Archive for the ‘Journals’ category

Here Are Two Things You Could Be Reading

September 29, 2011

Hi kids.

I’m busily packing and organizing and generally shrinking my life into a backpack. But, if you’re bored out there, two things you might like:

1. Spencer Gordon’s essay on Nick Thran’s new book, Earworm, in this issue of the Maple Tree Lit Supplement, is a great example of top-level writing about creative matters. It manages to use the same sort of moody, pop-culturally inflected, intellectualism of the book within its discussion of the book. The piece references Mike Lista’s review in the Post and noted ex-VoxPop roommate Jeff’s mention at OBTO. The three pieces are fine to excellent as independents, though I worry that as a trio they sound a touch like a review of hot new bands from a 1993 issue of NME. Lots of talk of cult support and insider knowledge and hipster identifiers, almost as much as the talk of the poems themselves. As a big fan of the book, I don’t want to see it get a “fad” label, you know? And how many of those bands from NME were still being listened to in 1994? Really, really, good poetry books by people who are around 30 are so rare, compared to really good musical albums by the same demographic, that I want to protect that flame long enough to share it with untapped readers for a long time, I don’t want it’s reaction to have the sonorous, and quickly-forgotten, quality of fireworks.

But Spencer’s piece doesn’t do that, and neither did Jeff’s or Mike’s (these things take more than one writer), and I have faith that good poetry can burn fast AND burn long. His review is a thoughtful, exceptionally well-constructed piece of prose for which the author was paid, I believe, thirty bucks.

2. Russell Smith’s column in the Globe today is all about how you’re not a real writer unless you make your thirty bucks and if you don’t hold out for that $1.50-an-hour rate you’re doing a disservice to the older guard among us and are basically a scab. I’ve had this argument with a lot of different people over the years and my position, typically centralist and uninteresting, is this: I don’t feel like my occasional propensity to write public content for free (as I’m doing right now as I type this, and as I’ve done more regularly in the past) undercuts my ability to land the occasional paid gig, because the work I put out for free is a fundamentally different product than the work I get paid for. The latter is written to an editorial standard separate from my own nature and preferences, and the former is unedited, or at best only edited by the original creator.

Obviously, this distinction doesn’t hold water where Smith gets into talking about HuffPo and whatnot, but I would still want to ask, where is the paid market that matches the tone and reach of that unpaid one, that has been shuttered by being undercut by the bloggers? Any comparison between HuffPo and failed magazines I can think of demands a highly selective memory when recalling the magazine’s editorial composition. I wouldn’t want to work for HuffPo because I couldn’t imagine being that bored on purpose. If the rationale offered for doing so is a careerist one, that’s fine, but I’m not a journalist so I don’t feel compelled to put myself through anything in the interest of career. In fact, my major foothold as a writer is as a poet, and being a poet is (by definitions economic, sociological, intellectual, and cultural) the exact opposite of having a career. Maybe this is why my reaction to this whole debate above is to yawn at its mutual preciousness.

-Jake

Two Quick Hitters: CNQ, NP.ca

April 6, 2011

Hello boys and girls.

I got my contributor’s copy of the new CNQ today. Hot shit, that’s a beautiful-looking magazine. You should get a copy from your local salesperson. Here’s the link with the names of contributors more famous and worthy than my own. My contribution, for the record, consists of three poems from Folk. One is about RADAR, one is about naming conventions, and one is about geography. I hope you like them.

Also, I just saw a link to George Murray’s new science project, newpoems.ca. This could be something. The introduction is incredibly ambitious and very passionate: “I’m sick of borders. I’m sick of silos. Bunkers, too. Don’t even get me started on garrisons. I’m sick of the various poetries and poets I read and admire fighting and carping about each other instead of collaborating constructively (however that is interpreted between artists) to generate new poetic possibilities. I’m sick of judgments and systems of criticism that involve aesthetic preference over intellectual accomplishment, that reward attendance and loyalty over risk and depth, that spend more time tromping on the art and experiments of others than perfecting their own. I’m sick of lack of space for difference, or at least for difference within the same pages.”

