Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Larger Light Show

Jason Guriel gives Clive James props for focusing on the "counterintuitive" aspects of poetic technique:
At bottom, James is loyal to poems, not poets. He’s concerned with the question of why some stretches of verse stick with the reader and why others don’t. It’s clear he has spent years white-boarding problems that contemporary poets no longer give much countenance. For example, most of us dabblers would delight to be able to manage a brilliant line or two of poetry per poem. But James is preoccupied with not just how to generate brilliance—feat enough—but how to muffle it slightly so that it serves a larger light show. As he says of Frost: “His easy-seeming, usually iambic, conversational forward flow is a deception, a way of not just bringing show-stopping moments to your attention but of moving them past your attention, so that you will form the correct impression that he has wealth to spare and does not want the show stopped for such a secondary consideration as brilliance.” Brilliance as a “secondary consideration” is, well, brilliant—a counterintuitive point at a time when the practitioners who tend to trend, like Frederick Seidel and Patricia Lockwood, specialize in show-stopping lines. Elsewhere, James reminds us that poets once taught readers how to pronounce a word simply by its placement in a pattern of stresses. He can talk couplets, alliteration, nuts, bolts. It’s not that Poetry Notebook is perversely arcane; it’s rather as if a ballet textbook had readmitted to its pages, after years of doing without, the pirouette.

The Right Answer

Jim Johnstone argues that Don McKay was one of the first Canadian poets to reject Margaret Atwood's influential victimhood vision.
Before his first major coronation in Canadian letters—the 1991 Governor General’s Award for his seventh collection of poetry, Night Field—Don McKay was nearly indistinguishable from his subject matter. A naturalist whose poetry reads as if it’s part field guide, part rural love song, he camouflaged his identity in the language of his preferred landscapes. In doing so, McKay eschewed the garrison mentality that pervaded Canadian literature at the end of the 20th century. By taking up cause for the wilderness itself, he flipped the script provided by Margaret Atwood in Survival (1972), a book of criticism that wrestles with Canada’s literary identity. Citing examples from the national canon, Atwood argued that the central characters in Canadian literature were victims, and grim survival their chief concern. For McKay, who was busy reclaiming language as a means of communication with the environment, the physical world constituted his protagonist, one that’s continually victimized by human interference. This is clear in his second book, Long Sault (1975), where he lays out an ars poetica when he writes: “Here was a map coming out in dotted lines / to be filled in with the right answer. Here was a rapids in the noose.” While contemporaries like Al Purdy and George Bowering continued down the road paved by Atwood, McKay began filling in his figurative map with birds, beasts, and reparations to his surroundings.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Sunday Poem


To think you slender necked majestic birds, mythical white,
were worn as shoes. Split open at the seam and tender female feet

urged in to keep the damp and mud at bay; slippers of a sort.
The only plunge you made a final one into the thud of earth

not the dive of arrows into the sea your sharp beaks
once made, a weapon for the abundant fish.

The sky so thick with Gannet you resemble white ash
not birds that rise above the rock and fog.

Coupling pairs with yellow-crested heads dusted with pigment,
a solid crown, your skulls resistant to impact from impossible heights.

The only way to catch is from above. The fish are all your bounty here,
herring swallowed by the beak-full, under water.

Sea-bound boats bob and flail in winds too fierce
for any fisherman’s hook or line.

So they net you instead. From horsehair ropes bound with
the lining of sheep gut to keep from splitting off.

Men suspend themselves and poach you from your sea stack nests
dangle from cliff faces, their only implement a long stick

with a noose at the end to scoop you by the neck and snap it there
above the depths.

The goose-neck footwear only lasts four days, if that, then
tossed aside to sink into the ground, skin and carcass as mulch for crops.
From Leaving the Island (Signal Edition, 2015) by Talya Rubin.

Camp Life

Michael Prior reflects on his grandparents' internment 74 years ago:
My maternal grandparents are Japanese Canadian. They also grew up near Vancouver. Their families owned adjacent strawberry farms in a small town, until they were forced into an internment camp for the last four years of the Second World War—a fate shared by 22,000 other people of “Japanese racial origins” who were held in various camps across the province. Their property and possessions were auctioned off to pay for their own internment. Still, my grandparents’ love for this country remains greater than almost any other people I know.

One Time Only

James Arthur ponders his reading style, in which he performs his poetry from memory:
When I started reciting my own poems in public, I worried that it would seem too theatrical, but now I find recitation very natural, because it allows me to address audiences directly. When you recite you’re giving a performance, in the way that an actor or a singer performs, and some poets are not interested in doing that, maybe because they’re writing for a readership as opposed to an audience, or because they see poetry as a very private art. I have no quarrel with them. But, in my case, performance is part of the medium. Sometimes I feel that it’s my main medium, and that the presentation of my poems on the page is secondary.

I often write from memory by walking around and talking to myself. Even when I’m working at a computer I write out loud, so that I can hear the poem’s rhythm. Every time I hear the poem, I know it a little better. By the time I’ve finished revising a poem, I usually have it committed to memory, or almost committed to memory.

And treating poetry as a performing art emphasizes its ephemerality. A printed poem can be endlessly reprinted, photocopied, scanned, uploaded, cut and pasted—but a performance, even if somebody’s there with a video camera, is one time only: the audience experiences something that won’t exist when the performance is over, and which won’t ever be reproduced in exactly the same form. I find that appealing.

Thursday, 26 March 2015


Where does Kateri Lanthier get her best material? Her kids.
I certainly steal from my kids. There's a lot of kidspeak and kidthink in [Reporting from Night]—while I worked on it, I was listening to under-fives acquire language, collide images, fracture expressions and coin words. It was delectable. I followed them around with a notebook to capture what they said. Some poems draw on "life," in terms of settings or scenarios, but I think the greater debt is to the way kids speak. "As we strolled past the mannequins,/ you said, "This is the fashion store/ for ladies with no heads." And "Moon, moon, help me, I'm stuck!" or "On the snow hill, you say/ "We are running/from our footprints." The kid's-eye view started to affect what I saw, so that even when I'm not quoting them, I see things their way: "Mitten foliage is scattered by the door./ The floor wears many hats."

Interpretive Powers

In an interview with Stewart Coles which appears on Boxcar Poetry Review, Jim Johnstone explains his notion of poetic "difficulty":
I'm not concerned with difficulty as much as I'm concerned with perspective. There's always going to be a gap between what a poem means to its author and what a poem means to an individual reader — to me that adds a layer of perception that makes difficulty a secondary concern. Poetry demands the interpretive powers of its readers, and I'm comfortable leaving that challenge in their hands.
Over at Maisonneuve, Johnstone talks to Chad Campbell about his relationship to revision:
Sometimes it feels like I spend all my time revising. That time feels like work. There’s a stark contrast between writing and revising as far as I’m concerned—writing is creative, joyous, almost ecstatic, whereas revising is necessary if you want to publish your work. There are times when I leave my initial draft in a journal and keep it for myself... I find holding back work refreshing; as long as they remain unseen, my poems belong to me completely. The same principle is necessary in a healthy relationship or friendship. Without mystery, the self can suffer.