Archive for the ‘Poetry Education’ category

Retail 2012: Mansfield Press

February 11, 2012

Something of a consistent source of surprise, the little press that is based in Toronto, but does its poetry from Cobourg. The list this season is decidly Atlantic-centric. Which I’m into.

Title: In This Thin Rain
Author: Nelson Ball
Release Date: April
Collection Number: Hard to Quantify. Let’s just go with “many”.
Time Since Last Collection: Eight years
Editor-Approved Bumfspeak: “In his first full-length poetry collection since 2004, Nelson Ball, Canada’s most renowned minimalist, offers up compressed meditations — ranging from the whimsical to the mournful — on clouds, birds, insects, trees live and dead, water-stained walls, crumbling windmills, and hyphenation in the Globe & Mail. Ball’s poems are meticulously polished gems that move through the seasons, finding beauty and depth in the most banal and simple things.”
Google Says: One of the poems included in the Mansfield Press catalogue for this book is exactly eight words long. You can find something of Mr. Ball’s life work in this detailed CV I found. Nelson is a bookseller by day, and his unique business model can be explored in this little piece on his store. By-appointment. I work the same way. You can catch some selections from Ball’s Mercury Press book, The Concrete Air, in this three-way review. His stuff comes up somewhere in the middle.

Title: Holler
Author: Alice Burdick
Release Date: April
Collection Number: Third
Time Since Last Collection: Four years
Editor-Approved Bumfspeak: “In her follow-up to 2008’s Flutter, former big-city-dweller Alice Burdick explores nature and the small town, taking a cue from children learning their voices: “All I see are trucks, / trucks and ducks.” With a blend of playful narrative and a collage approach reminiscent of John Ashbery, Burdick paints a portrait of our world as one of continuous wonder, and full of relationships — between people, and between people and things — that never die but continually transform, even in death.”
Google Says: Alice lives in Mahone Bay. Which is the town next to the town I grew up in. The first time I got drunk, it was on Jack’s Hard Lemonade and we drank it in the playground of the elementary school. The cops showed up because we were being crazy loud and when everyone scattered, I climbed onto the top of a jungle gym and when the officers found me I shouted out something like, “You can’t see me! Your visual acuity’s based on movement!” Well, that’s neither here nor there. Moving on to Alice Burdick, here’s some poems from her last collection on the oddly aggressive “ditch” website. Meanwhile, these three all date from 2009. Meanwhile again, if it’s reviews you’re after you can see one of Burdick’s last collection from one-man review machine and capital letter phobic, rob mclennan or one up on the Northern Poetry Review site. Seems like a well-liked book. I liked it well, too.

Title: Sympathy Loophole
Author: Jaime Forsythe
Release Date: April
Collection Number: First
Editor-Approved Bumfspeak: “This lively first collection, often both creepy and hilarious, serves up an image-laden universe where contortionists, womanizing ventriloquist dummies and pickled sharks compete with the everyday for airtime. Forsythe’s poetry is full of wit, mystery, and surprise — a contemporary inventory of pop culture and human experience.”
Google Says: While this is Jaime’s first collection, it’s not technically her first book, as she previously edited this really great and criminally under-read book of short fiction for Invisible. Jaime and I did the MFA at Guelph the same time, and new poetry collections from fellow whatever-the-school-mascot-is-at-Guelph-ers always gets my pom poms out of the closet. Jaime took the same poetry workshop as me on a lark, apologized for being a newcomer to the art form on day 1, and by the end of the semester was among the most exciting people in a really talented class. Here’s three poems from her in This Magazine. Here’s a bit on Elisabeth Bishop she wrote for her day job working for The Coast. And here’s her blog, featuring a photo of her cat picking out the poem order in the book. As good as anything, I suppose.

