Archive for the ‘Citizenship’ category

His Pain, Unowned, He Left in Paragraphs of Love

August 22, 2011

A different Layton, I know. But not a wildly dissimilar personality, in how he’ll be remembered both by fans and non-fans alike. Though everyone pretends to love the newly dead. Many things are about to be simplified.

I met him three times. He remembered the topic of the first conversation and referred back to it in conversation three, even though I, somewhat irresponsibly, had forgotten it. Anyway, now what’s in my head is the below, especially the part up to “the children of the town.”

For My Old Layton
by Leonard Cohen (selection)

His pain, unowned, he left
in paragraphs of love, hidden,
like a cat leaves shit
under stones, and he crept out in day,
clean, arrogant, swift, prepared
to hunt or sleep or starve.

The town saluted him with garbage
which he interpreted as praise
for his muscular grace. Orange peels,
cans, discarded guts rained like ticker-tape.
For a while he ruined their nights
by throwing his shadow in moon-full windows
as he spied on the peace of gentle folk.

Once he envied them. Now with a happy
screech he bounded from monument to monument
in their most consecrated plots, drunk
to know how close he lived to the breathless
in the ground, drunk to feel how much he loved
the snoring mates, the old, the children of the town.
Until at last, like Timon, tired
of human smell, resenting even
his own shoe-steps in the wilderness,
he chased animals, wore live snakes, weeds
for bracelets. When the sea
pulled back the tide like a blanket
he slept on stone cribs, heavy,
dreamless, the salt-bright atmosphere
like an automatic laboratory
building crystals in his hair.

The Twenty-One Books on Jared Loughner’s Bookshelf

January 9, 2011

I had something of a slow day yesterday, so was in good viewing position for the story coming out of Tucson. The great melodrama of this sort of thing tends to lie in those weird open hours after the event and before people start to learn the identity (and extrapolate the motive) of the killer. Everyone rushes to confirm their suspicions. I remember after the Virginia Tech shooting, when news came out that the shooter may have been an overstressed Engineering student, I saw a Facebook update from a perpetually frazzles B. Eng. college roommate saying: “Finally! Was just a matter of time!”. Then when news came down that the guy in question was a poetry dude, I got a paternalistic hand on my shoulder from my boss (I was teaching creative writing to teenagers at the time), suggesting that we keep a close watch for warning signs in class assignments.

Anyway, the great evidence trove when it comes to these kind of public beheadings is in the suspect’s reading history. Reading is a solitary, intellectual, thing. It’s conspiratorial and intimate. This is why the C.I.A. wants to talk to your librarian. When the following list of favourite books was unearthed from Jared Loughner’s social networking presence (let’s not call him “Jared Lee Loughner”, people, as much as Lee may have been his middle name, not all assassins are necessarily tria nomina), everyone pounced.

Here’s the list, grouped by author:
Animal Farm
Brave New World
The Wizard Of Oz
Aesop’s Fables
The Odyssey
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Through The Looking Glass
Fahrenheit 451
Peter Pan
To Kill A Mockingbird
We The Living
The Phantom Toll Booth
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
The Communist Manifesto
The Old Man And The Sea
Gulliver’s Travels
Mein Kampf
The Republic

Of course, the take-away from this list probably depends on what network newscast you were viewing (MSNBC: Mein Kampf!, Fox: Communists!), but the general tenor, most have said, is of a list of escape tales set amid otherworldly horrors. There’s a lot of outsider stories here, people caught in a world of malevolent likemindness (Gulliver and his Lilliputians, the protagonists of Fahrenheit and Brave New World, most anything Louis Carroll ever wrote) and there’s a lot of standard you vs. we individualism at stake too (the Plato for sure, but also the tension between the armies and their charismatic leaders in both The Odyssey and Peter Pan).

There’s some good analysis out there already. This work amounts to a kind of “forensic bibliography”. It’s in constant deal of danger from its own bullshit limitations. Basically, you can go to any bookshelf in any living room or waiting lounge in the world and draw out a narrative that paints the owner as a sociopath. I’d recommend this thing from Light & Sound though, to get you started. You can pretty much opinion-surf from there.

