Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I also carry my books with me, and thus resent the added weight of hardcovers. If I'm really immersed in one, it is not unknown for me to sport a narrow horizontal bruise along the top of my left thigh; that's where the edge of a hardcover bangs as it bounces along in my shoulderbag.
Book are physical objects; often sexy, sometimes annoying. I respect hardcovers, but they don't suit my lifestyle.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets
Edited by Zachariah Wells
Biblioasis, 160 pages, $20
When her Break, Burn, Blow ﬁrst appeared in bookstores in 2005 to explain 43 short canonical poems to masses unacquainted with the stalwart best of English verse, Camille Paglia made it known that she sought to turn close-reading into a practice attractive to the dysfunctional attentions of popular culture in order to save poetry from the tiresome homogeneity of poststructuralist identity politics. “Poetry does not simply reconﬁrm gender or group identity,” Paglia wrote. “It develops the imagination and feeds the soul.” Though the more insular among us can at last breathe easy now that we have something else assuredly Canadian to hold up against the encroaching succubi south of the 49th parallel, Zach Wells’s latest editorial enterprise, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, is a work in much the same vein — one which endeavours not to sell Canada back to Canadians so much as to awe, arouse and edify them. As Paglia’s book took its title from one of John Donne’s sonnets, Wells’s ﬁnds its source in a sonnet of Margaret Avison’s which opines “Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes. / The optic heart must venture: a jail-break / And re-creation.”
Through Wells’s deft collection of sundry sonnets written by Canadians, Jailbreaks manages to foist responsibility for such “re-creation” upon the individual members of its readership, as Wells stubbornly refuses to stuff the works into an artiﬁcial overarching metaphor or unifying theme. Instead, Wells revels in the possibilities of the anthology form, letting the contents of individual poems bleed outward to resonate in broader, linear readings. Here, George Elliott Clarke’s “Negation” (“Le nègre negated, meagre, c’est moi”) comes close on the heels of David O’Meara’s “Postcard from Camus” (“I only love the brown bodies—young, alert, / and full of joy”), both unwittingly calling into question the black/brown imagery of Charles G.D. Roberts’s otherwise-innocuous “The Potato Harvest” a page earlier. Here, six sonnets about boats ﬂoat directly into two about rope, which in turn lead into the opening lines of John Barton’s “Saint Joseph’s Hospital, 1937”: “My heart, a knot undone with pain, forgot / a beat, the message cut.”
In his introduction, Wells claimed to have assembled his roster with an eye to demonstrating the “portmanteau portability and cosmopolitaneity of the sonnet”, and that indeed he does. But in reading Jailbreaks, Wells’s more successful editorial gambit was not only in locating Canadian works that demonstrate proﬁciency and virtuosity in form, but in juxtaposing poems with content that rewards repeated interlinear reading.
Indeed, the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “You have no form”, alone serves mostly to remind readers that Cohen’s lyric skill lies primarily in free verse, but when its concluding couplet (“and I get up to love and eat and kill / not by my own, but by our married will”) is read against that of Sharon McCartney’s “Impending death of the cat” (“And yet, remark her purr, her carriage, / how capably she embodies the state of our marriage”), readers are left breathless recognizing the spreading darkness permeating the Canadian connubial tundra. Flip backwards a few pages, and Elizabeth Bachinsky’s “How to bag your small town girl” seems less regionally bittersweet than informed, responsive; the volta of Molly Peacock’s “The Lull” (“only its head was smashed. In the lull / that it took you to look, you took the time to insult / the corpse…”) returns, echoes—have we always been this jaded? And why does it sound so good in fourteen often-decasyllabic lines?
But Jailbreaks’ best comes last, with Wells’s “Notes on the Poems” demonstrating the interpretive possibilities of a careful reader’s “optic heart.” For once, a critic declines to over-analyze his texts, enabling rather than infantilizing his audience. To read Wells’s commentary you need to be well-versed in Frost, Avison, Sanger. He is a skilled prosodist, and he is at his best when he is beard-deep in scansion. In other hands, such grey matter could seem pedantic, petulant, or dry, but through Wells’s froward refusal to anatomize the sonnet form and its prosody, his readers have no choice but to inform themselves of the relevant poetic lingo if they want to keep up. While terms such as “anadiplotic volta”, “ekphrastic”, “consubstantiality”, and “caudated” ﬂow unapologetically from Wells’s “Notes”, his direct address to the reader throughout keeps the tone casual, immediate. Wells is right here, he’s having a beer with you, wrangling over what Richard Sanger isn’t saying, telling you not to be fooled by Don Coles’s “Sampling from a Dialogue”, or offering an irrelevant anecdote about a hungover John Newlove. Did you know that “girdles for women were once made from the baleen of right whales?” Doesn’t that somehow draw you back to page 65, where Eric Cole’s “Right Whale” gasps, “the nostrils on the head / from each black fathom”?
That Wells is well-read in the history of Canadian poetry is clear, but his choices veer towards the recent and the living. Most poems in the collection were written in the previous decade. Such a focus is unsurprising from one determined to illustrate how “many younger poets…are hungry for change. It’s getting hard to open a journal or a new collection without stumbling over some sort of sonnet, or even a book-length sequence of them.” More troubling perhaps is Wells’s almost exclusive use of poems from single-author chapbooks and collections — if a reader as determined as Wells can’t be bothered to invest in the poetical works published in Canada’s literary journals, what message does that send about their relevance?
