Friday, January 30, 2009

Laura Huzzy on Carson's Stacks

By Laura Huzzy
The line at the box office made it look like it’d sell out. It was strange to see such a well-attended poetry reading, not that I’d never seen one before. Just ten months prior, also at NYU’s Skirball Center (which sounds like a stadium, but with its 877 seats is only a stadium in poetry reading proportions), I saw a packed performance of String Talks, a reading of Carson’s Short Talks accompanied by dancers. One of the dancers unraveled and rewound a skein of red string, stretching it about the stage, using bricks or Carson, herself, as anchors. I was late and only caught the last ten minutes, but I found that I really enjoyed going to a poetry reading where there was something else to look at. I left wanting more.

Stacks was a collaboration between Carson, who read new work; Jonah Bokaer, who choreographed; and Peter Cole, whose adaptive sculpture consisted of a wall of cardboard boxes on the stage. While Carson read, the dancers rearranged the sculpture, toppling, relocating and restacking its elements. Even Carson’s unconventional podium, a shorter stack of boxes, was not exempt from the kinetic meddling to which the rest of the sculpture was subject. Carson, serene in her role as Reader, followed her podium across the stage and back several times. Otherwise unaffected by the theatrical setting, her performance was conspicuously conventional. Her voice, steady, sober, soothing, probably wouldn’t have sounded differently in a coffee shop or conference room. She did, however, seem to have dressed for the event. With her hair pulled back, reading glasses at the end of her nose, and stark white button-down + oversized blazer, her look fell somewhere between groom and librarian. I was curious to see how she would top the red cowboy boots she wore for String Talks and was not disappointed. The dancers’ relationships with the sculpture varied from boxes as dance partners to boxes as objects of offense that dancers would sometimes slap or kick across the stage. Boxes smacking the stage sometimes made Carson’s words inaudible. It brought to mind Mairéad Byrne’s Some Differences Between Poetry and Stand-up: “Stand-ups know what a mike is; stand-ups come onstage and grab that mother; stand-ups pace back & forth with that mike, then at the end of their act they fire it down or whoosh it in the air and fire it down: that’s what Chris Rock does: he fires it down.” That’s what the dancers did. They fired those boxes down, demanding your attention but at the same time echoing the words or movement in the poem. What a welcomed distraction.

I have never seen Anne Carson read without dancers, but I’ve seen enough poetry readings, in general, to know that I am likely to get distracted no matter how interesting, thought provoking, etc. the poetry might be. Carson is not Rock. Poetry is not stand-up, but an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to poetry performance such as this one adds a theatrical and engaging quality uncommon to most readings I’ve attended. All the better that I should be distracted from thoughts of what I’m having for dinner after or how long I’ll be waiting for the train by art augmenting art.

Bracko = bracket + Sappho, Carson explained before the second performance began. In this reading of Carson’s translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, two dancers, each armed with about 10 feet of white rope, performed beside Carson and three other readers. Reading the brackets—used by Carson in her translation to indicate missing or destroyed pieces of the papyrus on which many of Sappho’s songs were preserved—was the sole task of one reader, while the others read the surviving fragments. Sappho’s lyrics were read somewhat quickly and often in unison, while the interruptive “Bracket… bracket. Bracket” bombarded the audience with indicators of textual absence. Relief from this barrage came in a different form of absence—silence. The two or three instances of silence—which represented larger absences of text—were lengthy. I recall being actively silent, conscious of any move or sound I might make—in effect an audience participant. Each silence was long enough for me to move beyond that self-consciousness and notice that all 700+ of us were sitting there still and quiet as possible. From all the way up in the balcony I could hear the dancers breathing.

Laura Huzzy
grew up off exit 9 of the NJ Turnpike. At her 8th grade graduation she won an award for her original poetry in the form of a $100 US savings bond. Thirteen years later, the bond is still only worth $80.66. In approx. 8 years she plans to cash it in for the full amount and buy a Weezer CD she wanted when she was 14. While she waits, she is living in Brooklyn and pursuing opportunities for payment (savings bonds no longer accepted) in exchange for legal and appropriate services. She can proofread, transcribe, catalog, serve customers, walk your windows and wash your dog. Who knows the extent of her capabilities? To test these limits you may contact her here.

Photo from Closer to Home: The Author and The Author Portrait by Terence Byrnes, Vehicule, 2008. A powerful collection in which Byrnes reinvents the notion of author portrait and offers up some of the best of Montreal writers.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Last Day of Betty Nkomo?

So what makes the following, a favorite multi-media poem by Heavy Industries, work as a poem? When I play this for my students it seems very clear. The lines are simple, they move forward in a natural progression. They evoke. They repeat. Build a scene, a small narrative. They are simple statements: Yes it is. I will lift my head today. I will look up, and that last, haunting repetition. Last year I saw several screens of work from these people at the New Museum in the Lower East Side however, and they failed, in that context at least, to compel me to watch.

There are dozens of other pieces here--what is so moving about Betty?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Speaking of Everywhere you look there you are

Ah, the joys of Facebook. This picture appeared on my wall yesterday because Mr. Bowering was tagged in it. Turns out the source was his nephew who likes to play with Photofunia, a program that uses Face recognition software to place pictures in scenes such as the one above.

This seems a good a place as any to include the following list of essays that should never be written. Apologies if you feel left out. Leave a comment and we'll try to come up with one for you.

I Know You Aren't, But I Am! Or, Tactics of Exclusion in the Avant-Garde

Overwrought: Twenty-Seven Poets Who Take Themselves Way Too Seriously

Group Hug: Anglo-Quebec Poets Offer Lessons On Conflict Resolution

We Are The World: Six White Male Poets Discuss the "New Diversity"

My Oulipo Failures, or Why the Avant-Garde Will Suffer: Tracing Roots of Bitterness in Mainstream Reviews

The Making Of The Canadian Canon, or Tracing The Rise of Fundamentalist Language In Canadian Poetry

How Green Is My Verse: How Eco-Poetry, After Decades of Perceived Ineffectiveness, Has Subtly Altered The Brain Waves of Migratory Birds

Tongue In Cheek: Erotics of Humor in Lesbian Poetry

No You Can't: Inter-generational Discussions In Verse

and a few that miraculously showed up in my inbox (thanks Vanessa):

Community Ain't Nothin' but A Proper Name

You Run Like A Girl: How the Avant-Garde Can Stop Seeping Subjectivity Once and For All

Make It Now, or New & Improved: Where the Avant Elite Meet the American Bourgeoisie

I Meant To Say That: a Lacanian Riposte to the Flarfian Kumquat'

And the topper, also from Vanessa, We are Duchampians.

With or without apostrophe?

--Sorry all, I know they are cheap and easy, but I couldn't resist. They just keep coming. Maybe it was getting a bit too serious around here. Remember, if it bends it's funny, if it breaks, not so funny. Speaking of funny? Two poems from Jennifer L. Knox, a poet who tends to walk the line.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

belladonna offers a year of props

Invitation to subscribe for limited edition Belladonna Elders Series.

Dear Friends,

This year marks the tenth year of the Belladonna Series and to mark we are Celebrating Elders and publishing 8 perfect bound books--one a month! The Elders Series is guest curated. Each book, printed as one time limited editions, is beautifully designed and slightly square (6x7). Each contains the work of the two or three people who read the night the book is released. The books are conversations between writers who are in conversation. In December Bob Glück published two chapters from an upcoming novel in progress, About Ed, and Sarah Schulman published a new play called MERCY.In November, Leslie Scalapino published a new NOH play, A Pear: Actions are Erased, and E. Tracy Grinnell published work from her newest work Helen: A Fugue. And, just last week, Tisa Bryant published [The Curator] and Chris Kraus published Catt: Her Killer.

Our next book in this series will be #4: A Tribute to Emma Bee Bernstein: edited by Emma Bee Bernstein and featuring an introduction by Johanna Drucker, photographs and an essay by Emma Bee Bernstein, an interview with Marjorie Perloff, and artwork and an interview with Susan Bee. Future editions include #5: Lyn Hejinian, Etel Adnan, and Jen Scappettone; #6: Gail Scott, M. NorbeSe Philip and Kate Eichhorn; #7: Jayne Cortez, Anne Waldman and Cara Benson; and #8: Tina Darragh, Diane Ward and Jane Sprague. All of these editions contain some sort of conversation between the writers and artists, engagements on experimental form, gossip, and insights about the writer/artist/thinker in the world.

We're writing to ask you to subscribe to the series-- it costs $100.00. For subscribers, we ship the books free of charge, as they come out. We are only selling up to 150 subscriptions! And, the subscriptions are how we are paying for the series. Go to for more information on ordering.

Yours truly,
Rachel, Erica, Emily, HR, Danielle,...

P.S. Like many arts organizations, we are losing some foundational funding. Please consider helping us out by passing this information along to folks you know who may like to subscribe or by contributing directly to Belladonna Series.

Belladonna Books | 925 Bergen Street, Suite 405 | Brooklyn, NY 11238 |

Sunday, January 25, 2009

How Poems Work

It was a small, compact mirror

But it was enough. He took it everywhere he went, so snug in his pocket it made a small, pleasant shape in the well sewn suit. For those rare moments he did not see himself reflected back adequately he was always prepared. I am here, he might say, here I am.


Questions for the author:

Q: First of all, why is this a poem? It looks like a chunk of prose to me. What's the difference?

A: I call it a poem.

Q: And why not prose?

A: I could just as easily call it prose, today it's poetry.

Q: Are you serious?

A: Yes, and no. I think it's a poem in the sense that it's operating on the level of metaphor, it is using imagery to evoke something, the language is slightly condensed--though perhaps not as much as I would like in a poem, or even a prose poem versus a short/short fiction. The argument for categories I find a bit dull however, which makes me misbehave. My apologies.

Q: While I find the mood of the poem affecting, it's also a bit dark. There is a sense of foreboding.

A: You're right, it is all of those things.

Q: I am confused by the poem. It seems to be taking place in another world, far away from the one I inhabit at the moment. Can you tell me why that is? Where it is?

A: Well, the poem is in English. It is on a blog. That is already in another world, or an in-between world. It was created in my mind, which was, at the time, in several places including a certain spring day in the English Countryside, Berlin, April 30, 1945, a small restaurant near Haverford College, 2006, my apartment in Brooklyn, 2004, and Montreal, January 2008.

Q: No wonder I am confused. I see no evidence of any of those places in the poem, which really doesn't give specific clues. Am I missing something?

A: You may well be. Currently I am missing several things. Some of which I have just mentioned, some I can't mention here, or won't. The beautiful thing about missing things however, is that while you are longing for one thing, you open up space for other things to appear.

Q: Do you think it's fair to not be in a specific place in a poem? How do you expect readers to react to such nonsense?

A: No, I don't think it's fair. And I expect them to react as they wish to react. Poems are not made to love or understand necessarily, or only, they can also frustrate, compel, sadden and so on. Still, I think the poem is quite specific actually. It takes several moments, having occurred in different times and places, organizing them around a central image. In this case the small compact mirror.

Q: Can you tell me where the poem came from exactly? How did it occur?'

A: As I just said, from the collision of ideas around that image.

Q: So, can you walk me through the thought process leading up to this poem?

A: Do you really want to know?

Q: Yes, why shouldn't I know?

A: If I tell you where the poem comes from it erases the nuances of the original which I left up to you to fill out.

Q: Perhaps, but I am interested in knowing how it "fills out" for you.

A: Okay. Well, as I said, it was born of several moments that collided in my head very sharply, and which I felt compelled to explicate by way of words in order on a page. The moment evoked feeling, and don't people like to quote Wordsworth and argue poetry is an overflowing of such? Well it is, and as Wordsworth goes on to say, it is an overflow of feeling given much thought. So to wrestle the thought and feeling into some shape. To transform it from the original. The image at the core was Hitler's gun. I had dinner once with Lee Miller's son and he told me the story of Lee Miller having acquired Hitler's pants (among other things) from his apartment in Berlin. You know she famously arrived there shortly after he and Eva Braun had vacated it. He told me of the small dent in the pocket of Hitler's pants, made especially for him, with many special features including the secret gun pocket. He said you could still see the outline of the gun itself, how it lay against his body all those years. He said something about gun powder too, perhaps one could still smell it in the air, and he said it would be, and perhaps it is now on display at Farley Farm, which you can visit.

I wondered if he could also smell evil. I thought of Hannah Arendt's writing on the banality of evil and connected that with lesser forms of meanness in the world, which made me ache a little. I thought of Lee Miller, whom I admire tremendously, having such items in her possession all of her life. I wondered if there was any getting away from such heaviness. One could simply list those heavy items. Objects themselves tell stories. I also remembered Miller's photographs of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the photograph of her in Hitler's bathtub. I mourned the fact that she never photographed again after the Second World War. I wondered if she was ever able to see the world though a clean lens after such images were burned in her mind. I thought of how terrible it is that we take our ideas of things everywhere with us and attempt to order the world to align with what we want to see, and then how some of us do this consciously, others unconsciously, and how difficult becoming conscious can be.

I think Hitler also had a mirror, I'm fairly certain Penrose said something about that. But no matter, by now my mind had moved on to ways in which we see ourselves reflected back at us. I had been thinking that in some way nature poetry can seem like a man standing in a field with a mirror, so I thought of replacing the gun with a mirror. There are a few other strands too, but I think I've revealed more than enough. In any case, all of these ideas exploded in my mind. I started with the title. Then described the use of the object trying to keep it as simple, as matter of fact, as I could.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Virginia Woolf.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

It was a small, compact mirror

But it was enough. He took it everywhere he went, so snug in his pocket it made a small, pleasant shape in the well sewn suit. For those rare moments he did not see himself reflected back adequately he was always prepared. I am here, he might say, here I am.

Colbert on poetry

If you're in Canada and you want to see Colbert discussing poetry with Elizabeth Alexander you can find it here. It's nice to see Alexander do well in this context. Particularly after all the international poetry talons descended on her poem so quickly. It wasn't an amazing poem. Her delivery was, as Silliman points out, emblematic of a kind of poetry that can be painful to witness. But is it possible to write a rocking occasional poem? The worst poem I ever wrote was on commission. Poems on demand are difficult; no other inaugural poem has risen above its momentary use as far as I know.

