Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rigorously Pent

Over on the Biblioasis blog, Amanda Jernigan has contributed a few words in praise of my book Track & Trace. It's nice to hear anyone appreciate my work, but it means an awful lot coming from Amanda, who is a superb poet in her own right and one the very best readers of poetry I've ever met. Nice also to hear her appreciating Seth's contribution to the book. I still can hardly believe I published a book designed by him. I'm a lucky fella.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Lista on McKay

Michael Lista, in one of his strongest columns to-date for the National Post, has weighed in on Don McKay's doorstopper Collected Poems. He gets it mostly right, I think, but when he says that McKay has "spent a lifetime avoiding seeing the human in the natural world," he has done little more than repeat the press kit. As I argued in my long review essay of McKay's oeuvre-in-progress seven years ago (an updated version of which can be read in my recently published prose collection), this isn't really what happens in McKay poems. Rather, I'd rephrase Lista's statement thus: "Don McKay has spent a lifetime pretending to avoid seeing the human in the natural world." In actual fact, he does it all the time, especially if you compare him with that pre-eminent observer of the non-human world, John Clare--a birdwatching poet who comes up remarkably infrequently in prose by and about McKay. What appears to be a disjunction between McKay's poetics and his poems is actually evidence that McKay's poems tend to be more versified poetics than poems in their own right. Which is another reason, I think, he has been well-received by academic readers: not only do his poems tell you what you should be observing, as Lista points out, they also tell you what you should be thinking while you observe, and they tell you what you should be thinking about the poems themselves. They are therefore very easy to write about and to package in an interpretive argument.

I've just finished reading, as it happens, a book that is very useful in shedding light on the popularity of a poet versus that of his or her peers. In The Drunkard's Walk, mathematician Leonard Mlodinow helps to account for variations in subjective evaluations. He explains, for instance, why a $60 bottle of Bordeaux might be rated more highly by experts than a bargain-bin screwtop that beats the highbrow vintage in blind taste tests:

Expectations also affect your perception of taste. In 1963 three researchers secretly added a bit of red food colour to white wine to give it the blush of a rosé. They then asked a group of experts to rate its sweetness in comparison with the untinted wine. The experts perceived the fake rosé as sweeter than the white, according to their expectation. Another group of researchers gave a group of oenology students two wine samples. Both samples contained the same white wine, but to one was added a tasteless grape anthocyanin dye that made it appear to be red wine. The students also perceived differences between the red and the white according to their expectations. And in a 2008 study a group of volunteers asked to rate five wines rated a bottle labeled $90 higher than another bottle labeled $10, even though the sneaky researchers had filled both bottles with the same wine.
It isn't hard to translate these results into poetry world terms; it's no stretch to imagine showing a group of Canadian poetry lovers the latest "Don McKay" poem (actually written by someone else) and then to watch them finding six ways from Sunday to praise its virtuosity. Or, conversely, to imagine McKay sending his own new poems off to magazines under a pseudonym and getting most of them back with polite rejection notes. We don't have to imagine it, because similar sociological experiments have been performed. In a later section of his book, Mlodinow writes of an experiment with pop music:

The popularity of individual songs varied widely among the different worlds [the experiment involved dividing 14,341 participants into nine "worlds," each of which was given different popularity data for a selection of forty-eight songs by bands unknown to the participants; the ninth group received no popularity data at all], and different songs of similar intrinsic quality [as defined by the ninth world's rankings of the songs] also varied widely in their popularity. For example, a song called "Lockdown" by a band called 52metro ranked twenty-six out of forty-eight in intrinsic quality but was the number-1 song in one world and the number-40 song in another. In this experiment, as one song or another by chance got an early edge in downloads, its seeming popularity influenced the shoppers. It's a phenomenon that is well-known in the movie industry: moviegoers will report liking a movie more when they hear beforehand how good it is. In this example, small chance influences created a snowball effect and made a huge difference in the future of the song.

I see all kinds of evidence for this kind of social dynamics in the popularity of McKay. Just the other day, this idolatrous blog post came up on my Facebook feed. I sent the link in an email to a few critic colleagues under the subject heading "Sociology." One wrote back "That reads like the missive of someone who has found meaning through a cult." Which is hyperbolic, but the post certainly is evidence of how social capital accrues, compounds and ramifies in the rarefied atmosphere of the poetry business. In other words, a significant reason that people love Don McKay is that people love Don McKay. Humans, however much they may be aware of the arbitrariness of prestige and wealth, still defer to prestige and wealth, another point elaborated by Mlodinow:

I was watching late-night television recently when another star ... appeared for an interview. His name is Bill Gates. Though the interviewer is known for his sarcastic approach, toward Gates he seemed unusually deferential. Even the audience seemed to ogle Gates. The reason, of course, is that for thirteen years straight Gates was named the richest man in the world by Forbes magazine. In fact, since founding Microsoft, Gates has earned more than $100 a second. And so when he was asked about his vision for interactive television, everyone waited with great anticipation to hear what he had to say. But his answer was ordinary, no more creative, ingenious, or insightful than anything I've heard from a dozen other computer professionals. Which brings us to this question: does Gates earn $100 per second because he is godlike, or is he godlike because he earns $100 per second?

Mlodinow then goes on to show that the development of DOS and Gates' subsequent meteoric rise hinged on seemingly insignificant, chance events. Such random events, combined with charisma, explain why McKay is rated so much more highly than a host of contemporaries who are at least as good at writing poems as he is. Lista is bang-on that it's no "sinister plot or top-down conspiracy." It's far more banal than that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

UNB Poetry Weekend 2014

After missing the last couple of years, I was back at UNB's annual Poetry Weekend this year and brought my digital recorder with me. I was there with Rachel and our son, so part of the weekend had to be dedicated to kid-friendly activities (as Kaleb said to me when I suggested he might listen to my reading, "But daddy, that would be BORING!"), so we missed the first set of readings on Saturday. I've uploaded the other five recordings to Internet Archive.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review in print

A while back, a review I wrote for the Telegraph Journal fell victim to an editorial changeover, but fortunately, the good people at Vallum found a home for my thoughts on Ricardo Sternberg's most recent book, Some Dance. I just received the issue in the mail today. It includes, among many other things, a three-page poem by Karen Solie, intriguingly called "Via." Which I will read as soon as I finish editing my damn book.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mark Kingwell on Jailbreaks

My superlative publisher, Biblioasis, is celebrating ten years of kicking ass in the book world this year. Part of the party is testimonials from people about favourite Biblioasis titles. Philosopher and public intellectual Mark Kingwell has chimed in with some very flattering words of praise for Jailbreaks, my anthology of sonnets:

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets is one of the best anthologies of poetry I know, and in my top five contemporary poetry books ever. Zach Wells selects sonnets from across the country, across generations, and across styles. For those who think sonnets all look the same, there is much to learn here about the range of poetic possibility within a single set of formal constraints. Among other clever things, Wells's introduction argues that the fourteen lines of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms are poetry's finest vehicle for introducing, developing, and concluding a well-formed thought. These poems are thus phenomenological jailbreaks, consciousness busting out -- in good order -- from the buzzing prison-yard of our jumbled minds. A book to dip into or read cover to cover, with delight on every page.

[I pasted the text of Mark's commentary because the link doesn't work anymore.]