If you’re against that sentiment, you’re against motherhood. But, you’re probably also not reading this blog, at least not with my permission. It’s an idea born of innumerable late-night barroom tirades, and I’ve heard it attached to more than a couple start-up literary projects in my short time involved with the community. The problem has historically been that everyone has slightly different definitions for what all those above words mean (and that’s a good thing, for what it’s worth, both for poetry and for poets). However, if anyone has the plural focus, and the wide net of friends, to pull it off, it’d be George. Should be worth watching, I wish the dude well.

-Jake

Poetry Foundation, n+1, go Prynne

March 30, 2011

Apparently n+1 is doing a longer thing on JH Prynne, maybe the most interesting poet of those I’ve come across naively over the last five years or so. I read one of his poems for the blog recently, here.

The essayist tips her board and drops into the abyss thusly: “I knew, for example, that he was not only a scholar but also a poet, and not only a poet but a famously obscure and difficult poet. Some people said he was the most important British poet since Wordsworth. Other people said that he was terrible. Since I did not know anything about poetry, nor did I read it, nor did it strike me as a vibrant part of contemporary literature, the actual poetic aspect of Prynne mythology did not interest me in the least. At the time I just wanted to know what people were so interested in.”

And later: “Prynne’s verifiable biography was complemented by a great deal of hearsay. It was said that Prynne had been one of the first readers of Stephen Hawking’s The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (Hawking had also been a fellow at Caius) because he was smart enough to give a well-informed critique. I was told that Prynne was celebrated in China, because he wrote poetry in Chinese, and that translations of his anthology Poems had sold fifty thousand copies there. In China, Prynne is known by his Chinese name: Pu Ling-en. I heard that Prynne was of the opinion that the only two countries with well-formed poetic traditions were England and China, though China’s was far better established, and that Prynne considered American poetry to be rudimentary and infantile in comparison. I read on a blog that the animated character of Jeremy Hilary Boob, a.k.a. the rhyming “Nowhere Man” in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, was perhaps based on Prynne—except that J.H. Boob had a PhD appended to his name. There were rumors that Prynne held parties in his chambers at Caius where poetry would be debated late into the night and deep existential topics would be broached, like which books of poetry it was acceptable to roll joints on (Pope, no; Keats, yes). People said that Prynne’s poetry was perhaps the only poetry wholly resistant to scansion. They said that he spoke with a lisp. They said that he was an avid philologist, and had a giant file devoted to the word “dust,” and believed that it was imperative to learn Anglo-Saxon.”

You can read the larger excerpt here. The rest of the piece will be in the next issue of n+1 magazine. I’ve ordered mine.

Edit: The essayist’s name, for the record, is Emily Witt. Shame on me for not IDing her on the first pass…

This Changes Nothing, Double Production

March 27, 2011

Those of you with more substantial lives may have missed the interesting conversation stemming from Mike Lista’s newest column at the National Post. The thesis, in brief, is that the death of a certain percentage of the nation’s literary magazine, though bad for those magazines and the people who read and write them, might be good for the national literature as a whole.

If you’d like me to give you a reader to bring you up to date, I’d recommend first hitting the source, and then maybe Laurie Fuhr’s rebuttal, which is the best and the most nuanced (not that being the “most nuanced” rebuttal is difficult when poets are talking about economics). In fairness to Mike, please note that Laurie’s not hemmed in by column length. That matters.

You should read both opinions. You should do this because you’re plural thinkers willing and able to consider multiple opinions. You’re Vox Pop readers. You’re not distracted by the simple braying of other web-based sources of literary information I could mention but won’t, because I’m on vacation and in a good mood.

Of course, I have some thoughts on the issue. Feel free to add your own.

1. I’m relieved, and excited, to hear a model of Canadian literature that does not treat the possibility of losing a few journals as a Pompeii moment. To clarify, I disagree with the statement I’ve heard before that “we have more journals than we need.” That’s not really what’s happening here. I will say: we have more journals than we’re using.

2. This really is point 1b, but whatever…The lit. journals I regularly read are: Arc, CNQ, Open Letter, and Poetry is Dead. I venture into others, but those are my big four. I would argue that all four cover distinct aesthetic and cultural territory, and while there is (blessed!) overlap between the four, I don’t think I’d struggle to sell them to anybody as *different* magazines, with separate audiences, politics, and intentions.

