September Dead Poets Reading

The next Dead Poets Reading Series event will take place at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on September 10th, 2017, from 3-5 PM.

This special reading will feature, among others, the work of three poets of vital importance to the BC writing community, all of whom we lost in 2015. Following the reading a reception will be hosted in the Alma VanDusen and Peter Kaye rooms, across the hall from the Alice MacKay room. Books by the authors will be available for sale.

The lineup:

Peter Culley (1958 - 2015), read by Weldon Hunter
Elise Partridge (1958 - 2015), read by Barbara Nickel
Jamie Reid (1941 - 2015), read by Wayde Compton
Kabir (1398? - 1448?), read by Kate Braid
Paul Valéry (1871 - 1945), read by Alban Goulden

Attendance is free. For more info, visit the DPRS website.

You can read my notes on Elise Partridge here and here.

I hope to see you on the 10th!


everything that was needed

First and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple — or a green field — a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing — an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness — wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak — to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed.

- Mary Oliver, on reading Walt Whitman in childhood, from her essay "My Friend Walt Whitman" in Upstream: Selected Essays.


saying no to all other purposes

The silence at the end of a broken line is one of many characteristic visual and aural reminders of the presence of silence. There are the space and silence that surround the title of a poem. The way the title comes out of nowhere, and often doesn’t immediately suggest what is coming next, can remind us of how weird language is, and how close to meaninglessness we always are. This effect of the title surrounded by white silence is exacerbated by the leap to the first line of the poem, which again, more often than not, is more obscure and elusive than in other forms of writing.

The form of the poem—its pervasive white spaces, refusals or withdrawals at the ends of lines and between the stanzas—reminds us of nothingness. There is silence too in the leaps of metaphor and symbol and rhyme and association that remind us of gaps in thought, all the ways poetry sometimes behaves like all other forms of writing but can at any moment say “no” to all the usual functions of language, its association and movement as a form of content, the way it refuses to do what it is supposed to do.

Wittgenstein wrote that what we cannot speak about must be passed over in silence. Or maybe what we cannot speak about can only be conjured in poetry through the mechanism of negation, saying no. This existential negation is only possible when one chooses to write poetry: saying no to all other purposes, to bring us up as close as possible to silence, absence, nothingness, so that we can start to feel what it means to live our lives so close to the abyss. It is, paradoxically, only when we truly start to feel that nothingness, that absence, that the meaning particular to poetry can emerge.

- Matthew Zapruder, from his essay "What My Father’s Death Taught Me about Poetry" (an excerpt from his forthcoming Why Poetry) in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.


emerging and deceased

Whenever we talk about youth and art we hint that another way of doing things is coming available. That’s the promise of the wunderkinds. Even if the work itself doesn’t shine with newness (the straight-ahead CanLit-ness of the Breathing Fire [anthologies] inspired much backroom complaining and at least one parody anthology, Jay MillAr and Jon-Paul Fiorentino’s Pissing Ice: An Anthology of “New” Canadian Poets) it is easy for an impresario to suggest in the presentation of an unheard talent that another world is there to be discovered.


But this gambit—I’ve called it bourgeois once already—is a growing industry inside CanLit. Breathing Fire was the vision of two university professors. Its currency came from the mentors and authorities who invested in the primacy of their taste. There is something tactical about this. To take a new voice and publish it in something like Breathing Fire is to place it in a tradition before its time, to demand an acquiescence to the structures of CanLit before the voice can force the structures to acquiesce to it. Being in a Breathing Fire was catnip to two decades worth of granting juries. It made a generation of Adjunct Professorships.


If the wunderkind gambit is bourgeois, it’s also optimistic. It’s embedded in the classification we give our would-be wunderkinds: our “emerging” poets. Emerging assumes that its counterpart, established, is also meaningful and defined. But of course, established poets are also always emerging; they are still underdog artists, known to the public only occasionally, when and if their work butts up against the zeitgeist. Right now, there aren’t any established poets in Canada. In Canada, the only kinds of poets are emerging and deceased.

- Jacob McArthur Mooney, from his review of the anthology 30 under 30 in Arc Poetry Magazine. You can read the whole thing here.


Blogging tweets is the new emailing blog posts is the new printing emails...

You know me, always hip to the latest trends. I think I'm finally starting to figure out this Twitter thing, about eight years after everyone else. The key is to insult everyone, writing in every genre, in every city in Canada.

I had a fun time coming up with these on Wednesday:


I don't think I'll be coming up with any others (sorry, cookbooks), but I'd love to hear your ideas if you have some (about St. John's or elsewhere!).


poetic obscurity feedback loop

Misleading presuppositions about the nature of poetry are not just a problem for young readers. Many young poets, however, confuse being deliberately obscure with creating a deeper mystery. Good poets do not deliberately complicate something just to make it harder for a reader to understand. Unfortunately, young readers, and young poets too, are taught to think that this is exactly what poets do. This has, in turn, created certain habits in the writing of contemporary poetry. Bad information about poetry in, bad poetry out, a kind of poetic obscurity feedback loop. It often takes poets a long time to unlearn this. Some never do. They continue to write in this way, deliberately obscure and esoteric, because it is a shortcut to being mysterious. The so-called effect of their poems relies on hidden meaning, keeping something away from the reader.

I don’t know what writers of stories, novels and essays eventually discover for themselves, but I can say that sooner or later poets figure out that there are no new ideas, only the same old ones — and that nobody who loves poetry reads it to be impressed, but to experience and feel and understand in ways only poetry can conjure.

I’m sympathetic to young poets who feel a strong impulse to disguise what they’re saying. Early in my life as a poet, I, too, had trouble being direct. I felt self-conscious, as if I needed to demonstrate my talent with the art in every line. It took me a long time to get over this feeling, and it was only when I did that I started to write poetry that was any good.

- Matthew Zapruder, from his essay "Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think" (an excerpt from his forthcoming Why Poetry?) in The New York Times. You can read the whole thing here.


entangled in our material

But the hardest of hard things [about being a writer] might exist at a more fundamental level. Let’s say you settle for an Emily Dickinson existence. You like your town. There are no earthquakes. You have a three block commute that you walk to work. You write everyday as a meditation on language and existence. Well, even then you have to negotiate the live-work balance. How do you turn off the part of you that’s always in search of some new turn of phrase, wording, or insight? In the literary arts, we’re entangled in our material. A word is used in some pedestrian yet essential way in the afternoon, but turn a corner and suddenly it’s working aesthetically in a radically different manner. An actor can (in theory) put down her script, step off the stage and make the transition into her non-acting self, but writers are always working and living in or around language. The live/work balance becomes blurred. I suspect there has been such a gaggle of literary drunks throughout history because alcohol turns off that hyperawareness of words. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if research turns up a new picture of Emily wherein she’s hammered most of the time and when she referred to Death she really was writing about the Bottle.

- Kevin Spenst, in interview with Sachiko Murikami over on her blog The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer. You can read the whole thing here.