Archive for the ‘Reviewing’ category

Even This Becomes A List, You’ll See

January 26, 2012

Hi kids.

Thanks to everyone who employed various methods of bring Spring poetry catalogues to my attention. I’ll wait a little longer until some more come in, then set out in search of stragglers and people who have better things to do than read blogs.

Wanted to gesture at a couple me-things though first. Alex Boyd has updated his Northern Poetry Review site recently, it includes a number of new reviews, including the new Stephanie Bolster. That book is the very next thing on my to-be-read pile. I kick in a review of the new collection of essays on the topic of Love-him-or-hate-him Canadian poet Richard Outram. It’s a good book, and if you’re a fan of Outram’s, you should read it. I can’t really say the same if you’re less than an avowed fan, though. The books not made with you in mind. Not that it has to be, if you’re picking up 150 pages with the gent’s face on the cover, you should probably have more than a passing admiration for the work.

That was probably my problem. It took me eight months, several addresses, and two missed deadlines to read that thing. Not proud to admit it, especially as I trucked it all the way to the Yukon and then strapped it to my person as I backpacked through 15 pseudo-autonomous post-Schulmann European countries. (Sidenote: Well done, Croatia. No need to be scurred. You’re doing the right thing in the long term, my beauty.) I say all that while still recommending the read to the very limited audience for which it was created. Well, I say it more detail and hopefully more clarity in the second half of the review. You can decide for yourself my clicking on this sentence.

One thing I didn’t really mention in that review is that my favourite essay in the collection was actually Jeffrey Donaldson’s far-left field reading of Outram’s work via the lense of Tibetan prayer circles and other things that loop. It’s the kind of article these kind of books really support. Incendiarily self-confident moon shots. I don’t know if the author quite convinced me of anything, but surely he moved the most intellectual material around in his attempt, and I’m always pleased by such efforts.

Also I should mention this interview I did with good old Chad Pelley over at the stout and noble if–to my ear–still unfortunately-titled Atlantic lit blog Salty Ink. One expects a fisherman in a sou’wester holding a quill. Also, one expects the quill to not write well, as there is some salt in its ink. But no matter, I’m just goofing around. One of the things that happens in the interview is Chad asks is for a list of favourite Canadian books of the last year. I interpreted that, as I know my place, to mean I favourite Canadian poetry books. I only gave him one favourite, Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet. I’m willing to allow that that’s a somewhat obvious and uninteresting choice of a canonically-accepted author if you’re all willing to allow that the book, for all the stoic-faced acceptance that it’s well-written and “good” in the global sense, remains horrendously under-read in critical discourse. The inability Canadian poetry has shown to look it in the eye and treat it like a book and not like a publishing event is the kind of thing that should have everyone who wants to write poetry and is under 40 eying job postings overseas. Though it might be too late, as we’re already exporting our cancers. This negative review from Another Chicago Magazine uses pullquotes from three glowing, if overwhelmed, domestic reviews before ever getting around to the text itself. Oops. It’s just a book, dudes. Fucking read the thing.

Anyway, the review with Chad promises notes on the above plus at least two incidents that I remember where I use the word “poop” in a sentence. So click here if you’re really into poop.

Though I haven’t done a “best of” list or anything for 2011 (God knows there’s plenty out there, and I apologize for whatever role I’ve historically played in exacerbating this trend towards quantified criticism on the blog circuit) I’ll say this about the year that recently ended. It’ll be remembered in the long-run by the poetry cult as one that produced a very unusual number of truly awesome first books by new female poets. That’s the takeway, despite how much I loved the new Babstock and how there were plenty of good titles produced by penis-wielding poets, too. There’s been an endless parade of top-flight females debuts, though: fun, dour, unflinching, playful, whatever. Look at it all. Look at this one. And this. There’s been so many. Like this one. Truly a banner crop. Oodles. And I’m sure my months of absence have left me missing many. This is what 2011 will mean to us when it’s 2021. New female poets that played so very, very, well.

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.


Reviews in, Reviews Out, Trillium, Sunburn, Thursday

May 30, 2011

Hi everyone.

To bring you up to date: I quit my job. I am going to spend June doing a lot of reading, some writing, and a great deal of wandering around the city. I’ve done so much of this third thing already (including a 25km quest from Parkdale to Folk’s spiritual homeland of Malton, Mississauga) that I’ve already developed a case of the official sunburn of my people. I’m going to write an essay about reading books while walking down a public sidewalk. I feel I’m good at this, and it’s a skill that’s underutilized and seen as eccentric or antisocial. It’s not.

My review of the Fall 2010 chapbooks from Cactus Press is in the newest reload from Alex Boyd and company at Northern Poetry Review. I liked them all. Go read them. Also, the review of Folk by Adebe D.A. from the May issue of Quill and Quire is now online and here is the link I promised earlier.