3. Lista’s prediction of the future of literary publishing uses a model of commodity economics that I don’t feel is prescient. “Literary magazine” is not the product here. However, to defend him against his more voracious critics, that product is also not the more general “literacy”. One thing I can be certain about is that (not to pick on them, I’m choosing them at random…) “The Fiddlehead” is not an agent of public literacy. People who read The Fiddlehead are already leading highly literate lives. NOW Magazine (or The Coast, or whatever the alt-weekly is in your city) is an agent of public literacy, as its readership may or may not be reading everyday otherwise. The Fiddlehead is an entertainment for a literate sub-population. It’s not increasing the country’s number of readers.

Anyway, “Literary magazine” is not a commodity in the same way that “pork bellies” are a commodity. We don’t care what kind of pork belly it is and where it comes from, we consider all pork bellies equal in the tally. A view that assumes that if we have a third as many magazines, they’d have three times as many readers, neglects the qualitative dimension of reading as much as it neglects purely economic factors like serial consumption, collaboration, and product-mixing.

4. I think that the magazines most likely to survive without any external funding are the ones that can identify themselves as unique offerers of content. I’m sorry for these cold, clinical words, by the way. But, I’d argue that we need them. I feel that all four of the magazines I mentioned in #2 are unique. I also feel like we have, maybe, 6-10 journals in this country that are well-supported by institutions and government, and are not unique content providers. What’s the difference (aesthetically, politically, editorially) between Grain and Prairie Fire? I like both Grain and Prairie Fire, but this is likely because I like both poems and short stories and Canadian lit. I like the non-unique content they offer. If asked, Which do I like more? I’d fail to even understand the question. There’s no difference between them. And very limited difference between them and The Antigonish, Fiddlehead, The Malahat, et al. Don’t believe me? Do this: tear the cover off of all the back issues on your book shelf, and throw them in a bag. Now pull one journal out of the bag, open to, say, page 40, and start reading. What journal are you reading? Answer me quickly. Don’t look at the spine.

5. Variety can’t be measured quantitatively. To that end: “We have a diverse literary culture in Canada, as evidence by our forty-seven literary journals” is a bogus statement. We only have a diverse literary culture in this country if we are using those forty-seven (a made up number, likely hyperbolic) in the service of diversity. Moore and company have evil in their hearts, but at least a sliver of their brain-dead lexicon (“eliminate redundancies”) is valid to our situation. All we are is a house of redundancy.

6. It’s dangerous, as both Lista and Fuhr have done (and, full disclosure, I’m about to do) to try and predict the future. Nobody will get it right. That being said, here’s my concern about where the funding changes might take us….

Imagine I’m correct that the beige standard of mainstream literary publishing (I’ll call it the “I just want to publish good writing” effect) is what dies out in ten years, this is in no way good news for the remaining journals. And it’s worse news for the writers, even those who still get published, and even those who, like myself, were always suspicious of the journals’ advertised role in the creative ecology of the country, anyway.

It is in the nature of threatened organizations (governments, companies, families, eg) to revert to a more conservative approach. We tighten up. We focus inwardly. I’m concerned that the best way to weather a new economic obstacle is to “shore up support”. Thus we retreat to our tribes and our bastions. If Open Letter find themselves to be the country’s lone remaining avant garde literary journal (and I pick them only because I like them the most and I’m familiar with them, who knows if that’s how it would happen) then they suddenly inherit the readership and the burden of that singularity. They move from being a journal of avant garde Canadian writing to a journal of the avant garde Canadian writer. I’m not sure what would happen next, but imagine that one-off stabs at crossover aesthetics (like the brilliant recent “Humour” issue) become things of the past. The same retreat/defense maneuver plays out around the comparable aesthetic milieus at Arc and CNQ. In twenty years, is it conceivable that anyone is published in more than two of these three magazines? Wait, is that even happening now?

I’m leaving Poetry is Dead out of this part of the conversation because A. Methinks they don’t get any funding already and B. They are pirates. And pirates will always survive somewhere, wedged under the national floorboards, in basements and study halls, with nothing but their youth and their I-dont-give-a-fuck to guide them.

