poems v. exercises in verse

I suspect that in what I would call a true poem, the words come from the emotion. In a poem that I would call just an exercise in verse, the emotion (if it is achieved at all) comes from the words. Both poems can be satisfying to read, but one is a lesser art. It goes without saying that primacy of emotion by itself is not sufficient to ensure a true poem—I am presupposing a high level of artistry with language in the poet. But it is emotion that should inspire a poet’s words, and not vice versa. If the emotion is primary, the words will transmit that emotion to others. Words—the poet’s own words—should not be what inspires the poet’s emotion. He should not be using his virtuosity with language to convince himself that he’s feeling something.

- Robyn Sarah, in a blog post over at the The Best Canadian Poetry blog. You can read the whole thing here.


trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art

Most poets need the conversation of other poets. They do not need mentors; they need friends, critics, people to argue with... The history of poetry is a history of friendships and rivalries, not only with the dead great ones but with the living young. My four years at Harvard overlapped with the undergraduates Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Peter Davison, L. E. Sissman, and Kenneth Koch... I do not assert that we resembled a sewing circle, that we often helped each other overtly, or even that we liked each other. I do assert that we were lucky to have each other around for purposes of conversation.

We were not in workshops; we were merely attending college. Where else in this country would we have met each other? In France there is an answer to this question and it is Paris. Europe goes in for capital cities. Although England is less centralized than France or Romania, London is more capital than New York, San Francisco, or Washington. While the French poet can discover the intellectual life of his times at a cafe, the American requires a degree program. The workshop is the institutionalized cafe...

So the workshop answers the need for a cafe. But I called it the institutionalized cafe, and it differs from the Parisian version by instituting requirements and by hiring and paying mentors. Workshop mentors even make assignments: "Write a persona poem in the voice of a dead ancestor." "Make a poem containing these ten words in this order with as many other words as you wish." "Write a poem without adjectives, or without prepositions, or without content. . . ." These formulas, everyone says, are a whole lot of fun. . . . They also reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. This reduction-by-formula is not accidental... Games serve to democratize, to soften, and to standardize; they are repellent. Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem.

This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish.

- Donald Hall, from his lecture "Poetry and Ambition", which was later published in the Kenyon Review in 1983. You can read the whole lecture here. Thanks to Conrad DiDiodato for pointing it out.


ubc'n some great readings

Yes, I do hate myself a little more every time I write a post title. Thanks for asking...

I've been sick of late and in my tissue-and-nyquil haze I forgot to post readings last week. I hope you took in Kate Braid and Lisa Robertson nonetheless. The Robertson reading marked the debut of People's Co-op Bookstore's new "Third Friday" reading series, which seems to be closely linked with New Star Books (the next two readings, at least, feature New Star authors).

Ok, time to get back on track. Three readings out of UBC this Thursday, posted below and on the big list for February:

Ray Hsu and Evelyn Lau Reading
Thursday, February 24th, 1:00 - 2:00 PM
Irving K. Barber Learning Centre
Victoria Learning Theatre (Rm 183)
1961 East Mall, UBC Main Campus, Vancouver
Featuring: see title!

Robson Reading Series
Thursday, February 24th, 7:00 - 9:00 PM
UBC Robson Square Bookstore/Library
800 Robson Street (plaza level), Vancouver
Featuring: Eve Joseph, Lydia Kwai and Kenneth Radu

Locution Reading Series
Thursday, February 24th, 7:00 PM
Pulpfiction Books
2422 Main Street, Vancouver
Featuring: Katia Grubisic and Alexander McLeod


retail 2011

As he did last year, Jacob McArthur Mooney has trolled the internet for spring catalogues from Canada's poetry publishers and compiled Retail 2011, a listing of (some of) the Canadian poetry titles coming out this spring.

Jake recently got to Cormorant, and my little beast, and you can read his generous notes (including a silaron plug) here.

It looks like it will be a very strong year for Canadian poetry titles, with new books by Ken Babstock, Matt Rader, Lorna Crozier, Susan Musgrave, Nick Thran, Jake himself, and just about every other poet who ever lived and breathed on Planet Earth. As is usually the case, Anansi and Nightwood are leading the charge, with a number of other strong presses right behind them. No word yet from one of my favourites, Gaspereau Press, though they are probably still shoveling themselves out from under the mountain of ME EAT GILLER NOW!!! hate mail.