Title: What’s the Score?
Author: David W. McFadden
Release Date: April
Collection Number: Again, as with Nelson Ball, I’m going to say something like “a lot”.
Time Since Last Collection: Four years.
Editor-Approved Bumfspeak: “The often outrageous and always wise follow-up to 2008’s Governor General’s Award–nominated Be Calm, Honey shows David W. McFadden at his most inquisitive and provocative. Here you’ll find ninety-nine poems full of surprises by a Canadian long-distance poet in his sixth decade of writing, a writer who never rests on his laurels or allows himself to become complacent. This is a book full of mystics and Golden Age movie stars, friends of McFadden and long-dead philosophers, and their tales are all told in the poet’s deceptively plainspoken voice.”
Google Says: This is the official follow-up to Be Calm, Honey, the 2009 GG nominee I really loved. You can check out a review of said book right here. Or, if you don’t know how to read, you could just listen to him read from one of his longer pieces right here. There’s six pieces from various points in McFadden’s career branched off of this U of T site. And, as a Griffin nominee, there’s all kinds of archived stuff with Dave’s name on it here at the Griffin Trust site, too.

Lampert, Lowther Shortlists

April 4, 2011

The Finalists for the 2011 Gerald Lampert Award for best debut collection of poetry in English by a Canadian poet are (the parentheticals are author’s home, press):

The Crow’s Vow by Susan Briscoe (Montreal, Signal/Vehicule)
That Other Beauty by Karen Enns (Victoria, Brick)
Tiny, Frantic, Stronger by Jeff Latosik (Toronto, Insomniac)
[sic] by Nikki Reimer (Vancouver, Frontenac)
Here Is Where We Disembark by Clea Roberts (Whitehorse, Freehand)
The Nights Also by Anna Swanson (Vancouver, Tightrope)

Lampert jury: Lori Cayer, Jacob Scheier, Todd Swift

and the Finalists for the 2011 Pat Lowther Memorial Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman are:

Ossuaries by Dionne Brand (Toronto, M&S)
Walking to Mojacar by Di Brandt (Brandon, MA, Turnstone Press)
Living Under Plastic by Evelyn Lau (Vancouver, Oolichan Books)
Memory’s Daughter by Alice Major (Edmonton, University of Alberta Press)
Cathedral by Pamela Porter (British Columbia, Ronsdale Press)
La luna, Tango, siempre la luna (The Moon, Tango, Always the Moon) by Nela Rio (Fredericton, Broken Jaw Press)

Lowther jury: Magie Dominic, Eric Folsom, Yvonne Trainer

Spare thoughts re: the Lampert
There was really an embarrassment of riches this year for first collections. This isn’t a bad list. Some real diversity to be found. I’m glad to see [sic] get some attention, it being one of my very favourites of the past year, and obviously a big Wilson Park Road shout-out goes out to Vox Pop roommate and local superhero, Jeff Latosik. Anna Swanson is a friend, too, who wrote the kind of good, well-rounded debut that tends to sometimes get lost in these cattle calls. The only book here I haven’t read is Clea Roberts, but I’ll get on it. As for omissions? There’s lots. Leigh Nash would have been nice to see, also Melanie Siebert has to be a surprise after making the GG shortlist. Joshua Trotter? Or would his book be under 2011? I’d argue that the most obvious omission here, though, is Michael Lista’s. I think Bloom is that rare poetry collection that garners both critical excitement and (soon thereafter) the first inklings of an early critical backlash. Ninety-eight percent of first collections, including the great majority of Lampert winners, acquire neither in their time. Bloom will have to settle for being the most-discussed first book of the year, despite not making the LCP’s list of “best”.

Spare thoughts re: the Lowther:
I’ve read fewer of these, so I’ll tread lightly. Nice to see Dionne Brand out there for Ossuaries. I haven’t read the Brandt, but usually follow her work, so I’m surprised I’ve missed this one. That’s two book buying missives handed down to me by the League this afternoon…Omissions? I would have liked to see Sharon McCartney make it. Dani Couture’s “Sweet” was also wonderful. There’s always two to three deserving lists worth of options for this prize, I’m sure everyone has a pet book they’re disappointed to see miss out, but those two are probably mine, these two and the any number of other titles I can’t presently remember…Edit: I just woke up today and asked myself, “Wait, is Suzanne Buffam’s book on that list?” It is not. So there’s another surprise.

