Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Reviewing: Ben Friedlander

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

BF: A lot of my reviewing was done pre-internet for a small community of readers who, truth be told, knew a lot more about the books than I did. Reviews in that context were statements of poetics, a form of self-assertion in which someone else's writing took precedence over your own. And for me in particular, being younger than the others, it was also a public form of self-education. Later, in the early years of the internet, when I was in grad school--writing long essays for the first time--reviews became exercises in judgment, very much inspired by mouthy critics like Poe, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, Robert Christgau, and that was fun; stirred up a lot of shit. But wasn't, ultimately, what I wanted to do. After that I wrote a few, I guess you'd call them pedagogical exercises: a lot of summary, a lot of context, a lot of dot-connecting. Useful, time-consuming work, a little boring, which is probably why I've done so little of it. For the last decade, I've mostly worked in other genres. But I do love the compression of a review, the chance it offers to figure out what you think, the discipline of particularity, the freedom of ephemerality. That's why I like contributing to Steve Evans's Attention Span.

Blogging is new to me. I took it up at least in part to force myself out of the habit of endless revision. But so far, no luck--change comes slowly.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On Reviewing: Emily Warn

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

EW: To begin or engage in a conversation about a book by arguing for or against its merit. Given the sheer volume of poetry titles—anywhere between 500-1,000 per year--a review also calls attention to a book worthy of such a conversation. Blogs and other Web 2.0 functionality have accentuated the conversational nature of reviews because commenters, bloggers, and other reviews can respond more quickly and entertainingly (with acerbic wit, despair, shout outs or up-in-arms anger). Being the first to review a major book, for example Frederick Seidel’s recent COLLECTED POEMS, can mean one defines the tone and substance of the conversation.

One other role of the critic in reviewing is to trace how an author’s work develops.

Blogging about books can be a shortcut to reviewing-- shout outs, responses to reviews that let you join in the larger conversation, or it can provide more substantive analysis of a book than a print review, which generally run from 250 to 500 words for quick looks and about 1,000 for longer ones. Bloggers can place a book within its literary context, or loiter awhile with a single poem.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Reviewing: Michael Robbins

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MR: A review should be something more than an appreciation or an attack—it can appreciate, or attack, but it should do so in order to clear the mind of cant. Too much poetry criticism is a repackaging of idées reçues that disguises the reviewer's analytical incompetence by genuflecting towards "interest" and "sonic charge" or some such empty marker. I try in my reviews to understand the cognitive work the poems are doing. I'm not interested in pointing out how the t's in a given line mimic the trees the line describes (not making this example up).

Blogging at Digital Emunction, on the other hand, allows me to say whatever I want about a book—it's informal, the initiation of a conversation. For instance, I recently wrote a post proposing that the fourth section of Ashbery's Flow Chart  is a parody of Dorn's Slinger. In a blog post, you don't have to provide an argument, you can just throw something out there to get discussion going.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

MR: I don't think the approaches you mention are mutually exclusive. I'm interested when a reviewer sees  something about a poem or a poet that no one else has seen that strikes me as incontestably right. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but ideally it will combine stylistic brio with analytical insight into the work's cognitive dimensions. Christopher Ricks is the most consistently astonishing reviewer in this respect.

Monday, December 28, 2009

On Reviewing: Eileen Myles

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is?

EM: No single purpose. A book Im advocating for – a book I’ve been invited to write about that I have my own reasons to write about even if diff from the editor who invited me. A book to hinge some other argument on publicly..

LH: If you also write about books on a blog, why?

EM: Because there are more outlets for reviewing/writing on blogs. I write about what I care about where I can.

LH: What does blogging let you do differently?

EM: To do it period. And I suppose less editing. Less conventional approach. Generally in the blog world I’m an outsider – the world isn’t foregrounding poetry so you can say often more opinionated things because they don’t know what you’re talking about.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Reviewing: Mitchell Parry

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MP: In my opinion, the purpose of a review is to present to the reader the act of engagement.  Evaluation, proselytizing, are secondary to my experience of reviewing.  Rather, I believe that the review should engage with the text, on the page, so that the reader can witness that.  S/he might decide to read the book or might not, based on the review, but s/he really does deserve to know that the reviewer made the effort to come to terms with the text.

I don’t write a blog & don’t want to.  When I was a teenager, one of my favourite music reviews was in an issue of NME or Melody Maker.  The critic (it might have been Nick Kent) had been asked to review the new single by Foreigner, & his review was a single line:  “Utter bloody bullshit.”  I loved the indignation behind that, the cockiness.  And the song was dreadful.  But looking back at it now, I realize that the review reflected a kind of juvenile laziness.  Maybe that was why it appealed at the time?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Reviewing: Ron Silliman

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

RS: I don’t think that there is a single purpose. Rather, there are many, dozens if not hundreds of reasons to respond to something – a book, a poem, a film, some music, dance – in a written, public form. When I started my blog I was looking for a form that enabled me to communicate directly with other poets. I was looking for a forum that combined the virtues of the talk, especially as given outside the academy, the little magazine & the conversation one has between poets after a reading. Blogging, as it happens, has most of these virtues, plus some others – one is that it reach people over a broad geography very quickly, another is that I can target it to my readers, as such. It’s much more efficient in this than magazines, for example.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

RS: Sometimes I’m reviewing a book, but more often what interests me is what the book reveals about the nature (or history) of poetry, or of the universe. I sometimes write reviews that focus in on a single poem in a larger volume, or even a single literary device or detail.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

