the elevation of one mode of expression over all others

It’s true there are poets, both established and aspiring, who have long forgotten or never acknowledged the ways they’ve benefited from the class advantages of higher education. There are also poets for whom the esoteric concerns of academic scholars and critics have become the primary motivating force in their writing. Both types of writer have little need for or interest in a mainstream audience. These are aesthetes writing for aesthetes. There isn’t any sin in this, but it does contribute to the perception that poetry is out of touch with the wider culture. Still, one of the reasons I’m not naming names here is that for every staid or esoteric poem, for every too-big-to-fail poet I might offer as an example in support of these observations, I can offer another that counters them. The fact is, there’s simply too much poetry out there coming from too many sources to make for believable generalizations about the art, and the trouble with recent attacks on poetry is that they’re based on too few examples without credible knowledge of the vast numbers of alternatives.

Beyond this, when critics call for a more relevant brand of poetry, their impulses might be well-meaning, but to believe that poetry should trump Facebook, cable, the movies, music, the news, Twitter, and the fact that more than a billion people now carry the entire Internet around in their pants is a weirdly capitalist ambition. It’s a desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others, and I’m not sure why these critics believe that desire should matter more than somebody else’s need for something else. The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.

- Jaswinder Bolina, from his essay "The Writing Class" over at the Poetry Foundation. You can read the whole thing here.


Transatlantic Reading Series - Read and Recorded!

Last Sunday I participated in the Transatlantic Reading Series, an online poetry reading series with participants from across the globe. Sounds cool, eh?

And it certainly was, though my individual experience was one of sitting in my office talking into the green light next to my web cam. It was hard to tell if anyone was watching at all, but then while I was mid-pre-poem-banter for my second poem, up popped a tweet from Robert Peake, founder of the series and a poetry-blogging hero of mine, and I knew someone was out there:

The whole reading, featuring myself and Steve Komarnyckyj, and hosted by John Gosslee of Fjords Review, was recorded and can be viewed right here:

As web-cam recordings go, I think it turned out pretty well, though I now know to get the camera a little higher so my eyelids aren't the size of lily pads.

My set begins around the 5:10 mark, and I return for the Q+A around 39:50. My set list includes two poems from The Other Side of Ourselves ("The Wailing Machines", "Rejection Slips"), one from Smoothing the Holy Surfaces ("You Ask Me About My Mother") and five new ones ("Weather in Dublin", "Selfie with Skull", "Humanity", "Transatlantic" and "Strangers").

Thank you so much to Robert, John and Steve for making the reading happen, and to all of you who tuned in either during the reading or after the fact. I hope you enjoyed it.

p.s. Speaking of Robert Peake, if you ever want a fun random-word generator to use as a writing prompt, check out his Poetry Writing Prompts machine, which randomly spits out words culled from back issues of Poetry Magazine. I just asked for five random words and it gave me: "ghost-flux, uncorrected, moo-goo-gai-pan, mctuesday's, garden-crusted". How many word generators can pull off something that great?


Dead Poets Winter Solstice Poetry and Music Fundraiser

I'm very pleased to be part of a Pandora's Collective/Dead Poets Reading Series co-sponsored event, masterminded by Fiona Tinwei Lam.

Entitled "A Winter Solstice Celebration of Poetry and Music in Vancouver", the event will pair poems by dead poets with music played by local musicians Fraser Union, Christina Kent, Samuel Louis, and Bob Walker.

Entry will be by donation, and all money raised will go to buying stocking stuffers for school kids in need over the winter holidays.

The details:

A Winter Solstice Celebration of Poetry and Music in Vancouver
Wednesday, December 10th, 2014, 7-9 PM
The Cottage Bistro
4468 Main Street
Featuring: Evelyn Lau (reading John Updike), Christopher Levenson (W.B. Yeats), Bonnie Nish (Rainer Maria Rilke), Rob Taylor (Al Purdy), Diane Tucker (Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickenson), and Fiona Tinwei Lam (Simin Behbahani and Maya Angelou)
By Donation

As mentioned above, I'll be reading Purdy - expect Piling Blood/Beethoven to make an appearance. Nothing says Christmas like being covered in cow's blood!

I hope to see you there.


Bowering's Books

Mailed out to subscribers earlier this month, the Fall 2014 issue of The Capilano Review, entitled "Bowering's Books", is devoted entirely to everyone's favourite Vancouver Canadians heckler, and occasional author, George Bowering. I am very pleased to have a short essay in the issue, on Bowering's 2000 book (the year, not his "2000th book," thought that's not off by that much), His Life: A Poem.

