a soul as well as a history

Antaeus magazine wanted me to write a piece for their issue about nature. I told them I couldn't write about nature but that I'd write them a little piece about getting lost and all the profoundly good aspects of being lost—the immense fresh feeling of really being lost. I said there that my definition of magic in the human personality, in fiction and in poetry, is the ultimate level of attentiveness. Nearly everyone goes through life with the same potential perceptions and baggage, whether it's marriage, children, education, or unhappy childhoods, whatever; and when I say attentiveness I don't mean just to reality, but to what's exponentially possible in reality. I don't think, for instance, that Márquez is pushing it in One Hundred Years of Solitude — that was simply his sense of reality. The critics call this magic realism, but they don't understand the Latin world at all. Just take a trip to Brazil. Go into the jungle and take a look around. This old Chippewa I know — he's about seventy-five years old—said to me, "Did you know that there are people who don't know that every tree is different from every other tree?" This amazed him. Or don't know that a nation has a soul as well as a history, or that the ground has ghosts that stay in one area. All this is true, but why are people incapable of ascribing to the natural world the kind of mystery that they think they are somehow deserving of but have never reached? This attentiveness is your main tool in life, and in fiction, or else you're going to be boring. As Rimbaud said, which I believed very much when I was nineteen and which now I've come back to, for our purposes as artists, everything we are taught is false — everything.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


run your head into it

Paris Review: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

Jim Harrison: Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years? And don't neglect music. I suspect that music can contribute to it as much as anything else. Tend to keep distant from religious, political, and social obligations. And I would think that you shouldn't give up until it's plainly and totally impossible. Like the Dostoyevskian image — when you see the wall you're suppose to put your hands at your sides and run your head into it over and over again. And finally I would warn them that democracy doesn't apply to the arts. Such a small percentage of people get everything and all the rest get virtually nothing.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


your best weapon is vertigo

Paris Review: Do literary prizes mean anything to you—say, winning a Pulitzer Prize?

Jim Harrison: No, not really. Any kind of prize is pleasant — especially to your mom, your wife, and kids — but I never got one. After you've written novels or books of poetry for a long time, your concerns become very different. That's just what you do, you've given your entire life over to it, and luckily it's panned out to the point that they're printing your books. So as far as reputation goes, I'm not interested in any reputation that has to be sought. If there's anything more gruesome than Republican politics, it's literary politics.

PR: So you don't feel any pressure at this stage in your career to write the Big Book?

JH: I feel absolutely no pressure of any kind. People don't realize how irrational and decadent an act of literature is in the first place, and to feel pressure in a literary sense is hopeless. I always think of an artist in terms of his best work, which I think is what he deserves. If he can do this, if he's taken the trouble, then this is what I think of him. The before and after is always there, but so what?...


PR: Do you feel any sense of competition with other writers?

JH: I don't know what that would be for. I can't see the art processes as being a sack race. I've thought that over as part of the idea that when people whom you love very much die, why would you get in a sack race over the novel? And I think sometimes that bitterness of competition leads people to write the wrong kind of novel, the kind of novel they wouldn't otherwise write. I think Keats is still right in that the most valuable thing for a writer to have is a negative capability.

PR: In what sense?

JH: Just to be able to hold at bay hundreds of conflicting emotions and ideas. That's what makes good literature, whereas opinions don't, and the urge to be right is hopeless. Think of the kind of material Rilke dealt with all his life. It's stupefying. Did you read Stephen Mitchell's new translation of The Sonnets to Orpheus? You see that the depth of his art is so dissociated from what we think of as literary existence. Your best weapon is your vertigo.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


contemporary poetry’s logical end point

Writers like Watts and Roberts draw attention to the flat, direct style that has made [Rupi] Kaur so successful in order to argue that she is not a “real” poet. But the voices saying Kaur doesn’t fit in contemporary poetry are so insistent, it’s hard not to wonder if she might fit there all too neatly, and if that is why many are so eager to exclude her. If you look at it in the context of English literary history, what’s actually striking about Kaur’s work is not how different it is, but how closely it follows almost all the conventions of mainstream contemporary poetry. There is the total abandonment of rhyme and metre, obviously; the use of the first-person voice (does any word occur more frequently in Kaur’s poems than “i”?); and the recounting of incidents and feelings from the poet’s own life (you could almost construct her biography from milk & honey). She has simply dropped the overheated language—and, curiously, this choice could be seen as an element of the Wordsworthian aesthetic; the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads also talks about abandoning the “gaudiness” of poetic language. Kaur has jettisoned the last vestige of the “poetic” from her work (figurative language), and maintained only the bare minimum required to qualify it as poetry (line breaks). That is why it is so tempting—and so easy—to dismiss her work; it invites the criticism that what she is writing isn’t really poetry, it just looks like it is.


No one seems to want to do it, but it really isn’t that difficult to draw a line from the Romantics to Kaur and argue that she isn’t a bizarre, aberrant phenomenon that has sprung up in the vicinity of contemporary poetry, but contemporary poetry’s logical end point — its entropic collapse into the black hole of solipsism that it has been flirting with for so long. Stripped of rhyme, stripped of metre, stripped of any figurative language beyond the most jejune simile and imagery, Kaur reveals the essential barrenness of the subject matter behind the hyped-up language of contemporary poetry: banal statements about how the poet is doing today. Poetry as status updates.

- Brooke Clark, from her essay "Rupi Kaur, Apotheosis of Contemporary Poetry" over at The Puritan. You can read the whole thing here.


The New West Festival of Words - Reading and Workshop!

I'm really please to be involved in two events at this year's New West Festival of Words in mid-April - a gala reading on the Friday night, and a Workshop the next morning.

The details:

The New West Festival of Words Friday Evening Gala
Friday, April 13, 2018, 7:00 PM (Meet and Greet Starts a 6 PM)
Inn at the Quay
900 Quayside Drive
New Westminster, BC
Reading and a Q+A with: Gail Anderson-Dargatz, JJ Lee, Roberta Rich, and Rob Taylor
Get tickets here.

The New West Festival of Words Workshop with Rob Taylor
Saturday April 14, 2018, 9:30 AM - 12:00 PM
Hyack Room South, Inn at the Quay
900 Quayside Drive
New Westminster, BC
Get tickets here.

The workshop will focus on taking unexpected leaps in your poetry and prose - jumping from one idea or scene to another, whose connection isn't immediately apparent, and trusting your reader to follow along. As part of the workshop we will look at poems and short stories from around the world, focusing especially on poetic forms which require associative leaps, and how those leaps help create striking and lasting works of art.

The full description of the workshop:

Associative Leaps in Poetry (and how to use them in your prose) with Rob Taylor

By looking at traditional poetic forms from around the world, participants will consider how we jump, as readers and writers alike, from one sound, image or scene to the next, and will explore ways to open up both their poetry and prose to greater movement and risk. This workshop will involve handouts and short writing exercises, so please come prepared with pen and pencil. Limited to 36.

Registration for both events is now open. You can get tickets here.

I hope to see you there!