RS: A successful review is one that tells me something about a book, perhaps giving it a context that I did not already have. Of the several hundred reviews my own poetry has received, I’ve learned something about my poetry from exactly two of them, one by Michael Davidson, and one recently by Bill Mohr. Reviews that can teach the poet something about his/her own work always strike me as the most illuminating.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

RS: Most often I focus on something specific. This helps me to make more concrete statements about the writing.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

RS: Totally. They are different practices. It’s like playing chess versus playing soccer.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

RS: Mostly I avoid these type of reviews. Life is too short and there are too many good books to worry about the bad ones. But on occasion I will point to something as being exemplary of something I think of as problematic, and the review gives me occasion to spell out what this is and whty.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

RS: Bill Mohr’s review of The Alphabet in Or. He made me rethink some aspects of my own work.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

RS: Illumination.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

RS: Less than one percent of my reviewing work has been done for pay. Almost without exception, the constraints placed on writing for pay make the resulting work of a lesser quality. The trend away from bad newspaper book reviews is a good thing, not a bad thing.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

RS: I think writing about writing, just like talking about writing, helps keep me and everyone else on their toes. It is one part of the larger process, but it is one too important to leave to the academy or to journalists. If poets don’t think about what they do, why should anyone else bother?
___
Ron Silliman has written and edited over 30 books, and had his poetry and criticism translated into 12 other languages. Silliman was the 2006 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, a 2003 Literary Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. He has a plaque in the walk dedicated to poetry in his home town of Berkeley, although he now lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Circa 1966 and thanks to Ms. Place.

Stay tuned for more on reviewing.

On Reviewing: Brian Joseph Davis

In lieu of responding to the 10 questions Brian Joseph Davis offers the following review, published recently in Eye Weekly.

Duty now for the future
One man’s journey out of criticism

Cassingle
By Jim Hanas. Available free
Cassingle by Jim Hanas is a collection of short stories. It’s free and online in several formats. Besides containing some very good writing — which I’ll get to in a few paragraphs — I’m reviewing it here as a departure point for myself.

To put it bluntly, I can’t write one more fucking review.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Reviewing: Stephen Burt

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

SB: I'll confine my answers here to reviews of literary writing—poetry, fiction, personal essays, graphic novels and the like, books that aspire to be judged as works of art; I'd give different answers were I writing about reviews of discursive, argumentative, or expository nonfiction (studies of Wallace Stevens, most sports memoirs, books about climate change).

Reviewers should describe the book accurately in a way that makes clear which (if any) readers will likely enjoy it; reviewers should say what's interesting, what's well done, what stands out (for good or ill) in a book. If the book, or its author, or books much like it, have already attracted attention, reviewers might also say why; if the book (e.g. almost all first books of poetry) hasn't attracted much notice as yet, reviewers should explain why it deserves notice, why it's worth our time (if indeed it is).

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

SB: I read through the book a few times, make plenty of notes, then arrange them into what I hope makes a vivid and well-argued essay at the appropriate length. Depending on the length, the venue, and the sort of poetry (or other writing) under review, all the modes of reading you name above might play a role (except possibly "reader-response," which names a limited and perhaps obsolescent mode of academic meta-analysis, explaining what other readers have seen in a book). Exegesis, theory, "close reading," impressionism, context, and flat-out evaluation each have their place, though simple ratings (letter grades, stars as for movie reviews, adjectives such as "great" or "superb" or "remarkable") rarely convince skeptics; reviewers should say not that books are good or bad, but how and why.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On Reviewing: Catherine Daly

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

CD: I have taken to writing mini reviews, mentions, reader reports, and draft reviews – mostly of .pdf versions of books – on my blog.  Most of this is time pressure; I rarely have time to write “real” reviews right now.  But people keep requesting reviews from me, and offering books.  I find I can slip something on the blog in the a.m., while looking at .pdfs.  I discovered this a few years back; I could do it from work.

So, then, what is the purpose of a review, and what, indeed, is the difference between a mini, mention, report, draft and a “real” review?

I am frustrated by my tendency to read for the title, epigraphs, title poem, first poem, last poem, collection ars poetica, book project, when reviewing.  I think of this as the Publisher’s Weekly review, although they don’t have many reviewers anymore, and their reviews seem to have been reduced to one liners or very blurb-like entries.

In a way, I miss the negative Kirkus review; I wrote a review for Kirkus which wasn’t negative enough for them.  It was of an acquaintance’s first book; I mostly explained why libraries would want the book.  Which I think ought to be the Library Journal or Kirkus review.  They stopped covering poetry altogether.  And, guess what?  My library will no longer even accept donations of local authors’ books without a review in a major review organ.

On Reviewing: Michael Bryson

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MB: I think the purpose of a review is to provide an honest response to a book. One must admit up front that one brings a host of expectations to a book, so the review can only be one’s own personal response to the book. Each of us has a particular education, particular tastes, and particular preferences. That said, some responses are guttural and impulsive and others are abstract and hard to articulate. Ultimately, a review needs to communicate to an audience beyond the one “responding.” Here is where things get more complex. The review is one person’s response to a book, but to have value to a broader community of readers it needs to explain itself to that community … and that community is diverse in the extreme. One can assert an isolationist stance (i.e., I think what I think and I don’t need to justify it to anyone), and sometimes those reviews are excellent (i.e., interesting to read). More often, the interesting reviews take a more self-consciously humble approach. Whatever wisdom each of us possesses, it is only a fragment of the whole. Each voice, each opinion is legitimate, but those that enhance the “conversation” (and don’t divert it tangentially) more often have long-term value. (I hedge and include the qualifiers because sometimes the one-offs, the lone wolfs, say things that are invaluable.)