His Life was one of those early books I read which opened my eyes to what poetry could do, and Canadian (even Vancouver) poetry, no less.

The issue will be publicly launched tomorrow (November 20th), at 11:30 AM at Capilano College. You can get all the details here. If, for some reason, you can't make it to North Vancouver on a Thursday morning, still think about picking up a copy. I'm only starting into it myself, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it thus far.

To wet your whistle, The Capilano Review has put up an online supplement to the issue, chocked full of essays, interviews and aimless musings by Jonathan Ball, Brian Fawcett, Daniel Zomparelli, and more. You can read that here.

Thanks to Todd Nickel and the rest of the TCR crew for making this issue happen. And to George Bowering, for the books, obviously.


Transatlantic Poetry

I'm very pleased to be have been asked to participate in the Transatlantic Poetry Reading Series, readings which take place online, including participants from both sides of the Atlantic (and a whole continent more, in my case).

I'll be reading alongside English/Ukrainian poet and translator Steve Komarnyckyj. We'll each read for fifteen minutes or so, followed by a Q+A. The reading will take place this Sunday (Nov 23rd) at 12 PM, Pacific Time, so 3 PM for those of you out East (and 8 PM for the Ghanaians out there).

To be part of this reading, you need a Google account (the reading will take place on Google+ Hangouts). If you don't have one, it's easy to sign up. If/once you have an account, simply click here:

Transatlantic Poetry November Reading

Where it says "Are you going to watch?" click "Yes." Then you should be good to go come Sunday.

So, non-Vancouverites, you no longer have an excuse for skipping my readings. I expect to see you there! And Vancouverites, why not give it a go, too? There's worse ways to spend a Sunday morning.

This will be my first time reading new material from my two-thirds completed second manuscript, and I'll be doing into a webcam. God knows how that's going to turn out. You're welcome to drop in on Sunday, from wherever you are, to see how it goes. I'd love to see you there.


the art of rejection

Something else I must tell you, finally: we are all meant to side with the author. Even as you practice the art of rejection, always side with the author. You are the writer’s advocate, even when they might not see that, even as you fail each other. They are sending their manuscript to you in hope you will see them in all their humanity, their anguish, their joy, their triumph, their vulnerability, their pain, and not turn away. You will turn away.

- Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press, in a very entertaining piece about rejection from the editor's perspective, posted on the Graywolf Press blog. You can read the whole thing here.


All Things Purdy

The Al Purdy Show at the Vancouver Writers Festival is happening tomorrow (Sunday, October 26th, 1:30 PM)! Hurrah! I've blogged about it previously, so won't bore you with the details here, but in short, it will be hosted by Charlie Demers and will feature Ken Babstock, George Bowering, Michael Crummey, Aislinn Hunter, Daphne Marlatt, Sina Queyras, Sharon Thesen, Fred Wah, and many more reading Al Purdy's poetry. Oh, and I squeezed in there somehow, too. In conclusion: YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME.

For a more thorough summary of the event, check out this post by Clara Kumagai, on the PRISM international website.

To promote the event, and to celebrate the release of We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987, myself and We Go Far Back in Time editor Nicholas Bradley selected four excerpts from the letters to highlight on the website. The letters document Birney and Purdy's first interaction (Birney calls a past editor at his magazine an "incipient fascist), a rejection letter from Birney to Purdy (Purdy says PRISM international's poetry editor is "full of shit"), an argument over the influence of Bliss Carman (Birney says "There isn’t one damn poet, old or young, worthy at all of the name..." who was influenced by Carman) and a discussion of the political climate in the US and Canada ("The thickening atmosphere of violence, ignorance, hate, stupidity, mutual brainwashing...") which seems like it could have taken place yesterday. Here are the letters in full:

Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #1: “A very ordinary liberal against an incipient fascist”
Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #2: “An orgasm not a belly rub”
Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #3: “Before I get nasty I want to thank you”
Birney/Purdy Letters Excerpt #4: “Lash and goad and liberal applications of Mace.”

The letters have proven to be hit, tweeted and Facebooked around like mad, with excerpts #2 and #3 even re-posted by Australian magazine Going Down Swinging on their website. You can read their version here.

