a condition of being, not having

As we read, something is going on in us, something is coming into being. There is a realisation; the total economy, all the strategies of the poem bring it about. Lowell was right to say that a poem is an event, not the record of an event. And Auden, in that poem ('In Memory of W.B. Yeats') in which he asserts that poetry makes nothing happen, asserts with greater persuasiveness that it is 'a way of happening'. That happening is so intensely present we may weep or laugh aloud or shudder in terror - at what? At something 'only' there in our consciousness as we read. Such realisation is very presence.

That is the chief good and usefulness of poetry. It persuades or jolts us into what Lawrence called 'a new effort of attention' (Selected Literary Criticism, p. 90), it fills us with the achievement of that attention. There is no gainsaying the charge of poetry, nor how valuable it feels. It is a condition of being, not of having. It can't be had, it is intrinsically resistant to acquisitiveness. And by being alert and truthful and upholding contradictory possibilities, asserting homogeneity, championing a lively pluralism, acknowledging the essential irreducibility and intractability of life, poetry is the living contradiction of political speech and a gesture of defiance in the face of all reductive, co-ordinating and tyrannical political systems. We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Poetry of the Present" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.


between the way of death and the way of life

'The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.' I suppose all poets write with that in mind. The injunction seems clear: go for the spirit. But in poetry... without the letter there is no spirit, or none that is able to be felt by anyone else. Without the words, the words in a particular order, fitted into a syntax, engendering a rhythm, making sense, without the letter (understood like that) there is nothing that can have any effect. The letter used wrongly does indeed kill; it fixes; where there was life (the spirit) it makes a dead thing; the syntax remains a skeleton, life refuses to inhabit it. And that is really the continuous and necessary struggle in verse, between fixity and fluidity, between the way of death and the way of life. And in that struggle, in which the very life of the spirit is at stake, the letter is all, and may petrify or animate.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Poetry of the Present" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.


Łazienki Park - A New Chapbook!

The Alfred Gustav Press only uses the fanciest staples

I'm very happy to announce that a new poetry chapbook of mine - my first in five years! - will be published in December 2017 by the Alfred Gustav Press. Like my last chapbook, Smoothing the Holy Surfaces, this is a shorter sequence - one long poem, in fact, in seven parts. It will be published as part of the "holm" series of shorter chapbooks which accompany the main chapbooks in an AG Press subscription.

Smoothing the Holy Surfaces
(AG Press, 2012)
The poem is - strangely enough - about Łazienki Park in the centre of Warsaw, Poland, where my wife was born and where most of her family still lives. We lived just down the road from the park for a couple months in 2016, and I spent many an early morning pushing my one-year-old up and down its paths.

The baby makes a cameo in the poem, as do gaggles of ducks and tourists, though at its core the poem is about Frederic Chopin, travel and history: what gets seen, heard, and remembered.

Anyway, yeesh, that's enough talking about the little thing. If you're interested in buying a copy, you will have to subscribe to Series Eighteen of the Alfred Gustav Press chapbook series. You can learn how to do that here.

The cost is $15 for Canadians, and $20 for everyone else, and the chapbooks (Four of them! Including one by Russell Thornton!) get mailed right to your door, all signed by the authors.

As I've said before, it's the best deal in Canadian poetry. So do it!


poetry is peculiarly good at contradicting

The poetic word always seems to matter more under oppression than threat. Their fellow-citizens look to the poets to be of present help. The grave and dangerous responsibilities that poets under a dictatorship have to bear do at least bring with them a corroboration of the value of their efforts. Much less, if any, such corroboration is forthcoming in Britain. Poets in Britain are free to write more or less what they like, chiefly because no one in power cares a tuppence what they write. This freedom, certainly a great benefit, does carry with it the risk of pointlessness and irresponsibility. Some poets, from certain groups in British society, may indeed feel there are issues so urgent that have no option but to address them, almost to the exclusion of all others. They may indeed feel their subjects are ‘forced upon them’. But many, perhaps most, don’t feel that, and they risk slipping into the limbo of personal malaise and language games. Dictated to them or not, there is in fact a large and various social obligation on poets in Britain today. Day in day out, the language of our managers and leaders cries out to be contradicted. Poetry is peculiarly good at contradicting. The exact shape and practice of contradiction will have to be devised in every new case, by every poet again and again. Agility is necessary.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Use and Ornament" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.


July Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch (Alice MacKay room) on July 9th, 2017, from 3-5 PM.

It will feature:

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919 - 2004), read by Fiona Tinwei Lam
bpNichol (1944 - 1988), read by Mallory Tater
Carl Sandburg (1878 - 1967), read by Diane Tucker
James Tate (1943 - 2015), read by Shaun Robinson
Miriam Waddington (1917 - 2004), read by Selina Boan

Attendance is free. For more info, visit the DPRS website.

I hope to see you there!


I'm not sure the poem is interested in our answers or questions

rob mclennan: Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Julia McCarthy: I’m not sure what ‘theoretical’ means in this context... I often feel my way through certain ideas in poetry, ‘idea’ in the Greek sense of a shape or perceptible form and the means by which we see. A kind of insighting. I am interested in and concerned with the line, the breath, and its music; the image uprooted from imagination, that animal mundi; metaphor... the braiding of the visible and invisible through a poem. Language itself (how it simultaneously reveals and conceals, its ambiguity) and its relationship to experience, to how we see; being and nonbeing are preoccupations, which of course, imply time which brings us back to rhythm. Duality fascinates me. Every word contains a philosophy, even ‘and’ and ‘the.’ As a meeting place, I’m not sure the poem is interested in our answers or questions... just in us showing up, listening, labouring to bring it into being and witnessing the zinc-flash of its emergence.

- Julia McCarthy, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


Nora Gould's Letter to a Young Mother

Nora Gould
In March I was very fortunate to be able to bring Nora Gould in to visit my poetry class at the University of the Fraser Valley. During the class, one of my strongest students (and a mother of twins), Sydney Hutt, asked Nora how she juggled poetry, work, and family, and Nora replied that for many years she didn't - the writing simply didn't happen.

A few days later Nora followed up with this letter, sent via an email I was fortunate to be cc'd on. As a parent of a young child myself (and someone for whom the idea of focused writing time seems like a fantasy), I found Nora's words both comforting and useful, and believed other would too, so with both Nora's and Sydney's blessing I am republishing Nora's letter here.

Nora's husband's frontotemporal dementia, which she speaks of in the letter, is the subject of her second poetry book Selah (Brick Books, 2016).


Dear Sydney,

Truth is, I wasn't trying to write when my kids were little. Yes, I was stressed about Farley having an autoimmune problem and I home schooled him for grade one; and, for years Zoë had undiagnosed stomach aches; and, I tried to go back to work at the vet clinic (I did but only part time) and when it was for sale, I (unsuccessfully) looked for another vet to buy the practice with me ... but the bottom line is I wasn't trying to write then. I had pretty well figured out that I'd never write anything worthwhile, that I'd never have an opportunity to learn about writing, and that I had made an error by studying vet med and I should have taken an arts degree then I might have been doing something I loved. I felt nailed down on the farm with 4 kids and a husband who was what? I hadn't begun to define anything. (yes, it started that long ago ... my notes about Charl changing go back to the mid 90's ... it's been a long slog).

When I finally started writing seriously, really working on it, I was crazy busy with kids and all their activities (nothing here that a person can walk to), outside farm work, record keeping for the farm, Georgie eating with us twice a day, a student living with us from the beginning of May to mid August ... and all the stuff that comes up in a life ...thyroid disease, endometriosis, my father's death and all the et cetera. There was never time for writing until I decided to do it then I fit it in and worked. Early mornings, late evenings, while I was driving tractor or whatever physical work I was doing, while I stirred something on the stove, in the shower ... whenever and wherever I could let words and phrases run around in my head.

This writing started when I dreamt the first stanza of a poem —

do not view me naked
running through the stubble
pricked and bleeding

It sat on my head until I hammered out another 4 stanzas (many days work) and I must have written more too because I had to submit several pages to get into a weekend workshop with Steven Ross Smith at Red Deer College. I used that same poem in my application to an on-line writing class at Queen's with Carolyn Smart. Not a great poem but it worked ... that was a weird application — just email one poem and she'd get back to you one way or another.

