Friday, October 31, 2008

Bookfest Windsor

The Windsor Bookfest is on this weekend, and the big event for Biblioasis-o-philes is Saturday. It begins early, at 11 Am, when Stephen Henighan, Linda Leith, May Jane Maffini and Nino Ricci take part in a panel on literature and criticism in the Wilkinson Room (Main Floor). At 1 pm Mike Barnes will be talking about his memoir about bi-polar disorder, The Lily Pond (I heard a version of this talk a few weeks ago in Hamilton, and it is one of the best author talks I've heard. ), to be held in the Valiant/Rodzick Room on the 3rd floor. Between 3:30 - 5:30 Stephen Henighan will be part of a panel called Writing with Attitude alongside Nino Ricci, Diane Schoemperlen and David French, again in the Wilkinson room on the main floor. And between 8-10 pm David Hickey will participate in a poetry panel on the Wired, Wired Word alongside Di Brandt, Alanna Bondar, Karl Jirgens, M. Nourbese Philip and Steven R. Smith.

I'm very disappointed to hear I'll be missing Mary Swan tonight. But t'is Halloween, and I'll be guiding my Batman and Vampire-Knight around the neighbourhood. I can take some solace in the fact that I'll have the comapny of Mike Barnes, his wife (and wonderful artist) Heather Simcoe and David Hickey's company for the evening.

Author Tackles Highs and Lows

The article:

For years, Mike Barnes would burn the midnight oil in a furious, almost desparate pursuit of art.

A poet and fiction writer, he mistakenly believed that he produced his best work during those manic episodes.

But 15 years ago, when he was in late 30s, Barnes discovered his experiences were much more serious and clinical than the romantic image he had created in his mind.

Barnes, 53, suffers from bipolar disorder, or as it was once known, manic depression. He has chronicled his harrowing experiences, and his efforts to make peace with himself and his family, in The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis, published by Windsor's Biblioasis Press.

Barnes will read from The Lily Pond and discuss the book Saturday at 1 p.m. at the 2008 BookFest Windsor at the Art Gallery of Windsor.

"For many years I did think that I could only write in my manic upswings," he said. "The depressive periods, pardon the expression, were pretty much a write-off."

His diagnosis when he was 38 followed years in and out of mental institutions, undergoing shock treatments, medication and clinical analysis. All the while, Barnes was a successful author with six works of poetry and fiction.

"It has just been in the last three years or so, since I've been seeing a new doctor, that she has encouraged me to start to question when I have those moments of inspiration."

His doctor suggested he write at times when he didn't feel inspired.

"The results were shocking," said Barnes. "I ended up writing less than before, but not that much less. And the really shocking part was what I ended up writing was just as good as the other stuff."

That experience occupies a key section of The Lily Pond, where Barnes describes how his 2006 book of poetry, A Thaw Foretold, also published by Biblioasis, came about.

"I realized just how much time was wasted in my periods of manic energy," he said.

The impetus for The Lily Pond came when Barnes' wife, Heather, also suffered a breakdown, and how they managed to survive takes up the final section of the book.

"It has been a struggle to get the word out about the book because people tend to categorize it as a bipolar book or a book about recovery," said Barnes.

"But one of the first reactions I had from someone who doesn't suffer from mental illness is that the book raises many issues that were more existential than psychiatric.

"It can apply to personal relationships, life stories, (and) to the choices you make in your life."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brandeis Justice: An Idle Dialogue

Glossary' explores the art of idling

By: Marianna Faynshteyn

Posted: 10/28/08

As college students, procrastinating, slacking and activities of that ilk come naturally. But what about dawdling or idling? Do these terms strike a different note than the ones listed above? For Mark Kingwell and Joshua Glenn, not only does slacking have little to do with idling, but idling is distinct enough to warrant its own book. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Kingwell, a leading Canadian social critic and popular philosopher, and Joshua Glenn, a prominent Boston-based editor. They are writers of the recently released Idler's Glossary, a self proclaimed "Devil's Dictionary for do-nothings" in which I discovered the nuances of idling.

JustArts: When I first picked up The Idler's Glossary, I thought I was opening up a book form of the Urban Dictionary and other amusing texts of the like. But, after reading the introduction, it almost seemed like you had made a philosophical manifesto out of idling-equipped with a glossary! What was your intention in creating this book?

G: You're right-the book is not a manifesto equipped with a glossary. In fact, The Idler's Glossary doesn't support any text, unless you agree with a very flattering, hyperbolic line in Mark's introduction, where he suggests that "the ur-text for which this glossary is definitive must be, in the end, life itself." My intention in writing the Glossary was two-fold. I wanted to make a contribution but without working too hard at it, to the obscure but age-old tradition of defending "idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class," as Robert Louis Stevenson once put it. And I also wanted to distinguish between the slacker-a person who is failing to work, or who ought to be at work but isn't-and the idler, who somehow transcends the imperatives of work (e.g., the idler demands free time; the slacker settles for mere leisure time. The idler dreams; the slacker daydreams. The idler naps; the slacker dozes at his desk). Writing a glossary seemed to me an undemanding, non-didactic way to draw such sharp distinctions. And like all aphoristic writing, the form encourages the reader to dawdle, to meander, to drift from entry to entry. Don't you think?

K: Absolutely. I say in my introduction that the glossary form, meandering and always incomplete, structured only by the contingency of the alphabet, is the [idlest] of texts. Any glossary is a kind of amble of words, and so a glossary seemed the perfect form for an investigation of idling. Like Josh, I've always been drawn to the persistence of the aphorism in philosophical thought: the tiny idea-bomb, timed to go off at any moment. But the intro itself posed a problem. If it became too manifesto-like, it would self-defeat; that would make idling a demand. Even to treat the intro as an essay-a word rooted in trying and effort-would sail close to self-contradiction. So, I made it a loose and playful philosophical defense of the idling life as the best life, mixing uncontroversial claims with some deliberately provocative ones. One blog entry about the book said my intro moves from erudite to evangelical. I'm not sure about the evangelical part, but there is a subversive political and personal message here: You must change your life! But, you know, no pressure.

JA: Josh, I know you're a blogger for the Boston Globe, and having mentioned Urban Dictionary [a viral forum for most college-aged idlers of the 21st century], I was wondering what your thoughts were on the Internet's influence on idling. Has the Internet provided a community for idlers or has it reduced the art form that you have taken great pains in describing?