7. People who read this blog will see the scenario described in #6 as my version of the hellish, post-apocalyptic nightmare of Beyond Thunderdome. It’s in this view of a potential future that I disagree with my friend Mike, as grateful as I am that somebody would take on the sacred cow of periodicals funding in the first place. I don’t see how the Moore model fosters a national literary culture, unless that nation is Yugoslavia.

But I don’t know. This is important to say: I’ve thought about it, even written about it a bit (again, on vacation, while watching the news and listening to a relative’s story about her teaching job–so mind the typos, kids) and I don’t know. None of us know the future. But I think that we should probably all be scared.

ARC is Looking for a New Editor

December 10, 2010

Anita Lahey, who pretty much holds the mantle, in my mind, of Canada’s best poetry reviewer, is stepping down from her post as editor of Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine.

Whoever gets this job will be in a position to reframe the conversation about Canadian poetry in a way of their choosing. That sounds like a job for someone who reads Vox Populism.

Here’s a link to the job posting. Or, you could just cast your eyes slightly downwards:

***

The Arc Poetry Society seeks applications for the part-time contract position of Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine commencing April 1, 2011. Reporting to the Board of Directors, Arc’s editor will ensure that the content of Arc Poetry Magazine is selected and presented to maintain a consistently high standard for the publication.

Requirements:

■ Previous magazine editorial experience, including planning and assigning content; editing content; and taking issues to press

■ Ability to build on the magazine’s distinct aesthetic with input and guidance from an Editorial Board

■ Previous project planning and scheduling experience, combined with attention to detail and follow-through

■ Flexibility, excellent interpersonal skills and a high level of professionalism

■ Must reside within the National Capital Region, or within a two hour drive of same. We will consider applicants willing to relocate.

■ Familiarity with copyright issues

Assets:

■ Previous experience working in some capacity with a literary magazine

■ Strong knowledge of contemporary Canadian poetry and the national literary community

The Editor will work in consultation and liaison with the Editorial Board, and with the support and administrative assistance of the Managing Editor. Duties include

■ generating content and themes for issues, including reviews, essays, interviews and explorations of issues, ideas and trends in poetry, with input and guidance from the editorial board

■ managing the editorial process from conception and assignment to production and press

■ making final decisions on submitted content based on feedback from the Editorial board

■ maintaining and raising the profile of the magazine

■ maintaining an active presence and fostering relationships in the literary community

■ providing updates and contributions to Arc’s website

■ recruiting reviewers and contributors to the magazine

■ liaison with writers including deadlines, fees, permissions, rights, etc

■ editing all content, and requesting changes and rewrites where necessary

■ writing an editor’s note for each issue of the magazine;

■ contributing to visual art selection activities

■ working with managing editor, art director and layout contractor on production of each issue

■ ensuring that all rights, permissions, and other consents are secured with respect to all magazine content

■ relaying all necessary information to the Managing Editor to allow for accurate and timely payment of all contracts, writers’ fees, and other obligations pertaining to production

■ attending Editorial Board Meetings

■ attending occasional seminars, conferences and trade fairs

■ attendance at all magazine events, including launch and awards events

This is an annual renewable contract position, and compensation is based on a flat fee of $5,000 per issue. Arc currently publishes three times per year (2 regular issues, plus a themed “annual”) subject to funding.

Applications must include:

■ cover letter

■ cv

■ non-fiction writing sample (no more than 1000 words)

Please submit questions or complete applications to:

managingeditor@arcpoetry.ca

APPLICATION DEADLINE: JANUARY 15, 2011

Coles Review in Print

November 24, 2010

Hi kids.

I have it on good authority that the December issue of Quill & Quire is making its way to the nation’s better magazine stands this week. It contains my featured review of the new Don Coles collection, Where We Might Have Been. Kudos to Beattie and company at The Quill for making their monthly Feature Review column available to the oft-backpaged republic of poetry. They only do this once every few years, and we appreciate the nod whenever they do.

I liked the book okay. But really, you should read it, and figure things out for yourself. If a version of the review ever gets published online, I’ll be sure to link to it. Also in this issue: Michael Lista’s starred review of George Murray’s very star-able collected aphorisms, an Emma Donoghue profile, and the magazine’s usual “Best of the Year” lists.