So be sure to check them out, and then come to the big show tomorrow!


there is a lot to be realistic about

So it seems that if there is a need for a new kind of poetry at present, we must also recognize some fault in the poetry of our time. What i think is distressing is that poets too often resort to irony – they don’t really mean what they write to be taken as straightforward or sincere, but rather to suggest by their tone a cynical or tongue-in-cheek or superior attitude.

There is an absence of realism – in the face of the fact that there is a lot to be realistic about: poverty and economic inequality, environmental destruction – and very important, for poets, a tacit but increasing assumption throughout our culture that there is nothing special about a human being – a human being is nothing more than a computational device, algorithmically driven. This i think is what Jack Spicer meant by ‘the human crisis.’

It’s true, as W. H. Auden said, that poetry makes nothing happen. Yet poetry is not a negligible part of our culture; it is on the contrary as highly honoured as any of the arts. If there were a sea-change in the practice of poetry, towards realism and sincerity, this might have an effect on the other arts and the way people look at our culture and society in general.

- George Stanley, elaborating on comments he made at the Cascadia Poetry Festival, as published on Paul E. Nelson's blog. You can read the whole thing here.


dazzle but none of the damaged heart

When I look at contemporary architecture I see so much glass and steel that it has become a tyranny of gray metal and reflection, even though glass in itself is a wonder and steel in itself can be shapely and strong. I think of the mass movement in poetry towards odd vocabulary and syntax on the one hand to be sort of beautiful, in that sense of glass and steel, because I, too, am interested in how language itself dazzles. But I also think of it as a tyranny of coldness, a terrible fear of emotion. This fear of emotion has many cultural sources (people are always afraid to express their feelings publicly), but one hideous culprit is the dreaded writing workshop. Who want to lay their feelings bare when ten rivals around a table can get at them? Writing workshops can close up feelings, and therefore close up courage. That's how you get dazzle but none of the damaged heart.

- Molly Peacock, in interview with Jason Guriel in the Fall 2014 issue of CV2.


long after I've stopped making sense - "For Your Safety Please Hold On" by Kayla Czaga

Song - Kayla Czaga
Outside my window, seagulls and crows continue
the discourse on language, insisting it need not be beautiful
to be song. If song accompanies their shallow black
and white bickering over garbage at 5 a.m., do I still believe

language needs to be beautiful? Their insistent discourse
pecks holes in the morning. Here I am still trying
to believe, at 5 a.m., despite the bickering over garbage
because faith describes perfectly how my mother is dying.

Here I am still trying to peck holes in the morning;
song is just another word I use for wanting
faith to describe how perfectly my mother is dying
thousands of miles away, in a small town I rarely visit.

Song is just another word I want to use.
Illness is just another word. Mother is just a word
thousands of miles away, in a small town I rarely visit.
The winter light pours slowly into my window.

Illness is just a word. Mother is just a word
with someone in it. Can I sing without words?
The slow winter light pours through my window.
Long after I’ve stopped making sense, I’m just a sound

with someone in it. Can I sing without words
and still be song, accompanying the crows, shallow and black,
making sense with just sounds? Long after I’ve stopped,
seagulls and crows continue outside my window.
from For Your Safety Please Hold On
(Nightwood Editions, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.

On Sunday, October 19th, Kayla Czaga will launch her debut poetry collection, For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions), alongside three other Nightwood authors: Matt Rader, Alex Leslie and Elaine Woo. The details:

Nightwood Editions Fall 2014 Book Launch
Sunday, October 19th, 7pm
Grand Luxe Hall
303 East 8th Avenue
Featuring: Kayla Czaga, Matt Rader, Alex Leslie, and Elaine Woo

I've had the opportunity to get to know Kayla and her work over the last year or so, and I was very much looking forward to getting a copy of For Your Safety Please Hold On in my hands. When I finally did, I wasn't disappointed - it's a terrifically strong debut.

If there’s a central concern in For Your Safety Please Hold On, I would say it’s: what are we to do with all these people? The book overflows with people – Mother, Father, Grandparents, Not-Grandparents, Aunts, Drunk Uncles, children, strangers, lovers, murderers, the murdered, ministers, neighbours, and Aaron the EpiPen kid (to name but a few). I suppose most books are peopled well enough, but few seem as concerned with the complexity and sheer volume of people that overwhelm modern urban life. In the second section of the book, “The Family,” Czaga seems to ask again and again: Who is family? What is family? And what defines its borders?

