, Amanda Jernigan, Eric Ormsby, Ingrid herself and Peter Sanger, who has written the book on Outram. I'm looking forward to reading everyone's contributions to this important book about one of the country's very best poets.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Peter Darbyshire on the GG shortlists

...with commentary from yrs truly. As I said on Facebook earlier today, what is really remarkable about this story is the CC's complete ineptitude when it comes to oversight.

 I know someone who was forced to withdraw from judging the GG last year because one poem in one book was dedicated to him. The author wasn't someone this ex-juror knew personally, but the poem borrowed a line from one of the ex-juror's poems. And yet this clusterfuck "slips through." Bureaucratic incompetence is ultimately to blame for all these SNAFUs

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All That Needs to be Said About This Year's Poetry GG Shortlist

Let me end with a lament and a seduction.  There are poems that I’m sad cannot be included because of length.  “Teachable Texts” is a favourite of mine and a poem that  think stands the test of time, likewise “Poetry in the Pissoir.”  Both are available (theoretically in earlier formats).  I withheld poems from the Basho Variations and Every Way Oakly (my homolinguistic translations of poems in Stein’s Tender Buttons) as a  courtesy to my publisher, the brave Jay MillAr, in the hope that sales of his editions will reap largesse.
 --Steve McAffery, in the introduction to his selected poems in 2009

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Love for the Trotter

Abigail Deutsch reviews Joshua Trotter's All This Could Be Yours in Poetry.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Interview online

I recently did a Q&A with Kathryn Mockler for her literary webzine The Rusty Toque. Check it out.