The New Puritan

November 15, 2010

I have three poems from Folk now up at the deliciously well-designed online lit magazine The Puritan. Other contributors include Gary Barwin, Kelli Deeth, Elisabeth de Mariaffi, and Nicholas Lea, among others.

I’ve said it before, but this is fine-lookin’ online journal, an object lesson for those who think no such things exist.

Just a bunch of whiny links who think they’re better than you people

September 8, 2010

I’m a busy man. I’m nine kinds of busy. I’m wicked busy. I’m brushing my teeth and learning Urdu as I type this. Not having time to chat, but still wanting to express my affection, I thought I’d share with you the internet destinations that have been seeping into the cracks in my schedule, like the first half of a basement sealer commercial.

1. My friend Elisabeth and her Toronto Poetry Vendors project is entering Round 2. The poets involved were announced earlier today. You can still get the poems from Round One via the machines cleverly located throughout the city. Here are the Fall 2010 poets:

Nancy Jo Cullen

Angela Hibbs

Jim Johnstone

Jeff Latosik

Michael Lista

Pasha Malla

Leigh Nash

Lindsay Tipping

Aaron Tucker

Zoe Whittall

Reflecting the delightfully claustrophobic nature of even mighty Toronto’s “young poets” scene, this list looks, as they always do, like a cross between the line-up at Pivot and the contents of my cellphone contact list

2. Speaking of Toronto poetry, The Influency Salon’s website has been updated to reflect issue 3 of their transformation from physical event to web-based event. I’m going to read that Lisa Robertson essay one of these hours.

3. Speaking of reading, what’s everyone else reading lately? I’m reading the new Tao Lin, the new Don Coles, and a bunch of European travel books. I’m working my way through Democracy in America, which I’ve been warned by the very list-happy folks at HuffPo is one of the most unread books out there. Also, the above-mentioned Jeff Latosik gave me this book for my birthday, which I may have taken as an insult if I hadn’t previously hinted that I wanted it.

4. Speaking of books, my new book is going well. It’s due to the copyeditor on October 14th.

5. Speaking of October, I’m hosting a couple events next month at the IFOA. One is a four-way reading on like the 27th, with M.T. Kelly and a really exciting international collection of folks. But the thing that may necessitate the buying celebratory fireworks is the revelation that I’m also hosting the Evening With John Waters event on the 22nd. That kind of news is positively Devine….

6. Speaking of the cantaloupe, I’d like you to read this magazine. It’s called Red Fez. The guy names Simonelli who edits the fiction used to run a really fun web journal called “LitVision”, and the poetry editor is poet and blogger Rob Taylor. It’s not new, apparently. Just new to me.

7. Speaking of magazines, the second issue of BC’s Poetry is Dead is now out. I like these people. They do nice work. Go buy one.

8. Speaking of BC, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be at the Robson series in April. We’re waiting for the funding word, but I’m hopeful that I’ll have a shared date with a couple west-coast poets. I’ll write more when I now it.

Best
-Jake

In Defense of Blogging

August 25, 2010

On the topic of things I’ve been quietly considering, I want to talk a bit about blogging. I understand that this is lame and destined to a certain self-servitude (this is a blog, after all), but I feel compelled to do it anyway. There’s been a handful of conversations (on other blogs, no less) about the sustainability of blogging, about its apparent slump out of the ecosystem of literary rhetoric. I’m not sure if this is true. Yes, Harriet has gone from some sort of anything-goes orgy of whininess to a curt diagram of poetry links. However, in the months since this happened I’m sure untold dozens of poetry blogs have sprung up, unbacked by a major institution as they may be, to fill its place. It’s hard to tell if said slumping can be measured, if it it’s just the gut hunch of the masses. Not that being the gut hunch of the masses renders it untrue, per se. I’m unsure.

One of the better and more variegated discussions about this fear recently happened over at Lemon Hound. I didn’t chime in because I wasn’t quite certain what I wanted to say. There appears to be a lot of people concerned that something in the mechanics of blogs (specifically, the comment streams) preclude them from hosting legitimate rhetoric. There seems to be another group of people who see this as self-obvious, but don’t really care anyway (what these people were doing reading a poetry blog I’m not quite sure).