I’d like to offer another theory first though. Look at the list again. Look at the list, and now (if you were born after, say, 1970) make a mental checkmark next to all the books you were exposed to by the demands of your K-12 education, everything from read-along time in kindergarten to high school and college entrance summer reading lists. Okay. How many checks did you end up with? I counted sixteen. That’s 80%. And I don’t feel that my prescribed reading lists were different than most. I read “The Communist Manifesto” for an extra-credit assignment from a lefty pinko history teacher. That’s about the only outlier I can think of. Siddhartha, Gulliver, The Old Man, and The Odyssey were even all on THE SAME summer reading list the year I turned sixteen.

I think the kid made it up. This is a list culled from half-remembered titles he was forced to thumb through to pass an exam, plus one or two obvious “Look at me! Look at how much on a fucked up intellectual I am!” lightning bolts. Ask any high school teacher, the kid who tells you his favourite book is “Meno” is A. Probably lying and B. Definitely trying to get your attention. As the deliciously named Yahoo Answers commenter, “Death Blimp” put it: “He probably hasn’t read any of those books. That’s just almost a random list of famous literature.” Bingo, Death Blimp. Bingo.

As the analysts continue to earn their pay cheques this month, let’s keep this possibility in mind: This list of toxic influences could very easily be just a made up list of literary buzzwords, remembered childhood favourites, and required-reading hurdles, cobbled together to impress the internet. Read the grammar and vocabulary of the kid’s online postings. Sound like someone who loves “The Republic” to you? I don’t think we’re looking in the right place for our answers.

Thoughtful Losers who take Long Walks

October 26, 2010

The thing I’m taking the most comfort in this morning is Shawn Micallef’s recent micro-travelogue of Toronto street psychology called Stroll. Stroll is maybe my favourite Canadian book of the past year among that minority of my reading that doesn’t have line breaks. Its decision to be a walking tour based on straight lines–streets in lieu of neighbourhoods–is antithetical to our conception of the city as a sort of confederacy of cooperative towns, but it is refreshing. Streets, after all, are the phoneme of urbanism, that atomistic thing of which first sense is made out of cities. Only things as blunt and senseless as election boundaries would divide streets into West v East, North v South. And, luckily, those only come around once every few years.

The thing we really want our cities to have, though, isn’t so much sense as it is personality, and we need neighbourhoods to do this. The cult of neighbourhood personality is simplistic and defeating, requiring as it does the forgetting of chain coffeeshops in Parkdale and dive bars in Eglinton-Lawrence, but it’s a believable means of collective myth-making. Calling Toronto a “city of neighbourhoods” is accurate, but all cities, really, are cities of neighbourhoods. Levittown is a city of neighbourhoods. The Vatican is a city of neighbourhoods. We find the differences between the parts of the whole as a means of wrangling the whole into a singular thing. On one side of the fence, the grass grows to the northeast; on the other side, it leans due south. The people at the periphery of the city are all angry and shallow. The people in the middle are all smug, and shallow.

Micallef’s book does a lot of things very well. First among these is the understanding that, if we are to take neighbourhoods as personalities (read: characters) then the best way to craft a narrative out of a long walk is to move from character to character, across the (literal) throughlines offered by a Yonge, an Eglington, or (most distinctly) a Dundas. Another strength is the democratic view to the city’s geography. There’s a lot of suburbia in Stroll. One of my favourite chapters is a short one detailing a walk from my old stomping grounds near Pearson Airport, southeast into the city proper. It’s a long walk. Long, ugly, utilitarian, and rich.

The gorilla in the room this morning is yesterday’s mayoral election. I voted for George Smitherman, who, if I was to give all 30-some candidates a real look-over irregardless of winning potential, was probably like my eighth choice. This comes after a voting life spent spitting at the very idea of “strategic voting”, locked deep in some nebulous Athenian ideal of standing up, being counted, and dealing with whatever results I perpetuated. But this election, for me and for a lot of progressive artsy types (PATs) was different. Maybe it was a bit of an Alamo moment; we’re used to being held up as exhibit A of some snobbish cultural laughtrack. As someone on my twitter feed put it: I walk to work, vote for progressives, and struggle to pay my bills. Please stop calling me “the downtown elite”. We grumbled at all the usual overheated pandering when it came through the lens of the Harpers, the Mannings, and even the Harrises. But Rob Ford brought a whole new level of self-apparent confidence to this pettiness, and as the wave of his support trucked down Yonge from the end of Micallef’s stroll to its middle, the fear set in.