Trillium shortlist came out today, and it was a good morning here at headquarters with both roommates scoring nominations. Well deserved, gentlemen. That poetry list is superb, really. Books that I was worried were coming in under the radar, brought back to the radar’s blip (Couture, Norman). Someone even got shortlisted despite insinuating that he doesn’t submit to awards. Magical. The Globe ran a halfway interesting think piece on awards culture last week. The takeaway thought, for me, is the idea George Bowering had about how prizes have taken the place of reviews in the ordering, canonizing, extracting work of new literature. Seems wildly inefficient, really (reviews are inexpensive, iconoclastic, various, while prizes tend to be expensive, idolatrous, monolithic and loud). Also, reviews used to have the democracy of numbers (a book would get 10 or so, says Bowering, and it matters less what one well-placed individual thinks of your work), while awards are few enough to put a great deal of weight on the lucky or unlucky arrangement of jurors around juries. Not that it’s the fault of any of the awards themselves. Anyone wanting to give money for books is on the side of angels. Full stop.

The solve for this imbalance seems simple enough: more reviews. Better critics. More space for reviews in the unconfined space of the internet. A democracy of shouting. And the rest balances itself out. I’m trying to pitch in here and there. I’ve taken to reacting to people who introduce themselves as “aspiring poets” with a friendly, “Oh really, have you reviewed anything I might know?” To that end, massive props go out to E. Martin Nolan for his review of the new Babstock in The Puritan. The first decent reading that thing has gotten, the first to approach it excited and unafraid. The first to get into, and then over, it’s “difficultness”. Everyone reading this sentence has more difficult books on their bookshelves. Stop panicking. Let’s not overreact, you know? Let’s be readers.

Speaking of all that, I’m stoked for the Griffin readings tomorrow. I’m going to spend the day getting liquored up so I can introduce myself to Don Patterson. After that circus packs up for another year, I’d recommend the launch of what I’ve been told is the final issue of Misunderstanding Magazine on Thursday. Both Cactus Press and Misunderstandings are Jim Johnstone creations. Cheers to Jim, say I. A pretty solid crew of readers await us at the Black Swan on Danforth at 7:30. Two Moritzs, Paul V, Sam Cheuk, the Toronto arrival of Vancouver’s Rob Taylor, and a bunch of others. Really great line-up. Now that I don’t have a job, I suppose I’ll get there early, even.

I Went Away Nowhere

May 17, 2011

Hi all.

I took some time off. Quite a bit of time, actually. I wasn’t vacationing. I was reading (in public, aloud) and reading (in private, quietly) and going to baseball games and visiting family and trying to be as good a subject I can manage as friend/family/co-worker/associate/boyfriend/neighbour. It went okay.

So what have I missed? A lot, right? Some good books out there now. If I had to throw my megaphone behind just one new 2011 title, I’d offer Linda Besner’s “The Id Kid“. I read with Linda in Toronto at the beginning of the month, liked her book enough to pick up a copy, then took it home and came to like it a lot more. She does a breathless list of things very well in this book. It’s playful, formally adventurous, and carries a variety of interests. I liked it good. You should buy a copy and read it for yourself.

I’m still pretty busy. I quit my job in a month. Then the Yukon for three months. Then a quick sojourn to Winnipeg to read at Thin Air this year, then the Vox Sister and I are running away to Europe in October. Fuck you all, I’ll see you in 2012. I suspect blogging activity to increase over the summer, and then drop low again during the fall. And by blogging, I mean actual blogging, not just this silly drop-in updating garbage. I’ll use adverbs and everything.

I’ve been piecing together what I want to work on while at the Berton House. I’ve got a novel I could fiddle with, and a handful of poems. But really, all I want to do is read. Read for like 10-14 hours a day. Read all the books. Read everything I’m 1,500 pages away from understanding well enough to carry on: aesthetics, economics, European history, Marxist literary criticism, recent Canadian short fiction, the history of The Worlds Fairs, the history of baseball, the history of Russian philosophy. I have a list of thirty or so things I’d like to know 400% more about, and that’s what I really want to do. Read and read some more. As I mentioned online last month: All I want to do is read books until I puke.

And if I could sneak some poems out, or rewrite the novel, while doing that: balls. Bonus balls. But mostly I just want to read. These retreats are supposed to be about “making time” for your art. I can always make time to write. But I can’t always make time to read.

Speaking of reading: I’ve got a handful more of those before leaving the city at the end of June. I’m at NYU with Thran this Friday, then I’m in Burlington on the afternoon on June 5th with Anne Simpson and in Hamilton that evening for Lit Live. Then, I’m road-tripping to Niagara with local short story mavens Carolyn Black and Rebecca Rosenblum for the Niagara Literary Festival on June 12th. Rocknroll. I’ll send details on those last few when I know them.