What other criticisms there are are few, and personal ones at that. Wells, a poet himself, is perhaps too fond of meta-sonneteering — a reader with a less cheek-enjambed tongue than his might grow weary by the ﬁfth or sixth time she encounters a poem about writing poems — but the enthusiasm Wells displays in his notes begs forgiveness for such indulgences. That Jailbreaks is a labour of love is clear, but it is a love as meticulous and scrupulous as that of a strict parent, one who applauds “inventive innovation” in poetry only so long as it is accompanied by a concomitant “rigorous vigour”.
Because it is requisite in Canadian journals to point out that Wells is a “PEI-born writer who now lives in Vancouver”, this reviewer shall do so, thereby espousing the yawning tedium of geo-biographical detail even though Wells himself declines to offer such banal trivia in his own volume. Jailbreaks mercifully contains no bios, no cringing boilerplate included to supposedly illuminate the socio-cultural impressions possible within each poem’s 14 lines of verse. “Who knows not Colin Clout?” Edmund Spenser asked sometime towards the end of his Faerie Queene of 1596, ushering in a swell of ego that the debacle over the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and resultant sour grape mash of the so-called Salon de Refusés demonstrates is still widespread amongst writers of our little Dominion. In such a climate, Wells’s avoidance of traditional Canuck self-congratulation is invigorating, even audacious. “Most anthologies are about poets, or generations of poets, with photos and bios and all the trappings of quasi-celebrity,” Wells told Literary Photographer in a July 2008 interview. “This one’s about single, small poems.” Because Wells organizes the poems in his anthology according to his own private thematic and poetic logic, Jailbreaks is not a typical act of ennuish Canadian canon-building, commemorating regionalism or post-Charter multiculturalism or whatever it is that “makes us Canadian” (really, is there any nation but ours so committed to talking unremittingly about itself?) but instead celebrates a small poetic form whose “deceptively ample cargo space can accommodate…pithy wit and irony, intellectual investigations and expressions of sincere feeling.”
Hefting the quarto-sized Biblioasis codex, with its luxe red cardstock cover, clean lines, and the wry learned humour of its assiduous editor, one feels most astutely that Jailbreaks’ form does indeed echo its content. Such deceptively ample cargo space is still enough to break, blow, burn — and make the sonnet new.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
For all Toronto-area Biblioasis-o-philes: Bruce Jay Friedman will be at Harbourfront this Wednesday, reading alongside Robert Carr and George Elliott Clarke. I'll be in Toronto for this, as I have to head into town for a couple of meetings. I'm quite excited about it: I've not yet had the pleasure of meeting Bruce. An Academy Award nominated screenwriter, Bruce is the godfather of Black Humour; a wonderful storyteller and anecdotalist, it's certain to be an excellent evening.
For those interested in attending, the evening will start at 7:30 in the Brigantine Room, at the Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). I'll try to take pictures, and post them on my return.
Even before *Once* came out, I was amazed at how generous readers were in sharing what they thought of my work. It's not like I'm deluged with fanmail, but a good number of people have bothered to send me a note, or say a word to me at an event, to share their reactions to my stories.
And though really that's why anyone wants to publish anything--to get people thinking about these characters and situations that have been in the writer's head--I didn't really know how thrilling it would be see my imaginings refracted through other imaginations like this. I've enjoyed everything expressed to me, including "I just didn't get it" (more than once)...it's important for me to learn about ways my work can misfire. No one ever got better by dwelling on successes.
Of course, everyone's been pretty nice--I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate negative feedback if it came in the form of people yelling "you suck!" at readings. But there is one comment that's come up a couple times, always voiced as a compliment, that does trouble me: variations on "I feel as though I've read your diary."
A big scary hurdle of publishing is accepting the idea that I can't control how people read the work once it's out there; if people enjoy thinking of all the characters I write as manifestations of Rebecca Rosenblum...uh, I guess I have to go with that.
But I wish they wouldn't. And not only because I am not a terribly autobiographical writer and that's not how *I* read the characters. Of course I use real life sometimes--it is right there, after all. Besides, all my ideas come from inside my own head, so they all reflect me to some degree (I believe I'm paraphrasing Margaret Atwood there, but I can't find an attribution). I'm sure if a person with the right degrees read any book with enough attention, he or she could construct a reasonably accurate psychological profile of the author.
Over at Toro, the Men's magazine, there's an interesting interview with Russell Smith about the writing and reception of his pornographic novel, published just over a year ago, Diana: A Diary in the Second Person. The whole of it can be read here. There's an excerpt below:
Q: How did you approach writing Diana, a memoir of female desire?
A: It was an exercise, really. I enjoy reading and looking at pornography of all kinds, but I was always disappointed by the quality of the writing in so-called erotica. I never understood why it was always written by hacks, and read like Harlequin romances. I wanted to try my hand at it and bring some literary elegance to the genre.
The material – the actual fantasies that inspired the scenes in the book – all came from my female romantic partners over the years. (That sounds boastful – but there were only a couple, actually.) They were what I persuaded them to confess to me in the dark of night. I used in the book the ones that I found most effective when I murmured them to actual women. The book is aimed at female readers, as I knew that they were the only ones, honestly, likely to buy such a book. That’s why I pretended, at first, to be a female author: I feared that women would not trust their arousal if they thought the book to be a product of male fantasies.
Q: What do you think of your sexualized word terrain? Is the book informed by the style of other sexual memoirs?
