Monday, November 30, 2015

Poem reprinted

An ooooold poem of mine, "Once Upon an Island," has been reprinted from my 2004 chapbook Fool's Errand in The Buzz, PEI's arts monthly.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tanks, but no Tanks

As pretty much anybody who will be reading this knows, a couple of weeks ago Michael Lista published a piece of long-form journalism on about Scott Griffin's role in a $15 billion deal that will see a Canadian company selling light armoured vehicles (LAV) to Saudi Arabia. Griffin, of course, is the patron of a lucrative poetry prize that bears his name, so this news is of particular concern, or should be, to people who read and write poetry, not least of all because Saudi Arabia, as Lista points out, has been especially brutal in its punishment of a writer, Raif Badawi, whose only crime was criticizing the Saudi government.

Poets' antennae are easily--often far too easily--set aquiver by perceived injustice. Consider some recent tempests in the pobiz teapot. Jason Guriel's mildly sceptical review of Alice Oswald's Memorial was likened to a "Twitter rape threat" by poet Helen Guri, thanks to some creatively dubious close reading of Guriel's diction in the piece. Both Frederick Seidel and Kenneth Goldsmith were widely attacked for their poetic responses to the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing race riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Conceptual poet Vanessa Place was also recently accused of racism in her work. Most recently, white poet Michael Derrick Hudson was roundly denounced for publishing poems under the Chinese pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. And of course, there's the ongoing matter of gender imbalance in reviewing, which has seen many names named and shamed.

Most of these issues are legitimate causes for concern, even if the call-outs and ostracizations they generate are extremely problematic. Hopefully, however, everyone can agree that no piece of writing or act of cultural appropriation, however offensive it might be, could ever be equated with selling arms to a tyrannical state that routinely uses violence to control its own people, and which is widely known to sponsor terrorist organizations. But, while some people in the writing world are disturbed by the revelation of Scott Griffin's ties to an arms deal that is, by all appearances, a violation of Canadian law, this group of very well-educated citizens, normally so keen to speak out against social injustice, global capitalism, militarism, etc., has of a sudden gotten all "let's take a step back and appreciate the nuances of this dilemma" on us.

A lot of the (muted and limited) response to Lista's article has consisted of hand-wringing, head-shaking, cognitive dissonance diminishment, complicity mongering and, in a few cases, spectacular acts of moral gymnastics, of the sort offered up by no less a figure than Margaret Atwood, as quoted by Lista in his article, making Hitler-invoking NRA-style arguments that tanks don't kill people and it takes a good guy with a tank to stop a bad guy with a tank. Poet and critic Clint Burnham has contributed my favourite bon mot on the situation:

Some of the things I've heard, paraphrased and condensed:

  • We're all complicit. Look at your RRSP portfolio. Look at the gas you put in your car. Look at your electronic gadgets and your sweatshop shirts.
  • The Griffin endowment was funded before this arms deal and is self-sufficient, so the prizes aren't tainted by dollars from Saudi Arabia.
  • We always knew that Scott Griffin made parts for tanks. Is it so much worse to sell tanks to the Saudis than to the Americans? Just because we go to his gala and drink his wine doesn't mean we endorse his business practices.
  • Griffin also owns House of Anansi Press, so if we're going to boycott the prize, does that mean we also can't buy Anansi books?
  • A Saudi prince owns a big share of Twitter, so if you have an issue with Griffin, you'd better close your Twitter account, you hypocrites.
  • All money is blood money.
  • Lista's motives are suspect.
  • This is a distraction from the real story, which is about the Conservative government allowing this deal to take place.

It all amounts to saying that we're in no position to take a position--or that this is the wrong thing to be taking a position on. There's some validity to it, I suppose, even if it leads by reductio ad absurdum to the conclusion that we can't stand on anything because everything is made of sand. And I don't believe for a second that those dancing around this topic would endorse taking no stands or that the taking of stands is a zero-sum game. 

The degree to which I'm unable to disentangle myself completely from the webs of globalized capitalism and all its ills is something I'm aware of daily (and it's something that Lista cops to in his article). I do have some red lines, however. I have no RRSPs in large measure because I know how hard it is to invest ethically; I'm hoping to retire eventualy on a combination of my Via Rail pension, CPP/OAS and proceeds from real estate investment. Of course, my mortgages have come from a big bank and who the hell knows what they're doing with the money I'm giving them. We do have an RESP for my son's future education (funded by us, other family members and government top-ups) and I'm not sure where that money is invested, as the documentation the bank gives us isn't transparent. I will not shop at Walmart or Amazon because of the way they treat employees, their union-busting tactics and the way they use their buying power to outcompete smaller retailers. I also don't shop at Chapter's or Indigo. I'm too well-informed about these retailers and their negative impacts on booksellers and small publishers to give them money. But it's still possible to buy my books from them and I know I make other consumer decisions that are less well-informed. Less absolutely, I have never bought a car, though I rent cars, own a motorcycle, burn fossil fuels in my home's furnace and even my "green" employer consumes an enormous quantity of diesel per annum moving people across the land.