So, here's to metaphors of mountains, and to more mixing of medias.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What poetry can learn from Obama

I have been blogging for several years now. I have been reading other blogs, and despite my real discomfort with commenting, I have forced myself to do so on other blogs: BookNinja, That Shakespearian Rag, and CanCult here in Canada, Harriet, the massive blog of the Poetry Foundation, in the US. Without doing an official tally of all my comments, I would bet that many of them are in defense of "other poetries," other voices, other approaches to art, to thinking, to discussing issues in general. That has been what has driven me in any case. That and an insistence on a female voice in a largely male conversation a/ on Poetry Foundation and b/ publicly in the poetry world. I'm not saying my posts have been great, I'm sure they haven't: to comment is to risk tonal misreading, to over and/or under state, to react hotly, and so on. I'm simply clarifying my intention.

One thing I've noticed about the blog world though, is the sameness of voices in it. I always hope for opening up conversations and hearing from new people, but it seems to come back to the same people again and again. Perhaps the format is simply fraught? The other thing I've noticed is the tone of the comments. It's often quite hostile and/or indignant, and likely some of my replies have fallen prey to this as well, but again, not always inviting. Comments are sometimes wrapped in a gesture of satire or humour, but the tone is often unstable leaving readers with a sense of unease, and certainly making it difficult to jump into the discussion for fear of being scolded. That happens. There is often a sense of rallying too. One poet makes a statement and fairly predictably his--and usually it is a he--his posse gathers around him, in support of his opinion, often calling for more of the same! It's a little like watching a school yard brawl in which the bully has only one intention: clear the sandbox of the offending opinion. Sound like a place you want to be? You want poetry to be?

Sometimes actual discussions occur, but not often enough. I can't think of any memorable or favorable ones to include as evidence, sadly, though perhaps someone out there will (there was the avant lyric discussion of later December now that I think of it, and the quietly insistent diplomacy of Reginald Sheperd, greatly missed.). But the point of all this isn't really to critique but to ask what we are doing here? What do we want from this format? Is it serving us? Why do we bother reading and/or commenting? These are some of the questions I have been mulling over for some months now. Take a look at what is described as fresh air over at Poetry Foundation, for example. This post and comments come after months and months of back and forth about the avant garde vs. lyric. What do people mean when they say "a breath of fresh air"? I always think of that as adding something new to otherwise droll notes, not Someone speaking my language, thank god.

And though I have been wondering what the use of these discussions is, that exchange really clarified for me the stuckness of so many poetry conversations. After all these weeks, and months, and posts we still seem to arguing why lyric is better than avant garde, or vice versa. One might ask are those posting and replying over at Harriet truly interested in the poetry at the core of these disputes, or are they simply defending their position and view of the poetry world?

All of this has clarified something for me though, and for that I'm thankful. I am, as I said in my response, not interested in more of the same swing and defend mode of discussing poetry. Nor am I interested in continued debates about this poetry versus that poetry. Why is there a versus? I just don't accept that premise. And if I have in any way helped to create that divide, my apologies. I don't want to entrench that thinking in any way. And because I won't be going back and commenting on Harriet any time soon I want to be very clear about the fact that my silence isn't cowering. Not by a long shot. It's simply me deciding that I want a different kind of conversation. And if I don't find that some place else, I'll make my own conversation.

For the moment that is here, on this blog I suppose, though I am also questioning whether or not blogging is even useful. I don't simply want to make my own soapbox. But as I was reminded while listening to Obama yesterday, one can walk away from conversations that don't seem productive. One can move on from the voices that don't make one feel as though they are moving forward in postive ways. It isn't that one needs to be or hear positive all the time, it's that one needs at the core of a given exchange, a respect and a sense of being heard, even if what one is saying isn't what one wants or thinks they need to hear. One can make the conversations one wants.

So I'm going back to that until I figure out what next. There are many poets on both sides of the border with books that aren't being reviewed or discussed. There are so many more voices we never seem to hear from. Here's a short list in no particular order, of the poets I would love to hear from, or more from, and about, or more about, here or other places:

M. Nourbese Philip, Dennis Lee, David O'Meara, Don Coles, Kevin Connolly, Karen Solie, Ken Babstock, Sonnet L'Abbe, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Rachel Levitsky, Joan Retallack, Bernadette Myer, CA Conrad, Tim Bowling, Steven Price, Marcella Durand, Carol Mirakove, Shawna Lemay, Mary Dalton, Tim Lilburn, and some new poets with first and second books I would like to see introduced and discussed, Gabe Fried, Alessandro Porco, Asher Ghaffer, Dotty Lasky, Gillian Sze, Angela Carr, Sachiko Murakami, Kyle Buckley, Stan Apps, Jason Camlot, Chrisopher Patton, Julie Sheehan, Daisy Fried, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Christie, Rob Winger, Dawn Lundy Martin, Evie Shockley...and I'll add more to this list as the days wear on. Not to mention the discussion of conceptual poetry, sound poetry, visual poetry, nature poetry, contemporary syllabic poetry, poetry with meter...not from a defensive position but because really, I would like to hear people interact with this work and open it up for new audiences. So more about Heavy Industries, and what about these guys who sent me an incredible CD last week, or this upstart press by some Concordia students who are out there making books?

And then can we move around the world, and back through time? I would love to read different poets discussing The Prelude, or Keats, or Hölderlin, or Rilke, Sappho, Catullus, engaging, as Caroline Bergvall does, with Chaucer, and as K Silem Mohammad is doing, with Shakespeare, discuss recent translations of Virgil, and Homer, and on and on and on and on and on....okay, I am getting a little excited here, but you get my meaning, right? We can simply move forward. Or not.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

All in a day: two letters from 25 November, 1938

To Carl Van Vechten
[postmark: 25 November 1938]
5 rue Christine

Dearest Papa Woojums,

I have not been writing to you lately because Basket died and we like Rose in the story just cried and cried and cried. 1 We are a little better now but it is still pretty bad, and now we do not know quite what to do. The Vet who liked Basket too says we should have another which will never be Basket but some consolidation and it should be as much like him as possible, Daniel-Rops says so too, Pablo [Picasso] says not, he says it would be a torment, just imagine he said if I should die and you went out and got another Pablo it would be alright but it would not be the same, so far we have done nothing but just miss him, little Pepe tries to console us he is very sweet but it isn't the same. Well I do wish Donald Evans might have known, and I did write you about the Boudoir Companion, it must have been one of my most illegible moments but I did tell you, 2 it was the early spring they asked me to contribute and they seem sincerely pleased, Gerald Berners has been over this week, and we have been very busy, English art show at the autumn salon 3 and vin d'honneur and all sorts of things and everybody seems to like the Child's story, I have sold it to Scott, Bennett [Cerf] could not seem to see it, 4 I am afraid Bennett is getting solemn, he is just and sweet and kind but I think he is beginning to believe in the importance of being earnest, and alas, I seem to see its importance less rather than more, had a funny encounter with the real Ernest Hemingway and we loved each other for an hour obstructing traffic on the Faubourg Saint Honoré, he was funny really funny, and there is a cinema project, a real one this time and everybody is busy and we love you all the time dear papa Woojums, 5

Mama & Baby Woojums 6

-- nts --

Note : 1 Rose in Stein's The World Is Round.
Note : 2 Stein had not written Van Vechten about her contribution to The Boudoir Companion.
Note : 3 Sir Francis Rose together with Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper were the English artists exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne, Paris.
Note : 4 Cerf wrote to Stein, 23 October 1938 (YCAL), that he could not see the book as a juvenile work; he thought it would confuse children and many of their parents as well.
Note : 5 Stein had not had word from Ivan Kahn or his sister Lillian Ehrman since 1936 about their efforts to interest a Hollywood studio in her work. Similarly the efforts of Harry Dunham (see Stein to Van Vechten, [25 February 1936], note 1) were not realized. Dunham had last written Stein on 14 February 1938 (YCAL) but had not mentioned the film projects. This may refer to Stein's statement "Francis Rose wants to use it [The World Is Round] as a film" (Stein to Van Vechten [15 November 1938]).
Note : 6 Both signatures are by Stein.