A: As I say, there isn’t much literature written intentionally as erotica that I actually enjoy. Although I do remember spending a rather excited few days reading Anaïs Nin when I first discovered her as a student. What I attempt to do in my sex scenes is to describe the mechanics of them matter-of-factly, without too much emotion. It’s when people try to describe the emotions of sex without being clinical about it that they get euphemistic: that’s when they end up with all the "core-of-her-beings" and "proud manhoods" and "fire like spirits dancing in her brain" and all that stuff that wins the Bad Sex Awards.
Q: Do you think there are differences in how men and women are expressing desire in narrative form?
A: Well, yes: men simply aren’t doing it. I mean yes, they do it in conventional terms in their fiction, but they tend not to write entire books of porn. Erotica is a feminine closet.
But as to the differences between male-written sex scenes and female-written ones, no, I don’t believe there are any consistent differences that are trackable to gender. I really don’t believe in such a thing as a female voice or a male voice – those are very dated essentialist tenets which I believe to be philosophically unjustified and actually pernicious. Any talented writer can create and inhabit a convincing character and a real-sounding voice. And gender has nothing to do with it.
Q: I enjoyed your reading from this pornographic novel in Dirty Laundry. You’re one of the authors I thought of at the start, as your writing often involves sexual processes. How does it feel writing with explicit sexual intentions in literary frames?
A: I felt uncomfortable while doing that reading, as several of my co-readers were actual women who were writing about sexual experiences, and there I was, a guy, in front of them, an obvious fraud. I felt – perhaps it was my imagination – disapproval, or at least a certain coldness. I would rather be anonymous and have my gender unknown. But I suppose it will always be odd, for anyone, to have one’s perceptions of sex made public. You will always be judged and probably mocked for what those perceptions are. Everyone’s perceptions are different. And there’s just something about someone else’s sex acts that is just always inherently funny.
Friday, March 27, 2009
A pig. A question. A filthy fingernail. A bead of ice. In the early 90s these four met each other in my head and reported that they could start a story going. It turned out to be "Country Life," the second in The English Stories.
How does that happen? Alice Munro has somewhere described how a single image or action or word can be a magnet, pulling other story elements to itself. That's a familiar process for many writers, though not always fruitful. The disparate things can just stay that way. Or they may only adhere for a bit before collapsing, especially if the writer gets antsy and tries to force other things into the mix.
My four however got on well, and led me deep into a district of memory I'd hardly visited in decades: two years in England when I was 11 and 12. Naturally then I'd focused on the girls in my year at school or on the kids of family friends. In middle age I focused just the same way, and all the middle-aged people from that period walked out of the background to meet me.
Not boring, after all.
Eccentric? At first they seemed so. Then they began to make sense, partially, but I was annoyed at them for not Doing Something about their lives. After a while I started to feel sad for them. Sadder. Later, admiration started. It grew, and imagination worked on the priceless gifts those people gave me, and new characters appeared. Miss Lucinda Jones in "Country Life" is no one I ever met or heard of, but her principles, her attitudes are illustrative of many people encountered during those English years.
After "Country Life" was finished I saw that again I had written about characters who embody particular ideologies -- not consciously or explicitly like the politicos I've lived among for years, but in their daily doings, their choices in life, their habits of mind.
I didn't expect to write further about my English years. "Country Life" was just another story. I'd enjoyed writing it and was happy when it won the Western Magazines Award.
As for those items -- the pig lived on a beautiful farm, a heavenly farm I visited as a child in England. The arithmetic questions came at me from an old family friend. The dirty nail was Struwwelpeter's; he was a wicked boy in a book behind glass doors at a Toronto neighbour's. The beads of ice, on pussywillows set to adorn a dining-table, I never saw. That was my mother's story.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
When it comes to their importance, there's so much more to small cultural magazines than their circulation.
On Feb. 17, Heritage Minister James Moore announced the Canada Magazine Fund and the Publications Assistance Program will be merged into the Canadian Periodical Fund, effective 2010/2011. During the press conference in Montreal, he mentioned that to qualify for support, magazines may potentially have to meet a base paid circulation of 5,000 units, which I read to mean a combination of subscriptions, single-copy orders, and newsstand sales. That number sent shock waves through the arts and literary magazine community, for the annual circulation of many of these magazine falls below this mark.
Except for the postal subsidy long offered through the Publications Assistance Program, Canadian Heritage is a newcomer to funding cultural magazines. Inaugurated under the Chrétien government in 2004, Support for Arts and Literary Magazines (SALM) has transformed journals like The Malahat Review, which I edit at the University of Victoria, Arc in Ottawa, and Winnipeg's Prairie Fire. We have been able to increase payments to contributors by 25 per cent, print longer issues (and more writing) on forest-friendly paper, and institute very modest salary increases for part-time staff. For the Malahat, it represents 15 per cent of our revenues.
Canadian Heritage support has helped us to dedicate other income to marketing. As a result, our circulation is projected to increase by 7 per cent in 2009, bucking the trend for contraction in these times of economic slowdown. Sustainability, I am sure Mr. Moore would agree, takes time.
Though not specifically referenced in the Terry Griggs's forthcoming Thought You Were Dead, I have it on good authority that Chellis Beith's favourite dessert is the above concoction, a mix of ice cream, freshly ground pepper and single malt scotch. Preferably the Laphroaig 10 year old, though it is getting hard to come by these days, ever since the Chinese began buying it all up. The pricier Lagavulin will work in a pinch (Athena Havlock's tipple).