It's actually sort of terrifying (I'd like to say thrilling, I really would, but terrifying is what keeps coming to mind) how many poetry books come out each year. Jake's list already includes 36 titles, and probably excludes more titles than it includes (in BC alone I can think of Arsenal Pulp, Anvil, Caitlin, New Star and Mother Tongue presses - all not covered in Retail 2011 - atleast not yet). Oh, and Jake's list doesn't include reissues, selected/collecteds, and anthologies...

No, no, it's wonderful that there are so many books. It really is. I'm publishing my first book this spring from a press that's making its return to poetry, so I'm not about to declare the volume of titles a problem. I just like believing in a fantasy where I have a hope of one day getting my head around "poetry in Canada", or at least coming close. Lists like this drive home the fact that if I ever thought I was almost there, I was fooling myself. It's probably a good lesson.

This is the kind of thing I love blogs for - finding the obvious, glaring omissions in your community and using a little corner of the internet and a bit (ok, a lot) of spare/stolen time to fill the void.

So thanks, Jake, for all the work. Keep it up.

Photo credit


a singing in things

I sometimes think it's as if there's a singing in things that I am so far from being able to know that I'm only guessing that I can call it "singing." What I would very much like to do (why? I have no idea) is to come alongside that and sing with it. In a sense that's what I think I'm doing, singing alongside this unsingable, perhaps-not-even-song. One seems to know this in different ways at different points in one's life. My singing doesn't have to make any sense, or be beautiful, or publishable. When you think of writing as a business, going to stores and buying it, this image of singing alongside something seems ludicrous. The whole issue of audience is not as important to me as it is to other poets. The important relationship is between the singing you are able to do and this sub-terranean singing, or flux, that eros keeps wanting to know like a setter that keeps pointing. That's where you have to be immaculate; that's where integrity is demanded. If you screw around there, forget it, you're disqualified. That's what's important, what ever happens after that, publication, awards, reviews, is completely incidental. Who cares what happens. This thing, that's important. People who start writing by thinking about publication are, I think, grabbing the stick by the wrong end; the task, it seems to me, is just to move up close to whatever it is that you will speak. Everything else will solve itself, even if it solves itself in ways that don't look like solutions.

- Tim Lilburn, from a 1997 interview with Darryl Whetter in Studies in Canadian Literature. You can read the whole thing here.


people who become poets today are less interested in verse

There’s no denying that rap is an art form, but [Zadie] Smith was onto something important [in her novel On Beauty] when she made her rapper character resist identifying it as poetry. The reservation does not come from any doubt about the skill of the writing; when it comes to verse technique, rap is considerably more artful than most American poetry written in the same period covered by the anthology, 1978–2010. Technique has declined in importance in poetry over these years, while a premium has been placed on conceptual innovation — on the idea behind a work rather than its execution. Whether it is a result or a cause of this focus, or both, people who become poets today are less interested in verse, and less naturally gifted at it, than poets in previous eras.

In rap, on the other hand, verse technique—rhyme, rhythm, assonance, and witty simile, all of which constitute a rapper’s “flow”—is valued above everything. The result is that people who are poetically gifted are drawn to the form, and their competitive efforts raise its level of sophistication higher and higher.

- Adam Kirsch, in his review of The Anthology of Rap entitled "How Ya Like Me Now" in the February 2011 issue of Poetry Magazine.


this is not a reading. or a love poem, for that matter.

Readers have been announced for Poetry is Dead's "This is Not a Love Poem" reading. They are: Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Rebecca Slaven, Rob Taylor, Leah Rae, Dina Del Bucchia, Warren Dean Fulton, Fiona Lam, Nikki Reimer, Alex Leslie, Sean McGarragle, Catherine Owen.

The poets are given pretty free rein over what we present - how much/if we read poems and how much/if we babble on about subjects vaguely related to the night's theme. I'll be doing the latter, with a little talk entitled "This is a Love Poem, I think". I think. We'll see what I come up with over the next couple days.