How about the League showing their diversity stripes on the publisher front? Twelve books, twelve different presses, and I count only 2 Toronto outfits in the whole batch (M&S and Tightrope). The League awards have sometime of a decentralist’s reputation compared to the Griffin and whatnot, and that’s displayed here.

Ah, awards season. That blessed time of every calendar year where we pause for a moment to express art as integers. Griffins drop tomorrow. You’ll know ’em when I know ’em.

Influency’s Return

April 2, 2011

Good morning, everyone.

I just saw that the University of Toronto’s Cont Ed centre is going to offer the Influency Salon again. I’d like it very much if somebody saw this post, read facilitator Margaret Christakos’s founding document over here on the program’s website, and registered for the course. I’ve had the opportunity to participate once as a guest, and would likely be signing up this time around as a student if I wasn’t leaving the city mid-way through. Influency is the perfect literature course. All the paraphernalia and overconfidence that tends to accrue when four or more people come together to discuss poetry, washed away by engineering or the force of the personalities involved. I can’t recommend it enough. I’m not sure who the poets to be studied this semester are, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the conversation.

The registration page is right here. Sign up. You’re not going to live forever.


Harbourfront/NOW Magazine Open Stage Night 3

March 3, 2011

Hi everyone.

Just a heads up, Harbourfront has posted the readers for its third annual open stage night. This is a fun evening, it feels like something akin to poetry speed-dating: very retail, very quick-n-dirty.

The list is picked at random from a larger pool of applicants, which depending on who you ask either results in a fairer final twenty, a more variegated final twenty, or just a worse one than if it was filtered through a panel of judges. I’m in camps one and two, but understand the position of #3.

I’m hosting again this year. Come and watch me wear a suit. It costs $8, but most of you reading this (students, publishing people, authors) can probably get in for free. March 30th, at the Harbourfront Centre. Get your tix here.

Here’s the list. Apparently there’s one more reader that’s yet to be revealed. I hope it’s Robert Frost.

Gloria Alvernaz-Mulcahy
Gary Barwin
Jill Battson
Ronna Bloom
Heather Cadsby
Edward Carson
Kildare Dobbs
Rocco de Giacomo
David A. Groulx
Aurian Haller
David Hickey
Inge Israel
Jim Johnstone
Kath MacLean
Nathaniel G. Moore
John Oughton
Ruth Roach Pierson
Souvankham Thammavongsa
Zachariah Wells

Retail 2011: Insomniac Press

January 25, 2011

Next on the list is little Insomniac Press. Insomniac tends to do one book a season, with the occasional second title added for veteran poets launching collecteds or selected. This spring is one of those selections, with a short selected coming out from Stan Rogal called Dance, Monster! But, the major concern of this series is new work, so we move forward to there.

Title: Love Figures
Author: Sam Cheuk
Release Date: March
Collection: Le Debut
What Bumf Say: “In his debut poetry collection, Sam Cheuk attempts to invent a new way of truth-telling. Borrowing disparate techiques from self-censorship, identity performance and phenomenology, Cheuk reverse-engineers the parlance of postmodernism in search of the primal motivation behind expression, all the while asking the question: is a lie a lie if the liar shows you how he lies?”
What Blurb Say: Yusef Komunyakaa says: “Cheuk’s wit shows in the movement of each trope and through moments of adroitness where both pain and joy meet in the same line. Get ready for Love Figures, as the poet aims continuously and hits the mark slantwise.”
What Google Say: Here are Cheuk’s very first four published poems, from a 2004 issue of Exile. Sam did his MFA at NYU, with the above-quoted Komunyakaa as a prof. Lastly, here’s a somewhat clumsily-retrieved poem (more recent than 2004) than the Exile quartet, this one being from the LRC.

It continues tomorrow. Maybe. Or the day after.

