language is not a pure instrument

JP O'Malley: Do you believe in the role of the poet as a political activist?

Jorie Graham: There are many ways to be ‘political’ in a culture. The way poetry uses language, for example, is, to my mind, by nature political. Poets, throughout cultures, have felt the most basic obligation to revivify their language, rid it of stale metaphors, clichés, ready-made phrases — which are of course ready-made ideas — as well as prior uses which attach to words systems of belief that need to be jostled, to put it politely. Part of this impulse (which is also a basic artistic necessity) is political. Language is not a pure instrument. It is used by many forces before a poet picks up a pen. It is used to sell programs, objects, ideas — to propagandize, to create artificial desire, or, in the mouths of some politicians, to hollow out meaning, to lie — especially in those places where the euphemism conceals corruption and violence. Walk into any supermarket and look at the words on the labels of packages. What are they selling you? Or turn on the news — what are they selling you? And the words they are using: what are they doing to those words, your words?

- Jorie Graham, in interview with JP O'Malley over at The Spectator. You can read the whole thing here.


poetry is nothing next to people

It's becoming clearer with time that I do so many events and projects precisely because, at heart, I believe less than many of my peers in the transformative power of poetry. That isn't to say I believe poetry isn't transformative at all, of course I do ascribe it such potential (to me personally, naturally, it is utterly and immensely transformative), but I refuse it the power to go beyond my own personal subjectivity...

My poetry, academic research, and my efforts in organizing events are about stripping away a glib assumption that poetry is profound. I suppose to get to the private profundity, which I do believe is utterly closed and personal. My activities are about not overvaluing poetry because poetry is nothing next to people, to health, to life -- it is a component of a well-lived life, for me -- a component of humility -- but only alongside, or below, a mindful and constant engagement with emotional erudition -- love, courtesy, care and respect for other people in the most immediate, difficult and practical circumstances. What is poetry next to that? A luxury, and thus we should celebrate it for that, as often as we can, because we are lucky to have the facility to even consider it. I am at pains to stress too that I'm speaking only for my personal experience in my place, in my time. This not supposed as a general rule; that is precisely the point I am trying to make.

- SJ Fowler, in interview with Feliz L. Molina over at the Huffington Post. You can read the whole thing here.


laughs tonight @ toronto

Ok, I'm going into the faaar suburbs of Vancouver for this one, but Feathertale’s Big Book of Exquisitely Egregious Poetry and Diverse Versification and So Forth and Such, an anthology of "the best poetry from the first five years of Feathertale.com and The Feathertale Review" is launching tonight in Toronto. If you're not yet familiar with Feathertale, they are one of Canada's leaders in literary humour, and have been very supportive of my sillier and somewhat-sillier writing over the past five years). I'm honoured to have two poems in the anthology, "Haiku 1-4" and "Submission", both of which were published previously in issues of the Review. The launch details:

Feathertale's Night of Poetry and Debauchery
Feathertale Review #9 and Poetry Anthology Launch
Thursday, June 28th, 8 PM
The Annex
296 Brunswick Avenue, Toronto
Featuring: Katie Daubs, Ramon Peters, Brett Popplewell, Sarah Barmak, maybe the whole Toronto Poetry Slam Team?, and special musical guests Ryan Warner and the Moonlight Ride.
$5 (or free with book purchase)

So go check it out, Toronto, and maybe laugh till you puke?



a poem needs to eat its own shadow

Mark Medley: Do you write for the reader or for yourself?

Phil Hall: Neither. The reader is a romantic concept. As is myself, I suspect. The quill poised; the head bowed over a small volume. Neither writer nor reader nor text is sacred to me, if I can help it; I prefer a “we” at both ends of the transfer. I hope (or pretend) that the origin & destination of my compulsion-to-not-be-silent — is collective.

MM: What’s the most common misconception people have about poetry?

PH: That you have to be smart to write a good poem. That intelligence in the forefront is a virtue in a poem. When in fact a person is better off being slightly stupid, cracked somehow, slow enough to miss the standard follow-throughs. We are living through another period in which most celebrated poetry says little more than, Is this poet ever smart! A master! A virtuoso!

But a poem needs to eat its shadow, which means no tricks, no showing off, no virtuosity. Give it everything you’ve got, then take everything you’ve got out of it, & let it stand there blinking like a donkey.

- Phil Hall, in interview with Mark Medley over at the National Post's Afterword. You can read the whole thing here.


desk blog #9... one to go!

Oh goodness, I've almost met my goal of reaching ten desk blogs by the end of 2012... and it's only June! Still, I've had year-long dry spells before, so I won't get ahead of myself just yet.

#9 comes via a tip from Pearl Pirie (thanks, Pearl!). It's questionable if this blog, entitled "Good Places to Write", should be included on the list, as it highlights places where writers "get work done" (which so far have been whole buildings, not just the desks inside the buildings). But it's new, it's local, it has already featured the wonderful CanPo blogger and bird/book photographer Brenda Schmidt, and, most importantly, it gets me one desk blog closer to my goal, so I'm going to let it slide.

Here are the illustrious nine:

At The Desk

Writers' Rooms (VIWF)

Good Places to Write

Desk Blog #10, I know you're out there. Make yourself known!


the symbiotic I

As someone who reads poetry for its affective nature—its ability to teach us how to live, to be a presence in the world, to connect us with a broader, more universal human experience—it saddens me to see the first person lyric always equated with mere confessionalism. This is frustrating because we intuit the world through the “I”, but the world also brings that “I” into being, from the hodgepodge of sensory perception. It is a symbiotic relationship that has all but been forgotten, and to forget is to despair.