A number of you have mentioned the Globe review from Saturday. I like that. It’s good to be noticed in the newspaper read by, say, that English teacher I had who once told me I had no knack for writing and should probably be an engineer. What’s up, Mr. D? Say hi to Hebbville for me.

There’s been a few notices for Folk of late, actually. The Quill and Quire had a very generous evaluation in their May issue. When that goes online, I’ll show it. Here’s one from the Halifax’s Chronicle Herald (you may need a login to read it) and quick hitters from The National Post and the New Brunswick paper, the Telegraph. Mark Sampson writes a nice one for his blog here, and I’ll add a link to this blog review that liked it a lot less, though her points are fair and the review is well-assembled. I’d be willing to call her opion of the book “mixed”, right up until that last paragraph. Ouch.

Be cool, internet.


Review of “Modern Canadian Poets” in the Globe

April 7, 2011

My review of the much-discussed Carcanet anthology “Modern Canadian Poets”, edited by Todd Swift and Evan Jones, is in the Globe today. Here’s a link. I’m actually not sure if it’s in the actual printed paper, too. Probably not, as today is Thursday. [Edit: It is.]

I didn’t like it very much. I question its intentions, and I feel that it shirked the massive responsibility of both its title and the name on its spine. This from two poets whose work I enjoy. For a dissenting opinion, please read Carmine Starnino’s defense of the project in the current issue of Quill & Quire. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 80% sure he’s being overly generous to the book, but it’s a very well written piece of prose, and full of things to consider.

Here’s that link again. An excerpt follows, if you’re really trying to conserve bandwidth.


The anthology as provocation
From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 07, 2011 12:00AM EDT

All anthologies are political actions. They are kingmakers’ gestures, wherein their editors attempt to appoint a hierarchy for their chosen time and place. With that in mind, expatriate Canadian poets Todd Swift and Evan Jones, having convinced top-tier British poetry press Carcanet to let them publish an anthology called Modern Canadian Poets, need to be evaluated on both taste and politics. Because when taste is moved into the public sphere, it becomes a kind of politics, and the statement made with a major anthology contains the same world-remaking ambitions as a political platform.

This is especially true for an anthology that aims to introduce readers “to 35 poets they may never have read before.” To that end, here are six poets not featured in this new collection, published in Britain and launched recently in Canada: Leonard Cohen, Don McKay, Al Purdy, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. There are more, and while some major voices survived the cull (Irving Layton, Anne Carson, even relative outsiders David McGimpsey and Lisa Robertson made it in), this is an anthology that aims to provoke with its rejections.

When work suggested for a canon is on-message with the dominant consensus, it is right to interrogate the editors. But, in a book with such an eccentrically revisionist bent as Modern Canadian Poets, we ask not only, “What were the editors trying to knock over?” but also, “What are they hoping will grow in its place?” This critical double play is important and regenerative. Art needs revolutions. But we should always suspect its loudest partisans.

Don Paterson’s “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets”

February 24, 2011

I bought Don Paterson’s guided reading tour of the Shakespearian sonnets this week, and am presently on page 50-something. I can’t, and won’t, be able to wait until I’m done to pitch it to you all as a must-read.

The book situates itself somewhere between a close reading and an academic symposium. It’s deep and involved and requires a readership that, if not already familiar with the sonnets, is at least familiar enough with Tudor English, and poetry in general, to be able to follow along with the references and tropes that shape the bard’s rhetoric. Some reviewers have taken offence to this tone. I can see why. If I was a Shakespearian scholar, I could see myself irked by Paterson’s tendency to borrow liberally from every major academic in the field, after which, through a combination of jokes, pop-culture references, and shrugging, half-sincere, wisps of “I dunno”, he tries to position himself as a little more wise than learned, more sincere than knowledgeable. It’s an angle I sometimes find myself working here on the blog, and I appreciate that it may be irritating. I mean, I don’t care per se. But I get that it’s irritating.

I’ve just finished with the procreative suite (1-17, the subject of much of Paterson’s scorn and dismissal). I didn’t remember there being so many. Shakespearian sonnets are like Simpsons episodes, you assume you’ve seen them all until you sit down to count them. What I like most about Paterson’s style is his willingness to consider all the theories about the sonnets’ authorship (well, except for the one where they weren’t all authored by Shakespeare, at least not yet). The “gay Shakespeare” theory is taken out for a walk in his commentary on these totally-not-homoerotic love poems from one man to another in which the poet implores the young chap to spread his seed, carry forward his beauty, and in so doing makes an average of between 0.4 and 0.7 masturbation references per poem (depending on how you count’em). Another idea, that the procreative sequence is actually seventeen separate attempts at the same poem, is also dealt with by Paterson. He seems to like it. He also seems to like a third theory, which I find myself suspicious of, that the whole thing was done on commission. It’s not that I don’t see Billy working for commission (he’s one of most pragmatic businessmen in the history of poets, look at his theatrical dealings, for example), but that because of this fact it’s unlikely that there’s much truth to Paterson’s thought that the suite’s comparatively low quality is a sign of work-for-hire. Hamlet was a work for hire. I don’t think Shakespeare phoned it in all that much.