3469: To Ethel Smyth
52 Tavistock Square [W.C.1]
Friday [25 November 1938]

A bitter, black cold day, and to tell the truth I was feeling miserable. I was walking down Regent Street, thinking how can I face Leonard, who sent me out to buy myself suspenders, since my stockings came down in the Square; and the horror of shops, especially intimate underwear shops, holds me so fast that I cannot go in. But this grave weakness seemed in the gloom, Ethel, in the spare brown failing November light, still unpricked by the lamps and stars, so profound in my soul, that...well I hadn't a bone to throw to a dog, or a Bo to say to a goose; when suddenly from a bye street there marched out, ahead of me, you yourself. You were wearing a spongebag suit, and a grey felt hat. You were striding along at first I thought with another woman. So I followed. I did not like to interrupt. And then I thought, well old Ethel wouldn't mind if I did break in: And old Ethel would put the fear of God in me and the courage of a Calvary Regiment. And I should buy suspenders. So overcome with love and reverence for Ethel, and sure that she would solve all my problems, I dashed after you. And oh God it wasn't you! No, only a stranger. A mild elderly woman.

The sad true story is scribbled down in all humility. What did I do next? Took a bus home; and here I sit over the fire, cursing the ghost. Not you. But why wasn't it you? Or did you send a spirit to Regent Street to hearten me to buy suspenders; about 4 this afternoon?

And did you get Sido [Colette] safe?
And have you ever read Chaucer?


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jonathan Ball on Reviewing, Round 2

I really only demand three things of reviews, and feel that my demands are modest. Which is why I am so dispirited by the reviews I read.

Firstly, I think a review should actually describe the book. It is unclear from most reviews whether the author has actually read the book or not, the reviews are so lacking in real information. A cursory description is often given, so cursory that it may as well be excised, which then gives way to the reviewer's opinion. But I must say I care much less about a reviewer's opinion than I care about learning of new books.

Secondly, since I suppose we MUST hear the reviewer's opinion at some point, I want an opinion that is supported. I am sick of the vomit that passes for opinions in reviewing. I want insight and arguments. Books are serious things. They should be taken seriously. A review should, at the bare minimum, display that the reviewer has read and considered the book with an active mind. Not simply scanned its cover and contents and pronounced some judgement based solely on the "emotional journey" (or lack thereof) that the reviewer then took.

Thirdly, a book should be approached on its own terms. Reviewers consistently fail to rise to the challenge of the books they read. They deride non-realist novels for a lack of verisimilitude and they deride realist novels as depressing. Reviewers tend to display an utter and consistent ignorance of the breadth and depth of modern fiction and seem unaware that their own values are not universal.

You're right to point out that I am making perhaps-hyperbolic claims about "dying literary values," but my complaint is not that the reviewer's values are misguided, but rather that he seems unaware of these values and appears, to me, to be unconsciously reproducing them --- and furthermore, the unconscious reproduction of these values seems to me to be the sole purpose of this review, which offers neither an adequate description of the book nor even any half-supported opinion.

I just want to add that I think Geist are being good sports for printing this letter. You can find the original post here. I would like to add that I think Geist is one of the finest publications in Canada, and yes, as Jonathan points out, good sports about the letter.

Random thoughts, further to reviews and book sections

So what are we looking for in reviews? Perhaps I am one of the few who believes that reviews are an opportunity to entice readers. Maybe pedagogical concerns don't have a place in reviews? Perhaps people do want things torn apart in public. Perhaps reviews are only written from one writer to another writer. If the latter is true then our world is even smaller and more circular than I feared. Some of the emails and comments that arose from Jonathan Ball's critique of reviewing reveal a conflict in terms of what people expect. Some people think there is too little critical analysis, some people think reviewers are too easy, too positive. Some people bemoan reviewers who simply describe. Then there is that annoying reviewer who doesn't bother reviewing at all and if you cut away all of the quotes used from the original text, and the lines taken from the catalog copy there is probably one line of "original" reviewer text.

I wonder. And as I've said before, I do think it would be interesting to do a study of the language of reviewing. I'm sure it would be illuminating, and useful. There was a young woman, I think at Princeton, who did a study of the poems included in the New Yorker over a long stretch of time and she found they had startling similarities in form as well as tone, and content. It was a very useful paper, but not something I am interested in spending the time doing--reading through reviews for example, and studying the rhetorical strategies of them.

But perhaps my question is not the right one for the moment. Perhaps the actual language of reviewing isn't pressing, perhaps it is the publication of them, for I am still reeling from the loss of the Globe and Mail book section. I think it's a terrible sign, and an error. No matter what we get online, a country without a national paper that acknowledges the fundamental act of reading as essential and worthy of investment, worries me. And fair or not, for one who has for so long mourned the lack of Canadian presence online, even if they replicated the books section fully online, I would still think it's a mistake. Why? Because we can't just let everything get sucked up into the rather tenuous world of the internet. We need to make use of the net, yes, but it can't replace everything. I think that right up there with rebuilding infrastructure as a means of moving us through and out of this global economic slump, we need to embrace the idea that the internet should be a tool for our use, not a means of further decimating our already shaky bit of social and cultural infrastructures.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

parc la fontaine, outer path, frozen pond

The walking, and skating, continues, ice worms and all. The latter a nostril feature of these arctic temperatures. The description is not mine, but it is an accurate sensation of those first few breaths without one's mouth and nose covered. Ice crystals form on the lashes too, and on stray hairs that stiffen around ones neck and cheek. Still, to my surprise, I find the cold invigorating, refreshing.

Two hours of Bach last night at Place des Arts. The Mass in B Minor, which my companion suggested was actually a very good argument for believing in God, and order in the universe. To me it's more of an argument for believing in the artistic process. Bach never heard the mass performed, he did not anticipate it being performed in its entirety--over two hours--but he imagined all of these pieces together, created them independently over his lifetime. Various ways of praising bundled together, voices, strings, horns. Art must on some level, be about that process, questioning and investigating, that much I do believe. Creating something so big one can't, in one's own lifetime, fill it out. Not that one doesn't keep the audience in mind, but how and when? I suppose that's what we negotiate.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dear Geist: Jonathan Ball takes up the Question of Reviewing

Dear Geist

I am writing to you in response to Michael Hayward's review of Michael Winter's novel The Architects Are Here. I have not read Winter's book, and do not know Winter or his work. However, I feel that this review is typical of the poor quality of book reviewing in Canadian letters. What I proffer, then, is a review of this review.

The original review contains 10 sentences. I will comment briefly on
each of the sentences in order:

1. The opening sentence states that, in this most recent novel, "Michael Winter revisits his fictional alter ego Gabriel English" and notes the other books in which English has appeared. The effect of this paragraph is to shunt attention away from the novel and towards its author, an intellectually bankrupt move, yet one still common in
this, the 21st century.

2. The second sentence informs us of an obvious fact, that recurring
characters exist in fiction.

3. The third sentence gives us examples of this type of recurring character, information that has nothing to do with Winter's novel and,again, is meant to prove an obvious and uncontested point.