Second part. Yes, I write a blog about books. Why? It helps me keep my sanity. I need a place to write, clarify my thoughts, throw words out into the void. Besides, it’s fun. Why not?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Reviewing: Daisy Fried

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

DF: It’s a public engagement between a reader and a book.

I blogged for a few months for Harriet and a few times talked about books I was reading. It was more informal. I didn’t worry about whether I was saying something in the best way, as I would when writing a more traditional book review.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

DF: I try to figure out what the writer is trying to do and how well s/he is doing it. I try to quote a lot, so the reader of the review can judge for herself, and so I make sure I stay close to what’s happening on the page.

Monday, December 21, 2009

On Reviewing: Steven Collis

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

SC: In a review, one writer enters into dialogue with another (or better, one piece of writing enters into dialogue with another). The ideas, aesthetics, techniques, forms or one writer are taken up by another who engages with them intellectually and critically, thinking through them, extending them, finding planes of relevance and correspondence for them. This would be my ideal sense at least. It’s certainly not a matter of “advertising” a new work, or passing judgment on it, or establishing taste—although any of this can be the outcome of a review. I know, in terms of my own work as a poet, getting reviewed means that what I’ve written has entered into some kind of a conversation, encountered a response that is an extension of that work, that changes that work, so it’s no longer simply “something I wrote,” but has passed into our collective conversation about poetry, writing, ideas, etc. I come to better understand what “I’m” doing through another’s response to it. I also think that if we’re going to have an intellectually healthy poetry, there must be thoughtful reviewing going on. It’s the way—one (crucial) way—we come to understand our poetics. And for me writing poetry for 20 years has been the pursuit of a poetics, the pursuit of an answer to what poetry might be. Sadly, surprisingly few poets are willing to write reviews, while every poet wants to get reviewed. I think we all need to get down to writing reviews—on blogs (I don’t blog myself) or otherwise.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?


SC: I suppose my approach in writing a review is somewhat ad hoc. I do exegesis and close reading, but I also think contextual reading is important (getting a sense of how a work is responding to the here and now, socially and aesthetically), and if various theoretical approaches seem like they would be generative, I go along with them. I have no specific axe to grind (in terms of my approach)—but that said, I gravitate towards work that is intellectually and or socially engaged with some sort of problem or question, and my reading of that work will inevitably gravitate towards theoretical approaches that reveal that engagement.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Reviewing: Jordan Davis

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

JD: I write public correspondence. Part of reviewing is signaling to the poet under review that I see them and to some extent I notice what they're doing. Another part, the journalistic part, is a brief sketch of the biography, temperament or context that informs the work. I used to think of this part as the fuel tank or booster rocket of the review/essay but a few 3000 word pieces later and I have more respect for critics who put as much or more work into the sketch as into the reading. But I still feel a review is about reading, about embodying an argument for the experience of reading a given book, or writer, or school of work. That larger part of the review, the theatrical part, is an open declaration of my ignorance of how a writer achieves whatever it is a writer achieves -- I don't want to say effects. I make some gestures at parsing and reverse-engineering, but almost always there's something I find out is half-right the day after the piece goes to print -- take when I reviewed Native Guard a few months before it won the Pulitzer. I went on about this strange form in which each couplet ended with the same word. A ghazal, but I didn't know, it wasn't a form used where I came from. Now I know.

I used to blog but I had to kill it (stalkers). Blogging was fun. I enjoyed communicating enthusiasms, even as I recognized that it was like lighting amaretto cookie papers on fire. A year or so before I quit, Steve Burt and Adam Kirsch each wrote somewhere or other that it was their opinion that real literary criticism couldn't really happen on a blog. I hated to hear that, of course, but then I started reviewing again, for The Nation and the TLS and other places, and while I missed the daily practice of a blog for a while I was very glad to get my energy and concentration back for longer pieces.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Two bad ass anthologies


Okay, I have a two recommends for poetry lovers this season. Feminaissance, ed. Christine Wertheim, Les Figues 2009
Edited by Christine Wertheim
From the press:
Identity is dead. The 21st-century subject is an unstable fiction with no identifiable features or group affiliations. He’s a man without inherent qualities, a post-human ideal. But those who have long been hailed as Other exist in a different relation to this ideal. Unlike those traditionally self-possessed |s, these Others may find themselves split between a yearning to be contemporary and unqualified, and longing for a continued allegiance to their qualitative, albeit constructed, group identity.
Bad ass. This is a beautiful, thought provoking anthology featuring some very cool women. Kris Craus on feminine ecriture "turn your small unhappiness, into something magnificent. A very do-it yourself epistemology." Or quoting Ariana Reynes: "My brains would be useful if I didn't force them to feel," Juliana Spahr recounting gender troubles in her years at grad school in Buffalo, Vanessa Place being Vanessa Place.
These gals make me want to move to LA. 



Prismatic Publics
eds Heather Milne and Kate Eichhorn
Coach House 2009

From the press: 

Gathered in a single volume, these selections — some dating back to the early 1970s and others appearing in print for the first time — provide an opportunity to trace the diverse networks, influences, dialogues, dialectics and interventions that continue to make Canada's innovative women writers a powerful force in avant-garde writing around the world


Prismatic Publics, a book that captures a dynamic strand of innovative women’s writing in Canada, writing that has expanded the boundaries of genre, challenged notions of sexuality, subjectivity, feminism, poetry, writing, and thinking.