Recently, two major intra-literati squabbles took place predominantly online, and the blame for some of the pricklier elements of said squabbles was laid at the feet of the medium. Near the end of the CNQ response to the Andre Alexis thing in the Walrus, a poster by the name of Gradey23 said the following, much to the agreement of a handful of co-commenters, and at least two of my own dinner companions over these past couple weeks.

You know what’s a bummer? If this debate (this specific debate, I mean) was raging, say, twenty years ago, it would all be taking place on the printed page, giving our eager participants the necessary time to craft more thoughtful, tempered, incisive responses. Instead we’re getting (what clearly appears to be) a bunch of reckless, middle-of-the-night (possibly drunken) publish-button punching.
I mean, you gotta believe that Double-A must now be regretting his bullied-kid’s backtalk (desperate name-calling as he’s being pushed into a locker by the otherwise passive nerds who, en masse, have discovered their confidence), and A-Good is a better writer than to wield as a weapon my grandmother’s lame sarcasm (“Oh my!” *hooks finger in collar Paul Lynde-style*).
How great — how much more relevant — would this little feud be if Z had an editor to pare down his bloated, back-patting counterattack, or if someone close to Double-A had leaned over his shoulder while he was madly typing and wiping away the tears and said to him, dude, come on, you’re better than this…

This is a common argument. I’ve seen versions of it deep into various heated debates on my own blog, and it appears to bat a regular 47th or so in the line-up of the standard internet argument. Like anything so consistently argued, it likely has a lot of truth to it. I take issue with a few things (well, more than a few things, this is a Defense of Blogging, after all). First off, if the poster thinks that never in the history of print journalism has a cultured man of letters got liquored up on booze (or mere anger) and crafted a hastily conceived response to a literary article, much to the delight of some editor in need of a few good grenades to help headline the op-ed section, he’s quite mistaken. The thing blogs and quarterlies have in common is that both are run by people, and both powered by their readership. Their rules are more similar than you think.

Secondly, there’s a smarmy self-regard attached to the idea that if people just took more time between replies, the quality of the argument would increase. This is the application of high school essay-writing logic to what is most appropriately defined as an argument between knowledgeable adults. Take your time to say it right is admittedly a rule of thumb that serves most markets and arguments. I’ll say this, though: We run the risk of sacrificing, with our studious reproach of the immediate, the loss of argument in the service of rhetoric. Rhetoric and argument are cousins, surely, but they’re not the same thing, and while this is something of a simplification, for the purpose of this post I’d like us to consider argument as an ingredient of good rhetoric. There is a certain inescapable facade-factor to the apparent conversation being had at any given time by the country’s three or four consistently relevant houses of printed poetry criticism (off the top of my head, and not wanting to offend anybody, yet: CNQ, Open Letter, Arc, and maybe the less industry-driven third of Q&Q. West Coast Line is in there somewhere too, I know, but I haven’t read enough of it to comment). Viewed historically, the output of issues from these magazines feels sometimes like a box of old photographs, the catching and codifying of a set group of thinkers’ collection of opinions over the course of a given month. Calling this interplay a conversation seems notably generous. For one, I’m not sure how big the club of my fellow “regular CNQ AND Open Letter readers” is, but I’m guessing it’s less than 12. Secondly, because of the time-lapse between issues, and the time requirements for preparing each issue, there arrives a naturally occurring stiltedness to whatever dialogue one would want to narrate.

I’m reminded of the recorded conversations between world leaders during the infamous G-20 summit earlier this summer. These conversations were the product of editorship stretching back for months, scripted by representatives from a combined 100+ foreign governmental departments, and arranged into a series of interacting monologues like a Socratic dialogue in eleven languages. Surely all the things we can say in support of CNQ and Open Letter (and Gradey23’s paradisiacal pre-digital salon) we can also say about the showhorse rhetoric of the G-20. And all three even come with their own portable barricades of concrete, chain-link, aesthetic confederacy, access to independent bookstores, etc….