I spent election night at a series of parties. I’m willing to bet that at no point in the evening was I ever in a room with more than a 3% Ford voter share. Some of us voted for Smitherman, some of us voted for Pants. Some didn’t vote. It was exactly the kind of parties that Rob Ford thinks literary types are constantly engaged in, and that the taxpayer pays for (forget the fact that both parties were sponsored by the private sector: one by a tabloid magazine and one by a publishing house). The first party got out about 20 minutes after the polls closed, and I was presented, in the lobby, by a sea of sad people reading the news off their cell phones. Everyone decided to stay out a little later. Babysitters were called, dates canceled.

My night ended on the top floor of the kind of West End hipster palace that everyone knows, despite there being no name on the door. This anonymity lent it a sense of purgatory, like the sixty-so of us who couldn’t conceive of going home yet were clinging to the temporary loopholes offered by our reality in some vague hope that someone might get up and start a putsch. It was a sad room, a room already spinning desperately for the first whiff of outsider irony, that pre-creative oomph of normalcy. To wit: I heard seven unfunny Rob Ford jokes. But give it time, good ones will come before the end of the month. This is the pattern of these things, I’ve been told.

I left the place early (as did many others, us leeching artistic types have day-jobs to go to) and walked the long, thoughtful, Micallef’-esque walk of loserdom, down Ossington, under the overpass, and through Parkdale to Roncesvalles. I tried to think up some good news. Not because I want to undersell or otherwise spin the sickening displacement we all felt at 8:30 last night. This is not the city we were hoping we lived in. It’s a city more of streets than neighbourhoods, and last night, there was a narrative crafted out of those streets that made us into a sort of low-grade crowd of ancillary villains, impotent, hateable, henchmen to the powers-at-be. That’s an untrue, viciously unfair, story to tell, but such is the problem with stories. Take an infinitely complicated web of interrelations like the city, pick a line through it, and that line will tell a story. Not “the” story, of course, but one story. And all you need is one.

But forget all that for a moment. Good news: council, though changed, is not wildly different in its ideological make-up than it was yesterday. The ambassadorship element of the mayor’s office is undeniable, and will likely lead to embarrassments (picture Ford in front of the UN, wearing a nametag that reads “Hello, My Name is Toronto”). But there are other ambassadors. There’s us, for example.

Also, while there are real, nuts-and-bolts policy initiatives that, if enacted, will make life harder for artists, the Ford administration may well be good for art. We do our best when challenged, and the solipsistic view of public artists as cockroaches is, though lacking in subtlety and offered with bullying intentions, an interesting means of approach. Cockroaches are tenacious, are constant, and view a world independent of them. To be a cockroach is to be a perfect watcher.

My long walk through the West End filled me with a lot of warm, humble thoughts. This isn’t the city I thought it was. Most people don’t give a shit what any of us do. It is good and freeing to love Toronto, and be set back by it.

Love Poem for Officer Bubbles

October 17, 2010

I know that the entire point of a Sunday news headline is to roust me out of my coffeeshop daze and make me fuming angry. However, well done, Toronto Star. News that the cartoonish G-20 villain we’ve come to know as “Officer Bubbles” is trying to sue YouTube for defaming his character after various uploaders said some frankly hilarious things about him is enough to make me spit-take my fair-trade, community-supported Americano.

Here’s the victim, in all his original glory:

Because everyone else is talking about bullying this week, I thought I’d do a little standing up on my own, so I wrote this quick little love poem to Mr. Bubbles. It’s not much, but I hope you like it. And, as I’m sure someone is running a Google alert right now for unflattering speech about this Officer Bubbles, let me just make it easy for that reader: My name is Jacob McArthur Mooney. I live on Wilson Park Road in Parkdale. And, go fuck yourself.

Love Poem for Officer Bubbles

I love law men.
I love law men who lay down
the log of the law on loiterers,
or the lecherous losers who let
little lapses in legality
lead them leftward.

I love large law men.
I love large law men who leer
over little girls, licking their lips
with the lacertilian lewdness
of lake-water lizards. I love
the legalese that lets them.

I love law women.
I love the law woman who let
the large law man leer.
I love her Lydian likeness, her lack
of love for the little girl.
She likes letting large men
leer over lightweights. She loves him.
She’s lawless and lamebrained,
like he is.

I love law men and law women.
I love the luck of unlicensed logging
that lets little people light lies, though
leguleiain lawyers lurk in their lounges.