The text is as inspiring as it is instructive. It represents more than two decades of extremely energetic writing that includes a selection of writing as well as an interview from each author. The book really is essential. It's the first one that grounds this strand of writing and illustrates the formidable accumulations of ideas. There are the literary foremothers; Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt and Gail Scott, and then the second wave, which to me includes Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, M. NourbeSe Philip, and the third, Margaret Christakos, Karen Mac Cormack, Catriona Strang, Rita Wong, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, and then the fourth, Susan Holbrook, Nathalie Stephens, Rachel Zolf and...very happy to be included here, myself. 

Like the Feminaissance anthology, Prismatic Publics captures a snapshot, not necessarily of a "group think" because while these poets are in conversation with each other, they aren't necessarily in agreement, or even all on the same page. Which I find particularly exciting. One needs to come to terms with this strand of our writing in some way. You may not like it (fair enough), but after reading the anthology you'll at least have a sense of what it is and why it's happening here--and the fact that "here" has been going on at least as long as those strands represented in the recent Cage Match (one half of that cage match is aware of this strand and quite supportive of it...). 

In order for there to be this number of poets all speaking to and around each other as we see in this anthology, there has to be many readers and thinkers and writers making space for this conversation to happen. Those writers find their way into the interviews, and can be found in the fall issue of Open Letter, itself an accomplishment and a must-read as well. 

We used this text in my graduate workshop this fall and I have to say the reading responses it inspired were spectacular--it's true I may have a particularly strong group of writers in my class, but after eight years of teaching one thing I have noticed is that certain writing is more generative than others. Both anthologies above fall into the generative category. 

Friday, December 18, 2009

10 Canadian Poetry Volumes

Okay, here's a tentative list... These are the books that have most engaged me in the past decade in one way or another. Books I have carried around with me, come back to, written toward and against. They aren't necessarily favorites, or even best, those lists are less interesting to me. These texts constitute the ways in which I have been stretched. They aren't obscure texts and  I am not the only one they have moved, which is to say  they have entered into contemporary poetic discourse. The list is alphabetical. Many of them are represented in Open Field, though not always with the same book. In some cases the book I listed is one that I am currently engaging with, and so in process so to speak. What makes me sad is the lack of good lyric poetry. "Those who can still write a lyric, in some provincial corner, are perhaps lucky." Louis Dudek 10/26/92 Indeed. The lyric is hard to do well. All poetry is hard to do well. What makes it "well" is another matter. Intelligence, not only of form, but of what the poet chooses to leave out. Originality--discovering Mary Dalton for example, a pleasant find. Knew absolutely nothing about her, and didn't need to, the work spoke. Had no idea who Lisa Robertson was either when I stumbled upon The Weather one day in a bookstore in Toronto...didn't need anyone to tell me it was remarkable. Nor did I need anyone to tell me Un was a thing of beauty--though it took a very long time for any discussion of that to unfold. There is something arresting about the latter texts. Something original, absolutely compelling. The texts are impeccable too, each of them. Each of the books on the list below it seems to me do something remarkable, and they do it--not necessarily to make an argument, or fit into someone's idea of what poetry is. Blah to that.

But as for lyric--there are elements of the lyric in all of these poems of course (the more I look the more lyric it looks actually....). When I think lyric though, what I want is that intelligent, forceful, immediate speaking voice (hm Moure, Robertson, Babstock..). The way Carson brings Sappho forward with such intensity that I feel her breathing on the back of my neck. But also, say something. That is what it seems so hard for poetry to do. Lyric, narrative, conceptual, constraint-based, whatever. Say something. That's what I want. Make me have no choice but to hear.

Air Stream Land Yacht, Ken Babstock

Eunoia, Christian Bok

Inventory, Dionne Brand

If Not Winter, Anne Carson

Whylah Falls, George Elliott Clarke

Merrybegot, Mary Dalton

Un, Dennis Lee

Sheep's Vigil for a Fervent Person, Erin Moure

The Weather, Lisa Robertson

Paper City, Nathalie Stephens

All of the poets in Open Field of course, though many selections are not from this decade. There are few that also piqued my interest and impressed me in one way or another. They appear in random order

Revolver, Kevin Connolly

If Language, Greg Betts

The Vicinity, David O'Meara

Sooner, Margaret Christakos

Ox, Christopher Patton

i,robot Jason Christie

Forage, Rita Wong

Crabwise To The Hounds, Jeramy Dodds

There were a few that seemed under appreciated to me:

The Debaucher, Jason Camlot

What Stirs, Margaret Christakos

How We All Swiftly, Don Coles

The Commons, Steve Collis

Seven Pages Missing, Volume 1 &2, Steve McCaffery

Seaway: New & Selected, Todd Swift

The Invisible World is in Decline, Bruce Whiteman

Michael Turner on the Cage Match

On the topic of Eunoia, I remember when Bok was writing it, how his excitement returned me to its source -- (the translation of) Perec's Avoid, a novel without the letter "e". However, that the "e" is the most ubiquitous vowel in both English and French -- and therefore the most difficult to avoid -- diminished my appreciation of Bok's effort. If only I had not known? No, I prefer to know -- just as I despair the not-knowing Starnino promotes when saying that he looks at a poem from the sixteenth century in the same way he looks at a poem from today. That is, void of the social and historical forces that shape poems (not to mention our reading of them).
Very happy to stumble upon Michael Turner's blog a while back, and then to see this intelligent post.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Shandy Hall

Just back from a week in England. Highlight? Shandy Hall of course. Fabulous tour.