Retail 2011: Coach House Books

January 21, 2011

The Coach House is next. Just two titles from nichol lane this season. CH has, quite admirably, started to really spread out their new collections. They did three last fall. Both of their two (non-reprint) offerings this year are debuts. That’s also a surprise.

Title: A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People
Author: Gabe Foreman
Release Date: April
Collection: Le Debut
What Bumf Say: “Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People is not your average reference book. It turns a series of sociological case studies into a functional encyclopedia that doubles as a unique, achingly funny, always engaging collection of poems. ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Day Traders,’ ‘Entomologists’ and ‘Number Crunchers’ are all dutifully catalogued in a series of luminously strange, compellingly original lyric and prose poems. The resulting field guide to our disparate humanity is often absurd, sometimes sad and frequently a mix-ture of both, as each entry unravels according to its own spidery logic.”
What Blurb Say: Jeramy Dodds keeps the tongue in the cheek with, “This compendium of bipeds makes all others obsolete.”
What Google Say: Here’s some poems from the book in the online journal with the tagline so planet-fuckingly obnoxious I won’t even say their name. Here’s Foreman and others (including yesterday’s Joshua Trotter) in audio on Career Limiting Moves. And here’s a rare online poem from Grain, which looks like it’ll probably also make it into Foreman’s Encyclopedia.

Title: Match
Author: Helen Guri
Release Date: April
Collection: Le Debut
What Bumf Say: “Robert Brand has given up on real women. Relationships just haven’t ever worked out well for him. He has, however, found a (somewhat problematic) solution, a new feminine ideal: the 110-pound sex doll he ordered over the internet. Showing an uncanny access to the voice of the rejected, unimpressive, emotionally challenged modern male, Helen Guri’s debut collection explores Robert’s transition from lost and lonely to loved, if only by the increasingly acrobatic voices in his mind.”
What Google Say: I’m into this strange conceptual piece, which is old and probably not in this book, from Science Creative Quarterly. Alternatively, this issue of CanLit will let you peek at her poem. Guri is also among the poets from a certain issue of Event discussed by rob mclennan over here.

Retail 2011: Biblioasis

January 19, 2011

We continue on our merry parade over the 2011 Canadian poetry horizon. Despite getting some exciting future-Vox news today, I shall keep my eyes on what’s in front of me.

What’s in front of me is the upcoming publishing plans of Biblioasis, another press I missed last time out. After a delay in getting their publication schedule together, the poetry titles listed as “Fall 2010” are actually only getting out to stores this month. So, the friendly Biblioasis marketing lady asked me to include them here, as a sort of Spring(-ish) 2011 list. And I said yes. So, we’ll do that first.

Title: Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman
Author: Goran Simic
Release Date:
Collection: September 2010. And by that, they mean around now.
Timespan Since Last Book: Six years since the last English collection.
What Bumf Say: “In this book, we find the world-renowned poet visiting familiar themes in fresh ways. Not only is Simic now writing in English, but many of these poems also embrace the constraints of rhyming quatrains. Simic seems to comment on this in on of those poems, “Walking Backwards”: “When I asked the old frames to embrace me freshly cast, / I was walking backwards. And I was dead wrong.” But what we have here is a middle-aged poet rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his past, moving forward with power and precision, forging new frames and speaking, as always, with an exiled voice as doubtful as it is authoritative.”
What Blurbs Say: Ken Babstock says: “Simic’s voice comes to us from a severe elsewhere,”
What Google Say: Here’s the man’s personal website, for starters. I’d recommend, within that site, his excellent essay “Sleeping with Poetry.” Here’s a Words at Large interview with the CBC from a couple years back. There’s also a (not wildly positive) review of Sunrise in the new Quill & Quire, I believe, but it’s not online yet. They usually trickle that stuff out over the month, so keep looking around.