- Chris Banks, dreaming chameleon dreams over on his Table Music blog. You can read the whole post here.


the ego and the negative review

The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go. As such, it is an activity requiring much more effort than the activity of proclaiming our selves through speaking our views. For we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility. We are also a culture, perhaps a species, many of whose individuals are obsessed with rank — to the extent that knowing one is on the bottom rung is felt to be preferable to there being no rungs at all. These twin addictions, as visible in the contemporary university as in the military, lead us to suspect those with a gift for listening as ‘soft,’ and to celebrate those with a taste for volubly dispensing judgement as ‘tough.’ My suggestion is that it is those who insist on listening nonetheless who are really tough: they have the courage to continue to serve art when everything around them is making it easy not to.

- Jan Zwicky, from her 2003 essay "The Ethics of the Negative Review", originally published in The Malahat Review, and republished at the new Canadian Women in the Literary Arts website. You can read the whole thing here.

Zwicky says that the harshest judgment a critic can pass on a work is silence, and that we should “keep our mouths shut” about books we don’t like. Very true. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” But if you regard this vow of silence within the framework of Zwicky’s argument, you start to realize—or at least I do—that it rubs against the grain of earlier statements she has made. Think back on her admonition that we make sure what we say stands the test of time. If we ignore certain books altogether, how can we possibly know if our opinions, or the works to which they pertain, have lasting merit? Is it not the height of egotism to not review a book because one doesn’t like it, and let it slip into obscurity without comment? Does one not owe it to one’s art to give everything that aspires towards it a fair shake?

- Zach Wells, in his 2004 response to Zwicky's article, "Strawman Dialectics", originally published in Books in Canada. You can read his whole rebuttal here.


Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

I'm a little late to the party on this one (as is often the case when leaving the country for a few weeks - I'm back, by the way!), but this seemed important enough to risk a little redundancy in posting about it.

Almost three years after VIDA started crunching the numbers in order to display, statistically, the disproportionate number of U.S. literary reviews directed towards male-authored books, Canada has finally gotten on board and started doing the same via the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) website.

The pie-charts and graphs that the CWILA collective compiled are quite interesting, and sometimes striking. A sample:

You can take a look at all the charts and graphs for 2011 by clicking here.

It's interesting to me that the best-selling, "biggest" magazines and papers (The Walrus, The National Post, etc.) are the least gender-balanced in their reviewing (this is true in the U.S. counts, as well, where the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are among the worst offenders). What's the chicken and who's the egg and which came first? How much of the blame for this lies with us, as readers? And do the answers to such questions make any difference in how editors and activists should respond to the problem?

I'm sure the folks at CWILA are already thinking about these questions, and many more. Through essays, interviews and, starting next year, a Critic-in-Residence, they are working towards solutions to the problem they are tallying up.

Do check out the site. Hopefully it will get you thinking, as it has for me. Thanks for all the work you put into this, CWILA-peeps!


how my mortality can be insulted

I don't believe I can bear witness to [suburban] landscapes for long without feeling merely exhaused, drained, and spiritually beaten. In these places I must do all the looking, all the gazing. Because no one has ever died into such landscapes, it may be that no one can live in them, either: I don't know. I do know that as I watch my eyes pay enormous tax while the gazer inside me dies for a few moments.

This death has something to do with time. Tract housing, most suburbs, malls, and shopping centers on the perimeter of any city or town seem to wish, in their designs, to be beyond time, outside time. To stare for three hours at a Kmart is to feel myself rapidly aging, not Kmart. And this is not an experience of my own mortality, either. It is only a way of feeling how that mortality can be insulted.

- Larry Levis, from his essay "Some Notes on the Gazer Within", originally published in Field in 1986, and republished posthumously in Levis' The Gazer Within.


from the other side

My dear friends, Chrissy and Rob, sent me these shots of my book out on the town in Newfoundland. Coast-to-coast coverage is complete. Thanks, you two!

If you've been wondering why the site has been quiet for a bit, it's because I'm in Poland, visiting with Marta's family and taking in the Euro Cup festivities. I've brought along a few copies of the book for family, so we'll see if I get my act together enough to take some "other side of the planet" TOSOO pictures.

I've been reading Larry Levis' The Gazer Within over the last few days. It's a lovely, sometimes challenging, book. His essay on place in poetry, "Eden and My Generation", is particularly notable. Quotes to come once I get home and have reliable internet access.

Until then, play nice, internet!


desk blog #8!

Yes, I'm as shocked as you are. I've found another one, a mere four days after the last - and, as I'd speculated, it has a repeat name! And it's local, to boot!

I suspect it's been around for quite a while, and I have no idea how I've missed it so far: The Vancouver International Writers' Festival's "Writers' Rooms". We've got Hunter desks here, and Rader desks. And Coyote and Bachinsky and Chariandy and Gill and Wigmore and... well, a 26' U-Haul's worth of fantastic local desks. Do take a look!

Here are the eight desk blogs I've found to date:

At The Desk

Writers' Rooms (VIWF)

Ok, my new goal is to hit double digits by the end of 2012. Send me links if you find anything. Let's all work and make it happen, Deskblogmaniacs!