I like the lockstep lawman’s little liturgy.
I like not letting his lies lie still.

I fucking love Word on the Street, and I don’t care if that’s lame.

September 23, 2010

WOTS is Sunday. I’m into WOTS. I understand it’s bad poetry to like things that happen in the sunshine, but I’m a fan. I love the vendors, I love the noise, even how hard the noise makes it to hear the readers. I love the feeling of the subway under my feet as I walk around Queen’s Park.

Really, you should go. Lots of poets. Well, not lots, but a few. I’m looking forward to buying more books than I could reasonably be expected to read, and reupping on my magazine subscriptions. Note: Stop trying to fool me, The Walrus, with your pleas for subscription renewal. I know the best deal you have is coming on Sunday, $20 cash for a year’s worth. And a fucking handbag. I see through your “biggest savings ever” promotion. I see through your lies.

Why are people down on this thing? Whenever I ask a writer friend if they’re going, I get eye rolling. Either eye rolling + “I’m not really into that” or eye rolling + “Yeah, they’re making me read”. They’re making you read? Are they making you spend your honorarium on a pint and a new pair of jeans, too? Tears for fucking Fears, kids! We should be into this! We should all be Yeatsian “smiling public [wo]men” together. Fuck your petty irony. This is the literary community’s version of Doors Open Toronto. So get dressed. Put on some sensible shoes, buy a six dollar lemonade, and smile like you’re fucking happy! There’s company coming!

It's the weekend and I want to colour.

This was too much profanity for a family event. I’m sorry. I got a guy in the post below this making dick jokes…

The Chomsky Tax

July 18, 2010

In 1957 Noam Chomsky proposed the following sentence as an example of an English language usage that was grammatical, but senseless: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. The point of the exercise was to challenge assumptions of grammatical logic as something that created and regulated sense and senselessness. As many people have pointed out, the stated senselessness of the sentence demands a certain inattention to the possibilities of poetic or figurative language. Poets, of course, are usually willing to believe anything if you say it with line breaks, but you don’t need to be a metaphor junky to see some wiggle room in Chomsky’s sentence. For example, “colourless” can mean bland or uninspired, “green” can mean immature, and “to sleep” can mean to act without intellectual curiosity. Whereas many “green” ideas are therefore “colourless”, and that those ideas are often the product of “sleepiness”, there are connections to be made in Chomsky’s famous unsentence.

Some people even proposed less philosophical solutions. A Chinese linguist wrote the following brilliant prose poem in response: It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Maybe the greatest boon to Chomsky’s sentence’s Long Walk to Sense was the growth of the mainstream ecological consciousness in the late 20th century. Now we have a “green movement” that concerns itself with “green solutions” by generating of course, “green ideas”. Some of those ideas are imaginative, fresh, colourful. Others are blind, short-term, and, by extension, colourless.

I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough about the taxation economics of Ontario’s new “Eco Fee” to be able to say if this is a green idea with colour or not, but I will say that Dalton McGuinty is a politician heavily reliant on the intellectual sloth of his constituents, the belief that they won’t stay mad about anything for very long, no matter how obscene or stoked with ridiculousness it may be. The Eco Fee, right or wrong, was suppose to “sleep” on the political landscape of the province, right alongside its citizens. I can’t believe that the move by McGuinty to this sleepy pseudo-tax was inspired by anything close to environmental fidelity.

I will also say that The Toronto Sun is a paper unworthy of the city that allows it its name, and its headlines tend toward the kind of grumpy, xenophobic, futurephobic dysphoria that people tend to try and dismiss as simple “populism”. It’s not populism to compare a female politician, even one who betrayed the public trust, to a dog. It’s just being a pompous, mysognistic bag of assholes. Calling this stuff populism is to insult anyone who might agree with you, though luckily most of them won’t notice. And I understand that rage, simplicity and (yes) furiousness all sell papers. But, if these were the only contributors to sales volume, surely the Sun wouldn’t languish around at half The Star’s usual circulation, would it?

All that being said, while looking at headlines like this one (imagine it in its original context, splashed across the display window of a T.O. newspaper box), could anyone imagine a less surprising caption than “Colourless Green Idea Sleeps Furiously”?

What if the great narrative of the English language is that, as it slowly takes over the world and assimilates more and more cultures, jargons, and technologies, every single senseless sentence finds a home on a printed page?