G: Good question! But I should point out that I quit blogging for the Boston Globe this past summer. Idlers see quitting as a creative, life-affirming act. Idling is a solitary practice and art form, yet idlers do enjoy communing with one another, forming a nation-within-a-nation of sorts. They don't want to live together, or even spend too much time together, but they [do] want to stay in touch. In his early book Daybreak, Nietzsche compares the "company of thinkers" that he hopes to participate in forming to "birds of passage" meeting on an island in the middle of the ocean and enjoying "a precarious minute of knowing and divining, amid joyful beating of wings and chirping with one another" before going their separate ways again. This is a perfect description of an idler's community. Now, nothing can replace a face-to-face get-together, but I should note that Nietzsche never managed to convene his company of thinkers. Perhaps if the Internet had existed then, he'd at least have been able to commune with like-minded contemporaries. So, two cheers for the Internet.

K: One of the great things about this book is that Josh and I did not meet face to face until after it was completed. In fact, our launch event in Toronto was only the second time we'd met, and the one in New York will be the third. Our intellectual friendship was entirely facilitated by the Internet. True, we could have been old-fashioned hardcopy correspondents instead and achieved the same end. But then, no hot links to stuff we know the other will like, no connections to his wide range of interesting friends (artists, cultural journalists, writers, musicians). I get far more out of this complex connection than anything from, say, my departmental colleagues at the University of Toronto. To answer the question more directly: Creating a thought-stroll by clicking on interesting stuff, following your mind's nose is certainly idling in the best sense. It doesn't replace sequential thought and argument, but the great thing is that it doesn't have to.

JA: Also, in the same vein as the last question, I think most people would consider idling a more recent phenomenon given the slew of technological distractions we have these days, but with references to the work of Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Kafka, and Aristotle, it seems quite the opposite. What has time done to the idler--how has he changed over the years?

G: You may be confusing dawdling with dilly-dallying. The idler dawdles-she's often late to appointments, because she has stopped to smell the roses, for example, or chat with a charming stranger. The slacker dilly-dallies-that is to say, he's late to appointments because he's acted with trifling vacillation or indecision. Alas, all too often, I spend my mornings dilly-dallying, not dawdling. And, it's true that technological distractions can exacerbate dilly-dallying! But dilly-dallying is nothing new. According to Aristotle, Socrates was invariably late (atopos). It's been suggested that the sort of philosophy that Socrates demonstrated-endlessly curious, unsettled and unsettling-goes hand-in-hand with dawdling. But Mark is the philosopher, not me- what do you think of this proposition, Mark?

K: The more time I spend with the ancient philosophers, the more convinced I become that everything they wrote was really about idling. Socrates strolling in the agora, Aristotle's peripatesis, Lao Tzu's walking along old tracks-they're all trying to tell us something. And that is: all this striving we go in for, all the achieving and getting ahead will not succeed in making us happy. Desire is a kind of booby-trap, sprung to catch us even as we imagine we escape it in satisfaction. I tried to capture this insight in a book I wrote about happiness ten years ago, but it still exercises me and needs more saying. It's hard wisdom to follow.

JA: Co-authors are in general a bit of an odd concept, but especially with a book that would suggest that neither person wanted to particularly work. How did you two collaborate over this piece? Did one indulge in a stint of idling while the other studiously gathered the inspiration from the idler in question?

G: We wrote the two parts of the book -- my glossary, his introduction -- separately. But I've been reading Mark's brilliant essays for years; there's no one with whom I'd rather collaborate. We know each other, I think, because I wrote him a fan letter about eight years ago. Then I sent him a magazine that I was publishing called Hermenau, and he bought one of our T-shirts. So I knew he was the coolest philosopher ever.

K: See, this is why I like to work with Josh! Really, the best collaborations are like happy chance meetings, in a bar or along the road. I should add that, once the text was done, we invited the artist Seth to join us in illustrating and designing the book. I had worked with Seth before, and I think he's a genius. The beauty of the final product, and much of the whimsy, are largely owing to his presence.

JA: Finally, is The Idler's Glossary the culmination of your best idling moments or is it a departure from your mutual talent in idling in order to showcase it to the world?

G: Well, creating the book didn't feel like labor, if that answers your question. Idling is a mode of life and a state of mind that I've found compelling at least since I was an undergraduate, if not my entire life -- so when the opportunity arose, thanks originally to a British magazine called The Idler, and more recently to the book's publisher, Biblioasis, the ideas just flowed. However, I should conclude by stating forcefully that I'm not a bona fide idler! The idler is an ideal type to which I aspire. If my glossary and Mark's introduction encourage others to aspire to the same difficult ideal, then I'm sure we'd both be thrilled.

K: I agree there was no labor involved! I say in my bio note that years of graduate [school] made me proficient at a form of idling for which I could get paid. I'm a very lucky guy. Idling is analogous to Aristotle's idea of virtue in that it needs luck as well as personal cultivation to produce the best outcomes. We don't always have opportunities to idle, especially if we remain mired in work-slack cycles. The basic idea of the glossary is simple: when an idle moment comes your way, seize it and make the most of it. As Nietzsche said, live your life as a work of art!
© Copyright 2008 The Justice

Rebecca Rosenblum on Michael Enright's Sunday Edition

Michael Enright interviewed Rebecca Rosenblum on his programme Sunday Edition. It's a fabulous discussion about fiction, process, dialogue and the lives and afterlives of characters. It made me want to reread some of the stories yet again, and long (hint, hint, Rebecca) to read some of the new, linked ones. Though the interview is not isolated, it can be found at the 57th minute of the podcast (the current one, October 26th, running to 1:14, approximately) here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ondjaki wins African Literature Prize

Ondjaki, alongside Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong'o has won the prestigious African Literature Prize. Ondjaki won in the category of Best Young writer. More information on the award can be found here .

Vancouver Review reviews Dragonflies

Word has reached me that the Vancouver Review has given a rave review to Grant Buday's novel about the last days of the Trojan War, Dragonflies. Though I haven't seen the full thing yet, a reader sent along a few choice quotes which I'll post below, and I'll try and post the full review as soon as I get it .

from the review:

"This short, graceful book is infused with a deep understanding of the ancient stories, and crafted with a visual, poetic and psychological aesthetic that is redolent of the originals, yet manages to avoid feeling derivative."

"What I lingered over most in the book, though, were superb incidental details that dot the story like jewels."

"Buday has produced a significant work that honours the Homeric tradition with its awesome balance of sweeping action, deep but compact characterizations, and breathtaking visual moments."

Review by Dania Sheldon

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Idler's Glossary: the Boston (Harvard, no less) Launch

Brainiac, the Boston Globe blog, highlights the Glossary in anticipation of tomorrow's Boston launch.

A conundrum: How to encourage people interested in the concept of idling to rouse themselves to come to an event … honoring idling?

Joshua Glenn, my predecessor as Brainiac's author, has certainly not been slacking since his departure from the blogosphere a few months ago -- although he has been assiduously idling. The distinction between the two lies at the heart of his new book, co-written with the philosopher Mark Kingwell: "The Idler's Glossary." Tomorrow night (Thursday, October 23), the Harvard Advocate is hosting a release party for the book, from 5 to 8 p.m. Its offices are at 21 South Street, in Harvard Square. Bestir yourselves, fellow lubbers, shirkers and scrimshankers! (9-to-5'ers will not be turned away from the door, either, even content ones.)

