Stephen Burt @ UBC

Stephen Burt is giving a presentation at UBC on Monday. The details:

The 2015 Garnett G. Sedgewick Memorial Lecture: Stephen Burt
“The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place”
Monday, March 2nd, 2015, 3:30 PM
Cecil Green Park House
6251 Cecil Green Park Road, Vancouver, BC
Reception to follow

Never heard of Stephen Burt? Here's a handy bio:

Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor with eight published books, including two critical books on poetry and three poetry collections. His essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other works include Belmont (2013); The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010); Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler (University of Virginia Press, 2009); The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2007); Parallel Play: Poems (Graywolf, 2006); Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden (Columbia University Press, 2005); Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia University Press, 2002); and Popular Music (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999). Burt grew up around Washington, DC, and received an A.B. from Harvard in 1994 and a Ph.D. in English from Yale in 2000. He taught at Macalester College for several years before becoming a professor of English at Harvard University.

He's also known as "That guy who did the poetry TED talk. No, not Shane Koyczan, the other one...":

I hope to make it, and would love to see you there.


I'm Reading! Tonight! Twisted Poets!

My first feature reading in quite a while - twenty minutes of new poems. Oh god, it should be interesting!

The details:

Twisted Poets Literary Salon
Thursday, February 26th, 7:00 - 9:30 PM
Cottage Bistro
4468 Main St., Vancouver
Featuring: Ruth Kozak and me!
By Donation

You can get more details here, and you can RSVP via Facebook here.


PRISM 53.2 - Launched!

My second issue as Poetry Editor at PRISM international, PRISM 53.2, has been released. We had no formal launch for this one, and therefore no photos of my mother recreating the issue cover (though I would love to watch you climb an ice wall, Mom!), but it still feels terribly good to know that it's out in the world.

The poetry in the issue ended up splitting down the middle between very well-established poets who I've long admired (Robyn Sarah, Don Coles, Russell Thornton, Alice Major, etc.) and brand-new-to-me writers (Susan Alexander, Stephanie Yorke, Laurelyn Whitt), including a translation of Italian poet Marina Moretti. You can read the whole table of contents here.

The issue opens with five poems from Robyn Sarah, my editor at Cormorant Books for The Other Side of Ourselves, and to my mind one of our country's very best poets. To promote the issue, Robyn agreed to answer a few questions of mine about her poems in the issue, her forthcoming collection My Shoes Are Killing Me, and the development of her writing style. You can read that here:

“Sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem”: An Interview with Robyn Sarah

I've also posted to the PRISM website a poem from Laurelyn Whitt's "Tar Songs" series (one of two included in the issue):

“Tar Songs: Maestro” by Laurelyn Whitt

While I go on and on about the poetry, the prose, assembled by editor Nicole Boyce, is excellent, including new work by Amanda Leduc, Ayelet Tsabari and Trisha Cull, among others.

If any of the above interests you, please think about ordering an issue or a subscription. I've got two more issues to go after this, and I promise I'll do my best to pack some good reading in there!


maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman

One of the aspects of my own poetry I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems. Much of our recent poetry seems totally without people. Except for the speaker, no one is there. There’s a lot of snow, a moose walks across the field, the trees darken, the sun begins to set, and a window opens. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognizable bundle into the gathering gloom. That’s one familiar poem. In others you get people you’d sooner not meet. They live in the suburbs of a large city, have two children, own a Volvo stationwagon; they love their psychiatrists but are having an affair with someone else. Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine. You read twenty of those poems and you’re yearning for snow fields and moose tracks.

- Philip Levine, from his Paris Review "The Art of Poetry" Interview. You can read the whole thing here.

Levine died on Saturday at the age of 87. I'll miss his interviews almost as much as I'll miss his poems, which is saying a lot. You can read all my quotes from Levine's interviews here.


do it the hard way and you'll always feel good about yourself

Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered. I think I did it the hard way. I didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; I waited a long time; I didn’t go to a school that would give me advantages. I didn’t publish a book that anyone read until I was forty. But to be utterly honest, I think if something hadn’t happened about then I might have become a very bitter man. It was getting to me. If I’d had to wait until I was fifty I don’t know what lousy things I might have done.

