Friday, February 26, 2010

The Week in Brief

Working on grants this week, CNQ's CC Grant, and Biblioais's OAC. Plus final reports, final copy-edits, covers, including the one above, for K. D. Miller's forthcoming Brown Dwarf, which should hit the printer early next week. Hosted Stephen Henighan last night for a Freedom to Read event, worked on promo for Page to Screen meetings next week, met with city officials about Rumrunners promotion. And, tonight, Adele Duck's opening at the Art Gallery of Windsor for a brief reprieve.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Soft Explosions of Life

Jim Bartley reviews Amy Jones' What Boys Like in today's Globe:

There are prose styles that create a convincing world – the minimum expectation from a work of fiction – while offering the bonus pleasure of observing the author's prowess with language. We can gladly accept the show-off factor, provided it enhances the overall experience.

Then there is prose that operates more purely, a quietly expressive vehicle, while the expert word-wrangling remains veiled. The artistry hides itself. Amy Jones excels at the prose of invisible labour. In the best of this debut collection, her writing reads like understanding – as if there's no gap between the words and what they make you perceive. The top 10 of these 15 tales would make a book that is close to perfect.

In A Good Girl, we meet Alex, 32. He’s a waiter and friends with Yousef, 45, his boss. They drink after hours, play music, talk about getting laid, take reckless jaunts out of Halifax Harbour on Yousef's boat. One night, Alex leaves his wallet in a bar, which leads to him spending a rum-soaked night with Leah, 18. Next day, on hearing the news, Yousef grabs Alex’s face between his hands and crows, “You're my fucking hero” – and we instantly see what anchors their friendship. How ordinary this scenario would be if the players were all nondescriptly thirtysomething. Jones loads her exposition with intrigue.

In the first four pages, these three already feel like people you’ve come to know and size up over a boozy weekend at a friend’s cottage. A large part of it is the dialogue. It’s as tight and precise as it can be without being telegraphic. While the characters are sniping and equivocating with their arch, as-if-I-care one-liners, we’re adding up the snippets that reveal inner selves and form the big picture. When Leah says, “I'm going to be a hair model,” it's the capstone on all we’ve been made to guess about her. When Alex says, “Too soon,” it distills the rivalrous camaraderie he shares with Yousef. When the tale ends with a one-word reply – Leah, at a costume party, saying, “Myself” – there’s a delicious moment of suspension before you feel the rush of meanings hit head and heart at the same time.

How to Survive Summer in the City presents a pubescent girl at the mercy of her alcoholic single mother. Again, dialogue leads the way, pulling us expertly into the sad dance of a mother's neglect, her child cast as ongoing babysitter.

One Last Thing melds the death of Kurt Cobain with a runaway teen and her sister’s refusal to chase after her one more time. Through the sister’s voice of desperation, Jones gives herself permission to stray onto the page. “I can't tell this story any more. Not like this.” She tests a more writerly tone: “We searched for you … a journey that was mapped out in the skin cells on the backs of our necks, steps ingrained in the muscular memory of our calves.” The authorial self-reference undermines the stark power of the tale, but the finale, putting us back into events, comes with a gratifying punch.

Miriam Beachwalker offers a seeking adolescent, sick of her carping mom and her own inertia. She will leave Halifax and reinvent herself. The farthest she gets is the beach, where she happens on a gay couple, sunning. Next day, Josh and Paul are back in the same spot. Miriam and Josh discover a rapport, and Miriam, being the needy party, over-invests in it. When the guys necessarily go missing, Miriam is left to write an involuntary love note in the sand, while her autistic little brother hurls himself along the shore with a kite. The piece wonderfully integrates plot, characters and imagery in a parable of inchoate longing.

A few tales feel hastily assembled, ramping up into unlikely dramas or coasting on quirk. Post Mortem inserts a car-crash decapitation in place of subtler violence; The Church of Latter-day Peaches overextends its tone of macabre whimsy.

Dead centre in the book is the quietly riveting, finally heart-battering Twelve Weeks. A young woman, possibly ill, returns to her father’s house after five years away. They don’t speak much. We gradually learn why. In the simplest sense (not to give an iota away), their problem is that they’ve both lived – and as we know, in life there are losses and regrets. Things change. Such easily known truths, but Amy Jones makes you know them like soft explosions at your core.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pickle Me This interviews Amy Jones

I: I was curious to read in your The New Quarterly interview that part of your education in short stories was learning to read them as well as to write them. What did that education entail?

AJ: I think it was just reading a lot of them. One of the first short story books I read was Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love and I read it the way that a lot of people who don’t read short stories would, [thinking] “No! I wanted it to keep going. I wanted to find out what happens next.”

I had to retrain my brain to consume a short story. I think of short stories as more akin to poetry, or like art. A painting, instead of something that goes on and on. You know, I look at that painting on the wall and I take it in for what it is–

I: It was done by an elephant.

AJ: You’re kidding.

I: So maybe it’s not the best example.

AJ: No, but I see it for what it is, I get from it whatever emotion or story I think it’s telling. As opposed to sitting down and watching a movie, or reading a novel. But when I started reading short stories, I thought they would be like novels, but shorter…

So I read [the Gowdy book], and then I read The Broken Record Technique by Lee Henderson. A friend of mine gave it to me when I first started writing short stories and she was like, “You should read this if you want to write short stories.” And I read it, and I really didn’t understand how to read it. And now, it’s one of my favourite short story collections. Same with the Barbara Gowdy one.

I had to learn to slow down, I think. When I read novels, and I’m still guilty of this, I have this really bad habit of jumping to dialogue and racing through descriptions and not really savouring every single word that comes along. But in short stories, every word is so weighted that you have to spend more time with it.

For the rest of the interview please go here.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Rumrunners: Globe & Mail Bestseller

Title Author Publisher
The Ascent of Money Niall Ferguson Penguin USA
The Lost City of Z David Grann Knopf Doubleday
The Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank Random House
Start-up Nation Saul Singer McClelland & Stewart
The Diary of Anne Frank Anne Frank Random House
Bones of the Hills Conn Iggulden HarperCollins
A People's History of the United States Howard Zinn HarperCollins
Citizens of London Lynne Olson Doubleday Canada
The Meaning of Matthew Judy Shepard Penguin USA
The Rumrunners Marty Gervais Biblioasis

Friday, February 12, 2010 on Ray Smith's Century

Over at his, August Bourre reviews Ray Smith's Century. It's brought me a great deal of happiness to see even a small group of readers discover this work over the last year, and my thanks to Kerry, once again, for giving me the chance to push it a bit more over at Pickle Me This (but .... Hair Hat!!!! Really???)

August has no doubts: Century is "one of the finest, most beautiful books I have ever read, regardless of the author's nationality. I don't feel the need to qualify this as a great "Canadian" book. It's just a spectacular fucking book. I will be shocked if I read anything better this year.

Amen to that. So go pick up a fucking copy, will ya?

If you need to read more to make up your mind, August's review can be read here.

And, to make it easier, I'll ship anyone who wants a copy for $20 flat, including shipping. Just email me at, or send your crisp twenty to Biblioasis / PO Box 92 / Emeryville, Ont. / N0R 1C0.

Harvard Crimson Reviews Moya's Snakes

In 2003, New Directions, a publishing company historically known for its stake in experimental literature, printed the first English translation of the late Roberto Bolanõ’s work—the slim volume “By Night in Chile”—during a time when contemporary Latin American authors were struggling to gain a foothold in the American market. Circulating among critics well-versed in the literary tradition of Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, the translation introduced readers to a then-unknown Latin America, one neither swathed in magic realism nor saturated with family saga, but instead, mired—violently, bitterly, and evocatively—in political repression. The novella would mark the bloody delivery of visceral realism into the American consciousness, which soon became infatuated with the macabre elements that rage so relentlessly through Bolanõ’s work and that of his contemporary and cohort, Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya. This fascination, wrote Moya in a critical piece he penned for Argentine newspaper “La Nacion,” has evolved dangerously throughout the years: the portrayal of Bolanõ as a non-conformist, subversive heroin addict serves only to still a masturbatory urge to redefine Latin American literature and culture in an American English vernacular.

Moya’s own work, of which “Senselessness,” “The She-Devil in the Mirror,” and most recently, “Dance with Snakes” have been translated from Spanish, is evidence of the author’s acute comprehension of society’s penchant for forcing what is foreign into a controllable compartment. “Dance with Snakes,” originally published in 1996 and now translated by Lee Paula Springer, is a four-part frenzy, a detailed depiction of the chaotic hell one man and four murderous snakes engender. Superficially a fantastical page-turner, the novel is at its core an uncompromising interrogation of authority, a gruesome satire whose pivot turns on exposing the consequences that result from a manipulated identity.

Eduardo Sosa, the antihero of “Dance with Snakes,” is an unemployed and restless sociologist who becomes obsessed with a beat-up yellow Chevrolet that parks on the street across from his apartment. Sosa follows its owner—the wretched Jacinto Bustillo—for one day before he unceremoniously kills the man and discovers his secret: Bustillo owned a group of talking snakes, a tetramer of assassins Sosa takes to fondly calling his “ladies.” The snakes, who Sosa names Beti, Loli, Valentina, and Carmela, are the impetus for his transformation into Bustillo; terrified when he first realizes their presence, he quickly grasps: “If I could manage to keep myself under control... concentrate enough so they’d feel my vibrations and understand that I was the new Don Jacinto, I’d be saved.” They are also his accomplices, sustenance, and lovers as he goes on an impulsive rampage through the city, taking incidental revenge on those who wronged Bustillo and killing tens of other hapless individuals—who coincidentally are deeply involved in the politics of the city—along the way.

Moya makes a subtle gesture when he succeeds the narrator’s first-hand account with a more distanced, third-person exposé of the media and police’s scramble to curb the “snake invasion.” As Sosa relays the details of his crimes, his calm demeanor permeates his victims’ screams; “The din outside was tremendous. The ladies were in a kind of orgy, biting everything in sight... In just a few seconds the street had been destroyed. There were dozens of bodies lying twisted on the ground between the vendors’ stalls, as though there’d been a machine gun attack or an earthquake. I thought we shouldn’t call too much attention to ourselves. I opened the car door and yelled for them to come back. They came in excited and out of breath.” Sosa’s only exhibition of sincere sorrow comes when Valentina’s head is shot off during one confrontation. It is surprisingly easy to sympathize with the narrator; his offhand treatment of death renders the murders meaningless, and his intimate loneliness—as a man who relies on snakes for warmth—is more pitiful than disturbing. By comparison, the version of the crimes given by the media and the police seems like a bumbling, confused mess of tenuous hypotheses. Their powerlessness to keep up with Sosa is made more evident when the reader, already knowledgeable about the murders that have been committed, has to wade through the police department’s political conspiracy theories.

“Dance with Snakes” suggests the extent of Moya’s potential, but does not realize it fully. While “Senselessness,” published eight years later, was a horrific testimony of genocide, “Dance with Snakes” is an unsettling account of a narrator disillusioned with his own race. The novel gives a glimpse of the incredible emotional devastation that makes “Senselessness” such a disconcerting story of a man losing grip with his humanity, and it hints at Moya’s humor, with its fast-paced murder scheme that evokes the satirical comedy of Voltaire’s “Candide.” But more than a revelation of how developed Moya’s work would become, “Dance with Snakes” is a provocative take on what happens when a man on the fringes of society meets those entrenched in it.

For when the terror and destruction conclude, Sosa must reenter society—devastated and disoriented—alone once more. “I stumbled along, talking to myself, gesturing at the night, babbling. I called out to Loli. My love, my beautiful girl, come with me. I called out to Beti and Carmela, my princesses who had loved me so. Don’t leave me, my darlings, what will I do without you, where have you gone?” Yet despite the explosive display of power that sets Sosa fleeing from his snakes, Moya suggests that the man who has caused so much chaos will simply blend back into the world around him. Punished for being intractable, Sosa nevertheless manages to spite authority and replace a façade that fools those who tried to tame him. “Dance with Snakes” is a pointed critique of societal repression, whose value lies in its ability to infringe upon the prude sensitivities of human emotion and to make a renegade sympathetic, if not a hero.

—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be reached at

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

At the Crossroads: A Short Story by Ondjaki

It's been nearly two years since we published Ondjaki's first novel in English. I expect, at some point, we'll be working with him again. I have just found a short story by him, translated by Stephen Henighan, Biblioasis Translation Series editor and the translator of Comrades. To read Ondjaki's At the Crossroads please go here.

At the Crossroads: A Short Story by

Zach Wells: Two Interviews

I don't know why I didn't see these the first time around, but if they are new to me perhaps they will be new to you as well.

Back in November, Maisonneuve did an interview with Zach Wells about the publication of Track & Trace.

Alessandro Porco: Can you talk a little about the new book’s title and central concerns?

Zach Wells: I think I first came up with the title after reading a passage in a story by Ivan Klíma (tr. Ewald Osers) in his book My First Loves. That passage is now the epigraph of the book. But I might have had the title in mind already, then read the passage, not sure. The title is kind of a key. As with the title of Unsettled, it doesn’t refer to a specific phrase or poem, but is something that links the poems, that accounts for these particular pieces being in this particular book. The poems, which I wrote over a period of ten or eleven years—during which time I was moving all over the place, Halifax, PEI, Iqaluit, Montreal, Resolute Bay, Vancouver—are mostly concerned with place and displacement, roots and rootlessness, flux and fixity. I don’t tend to think of them in such terms—I’m generally more focused on how a given poem is working word to word, line to line, than in how it relates to other poems or thematic concerns—but when it came time to put them together, those seemed to be the main things all of these poems had in common. They’re more or less the same preoccupations as the poems in Unsettled, I guess, but differently focused.

AP: Why differently?

ZW: I’d say that, generally, Unsettled is a more civic book and T&T a more lyric book. I’d also say that T&T is a more refined book. Unsettled had over 80 poems in it, many of them quite rough and raw, some of which I’d disown now if I could. I held on to the manuscript of T&T for quite a while because I wanted to have a book in which I was quite confident that each poem justified its own existence. It only has 34 poems in it and I don’t think I’ll feel as negative about any of them in five years as I do about some of the poems in Unsettled. T&T also reflects my growing interest in metrics and stanzaic structures. There are some rhymed and metred poems in Unsettled, but those things are foregrounded more in T&T. Another difference is that Unsettled, being focused on the eastern Arctic, is more geographically unified than T&T, in which the poems take place on all three coasts, points in between and even in Orkney, Scotland.

For the rest of the interview please go here.

Last month Jonathan Ball did an interview with Zach on his blog:

3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?

Lots of things are wrong with the publishing industry, but the thing that’s bugging me most these days is the union-type rules related to Canada Council block grant disbursements, whereby really enterprising, energetic and talented junior publishers receive smaller grants than sluggish, attenuated, mediocre relics–no matter what the jury recommends. These grants should be going to the houses making the most significant contributions–now–to publishing, not to those whose main claims to fame are their backlist and the fact of their survival. But then, survival’s what Canadian literature’s all about, ain’t it.

I think there are a lot of really dynamic small presses producing worthwhile books and in many cases making those books into beautiful objects. I think a few players on the small press scene have really raised the bar over the last decade, which has spurred some presses to up their game and has provided inspiration and a positive example to upstart publishers. Good design is so important, I think. What’s the point of making something few people are going to buy if you make it cheap and ugly? There are enough cheap and ugly things in the world. So kudos to presses like Gaspereau, Biblioasis, Coach House and the Porcupine’s Quill, to name a few, for giving words durable and stylish homes.

For the rest of that one please visit 8-Ball

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Raucous Music: A Review of Sibum's Pangborn Defence

Poetry Quebec reviews Norm Sibum's Pangborn:

Norm Sibum. The Pangborn Defence. Emeryville. Biblioasis Books. 2008. ISBN: 978-897231-52-4. $17.95 (paper)

The image on the cover is of a mason jar labeled “Poems.” Inside the jar is a menacing photo of Black Hawk helicopters swooping low over a meadow and a small herd of sheep. The photo is repeated twice, as a full page at the front and back of the book. We’re in metaphoric country for sure, with plenty of low-flying politics and plenty of room for speculation. Are the helicopters about to massacre the oblivious sheep? Are we the sheep? Are we the Black Hawks swooping down? Is this an image of contemporary life – terror and violence mingled with hum-drum docility?

Norm Sibum’s The Pangborn Defence is a series of poems addressed to various people or entities with whom the speaker argues, reminisces, commiserates, muses, and otherwise engages in spirited discourse. This semi-epistolary form comes out of a long tradition made fresh in Sibum’s hands by his contemporary diction and topics, and by the undeniable energy, intelligence, and frankness of the poems. The book is a meditative rant, full of fire and play yanked up short by dead-seriousness.

For the rest of the review, please go here.

Monday, February 01, 2010

CNQ 78 is at the Printer

CNQ 78 is at the printer. A special issue guest edited by David Hickey on the poetry of John Smith, it brings contributions from Hickey, Zach Wells, Ross Leckie and Smith himself, among others, alongside an excellent essay by David Mason, an interview with Norm Sibum, a short story by Terence Young and a piece on theatre in Canada by Jane Wells. Books reviewed include A. F. Moritz's The Sentinel, Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, David Adams Richards' God Is, John Terpstra's Skin Boat, Adam Getty's Reconciliation, and much else besides.