Chellis isn't much for measurements: the only instructions he cares to offer is mix to taste. But if you're in need of a touch more direction, I've found the following:
I love newspapers. I love the dry wit of newspaper people. I love the size and portability and recyclability of a paper product. The ritual of the morning paper creates the most focused, and perhaps pleasant moments of the day.
The security of the kitchen table, the morning light, a bit of baroque guitar, a hot coffee give me, for some reason, a sudden and deep concentration that I am unable to recreate for the rest of the day. Perhaps it's because of that moment's proximity to sleep. Perhaps it's because a sheet of newsprint is so static, so stable, so unflashy: It does not distract me with links to brighter, sexier images, or to the gossipy and stressful world of e-mail, as reading on my computer does.
But it works in a coffee shop at lunch, too, or at a bar at the end of the day. I can sit by a window, look at the street, pick up that smudgy sheet and focus intensely on something like tax laws, and then look back at the street; it's an invariably intense moment of connection to what's going on around me.
There is something about that conjunction of pleasures, of the coffee, the view, the city, the sense of being among people that is conducive, for me, to thinking and understanding.
And now everyone is telling me, everyone believes, that this pleasure is coming to an end. We have all read the statistics and know the long list of American papers that have disappeared or are about to disappear.
The whole article can be found here.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Here's a snippet:
What, if any steps are taking to avoid the so-called sophomore slump? Or do you subscribe to such superstitions?
Thanks for bringing up a touchy subject, Winston! I'm not taking any
steps, but that's because I don't know of any (do you?) I'm just
trying to write a really good second book without being (too)
fretful. And trying to continue to really hear advice instead of
thinking, "I did this once, I know what I'm doing." Because I really
really don't know what I'm doing.
Where do you stand on that perennial conundrum: rock, paper, or scissors?
Paper!! Has any writer ever said otherwise?
You can read the whole thing here.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
After a two minute introduction to the Microsoft MovieMaker, I spent four or five hours tinkering with the program and and put together this first book trailer for Terry Griggs's forthcoming Thought You Were Dead. A first, because I expect I'll be reworking it and putting together a few other versions between now and the wee hours of the book's release. It was a lot of fun fiddling with this thing, adding the sepia colouring, the fades in, juggling the storyboard: at the very least I've learned a whole other lingo.
The music is by a good friend of mine, Lewis MacLeod, and this would be, I expect, the world premier. I even have a small part on this song as a member of the Drunken Choir, though I decided not to subject you all to that quite yet: the song breaks down into musical anarchy -- there's even a nose harp and some other whirligig instruments I don't know the names of. Part Pogues, part Tom Waits, a dash of Nick Cave ... a hell of a lot of fun.
As is the book. We figure that this will become part of the official Spielberg movie soundtrack. David Schwimmer as Chellis Beith, Nieve Campbell as Bethany/Edna, with the rest of the cast as yet undetermined...
UPDATE: May 1st, 2009. Gotta change that.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Crazy Jane, the heroine of Wayne Clifford's forthcoming collection Jane Again, was originally a creation of W. B. Yeats, who based her on a vagrant woman known by the name of Cracked Mary. Clifford gives his own Jane much more elbow room in this collection than Yeats did in his own work -- there's not many more than half-a-dozen Crazy Jane poems in the Yeatsian repertoire. In an interview with press intern Laurie Smith we'll be posting here closer to the book's launch, Clifford recalls first coming across Jane while reading as a teen in his local library. It was in a poem entitled Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop, and it's been lingering with me for many a week since I first read it.
Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'
'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.
'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'
Over at Good Reports, Alex Good has posted a review of Clark Blaise's recent Selected Essays. The entire review can be found here. Here's the first bit:
It's fitting that this new selection of essays by Clark Blaise, edited by John Metcalf and J. R. Struthers, begins and ends with autobiography. Fitting in part because Blaise's fiction has always been transparently anchored in the material of his own life. The titles of the four volumes of his Selected Stories (Southern Stories, Pittsburgh Stories, Montreal Stories, and World Body) both register a personal journey and provide an index to a lifelong fascination with place. But fitting also in that this fascination with biography and geography has always been a feature of his critical as well as creative writings. "Let me start with the autobiographical approach," is how one of his lectures begins. Personal origins will help to "maintain perspective."
They will that, and more. William Carlos Williams has a line in one of his poems about how the pure products of America go crazy. Blaise picks it up a couple of times - readers can expect some repetition of language and anecdote in such a collection - the point being that writers are made as much as born, the pure products of their environment. This doesn't mean that Blaise endorses what used to be known as the "biographical fallacy" (ah, there were such a lot of fallacies back in the day), only that he thinks it vitally important to recognize where writing comes from. A quick look at the table of contents makes the point: "The Border as Fiction," "The International Novel," "American Fiction," "Some Thoughts on Canadian and Australian Fiction," "Notes on the 'Canadian' Short Story." In the first of these we are told that "intense regionalism" is a "national trait of Canadians" as well as "an urgent aspect of my personality." Canadians as a people are "regionally determined." And we aren't the only ones. Within individual appreciations the formative influence of biography and geography is repeatedly stressed. It may be "understandable enough" for V. S. Naipaul to reject the label of "West Indian writer," but still his "Caribbean work is [his] strongest, [in part] because it is closest to his experience of growing up." And here, to take an unhappier example, is how the table is set for a re-appraisal of "one of those famed 'pure products of America'," Jack Kerouac:
An impotent, alcoholic, ruined, middle-aged, mill-town Franco-American living in Lowell, and finally in St. Petersburg with his jealously protective, corrosively ignorant and loudly bigoted mother, or with a wife he alternately loved and hated while trying to divorce, is not a candidate for progressive opinions on race, class, or sexual politics.