4. The fourth sentence (four of ten, remember) finally reveals
something about the novel, basic plot information.

5. The fifth sentence makes general claims as to the novel's genre. We are halfway through this review, and nothing of interest concerning Winter's novel has been written.

6. The sixth sentence finally gets around to making a value judgement on the quality of the book's writing. However, this is a rather unsubstantial judgement: the book contains some "fine writing" but no examples are given. It had Hayward "anxiously turning pages . . . a perfect illustration of how a story can compel its readers," but is this was "fine writing" does? This judgement draws its strength from an unexamined assumption in Canada that readability and narrative speed or suspense are literary values.

7. The seventh sentence returns to focus on the author and reiterates a claim made elsewhere that English is based on Winter himself, another testament to the enduring yet incomprehensible fascination of North America for its "true stories" (even fiction must be "true" at its secret heart if it is to be of interest to the Canadian reader).

8. The eighth sentence claims, in essence, that a writer cannot simply reproduce his journals to deservedly gain the attention and admiration of the reading public, but must work the writing over. Again, this is beside the point and has nothing to do with the novel as it stands.

Although it may be true that this novel is based on Winter's journals, the words of the book must be taken as written, and cannot be justified by their relation to some supposedly "true" reality. On one hand this is Hayward's point, but on the other hand Hayward is reproducing the assumption that reality trumps fiction, and so fiction
must be worked over with a steady and sure hand if it is to approach the level of reality, an unthinking subscription to the defunct values of literary realism.

9. The ninth sentence is a blanket value judgement against the novel's overabundance of "clutter," in this instance seeming to indicate excessive description, although there is no actual quotation to support the complaint.

10. The tenth sentence extends the complaint in the ninth, claiming that "extraneous detail" and "minor characters" should "have been pared away to better reveal the story at the core." This is typical of Canadian reviewing, a blind subservience to plot (under the guise of the more "literary" term "story") and an undervaluation of actual
literary qualities, an unconscious lack of appreciation for what fiction is and what it can do.

Again, I have not read Winter's book. I will give Hayward the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is correct in his value judgements. I point out, however, that only three of these ten sentences has anything of interest to say about the novel, and these claims are unsupported as written.

I don't mean to pick on Hayward in this instance. And I am certainly not suggesting that the review is poorly written or otherwise incompetent. I am just making a sad observation that this is what is expected of reviewers, that Hayward has in fact written an excellent review according to the standards of this nation, that this is what reviewing in Canada has become: a debased form of criticism that exists simply to unconsciously reproduce ideological claims as life-support for dying literary values.


Jonathan Ball
*Reprinted with permission from the author

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Canadian Journals

Thinking about Canadian literary journals. Partly this is because I have undergraduate classes and I want to send them off to find the hottest new fiction and poetry, which means I want to know what they will find. But I am also trying to figure out what's going on in Canadian fiction (the revolution is apparently not being discussed). Where is new Canadian fiction appearing? Who is supporting the next generation? Do comment if there is somewhere you look to find exciting fiction in Canada. Otherwise I'll go through the publications and eventually hit them all. The following list is a beginning; it's arbitrary, unscientific, and largely concerns poetry. There is a poll to the right if you care to take part. More to come.

Arc Literary Journal out of Ottawa has a new poetry editor. Rob Winger takes up the position, not over from Anita Lahey, as originally stated. Lahey is still editor. The journal is not one I have ever quite felt connected to--but Ottawa is one of the few Canadian cities of which I have no sense of the literary scene or connection to it. In any case, I appreciate the ongoing "How Poems Work" features online which I didn't know about until Rob Winger pointed it out this fall. My sense is that this journal favors formal poetry.

West Coast Line gets more and more interesting, and is a current favorite. Recent issues have included a fabulous (if unjustly skewed in terms of gender) issue on Vancouver photography titled "Unfinished Business," a special issue on Roy Miki, "Active Geographies," a special issue on the struggles of west coast women edited by Jo-ann Lee and Rita Wong. This is a journal that prints poetry, photography, and critical writing that blurs boundaries between all of the above. Editor Glen Lowry.

Event is one of several west coast journals that seem to be flexing some literary muscle, more traditional in tone and editorial choices than WCL it does feature "Notes on writing," first person accounts from a different writer each issue. Editor Rick Maddocks, poetry editor Elizabeth Bachinsky, and fiction editor Christine Dewar.

The Capilano Review, which should be on the list to the right and I suspect is making an appearance in "other," is, like West Coast Line, publishing a more complex poetic. Recent issues include a special Sharon Thesen issue, and a Capilano College issue. I think it's safe to say that TCR is coming into its own. Editors: Jenny Penberthy and Sachiko Murakami.

Grain Magazine has the Short Grain contest which has been very popular over the years, and has in some way, been a great encourager of the prose poem in Canada. I've heard people complain that there is little editorial vision over at Grain because it is a journal that changes editors regularly. It has always seemed to me a "young" journal, and that's not a bad thing. It's good to have a journal that takes risks. In any case, the poet Sylvia Legris has taken over as editor which might spell a new incarnation.

The New Quarterly is another journal that I know little about. Recently we saw the Salon Refuses there, a response to the new Penguin Anthology of short fiction in Canada. I'm in the process of reading through that anthology and I have to say, so far so bad. I am beginning to see why people were so frustrated with this publication. As for TNQ itself, I'm still working through old issues and have yet to formulate any clear opinion. Editor Kim Jernigan.

dandelion, out of the University of Calgary, is a feisty little publication with no web presence for me to link to. You'll have to trust me on that. Editor Michael Roberson.

It's common these days to whine about Atwood's Survival thesis, but doesn't the question of nature, landscape and our relationship to it just get more and more important, confusing and complicated? The Malahat Review (out of Victoria) is launching its Green Issue this week--wish I could be there. Readings by Jan Zwicky, Tim Lilburn, Patricia Young, Jay Ruzesky, Carol Matthews and John Barton. Most people would describe the Malahat as being on the conservative end of the literary journal spectrum, which may be true, but they are one of the most consistent journals in Canada, and one of the few to feature well written reviews. I don't always love everything I read here, but I usually think it's good. Editor John Barton.

Brock has a journal (who knew?) and they have a new Green Issue, all of it availabe as pdfs online which is very nice, though I am also looking forward to the physical issue. (Note to editors and publishers, they aren't the same thing, and in many cases, people want both...) Do check out Kristine Thoreson's series of photographs titled "Imaging the Urban Park." This is a humanities journal, very intriguing set of essays though.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Mountain, Some Feathers, Strong Looking and Swoops

Of course they're trouble...if you google "woodpecker" you'll find lots of references with exclamation marks that read something like "woodpeckers are attacking my house!" or "how to stop woodpeckers from attacking your house." In one of my Calgary residences they woke me in the morning, hanging from the thin slits of aluminum around the window, and from the eaves, pecking. I believe the character above is a Downy Woodpecker, common in these parts, and apparently quite annoying. Friday's walk, yet another version of the "walk one hour" from my place on the plateau and see where you get, led me up the mountain. Following a small path off the main path I had to stop first to hear the trees. I had forgotten how noisy trees are. They seem so still from our usual human vantage point--which is to say from a moving vehicle, or bicycle, or sidewalk. But they are never still. I once lived in a small cabin on Vancouver Island, on ten acres of land, largely, and densely treed with some firs so big it took two of us to wrap our arms around. All night one heard them rubbing and reaching out and up over head.