(Lista's motives, it seems to me, are irrelevant. Even if this was part of some elaborate spite or revenge campaign on his part, the facts are not of his invention. And the story, while adding colour to the bigger picture of our government's too-cozy relationship with the Saudis, in no way diminishes or excuses the fact that none of this would have taken place had Harper's party not brokered the deal. It's significant, I think, that journalists have been less conflicted about the ethics of this story, qua story, than poets have, probably because the facts of it are unimpeachable and Lista has disclosed his biases--and has pissed off fewer journalists than poets over the years.)

So yeah, the world is complicated, and complicity is impossible to avoid. But equating our complicity  in purchasing commodoties and making ignorant investment choices with that of Griffin is nonsense. Griffin is making money directly by selling shock absorbers to a company that will put them in tanks, which will be sold to a country that is one of the world's greatest human rights abusers. It doesn't matter if "that money" isn't the money that funds the prize. The prize bears his name and you can't divorce his present business dealings from his involvement in the prize. If, knowing what we now know, you take his money and keep your mouth shut, you are not merely complicit, you have given yourself an upgrade to tacit condoner. Past shortlistees and winners of the prize become part of the Griffin circle and go into the pool of potential future jurors and even trustees. I'm not going to call out any individuals who have accepted, or will in future accept prize money from the Griffin Foundation because I think calling people out on blogs and social media is fucking gross and because yeah, life is complicated and I don't know what pressures are driving other people's choices. I've made a conscious choice not to depend on writing for my living and I've never been a part of the Griffin inner circle*, so it's a lot easier for me to speak my mind. So no, I won't call you out. But I am calling on you to abandon the exercises in rationalization and look deep into your conscience and decide if this is something you can endorse. Maybe people are already doing so, but I'm not seeing much evidence of it yet. And I'm not the only person paying attention. 

*My decisions in the past to publicly criticize the institution and its operational procedures have no doubt precluded this ever happening. Long before this story broke, I thought of the Griffin Prize as a great exercise in reputation engineering at the expense of rigorous critical appraisal of contemporary poetry. Literary prize culture has always been an irritant to me because of the way it turns writing into a spectacle and a rigged competition. The Griffin is a particularly egregious example of a rich person buying himself an instant measure of culture credibility. How gauche and arrogant is it to establish a prize and name it after yourself? (At least Jack Rabinovitch named the Giller Prize after his late wife.) And since its establishment, the Griffin has become a real coterie affair. I don't buy the trickle-down argument that it's good for poetry. It's been very good to a few poets, some of whom might actually deserve it. By far Griffin's best endeavour is the Poetry in Voice high school recitation contest, which is far more about poetry than the Prize is and far less about glitzy galas and Scott Griffin himself. I was pleased to act as a judge for PiV a couple of years ago. But I don't think I could accept if I was asked again now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

IFOA 5 Questions

I'm reading at the International Festival of Authors next month and in advance of those readings, the good folks at the festival asked me a few questions, which I've answered and they've blogged.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review online

My short review of Ricardo Sternberg's fine collection Some Dance has been posted on Vallum magazine's website.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


No one sees them coming and no matter
your skill set, they'll get you. The routine
mechanics of making the play on your mind
until mind outplays arm and a batter
not even busting hard down the line
finds himself safe. Every ball seems to find
you and you can't find the right footing.
Steve Blass Disease. Sax Syndrome. Sasseritis.
It's all in the head, say the true-blue
dualists, but head stays stubbornly rooted
to shoulders and head has felled the mightiest
soldier. Oh, Chuck Knoblauch, what can you do?
Press reset. A new position might fit—
but it could be that you'll just have to quit.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I is on Verse Daily

No, that's not bad grammar, it's a fact. My poem "I" is featured on Verse Daily.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Essays in Print

I just received my contributor copies of Arc Poetry Magazine 77 in the mail. Neck-deep in non-literary summer busyness, it's nice to be reminded that I wrote a couple of things not so long ago.

In the issue are two essays I'm very proud of. One is a memorial for my late friend Elise Partridge, focused squarely on her poetry. I wish she was still here to read it. I hope you read it, but more than that, I hope you read her poetry.

The other piece is a longer essay on the works of Lisa Robertson. It's a greatly abridged version of a piece too long for Arc to print whole, but I hope to polish up and publish the long version in the not-too-distant future. Still, I think the piece as published is a pretty good minority take on Robertson's relationship to the canon of English poetry.