How to Help out This Ain’t

June 22, 2010

Hey folks.

As promised, here is the go-to information for how to donate to the grassroots cause of saving This Ain’t the Rosedale library and, if not quite doing that, at least recognizing that what Charlie and Jesse have been doing for the last thirty years amounts to a form of public service. If we can’t save the store, we should at least let our thanks be known to the owners. Donations of any and all sizes will be appreciated. I gave them a hundred bucks, which is an amount of money I routinely pay my bartender for what amounts to a hangover and a lingering sense of guilt. I won’t miss it as much as a bookstore. If you have more, you should consider giving more. Or less, whatever you can reasonably spare.

Here’s a link to paypal page. And, to pull the heartstrings, here’s Charlie’s personal message describing recent events at the store…

“Our situation, which could be told as a long story about the plight of bookstores in Toronto and in many North American cities, is really quite a simple one. At our new location in Kensington Market we found a space with lower rent and overheads which thus represented an enticing solution to the difficulty of inflated rents facing many stores of our kind. For a year we worked in this space happily, until the recession hit with full force and we began to fall behind with our rent. Our response to this situation was similar to that of any small retail business. We bought shrewdly, held regular events, did book tables for small press launches, conferences and author appearances, did not invest in advertising, fixtures, signage or renovations, kept only minimal staff (the store has one part-time staff person), and most importantly worked full-time or more with long store hours, while drawing the absolute minimum for our own rent and expenses. In this way we were able, albeit very gradually, to pay our back-rent, and maintain an amicable relationship with out landlord. While the space presented a number of challenges, including our basement flooding whenever there was heavy rain, and though we heard many stories of rent reductions in our own neighborhood we were not offered this option, but continued none-the-less to enjoy working at the store and feel inspired by our customers’ enthusiasm for the books that we were selling. Quite suddenly this changed. Our landlord became impatient with the rate at which we were able to pay her and made demands for large repayments, without providing a precise accounting of what was owing. In light of our workload and the proliferation of other causes in this city, a fundraiser remained only an idea. Instead we responded to these unrealistic demands with an informal proposal which would not have been profitable to us, but to our landlord. We received only further demands which we attempted to meet within our resources until the locks were changed on Friday June 19th. We are once again offering our landlord a choice which would be beneficial to her and allow us to re-open our doors, and are hoping that the outpouring of encouragement from the public might influence our situation. Along with this we are seeking help with organizing a fundraiser, and we are accepting PayPal donations. As we were living day-to-day, as many small business owners do for years after opening or relocating, our own livelihood has been erased, and our present situation is very uncertain. None-the-less we have seen that many people value what we do and are eager to help us, and thus remain hopeful that a resolution is around the corner.”-Jesse and Charlie Huisken.

“But that day I thought only of the loneliness of dying”

April 25, 2010

It’s strange how you find yourself sometimes wandering into the public version of your own private thoughts. I was considering the newest in a long line of case studies in Dalton McGuinty’s provincial government’s history of campaigning from the left and governing from the whoever-will-have-them. For those not up on local Ontario politics, that’d be this decision that elementary school children are not ready to process the innocence-blasting idea that some people are gay and some people are not. One of the surprising truths about Canadian culture is that the religious right here is worse than it is in the States. Having had dealings with both, I’ll tell you that the American version is loud and proud, willing to proclaim their hatreds and anachronisms in any public forum. This makes them susceptible to what, in honour of the optimisms I’m celebrating this month at The Torontoist, I’ll call the “national scrutiny”. The Canadian version, however, is sneaky, having decided to forgo any public practice of ideology for backroom intimidation and pocket-lining. They’re like the pharmaceutical lobby, except with Jesus.

Specifically, I was considering the problems of the direct approach. Very few good poems have been written in which the poet attacks, in the first person, the targets s/he finds him/herself incensed by. Any element of the rant is aesthetic poison, unless a rant is specifically what you’re writing. And if so, good luck, as you’ve chosen the hardest of all literary forms to do well.

So imagine my elation when I tuned into CBC radio today and found the program Tapestry broadcasting the public reading of the poem Campo del Fiori given annually by an Italian atheist community named after that poem’s primary image, the sculpture of Giordano Bruno found in the titular Roman piazza.