Of course, what makes the G-20 (arguably) valid is the same thing that makes these quarterlies valid. They are the product of actual dialogue, whether between reviewer and text (an idealized relationship, I know) or between editors, or between the very confederates who also serve a barricading function. While an issue of Arc (the review section, specifically) is a rhetorical product, it occasionally presents as one produced by a recognizable argumentative procedure. I’m talking of the real, elevated-but-not-enshrined prose of an Anita Lahey or an early Carmine Starnino (a name I know will end a lot of people’s reading of this post. If so, sorry. I mean it, though, and if you go you’ll miss out on some decent jokes). If criticism comes across as too polished and manicured, it’s usually the result of unargumentative rhetoric, which can be caused by either a sense that all of your readers already agree with you (a problem for at least two of the four mentioned magazines), or that you haven’t spent enough time in the unwashed sandbox of pre-rhetoric, bumping shoulders with curmudgeonly neighbours, tuning your worldview to the often-callous realities of their reactions. This, of course, is where blogs come in. Blogs are to poetry criticism as the frantic back-and-forth of staffers is to political speeches. Both are the necessary ugly.

For literature,there have been lots of other necessary uglies over the centuries, many of which still exist today. My favorite among these is bars, but pretty much any public place will do. The editors of our major review journals seems to get this. Zach Wells, who has various roles to play at Arc, CNQ, and Quill, is also the proprietor of one of the country’s best-read poetry blogs. Likewise, Jonathon Ball, who guest edited the awesome Open Letter issue dedicated to Play, is one of the most entertaining bloggers in the country. Most people who like steak also like hamburger. There’s something about the blog, perhaps its sketchy semi-permanency, that lends itself to print reviewers, as an alternative venue.

If the post-eruditeness of nostalgia is attacking the new-money world of poetry blogging from the top, then there’s an equal threat looming in the commoner realms below. The media is found of saying that blogs are in the process of being replaced by the quicker alternatives of social networking and microblogs. While I’m not sure if there are numbers to support this, I’m willing to believe them. Harriet has basically done this, thrown in the towel on depth in exchange for breadth and breathlessness. Most former bloggers are now active on Twitter.

I’ve been trying Twitter out lately, if only to give me another thing to do on my at-work microbreaks, after I check my email and my Facebook. I’m not going to give up on it just yet (I’ll likely tweet this post), but I have to register my unenthusiasm. I first liked the idea of the 140-character limit, before realizing that there were people out there who were actually trying to use this super-Oulipean freakshow to say things of argumentative merit. Having a disagreement with someone over Twitter is akin to trying to shout instructions to someone stranded in the middle of a freeway between the deafening incursions of passing 18-wheelers. This was most evident to me during the Twitter fall-out over Steven Beattie and Alex Good’s 10 Most Over/Underrated story in the National Post. I posted the following tweet on the subject: “Im enjoying the Over/Under game, from a certain distance. Tho, with today’s state of readership, are there really any “overrated” writers?”. I was met on the battlefield of argument by something called NarwhalMagazine, which, in the strenuously abbreviated world of Twitter, I’ll assume is the account of The National Right Whale Association Magazine. Here’s something of a transcript:

@VoxPopulist: I disagree. poor readership and the celebrity of some of these writers enjoy only reinforces their ‘overratedness’
@NarwhalMagazine: What celebrity? Would anyone know who even Ondaatje was if there was no English Patient movie? Moure’s sold maybe 50k copies
@VoxPopulist: Martel immediately comes to mind. Also, @DouglasCoupland is a household name who is definitely overrated in my opinion
@NarwhalMagazine: Coupland had cultural commodity fame, but I remember his publisher being ecstatic that Rigby moved 30k. Canlit fame < fame

Now, you can choose to take my side, The Association’s side, or neither (looking it over, I think I’m with Narwhal), but that’s not the point. The point is that this not a discussion, an argument, or an example of rhetoric. It sounds like two media-educated book people forced to communicate via 1920’s telegrams written in the text message jargon of a contemporary 14-year-old. This is why you see so many flame-outs; Twitter literally forces you to be curt, to be dismissive, and to fail to simultaneously hold multiple opinions (expressing even one requires the dexterity of Harry Houdini). And don’t give me the whole “It’s like a formal poem because it makes you work with constraints” speech. I’m not talking about writing poetry, I’m talking about writing ABOUT poetry. There, we need all the characters we can get.

