a powerful way to store energy

We had Zach Wells write a piece for Reader's Digest called "Doctor Igloo.” It was about someone named Dr. Paul Stubbing, who worked as a physician in Iqaluit for three decades. It was a 1,500 word profile, nicely done, nothing too taxing. But it was read by more Canadians than all of the books he’ll ever publish in his lifetime, combined. Sets you back on your heels, doesn’t it? And it’s been tremendously healthy for me to face how small our concerns are when compared to the size of the country. For every literary “firestorm” on Twitter, for every Facebook “controversy” over a bad review, my day job reminds me that people have more important things on their mind: the tar sands, rampant inequality, sexual aggression in the workplace. The fact is, the world that poetry once belonged to—the world that saw the form as a vehicle for major ideas—no longer exists. When you come down to it, other cultural forms (novels, movies, HBO dramas) are now regarded as offering a more useful, accurate and entertaining way of telling stories about ourselves. Poetry’s irrelevance, however, hasn’t changed the fact that it’s still a powerful way to store energy—emotional, intellectual—and to release it. Once you’ve had a taste of building devices that can do that, it’s hard to stop. And speaking as a critic, practicing a minor journalistic art underscores how important it is to do it well—and to have a healthy relationship with the reasons you do it.

- Carmine Starnino, in interview with Melissa Bull over at PRISM international. You can read the whole interview here.


absolutely present and inevitable

Michael Harris: I was trying to think of how a first line literally has to have one hooked immediately. Without a first line that either leads in immediately to a second line hook or a third line hook, there isn’t any poem, you don’t get down to the fourth line usually. It has to be something that doesn’t throw one off. It has to actually bring one in. Reading a poem is a little bit like falling in love. Ten years on, if it was a correct falling-in-love you’re still with them and if it was an incorrect falling-in-love, you’re not with them anymore.

Carmine Starnino: Does that thinking affect arrangement in a book? For example, the first poem you place in your manuscript?

Harris: A friend of mine, the Quebecois poet Michel Garneau, once told me, “Lead with your best piece.” And that makes a kind of sense. He is, amongst other things, an actor and a playwright. And theatrically, what’s interesting is to have something very strong at the beginning. But I don’t think the first poem in a book has to be the best poem. It has to be a poem that is absolutely solid, that doesn’t push one away, that says, “Here I am. I’m a decently written piece. I have subject matter that’s of interest. I have a couple of oddities. A couple of interesting tropes that tell you I’m an interesting poet beyond what one might normally read.” And by the end of the first page, you have to have read something of import. Then the second page and the 3rd page and the 4th page, you can fool around a bit. By the time the 5th or 6th page, then you have to have a plateau poem, a decent poem, a very good poem. Something that’s so good that, had you put it first, you might have lost the reader; it’s a little bit like getting introduced to somebody you don’t know and coming on too strong. That’s how Shakespeare managed the plays. Very seldom is the huge speech in Act 1. The magic develops slowly. By the time you get to Act 3 or 4 there’s strength, power and explosiveness.

Starnino: You don’t want to come on too strong?

Harris: You want to be absolutely present and inevitable, but you can’t whack somebody over the head and say this is genius. At least, that’s how I would organize the seduction.

- Michael Harris, former Signal Editions editor, in interview with current Signal editor Carmine Starnino, over at Canadian Notes & Queries. You can read the whole thing here.


a technique for the reconciliation of method and chance

Through a particular texture of physiological bravado, rather than knowledge, I attempted to participate in the world. What is life I thought, other than to succumb profoundly, thoroughly and enduringly. Thus began my career. I sought a technique for the reconciliation of method and chance. This ignited in me a sensation of intelligence, which is to say, I felt the being of my life in relation to a generality. What a voluptuous illusion! I continued. In this way it seemed that I began to understand history.

But I was also aware, in the last instants before sleep, that I was the one who was about to swindle myself. This was my vanity: that I did not pause long enough to imagine that each being harbours the same suspicion.

- Lisa Robertson, from her "Essay on Origins", over at The Rusty Toque. You can read the whole thing here.


made more available for other tasks within myself

Christopher Levenson: So when do you ever find time to write?

Russell Thornton: I get an hour and a half per day Monday to Friday at the local Public library to read and blacken pages. Having kids actually helps me in my writing: kids take me into a daily meeting of obligations and fulfillment of meaning. In this, oddly enough, I feel I’m made more available for other tasks within myself. My kids lash me to a metaphorical mast. If they didn’t I wouldn’t be able to sail past the islands of the sirens without falling in to the sea. I’m not saying I’m some sort of Odysseus. But I think many people who write poetry hear in some part of themselves those alluring sirens. The sirens’ singing contains all that is beautiful, yet it is terrible, dangerous. Having kids has taken me closer to my own island of sirens; it has also provided me with the right ship to negotiate my way through the winding voices, and make it back home — home being my literal home as well as my symbolic home, poetry.

-Russell Thornton, on writing with three kids and a day job, in interview with Christopher Levenson over at PRISM international. You can read the whole thing here.


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.