Title: All This Could Be Yours
Author: Joshua Trotter
Release Date: September, 2010 (but not really)
Collection: Le Debut
What Bumf Say: I award 1,000 points to this, the most succinct, least-pretentious bio ever written for, or by, a debuting poet, and probably the shortest bio this side of “Ann Carson lives in Canada”: “A long-time resident of Peterborough, Joshua Trotter recently moved to Montreal. He is the author of one previous chapbook.” The bumf itself goes like this: “Like the promise of its title, All This Could Be Yours is full of elusive gifts. Joshua Trotter’s debut collection is a metaphysical hall of windows that seem to be mirrors and mirrors presenting themselves as windows. Trotter’s poems – which could be the bastard love-children of Stevens and Frost – refract, reflect and deflect with canny puns and rhymes, the rigour of their forms belying the rogue trickster twists of cockeyed logic they take and the po-faced near-sense in which they speak. ”
What Google Say: Here’s Joshua jumping through rob mclennan’s usual hoops. Trotter (along with the two Vehicule poets from yesterday) took part in this delightfully weird canoe-based poetry tour last year. And, perhaps most famously and controversially, the National Post recently declared this not-really-released-in-2010 2010 release The Very Best English-Language Poetry Collection of the Year, Among Those Not Published By Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

Title: Lost Luggage
Author: Salvatore Ala
Release Date: About now.
Collection: Third
Timespan Since Last Book: Seven Years
What Bumf Say: ” Lost luggage and the efforts to find the things of this world retrieved and redeemed are central to Ala’s poems. In his new book he presents a unique group of poems about the world of soccer: “The Goalkeeper,” “Pelé,” “The Soccer Ball,” and others, show Ala’s openness and refusal to accept the sterility of modern trends. Lost Luggage has many examples of his unique sense of style, his particular blend of candidness and depth. A rare commodity today.”
What Google Say: Those unacceptably sterile modern trends apparently include most of the internet, so I’m scrounging here. I found this thing called “Windsor Communities” offering a profile, and I found a very persistent suggestion from the internet that I was probably actually trying to type “Salvador Allende“. Thanks, internet, for proving the man’s point.

That’s it for the lapsed past. Here’s what Biblioasis lists as its official “Spring 2011” lineup.

Title: Open Air Bindery
Author: David Hickey
Release Date: April
Collection: Second
Timespan Since Last Book: Four Years
What Bumf Say: “David Hickey’s sophomore collection of poetry, Open Air Bindery, builds upon the myriad strengths of his first collection to offer a tightly fantastic collection of songs, stories and covenants ranging across everything from art and astronomy to snowflakes and suburbia, each poem a small instance of colliding light, playful and humorous and profound. These poems, like the flakes in Hickey’s poem- sequence “Snowflake Photography,” take their “time/ Covering the roadside trees in forms of (their) careful willing … gesturing down to earth, unveiling new shapes/ for all that (they) find/ here in the oldest of botanies.”
What Google Say: This is another book that, had I known it existed, would have probably made my list of titles I’m most looking forward to. Hickey’s last book is one of my favourite recent debuts. That book was introduced to me via this interview in NPR. Adorable little province “P.E.I.” keeps a pretty good database of pages on their native children, of which Hickey is one. Finally, here’s a review by Alex Good on his blog that brings up a lot of the same ruralist questions In The Lights of a Midnight Plow left behind in me, when I read it.

Title: The Illustrated Edge
Author: Marsha Pomerantz
Release Date: April
Collection: Le Debut
What Bumf Say: This isn’t really a Canadian book (Pomerantz is American, via Israel), but I’m just so tickled by the idea of a Canadian publisher doing a book by a non-Canadian (“What? What? There’s no CC money for that shit! What foolishness!” cry the provincialism police) I’ll mention it anyway. The bumf says things like: “Marsha Pomerantz’s The Illustrated Edge is as close to a perfect first collection of poetry as you’re likely to find: long-distilled explorations of the human heart mixed with linguistic and formal exuberance and playfulness.”
What Blurbs Say: Daniel Bosch, in the Boston Review, says Pomerantz “offers a participant-observer’s portrait of the state of the heart”
What Google Say: Here’s the rest of Bosch’s piece in BR. Pomerantz’s day job is at the Harvard Art Museum. No biggie. And, to show you just how internationalist they’re being, here’s a link to the Amazon.Co.Uk page for The Illustrated Edge. There you’ll see that they’re not only taking up Canadian publishing, but are actually the only way you can get The Illustrated Edge, even if you live on another continent.