Keep writing. Concrete nouns. Verbs. Not too many modifiers. Small details. Trust your reader. Avoid words like very that are filler.

And of course, keep reading. And more reading. You don't have to analyze and study. The book of poems is a box of chocolates. Jane Kenyon. Don McKay. Betsy Warland. Lorna Crozier. Hopefully you have access to a decent library. Barry Dempster. I'm suggesting these poets because they don't make me tear my hair out trying to figure out what they are talking about. I like Anthony Wilson too but he's a Brit and it's been hard for me to find his books. And lots more but I don't want to make you crazy. Todd Boss Pitch.
Jim Harrison.
Galway Kinnell.
Eamon Grennan.
Tomas Tranströmer.
Robert Bly.
Ok. I'll stop.
You (or anyone) could send me the name of something/someone I need to read.

And good fiction.

And books about writing —
Anne Lamott Bird by Bird
Natalie Goldberg (it doesn't matter if she's talking about writing fiction)
Frances Mayes The Discovery of Poetry (I worked through most, if not all, of the exercises in this one)
Stephen Dobyns Best Words, Best Order. Essays on Poetry
Alan Bennett Six Poets, Hardy to Larkin

I read lots to my kids, poems, stories, everything. Our TV mysteriously didn't work for years. It was a blessing until one day someone plugged it in. The Olympics were on.

I coached my kids in poetry. Each child learnt 2 or 3 poems by heart and spoke them at a festival for school. We had a ball doing this and branched out on our own, choosing poems (lyric, narrative, and Cdn were the categories I think) and for a few years they also did a little play together. We had a great time finding material and adapting it. I learned lots about poems in those years before I started writing.

Try paper and pen. No computer. No internet. Just the page and wait for something to happen. It will. I'm sure of it.



(Most of) Yoko's Dogs at the Firehall Library + Gathering of Poets at the Moberly Arts Centre

Three of the four members of Yoko's Dogs (Jane Munro, Jan Conn and Mary di Michele - no Susan Gillis this time, Vancouver) will be getting together for a reading at the VPL's Firehall Branch on May 31st. It should be a heck of a show:

The Firehall Branch has been steadily hosting more and more poetry readings of late. It's been nice to see poetry at the VPL move out a bit further from the Central Branch.

Speaking of which, I will be reading at a VPL event at the Moberly Arts and Cultural Centre in South Vancouver this Saturday (May 27th)! I'll be sharing the stage with fellow Dorothy Livesay Prize short-listers Juliane Okot Bitek, Richard Therrien and Anne Fleming. You can get more info on that "Gathering of Poets" here.


the candour and the ardour

The book, the statue, the sonata, must be gone upon with the unreasoning good faith and the unflagging spirit of children at their play. IS IT WORTH DOING?—when it shall have occurred to any artist to ask himself that question, it is implicitly answered in the negative. It does not occur to the child as he plays at being a pirate on the dining-room sofa, nor to the hunter as he pursues his quarry; and the candour of the one and the ardour of the other should be united in the bosom of the artist.

- Robert Louis Stevenson, in a letter to a "young gentlemen" who asked the question "Should you or should you not become an artist?" You can read Stevenson's full reply here.


a thing that attempts to completely represent the world

In the most basic sense, the point I am trying to make is that the continued persistence of poetry as a human activity, across time and cultures, has to do with something it does that is different from all other types of writing. How it refuses to be beholden to all the other things we use language for. How it turns distractibility, inconsistency, dreaminess, leaping, all those things that we scrub out of everyday life and functionality, into something to be treasured. How it continually prioritizes an interest in the very nature of language itself: as material that has a sound, visual qualities, feels a certain way in the mouth, etc., and also in the larger sense as a thing that attempts—and ultimately fails—to completely represent the world. It seems interesting to me to think about what connects Sappho to Rumi to Keats to Basho to Eluard to James Tate to Alice Notley to Victoria Chang. My instinct is that there is something.

- Matthew Zapruder, discussing his forthcoming book of essays Why Poetry? with Travis Nichols over at the Poetry Society of America's website. You can read the whole thing here.