If it sounds like I’m headed to some sort of happy medium argument in defense of blogging, wedged between unpleasant opposites, I’m not. As much as the quarterlies and the twitter are opposites of rhetorical posture, they share the same role for their benefactors and adherents. Call them this: Barricades for legitimizing a fear of conflict. Conflict is the root of this whole conversation, I think, and fear of it is understandable. In such a small community (I know, I don’t like the word “community” either, but let it stand in there for a bit) we fear anything that might lessen already-limited power. Chances are, the poet you bring yourself into conflict with will someday be in a position to take power from you, whether through a jury, a review, or just the casual floating of negative opinions. And there are other reasons to hate conflict too. We’re sensitive people, mostly, we don’t like to be angry. But understand that when I say conflict, I don’t mean the coarse, physical conflict of playgrounds and locker rooms, but rather the conflict that comes up between sensitive, considered, people who are able to review an attack from an intellectual angle while simultaneously suffering its nettles. If there’s a take-away, Twitterable, aphorism inside this great big post, let it be this: Conflict is good. It’s a product of taking other people seriously. And conflict’s natural home in the current state of Planet Poetry is online, on the internet, with all its open plains of untamed verbiage and its false sense of anonymity.

In contrast, both the review journals and Twitter support the suppression of conflict. The journals do it by holding it back, pacing it, giving long stretches of time for it to simmer away into the void of “other concerns”, in the name of academic distance. The journals, and I say this as a loyal reader, are bloodless. And like politicians who prefer the safe distance of warfare by economic sanctions, they are commendably bloodless, graciously bloodless, but they allow for fools (looking at you, Gradey) who believe in the bloodlessness unquestionably. The danger is in letting the set-piece conflicts and crises of an Open Letter stand in for the tactile reality of the ideas being sorted through, considered, reconsidered, and abandoned underneath.

Twitter, on the other hand, suppresses conflict by making it impossible. Now, when I say conflict, remember that I mean conflict as a product of taking other people seriously. I know there’s lots of “drama” on Twitter, but there’s rarely any conflict. By reducing ourselves to headlines bearing our name we remove the pluralist heart that would allow other people to take us seriously. The argumentative pieces you need to enter into conflict, while supporting said argument well enough to be taken seriously, don’t really fit into 140 characters, unless bolstered by the blunt instrument of cliche. In the end, both a quarterly journal and a laser-fast social networking site share the same role: They are devices for the quarantining, and eventual suppression, of conflict. I’m suspicious of them both, but moreover, I’m suspicious of you people who call back to the considered rhetoric of print with one side of your mouth, and yap the baby-babble of the Twitterverse on the other. It’s not that I think you’re stupid. Rather, I’m concerned you might be geniuses. I find myself questioning your motives.

I say all this with plenty of sympathy for the very real problems of blog-based argument. I say it as someone who has twice had to remove comments from this blog that contained threats directed at another commenter. And I say it as the guy who likely made several dozen typos and spelling mistakes in the above paragraphs, because he’s too finicky to proofread and likes his blog to filled with the kind of sentences that can only come from a single 45-minute sprint of typing. I like how sore my fingers are. I know this house isn’t perfect. But it’s home, and I know the neighbors well enough to know my grass is still the greenest. It feels so real, under my feet.

Fresh Fiddleheads

July 8, 2010

The Fiddlehead, Canada’s longest-living literary journal, now has a revamped online home. Those responsible have asked me to tell you that said home can be visited here. Also launched of late is The Fiddlehead Blog. The Fiddlehead blog claims to contain “news, recent awards, sneak peeks of upcoming issues”, but I for one hope for more. Places like the Vehicule Press Blog and The Mansfield Revue have shown us that a literay press can use its online presence for more than just back catalogues and promo material, that they can use it as a legitimizing springboard for discussions of poetry and criticism. May we all hope that the team at the Fiddlehead, which contains a number of Vox Pop readers, sees their blog as something that shines outward on the community, and not just inward on themselves.