This book, it must be said, is no joke. Kingwell's introduction begins with a Kierkegaard quote, and carves up concepts with true philosophical rigor. "A slacker is not a true idler," Kingwell writes, "because he is engaged in the project of avoiding work, and as long as that remains the case, work's dominion remains unchallenged …"

The "genius of idling," he continues, "is not its avoidance of work but rather its construction of a value system entirely independent of work."

The glossary, a sequel of sorts to Bertrand Russell's small book of 1932 titled "In Praise of Idleness," explains exactly what it means to cabbage, and parses the distinctions among cadgers, clock-watchers, and couch potatoes -- just to touch on the C's.

The rest of the post can be found here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Glossaries: An Idle Pleasure

Over at the Washington Post Book Blog SHORT STACK, book editor Rachel Shea writes about the Idler's Glossary.

Glossaries: An Idle Pleasure

Surely, one must be nearly paralyzed with boredom to idly flip through the pages of a glossary. And yet, there's something strangely compelling about a compendium of definitions, especially those clustered around a specific subject. Last year, I reviewed the delightfully informative 'Isms and Ologies: All the Movements, Ideologies, and Doctrines That Have Shaped Our World, by Arthur Goldwag. Now, across my desk comes the diminutive The Idler's Glossary, by Joshua Glenn* and Mark Kingwell (with nifty illustrations from the cartoon hero Seth). This little book explains -- nay, argues -- for the moral superiority (over work, slacking and even leisure time) of idleness.

Kingwell, in an introduction that quickly shifts in tone from erudite to evangelical, parses the meaning of idleness: First of all, idleness is not not working. That implies that work is the positive, and idleness is only its opposite.

Glenn, who provides the actual glossary of all things idle-related (for instance, "good-for-nothing," "loiter," "moocher"), defines the term thusly:

"Idleness [from the Old English word for "worthless, useless"] may look to the untrained eye like laziness, slacking, killing time. Unlike slacking, though, idling is not the opposite of working hard, but is instead a rare, hard-won mode in which your art is your work and your work is your art. See: FREE TIME, LEISURE, USELESSNESS"

Following Glenn's instructions, let's turn to the entry for "free time":

"Free time, in the sense of 'freedom to,' is electrifying and beautiful. But free time, in the sense of "freedom from," is merely restful and relaxing. Freedom-to time is what all idlers seek; it is a true state of leisure, in which actions are performed entirely for their own sake. Freedom-from time, on the other hand, is merely a vacation or a recess; i.e., it's a scheduled (and mandated) period during which we androidized humans can recharge our batteries."

Doesn't the idea of "freedom to" time fill you with longing?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Uo fT's Varsity on "the Idle Handbook

Kingwell detailed how idling differs from simple leisure. “It’s not production of the kind that is sanctioned by the capital economy,” he said. “It’s not the production of consumption. It’s activity for its own sake and its own beauty.”

While some may argue current economic conditions necessitate a day job, Kingwell argued that a book on idling is relevant now more than ever. “It was greed and growth that drove us to that boom and bust cycle that we’re now witnessing the latest pathology of,” he said. “This is the counter argument; this is the other way of thinking about what life is about.”


Those seeking to learn the way of the idler without sliding into slacker territory should follow Kingwell’s oft-quoted line about the “great Daoist Yoda.” “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try. That’s idling.”

The full article can be found here:

Starred Q&Q review of Grant Buday's Dragonflies

In the November issue of Quill & Quire, Grant Buday's Dragonflies, a novel about the last days of the Trojan War as told from Odysseus's perspective, received a starred review. This is the second starred review from Q&Q for Biblioasis in as many months. The key things to get from this review: very funny, superbly imagined, beautifully told. Also: a damn good yarn. Fab cover. Need we say more?

The review:

Re-imagining history is popular with novelists at the moment, as evidenced by Fred Stenson’s recent book The Great Karoo, among others. But few make the past come alive as vividly as Vancouver author Grant Buday does in Dragonflies, a very funny book, superbly imagined and beautifully told.

In the sad, desperate last days of the Trojan War, Troy is no closer to falling than it was 10 years before, and the Greeks, reduced to eating limpets, are down to their last sacrificial bulls. Agamemnon gives the clever Odysseus, the “battered old tomcat” who narrates the tale, has a servant to pluck the hairs from his nose, remembers the past, and doubts the present, the task of coming up with one last gambit to win the war.

Dragonflies features many of the Trojan War’s major figures, including Menelaus, Palamedes, and Ajax, but they are not the mythic heroes we have become accustomed to. They are flawed humans lured into fighting by desire, fear, or old oaths. Agamemnon is a clod, thick-necked and hairy, and Calchas the soothsayer, whom Odysseus nicknames “Couch Ass,” is a fraudulent, “ugly old man whose face looks like it’s been carved from an onion.”

Odysseus is a very likeable narrator, but his skill with words can be hurtful and his skepticism gets him into trouble. His suggestion that all of Helen’s suitors swear allegiance to whomever eventually wins her hand avoids conflict in the short term, but only augments the size of Menelaus’s army later on.

A detailed knowledge of Greek myth is not essential to appreciate Buday’s novel, although spotting the occasional Homeric turn of phrase is fun. And the wonderful, tragic irony of Odysseus’s glee at the prospect of being home in a month depends on knowing that his journey is really just beginning. – John Wilson, whose latest book is Germania (Key Porter Books).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Idler's Glossary as Slacker Utopia


If you're wondering why you always have a deep urge to be a lazy, unproductive goof off, Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell have written a manifesto for you. It's called The Idler's Glossary, and it's a history via creative etymologies and definitions of words that refer to the high art of slackery. An odd and beautiful book, The Idler's Glossary imagines an alternate world where free time is valued as much as cubicle time.

Glenn told us via email:

The Glossary is a utopian book, imagining a world where our contemporary values have been revalued — from that vantage point, for example, the heroic slacker (who sticks it to the man by goofing off at work) seems a tragically misguided figure. Because he's still trapped in the value system that privileges work over not-work. Oh, and I invoke Philip K. Dick three times — see APATHETIC, GOOF (OFF), and TINKER.

Ah Dick, that most lazy of idlers. Glenn isn't just celebrating laziness, you see: He's suggesting that our hyper-productive work values are skewed. We need to be idle more often, need to have time to read and ponder, so that we can dream up better worlds instead of just living in this crappy one.