- Philip Levine, from his Paris Review "The Art of Poetry" Interview. You can read the whole thing here.

Levine died on Saturday at the age of 87. I'll miss his interviews almost as much as I'll miss his poems, which is saying a lot. You can read all my quotes from Levine's interviews here.


March Dead Poets Event

Goodness, have we got a lineup for International Women's Day!

The next Dead Poets Reading Series even will take place on March 8th, 3-5 PM, Alice MacKay Room, VPL Central Branch, and will feature:

Simin Behbahani (1927 - 2014), read by Alice Major
Frances Horovitz (1938 - 1983), read by Alan Hill
Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992), read by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo
Marianne Moore (1887 - 1972), read by Karen Solie
Lorine Niedecker (1903 - 1970), read by Sarah de Leeuw

For more info, visit our website.

Please help spread the word, and if you're in Vancouver, I hope to see you there!


a really badly suited model for literary culture

I think a lot of the hostility [towards me] comes from the fact that I question the utility of social media. I certainly question the model of social media as the way that books are promoted and information about books is disseminated, because the essence of the model is self-promotion and I don’t think nonstop self-promotion is a good head for a working writer to be in. I think it’s a really badly suited model of literary culture, social media. Writers are alone. They work alone. They communicate through the finished page. It’s gruesome to force them to self-promote on a gregarious medium. It goes against everything I know and understand about really good fiction writers. It’s a terrible match. And, of course, if you spend a lot of time on social media, you’re not going to be happy to hear me say that. I think there’s a particular hostility toward that particular message.

- Jonathan Franzen, in interview with Susan Lerner for Booth. You can read the whole thing here.


the inescapable truth

For me the concerns have always been human ones, and the poems attempt to honour those values that the twenty-first century's lords of lying, cheating and profiteering are bent on eradicating. I mean the ancient truths that grow out of our physical and not digitized selves - what it feels like to swim in the ocean, to watch a child come into the world, to sit in silence by a campfire, to keep a vigil at a deathbed, to be a creature of blood and flesh and time, to remember. Over fifty years ago, the American poet Randall Jarrell wrote of the fashionable taste of his age: "Ordinary human feeling, the most natural tenderness, will seem to many critics and readers rank sentimentality, just as a kind of nauseated brutality (in which the writer's main response to the world is simply to vomit) will seem to many critics and readers the inescapable truth."

Jarrell's point was accurate then and is even more accurate today. And essential. We're going to need all the ordinary human feeling we can muster as this century of mass conformity, consumerism and life-negation hurtles along.

- Tim Bowling, in the Preface to his Selected Poems (Nightwood Editions, 2013).


we don't make up anything in our language

Michael Doherty: Are there any other authors or poets who have inspired you to write or whom you want to model your writing after?

David Ferry: I think my double answer to that would be that I can right away think of the American poets and the English poets of the now-past twentieth century whom I find myself admiring most, and that's a very clear, obvious list - Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens - when I was an undergraduate I wrote my honor's thesis on Stevens, he and Frost were the first modern poets whose work rally took hold of me - Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams. The other side of the story, of course, is the worry of ending up sounding like an imitation of somebody you admire. It's almost like saying that my list of people I admire is my list of people I don't want to sound like. And I'm sure I end up, in an inferior way, sounding like some of them at various times.

Then I'd have to double back again and say there's another kind of answer to your question. Much as you want to find your own voice and differentiate yourself even from, and maybe especially from, the people you admire the most, poetry (and any other kind of writing) is made out of what's in your ear, your memories of what language sounds like in various situations. If you're writing in any form you've got in your ear the cadences you've heard in other people's use of that form, and so while trying to avoid sounding like somebody else you're at the same time using the way the English language has behaved rhythmically as you've heard it elsewhere. We don't make up anything in our language. It's all, in a sense, memory. It's, as Frost says, "things that live in the cave of the mouth," that were always there. You don't make it out of nothing. You make language out of language. It's both trying not to sound like other people and using ad hoc what's gotten into your ear.