The details again:

Poetry is Dead - This is Not a Love Poem
Thursday, February 10th, 7:00 PM
The Waldorf Hotel
1489 East Hastings St., Vancouver
Featuring: All those names I just listed above
$5 (includes a free issue of Poetry is Dead)

Hope to see you there, and if not, at some other reading in February.


there might be something to getting high in order to read poetry

The main problem with people who like to get high to write poetry is that they wind up writing poetry about getting high. Do you remember waking up in the middle of the night and grabbing a pencil and writing down the excellent insight you had just had in your doze? And in the morning when you read it, it is a few words of banal generalization or a perfectly dull image? It works that way with whisky or peyote, too. I think that maybe the people who compose poetry for Hallmark Cards or the New Yorker have to get drunk to do it, but who can blame them? There might be something to getting high in order to read poetry. If Burning Spear sounds even better after a few tokes, maybe Patrick Lane does, too.

- George Bowering, from his mini-essay "High" found in his new book of mini-essays Horizontal Surfaces. You can read another quote from the book, and a short review, over at rob mclennan's blog.


on ekphrasis, bowls, and other super things

Open Book Toronto: Do you think that an ekphrastic poem needs to be absorbed together with the artwork that inspired it in order to be fully appreciated?

Ruth Roach Pierson: Human curiosity being as compelling as it is, I conjecture that many readers want to see the work of art that has inspired the ekphrastic poem. To satisfy this curiosity in this day and age usually involves looking up a reproduction of the painting or photograph or piece of sculpture in an art book or on the web. But seeing such a reproduction is often disappointing, certainly much less satisfying than being able to gaze directly on the objet d’art, something possible for only a small minority of people with enough time and money to travel to distant art museums. But even then I’m not convinced the visceral understanding and emotive resonance of the poem are necessarily enhanced by seeing the work of art.

Perhaps in some cases, it is helpful to have an understanding of the spatial relations between and among the images in the work. But does one need to have run a finger over lichen-covered bark or heard the roar of a cataract in order to be moved by a poem responding to and invoking such images? I hope my Nevelson poem elicits an emotional response regardless of whether its reader has seen the sculpture. And it is possible someone who has read the poem and then sees the sculpture might exclaim: “I don’t at all see what she has seen!” On the other hand, at the AGO’s ekphrastic readings organized by Kelley Aitken, the audiences seemed to have enjoyed hearing the poem read in proximity to the painting or photograph or piece of sculpture. For many, it did move them to look much more closely at the work of art.

- Ruth Roach Pierson, discussing all things ekphrastic with Open Book Toronto. You can read the whole interview here, as well as interviews on the same subject from Aislinn Hunter and David O'Meara.

If you're in Vancouver and want to take in some hot ekphrastic action this weekend, a number of poets (including me!) will be reading poems inspired by an exhibit of photos from Ghana. The fun kicks off this Sunday night, right after the Super Bowl! It's like the Lingerie Bowl at half time, only it's after the game and absolutely nothing like the Lingerie Bowl. It's the Super Bowl of graphic, often dramatic descriptions of visual works of art! (Thanks, Wikipedia).

The reading will be in the gallery itself, so you'll be able to run your hands over the lichen-covered bark (metaphorically, people - don't smudge the glass), and find out if that impacts how you interpret the poems and/or the photos.

Here are the details:

Word Whips: Inspired by "Kumra, my Child"
Sunday, February 6th, 7:00 - 9:00 PM
Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery
Jewish Community Centre of British Columbia
950 W 41st Ave, Vancouver
Featuring: Daniela Elza, Fran Bourassa, myself and more!
$5 suggested donation (all proceeds to school projects in Ghana)

I hope to see you there. And if not there, at one of the bazillion other readings this month.


"the other side of ourselves" update

My book has a cover, people!!!

And a page on the Cormorant Books website!

The book had a previous cover which was up on the Cormorant site for a while, but you can forever erase that cover from your mind. You can still see it on the Chapters pre-order page if you're feeling nostalgic. Speaking of which, you can also pre-order the book on Amazon.ca (or Amazon.com, you poor, no-discount international readers).

That said, if you're gung-ho about pre-ordering a copy (and who doesn't love paying for things months before receiving them?), I encourage you to place an order with your local independent bookstore (remember those?). In Vancouver, for instance, I recommend these (and this if you get lost and wander on to the SeaBus).

That's all for now. I fear that if I continue talking about the book I will spark a global exclamation mark shortage. In summary, then: