Friday, April 29, 2011

Largehearted Boy & the Combat Camera Playlist

Over at Largehearted Boy, A.J. Somerset offers his Combat Camera soundtrack:

In his own words, here is A.J. Somerset's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Combat Camera:

I am always surprised at writers who say they don't listen to music when they write, or won't listen to music with vocals, as they don't want it to influence or distract them. Me, I won't write without music. Songs often express what we can't, or won't, put into words. We allow songs to be unabashedly sentimental in ways we do not allow to ourselves. The music I listen to when I write defines the internal worlds that characters don't get to express.

Lucas Zane had a career as a war photographer, and threw it away. Now he hopes to redeem himself through a documentary on Melissa, a stripper and porn performer looking for a redemption of her own. Combat Camera is a story about violence and its aftermath, about journalism, flim-flam, pornography, loneliness, the lies we convince ourselves to believe just so we can carry on, and the greatest sentimental lie of all, that you can somehow get a do-over on your life. These are some of the songs I had on heavy rotation while I wrote it.

"Nicotina (She's All That)" by Big Sugar (from Brothers & Sisters, Are You Ready?)

A wail on the high register of the harp, and the voice says "light it up." Gordie Johnson's guitar tone is a match meeting gasoline, the guitar riff crunching over a steady drum line, an insistent pulsing beat. The summer this song was released, I blew the factory speakers clear out of my cheap red hatchback. Loud, sexy, and brash, one hundred and twenty-five decibels of unabashed desire. You can hear Melissa dancing, strutting down that spotlit runway, topless. I'm her silver dollar, she's my, my slot machine.

"You're A Big Girl Now" by Bob Dylan (from Blood on the Tracks)

There is a clueless aspect to this song, an air of bewilderment. The singer has know idea what, if anything, he might do to fix things; he just wants it all not to be. And beneath it is resignation: things can't be fixed. Zane looks on Melissa with mixed feelings, a not untypical masculine reaction to the "fallen woman." I know that I can find you in somebody's room, howls Dylan. It's the price I have to pay; you're a big girl all the way.

For the rest of his Book Notes playlist please go here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stephen Henighan on the Future of Books

Over at the Winnipeg Review, Biblioasis author and Translation series Editor Stephen Henighan answers a few questions on the future of books:

Stephen Henighan responded by email early in April to a standard set of five questions that TWR has posed to more than a dozen Canadian writers.

1) We all know that Dan Brown and his ilk can sell product in any form, ebook, pbook or otherwise. But what do you think will be the impact of ebooks on literary publishing in the near term?

The evidence we have so far suggests that as soon as you switch from paper to screen the gap between the star writer and the midlist or literary writer is amplified. Jonathan Franzen may sell 500,000 hardcovers versus the 7,000 or so sold by a well-reviewed midlist US literary writer. In ebook form, though, Franzen will sell 40,000 and the literary writer will sell two or maybe five units. In paper Franzen outsells the midlister by a factor of 70, but in ebook form this writer is outsold by a factor of 10,000 to 20,000 and ceases to have any readership at all.

There are a number of reasons for this. One may be that the ebook readership, overall, is less literarily sophisticated than the print readership. This could be a function of the transitional stage we're going through where techies have been the first to buy electronic reading devices. In that case, the sanguine view would be that it's only growing pains and will work its way out of the system as everyone acquires these devices. I suspect, though, that the problem is deeper than this, and is related to the kind of category-restricted, non-tactile browsing one does on the web, which is far more limiting than the browsing one can do in a good bookstore. It's also quite difficult for smaller presses to publicize ebooks in a way that enables browsers to be drawn to them in cyberspace, so the ebook world becomes like the movie world: if it's not big-budget, you're probably not going to hear about it. If Heather Reisman is correct that by 2016, ebooks will be forty per cent of the market, then one should anticipate a very substantially reduced market for literary fiction, essays and poetry.

2) How will your role as a writer change as a result of the increasing adoption of ebooks and ezines?

I will make less money. I don't live from my writing, but I certainly appreciate--in a spiritual as much as a financial sense--being paid for what I write and publish. The combination of feeble ebook sales for non-star-level writers and artificially depressed e-book prices is very bad news for writers' incomes. There is a widespread misconception that publishers can afford to sell ebooks for $9.95 because they don't have to pay for paper and glue. The truth is that a large part of the $20 cover price of a softcover novel, or the $30+ price of a hardcover is spent on people: acquisition editors, copy-editors, publicists. The publisher gets a very meagre cut on an ebook, and passes on the hardship to the author.