To know what kind of cultural milieu Kerouac came out of, and Blaise does, is essential to an understanding the man and his work.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
And if that's all a bit too much involvement for you but you still have a yen for a very insignificant shot at fame, let me know next time you see me. I'll more than likely have my camera, a book, and a strange idea for you to execute.
I live in hope!
But for every writer blog like the ones above, there's one with a dozen posts from 3 years ago, and then an embarrassed sounding apology six months after that. A lot of writers *hate* blogging. Actually, a lot of *humans* hate blogging, but it's always more surprising in the writers, because words are supposed to be their world. But blogging is still work, more or less depending on your endeavour, but still, no matter how much you slave over that brilliant post, a week later people are wondering why you never post anymore. And blogging can seem a wee bit...meglomanical...to some. It really is me me me I I I all the time on these things, and some people who are used to turning the lens outward find that uncomfortable indeed. Others have no problem with it, and shouldn't--Jennifer Weiner is funny enough to keep me reading her blog, even through the posts about babies, reality TV and libraries in Philadelphia, all things I normally don't care about. I love Katherine Nabity's work ethic (she puts word counts in her posts!) and her science and sports trivia.
I also love the way myriad shy writers use the blog form to duck writing about themselves, or their creative work. Fiction writers Kerry Clare and Kate Sutherland flip the page (as it were) and write about their reading experiences, while poet Alex Boyd reviews films and Zach Wells responds to shouts and murmurs from the book world. Other than the insight and quality prose of these blogs, the other joy is that because we read them and keep reading them, we start to get a sense of the bloggers, and to get to know them through their critical work.
Other writers simply run their blogs at lower impact--Stacey May Fowles, Mariko Tamaki and loads of others use their blog to post what they're doing elsewhere, performances, publications and projects. And some writers just post sporadically. Before RSS and Google Reader got so popular, a few month gap between posts would have been the end of most blog's popularity--who would keep on remembering to check in? But thank goodness for such things, because the poet who writes Caravan Girl provides such lovely comments on life, love, food and art that I would hate to miss out. I have loads of blogs on my reader-feed-thingy that haven't seen any action in months, but I'll be ready and eager to read whenever those bloggers come back.
Ah. I may have to accept that they won't, many of them. Blogging can be an unrewarding form--no money, no reviews, little glory other than the joy of seeing comments in the comment box. People get busy, get bored, get dial-up... It's an ephemeral form, blogs, and I guess we should get used to seeing people come and go. But it's not as ephemeral as all that. The best blog ever written by a Canadian writer, in my opinion, was Michael Winter's tour blog for *The Big Why*. That tour's over, the blog hasn't been updated in two years, and I think Mr. Winter has a few other projects to deal with these days, but the posts are still there, and they're still great. Go through the archives, read at random, read'em all--it's virtuoso talent noodling around, and it's great to see.
My blog was a gift to myself for finishing my master's thesis. I knew I would like doing it, and I do. This might make me a meglomaniac, or just not a very good blogger--I have never been able to focus on reviewing, or work status reports, or excerpts, or publicity, or any one thing for too long. I keep skipping around, and the nice thing is, no one minds. The scary thing about blogging is that there are no editors to refuse to publish what turns out to be lousy work, nor proofreaders to save you from embarrassing typos, nor censor to save you from potential libelous claims. But if you get beyond *that* terror, there's also no one to tell you what to do. Readers who didn't spend $20 to buy the book but merely surfed over for 90 seconds of entertainment, are pretty forgiving--or they just surf away in 45 seconds instead. And blogs allow me to share opinions on stuff even if nobody asked me. And though often I'm just chirping away into the void, sometimes my blog helps me connect with people who think what I think, or something entirely different but somehow related. I love that.
Blogs are a friendly form: not commitment-heavy, not structured, but not easy, either. I really wish more writers would blog, but I can't blame'em for being a little wary of this amorphous form.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Friday, March 20, 2009
30 in 30 from Seen Reading on Vimeo.
(Just learned this embed thing. Pretty neat: you can teach a luddite publisher new tricks, at least if they are simple enough.)
Playing hooky today, or will be in an hour and a half, after I write a few cheques, do some last minute cover corrections, and prep the day for others. Kids are on March Break and I've not taken enough time off with them -- though I think we'll be taking a trip down to Florida in a few weeks for a real break -- so we're sliding off to London today to see a friend and visit the children's Science Museum. So I'll leave you with a couple of things (beyond the cool book sculpture pictured above) to keep you busy until I return:
Paris Reviews Interview Archive: www.theparisreview.org/literature.php
Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Booknet Canada, at their recent Toronto Technology Forum on Six Projects that could make publishing better.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
What is the mp3 of the literary world? Belle lettres, he says. Perhaps as well, I would add, short stories. Could their time have finally come?
Here's an excerpt:
I read books, read blogs, I twitter compulsively. I use these different formats for different kinds of experience. I see no contradiction: what I'm getting at here is that the e-reader is being treated as though it is a viable vehicle for long-form writing, in a way that ignores the essential fact that long-form writing and reading is rooted in paper, and book manufacturing.