Those questions spill out over the rest of the book to cover much of the world: fellow bus passengers, Blockbuster employees, coffee shop customers. “Lord, it is hard to love / your people, so fast they go / thru drive-thrus.” (77) she says at one point. “The people watched the smoke of the Lord / barreling the Lord’s commandments / down the mountain. So the people / settled into their confusion.” (88) she says at another.

The question always hovering, rarely asked, pointed at most firmly in the title poem (in which the speaker contemplates the titular warning sign on the bus, and wishes to graffiti to the end of it the words “to each other”) seems to be: How are we, fellow people, not family? How are you not my comrade, my brother, my sister?

For Your Safety Please Hold On takes on all these questions gracefully – always with a sense of play and a deep and evident love of language, and often with a wink. It makes you look up at your neighbours (in the office, on the bus, converging at the mail box) and, if not understand them better, at least desire to.

In other words: it's good stuff. Kayla and I exchanged a few emails about her book, and the conversation wandered as they do from kicked in front doors, to pigeons and coffee shops, to an overabundance of "fucks." Enjoy!

Kayla, wondering what to do with this small person (who, she stresses,
is not her own small person - don't worry Mom and Dad!)

Rob: In reading For Your Safety Please Hold On, especially the poems in the “Mother and Father” and “The Family” sections, I got the sense that what I was reading about was your “poetry family,” a family adjacent to your actual family, stretched and transformed however your love of play and language suggested. In fact, it feels like you’ve built an entire “poetry family” cosmology (Mom, Dad, Grandparents, Not-Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles), which is probably what Paul Vermeersch is referring to on the back cover blurb when he says reading your book “feels rather like an initiation into the clan”.

Does any of the above ring true? Has your family seen the book? What has been their response?

Kayla: It’s interesting that you use the word cosmology. I think I focused on family as a way to locate myself. Each of the family members expresses a different way of being in the world. In writing about them, I got a chance to try on their language, see how they fit, and decide how I wanted to live in response.

My dad has seen a few of my poems and he likes to “correct” details and tell me that he doesn’t quite “get” them. We have long talks about what he thinks is going on. Once, during a hockey period break, he wrote “his kind of rhyming poem” and mailed it to me, hand written on a piece of loose-leaf. So, he's trying to participate.

Last night, my mom phoned and asked me to explain, “Poem for Jeff,” the poem in my book in which I use the f-word about a hundred times. “I’ve never heard you talk like that,” she explained. I think I actually offended her. I felt pretty embarrassed, but I think she likes the book, otherwise. She said she was going to read it again and call me back.

Rob: Ha! Yes, my first book had one "fuck" in it and I definitely hear about it a disproportionate amount (though my mother's never mentioned it). Your answer got me thinking about the speakers and voices in the book. Would you say this book is written in one common voice/from one common speaker, or does it change from section to section, poem to poem? When your mom says she's "never heard you talk like that," do you think of it as "you" talking in the first place?

Kayla: Sometimes it's me. Sometimes, as in "My Father, Winning me $242 dollars at the Kitimat Golf & Country Club, Last Christmas," I'm trying to speak as my dad, or someone else. More often, while writing, I feel like I'm just this device that poems get downloaded into on their way to the world. The poems are not me speaking, but speaking through me. I realize that sounds very strange, especially given the amount of details in the poems that come from my life, but that's what it feels like.

Rob: One of the great pleasures of your book is its sense of play. Puns abound (“She was a hoot, owling outside / the barn”, 30) and so many of these poems are steeped in jokes and turns of phrase and a general relishing in language. Many of the poems, however, also deal with heady subjects – death, murder, grief, isolation, etc. What purpose does inserting playfulness into heavy poems serve for you? Have you written any poems, in the book or otherwise, where you felt that such play would detract from the poem, and avoided it?

Kayla: Last summer, when my grandfather died, my father (who is in his 60s) had to kick down the door of his house because my grandfather never gave anyone a full set of keys. Sad, yes, but also very funny—all of us sweating in the driveway with our suitcases. I believe in the old maxim about light making the darkness darker. One of my favourite quotes goes, “How goofy and awful is life,” (Dean Young).

My classmates have accused me of using humour as a defense mechanism when talking about emotional things. Maybe they are on to something, but I prefer laughing to taking myself too seriously.

No, I can’t “play” with everything. The poem you chose to stand for the book (and coincidentally the book’s only formal poem), “Song,” is basically as serious as I get, as is the poem “Victoria Soto.” It is sometimes disrespectful to be funny.