- David Ferry, in interview with Harry Thomas' class at Davidson College, as published in Talking with Poets (Handsel Books, 2002).


Emails with Elise

Elise Partridge, 1958 - 2015
When someone dies, you always have stupid regrets. If you're lucky, only little ones. Elise Partridge died on Friday night and all I wish is that I'd asked her more questions.

I wish I'd asked her how it felt to know she was dying, to have faced the prospect of it with previous cancers, but to be certain this time. I wish I'd asked her how she could live the generous life she did and if the key lay, at least in part, in her many years fighting the disease. Little, little regrets. Lost chances at wisdom.

In other words my friendship with Elise Partridge was almost perfect. It was simply too short.

Our friendship was forged mostly through a few years of email exchanges, a handful of meetings in person at events or over tea, and our reading and rereading of one another's books (including an early version of her The Exile's Gallery, which will be published this spring by Anansi).

I looked up all my email exchanges with Elise just now: 48.

The first revolves around logistics for her reading at a Dead Poets Reading Series event in 2012. We couldn't pay her anything to read the work of Randall Jarrell, though we were incredibly grateful that she added her star power to the event. She bought all four of the organizers chocolates in thanks for us giving her the opportunity.

Another longer stretch of the emails concerns my publishing three of her poems in PRISM international's Fall 2014 issue, my first and proudest decision as poetry editor. I asked her for a few poems and she sent me her whole manuscript for The Exile's Gallery, letting me take my pick of the poems still unpublished in magazines. I knew well enough that some of them could easily have found their way into The New Yorker, Poetry and The Walrus, etc., as many had in the past, but she offered them to me as though this act was a gift from me to her, and not the opposite.

A third group are random emails in which Elise thanked me for some small thing, or sang praise for another poet (always, always), or flagged an article or poem which caught her eye. In other words: giving out and out and out.

A few key emails deserve particular attention. The first came in December 2012, a year and a half after my first book was published to a good, but far from spectacular, response. I was living in Zambia at the time, reflecting on my life and trying to figure out what I was going to do next upon my return to Canada. Some days I looked at the book, and the path I'd been on in the decade-long effort of writing and publishing it, and felt optimistic. Other days I felt like something closer to a failure.

Elise, with Jarrell in hand.
At the time I had met Elise only once, briefly, at the DPRS event mentioned above, but otherwise knew her only as the author of Fielder's Choice and Chameleon Hours, two books which made her, in my mind, one of the very finest poets working in my city, and my country, and anywhere. Suddenly she became a name in my inbox next to the subject line "YOUR BOOK!". What followed was an enthusiastic note outlining her response to twenty five of the poems - half of the content of the collection! I've never received anything like it - it's mix of precise attention and warmth - before or since.

I won't say it changed my life, but to have one of my literary heroes read my book in such detail, find such connection, and take the time to share it with me, had a great impact. Oh, what am I saying? It changed my life. Not chiefly because it gave me confidence in my writing, though it certainly did that as well, but because it opened for me the possibility of a way to live in and with poetry. A world of connection, generosity and praise, praise, praise. That was Elise's world, as I was only beginning to learn.

The next email I am thinking of now came in March 2014 - Elise telling me she had been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I wrote then what I am thinking now: Why Elise, of all people?

What followed for the next ten months was one of the most enriching stretches of correspondence I've ever had. We exchanged poems, we talked about our lives and her illness. My father died of cancer when I was twelve, so we talked about loss and about being left behind. We both knew it would happen again - a smaller loss for me, in most senses, and in some very important ways an equal one.

In hindsight, I mostly talked about myself, afraid I might push too hard in asking her questions about what she was facing, uncomfortable with the idea that I might overstep the boundaries of our relatively young friendship. I realise now such overstepping would have probably been impossible, as no matter what I said Elise would have received it in the most positive way possible - no matter how poorly I might have executed my questions, she would have immediately seen the spirit with which I'd meant them.

