Monday, June 18, 2007

Gerald Lampert Pics

David Hickey didn't win the Lampert, a runner-up to Steven Price and his Anatomy of Keys. Dave sent me these pics, which I post now, a week later. Congrats go to all. I've read Steven's book now, and it's pretty fine, and I've heard good things about Thran's and Yvonne Blomer's. A talented crop.

David's moving to my neck of the woods soon, to do his doctorate at Western in London. I look forward to having him so close at hand. He's got a hell of a telescope, and I can't think of much better at the moment than a clear sky, a telescope, a country back road and a bottle of wine. Perhaps we'll soon get the chance.

David reading at the League meeting.
David (reading from his fine-looking collection.)

Steven Price, Yvonne Blomer, & Dave

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Travels with Herodotus

When in Toronto last week, the day after Book Expo, I went into Book City. I came out with a couple of kids books -- a pop-up of Sendak characters called Mommy which is really quite brilliant, and a Falconer Olivia at the Opera set-up I couldn't resist -- and Kapuscinski's latest non-fiction offering Travels with Herodotus. So far, it's a fairly wonderful memoir of the early Kapuscinski's travels and education, that I am enjoying immensely. Sure to get a tad more press than we will with I Wrote Stone. A couple of reviews can be found here:

Margaret Atwood reflects on the late Ryszard Kapuscinski's life, work, and his recently translated Travels with Herodotus.,,2098537,00.html
A less favorable review of Kapuscinski's The Travels of Herodotus in the Village Voice says that in Travels, Kapuscinski's once brisk and vigorous style has curdled into something effete and ponderous.,harvey,76944,10.html

So far, I do not find it effete or ponderous. Playful, elegiac, thoughtful, and beautifully translated. A lot on language. The passage I just finished has him in India trying to learn english from a second hand copy of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Anyway, check it out. And keep an eye open for I Wrote Stone in the fall.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A New Canadian Hero Rises

A review in the Toronto Star this Sunday, for Ray Smith's new novel, The Flush of Victory.

Bummo Bottomly is a shamelessly rude, incorrect, drunken boor – long may he romp

There is a generic moment in some films called a "pat-the-dog scene" where the hero performs a gratuitous act of kindness or decency that demonstrates his essential goodness. Patting a dog on the head, or standing up for the weak and the defenceless, or simply espousing some virtuous, progressive cause, encourages us to identify with such a figure. It's a trick that always works, since we like to think ourselves better than we are.

The opposite of a pat-the-dog scene doesn't have a name that I know of, but what it looks like can be seen near the beginning of Montrealer Ray Smith's The Flush of Victory. Major Jack "Bummo" Bottomly of Canadian Air Force Intelligence, drunk as always, is crouching in an alley, trying to shoot the tires out from under a car belonging to some Soviet spies. After a few spectacular failures, including a shot that goes down the street and hits a "fat old broad" in the bum, his mission is accomplished. Alas, a young feminist "hippie broad" has seen what he's up to and belts him with a two-by-four. Turning the tables, he kicks her in the knee and then knocks her out with a blow to the head.
He starts to make his escape from the alley but then, determined to prove that chivalry is not quite dead enough, returns to stick his hand under the unconscious girl's clothes to paw her breasts. He is delighted to find she isn't wearing a bra.

Welcome to 1979, those hard-drinking, bare-knuckled days when men were men, chicks were broads, and "poufter" was a rather faggy British word for a fag. Major Bottomly, our intrepid and verbally dexterous narrator (plus all-around misogynist, racist and homophobic pig), is a middle-aged military bureaucrat stationed in Ottawa – which means he has nothing much to do or even look forward to in life beyond drinking, wanking and thinking up new ways to steal from the government. Then one day, out of the gray, he uncovers what appears to be a joint KGB/CIA operation to hijack one of our airplanes.
The ins-and-outs of the crazy spy story that follows are a bit hard to follow, but not that important anyway. Jack has schemes of his own, and along with his Australian counterpart and long-time drinking buddy, "Bluey" Jones, he is soon having a series of misadventures involving high finance, low nightlife and international intrigue.

The resulting farce is an entertaining and shamelessly obstreperous romp that holds nothing sacred. Stereotypes abound, from the bovine and illiterate secretary at Jack's office to the laboriously affected pair of gay secret agents cruising on Jack's tail. But Bottomly himself is a great Canadian original, more than just a beer-bellied, lecherous clown with piles. At least some of his "crude, boorish, drunken, incompetent colonial" persona is a deliberate disguise, since "you're always better off when the opposition underestimates you." He is also a wonderful storyteller with a flair for the snappy wisecracks and cut-and-thrust ribaldry, which, along with carefully prepared detonations of sheer slapstick, make the book so funny.

What wears thin is not Jack's crudity or loutishness but rather the juvenility of so much of Smith's material. His sense of comedy here is dominated by childish pranks, fart jokes and bathroom humour. There are at least half a dozen scenes that involve some calamitous misuse of the "bog." This is going to the porcelain well a bit too often, even for those with a taste for such stuff.