Also, by the way, the book is just good, silly fun.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

BP (Bipolar) Magazine review of The Lily Pond

A short review has appeared in the important mental health magazine BP (Bipolar) Magazine, raving about Mike Barnes's The Lily Pond. As I have said elsewhere, repeatedly (sorry about that), I think this is one of the most important memoirs of its kind, better than Jamison, Styron, Solomon, Alvarez: most who have picked it up seem to agree. So, please, do so.

Here's the review:

The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis
By Mike Barnes (Biblioasis, 2008)

Reviewed by Rachel Bravmann

In 2008, memoirs about bipolar disorder are flying off the shelves. Barnes’ personal chronicle rises to the top due not only to content but to his sheer mastery of language.

Exploring 30 years of living with bipolar disorder from a variety of perspectives, including in-patient hospitalization, he weaves a complex narrative of memory and pondering. From descriptions of depression to the natural world and even mythology, Barnes commands a natural affinity for exposition and depiction. Take notice of his relationship to a nursery web spider, a wood frog, his family, and his partner, Heather, who also lives with mental illness. These bonds are beautifully illustrated, venerated, and illuminated.

In describing Heather, Barnes may also be describing the nature of bipolar disorder: “Mental Illness–meaning here, the diagnosis and treatment of it especially–is working against her confidence, implanting radical doubts in her about her basic capability.” In doing so he creates an essential element of trust with readers. Full of fraught childhood reminisces, explanations of the excruciating and familiar ebb and flow of despair, and complex existential tracts, The Lily Pond shines.

Boing Boing highlights The Idler's Glossary

boing boing, one of the most widely read blogs in the world (last I heard, top 5, with millions of daily hits, and lord knows how many daily subscribers), has highlighted our Idler's Glossary in today's posting. If you're Canadian, you should be able to find this book almost everywhere; in the US, at the best independents and online at borders, b&n, amazon and elsewhere.

You can find the boing boing entry here.

And from the glossary, a term highlighted by boing boing:

cadger: Cadging, the ancient art of imposing upon the generosity of others, is an essential skill for the would-be idler, since poverty is the easiest way to obtain a great deal of free time. According to Henry Miller, who calls it "mooching," when performed without squeamishness or reservations, cadging is both exhilarating and instructive. So long as a cadger [from the Scandinavian word for "huckster"] is generous in turn (though not necessarily in kind), he ought not to be considered a deadbeat, freeloader, or sponger. See: BEGGAR, SCROUNGER.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Yet More Salon coverage

... on Steven Beattie's blog That Shakespherian Rag, where he does a far better job than I at showing just how sloppy a critic Wayne Grady is. (Since I belong to that "lazy" school, I couldn't be bothered." Well worth reading in its entirety, here.

Additionally, Michael Bryson gives his own, different take on the debate, here.

New York Times's Papercuts & The Idler's Glossary

Over at the New York Times blog Papercuts Jenny Schuessler recommends "the deadbeat dictionary," our very own Idler's Glossary. This book should be on the shelf just about everywhere in Canada this week, and at the better independents in the US (B&N and Borders, at this moment, have thus far proved a bit intransigent. In a country threatened with mass unemployment, you'd figure they'd see the possibility in a book which would help readers make a virtue out of necessity.) It's also available many places online, including McNally Robinson, Indigo, and that bookselling site named after a vastly depleted tropical rainforest. For a few who might want to buy direct, I have copies signed by all three contributors -- Seth, Mark Kingwell & Joshua Glenn.

I have launch photos, which I'll try and get up by day's end.

October 14, 2008, 10:11 am

The Deadbeat’s Dictionary

Just in time for the return of mass unemployment (kidding! right?), the Canadian publisher Biblioasis has released “The Idler’s Glossary,” Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell’s vocabulary-expanding manual for the bootless, malingering and lotus-eating types among us.

(Sorry, I meant “among you.” Everyone here works very hard. Especially on Tuesday morning.)

Idler's Glossary

Kingwell, a professor of philosophy and a contributing editor at Harper’s, kicks things off with a passionate defense of slackery that cites everyone from Kierkegaard and Kingsley Amis to Bataille, Bartleby and Bingo Little. (Look it up.)

Glenn — a rather industrious sort who according to his bio has worked as a skateboard messenger, house painter, espresso jerk, barrel washer (huh?), blogger, Boston Globe columnist and founder of the philosophy ‘zine Hermenaut, among other things — provides the A to Z part. There are also great illustrations by Gregory Gallant, the comic artist otherwise known as Seth.

This one gives the salty flavor:

BOONDOGGLE. Given the pointlessness of today’s Boy Scouts, it’s appropriate that this term, coined by an American scoutmaster to describe the braided leather lanyard made and worn by Scouts, has come to mean any time-killing or useless activity — particularly when performed by a sluggard on the public payroll. NB: The sociologist Robert K. Merton once claimed that the intellectuals whose work lacks immediate practical application may suffer from the “boondoggling neurosis.” See: DODGER, WHILE AWAY THE HOURS.

And aspirants to chillaxery and Skimpole-hoold may be interested in this:

LUBBERLAND. From a 1685 broadside ballad titled “An Invitation to Lubberland,” we learn of an imaginary country where “There is all sorts of Fowl and Fish,/ With Wine and store of Brandy;/ Ye hae there what your hearts can wish:/ The Hills are Sugar-Candy.” See: BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN, COCKAIGNE.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mike Barnes's Lily Pond: The Toronto Launch

Though we launched Mike Barnes's memoir The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis last Thursday in Hamilton, Ontario at St. Joseph's Hospital, the Toronto launch is this Wednesday, October 15th at Caversham Booksellers (7:00-8:30) {98 Harbord St.}. Though I will not be able to attend this one, I urge every single one of you who can to do so. I think that Mike's memoir is an important book: as I've said elsewhere, having a tendency to wallow in the dark waters from time to time, I've read a lot of these books, and I think this is among the best. Better than Styron, better than Jamison, both of which are defaced by the self-congratulatory notes of overcoming which mar so many of these tomes. In the Lily Pond one gets a sense of a life lived with mental illness: "the door swings both ways," Mike writes, and depending upon which side of the door one finds oneself, this can be either hopeful or horrifying, extremes captured with elegant restraint in this book.

Shane Neilson, doctor and poet, made the trek from Guelph for the Hamilton event, and reported on it thereafter on his blog. I'll paste it in below here in the hope that it will convince a few of you to make this reading. Mike was fabulous. It was, without a doubt, one of the best talks/readings I HAVE EVER BEEN TO, and he'll be giving a similar discussion at this one. Mike deserves an audience for this one, and I'm hoping that any of you Toronto area Biblioasis-o-philes who give a shit will make this one, if you don't make another until 2010. Please.

Here's Shane Neilson's take on Barnes's launch in Hamilton last Thursday. I'll post my own thoughts and photos, as promised, soon.