The mag has some other good-looking content, including the always-sharp Sarah Neville on Jeramy Dodds' version of the Edda and a rave review of Kerry-Lee Powell's Inheritance, written by Phoebe Wang.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

In Good Company

(Back Row: poet and Lexicon Bookshop co-owner Alice Burdick; Left: M. Travis Lane; Right: Robyn Sarah; photo: Karen Runge)

I recently had the enormous pleasure and privilege of launching my new collection in Halifax, Lunenburg and Moncton with Robyn Sarah (launching her new book My Shoes Are Killing Me) and M. Travis Lane (launching Crossover, which Robyn edited for Cormorant Books). I've been thinking about these readings a lot over the past few days. Robyn and Travis are such classy people and consummate poets. They are also very skilled performers of their own work, which is rarer than it ought to be. We had a lot of fun on this mini tour and I consider myself very lucky to have spent three days in their company.

Poem Online

The good folks at the exciting new e-magazine, Partisan, have just published my poem "Rye," which they accepted prior to the publication of Sum, where the poem also appears. If you haven't already checked out Partisan, you should have a look around the site. They've published some really crisp things already. And they recently added Alexandra Oliver to their masthead, which is a very smart move in my books.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hometown Launch

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Upcoming Launch

Hey, if you're in Charlottetown on Saturday, you should swing by the Confederation Centre Library, where the incomparable M. Travis Lane and I will be launching our books at 2 pm.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Launch online

Got home yesterday from a five-city book tour. I've made recordings of three of the launches; two others were taped by other folks in Kingston and Hamilton. The latter, featuring readings by Robyn Sarah, Don McGrath (reading his translations of Robert Melancon) and myself, has been posted by Adrian Hoad-Reddick.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review Online

My review of Garth Martens' debut collection, Prologue for the Age of Consequence is now up at the Arc Poetry Magazine site.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sum Reviewed

Quill & Quire has posted Jason Wiens' review of my new book on their website.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sunday Poem

My poem, "The Wound," from my brand new book, is the Sunday Poem over on the Vehicule Press Blog.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Article Online

A promotional piece I wrote for the Literary Press Group's "All Lit Up" blog has just been posted. Not something I usually do: a)a promo article and b)write about prose fiction. But these are four really enjoyable collections of not-quite-usual stories, so I was glad to have the chance to shed a bit of virtual ink on them.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bard Battles

In my near-total neglect of this blog--and in my war-on-many-fronts busyness--I failed to mention that I was reading last night at the annual Poetry Now Battle of the Bards at Harbourfront in Toronto. Well, I was. And it went well. A very solid set of readers. I did not win--that honour went to Talya Rubin, and well deserved--but I was among five readers (including Kate Hargreaves, who has designed my last two books, Liz Worth and Deanna Young) chosen to appear at the International Festival of Authors in the fall. I did this back in 2011, and it's quite the event, so I'm pleased and honoured to have been selected again.

Last night was also my first opportunity to hold a copy of the new book, thanks to Kate picking up a few, still warm from the press at Coach House. It's pretty damn beautiful and I feel very fortunate.

Susan G. Cole, who hosted last night's show, did a nice little write-up on it today. I chose to go with a single longer poem and read my dramatic monologue "Achromatope," which is based on Oliver Sacks's story "The Colourblind Painter." If there was "moving melancholy" in my reading, it's probably in part because I was thinking all day about Sacks's recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. Though I once received correspondence from Dr. Sacks after I sent him a broadside print of "Achromatope," I can't claim to know the man, so I didn't feel comfortable dedicating the reading to him, but in retrospect that was dumb. So when I read it again at Harbourfront, I will dedicate it to him.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Not consistent, but in
clusters, in lacustrine

conglomerations, in lack
lustre congress, in lacunar

conundrums, drums
con sordino, in schools

of sardine shoaling
in shallows, in shadows

and splotches of sickled
shivelight, in shimmers

and speckles, in specks,
freckles and moles, in tunnels

and tubes, in tubs and tubas
and turbines, in turbot's

turbercles, in tubercular
fits, in fletches, flitches

and flits, in flatlands
and mesas, in ditches,

in dikes, in tidal insistence,
in bridles and britches,

in fasces and faces, in flashes
and flexes and fluxion, in fluent

dysrhythmia, flaring
and falling, setting fire

to synapses and scuttling
sense to its apsis.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lisa Robertson on Meter

Counting syllables really trained me to carry my ear down to that micro level of attention. I spend a lot of time counting syllables. For a while I had to stop myself from counting syllables when people spoke.


Brian Campbell has reviewed Career Limiting Moves, the book, for Rover Arts. Check it out.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review reprinted

My review of Ricardo Sternberg's collection Some Dance, originally published in Vallum, has been reprinted in the latest issue of FreeFall. I'm practically a syndicated columnist!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Elise Partridge, 1958-2015

I learned yesterday that my dear friend Elise Partridge has died. I knew her time was running out--I'd known it for almost a year--but I was really hoping she'd hang in long enough to see her final book come off the press this spring. Knowing this was coming in no way makes it less painful for those who knew and loved her--for me--but given how much pain and suffering she'd already been through, there is some comfort in the thought that she need endure no more of it.

