Friday, April 29, 2011
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Cathy Stonehouse's debut fiction collection Something About the Animal arrived from the printer on Monday, and copies will be finding their way to book stores and reviewers across the country over this week and next. It is in the top handful of fiction debuts we've published at the press: real life horror stories imbued with tremendous humour and understanding. One of four short story collections we're publishing this year -- alongside collections by Clark Blaise, Laura Boudreau and Rebecca Rosenblum -- you can test-drive both the title story (Something About the Animal) and read a brief two-page Afterword about it in the just-released new issue of The New Quarterly (Certainly the best literary mag in the land).
i've also just been made aware of the first review of Animal, in the current (May) issue of Quill & Quire. Chelsea Murray writes, in part:
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The Meagre Tarmac
By Clark Blaise
Biblioasis, 165 pages, $19.95
``Sociological anomalies.'' The term appears on the first page of Clark Blaise's new book, used by a Russian-American graduate student to describe a generation of South Asian immigrants in North America, a group marked by its disproportionately high rate of professional success as much as its disinclination to identify itself as a community.
Double-edged as they are, the words would serve well as an alternate title for this unified - if not strictly linked, certainly loosely interwoven - collection of stories. Blaise finds a multitude of ways to show the human implications behind a dry academic designation, and the toll that never quite belonging can take.
Blaise was born in North Dakota to French-Canadian and Anglo-Canadian parents, and has lived and worked in both the United States and Canada. That neither country claims him as its own may partly account for why he's not as widely read as the standard of his work clearly merits: anthologists and canon- compilers never seem quite sure where to slot him.
But it may be that very not-quite-here, not-quite-there perspective that gives Blaise's writing its distinguishing observer's clarity. Pittsburgh Stories and Montreal Stories are indispensable collections set in cities of which Blaise has extensive first-hand knowledge; in The Meagre Tarmac, he takes his flair for character and social chronicle a step farther, in the process achieving a rare feat of cross-cultural empathy.
One of the first things you notice about Blaise's Indo-Americans is that, by any conventional material marker, they are doing very well. The closest thing to a failure among his protagonists is Vivek Waldekar, subject of that earnest graduate student's research, and even he is solidly middle class, with a daughter who's set to become the youngest student ever to attend Stanford. But all is far from well in Vivek's world. His family is in revolt: his wife openly contemptuous, his academically gifted daughter shockingly precocious in other ways too, Vivek himself ridden with guilt over a long-ago sexual dalliance and the memory of the sacrifices his father made for him. Here is one culture transplant that hasn't taken hold.
Most of the subsequent stories feature people whose road has been smoother than Vivek's, the drama in their lives arising less from any sense of looming disaster than from more subtle forms of culture clash and self-definition adjustment. A Hollywood star, a Goan literary editor, an eligibly single banker who seeks an Indian bride despite all his notions of having transcended tradition, an IT magnate thinking of taking his American-gained wealth back to India's needy - these are super-achievers, highly educated, able and willing to articulate all the nuances of the delicate identity dance in which they're engaged, but prone to occasional trip-ups nonetheless. Reassuringly, they're also able to laugh at themselves and how they're seen, as when one man archly remarks, ``It is my experience in the West that Indian men, afraid to press their opinions or exert their presence, are often perceived as soulful.''
Blaise's writing has always been marked by its sharply detailed focus on how place shapes people and vice versa, a strength on especially trenchant display in The Quality of Life. The aforementioned actor recalls his schooling as a child in 1960s Montreal, where ``The purpose of French instruction in the Protestant schools appeared to be inoculation against the local usage.'' Later he reports his parents' comments on their subsequent Canadian experience: ``Toronto was nice, they said, but rather anti-Indian in a crude, working-class, British sort of way - although the absence of French was compensation.'' (Blaise lived in Montreal for several years in the 1960s and '70s, teaching creative writing at Sir George Williams, and later, Concordia University.) Canadian race attitudes as seen through the eyes of Indian immigrants who in turn are seen through the eyes of an American writer with French-Canadian roots and an Indian writer wife (Bharati Mukherjee) - this is a rich stew, and these stories are full of such multi-layered moments.