Milosz’s poem is a master class in the dance of approach-avoidance between political poets and their charged material. His being a life full of politics so incendiary it’s hard for me to even understand them from my vantage point, it is something he grew quite practiced with. Here, he spends his eight stanzas lifting threads from the various civic tributaries that gather around his statue of the martyred philosopher, poet, and (by 16th century Italian standards) anti-papist. There’s an appeal to the humanism and emotionality central to any engaged political statement, but to my ear, shaped as it was by those concerns of directness listed above, it seems only half-intended. He lets the passage “Someone will read as moral/ That the people of Rome or Warsaw/ Haggle, laugh, make love/ As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.” sit in a kind of third-person purgatory, divorced from the immediacy of other material (the girls’ skirts, the passage that was excerpted from the title of this post). In the end, he takes his anger as his subject, not as the poem’s vehicle, focussing on the inherent impotency of poetic rage in the final incendiary image: “On a great Campo dei Fiori/Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.”

Anyway, this is not intended as a close reading of Campo del Fiori. Though feel free to have one of your own (it’s posted below in its entirety). This is just my Sunday happening, a report on the occasional intersection between worries old and new, personal and national, directed and internal.

Sorry the flow of posts have been light, lately. I have reasons. But don’t worry, more are coming soon.



by Czeslaw Milosz

In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
Baskets of olives and lemons,
Cobbles spattered with wine
And the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
With rose-pink fish;
Armfuls of dark grapes
Heaped on peach-down.

On this same square
They burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
Close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
The taverns were full again,
Baskets of olives and lemons
Again on the vendors’ shoulders.

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
One clear spring evening
To the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
The salvos from the ghetto wall,
And couples were flying
High in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
Would drift dark kites along
And riders on the carousel
Caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
Blew open the skirts of the girls
And the crowds were laughing
On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
Of the loneliness of the dying,
Of how, when Giordano
Climbed to his burning
There were no words
In any human tongue
To be left for mankind,
Mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
Or peddled their white starfish,
Baskets of olives and lemons
They had shouldered to the fair,
And he already distanced
As if centuries had passed
While they paused just a moment
For his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely
Forgotten by the world,
Our tongue becomes for them
The language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
And many years have passed,
On a great Campo dei Fiori
Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

Warsaw, 1943
translated by Louis Iribarne
and David Brooks

The Answer Season

April 16, 2010

So the sprinting stallion that is National Poetry Month has just crested the midway point of its race, and is now dragging Canadian Poetry’s population of bridge trolls and agoraphobics down the final straightaway. There are a lot of month-long projects on the go around the country, some lame, others interesting. rob mclennan’s version of The Globe and Mail’s usual poets-on-poets parade is better than most. My favourite, though, would once again be Julie Wilson and her library of mp3 files. Three cheers for them both.

Of course, readers of this blog will know that I am doing my own thing, over at the Torontoist. The Optimisms Project is itself halfway done, and has produced all the frustrations and teachable moments I had hoped. Someone in another blog recently called it a “thought experiment”, and I think that’s the expression I had been looking for. Early results suggest the experiment has been mostly successful.

But what do we think of National Poetry Month? It has all the properties of a hatable obstruction: government mandate, top-down astroturfing, and many opportunities to be publicly asked the kind of questions that poets hate, by people who only interview poets once a year (Where do you get your ideas, Mr(s). Ethereal Thought-Spirit??). Many a curmudgeon has popped up in my social networking radar screen to groan dismissively, and every last one of them has made a good point.

But I find NaPoMo hard to hate (except for that anagram: NaPoMo…I find that exceptionally easy to hate). There’s something earnest and unaffected about it. I feel like it doesn’t kill us to have to stand in the light a bit, and that doing so carries with it actual aesthetic and creative benefits, not just the fleeting benefits of press and publicity. Yeats speaks in “Among School Children” of standing as a “smiling public man” and, while I understand the danger in reducing the non-poetry world to a bunch of school children, that’s the kind of ethic that the month of April offers to us, if we’re willing to join the team. Many Canadian poets have visited schools these last couple weeks, and have been made to serve as smiling public men and women. Worse things have happened to better people.