Mont Royal is very different. The trees are mostly small, thin and now bare, many of them replanted after the ice storm of a decade or so. Deciduous, they were all moving in different directions, crackling and wheezing like the old men who gather around the punching bag at the Y mid afternoon. It wasn't that windy on the mountain, but it was cold, which seems to breed a different kind of noise. Imagine walking on Styrofoam. Now imagine doing that in a freezer. So, to hear you have to stop. Try to balance yourself in the drifts to really listen.
The second time I stopped it was because I was forced to. This guy above flew in my face. Quite literally, a flash of feathers blinded me. This followed by a furious attempt to land on my shoulder. I thought it was a rare moment and so took a shot over my shoulder, with my ridiculous little Fuji digital, but no, he wasn't going anywhere, he clung to the tree for a moment and then he was back at me, attempting to land on my arm, scuttling down the length of Gortex and back up. This followed by a another quick flight to the tree, and, as you can see, some furious pecking and moments of still, hard, indignant staring.

One wonders, one wonders in these moments who is in charge of the exchange. What are the terms? What did the woodpecker want? Was I on his turf (clearly), was I food (possibly). I was thinking about this when swoop, three chickadees descended, again, closer than I've ever had a chickadee fly, and cheerful as they usually are, flashing me their bellies, snapping from branch to branch like elastic bands it was still a little disconcerting so many at once. Then a nuthatch, high in a bare birch at first, but then swoop, swoop, the upside down zips. I moved a little at this point, down a smaller path and into a stand of deciduous, and as I did, so did my entourage, the nuthatch at one point hanging directly over my head. Evidence below, only the tail feathers to show for it.
What was that all about? Surrounded I was, entirely, in a little, thickly treed grove, by birds all flying far too close for comfort. Birds do that, I know, I've had my share of such encounters. I once got a round of "ohs" from the Central Park Birders when the Long Eared Owl we had been silently watching wake and go through its daily ablutions suddenly took flight (a full ten minutes earlier than the night before!) and literally skimmed the hair on my head with its claws/talons before it swooped over the Bow Bridge and disappeared into the Ramble. There had originally been 5 owls huddled on a low pine branch, but several weeks later we were down to 1. That was the last time I saw an Owl. It was magnificent.

But I am deeply skeptical about the reportage of such encounters. The specialness of the reporter--in this case myself--in the center of the poem's world. I am also worried about the use of animals in literature just as I worry about the Polar Bears and Beavers, the Marmots and Iguanas, the parade of animals appearing in all manner of advertising, staring out at us from the floating nether worlds they are often photographed in, as if they had no firm ground to stand on as they ply us with products, services, offers of exotic, distant lands. I consider the deer showing up in Mary Oliver's poems. I consider Don McKay's Chickadee Encounters, and report on Ravens in Vis-a-Vis, I think of Lilburn lying down in the long, waves of Saskatchewan, and imagine Jan Zwicky somewhere thinking about this. Oddly enough I don't imagine Zwicky "in nature." No, I imagine Anne Carson in a frozen expanse, fuming as she walks, much easier than I imagine Zwicky with mud on her boots. But I digress. What I'm wondering is how to get at what this moment means to us without getting sentimental? What is the ethical way to deal with these encounters? What are we trying to represent? One part of me thinks that human sight is deadly: if we have seen something, it's over.

Friday it was cold in Montreal. Not as cold as it can get. This was a fleece-down-vest-under-gortex-wrapped-in-wool-and-more-fleece-on-top kind of day as opposed to a down-vest-parka-every-inch-wrapped sort of day. Still, it was the kind of cold that makes the snow seem a bit like sawdust from the finest sandpaper, and the sky so clear it's hard to imagine it won't at any minute, crack. I did think, momentarily, that the trees were shivering, trying to stay warm.
I need a new camera. The nuthatch is only about 10 feet from me in the photograph above, but he's a blur. Definately need something a little less like a gadget that tumbled out of a gumball machine, which is what I have now. That is if I want to continue to provide "evidence" of such interactions. If I want to pass them on here.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Sarah Dowling reads Erin Moure


The inevitable proposition survived as content
After the fins were eaten or laid down, the tablecloth gently


& our knees beneath that

was a serenity a

a vocabulary or doubt

A smooth haze westerly scudded ---
How do you know
To say here


or ---

Palimpsest a settled Rome vernacular
Pulling its luscious cord her grandest soutane fell

an immense cloth addressed with tender stitching
that later looked “like chives”

we rolled over onto it
this every girl must sate or do
this every girl must astonish or tonality


trigger a

lip, sheen, mar, glossalial, glea

Otto imbroglio
a silence wept here it was so tentativeø
or femur gaze

Thus “I” became a transitive being
transition appealed me & I wandered thusly

or femur gaze a lamp above my hair does shine
would that its treble named me

would that its field a pair ensure

apparitional motion ---

To repeat a word so much infests a coil or troll
a mete or fender
a groat or inner fey
a flick or tremble
hone east tea

where I touched yr shoulder spoke into the bone

A ship rose there
We steered by it

Faient pleasure named us

ø "beautiful"

Inside yr arm synecdoche

“were” heard as “wear”

We were alone there almost speaking

one syllable did inure or disobey

addendum data clarity


A scent of ---
let you decide if absence’ reconnaissance
Again I must say “tentative”ø

There is has been a lure

Can I say this too or is it added slowly
a confection

abeyant synonym agreement hologr

meu lar meu lar

Event establish
mediodia mi amor

--- protect us

Let others shift their weapons sleeping
(an English sentenc

Fain would ever we inure

ø "beautiful"

“Gust” appears in Erin Mouré’s A Frame of the Book, published by Anansi in 1999. Of all of her poems, it sticks with me most persistently. There is something very intimate about the poem, and it’s easy to get lost in its images, the knees beneath the billowing tablecloth, the place “where I touched yr shoulder.” But “Gust” is also filled with hesitation. It uses footnotes to toggle back and forth between the options “tentative” and “beautiful,” and the word “or” appears fourteen times, which is very striking, given that “Gust” is so short. There is a gentle playfulness to this hesitancy, so that the poem self-consciously comments on its own use of repetition, teasing itself about its translingual punning and the intimacy of its own descriptions. What I especially like about “Gust” is that its self-consciousness is not the coy hauteur of a knowing wink, but the bashful self-deprecation of a hesitant lover.

“Gust” begins by leading its reader through a series of images: a kind of picnic or an outdoor meal, a tablecloth billowing in the wind, clouds above (“a smooth haze westerly scudded”), and knees below, glimpsed at through or past the tablecloth. We look closely at the stitching on the tablecloth; we roll over onto the tablecloth. The poem seems to trace a memory of a summer encounter, its sharpest images, its most vivid sensations: the “sheen” of lips, the “gaze” at the “femur” of the other guest. But soon the “femur gaze” veers away from this summery memory, and into another point in time and space, when there is a “lamp above my hair,” and we are indoors, having “wandered thusly” away.