As word got out about Elise's death on social media yesterday, many people wrote of how kind she was. And she was. Elise wasn't that awful thing--a "nice" person--she was a person of great spirit, authentically generous in a way that no nice person is. I first met her, briefly, in March 2006, when I did a reading in Vancouver. She introduced herself to me after the reading, said a few enthusiastic words and, as I recall, left precipitously. She seemed unaccountably anxious. Not long after, I had an email from her apologizing that she was "ridiculously shy when meeting new people." She said a few lovely things about my poems and about my review work. And her comments weren't merely perfunctory compliments, of the sort one encounters all too often in any collegial environment, but the kind of sharp, perceptive observations that can only be the product of thoughtful attention. Not long after that, Elise wrote to offer me a complimentary subscription to the London Review of Books, a perk her husband Steve (a medievalist in the UBC English department) had acquired in exchange for writing a review for LRB. She thought, rightly, that the high quality long-form reviews in LRB would appeal to me.

When I moved to Vancouver from Halifax the following year, Elise did more than any other person (outside of Rachel's family) to welcome me to the city. She invited me to become a member of the Poetry Dogs, a semi-regular reading circle that would meet at a member's house to discuss whatever poems people had brought along. Members, besides Elise and Steve, included Barbara Nickel, Stephanie Bolster, John Donlan, George McWhirter, Christopher Patton and, later, Matt Rader. The only condition was that they had to be someone else's poems, someone not a member of Dogs. It was in Dogs sessions that I really learned how acute and uncompromising a reader Elise was. Anyone who came under her tutelage--as when she was poet-in-residence for Arc Poetry Magazine--could only have come away with their poems much improved.

Elise was someone who was more intimate with death than anyone in the First World should have to be, but something that distinguished her personality, and the poetry that was so much a product of it, was her refusal to be gloomy in the face of death. She would never have agreed with Larkin that "death is no different whined at than withstood." And she never succumbed to despair. Her oeuvre is full of poems about death, but they are playful, virtuosic poems, acts of resistance, testament to the size of her spirit, the defiance of her breath.

In an early email to me, she was irked by a reviewer who had "insulted [her] character and artistic integrity by charging [her] with 'trying to dazzle.'" She ended that letter with a piece of advice for me: "If you ever get slandered with the show-off label, my suggestion is to reply, 'I'm not TRYING to dazzle--ah just DOES!'" And she did. I miss her already, but she has left so much behind.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Plus ça change

Wordsworth, on Robert Southey's unfavourable review of Lyrical Ballads
"He knew that money was of importance to me. If he could not conscientiously have spoken differently of the volume, he ought to have declined the task of reviewing it."


The index of a vintage
is the season's history: how many
photons have fallen

through the skin. Equations
predict excellence. Unlike
the nose of connoisseurs,

the maths involved
are flawless, however
maculate the soil.

Deprive the vine of water,
it will eke its taproot deeper
down through solid strata

where it draws not only
succour for the turgor
of its foliage and fruit,

but hauls up half-formed
metaphors from minerals
lying latent in the clay,

imparts them to the grape
flesh where they mingle
and intensify as the sun-

washed clusters ripen.
These metaphors remain
embryonic until tongue

-cognized and -constituted
by a seasoned sommelier
who nearly knows them flawlessly.

The index of a vintage,
however reason may explain it,
retains intrinsic mystery—

the grape escapes its proof.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Rage of Extemporary Criticism

As it very seldom happens that the rage of extemporary criticism inflicts fatal or lasting wounds, I know not that the Laws of benevolence entitle this distress to much sympathy. The diversion of baiting an author has the sanction of all ages and nations, and is more lawful than the sport of teasing other animals, because for the most part he comes voluntarily to the stake, furnished, as he imagines, by the patron powers of literature with resistless weapons and impenetrable armour, with the mail of the boar of Erymanth, and the paws of the lion of Nemea.
                      -Samuel Johnson

Thursday, January 1, 2015

ZW on Patreon

Happy new year, everybody. Impressed by the concept and by the results people have achieved using the crowd-funding patronage site Patreon, I've decided to set up my own page. As I state on the page, I am not doing this because I need the funding, but so that people who enjoy/admire my writing can support it directly if they're willing and able. Any support is enormously appreciated, much of it will be paid forward to other artists, and I've built in considerable quid pro quo "rewards" for anyone who does chip in a few drachmas. This isn't something I'll be flogging on an ongoing basis; I just wanted to set it up and let people know about it this once. I have set a "milestone goal," but that's more day-dream than ambition; I shall by no means be disappointed if I never meet it.