Dare I say it, some poets of differing aesthetic positions get together to have fun

In which a few Canadian poets roast Christian Bok.

Brilliant little collage by Ken Babstock that illustrates the Bok rhetorical vice grip. It starts at about 29:00. Another excellent moment via Suzanne Zelazo at 14:00.
Fabulous. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Very Christian Christmas!



I can't be there, but I would be if I could.

December 15, 2009 - 7:30pm - 11:00pm
Mr. Bök and his band of merry elves – including merrymakers Ken Babstock, Andrew Pyper, Russell Smith, Priscila Uppal and Darren Wershler – will send you off to your holiday vacations in style, with readings, anecdotes and tributes to Eunoia and the man who wrote it. Come by Supermarket (262 Augusta Avenue) after 7:30 p.m., wear your yuletide best, knock back some egg nog and pick up a copy of the upgraded Eunoia, a perfect stocking stuffer and a book Publishers Weekly
calls 'jaw-droppingly powerful, a mythology of sound.'

A Very Christian Christmas
a holiday tribute to Christian Bök's Eunoia: The Upgraded Edition
with special guests Ken Babstock, Andrew Pyper, Russell Smith, Priscila Uppal and Darren Wershler
Tuesday, December 15
Supermarket, 262 Augusta Avenue
7:30 p.m.
Location:
Supermarket
262 Augusta Avenue
Toronto, ON
Canada

Friday, December 11, 2009

There will be no new steps!

Because if you don't know them, you can't teach them.

Some days this feels like to precise a rendering of the Canadian poetry world. Well, actually it is a precise rendering of how some would like the poetry world to be...

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Helen Hajnoczky: Report from Calgary

Ultimate Writing Championship: A review of the “Cage Match” of Canadian Poetry between Dr. Christian Bök and Carmine Starnino, November 26, 2009

Though the opponents came into the octagon dressed the same, they had very different fighting styles. While Bök put on a comedic show, feigning this way and that with self-deprecating remarks about the unimportance of poetry, then dolling out sharp jabs of well-developed ideas, Starnino opted for snide remarks about disliking the avant-garde, which he threw between flailing attempts to knock Bök out. 

Bök opened with a succinct description of his aims to write a culturally relevant experimental poetry, and with a reading from “Chapter I” of Eunoia about: “writing shtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight.... dismiss[ing] nit picking criticism that flirts with philistinism.” Starnino followed with an unclear description of his own aesthetic, um-ing and uh-ing so often that the meaning of his introduction was obscured, though he did clearly express his desire to write a poetry that, though not necessarily easy, remains accessible. Starnino pulled it together late in the round by giving a competent reading from his book, This Way Out.

After the second bell, the contenders danced around each other with some passionless debate about the status of the sonnet in Canadian poetry, discussing whether or not the form has been exhausted. In the next round, however, the Mediator pushed the opponents together by bringing up Starnino’s Eunoia-deriding essay, “Vowel Movements.” Starnino claimed that readers are too dazzled by Eunoia’s constraint to critique the book, and asserted that Canada has no avant-garde critics tearing apart the movement from within.

Bök responded that the avant-garde has always been an international movement, and so, many critics of the Canadian avant-garde live and write outside of Canada. Bök then listed numerous outspoken avant-garde critics (including a shout out to Lemon Hound). Despite Bök’s concrete evidence, Starnino restated that he doesn’t see the active avant-garde community that Bök described, and restated that he doesn’t think there are any avant-garde critics who are harsh enough. Bök dismissed these comments by politely expressing his regrets that Starnino cannot recognize the rich and vibrant community of experimental writers and critics in Canada.  

Overall, Bök delivered solid combos, like his quip that poets shouldn’t be knitting doilies for candy dishes, but chizzling Lamborghinis with lasers. Conversely, Starnino jabbed this way and that, claiming that he would rather be unpopular today and widely read in 100 years (as though contemporary obscurity guarantees future popularity), and deriding the avant-garde which he wishes would go away, while simultaneously claiming that traditional poetry and experimental writing are integrated in Canada and that the avant-garde is not really a separate category. Bök’s articulate responses to the mediator’s questions made Bök look like a real contender, while Starnino’s passive aggressive remarks about not understanding Eunoia’s popularity, or his assertion that even though people buy Eunoia, they probably don’t read it, made him look tired and sluggish.

Problematic to the debate was the one issue on which Bök and Starnino agreed; the need to weed out bad poetry from Canada’s literary scene in order to improve the general status and substance of the art form. Despite their belief that poetry needs to narrow its field of vision, the poets and critics that Bök and Starnino offered as examples throughout the match were almost exclusively male, and almost exclusively of Anglo, Christian descent.

When I asked why they thought, in a country as ethnically diverse as Canada, that the most prominent writers they could call to mind were white men, neither Bök nor Starnino answered completely. With the exception of Starnino’s brief mention of the difficulties aboriginal writers perceive in publishing their work, both avoided the question of ethnicity, focusing on the role of women in their respective genres. Starnino asserted that as an editor he always invites women to submit either critical or creative work, and claims that these women often fail to answer his invitations. Bök claimed that the conceptual writing movement to which he belongs was started by accident with his friends in a bar, and it just happens that no women were there. Bök concluded by saying that the avant-garde would welcome a stronger female presence (I should mention here that I studied with Dr. X for three years at the Uof C, and he was, indeed, supportive of my experimental feminist poetic practice).