By definition, the ebook emerges in an environment in which print sales for most writers are declining. As a writer, you get shafted from both sides: minimal sales and very low royalties on ebooks, and declining sales in print. In theory, five of my ten books are now available as ebooks, yet only one of them has generated any income. That was the princely sum of $52.00 a year for three years from a library consortium that made the ebook available to several hundred thousand students and professors. Obviously, I would have made more money if only 30 or 40 of those students each year had been obliged to buy the physical book for the courses they were taking. This selling of e-rights to consortia reinforces the free-for-all mentality that raises young readers to assume that "content" is generated without meaningful exertion and can be disseminated without cost. This is extremely evident if you publish articles in online journals, or journals that post their content online. Not only do people link to the article on Twitter or Facebook, which can be flattering, but other online journals feel no compunction about "reprinting" your article in their journals without the slightest thought of any compensation other than posting your website address at the end of the article. In the early days of my career, when my short stories or articles were reprinted, a second cheque was always in the mail; in the online environment, the writer misses out on that second cheque. And on a lot of other cheques, as well!

For the rest of the interview please go here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Something About the Animal

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:

Cathy Stonehouse’s debut collection contains one heartbreaking situation after another: sexual abuse, mental illness, loneliness, and death pervade the book. However, Stonehouse’s spare prose reveals the hidden layers of her vulnerable characters with great precision, making it difficult to turn away.
Despite the sombre material, Stonehouse can be darkly funny. ... Gaynor, the confused kid mourning her mother’s death in “A Special Sound,” repeatedly recites the incorrect words to what she calls the “necklace prayer”: “Hey old Mary, full of grace, the law deals with thee. Blessed art thou, a monk’s woman, and, blessed tart, the Fruit-of-thy-Loom, Jesus.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Montreal Gazette REVIEWS Clark Blaise's The Meagre Tarmac

The first of what I hope will be many reviews of Clark Blaise's new short story collection The Meagre Tarmac appeared today in The Montreal Gazette. I'll have a lot more to say about this collection later -- hopefully later this week -- but for now I'll leave you in Ian McGillis's capable hands:

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.

The Devil's Engine, No. 4

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?

Shane Neilson

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.

David Starkey

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?

Amanda Jernigan

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

Open Book Toronto Interviews Rebecca Rosenblum

Over at OBT, Angela Hibbs interviews Rebecca Rosenblum about writing, Once, and her forthcoming second book The Big Dream:

AH: How was writing and publishing *The Big Dream* different for you than writing and publishing *Once*? Did you feel more confident having one well received book under your belt? More pressure?

RR: Since *The Big Dream* is still a stack of paper on my publisher's desk, I can't fully answer this. The writing process was a bit more focused and faster than for *Once.* I liked it that way—I felt like I lived inside the book a bit more because I was going right from one story to another. Another reason for this is that the stories in this collection are linked and there is even a small overarching narrative to the book--so I had a bit of scaffolding to fall back on when I lost track of what I wanted to do. I also really liked the feeling of working on a book as a book, as opposed to trying to write enough good stories to include. Both experiences are great, but this one was new!

I am certainly very curious as to how *The Big Dream* will be received by the wider world (wider than me, my writing group, my editor and my agent, I mean). I loved having *Once* in the world, and I feel very lucky that it was read by folks who were open to and enjoyed the things I was doing. But you are right, there is a touch of pressure that comes from having such a positive run--how to top it? What if people don't like *Dream,* or just don't like it quite as much? But in the end, it was the book that I needed to write, to move on and grow and challenge myself after *Once*, and I feel a like I became a better writer in doing it. I feel *The Big Dream* is a stronger, more complicated book than *Once.* So there really was never any other option...but I still hope people like it!!

AH: Who are some of your favourite writers?

RR: This is always so hard--whatever I've been reading recently always crowds to the front of my mind when I'm asked "favourite" questions. I read Michael Christie's *The Beggar's Garden* recently, and it was like he sat down and said, "What book would Rebecca like to read?" and then wrote that. Such tender, understated, funny descriptions of people who live on the margins of our perceptions. I felt this way, even more strongly, about Alexander MacLeod's *Light Lifting* last fall.

I love short story classics, of course of course. Munro and Updike, forever. I read novels too--the last great one was maybe Joshua Ferris's *The Unnamed.* I read an incredible collection of Dionne Brand's poetry not too long ago, and I'm halfway through Van Gogh's letters... I read a lot.

For the whole interview, please go here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 3

If you had to pick a body part, and make that body part the storehouse for all of your poetic instincts, which part would you choose and why?

Amanda Jernigan

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

POW! 2011

Check out David Hickey with Lorna Crozier and Steve McOrmond at the Cobourg Poetry Festival!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Largehearted Boy and the Light Lifting Playlist

Over at Largehearted Boy Alexander MacLeod offers up his Light Lifting inspired musical playlist, which has already sent me scrambling for If I Should Fall From Grace and Mule Variations, two of my favourite albums. A good way to end a Friday.

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.

"Miracle Mile"

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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Devil's Engine, No. 2

When reading a poem or a poet for the first time, how do you know when you're in good hands? Or: as readers, how important is the feeling of trust?

David Starkey

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....

Joshua Trotter

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.

Shane Neilson

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.