The Meagre Tarmac might have been rounded out with one or two stories of the less accomplished: hopeful scholarship stars who couldn't cope, dropped out, ended up stranded in dead-end jobs bearing the brunt of their minority status in ways their successful compatriots haven't had to. Such things do happen. But Blaise gets his chosen subjects so right that it's far better to applaud what's there than to regret what isn't. Add the non-showy way he ties things together - scenarios presented from dual points of view, figures disappearing only to pop up, years older, in other stories, characters bumping against each others' lives in surprising ways - and what Blaise has created is a collection greater than the sum of its formidable parts.
Most eras have had their own epic subject. Homer had gods and heroes, and Virgil had empire; Dante had salvation and civil society. Spenser's subject was the British spirit, and Milton's the nature of hierarchy; Wordsworth and Whitman had the growth of the individual mind, Pound had language and myth, and Pratt had westward expansion. Is there an epic subject of the 21st century? What might it be?
The epic subject of the 21st century is obvious: the internet. It's fucking us up. We're doomed. We're blogging furiously to promote ourselves. We're tweeting our thoughts. We can't separate ourselves from how we're seen; we desperately, desperately, want to be loved, but it's at the end of a wand of electrons. We Facebook to breathe, to stay alive. Some of us even think the internet matters, and have invested our futures in it. As for poetry, the internet has told it to go fuck itself. The internet may be the subject, but it'll never be conducive to poetry, though it may be the medium for poetry. Poetry will try the internet on for size. And the internet will do what the internet does. The tweets will ring out, the status updates will sound: poetry is a ghost in the code. The poets won't see dead people, though; they'll see viral cat videos.
I guess our epic subject now is the complete and utter availability of information and images. It takes very little time to hunt down an arcane reference or a picture you barely remember seeing twenty years ago. Everything is there--still an amazing realization for anyone over forty. I'm basically a lyric poet, so I don't feel compelled to tackle this vast, unwieldy topic. Fortunately. How could you ever get it right? Or wrong, for that matter?
My own sense is that, in broad terms, we write about the same epic subjects, era to era: creation, destruction, journeying, change. The particular canvas a writer stretches over one of those armatures will be as much personally as historically determined. So, as you say, Wordsworth had the growth of the individual mind; but Blake, his contemporary and countryman, had the role of the artist in the regeneration of the cosmos. In the 21st century, Norm Sibum has imperial decay, while Eric Ormsby has familial migration. An epic is a cosmos, a whole world, and thus it takes a whole person, marshalled behind it. A writer will write what he/she knows in his/her bones, whether that is a body of myth, or a body of experience.
One thing that interests me is the potential of the lyric sequence as an epic form. Richard Outram thought that the lyric sequence might be a medium particularly well-suited to the literary desiderata of our time. I suspect he was thinking, here, of the ability of the poetic sequence to model, on the level of form, the kind of intense part-whole relationality he saw in the ecological world (that being very much the world of spirit, for him, as well as the world of flesh). In his poetic sequences Hiram and Jenny, Mogul Recollected, and Benedict Abroad, he wrote epics of community, kind, and cosmos, using personae, voice, and (often varying) verse-form — rather than linear narrative — to create the sense of a world entire. Peter Sanger, too, has written lyric sequences that are epic in scope, though piecemeal in form; I'm thinking of the Abatos sequence in his book Aiken Drum, and also of his more recent sequence John Stokes' Horse. Jay Macpherson is an important Canadian predecessor, here; her Welcoming Disaster is an epic in lyric motley, as are some of the shorter sequences within her collection The Boatman.
I'm interested, too, to see which of the older epic poets my contemporaries revive. We have Logue's Iliad, Hughes' Metamorphoses, Heaney's Beowulf. Here in Canada, George Murray has translated bits of Dante, Steven Heighton bits of Dante and Homer. George Johnston translated various Scandinavian sagas. In his book The Stone Canoe, Peter Sanger collaborated with Elizabeth Paul to translate epic tales told by the Mi'kmaq storyteller Susan Barss. It seems to me that this work of translation and adaptation is very much in the spirit of the early epic poets, whose work flowed from inherited verbal tradition. It may be that there are certain things a poet can explore through interpretation of a traditional epic, that he/she cannot explore through his/her "own" words (not least the vexed question of what constitutes his/her "own" words).
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
My hair. As a reminder that my poetic instincts are easily lost; that their loss, if painful to my sense of self is not (or not immediately) fatal; and that, given time, I may grow them back again.