Despite their claims that they would welcome more diverse voices, both Bök’s and Starnino’s arguments throughout the debate reveal a problem with their approach to solving the issues they perceive in Canadian poetry. Faced with diminished readership, insufficient critical attention, and a growing cultural irrelevance, both writers argue that more needs to be done in Canadian poetry to reduce, restrict, and reject. But perhaps the decline of Canadian poetry needs to be answered not by putting more bars on the windows, but by throwing open the doors. Bök wants poetry to be culturally relevant. Starnino wants poetry to speak to people. But how can poetry do either of these things when most Canadians are poorly represented in the Canadian literary scene? Instead of trying to further limit poetry to make it relevant, to make it speak to people, what can we do to break poetry wide open, and let everyone in?

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, and Rampike magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. In January, she will begin posting weekly on Lemon Hound.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Nick Thran: Masters

The other week, as part of my fiancée's birthday celebration, we went to the Film Forum in Manhattan to see Frederick Wiseman's documentary, La Danse, about the Paris Opera Ballet.

Clocking in at about three hours, this was an exhausting and beautifully shot film about the narrative of process.  Given ample time in the studio space of the iconic building, viewers were treated to multiple journeys from inception to stage.  Dancers ironed out the kinks under the guidance of a colourful cast of choreographers and trainers. There was comedy, tension--all the ingredients for multiple side-stories--in the way these people harangued, argued over, and danced their way to the final, ticket-able product. Old, pot-bellied choreographers burst up off their chairs to show theses lithe, beautiful young specimens how the dance was done, would-be philosophers tried to instill the dancers with a sense of the soul of a particular piece--yet the film never hooked into one story; instead opting for the long view, a picture of the whole hive.

In the same spirit, I appreciated the way the film touched down, but never fully succumbed to, its seductive visual metaphors.  There was a beekeeper with an active farm up on the roof.  There were Koi Fish swimming in the watery basement.  Yet there was always honey to be made, a dance to perfect, and before we could truly fall for the implications and intersections surrounding these visual gems, there we were back up in the dome again, floors squeaking under the weight of a woman trying to bend a little more emotively after she lands a technically perfect turn.

Did it run on a little long? Sure. But so do the hours of work behind anything worth experiencing.  I'm certain its length was a deliberate statement, and while my mind wandered a bit during the actual performance of the Nutcracker, I appreciated this attempt to tax my patience.  This was a film about old masters, new blood--about being a “21st century company” performing what some might view as an antiquated art. 

I left inspired (and glad my fiancée chose seeing this over going to the butterfly garden).  Now if Frederick Wiseman were to turn his careful eye toward, say, a professional basketball team--well, that's just me getting selfish now, isn't it?      
  
Nick Thran is the author of one collection of poetry, Every Inadequate Name.  A second collection, Earworm, will appear in 2011 with Nightwood Editions. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. He will be posting regularly on Lemon Hound starting in January.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Early reception of Keats

[Mr Keats] is a copyist of Mr Hunt; but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning.  But Mr Keats had advanced no dogmas which he was bound to support by examples: his nonsense therefore is quite gratuitous; he writes it for its own sake, and, being bitten by Mr Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, more than rivals the insanity of his poetry....
John Wilson Croker, The Quarterly Review

A volta!

There will be no master...

Rambling thoughts du jour

The cage match offered no new insights for those who have been paying attention to Canadian poetry, but hopefully clarified some ideas and positions for some who don't yet know. It's clear to me who made sense, and also who was listening and who was not. It also made me realize that we in Canada have been locked in this dialog now for over a decade... That's a long time. That's becoming entrenched...but as Christian points out, there is a whole other world outside of that little dialog.

Meanwhile here's Christian over at Poetry Foundation making great headlines. (I don't really believe Christian thinks that poets are necessarily lazy and stupid, I know he isn't lazy, and I know he believes poetry is hard work...but...) But he makes a good point. I never did understand the assumption--in my earliest poetry workshops for example--that what we were all there to learn is to confess, or reveal some inner wisdom, usually very pat, that made everyone in the room go "ohhhh." Really? Why did we need a workshop to be told to make our poems feel more? And I rarely thought then, or think now when I see those oh moments in poems, that they are worth a pause... When a poet has poetic skill and insight it's marvelous, but my is it rare. Why not focus on craft, constraint. Or engage in a campaign of seeing, really looking at the quotidian, not just offering an unrefracted account of it. To me, conceptual artists--Marina Abramovic, Zhang Huan, Vito Acconci, know more about the human body and feeling its abrasions with the earth than most poets. It isn't that I don't want poetry of feeling, it's that I am simply unmoved, or unconvinced by much of it, and would rather have those feelings expressed through more finely thought terms, in a bigger context, and in more finely crafted vessels. Paul Durcan I trust has some insight. Seamus Heaney has some insight, Dennis Lee, Erin Moure, Christian Bok, insight, John Thompson, Lisa Robertson, insight. And all of the above happen to also have abundant, astounding poetic craft. This is no small commodity. Insight rarely comes of living a mundane anti-intellectual life. It rarely comes without taking enormous risks. That is what is rare in the world it seems to me. How do you measure that?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Poems of the first decade

The best list will be out in full force, this being an 09 leading to a 10. It occurred to me that I need to think about a rough list of books that have stuck with me over the decade. Then it dawned on me that most of the poetry that constitutes the most exciting is already gathered up in my anthology, Open Field, a book that I think, celebrates what's fabulous about Canadian poetry. It's almost time for an updated volume though, so who and what would I consider adding? That's a good question. A pleasant one to ponder. If I could leave the historical context out (not that I would want to), but if I could...and here's the thing, for me it's not a question of what's best--since best tells me little--but rather what am I still thinking about, what resonates with me, what do I carry? Some books might be exciting at first encounter, but would I want to go back to them? Would there be anything new the second, third time? Because after all, if poetry can't be inhabited? If it doesn't want to linger, be memorized and inscribed...