The rest of the poem offers commentary on the “apparitional motion” of that encounter, or perhaps more accurately on the “apparitional” memory of it. The poem continues to describe touches and sensations, but the punning between languages increases. Mouré often uses repetition to create relationships between different languages, or fragments of languages, as in the “faient” / “fain” pairing. I’m never sure exactly how she intends these repetitions – if is supposed to follow the grammatical rules of French, then “faient” would mean something like “making.” But the ending that Mouré uses, “-aient,” indicates that a few people were “making,” and that they were doing so on a somewhat continuous basis. Something else to notice about “faient” is the fact that “fain” repeats its sounds almost exactly, which creates a similar meaning for the words in the context of the poem, so that they both mean something like “gladly.” Part of the poem’s interest in “apparitional motion” is dedicated to this motion between languages, the motion between fragments of words and fragments of thought, where meaning is produced not so much by the fragments themselves, but through the relationships that we are able to draw between them.

Unfortunately, in my typing “Gust” hasn’t been rendered quite as nicely as it is in A Frame of the Book in the book because Mouré uses a superscript “ø” instead of little numbers to direct the reader to the footnotes at the bottom of the page. But the format of the blog is nice for reading “Gust” because it forces the reader of the poem to read in a more physically active manner, scrolling up and down to move between the footnote and the rest of the text, making physical the poem’s hesitation between “tentative” and “beautiful.” In a poem that is so much about the movement between words and memories, and how that movement draws out meaning, it’s nice to have to read in a more physically involved way, to use hands and fingers to work between the different verbal options that Mouré presents, to work between “tentative” and “beautiful.”

Sarah Dowling's poetry has appeared in The Capilano Review, Cue, Descant, EOAGH, How2, and West Coast Line, and is forthcoming in Dusie and the ixnay reader. She lives in Philadelphia, and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Subscribe, Support

Much of the poetry (and indeed art and music), much of the "arts" that we have come to know and love has come to us via individuals who have been inspired to support their art form, to connect their work and the work of peers, to a larger audience. Some of those people have ended up creating bigger presses--Coach House Books, Anansi, Greywolf, Coffee House, Brick Books--and bigger galleries--Stephen Bulger, Monte Clark, Sonnabend, Cue, and magazines such as Geist, etc. But most of what we know as firm in our art worlds, in fact in our world, was born out of an individual passion for something, whether it was shoes, plumbing, money, or poems.

In these times of turmoil, economic and otherwise, it's important to remember the role of the individual. It's also important to remember that we have all, in our way, bought in to, and helped create the major disruptions of our own industry--by that I mean those of us who abandoned local book stores for, those of us who abandoned local music stores for iTunes; those of us who prefer to buy American or British poetry and not Canadian, or Canadian and British and not American, and so on; those of us who prefer not to buy music, but to "take it" for free, those of us who prefer to find texts on the net, rather than subscribe to journals, magazines, and presses.

Each of those decisions has a ripple effect in our communities. With that in mind, and with my own resolutions in mind, I bring up the idea of the subscription. Presses, from Coach House to Brick books are offering subscriptions now, and that's a good idea, but Coach House and Brick are also distributed. Other presses such as belladonna, for example, can pretty much only be found if you show up at a reading in New York, or you order a book directly from the series organizers. Presses such as BookThug in Canada, which is gaining strength by the month, are offering subscriptions too, on top of providing a way to buy smaller press articles online. These are presses that really do rely on reaching a direct audience.

If we want poetry to be a viable pursuit, then we need to support it. Which means we buy books, or we subscribe like any other subscription audience does--be it the symphony, the theatre or as a member of an art gallery, so that these small presses can actually fund their projects, whichever projects and/or presses you want to see around in the future, that's where you need to give your money now. It doesn't matter who you support, it only matters that you support someone. To be crass, it is a right-off. It is a professional expense.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Some steamy, some clear: winter in Montreal

Glass in the city of excess takes to winter in a variety of ways, becomes frosted, steamed, wet, so hard and clear it seems on the verge of exploding. Light pools in doorways, reflects off snow, beckons down alleys. Wind finds its way in cracks, hisses loudly. I am on a mission to walk all of the island's streets, which in winter, can seem like navigating Greenland. Ice and snow are deceptively smooth, terrifyingly compelling, the vast swoops of what seems like hard crusted surface tempt one down alleys, and into fields of who knows what kind of surface under the glaze. And yet sticking to the sidewalks can be even more dangerous as chunks of densely packed ice calve and stick up in the middle of an otherwise clean stretch of concrete, or trip on a dark corner, for of course, night falls early and my walks are often in the dark. I have four complete winter walking outfits, so far one for every inevitability. I dream of polar cleats and ski goggles as I push further afield. And while I once longed for wings, now I would settle for good balance on ice. I have discovered the fastest way to move on the mildly slushy, hovering around 0 degrees sidewalks, is to skip. It looks silly, but feels great, and it is how I plan to make it through the impending storms and some eight more weeks of winter in Montreal.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The unreality of war, part two

Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) 1992

The above image, courtesy of the Tate, is one of Wall's "history" or "epic" photographs. Like others of this period, it is as meticulously crafted as a hyper realist painting and just as false. Wall spends months creating these diorama-like settings, hires professionals to do makeup, recreates in other words, an entire world. It reminds me of the film version of Atonement, recommended for the war scenes alone which are surreal and disturbingly beautiful. Why, I wondered when I first saw this image, is Wall turning to Afghanistan? (And read the dates folks, the image is from 1992 and the battle from 1986.) But why not? War is part of the fabric of our lives. Whether we acknowledge it or not, war is as much a part of our daily Canadian life as gardening and ice hockey. Both times I drove to Toronto last month along the "highway of heroes" traffic slowed from Belleville to Scarborough as the overpasses, lined with fire, police, and military men and women, stood silent with Canadian flags waiting for Canadian soldiers coming home in boxes from Afghanistan. We are all very much invested in these wars.

Meanwhile, generations elsewhere are growing up in the middle of wars, knowing nothing of the west but battles and masses of photographers and reporters filming and photographing these incursions. Making war, photographing war, commenting on war, discussing war, protesting war, making more and more war. Where in the world would notions of peace come from? Can anyone in the middle east believe in peace? What would their model be?

Sontag also writes about the above photograph, which she singles out as exemplary among contemporary war photographs for its "thoughtfulness, coherence, and passion." It is, she argues, "the antithesis of a document...a Cibachrome transparency seven and a half feet high and more than thirteen feet wide...mounted on a light box." The photograph makes me think of one of the photographs Woolf was reacting to in Three Guineas, the photographs that landed on her breakfast table arguing for war, providing proof of war, attempting to elicit various responses--outrage, support? As was the photograph in yesterday's post which seemed to resemble a War Game, a virtual experience of war promising new generations of North American boys a future that might include the handling of such guns. Someone, somewhere no doubt authorized that image. War photography is groomed. Normally. I won't get into the horrifying photographs of naked prisoners of war...

"We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is...and how normal it becomes..." Sontag concludes. And that is precisely it: war has become normalized. Yet, one remembers that it was the images of Vietnam that helped put an end to that. What images now? What images would it take to stir? How deeply must the images penetrate to rouse any hope for anything but more of the same?

I once taught a research writing class titled "War & Ethics," which understandably, attracted a 90% male student body. It was just prior to 9/11 and war seemed very far away indeed. Not one person in the class could imagine peace. No one argued for pacifism (fanaticism?). In a military-focused nation what would the point of that be? And many of the students had intense knowledge of particular battles, historical moments, and of course, US Military history. It was a fascinating semester, and while none of the students could imagine peace, they were very passionate about the parameters of war, the morality of the just war. In fact I have rarely seen students want to work so hard to make their cases. It might be a fabric of their young lives, but if it was, it was a fabric that needed to be accounted for.