A lifelong project: mental illness, over thirty-five years of it. Mike Barnes, the author of The Lily Pond, read tonight at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, a place he had been a resident of, long ago, and this was no mere reading. I detest readings, I would rather read the book in question myself to myself, I find that readers read their books wrong, but Barnes prepared an actual presentation: sure, he read from his book, but he also expanded upon the themes of his book as he simultaneously compressed the themes of his book through supplementary anecdote and musing.
It helped that he had what Heaney termed Lowell’s command: this is a survivor of mental illness, but not in the victimized sense; this is a man that has come through, but who questions what he has come through and what he is coming into; this is a writer who is perpetually writing precarious dispatches, but who is granted repose; this is a writer who steadfastly refuses the romanticism of madness, who attests to the dead zones of his life, who can refer to entire stretches as “pointless.” Barnes was eloquent, it was as if he had assembled all the outtakes of his book of memoir-essays and weaved them together for his audience that night. I say command: Barnes had the room, utterly. He possessed us for an hour. And then released us.

One became aware something remarkable was happening when, at the beginning of the evening, Barnes’ publisher actually wept when introducing the author; it was clear that the publisher had his allegiances, and they were for his writer, and he was protective of this writer, and respectful of this writer, but moreso simply moved by the power of this writer, and not by the mere power of Barnes’ example, which as the evening progressed was undeniable; no, the publisher believed in the actual writing, it was the harrowing lyricism and questing metaphors and difficult questions that provoked this response in the publisher, and I must confess it was the emotional template for the evening. I think of the usual glad-handling and puffery at such events. This was very different. Barnes' avowed honesty was contagious.

When Barnes spoke, I felt tumult; it was as if I were being confronted with the very fact of mental illness, its diminishments and levelling; at points I thought it was less like Barnes was speaking and the illness was speaking instead. This might have been more chilling if Barnes wasn’t so matter-of-fact; though the illness was stark, the insight and self-knowledge gained as a result tempered the extremity.

So much of memoir nowadays is about the author’s navel; in Barnes’ story, there are other people, Barnes has a fundamental curiosity about other people; I think this is, more than the myth and memory of the book’s subtitle, the real engine of his recovery. And reviewers are always attesting to the courageousness of the memoir writer when the writer is unflattering towards the subject, when the writer portrays themselves as bumbling or mistaken; I’m not sure Barnes could be called courageous or even resilient, because what choice did he have? He’s here; he has a story to tell; the story is compelling. But I imagine that in the room the illness was there, that it fretted about which seat to take before it decided to sit down next to the publisher, who seemed sympathetic, and it paid very close attention to Barnes. And that Barnes seemed to know it was there, and that this was normal, and that Barnes had done a lot of withstanding, and transcending, and the illness had done a lot of witnessing, too. Not exactly colleagues; not exactly at ease with one another; not enemies; but brought together in the same room, though a door that Barnes memorably describes in his book. I’ll leave that for you to open.

Barnes admitted that there was a conversation going on in Canada about mental illness, and that he wanted to be a part of it. The Lily Pond is a considered manic statement; and though I said I would not admit that Barnes is courageous, and I still think what matters is the writing, not the surviving, I will admit that returning to St. Joseph’s, a place where he was almost a nullity, a frail patient, has to represent some kind of courage.

Anything But Hank: The Vancouver Launch

Zach and Rachel, seen above, launched their children's book Anything But Hank at Once Upon a Huckleberry Bush on Saturday, and it seems to have been a smashing success. Zach has uploaded a recording of the reading to his website, which can be found here:

It's been a crazy couple of weeks around here, with several other notable launches, and I'll be posting on all of them in the coming days, with photographs and impressions. So stay tuned!

The Salon des Refuses continues: a response in the Globe

A last word in the Globe on the Salon des Refuses, as Wayne Grady takes issue with John Metcalf's piece a few weeks earlier, accusing him of being a "lazy critic." Hmmm. John Metcalf responds below.

It's quite obvious where my own sympathies are in this, so I'll not bother to say anything but the following: I'm not sure how "lazy" a critic Wayne Grady may be, but he's certainly sloppy. Though I don't have a copy of Urquhart's anthology near me at this time, I'm pretty certain Charles Taylor did not appear in it anywhere. Perhaps he meant Charles Ritchie? And Metcalf did not "select" any of these stories: for better or wose, that was done baseball style between Kim Jernigan and myself. If Metcalf had done the selecting, the Salon would have been considerably different, especially on the TNQ half of the equation. That is not a minor point to get wrong, and I suspect it means Grady did not bother to look at the Salon des Refuses in the first place before penning his rather weary squib. As for the bit about Blyton, or rather Grady's not getting it, that says something else entirely.

But ... enough. Metcalf needs no defending here. As I'm sure you'll see, he can take good care of himself.


The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories is a rich overview of the state of literature in Canada today, as well as a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country


Recent issues of literary journals The New Quarterly and CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries) offered short stories by 20 writers left out of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Both magazines titled their issues The Salon des Refusés, holding the view that the Penguin anthology presented a distorted view. In a Sept. 13 essay for Books, John Metcalf supported that view. Now, Wayne Grady, who edited the first Penguin anthology, comes to the defence of a new and inclusive definition of what constitutes a short story. Metcalf, meanwhile, holds his ground.

John Metcalf, by listing 20 writers not included in Jane Urquhart's Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories - his self-styled Salon des refusés - commits the lazy critic's error of castigating a book for failing to do what it never set out to do in the first place, and then questioning the judgment of its editor because she didn't produce the book he would like to have seen. His diatribe, therefore, amounts to little more than a fit of unseemly name-calling and name-dropping.

This is tiresomely familiar Metcalf: He did the same thing 28 years ago, when I edited the first Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and left him out of it. It was sad then, and sadder now, to watch him flail about in a slough of despond, and take so many other writers down with him. I can't speak for them, but if I had been left out of such an important literary anthology, I wouldn't thank John Metcalf for pointing out that fact to the world.

Midway through his fulmination, Metcalf does rise above vitriol long enough to make a valid point: "Accomplished, demanding literature can only be strengthened and nurtured by austere, honed criticism." One measure of the success of Urquhart's anthology is that it has sparked just such an occasion for a re-evaluation of the changing nature of the short story in Canada. Such a debate would have been welcomed in Metcalf's appraisal: Unfortunately, after voicing the need for it, he sinks back into self-promotion without telling us why his choices would have been better than Urquhart's. Bafflingly, he even manages a swipe at Ann-Marie MacDonald and Enid Blyton, who aren't in the Penguin book either.

The fact is that the new anthology includes 66 writers from an incredibly wide range of styles, themes and accomplishment, whereas, in presenting his list of refusés, Metcalf seldom looks beyond the small coterie of writers he himself has edited and published.