Cage Match or Cage Snooze?

Though I always enjoy hearing Christian speak on pretty much anything. Maybe the question isn't all that interesting. A report from the audience soon.

The Cage Match of Canadian Poetry from Kit Dobson on Vimeo.

Marina Abramović encore

James Franco talks to the performance artist

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

One man's take on fake

Interesting, I think, and plausible. I am wondering about the connection between this and my aversion to stores such as Century 21 and Filene's Basement...I just can't wear stuff bought there and ultimately end up throwing it out so I don't go.

Used, fine, but just a whiff of discount store somehow seems not unlike the faux designer and it just feels wrong... Faux fur on the other hand--I'm all over that. Go figure.

Sonnabend


Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. It's not the point, but the dude at Sonnabend has to be the grumpiest gallery face ever. It has to be a tough gig: the standing or sitting at a desk looking very busy as people wander in and out of the gallery. I get that. Most of the elegant figures take on a sculptural quality as they desperately (but aloofly) try to keep their eyes fixed on the screen of their over-sized iMacs. There are some who avoid this gallery so as to not have to face the scowl. The trick is, don't speak. Don't make eye contact. Works for me. At least it did until this last time when I blurted out, oh, these look like Elger Esser. Eye contact. Eye rolling. Does it say Elger Esser? Much shaking of head. Anywhere?


So no. Duly shamed I'll admit, it's not Esser. But not unlike his work either. There are more than a dozen large black and white images of hurricanes photographed off a beach on Long Island by Clifford Ross, a photographer new to me, hanging in Sonnabend. The scale is perhaps not as large as Esser (now all will have to be compared...), but the water, the detail of the water reminded me of the last show I saw of his on those very walls. These images are more turbulent, offering vivid illustrations of what weather is capable of doing to a body of water. In some shots there appears to be a sheer wall of water, like a cliff, with frill of foam. They are disturbing, but nonetheless soothing to see such power frozen. I wouldn't say they have the force of someone like Andreas Gursky, or Esser for that matter, but I enjoyed them. From the show catalog:
I re-entered the sea with my painter’s eye and a digital photographic system as my brush. The subject is the same, but my new approach has enabled me to capture more dramatic moments, and sweeping views, while revealing more intimate details – a curious dichotomy. The challenge was to shatter the tendency of digital photography to present itself as a remote, “clean” truth. I want my images to make a clear and powerful statement but end their dialogue with the viewer with a question – one which leaves the viewer with a sense of wonder – and a need to look at nature further on their own to find the answer.
Up until December 19.

Kindle me not

No kindle here. And it's not that I'm resistant to ereading. Not at all. In fact I have taken to reading on my iPod, and like it very much thank you. What I don't want is another stand alone unit. What I don't want is another thing to lose, to worry about charging, and so on. No, I want less clutter. Less things to plug in, and less things to worry about losing. Not only for the economic lay out involved but the sheer time spent setting these things up, downloading, arranging, and so on. Enough.

But yet not enough. What would be good is more apps for iPod readers, and more texts available in that format. More publishers making texts available via iTunes and so on. I am already hooked into iTunes...most of us are aren't we?

Who wants to be hooked into Amazon? I deleted my account over the whole business of censorship not that long ago. Not that I used it much because I thought we all agreed we wanted to minimize online book buying from the pater-corps in favour of supporting the little store that could--your local bookshop or store front online source.

I guess what I'm saying is what's wrong with iPod or iPhone? Or laptop? I read a lot of pdfs on my laptop (don't care for the adobe eReader either but that's another matter). Apple is, yes, a big unwieldy and monopolizing entity as well, but I have some faith in it and its style etc. Furthermore, I'm looking forward to a combination of digital and print versions of books--not one or the other. To the extent that I want a mobile library so far iPod is fine. And it's doing a lot of other things. No way in hell do I want to complicate my life with another device. So, unless there is something absolutely fabulous that I am missing (there's always that possibility) no Kindle for me.

What I'm really looking forward to is more poetry. For a start you might want to try Expressway, available now as an eBook with some other excellent titles.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Conversation with Don Share

The Hound caught up with Don Share via email this fall to discuss Poetry Magazine and the perception that there is only one kind of poetry, or, one kind of poetry that matters. 

LH: Don, it seems to me that your arrival at Poetry coincided with a massive campaign to broaden the scope of the magazine. Am I reading that right? Are those two events directly related?

DS: There wasn’t any kind of campaign, no. That you’ve noticed a broadening of the magazine’s scope is certainly a tribute to Chris Wiman, who is an incredible editor. I hope that I’ve brought something or other new or to the mix, but there’s nothing programmatic beyond the vision and tradition we’ve inherited from our predecessors and try to live up to.

LH: We have discussed my impression of the magazine as being resistant to poems that break visually with formal conventions, and as you suggested I did go through and scan the issues over about a twelve-year period. This confirmed both of us as being right to some extent--yes there were poems that broke that visual restriction, but also not that many.