This is also the last issue in the current format. Issue 79 will unveil a completely new look courtesy of Seth. There will be new features as well, and a wider range and focus. There will also be something special in each issue for subscribers not available on the newsstand: finely printed collectibles, including bookmarks, broadsides, chip and chapbooks, prints and other ephemera, produced by some of the best printers and publishers in the country, including GreenBoathouse Press, Gaspereau, Biblioasis and others. Stay tuned for further information.

The Telegraph-Journal reviews Meniscus

Meniscus is a journey through the mind, poetry its means of travel.

From descriptions of a stormy, painful childhood and mental illness to reflections on love, New Brunswick-born physician and poet Shane Neilson delivers strong images and lines exploring much with quick, deft phrasing and choice diction.

Four groups of poems feature a strong narrative line throughout, abundant in intimate and revealing language. Neilson opens the collection with a poem called Recovery. He then uses the first grouping of poems, which focuses on the violence of a father against his family, as a starting point to access the evolution from mental to emotional states.

Following a narrative arc, we glimpse the frightening as well as the emotionally epiphanic. In The Beaten-Down Elegies we witness the terrible pain of violence where there should be love. Using metaphors drawn from the land and labour, with allusions to religion and drinking, much attention is paid to hands, to work, to the hard business of making a living. The speaker tells us, "I try to look like an accountant / at his ledger, but look instead on a fixed // post: totemic, obscure. In the end there is fear."

In the second section, Manic Statement, we see a dissolving self, an identity fragmented. An interior world at risk: "Your fortune is to collide, / collapse and wake up // to wreckage. Sanity / is the worst injury, tomorrow // the wound."

In the third grouping, Seized, there is physical fragmentation. Exploring seizures, physical and emotional, seems to be the business of this collection. Meniscus is never more visceral than in this section, with its "electrocuted songs" and its "sound like a thousand cannons." We follow the speaker's off-balance balcony fall from ambulance to hospital, from seizure and delirium to the aftermath of "the dream procedure."

And, finally, the fourth section, titled Love Life, knits the experience of pain into something foreign and shared, engaging the senses in another kind of upheaval. Poems that follow the various states of delusion, or fear, are juxtaposed against sensual poems of love, physical and emotional.

Meniscus is a collection about the deep-down difficulties of life expressed in language that knows where it's going. These poems are rife with sound and shot through with images that stop and grab your attention. A physician's sense of diagnostic diction and a poet's sense of arresting image makes a forceful combination.

Heather Craig is a poet and writer based in Grand Bay-Westfield.

Robyn Sarah Spotlighted

Poetry Quebec is currently spotlighting Robyn Sarah over at their website with an interview.

Poetry Quebec: Are you a native Quebecer? If not, where are you originally from? Why did you come to Quebec?

Robyn Sarah: I was born in NYC but that was because my father was doing graduate studies at Columbia at the time. I am Canadian by parentage (both parents Canadian) and have lived in Montreal since the age of four. My mother’s parents came to Montreal in the 1920s, escaping the devastation and economic distress of post-war Poland.

PQ: When and how did you encounter your 1st Quebec poem?

RS: Am I supposed to remember? I don’t usually ask poems to show me their passports when I encounter them.

PQ: When and how did you first become interested in poetry?

RS: I began reading and writing poetry as a young child, and was confirmed in both habits by my early teens. I have written an essay on this subject. It is called “I to my perils: How I Fell for Poetry”, and was first published in The New Quarterly (commissioned to kick off its “Falling in Love with Poetry” series.) The essay is reprinted in my book of essays, Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry.

PQ: What is your working definition of a poem?

RS: Still working on it.

PQ: Do you have a writing ritual? If so, provide details.

RS: Not really. It’s a nice idea. I wish I did.

PQ: What is your approach to writing of poems: inspiration driven, structural, social, thematic, other?

RS: For me, poems usually begin with a phrase I like the sound of. I call these “tinder words”. They come to me from nowhere—sometimes they occur as part of a letter I’m writing or a journal entry, or in conversation; sometimes they just come into my head and I jot them down. Poems germinate from them, sometimes within days, sometimes not until months or years later. I rarely know what a poem is going to be “about” when I start playing around with one of these phrases. I guess this means my poetry is ear-driven, though I am not a “sound poet.”

For the rest of the interview please go here.