But let us revel in what the Penguin book is, rather than roll in what it is not. Urquhart divides her selections into five parts, each arranged behind a totemic story that establishes a theme she feels is crucial to the Canadian literary experience: thus, Alice Munro's The View From Castle Rock introduces the theme of immigration; Michael Winter's This All Happened speaks to the "immediate and contemporary view of who we think we are"; Michael Ondaatje's Lunch Conversation deals with matters related to family, and so on. Along the way, Urquhart includes stories by the giants of the genre - Munro, Alistair MacLeod, Mavis Gallant - and also celebrates the work of more recent arrivals, such as Vincent Lam, Madeleine Thien and Lynn Coady.

She includes work by writers of creative non-fiction - Charles Taylor, for example - an acknowledgment that such work now belongs in any modern definition of "story." She includes self-contained excerpts from longer works, an innovation introduced by Ondaatje in his 1990 anthology, From Ink Lake. The result is a rich overview of the state of literature in Canada today, as well as a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country. Twenty-eight years after the first Penguin anthology, this one was long overdue and fulfills its mandate superbly.

As has been known since Noah, no collection can include everyone. In Inuit legend, Noah sails his ark into Hudson Bay after the flood. The Inuit note that there are no polar bears on board, but rather than writhe in righteous indignation, they help Noah survive and enjoy the animals he brought to them: They find the giraffes particularly tasty. They know that the Ark is what it is, and the Arctic is what it is, and that there is room for both.

So read the refusés, by all means. But for a broader, deeper and less biased viewpoint from which to survey the ebb and flow of our literature, read the Penguin anthology first.

Wayne Grady is the editor of 10 anthologies of short fiction and nonfiction, including the first Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and, most recently, The Desert: A Literary Companion.



A story is a carefully crafted work of art that is discrete and entirely self-contained. It ... demands an aesthetic response. It does not offer itself as lessons in history or sociology

To set the record straight, not one of the 20 writers celebrated in the current issues of CNQ and The New Quarterly was selected by me; these writers were chosen by Dan Wells at CNQ and Kim Jernigan at The New Quarterly.

Grady refers to his editing the first Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories 28 years ago. His credentials for doing so were as tenuous as Jane Urquhart's now, credentials seemingly derived from his editing Harrowsmith, a magazine devoted to husbandry and mulch.

Grady seems to approve of including in a book of short stories "creative non-fiction" and "self-contained excerpts from longer works" - in other words, chunks of novels.

The resulting "rich overview" provides, he claims, "a fascinating introduction to the social and intellectual history of this country." And this is precisely where he and Urquhart get it all wrong, for she too thinks of her anthologizing as "a national narrative." Both editors think of themselves as using stories for some non-literary purpose, and both see that purpose as nationalistic.

Neither seems to grasp that a story is a carefully crafted work of art that is discrete and entirely self-contained. It is a performance. A story demands an aesthetic response. It does not offer itself as lessons in history or sociology. A story does not follow the flag.

The writers in the Salon des refusés issues of CNQ and The New Quarterly write with a crispness that is a relatively recent development in Canada. Some tend toward the minimalist while others are positively baroque. What marks them all, however, is a dedication to language. These writers are not the "coterie" Grady imagines. They are where the excitement lies; they are the heat in the kitchen. These writers are the polished vanguard leading us into ever more astonishing and engaging literary possibilities. A pity that Urquhart and Penguin Books were deaf to their voices.

John Metcalf's most recent book is the literary memoir Shut Up He Explained.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Reminder: Anything But Hank Launch Tomorrow Afternoon in Vancouver

Booklaunch: Anything But Hank!
Once Upon a Huckleberry Bush
4387 Main St. (at 28th), Vancouver
1 pm

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Globe Review of Mike Barnes's The Lily Pond

The Globe & Mail included Mike Barnes's The Lily Pond in its Three For Thoughts column this past Saturday as a prelude to Mental Illness Awareness Week. Robyn Sarah compares three memoirs of madness by Mike Barnes, Mark Vonnegut, and Kay Redfield Jamison. The article is posted below, and the temporary link is

When madness rules your life

As Mental Illness Awareness Week begins, Robyn Sarah examines what we can learn from those who have written about coping when they are betrayed by their own minds

'Are you out of your mind?" We've all said it, to people who aren't. We don't ask those we truly suspect: When we encounter them in the street or on the bus, we give them wide berth or quietly change seats. But what if they are our own loved ones?

What is it like to lose one's mind? Statistics tell us one in five people will suffer an episode of mental illness in his or her lifetime. That's a staggering number for a problem that is still so hushed up. While not all will experience the incapacitating breaks with reality that we call psychosis, all will experience disruptions in how they think, distortions in how they perceive the world and a sense that their minds have betrayed them. We are fortunate that some sufferers have braved stigma to go public in memoirs: In so doing, they offer a glimpse of what mental illness is like from the inside and provide insight into a societal problem that could, for any of us, at any time, directly or indirectly, become a personal problem.

Discussed here are three such memoirs, coming from very different places, but all stunningly articulate. As it happens, all three writers suffered the same disorder, manic-depressive illness, later renamed bipolar affective disorder. (Significantly, two were first misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, a reminder that psychiatric diagnoses are not hard science.) All three experienced psychoses, survived suicide attempts or gestures, and struggled with the downsides of medication. And all have recovered, to live rewarding and productive lives as a pediatrician, a psychiatrist and a writer-teacher, respectively.

Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity (Praeger, 1975) was reissued in 2002 by Seven Stories Press with a new preface by the author and a foreword by his famous father, Kurt Vonnegut. An account of his psychotic breakdown on a commune in rural B.C. in the early 1970s, it shares a seriousness about its subject with the other two books, but is also almost rollicking - not only because Vonnegut shares his father's sense of humour, but because his book is as much a study of the 1960s mentality, the wild utopianism of his generation, as it is of psychosis from the inside.

Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (Knopf, 1995) is not only a personal account of madness, but one written by a psychiatrist who herself suffers from the mood disorder in which she specializes (Jamison co-wrote the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness, as well as writing Touched with Fire, a study of manic-depression and the artistic temperament.)

Jamison had just signed on as assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA when she experienced psychotic mania and began a "long, costly personal war against a medication [lithium] that I would, in a few years' time, be strongly encouraging others to take." Just as Vonnegut's fellow homesteaders loom large in his account of his descent into madness, so Jamison's colleagues in the psychiatry department figure in hers, recognizing what is happening before she does, rallying protectively around her to get swift help and minimize damages the illness could wreak on her career.

And just as Vonnegut's account of madness is woven inextricably into the saga of the farm, so Jamison's is woven into the story of her personal loves and professional life - a reminder that mental illness is not an isolated phenomenon but something that happens to people in the midst of living their lives, whatever those lives may be.