In general, Smith's literary model, aside from the genre elements, is Wodehouse, both in terms of his arrangement of mounting comic catastrophes as well as in the furiously paced dialogue. With regard to the latter, the "Pommer" influence might also explain the mix of so many British colloquialisms (like "poufter" and "bog") with the less sure handling of some of the North American vernacular. The speech of a young computer nerd, for example, is heavily sprinkled with the ubiquitous (and a bit anachronistic) "like" but it almost always appears in the wrong place. It even shows up at the end of sentences as an interrogative, which has to be the only position in spoken English it simply can't go.

The Flush of Victory is the first in a projected series of Jack Bottomly adventures. If the first instalment is any indication, such a franchise may turn into a test of this nation's tolerance for rude humour. I hope it's a test we pass. After such a spirited launch it would be a shame not to have Jack back for another campaign, looking out for his own best chance and coincidentally standing on guard for thee.

Alex Good's website of book news and reviews is

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Literary Conspiracist Extraordinaire: Zach Wells on the Griffin Prize

I stole this from Zach Wells' blog, as he's not been contributing much these days to Thirsty, damn him. Note: he posted this and ran, off on the rails for 6 days, though even VIA has wireless service these days. Perhaps he'll check in.

Now, if this had been published in Geist, as with Stephen Henighan's most recent missive about the Giller, we could expect hysteria: letters about children suffering from rickets, accusations of racism, jealousy, psychosis. But, hey, maybe we'll get lucky.

Zach talked me down from publishing a collection of his essays last night. I reluctantly gave it up, as I do have several other books of his lined up in 08-09: an anthology of Canadian Sonnets (Jailbreaks), a children's book, and a collection of poems. But he's making me regret it already.

OFF the Rails (with Zach Wells)

Hittin' the Rails

Yep, again, no rest for the Z-man. After this trip, however, I settle down into my regular schedule of 5/6 days on the road and 6 days at home. Can't wait.

So the Griffin Prize is being announced tomorrow, but I won't likely know the official result till Thursday when I get into Winnipeg. Most of the speculation seems to have Don McKay as the winner, but I figured, as soon as I read the jury announcement, never mind the shortlist, that this was Ken Babstock's year to take home the golden lottery ticket. All the instruments agree. Babstock's been a poetry superstar (how's that for an oxymoron) ever since his first book was published in '99--fortunately, he's a poet with ability more or less commensurate with his reputation--but prior to this year had won none of the big prizes. Airstream Land Yacht has so far been shortlisted for the Governor General's Award (of the titles shortlisted, it really should have won, much as I would've liked to see Liz Bachinsky take the prize) and just yesterday it won the Trillium, a prize that seems to have more cachet than other provincial awards, probably because Ontario/Toronto is at the centre of the Canadian book industry, and the Trillium, at $10,000 is more money than any other regional prize. Some might say that his notice for these other awards reduces his chances, but the recent example of Roo Borson suggests that the "spread-it-around" mentality is not as significant as one might assume.

Airstream Land Yacht, although I have mixed feelings about it, is a book worthy of notice and it contains a handful of Babstock's best poems, especially "Palindromic" and "The World's Hub." But that's not why I figured it would win the Griffin. Like I say, it was the announcement of the jury, not reading the book, that led to my prediction. The big problem with these prizes isn't that they always go to unworthy winners--although they often do--but that, even when the winner is a good pick, the decision is too often traceable to nepotistic networks. The Griffin Jury consists of Karen Solie (an old friend of Babstock's), Charles Simic (co-editor of the anthology New British Poetry, published and prefaced by Babstock at House of Anansi, and John Burnside, a contributor to said anthology. McKay is also connected to Solie, through Brick Books, Solie's publisher: McKay is a central member of Brick's editorial board. Priscilla Uppal seems to be the sacrificial lamb of the shortlist. It may or may not be significant that, on a list whose favourites are both pale-skinned fellows, she is neither. Call me a cynic, but what I've read of her poetry makes me doubt she was chosen for literary reasons. Back to Babstock, it has also been pointed out that Babstock is not only published by House of Anansi but is also employed by said press, and that House of Anansi is owned by Scott Griffin, founder of the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. In theory and possibly in fact as well, this should have zero impact on the decision, but added to the mix, it makes the integrity of this prestigious prize pretty easy to doubt, don't it?