So, back to the 'iPod for reading' metaphor. Its proponents generally don't dig deeper than 'here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of music'. The implication is that we can hop blithely from that to 'here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of text'. Regardless of stirring promises of e-books containing audio, video, fancy schmancy links and so on, the common understanding - and, indeed, the hope of the publishing industry - remains that this is a digital device for reading long-form texts. But this ignores the effect that iPods - or, more generally, mp3s - are having on how music is distributed. Once sold as albums, whether on LPs or CDs, music is increasingly sold by the micro-unit - a single song. A unit of content typically around 3 or 4 minutes long rather than 60-75 minutes.
It makes economic sense to sell LPs or CDs at a runtime of 60-odd minutes. It makes economic sense to sell books of around 80,000 words. But music for iPods can be sold song by song. So, extrapolating from this to an iPod for reading, what is the written equivalent of a single song? In a word (or 300), belles lettres.
Now: driveway hockey.
David Hickey will be touring the east alongside Jeffery Donaldson -- there's an excellent overview of his work by James Pollock in the current CNQ -- next week. Dates as follows:
Tuesday, March 24th Charlottetown, PEI at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery
Wednesday, March 25th St. John, NB at the Faculty-Staff Club, Ward Chipman Library Building, UNB Saint John
Thursday, March 26th Fredericton, NB UNB Fredericton
Friday, March 27th St. Mary’s University
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
from the Winnipeg Free Press, March 1st. Reviewed by David Williamson
CLARK Blaise was born in Fargo, N.D., to Canadian parents and he's grappled with "being caught between nationalities" throughout his lengthy writing career.
This fine collection combines some of his best work on the topic with engrossing views on fiction-writing and writers.
It is easy to see why Blaise turned to his own life for subject matter. His parents came from wildly different backgrounds, he grew up in 30 different American cities, he studied under famous novelists Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, he married the India-born novelist Bharati Mukherjee, and he established himself as a Canadian writer in Montreal before returning to the U.S., where he eventually became director of the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Blaise's mother came from Wawanesa, graduated from Winnipeg's Wesley College, and taught in Manitoba before moving to Europe. She returned to Canada in 1937 as head decorator at Eaton's Montreal store.
As Blaise explains in these witty and charming essays, she met and married Leo Blais (the e was added later), a former boxer, a runner of booze from Montreal into the U.S. during Prohibition, "a salesman, a violent, aggressive, manipulative man specializing in the arts of spontaneous misrepresentation."
"And he was glamorous; short, dark and handsome. As a travelling salesman, he had women in every town; he drank to excess every night, and hit the road at daybreak every morning."
They moved to North Dakota to try to avoid the Second World War, and Clark was born in 1940. Leo's work, by then as a furniture buyer, took them all over the eastern U.S. until Leo's old ways became impossible for his wife to accept, and they divorced.
Many of these details and their consequences made their way into Clark's fiction. His first book, published in 1972, was a collection of autobiographical short stories called A North American Education.
He became well known as part of the Montreal Story Tellers that included John Metcalf, Hugh Hood, Ray Smith and Raymond Fraser. He drew on his wife for his subsequent books Tribal Justice (1974), Lunar Attractions (1979), Lusts (1983) and Resident Alien (1986).
Blaise, Mukherjee and their two sons left Quebec over the issue of intolerance of immigrants, taking teaching jobs wherever they could find them, often being forced to live apart in separate cities. Blaise's position at the U of Iowa gave some stability, but he was required to travel to other countries all over the world.
In 2000 came "the biggest development of my writing life," publication of Time Lord, the story of Sir Sanford Fleming and the creation of standard time. The success of that book allowed Blaise to settle down -- in New York and San Francisco.
The best of the essays on writing is American Fiction. Given originally as a lecture at Meiji University in Tokyo in 1994, it deals brilliantly with the state of contemporary American fiction at the time, highlighting the work of Malamud, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme.
Despite the editorial efforts of Metcalf and Struthers, many points are repeated in these 18 pieces (Malamud's definition of fiction -- "the dramatization of the multifarious adventures of the human heart" -- appears at least three times). Also, Blaise's book Man and His World was published in 1992, not 1993 as stated on page 218.
Selected Essays is a fine sampling of Blaise's non-fiction, especially for anyone approaching him for the first time. It includes an extensive bibliography of his critical and autobiographical writing with an introduction by Struthers.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Over at Curious Expeditions, a paean to the sorely neglected library. Of course, if my library looked like this one I'd neglect it much less often.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
I hate to be shallow, but I like to see books even when I know they can never be mine to read, even when I know I don't even want to read them. My favourite part of the tour of Parliament is the library, and I still enjoy gazing at the massive book mezzanines of the Thomas Fisher archives even though I never fully understood my borrowing privileges even when I had them.
And of course I'm a fan of Nigel Beale's intrepid bookstore photography, was thrilled with Dani Couture's showcase of shots from This Ain't the Rosedale Library a few weeks back, and with Kerry Clare's shot from Good Egg. But I've never seen photographic tribute to BMV North, a shop to which, on aesthetic and literary and sentimental grounds, I am often drawn. So this weekend I took a few shots while I was there. Sure are pretty. (Another thing I love about that place is that everyone ignored me while I ran around taking pictures, even if it was obvious they were in the frame. People at BMV are serious.)