Vonnegut and Jamison had the luck to "go mad" in supportive environments that allowed them to bypass some of the usual stations. Mike Barnes tells a murkier story in The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis (just published by Biblioasis). Barnes was hospitalized in Ontario in his early twenties following a bizarre self-mutilation. What came next (misdiagnosis, two years of failed drug trials, electroshock treatments, a staff meeting that nearly saw him transferred to a long-term-care facility; then months of near-coma resulting from a prescription dosage error) is the stuff of nightmare, yet related - remarkably - without bitterness.

In four interlocking essays that track the 30-year journey of his recovery (and the parallel journey of his evolution as a writer, author of six earlier books of fiction and poetry), Barnes mixes autobiography with reflections on paintings, literary works and scientific lore, exploring metaphors and myths that have haunted and helped him, and probing the psyche's resources for healing.

Deeply thoughtful, his book includes a moving account of psychotherapy and gives a sense of mental illness as an ongoing, lived reality. In an unexpected twist, the final essay sees him assume the role of caregiver to the woman he loves, diagnosed - after years of their living together - with the same illness he suffers.

These books make it clear that people with mental illnesses are not so terribly unlike those of us spared them: They struggle with the same existential issues, have the same needs, loves and hopes, respond to the same positive and negative experiences, and cope best when they can count on the respect and comprehension of those around them.

Robyn Sarah is a Montreal poet and writer with an interest in mental health issues. She is the niece of the late Mac Lipson, news anchor on Ottawa's CKOY during the 1960s, whose career in radio was derailed by manic-depressive illness.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Little Eurekas should be compulsory reading

W.J. Keith's Canadian Poetry review of Robyn Sarah's Little Eurekas was so glowing we've decided to post the thing in its entirety here on the blog. The first sentence sets the tone of the review quite nicely.

A Poet on Poetry and Its Discontents

Robyn Sarah, Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry. Emeryville, ON: Biblioasis, 2007. 270pp.

Reviewed by W.J. Keith

Little Eurekas may well be the most informative and useful book that has yet been produced in Canada covering every aspect of the writing, reading, and appreciation of poetry. If it were made compulsory reading for all students of poetry, both the art itself and literary commentary about it would improve immeasurably. But it is addressed to many besides students: to poets, teachers, publishers, editors, grant-giving agencies, general readers – to all, perhaps, except literary theorists, who would be unlikely to understand. Yet Robyn Sarah writes in her introduction: “I have never thought of myself as a literary critic.” This is not, I think, as paradoxical as it may seem at first sight. As I read, I was reminded of a late poem by Robert Graves, quoted (appropriately, given Sarah’s sensibly non-academic attitudes) from memory:

Experts ranged in serried rows

Fill the enormous plaza full;

But only one is there who knows,

And he’s the man who fights the bull.

Sarah has been fighting the bull for the best part of thirty years now, and has earned the privilege to speak out.

For the record, she was born in 1949, and has eight volumes of poetry to her credit. Her education included early training in music, and as a result she brings a fine ear for subtle rhythms and unusual sound-combinations to all her work. Her poetry arises mainly from the challenges of everyday living; the poems are generally simple in language, though distinguished by a regular but strictly controlled command of striking yet never flamboyant metaphor. Although many of her poems are in “free verse” (of which more later), we are always aware of conscious shaping. And they generally contain “little Eurekas,” effects that surprise and delight, and linger memorably within the mind. Hers is an unostentatious but decidedly individual voice.

This is so rich a book that it is difficult for a reviewer to know where to begin. The best procedure may be to present a formal description of its varied contents, and then to offer a personal account (since this is a very personal book) of aspects that I consider most valuable. First, however, two representative samples of what is said and how it is said. Here is part of a review of “four new poetry books, all of them ‘firsts’ for their authors”:

I found in all four books some of the elements of poetry; I found glimpses and flashes of poetry; I found phrases and images and stanzas that I admired. But I did not find many whole poems that stuck in my head, even on second and third reading – and I did not find a single whole poem that I wanted to run out and photocopy, tape to my fridge or tack to my wall, and live with for awhile. (143-4)

An admirable blend of honesty, discrimination, and firmness. Here is a critic with standards, not afraid of revealing subjective responses.

And here, from an interview, is her impassioned statement about the reluctance of modern poets to learn the tools of their trade:

It amazes me that there are so many poets writing today who feel no pull to learn the formal vocabulary of their literary forebears (I mean, to learn the exercise of it – to achieve what fluency they can in it) – simply as part of mastering their craft, their facility with the language, their control of it – whether or not they choose to write poems of their own in traditional forms. (Who not only feel no pull to learn it, but who make a virtue of not learning it!) I see no reason why any modern poet should feel obliged to write in metre and rhyme, or to write sonnets or villanelles or whatever. But I think we should all be able to do so, if we want to call ourselves poets. And we do not become able without practice. We should remember that the modern poets who broke with formalism to pioneer a free-verse idiom were breaking with something they were fluent in. (252-3)

One can hear Sarah’s unique combination of enthusiasm and frustration through the rhythms of her prose. Clearly a genuinely committed poet.

The book consists of five parts: “Essays,” “Appreciations,” “Essay-Reviews,” “Short Reviews,” and “Collaborations.” The essays range widely over general matters. She begins with an autobiographical memoir, “How I Fell for Poetry.” This is followed by a highly readable discussion of Poetics that presents a series of attempts on her part to define poetry, none of them comprehensive but all of them thought-provoking and full of stimulating insights. She then tackles the teaching of poetry – and does not mince her words. She soundly condemns “wrong-headed teaching of poetry, by teachers who neither like nor understand it themselves, out of text-books designed with exactly such teachers in mind” (31), and challenges the choice of poems taught (those with “topic appeal” and “Social-studies potential” (32), etc. “Good poetry teaching,” she insists, “gives strong place to the aural and the oral: hearing poems and saying them, reading them aloud to experience their rhythms and sounds, reciting them in performance” (34).

The next, “On Publishing Poetry,” criticizes the whole process in Canada by which the grant-system forces poets to publish too much too regularly and too soon, while the last substantial essay, “On Editing Poetry,” questions “workshop” situations which can “cultivate an entrenched insecurity about one’s own intentions as a poet – an inability to judge one’s own unfinished work, to decide when a poem is finished” (47). Editors, she argues, should advise but not command, and should concentrate on displaying a poem to the best advantage, querying details perhaps, but not encouraging substantial alterations which are the poet’s responsibility. It’s sad that suggestions that ought to be obvious to the point of “needless to say” come across as controversial and even radical.