This assertion will call to mind Samson and Delilah, of course -- but the mythological analogy is not, in my case, apt. When I've lost my poetic instincts, it has never been to some vile seducer, but rather to myself. (Perhaps the self is a vile seducer.)
On the other hand, there are times when it seems to me appropriate to cut one's hair, to sacrifice one's poetic instincts: perhaps in love; perhaps in mourning. (And sometimes it is precisely one's poetic instincts that lead one to cut one's hair.)
Ultimately, however, I suspect the literary predecessor I had in mind was not Samson but Rapunzel.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Friday, April 15, 2011
From Alex's post:
I wrote Light Lifting with a lot of different music running through my head. Most of the stories in the book revolve around decisions or moments of change where one set of circumstances gives way to another. There are a lot of transformations in here, some more intense than others, so the songs vary quite a bit between the fast and the slow and the new and the old.
This is a story about two nearly world class distance runners who have to sign over their lives in order to achieve something that almost nobody else really cares about. The intensity of their training isolates them from other people and forces them into places where the normal rules don't apply. When they were kids in high school, for example, they used to race the freight trains through the dark in the rail tunnel from Detroit, under the river, and up to Windsor. I'm going with "If I Should Fall from Grace with God" on this one because one of boys wears a lucky Pogues T-Shirt as part of his superstitious warm-up ritual. I'll follow that with "Lose Yourself" by Eminem because nobody works a rhyme better than he does and because he knows all about the things that get ‘Imported from Detroit.'
"Wonder About Parents"
I guess this is a story about the tough accommodations that come along with any relationship so "Hotel Yorba" by The White Stripes gets the call. More Detroit truth here. Anybody who's seen the real Hotel Yorba knows the shelter it provides isn't deluxe, but it will do until the next day arrives. This is earlier White Stripes, back when Jack and Meg were still together or kind of married and that fits in with the story, too. I'll back it up with "There's an Arc" by Newfoundland's Hey Rosetta!, mostly for the line - "This could be our reward. This could be it." Check out the one-take video for this song: a victory in low-tech film making.
Read the rest of his playlist here.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Assuming the poet is capable, if not accomplished--and most people who publish widely enough for me to come across their work are--I think it depends more on me than on the poet. There are certain things I value in a poem--an idiosyncratic voice, rich diction, close attention to sound--and if those elements are present in a poem, I feel as though I'm in good hands. I'm less interested in extensive philosophizing and experimentation for its own sake, so while I can acknowledge that a poet with those predilections is talented, I may not want to spend as much time with her or his work. Maybe the issue isn't so much one of trust as desire. Yes, there are plenty of "good hands" out there; I just don't want to be in some of them....
To me, as a reader, the feeling of trust is of extreme importance. And because I have a short attention span, trust must be gained quickly.
I find I quickly trust an author who shows control over medium and material.
More importantly, however, I trust an author who trusts me.
But I am an unreliable, invisible stranger. To trust me, the author must must have a high level of self-trust. This self-trust is signalled by: A willingness to surprise. A willingness to mix the serious with the not-so-serious. A willingness to go out on a limn
and risk losing me.
Thus, (to answer the first part of your question last) I know I’m in good hands when I don't feel like I'm being held by the hand.
Trust is fleeting. Most of the time I don't trust myself; I don't trust myself to know what I'm doing when writing, I don't trust myself to know when a poem is finished, I don't trust myself when I want to destroy a poem and completely reenvision it.I don't trust myself when I feel the urge to publish the poem in a magazine. (That urge to publish is an inherently untrustworthy one!) And, when I see the poem in print, I don't start trusting it then, either. I remember an interview I read 15 years ago in Poets and Writers. In it, a poet discussing his recently published book on a railway disaster said that his book consisted mostly of poems published in magazines, and that this was because he didn't trust the unpublished ones. Your question immediately made me think back to this interview, and provoked this question in me: why trust what someone else likes when I don't even fully trust what I like? It's outsourcing trust.
The question of trust is a very difficult one. But, if forced to answer it, I'd say trust the poem, and not the poet. That's an old answer, I know. I'd also say that trust is earned on a poem-by-poem basis. Good poets can hope to have only a few poems in their books... I've lost faith in a poet probably forty times over in any given collection.