Rob: I had the pleasure to hear you read Gertrude Stein at a recent Dead Poets Reading Series event. In introducing Stein’s poems, you mentioned that she had had a great impact on your writing – that she had been one of the poets who gave you permission to do new things in your writing. I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit more – which elements of this book do you think most clearly demonstrate her influence?

Kayla: I found Gertrude Stein at the right time in my life. I was pretty bored with lyric poetry and she set my hair on fire. I got shivers reading her. Still do. I think she helped loosen my fixation on “making sense.” Or, she helped me make a different kind of sense. The entire “FOR PLAY” section is a semi-homage to her and the influence of her writing.

Rob: Knowing a bit about your biography (born and raised in Kitimat, now living in Vancouver), I came to read the section “For Your Safety Please Hold On” as your “Vancouver Poems” – chronicling your shift from a small, intimate sense of community and family, to the big, chaotic urban mess that we rarely, if ever, consider familial. Reading poems like “23rd Birthday” and “For Your Safety...”, and lines from later in the book like “The Lord led me to a city / with a dripping, concrete sky / and fourteen thousand coffee // joints.” (82) gave me a clear sense of the city as seen from the outside. In what ways do you think your first book would have been different if you had never moved to Vancouver?

Kayla: I spent five years in Victoria between Vancouver and Kitimat, so I don’t feel like my transition into Vancouver has been very extreme or disruptive.

I actually hadn’t even thought of that section as Vancouver poems until you mentioned it. You are right; they are predominantly set in Vancouver. I see it as my “I’m an adult now” poem section. I spent a while creating the poem-voice that speaks in the way that I think—that scattered, fascinated, shy way. That voice feels more like what that section represents than the background details that make up those poems, but I’m sure For Your Safety Please Hold On would be a completely different book if I had moved to Montreal instead, as I had planned to.

Rob: Montreal's loss is our gain! Looking back through your book, are you able to better see or understand your own feelings about Vancouver? If so, what are they?

Kayla: I wish I could just insert one of the poems as answer to this question because they do a better job of articulating my feelings. I am really fascinated by Vancouver—really excited about how much there is to do and how many pigeons and coffee shops and good bits of fish there are—but I’m also overwhelmed and I find myself less patient and willing to engage with strangers than in a smaller town because there are just too many of them and they are too often forced into my physical space due to overcrowding. I hope that comes through in the book.

Rob: It certainly does. Alongside the crowds and pigeons and coffee shops, God makes a few appearances in For Your Safety Please Hold On - mostly notably in poems like “Temporary” and in the long poem which closes the book, “Many Metaphorical Birds.” Could you speak a bit about whatever religious upbringing you might have had, and if/how your connection to religion has changed over the years? Has poetry come to compliment, or replace, any parts of your life that you consider (or once would have considered) “religious”?

Kayla: My dad is an atheist and my mom is “spiritual” in a general way. I was a fairly rebellious teenager and one of the most effectively rebellious things I did was convert to Christianity. Since it’s always been a personal, rather than familial thing, I haven’t experienced the same falling out with it that some kids raised in religious homes have. My faith has changed and evolved, of course, as everything does all the time.

Spiritual traditions, family, and poetry—these are all ways of attaching to a bigger thing than the self, of plugging into a narrative. I think religion is a different barrel of fish than poetry, however, and I don’t think one can build a worldview out of a genre of writing, but it can compliment and help deepen many spiritual practices.

Rob: Now that you have your first book – now that it’s a real thing you can hold in your hands – what purpose do you think it serves? (i.e. if your book were a machine, what would be its function?) When you envision someone picking it up and reading it, what do you hope they get from it? And does your answer differ at all from the answer you think you would have given three or four years ago, when your first book was still an abstract concept?

Kayla: Wallace Stevens said it is the poet’s job to help people live their lives. I don’t know if I can aspire to something so lofty, but that’s how poetry “works” for me.

Poems are little machines you pour your thinking into and your thinking comes out differently, hopefully better, from the dispensing end. Maybe my poems will be a partner in someone’s ongoing thinking, or maybe they will amuse someone on her long bus rides. Maybe they will be cut up into nice collages or used to line a litter box.

Years ago, I thought I would have more figured out by now, that by having a book I would have “arrived” in some way as a person. Nope. Still can’t find my keys. Still don’t know anything. I’m happier knowing nothing now, though—it means I can still be surprised.

Surprise Kayla by picking up a copy of For Your Safety Please Hold On from your local bookstore, or from the Nightwood Editions website or Amazon. Or better yet, show up at her launch. She won't know to see it coming.