A Back-to-School Reprint

August 23, 2010

This time last year, while working for Open Book Toronto as their blogger in residence, I posted the following article about the poetry (and specifically, Canadian poetry) offerings at our city’s two largest halls of learning, U of T and York. Because I recently felt the radiating dread of a newly-backpacked eleven year old while standing in line to buy office supplies, I’m thinking it’s time to rerun it. I don’t know for sure that nothing has changed in the two English departments investigated. The only news item I’m aware of on the subject is the recent shuttering of U of T’s internationally regarded Comparative Literature program. Using this as a barometer for how the year went, I’ll assume not much has improved. So, submitted with confidence, here’s a reprint of my two-part post “What the Kids are Learning”, from OpenBookToronto. Now with 2/3rds fewer spelling errors, and some abusing videos of college frivolity.

It’s the first week of September. The air is tightening up, assholes in CNE-sponsored fighter planes are buzzing my apartment in Parkdale at 8:30 in the morning, the city is as it wishes to be. And that great fall ritual of going back to school kicks into its frantic final movement. I took some time out from quietly hoping for a two-plane collision this morning to take a look at what a poetry-minded young adult could get him or herself into at Toronto’s two largest institutions of higher learning. Let’s review what the reading lists have to offer:

University of Toronto:

Ah, tradition. Ah, walking paths and mahogany and Peggy Atwood taking long strolls through the middle of soccer matches. The University of Toronto quite desperately wants to be Ontario’s, if not Canada’s, canonical hall of higher learning. So it should be incumbent upon them to provide their student body with opportunities to see the great works of our nation’s repertoire. However, the pickings this year promise to be as skinny as the jeans on this year’s crop of new freshmen.

Introductory Level: The auspiciously titled “Literature for our Time” offers a little Eliot (Prufrock and Waste Land) but nothing Canuckian, which is fair enough. First year classes are about establishing contexts, and our literature has always been something of a reaction (to England, to America, to ourselves). Freshman year is for the colonial powers, most schools give that much up at least.

Middle Levels: The second-year course “Reading Poetry” is a little more involved than the name suggests. You apparently also have to complete assignments and sit some exams. That poetry mostly comes from version four of the Norton Anthology, which has stopped many a dorm room door through the generations. The Canadian Lit Survey plays it safe with the inarguable (Lives of Girls and Women) as well as the common but inexcusable (Two Solitudes? Really? Does anyone care about this?). One section does some individual poems, but I don’t see any collections on their list. The poets studied trend old, banal, and initialled (Charles G.D. Roberts, as a representative example). Shout-outs to the cool kids are offered in the form of Coupland, Thom King, and Al Purdy.

One of the two sections of U of T’s “Contemporary Poetry” has been cancelled. I can only imagine this was because the stampede of registrants caused their computers to freeze up and destroy all the bookkeeping. The “Canadian Poetry” course has exactly who you’d expect, and seems to have escaped the riots unscathed.

Advanced Levels: Nothing specific to the Canadian Poetry scene, unfortunately. Sinclair Ross gets a class. As do Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. Imagine being the U of T English major who powers through The Waste Land in their first week of year one, then throws it away thinking: Never Again!, only to arrive for their final seminar as a serious-minded senior and be presented with the exact same text. Mmm…canonical wisdom.

Overall Grade: I don’t know what I expected, but I expected more. I went to an underfunded university at the far edge of the country, took exactly three English courses, and still got exposure to the likes of Solie and Babstock. What’s stopping the University of Toronto from doing the same?