During this time I became aware of the fact that, while my experience in corresponding with Elise was singular for me, it most likely wasn't for her - that her nature and energy meant she must have had so many meaningful correspondences on the go, let alone her vital relationships with her husband, Steve, her family and her close personal friends.

How many other writers must she have encouraged? I heard her speak of many, and I helped her make contact with a few for that purpose. How many other people did she open herself up to, people who needed desperately what she gave so freely? A little attention, a little encouragement. Zachariah Wells has already written about his connection with Elise, and I hope I get the chance to read more stories of Elise's writing and character over the coming days and weeks.

Looking back, I am humbled to have been included among the lucky few (or many) that Elise connected with, and in awe at the scope of her giving even in a time of great illness. Or, I should say, in awe that the illness changed nothing, that this giving out of hers was not an expendable part of her daily routine but simply was her life. What could she do but live it?

Elise's new book,
The Exile's Gallery,
due out in April.
My last email from Elise came in late December 2014. She mentioned that complications with her treatment had been getting worse, but she had experienced rough patches previously and had rebounded, so I stayed optimistic. Mostly, she communicated her frustration that her illness had prevented her from hand-delivering Christmas gifts to friends, though she had managed to give a donation to a fundraiser I had helped organize (which she had been too sick to attend). She sent good wishes to me and my wife for the new year. I replied in kind, and mentioned some of the praise I'd been getting about her poems in PRISM, the last of which, "If Clouds Had Strings" (forthcoming in The Exile's Gallery), envisions a world in which clouds can be harnessed - quite literally - by man. It features a scene of a truck-stop waitress studying the diner's only cloud, tied outside as decoration. The poem concludes:

When her shift ends,
she strides through the parking lot
and snips its soiled tether
with the night-cook's shears.

That image of the lone cloud being set loose stuck in the minds of many readers, and of course resonates with me today. I told her, also, that most of the compliments I'd received about her poems were of the "I never like poetry, but..." variety.

Now I think of how her Chemo Side Effect poems from Chameleon Hours have been shared with recently diagnosed cancer patients. How many new readers has she brought to poetry, at a time when they might need it most? What a gift she's given to them, and to all of us, which will continue to nourish us for years to come.

I didn't get a reply to that last email. I figured one would come eventually, as they always had before. Part of me wants to believe one still will, though I know that's impossible now.

Still, Elise, here's one last reply from me:


A good number of poets have taught me a good number of things, through their writing and through their actions. The very best have taught me something about how to balance my writing and my "life".

But only you taught me that they were one thing - that the generous heart and spirit that go into the page need to be the same heart and spirit that travel out into the world every day. That the care and attention I put into my writing is the care and attention I put into everything and everyone I know and love. It's the same force, the same energy, and we need to treat each of its manifestations with equal reverence.

We are, each, one person. We live one life. And that is worth celebrating every day, is worth all the gifts and praise in the world, even a few poems.

Thank you for teaching me that.

Thank you, Elise, for everything.




UPDATE: In the days since writing this, a great many new things have popped up on the internet in regards to Elise, her writing and her legacy:

A new website dedicated to Elise's writing, which includes information on places to make donations in her honour: http://www.elisepartridge.org/

A post from Vehicule Press (Carmine Starnino), capturing many people's responses to Elise's passing.

An excerpt on Susan Gillis' Concrete and River blog, from an interview she conducted with Elise.

At the PRISM international website, a note from Clara Kumagai.

A post on the Arc Magazine website from Elizabeth Bachinsky.

I'm sure many more pieces have gone up which I've missed, as well. If so, let me know and I'll post them here.

Thank you everyone for your kind notes (in person and online) about this post. As I say in the comment section, it's meant a lot to share in this with everyone. Elise's death has brought the best out of are community - what a legacy for her it will be if we can keep that energy going.