The back cover will be a send up of such pulp titles as well: stay tuned.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Cynthia Flood's The English Stories is a quiet marvel of a book, set to be released May 1st. A series of linked fictions detailing the story of Amanda Ellis, a young Canadian girl who goes with her parents to England "for a year that stretched into two," and her life at St. Mildred's school, it is a collection which should help to cement Biblioasis's reputation as one of the pre-eminent presses for the short story in Canada -- not that there are many out there vying for such a distinction. Unlike many linked short story collections -- Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women comes to mind -- Flood's suite is not limited to first person narration, but rather offers a range of perspectives, including those of teachers at St. Mildred's, guests at the Green House, a hotel the Ellis family stays at through out their journey, among others. The feel of this collection is much more novelistic than many, as Flood captures a fully realized and inter-connected world. Like Munro's Girls and Women, this as well is a coming of age tale; but its range is also quite a bit more broad than this. The English Stories offers a subtle portrayal of an England cut adrift, unsure of itself as its Empire collapses into the less grand Commonwealth, and of the ensuing tensions which become obvious in the everyday interactions between the English and their colonial brethren. First and foremost this is evinced through language, the subtle -- and occasionally not-so-subtle -- slighting of colonials, and the different ways identities are shaped and communities differentiated by everyday rituals and commonplaces.
John Metcalf, who edited this collection, has said that he think The English Stories ranks as among the Top Ten short fiction collections published in Canada, ever. Regardless, it is a magnificent book, and one that I hope reaches its fair share of readers.
We'll be having Cynthia in to guest-blog in the coming weeks about the origins of this collection. Also working to set up an Ontario tour, likely in June, so stay tuned.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Now at first, in the nineties, most of my colleagues would have been embarrassed to say that this free-for-all disturbed them. They would have dismissed amateur book ratings on the Internet as insignificant. Surely one good review in The Globe and Mail and another one in Quill and Quire and one interview on the CBC were going to be far more influential as advertising than this nonsense from nobodies who can't spell? And we certainly didn't want to be known to be planting reviews from our friends with the crass and ego-driven idea of boosting the ratings, or worse, writing reviews of our own books ourselves. I remember being disgusted by the idea.
This turned out to be embarrassingly naive. It is hard to measure empirically the effect on sales of bookstores' star ratings, but we have all started to have the feeling that the star-ratings – the first thing you see, really, when you look up a book that you are thinking of buying – are actually far more influential than the reviews written by professionals in newspapers. Everyone in the publishing industry now agrees that newspaper reviews are less influential than they have ever been. The amateur reviews are for the most part so idiotic, so ideologically driven or otherwise missing the point, that to receive a low star-rating from them – particularly if one has had excellent reviews from professionals – has started to become offensive and maddening. So, if the star-ratings are so easy to manipulate, then we had better get started manipulating them.
And so now everybody does. You can't post multiple reviews any more (although most of the ones posted for devious purposes before 2005 are still up there, wreaking havoc), and Amazon now requires that you have made a purchase to contribute a review. But there is nothing embarrassing any more about sending out a mass e-mail – to people you know have purchased something at Amazon – asking for help. In fact, marketing consultants suggest that authors launch concerted campaigns to raise their star-ratings on book sites, by sending out review copies of their book to 300 friends and asking that they, in return, post a one-line five-star review on Amazon. You might even send out some sample lines of your glowing review yourself, to make it easier for your friends. Obviously the authors with the greatest resources available to mount such a campaign – such as the ability to hire a PR firm to do it – will be the ones with the most glowing reviews.
For the whole article go here.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
The proofs to Wayne Clifford's wonderful collection Jane Again arrived in the post today, so it seemed a good time to introduce you to her. Yes, as this first poem in the collection indicates, you may have met her before: W. B. Yeats made use of her in a rather self-serving fashion in a handful of poems a few years back. She's given much more elbow room here, and has been given close to a century to stew in her juices, resulting in an irreverent, bawdy, humourous, thoughtful and moving collection, our only poetry title this spring. Jane has agreed to make a few appearances here between now and the time of publication, so do check back.
Crazy Jane Gets Born Again
Yeats drew her old so she’d agree
with what his doubt of age declined
to credit to mortality
the moment body’s left behind.
Her scoffing was his guarantee.
He knew the game whereby skull grinned.
Ask her, then, what she remembers
breath-robbed in that old man’s mind.
Have her count back gyral numbers
ruffling on his pinioned wind.
She’ll cite his vulgate to pretenders
her heart’s pentecosts rescind.
Allow she satisfy your fright;
take her passion yours for free;
tell her she must quench the night
no less than stairs down to the sea.
Chant her porous as the light
shades may write on, that you see.
As you bunk alone down by her,
try, with angel-wrestling might,
to mix some pity with your hunger.
Make your purpose angel’s plight,
that no trite hope be her torture,
no sane, considered love, her flight.
From today's Guardian:
Could literary culture really be breathing its last? Should readers and writers be running for cover? Of course not. But what, then, will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents – the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll – will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It's they who'll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead.
For the whole article go here.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
PS--Megathanks to CanLit's Next Top Models: Scott, Wren, Jamie, Angela, Jane, Megan, David, Jordana, Ananda, Chuck, Michael, Anton and Leo.
THE GATEKEEPERS of Havlock House were snarling and yipping behind the dungeonesque front door, hitting the high notes like tiny aggrieved castratos. Although only Bunion qualified for that role, seeing as Hormone was a grrrrl. Chellis could hear her nails clicking on the foyer's parquet floor as she danced and yapped, her nails painted some trendy canine colour, like Bitch Black.