A poet friend suggested that a far better use of the month of April would be to commit ourselves completely to the writing of good poetry. Lock the doors and man the pens, in other words. This sounds like a perfect vacation, to me (does this scenario come complete with vouchers for rent and food? Will someone take care of our kids for 30 days? Work our day jobs?) but also strangely similar to what we’d be likely to do if left to our own devices. I’m glad we have National Poetry Month (and, for the record, jobs and kids and other commitments) to distract us from ourselves. If there’s validity in the argument that poets who work in universities will end up just writing about universities (there isn’t, but not everybody who reads this blog knows that yet) than what can be said about the poet who only works on poems all day?

I’d argue that the kind of questions that poets get asked in general settings like class visits and interviews (and this interesting roundtable I attended at the Toronto Reference Library last week) are good for us. They are intense, primal questions: Why do you write poetry? What do you like about it? These are the kinds of questions we can go for hours of intense internally debate amongst ourselves without ever considering. Maybe this is because we’ve all gone past it, moved beyond it to a new world where we can speak of higher-order things. But that bedrock idealism never goes away, and I’d argue it needs to be consistently renewed and reapproached. Can you think of a more immediate and challenging writing prompt than a bright-eyed eight year old (or an angry-eyed forty year old, one with followup questions about public funding and intellectual elitism…) asking, What’s the point of poetry, anyway?**

These questions lead us into conversations about how or if poetry is a unique way of investigating the world. Which is a creative gift, because it pushes us into a self-aware headspace with the intensity and focus of someone being asked to defend themselves with words. That sounds like a good place to write from, doesn’t it? It might be frustrating to have to explain your worldview to strangers, but it’s effective practice. Being a smiling, public man (in small doses) makes me a better scowling, private one. At the very least, it makes me *want* to be one. And the press is sometimes good. It’s nice to sell things.

Hope to see some Vox Pop readers at the McClelland & Stewart Poetry launch on Monday. Go back one post for details.


**That’s not really a good writing prompt, I guess. It leads to abstractions and generalizations. A better one may be: What’s the point of poetry? Please express your answer in the form of a description of rain falling on a freshly-cut lawn.

Back to the Laptop, a Round-Up

February 12, 2010

I’ve been a busy little boy over these last 48 hours. The reading at Pivot went very well, and the TPL’s Book Lover’s Ball (I sat with banking executives, they loved me in a way only grim-faced stoicism can express) was full of high-fashion, gourmet food, and lots of other things I know nothing about.

I’m glad to see the conversation I had started about annotation in poetry collections has taken-off without me. I’ll make an effort to read my way back to being abreast of the argument and try to weigh in again. These sorts of conversations are why I started the blog: smart people, having thought about something of importance for a long period of time, arriving at the polar opposite opinion on an issue.

Those of you who can brave the National Post long enough to get in under the hard crusty shell of failing neo-con print culture to the delicious spongy cake of their tops-in-the-country book blog, The Afterword, may already know this next update. Somewhat disappointed, as I have been, by the move in recent years to more mainstream, pre-approved Canlit titles by the CBC’s book discussion club, Canada Reads, the boys at The Afterword thought up an idea for a sort of Canada Reads Shadow Cabinet. They are calling this (of course) Canada Also Reads and have asked me to be one of the eight appointed Book Defenders. I’ll be vouching for Leon Rooke’s sublime new short story collection, The Last Shot. I think you should read it. There, see how good I am at vouching?

The way this will work, I think, is there will be a parade of personal essays on the eight selected books later this month, then a live-blogging Battle Royale of some sort in early March. Stay tuned.

The Olympics start today, and I’ll be watching. I know there’s legitimate reasons to ignore and even dislike them, but I can’t be asked. Censorship and arts funding and the homeless and whatnot are not to be ignored, but are also not to be pinned on a group of young competitors with stubborn ambitions and poverty statistics to rival any poet’s. Sports have some things figured out that us artists are centuries away from understanding, and there are things we can learn from them. Imagine, a playground reserved for only the people who are the very best in the world at whatever tiny, repetitive thing they do. And we get to watch them do it this on the T.V. And it even happens in our country. I’m sold. The Vancouver poet laureate turned down an invite to participate in the games, which is what they call, in politics, “playing to your base”. Though, as I said above, he had his choice of legitimate reasons.

However, for this viewer, it remains one of more undigestible traits shared among poets that we withdraw from participating in any element of the larger society that troubles our delicate morality. We are always the martyrs we’ve been looking for. And in two weeks, when this is all over, we’ll go back to complaining about how the rest of the world ignores us. If only there was a gold medal for being more noble than everyone else.