Perhaps that is one difference that one feels as a Canadian: it is not our past is it? We are not a militaristic nation are we? I always thought we were peacekeepers, sweepers, tenders, the fair witness. I'm not sure any of us can hide behind that idea any more.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The unreality of war

The photograph above is currently on the front page of the online edition of the Globe and Mail accompanied by an article that describes a formidable ground attack on Gaza that is designed to once and for all rout out Hamas and put an end to the constant launching of rockets into Israel. Hamas on the other hand threatens to make Gaza a graveyard for Israeli soldiers. And how long are we into the war in Iraq now with no end in sight and surely no winners? I won't dare to get into the political mire of it all except to acknowledge, as we all know, that something is deeply wrong here.

And what are we to make of these images in the media? Do we even notice them anymore? Yesterday the photograph on the front of the Globe's online edition featured what looked to be a soldier joyfully opening fire. He was vibrating with something, full smile, gun up and aimed. It is simplistic of course, to say, "still against the war," but millions are, and all around the world they are demonstrating. Surprisingly, since it seems unpatriotic to even comment on such things. We are supposed to, by now, understand that this is to be a constant feature of our democratic lives.

This photograph above makes me think of the endless parade of young boys in a sandbox launching mud attacks, hovering as one does with a small plastic soldier, slightly above the ground, muscling through, elbows in the dirt, toward the trench and the facing boy/soldier. Or, are we indoors, in a basement, with the dried moss that last month hung from the roof of all those mini creches, now doubling as desert cover...

I have been back at the letters of Virginia Woolf these past weeks. Here we are on Saturday, October 1st, 1938 from a letter to Vanessa Bell:
He said the war would last our life time; also we should very likely be beaten...everyone said Probably we shall win but it'll be just as bad if we do....I sat in the basement (at the London Library) with the Times open of the year 1910. An old man was dusting. He went away; then came back and said very kindly, "Theyre telling us to put on our gas mask, Madam." I thought the raid had begun...then he asked if he could dust under my chair; and said they had laid in a supply of sand bags, but if bomb dropped there wouldnt be many books left...
and here again to Bell from October 8th:
Kettle yourself; pot yourself; or whatever the phrase is. Trenches were dug because if you lie at the bottom of a sloping hole, a shell will burst at either side and miss you. Two workmen were buried alive making them. As for gas mask, many have died through testing them on the exhaust pipes of cars. Govt;has now issued an edict that theyre not to be tried on gas pipes of cars as they dont work... Ours lie on the drawing room table....
Again, who believes war can be abolished anymore? In her book Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag admits that even the pacifists can't muster much of an argument in the face of it. And in that book Sontag goes back to 1938 when Woolf, as well as confronting the inevitability of war on British soil, was also confronting the backlash from having published Three Guineas, her most directly political book, a feminist, pacifist plea. She was not the only one as Sontag points out:
Even Freud and Einstein were drawn into the debate with a public exchange of letters in 1932 titled "Why War?" Woolf's Three Guineas, appearing toward the close of nearly two decades of plangent denunciations of war, offered the originality (which made this the least well received of all her books) of focusing on what was regarded as too obvious or inapposite to be mentioned, much less brooded over: that war is a man's game -- that the killing machine has a gender, and it is male. Nevertheless, the temerity of Woolf's version of "Why War?" does not make her revulsion against war any less conventional in its rhetoric, in its summations, rich in repeated phrases. And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.
She might not have accomplished that much with Three Guineas, but she did make her opinion known, and in taking the risk of speaking she made herself a target. What to do in the face of it? How many marches? How many demonstrations? And what of it does any good at all? At least it bursts a little of that illusion of consensus. Clearly business as usual isn't working.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

the bad and the ugly

Happy New Year all. I didn't want to start the year off on a downer, but I did promise the bad and the ugly after my good post a while back. I kept putting off posting the latter because, well, you know, there's just too much bad and ugly already...but then what would the arts be without acknowledging the bad and the ugly too? So, here it is. What wasn't great about 2008.

The Bad

* Book store closings: McNally Robinson in Calgary, Pages in Toronto, Robin's in Philadelphia, everywhere book stores are in trouble, closing down, not stocking poetry. We love you booksellers, from Victoria to Chelsea. In light of that, one of my resolutions is to buy the bulk of my books in person. End of story. I wanted to say all my books, but I realize poetry doesn't have proper distribution and people like BookThug and Ugly Duckling (both appearing on the good list) need those online sales, so as much as possible I'm crossing thresholds this year and plunking down cash.

* An odd complaint after the last one, but once again I whine about the lack of Canadian Literary presence online. Why aren't the major print publications also doing an online portion? Why does The Capilano Review, West Coast Line, Malahat Review, The New Quarterly all have websites with nothing on them? I suspect it's because of funding formulas, and I sympathize, but print alone isn't enough. Can't we have some online resources? How about putting up a selection every month? I agree, not everyone needs to go online, and not everything needs to be online. How about half and half? Methinks it would inevitably result in more subscriptions.

The Ugly

* The Governor General Awards debacle. The recent Canada Council mess was just depressing--and regardless of right/wrong it emphasized the overall disconnect the CC seems to have with the community it is supposed to serve. And it doesn't seem to have resulted in any changes, or any sense of accountability. It's depressing. Accountability is required of everyone, no? How about more direction for jurors. And I want to know what makes one eligible to be a judge? Having written one book? Having written a book twenty years ago? Shouldn't people judging contemporary poetry understand the world of contemporary poetry? And shouldn't there be some critical accountability? Can't we ask that people tell us why a particular book, and make an intelligent statement that introduces the poetry, and poetry in general, to people? Zach Wells posted, from Open Letter, a long interview with Christian Bok about his trouble with the Canada Council jury. It's well worth reading. (Note to Open Letter: it shouldn't be posted on a blog it should be on your site! You rock, please archive online.)

* The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, has canceled its stand alone book section as of the December 20th issue, and I may well be canceling my subscription too. At first I thought this might be a good thing. Change can be good. The stand alone does make for a little book ghetto, and if reviews are folded into the larger Arts and Review sections perhaps more people will read them. But no, after some thought I think this is a huge error. As a national paper the G&M really needs to show some backbone and vision in these economic times, which after all, come on people, everyone must have seen coming. It needs to get new blood on board. In the past few years it has had more online makeovers than I've changed operating systems, and it is no clearer, no more focused, no more useful as a resource. The print portion has remained stubbornly slender, staid, and resolutely white and male: it doesn't reflect the dynamic range of thinking in this country. But the bottom line is we need that Saturday Book Section. Particularly in tough times someone needs to show some direction, not just roll over and die, or to borrow from Naomi Klein, use the crisis as a way to get rid of things and make changes that benefit certain market interests. Not that the books section shows much vision now, but it should.

Bail outs for corporate mismanagement, lack of vision and greed, but cut the books section? There is no way that can be made to sound good.

And after reading today's G&M, despite several articles mentioning the fact that in both the last two recessions book sales rose, the book coverage is abominable...National Post? Here's your moment.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

* Read more books, less blogs.
* Buy more books in person.
* See more art.
* Discuss more writing here and everywhere.
* If it moves you: let them know. Directly. Immediately.
* Be where you want to go in life.