The central sections are more specific and practical in nature. “Talking about these things in the abstract is meaningless: they only make sense when we have an actual poem in front of us” (26). Sarah is open to many kinds of poem, tolerant of idiosyncrasy, welcoming to an original approach, but she knows that some poems – many poems – are inferior to others. The “bottom line” is always evaluation; she has no patience with the pseudo-democratic everyone-should-have-a-prize mentality. Moreover, though most of her examples are Canadian, they are not exclusively so; she often comments on poets from elsewhere, even including some who write in other languages.

The most substantial piece here is “In Star-Warm Dusk: The Poems of George Johnston,” a welcome specimen of close reading that tries to place Johnston where he belongs, in the forefront of Canadian poetic achievement. Once again, Sarah’s crusading zeal is evident. Here, she insists, is a scandalously neglected poet who has so much to give us:

In a country that has nurtured, almost to the exclusion of anything else, a free-verse flat-toned vernacular in its poetry – accustoming readers to expect some novelty of content, shocking or exotic or wittily anecdotal, to carry the poem – it is the rare reader who recognizes what a highly disciplined, exacting poetic sensibility is at work here, what a nuanced ear, or what a masterful hand. Most Canadian critics have become deaf to such virtues.

She provides sensitive readings of seventeen poems, all of which are as exemplary as the poems themselves. Her emphasis, as it should be, is on how the meaning of each poem is determined not by a bald statement of theme, but by tone, verbal nuance, and the exaltation of colloquial rhythms to dignity and eloquence without ever losing touch with the modest, the human, and often the humorous.

The final section, “Collaborations,” involves subjects discussed with other poets, generally in some form of interview. All are valuable, but I would like to focus on one involving the vexed question of free verse. Sarah had reviewed Governor-General’s award winner Robert Hilles’s Higher Ground (a review reproduced in the fourth section) and complained that it was prose arbitrarily sliced into verse-lines. As a result, John Unrau, a poetry-writing academic, wrote to her suggesting that the same might be said of some of the work of other poets and citing examples from Michael Ondaatje, Don Coles, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Al Purdy. The resultant exchange of letters is duly reproduced here. Sarah agrees in the cases of Ondaatje and Purdy, but explains how, in her view, the extracts from Coles, Hughes, and Heaney are justified as free verse. One does not need to accept every argument (though personally I find them convincing), but it is a brilliant exercise in subtle discrimination, essential reading even for those who inhabit one or other of the extreme ends of the “free” or “traditional” verse-spectrum. More is communicated in twelve pages than in as many volumes of learned scholarly commentary.

Little Eurekas is a compelling record of what Sarah has learned, not through accepting standard theoretical formulations, but through personal experience, a disciplined apprenticeship, and sustained thought about her chosen craft. It is refreshing because it never tries to disguise the personal response under a clock of supposedly objective detachment. When she says that she “fell for poetry,” she is bearing witness to an equivalent of falling in love. Endearingly, she can ask: “What do I love about this poem?…” (70) or begin a paragraph of shrewd literary analysis with “I love the way the word ‘stars’…” (78). How many contemporary poets, one wonders, love words in quite the same way?

For myself, I “love” many of the insights presented here because they touch off echoes in my own experience that I have lacked the courage to acknowledge. For example, she acknowledges exposure to “A.A. Milne’s two volumes of children’s verse, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six,” as vital to her early development (17). I share that good fortune, and am fully convinced of its importance as a factor in my own response to language and it possibilities. They introduce both of us to rhythmic subtlety, the artistic value of repetition, and the sheer joy of verbal dexterity. (I would, indeed, go further, and add their prose equivalents, Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, as performing a similar function in encouraging an ear for clear, flowing, and witty prose.) There are many, I suppose, who will dismiss these books as hopelessly dated and outmoded, yet it is worth pointing out that they are contemporary with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon series, are far more varied in tone and decidedly superior in style.

Sarah also argues that, contrary to present-day beliefs, memorizing poems “is actually a deeply enriching activity that should be brought back… a great poem saved in memory will repay, many times over, the effort involved in putting it there” (34). How right she is! Once again, I was fortunate in growing up before ill-informed educational psychologists took control. The less fortunate are, I suspect, incapable of appreciating the extent of their cultural deprivation. (Interestingly, P.K. Page has made the same point recently in The Filled Pen.)

There are many reasons why I “love” this book, not least the honesty and forthrightness of the opening statement in her introduction: “First off: I’d rather write poems.” After so much high-flown theoretical pontificating from our “professional” scholar critics in recent decades, it is both a relief and a pleasure to find someone stating that her motivation is “to challenge aspects of cultural policy practice, and pedagogical thinking that (to my mind) serve poetry badly and diminish its audience” (11). Here is someone rightly concerned about the waste of effort and talent (not to mention expense) involved in the annual publication of scores of books of poetry (and non-poetry) when the vast majority even of the worthy ones will never reach the small group that might appreciate them. But Sarah’s book is not weighed down by verbal hand-wringing. Her exercises in “practical criticism” point towards what can be done. After one of her guest appearances in an elementary-school classroom, the teacher remarked, “You’ve made me realize it isn’t the kids who are afraid of poetry – it’s teachers” (36). Such an example is immeasurably more valuable than run-of-the-mill academic criticism.

Here, then, is a poet who can both write and think about poetry in all its aspects. Little Eurekas is sensible, practical, clearly and even beautifully written. Though the longer pieces are the most rewarding, even the brief reviews can present food for thought and offer salutary challenges to our preconceptions. Read it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Idler Glossary Launch Tomorrow Eve & The Idler's 11-Step Recovery Program

We'll be launching tomorrow eve at the Gladstone the Josh Glenn, Mark Kingwell and Seth Idler's Glossary, with the first AGM of the Royal Society of the Indolent. Doors open at 7 pm. In anticipation, here's our Idler's 11-Step recovery Program (Because We Were Too Lazy For 12):

Here are the Eleven Steps, which are closely modelled on AA’s more serious twelve:

1. We admitted we were powerless to make work less boring or harmful—that our lives as salarymen had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that idleness was greater than our efforts and could restore us to sanity.

3. Had an idle thought to turn our lack of will, and so our lives, over to the care of idleness as we understood it.

4. Made a searching but relaxed inventory of our working selves, a. k. a. our Inner Drudge.

5. Admitted to the way of idleness, to ourselves, and to any other human being within easy earshot the exact nature of our wrong ideas about the need to work.

6. Were entirely ready to have idleness remove all these defects of character, as long as it didn’t involve any effort on our part.

7. Humbly asked the way of idleness to remove our shortcomings since we couldn’t really be bothered.

8. Considered a list of all persons we had worked for, and became willing to tell them all to get stuffed.

9. Contemplated direct address to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would inconvenience us.

10. Continued to take casual personal inventory, and when we were slack rather than idle promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through laziness and indolence to improve our conscious contact with the way of idleness as we understood it, praying only for knowledge of its non-will for us and the power not to carry that out.