And why is The Waste Land an introductory text, exactly? I’ve read The Waste Land ten times, and there’s still stuff in there I can’t quite wrap my head around. What is it about the instruction of poetry that makes us begin with poems that are as distant and foreign to their students as possible, and slowly move toward things like Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent on Other Planets (English 354Y)? I’m not talking about degrees of difficulty, you understand. Al Purdy can occasionally be a very difficult poet, but he writes about a life far more coherent to a crowd of 1991 births than a Spenser or Keats or even Eliot or Pound.

That’s not to take away from the importance of establishing literature as a symptom of history, I understand that an appreciation of The Faerie Queen deepens one’s appreciation of Power Politics, but my experience says that the reverse is also true. I wouldn’t suggest we abandon a historical view of the study of poetry, but does that historical view demand a complete linear narrative? Can we not say, for example, that The Waste Land comes from a time of great ideological confusion in its author’s country, and so too does Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and Dionne Brand’s Inventory? In a curriculum that begins with contemporary Can-Con and moves to the transnational stalwarts, my fellow children of the 21st century are allowed a greater initial foothold. Compare a long poem built around the line “One year she sat at the television weeping” (Inventory) with one built around the line “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,” which, though part of something vital and engaging and incendiary, feels more like a destination than a point of departure.

We look at Canadian content in the classroom like it’s some sort of incursion by lesser works into a space set apart for the great names of the Western canon. This does a disservice both to our national literature and, not for nothing, our city’s students. Canadian literature is an essential part of a curriculum because the classes are filled with Canadians. We can talk about national literatures as mistakes of geography, but ignoring the shaping influences of borders, multiplied over centuries, is silly. The same goes for epochal recording of time, but “21st century poetry” is still a response to 21st century life. It’s a shame that books tailor-made for these introductory classes sit unconsidered in the library stacks, hoping for some bored underclassmen to happen by on a slow day and read them.

Part 2: Today we move uptown to the suburban environment of York University. I came in with some high hopes for York, it’s the kind of place where, in the first tentative weeks of September, you can hear things like, “My name’s Doug, not ‘Professor’”, where students of mixed levels can share a cheap beer or seven, and where a person might be treated to the odd requisite text they’ll enjoy. Same thing as last time, I trolled through the reading lists to find what I could find.

York University, Fall/Winter 09-10

Introductory Level: Not every section of the fall semester’s survey course had posted texts yet. One that did found time for Hunter S. Thompson, the ultimate “I assigned this so you’d know I’m the cool prof” essayist, and specific mention of the two W.C. Williams poems to be taught (The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say). I love both of those poems, but it’s a little suspect that the instructor felt the need to include them on the syllabus when they’re a combined few hundred words long and the kind of thing you memorize in grade six. Is this it for assigned poetry? Anyway, the 1000-level course for Creative Writing majors states “A small collection of exemplary poems will be assembled and distributed when classes begin.” One would assume these exemplary poems would not all be assembled from the freshmen writers’ portfolios, so there’s something.

Middle Levels: The standard second-year poetry lecture makes room for three single-author works (including Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid) before giving way to the Norton, version five. The CanLit seminar includes works from ten authors. Grab a pen and try to write down their names. Eight-five percent of you just got all ten right.

Meanwhile, a course on modern-age Canadian poetry does the Geddes (15 Canadian poets) and Thesen (long poem) anthologies. I looked for a reading list for the “Intro to Creative Writing” class, and couldn’t find one. I hope there is one, if any class should be weighed down with an overabundance of required reading, it’s an introductory creative writing course. I can say that York does a nice job of jumping into thematic and critical concerns fairly early, instead of front-loading their curriculum with surveys along the usual national and chronological boundaries. There’s interesting stuff on the coming-of-age narrative and apocalyptic fiction as early as year two. There’s also a junior-level course on Italian-Canadian literature that’s full of good stuff, including Pier Giorgio DiCiccio’s anthology, Roman Candles.

Senior Levels: The trend towards cross-genre study continues here, and a couple of the seminars they come up with look good enough to eat. A whole course on “the concept of play”? Really? Where do I sign up?