-- from Terry Griggs's upcoming Thought You Were Dead.
Monday, March 09, 2009
Over at the Anansi website, there's a podcast, taken from a BBC interview, with the wonderful Diane Athill. I've not yet read her Somewhere Towards the End, but her Stet ranks as one of my favourite memoirs. I'll be picking up Athill's latest soon: for now, there's this podcast.
Over at the Vehicule Press website I came across this great photo of the Montreal Storytellers. John Metcalf to the left there. Not sure who's beside him, though Ray Smith is left-centre, and I think that's Ray Fraser beside him. A young Simon Dardick, I'd wager, behind these two, dead centre. Clark Blaise coming up to Fraser's shoulder, with perhaps Tim Struthers behind him, Hugh Hood bringing up the right. That's the best that I can guess.
The Storytellers consisted of Metcalf, Smith, Fraser, Blaise and Hood. If the stars align, we might publish three of them in 2010: Clark Blaise's and John Metcalf's next collections of short fiction, alongside the next installment of Ray Smith's Bottomly Series. Should this happen I think a world tour -- or at least a Canadian one -- will be absolutely necessary, complete with tour shirts. Now: if only we could get The Dead Milkmen back together: then I'd be truly happy.
The Scotiabank Giller Prize (until 2005 just the Giller Prize) marked its 15th birthday last November. Old enough, in other words, for those so inclined to winkle out patterns and themes among the roughly 80 finalists and 16 winners and co-winners selected thus far.
Last year, much was made of the relative newness, output-wise, of the five finalists - three were sophomore novelists, one a rookie to the novel form, the fifth the author of a debut collection of linked short stories. But, asserts Steven Beattie here, plus ça change, plus ç'est la même chose. Review editor for Quill & Quire, Beattie provocatively contends the 2008 Giller jury "reverted to type" by anointing Joseph Boyden's novel Through Black Spruce the champion. The Giller has usually gone to a book that, in Beattie's words, "cleaves to the traditionally accepted CanLit pieties: obsession with geography and our psychic relationship with the land, staunch naturalism and lyrical, poetic prose." For Beattie, the more worthy finalists for last year's $50,000 first prize were Rawi Hage's Cockroach and Mary Swan's The Boys in the Trees. Alas, historical determinism meant neither "stood a chance."
Sunday, March 08, 2009
But then again, according to the Conservatives, we're just whiny artists. The fact that we're also business men and women capable of running a business on a shoestring and punching well above our circulation weight, that we show absolute responsibility and accountability for every dollar we're entrusted with, seems to be ignored. Or, perhaps, this is one of the reasons why government bureaucrats and politicians seem to have such a problem with us: we make them look bad. Very bad. CNQ received approximately 35,000 in government/taxpayer funding in 2008-2009: on this we put out three issues of a critical journal totaling more than 312 pages. We'll have paid more than 12,000 to writers and artists, 15,000 to printers, 1500-2000 to Canada Post, 4500 to typesetters, with the rest of the funding and subscription dues going to basic administration, office supplies and marketing. Not a dollar has gone to the publisher or editorial personnel in the three-plus years Biblioasis has run it. Despite our rather lackluster, at least according to Canadian Heritage standards, circulation numbers, one of these issues became a flash point, according to the Toronto Star, for one of the sharpest literary debates Canada has ever seen, resulting in a national discussion about canon making and the importance of the short story in Canada, as well as international coverage. Journals like CNQ, in terms of financial accountability, responsibility and efficiency, are models other businesses might learn from, especially in these troubled times. A point which should actually result in calls for increased funding, instead of further cuts. If we can do what we do on $35,000, imagine what we might pull off on $50,000, or $75,000.
Yes, yes: I know. Fat chance.
There are other reasons why these cuts and their underlying logic should be cause for grave concern to anyone who cares for art and literature in Canada. The same sort of commercial arguments being used to justify funding cuts to art and literary magazines could be used the next time a cultural program is being evaluated to cut funding to, say, literary presses or art galleries. Why should we fund the likes of Brick Books when so few Canadians care about poetry anyway? Who, outside, of course, of a handful of whiny artists would miss them? And as far as galleries go, how many Canadians really care for abstract or experimental art, derive any benefit from exhibitions of the work of Tony Calzetta or Adele Duck or David Urban or the Painters Eleven? What? Only three hundred people showed up for an exhibit of the work of Richard Gorman? Thaddeus Holownia? Only two hundred people showed up to a book festival in Windsor? Hardly seems worth the investment. Better to earmark such funding to those responsible titans of industry, GM and Chrysler. Now there's real bang for your buck.
When I first learned about these proposed cuts from Scott MacDonald at Q&Q, I did some calling around, and spoke at length to some people at Magazines Canada. I learned, thankfully, that this is not set in stone, that the ministry is aware that the current solution "might not be perfect." That the funding may yet be preserved in some fashion. But it was also stressed that the best way to ensure that this happens is to get in touch with members of parliament and to make the case for sustaining the funding to art and literary magazines. The good thing, this manager at Mags Canada told me, is that us artsies aren't afraid of making a little noise. So I urge anyone who reads this post to make all the noise they can, to make it clear to the government that the proposed changes to Heritage funding are not acceptable. This should be a flashpoint for one of the sharpest cultural debates the country has seen. Because this is not just about arts and literary magazines: it is about how the current government evaluates cultural endeavors and enterprises in the country. The consequences, should they get away with it, may prove much farther reaching than anticipated.