I've long had serious reservations about the awards culture that predominates these days. I was recently asked to judge an award. I was tempted to accept, if only to see firsthand what went on. But I was informed by the prize administrators that the entries were pre-screened and that I would read only the ones deemed appropriate by the administrator. I said that I'd only agree if I could read all the books. They said no. So did I. I imagine one form or another of this kind of backroom manipulation occurs in most prizes. (When I wrote a column on the Griffin Prize a few years ago, I asked if I could see a list of titles submitted to the award. The administrator I wrote to accidentally cc'd an email to me intended for another Prize official in which she said, "If we tell him what was submitted, then he'll know what wasn't submitted." And we can't have that, now can we?) The ReLit Award has gone so far, this year, as to keep its jury composition secret, presumably to deflect attention away from political speculation towards the books themselves. But really, all this does is add fuel to the speculative fires and give jurors who want to reward their friends more protection from criticism. Let's face it, these prizes, no matter how scrupulously run, are not objective, so to pretend otherwise is to perpetrate a fraud of sorts.

So, you ask, why do I care at all? Why not just ignore the whole sordid business, take the high road, etc.? It's mostly because, as a reviewer and critic, I try to spark honest, engaged discussion about poetry. These awards are also about shining light on poetry, but it's more of a spotlight than a floodlight, leaving far more obscure than illumined. Whereas criticism should strike a balance between censure and celebration, these glitzy prizes are all good news and marketing (it was clear to me, attending recent BC Book Prizes events, that the sponsors were far more important than the authors). I know several poets who have been nominated for these awards have come out of the process highly disenchanted, feeling more than a little used and abused. The prizes aren't about to go away, however; the more people chip away at their tarnished credibility, the less influence they'll have on what gets taken seriously by the public, media and academies. At least, that's what I like to think...

Q&Q on Biblioasis, the TINY Windsor-based press

Quill & Quire write up Biblioasis's acquisition of Ryszard Kapuscinski's poetry collection. Note the word tiny. Is this smaller than a micro-press, but larger than a bread box? Or smaller than a small press, larger than a micro-press? (What I long for is the current adjective-in-favour: independent. As in: non-conglomerate. Sets up a nice David and Goliath storyline, without the negative associations of tiny, don't you think? Though we don't want to look too closely at how independent most of us tiny to small presses are, now do we? We might have to find another adjective that's not quite so ego-salving.

At least they didn't call Windsor the perineum of Canada, as a certain editor at Bookninja has recently done (he should know, when he comes to Windsor in November, I'll make sure that line is offered up to warm up the crowd. {Perineum? What the !#%*'s a perineum?})

Which would make Sarnia and Toronto what exactly, George?

So ... the Q&Q Omni piece ...

Biblioasis, a tiny press based in Windsor, Ontario, recently scored the North American rights to the first English translation of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s poetry, which will be published this fall. But despite the late Polish journalist and author's international renown, Biblioasis publisher and owner Daniel Wells didn’t have to work hard to get the title. “It came in the mail,” Wells said.

The collection’s Canadian translators, Marek Kubisa and Diana Kuprel, had shopped the book around to a few other publishers, but found none willing to take on the expense of a translation. So she tried Biblioasis after hearing about the press from a colleague.

Biblioasis, meanwhile, published two translated works by Goran Simic last year and was looking to launch an official international translation series. The Kapuscinski collection – which now bears the title I Wrote Stone, changed from the earlier The Things of This Earth – will be released in September.

Although the Canada Council for the Arts funds literary translation, it does so mainly between French and English, for works by Canadian authors. Which means projects like the Kapuscinski title are out of luck. “The fact that Biblioasis picked it up despite that, I thought, was pretty incredible,” Kuprel said.

For his part, Wells said that “[international translation] is very much a direction we’re going to be going in,” because he thinks it could raise Biblioasis’s profile. Wells said he hopes to publish at least one translation per season, and has lined up author Stephen Henighan to serve as series editor. Possible future titles include a novel about the Angolan civil war, written by an African-Portuguese writer named Ondjaki and translated by Henighan; and a German-language novel called Kahn and Engelmann: A Family Saga by Canadian scholar and author Hans Eichner, which will likely be partially funded by a grant from the Austrian government.

After Kuprel offered the Kapuscinski collection to Biblioasis, the publisher formally bought the rights from Kapuscinski’s agent, Marianne Fritsch of the Zurich-based Liepman Literary Agency. Wells said that before Kapuscinski’s death, “he made it very clear this was something he wanted to see translated into English … so the money wasn’t really a concern. Which was good for us!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Regaining a Feeling for Poetry

The Montreal Gazette devoted a page last Saturday to Robyn Sarah and her new book Little Eurekas. Alas, no internet link, and I'm not typing in the whole thing. But here's a taste:

"In a world where academic writings on poetry have drifted deeply into the realm of the theoretical and abstract, becoming completely inaccessible to the common reader, there is something refreshig and poignant in Sarah's "personal response" method. ... This is not traditional literary criticism; it invites us to respond as actively and viscerally to poetry as we do to music or the performing arts. ... Any book that reminds us of the power of poetry to inspire and transform, as Little Eurekas does, should be celebrated."

Robertson Launch Photos

A few photographs of Patricia Robertson at her launch in Whitehorse last week. Sounds like it was a wonderful, well-attended event. Which is as it should be: t' is a wonderful book.