Also, there’s an impressive five (!) shout-outs to the slumping relics of our petty nationalisms. One’s an intense study of four specific contemporary Canadian writers that manages to pick the only four writers a typical English senior can pretty much guarantee a knowledge of anyway: Findley, Urquhart, Atwood, and York U favourite Michael Ondaatje. Another contemporary lit. course does two of these four and also the likes of Andre Alexis, Dionne Brand, and Daniel Jones. A Canadian-specific class on “Life Writing” mentions no set reading list, so I can at least hold out hope for the Bret Hart biography being included. The Canadian Short Story seminar has an impressive list of Quebec writers you won’t see anywhere else in the city. The most exciting of the five is a seminar on the History of Canadian Publishing, which fulfills honours prerequisites in the fields of tragedy, farce, and satire, all at once.

Final Grades: This is definitely a deeper list of Canadian talent than downtown at U of T, and while that talent mostly writes prose, it’s still an improvement. I can’t find fault with York’s commitment to CanLit that isn’t systemic to the entire country. Sure, most of these Canadian-focused courses are upper-year electives, and a person could likely snake through the required courses without getting their hands too dirty, but after the sobering experience of plumbing U of T’s website, I’ll take what I can get.

Still, it’s confusing to me that Canadian Literature, and specifically Canadian Poetry, is something many students are introduced to only after a long slog through other traditions and contextual markers. Maybe this idea I keep hearing (and spouting) of our national literature being a series of reactions to trans-national trends is a product of it being introduced only after those trends have been fully cemented in the minds of its audience. I don’t want to just chock this all up to 1970’s “cultural inferiority complex” stuff, because I feel like we’re beyond that and when it comes to our immediate neighbours to the south, our biggest obstacle to get over is our sense of cultural superiority, not inferiority.

Anyway, I don’t have any answers, and I’m not in charge. I would suggest this, though: a cultural education that begins with the arms-length world of contemporary, national (even local) authors, and expands out with an ear to historical order, but isn’t beholden to it, would create a qualitatively different kind of scholar than one that positions our nation’s literature at the end of a long list of titles defined by their growing newness. This would provide for something more approximating a national paradigm, and if there’s one thing this country doesn’t have enough of, it’s national paradigms.

Sipping maple syrup from an igloo shaped like beavers,

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.

Influency 8

March 4, 2010

Hello all.

The newest incarnation of Influency: A Poetry Salon is now open for registration. Facilitated by Margaret Christakos, Influency strikes me as the near-perfect poetry discussion group. For a semester in the life of the University of Toronto’s Continuing Education program, poets present papers on other poets in a sort of intertextual parade. Participants join in with reactions, questions, and creative/critical interpretations. I’ve always wanted to sign up, but for various reasons it never happened. So I’m excited that Margaret has chosen me to be one of the eight poets in the eighth incarnation of the salon.

I’m not just saying this because I’m involved but, really people–if you’ve wanted to get back on the poetry horse but haven’t done so, this seems like the ideal way in. Good, hard, intellectual fun. Among nice people. And, apparently, someone brings treats.

It’s possible I’m sneaking out priviledged information (I hope not–if so, apologies to Margaret and Co.) but below you’ll find the preliminary schedule. Lots of good, smart people on this list. And I’m glad to be able to present a book I really believe in, Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting.


Influency 8: A Toronto Poetry Salon

April 7 • Introductory lecture

April 14 • Sachiko Murakami on Carmine Starnino’s This Way Out (Gaspereau)

April 21 • Carmine Starnino on Jacob McArthur Mooney’s The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart)

April 28 • Jacob McArthur Mooney on Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhausting (Coach House Books)

May 5 • Gregory Betts on Sachiko Murakami’s The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks)

May 12 • Susan Holbrook on Gregory Betts’ The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press)

May 19 • Ruth Roach Pierson on Carolyn Smart’s Hooked (Brick Books)

May 26 • Carolyn Smart on John Barton’s Hymn (Brick Books)

June 2 • John Barton on Ruth Roach Pierson’s Aide-Mémoire (BuschekBooks)

June 9 • Registrants’ Intertexts and Closing Salon Party