DS: Most of the poems people send adhere to conventions, as you would expect, so if there’s any resistance to breaking convention it’s not ours, it’s the poets’. As Pound put it, “all arts tend to decline into the stereotype; and at all times the mediocre tend or try, semi-consciously or unconsciously, to obscure the fact that the day’s fashion is not the immutable.” That said, we go to great lengths to accommodate poems that present challenges; some examples are the visual poetry portfolio, the fold-out pages we designed for Jorie Graham’s work, the space we came up with for Gary Sullivan’s poetry comics and the flarf and conceptual writing which appeared in the July/August 2009 issue... I’m not sure why one kind of poem should be better than another by virtue of what it looks like on a page, though. Some conventional-looking poems are deeply, wonderfully subversive, while some ostensibly experimental work is actually thoroughly conventional. In any case, Chris and I work poem-by-poem, and neither of us has any particular preference when it comes to the appearance of a poem on the page. What we look for is a poem – however it’s done – that works as well as possible on its own terms, and that we get something out of it that we hadn’t expected. I’m pretty sure that’s what our readers would like to see, as well.

LH: Still, I get the impression that flarf or conceptual, or avant garde poetry appears as a folio, set off from the more traditional verse, not as part of it. I also get the sense that diverse voices are found as bloggers, but not necessarily as contributors of poetry and essays etc. Is that a function of conversation? Are those topics simply not coming up?

DS: No, that feature was set off because it was guest-curated (by Kenny Goldsmith), which made it self-contained. And it was everyone’s hope to introduce these two kinds of poems to readers who may not have known about them before. Since then, in any case, we’ve published, in the “regular” section of poems, work by Jordan Davis, who was in the feature – and the door is (as it always has been) open to the others, if they want to be in the magazine again. So there was no programmatic setting off. We really don’t conceive of the poems we have in our pages as being either traditional or non-traditional. Other people may find that kind of taxonomy to be useful, but it wouldn’t be much help to us as editors.

LH: On one of your earlier Poetry podcasts you included a conversation with a woman, in a nursing home I believe. Her reading group wrote the magazine to complain about some of the poems included that they didn’t understand. I love that you and Christian Wiman called the woman directly and conversed about the poem. Do you see the magazine as having a political, social and perhaps even pedagogical element to it? Are you working to broaden poetry’s readership?

DS: We certainly want to be – and increasingly are - in dialogue with readers (through the podcasts, letters to the editors – a section Chris Wiman brought to the magazine, breaking with tradition to do so – the Harriet blog, and so on). But no, I don’t see anything pedagogical about it – that would assume there’s some curriculum we aim to be teaching people, and that’s not what we do. I think the readership for poetry actually is broad, and is underestimated all the time. As for political and social elements… everything you can think of has those. But there are no particular political or social positions we want to impose on readers. If anything, it’s our readers, and the poets who send in work, who are teaching us things every day.

LH: We've discussed the relative difficulties of comments streams and blog posts before, and I know that Harriet has made various attempts to reign in some of the more verbose streams...do you believe discussions that arise from those streams are valuable? Productive?

DS: The magazine folks don’t run the blog, though Fred and I post there from time to time, and I comment on guest bloggers’ posts when I have something to say. I hope that discussions on Harriet are valuable; but we’ve learned that blogs comment boxes don’t always bring out the best in people.

LH: You have an incredibly generous approach to poetry. I see that not only on your work in Harriet, but on your own blog, where you are constantly pulling textual material from the past, and from a range of contemporary sources, to broaden the discussion of poetry. Where do you find models for your particular approach, not only to poetry, but to community?

DS: I really appreciate your saying this! But you know, my model is not to have any models! If you put a poem or a book in front of me, I want to read it and think about it: I want to see what happens. If we all feel this way, then despite our differences, we’re a community.

LH: We sometimes forget that those who write about and edit poetry are also poets—do you have any advice for the poet editor?

DS: I wish I had some advice, but as Allan Sherman put it, good advice is just the same as bad advice! I suppose the only thing I can say is don’t do in your own work what you object to when you see it in others’. Fortunately, editing isn’t about me, or my own work; my own poems have to fare as best they can...

LH: Can we end with a poem from you?

DS: It’s kind of you to ask! Here goes…

At Home


Greetings to the red-eyed clouds
from this, the house that sits

on the mound and faces the corner
that marriage built, where wine

was drunk and semen flooded
the egg which lodged in the uterus

that built the daughter who greeted
the man and the woman here

in the mound at the corner in the house
that education built, and you

know from home-schooling
that the woman can be the teacher

and the man can be the tender child
and ditto the actual infant, depending

on her sex, dependent on love and
income; oh our dear dependent

is ruining the new chair in the house
that nested ambition built, along

with naked sense, and the beak
of god, the job of love, the hurt

of older homes, the hang
of it generally, the hands of pain,

the haze of Zoloft and the pudge
of Prozac, the twins of failed

marriages that manage to live on
in the ardor of our redone arbor

here in the house that books built,
that Yiddish and the Book of Common

Prayer built, that Presbyterian pride
built, that pogroms built, that blue

and white collars built, that Bildungs-
romans built, that the Biltmores built,

that mad dogs bayed at, that the baby
was born in that the cat bit and mouse

whispered within, over which, mortgaged,
the thunder caught its tongue and brought

great downpours upon while the coffee boiled,
while the paper, delivered late again, said:

We fight the terrorists abroad
so we don't have to fight them at home.
DON SHARE is Senior Editor of Poetry. His books include Squandermania; Union; Seneca in English; translations of Miguel Hernández, I Have Lots of Heart; and the forthcoming critical edition, The Poems of Basil Bunting. Previously he was Curator of the Poetry Room at Harvard University and Poetry Editor of Harvard Review. He keeps a blog and he has a great sense of humour.