Paterson gets away with this mad theory-hopping because he’s dedicated to the intellectual flaneurism suggested in his intro. He picks up shiny objects, considers them, and throws them aside. He’s not doing a heck of a lot of “research” here, but he wears that laziness openly. He even attests to writing some portion of the book while drunk. His best moments are when he turns the logic of a theory against itself, or speaks to Shakespeare poet-to-poet, in a way that perhaps only he is best suited to among the 6 billion living inhabitants of the planet. On the shared-love v. self-love dialectic of the suite, he says “What I don’t quite get is WS’s easy assumption that self-love and reproduction are mutually exclusive. George Foreman, for example, has eight sons, all of whom are called George Foreman.” That’s hilarious. And true. And Paterson is maybe the only poet alive who is close enough of a cousin to Shakespeare (I say that not just as a compliment on his quality, but also in deference to his aesthetic bent: decidedly and gloriously anachronistic, high on metre, end-rhyme, narrative, themes of love and loss, history, and selfhood) to pick on him. Watching Shakespeare get picked on by an academic tends to reek of reverse flattery and impotence, wathcing him get picked on by his closest living relative feels more like a roast, a send-up. It’s this that excuses the uncertain genuineness of Paterson’s casual tone.

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets carries all the warm and fuzzy exasperation of watching a beloved mentor try and reason their way through a defense of their own work, or an attack on an enemy, after their six or seventh whiskey-rocks. You can’t stop listening in. Even when you want to shake them. The angriest I’ve gotten while reading the book is when Paterson dismissed the closing couplet of Sonnet 2 with the following off-hand remark: “A long run of monosyllables was as ugly a thing 400 years ago as it is now. It renders the lines as nastily staccato as a sewing machine, and with little shape they can draw from the interior rhythm of the words themselves.”

Now, I also don’t think the closing couplet of #2 works very well. It is a touch awkward (again, always amending these complaints with “for Shakespeare”) on both sound and sense. However, the blinding confidence with which Patersone extends the rule to cover all English prosody is what kills me. The assumption in those two sentences is that if the rhythmic unit of a word is the syllable (specifically, the stressed/unstressed/halfstressed designations therof), then a monosyllabic word has no internal rhythm. I’m okay with that. I guess. But, the “nastily staccato” line goes on to suggest that a phrase made up of wholly monosyllabic words then has no more rhythm that the simple 1/1 time signature of a sewing machine. This is completely fucking stupid. As an example, I submit that at no time since its first usage has the word “and” been stressed, except in the case of a grammatical departure (starting a sentence with it, eg) or a rhetorical adaptation (stressing on it when it ends a list, so as to emphasize the list’s length). Therefore, the monosyllabic phrase “cats and dogs” reads stress/unstress/stress. Disagreements? No? Look at that phrase, how pretty is that? Not at all like a sewing machine. More like an amphimacer.

What’s wrong with the end couplet to Sonnet #2 (“This were to be new made when thou art old,/And see they blood warm when though feel’st it cold”) has more to do with the specific sounds of the syllables than their number. I’d submit, to begin, that the alliterative Ws in the second line slow the speech too much for the line to hold its energy, and that the two big ol’ glaring long vowel sounds “made” and “though” need some supportive friends around them to help disperse their weight. I’m not sure if that’s the whole problem. I am sure that the whole problem can’t be summed up with “using strings of monosyllabic words is always bad in poems”. This is the problem with Paterson’s commited neoformalism. Zealotry. His is a great position to take if you’re willing to see beyond your own borders. If Paterson wants to witness the multitudinous rhythmic opportunities of the monosyllabic phrase (even when its spoken in monotone), he’d do well to consult the oevre of the last poet-turned-essayist profiled in this blog.

I wanted to take some time to yell at Paterson’s two-sentence hiccup a bit, because it gets at what’s been so addictive about his book so far. A great essay (and I’m thinking, like, once-every-few-decades great, like for me a Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or Minima Moralia, or Against Interpretation, this kind of great) will oscillate in its reader a kind of sine-wave of rising and falling defensiveness. The author will provoke and hypnotize, will lower and raise the reader’s natural biases and defenses. Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though it’s not an intellectual equal to any of the three works above, has some of that ability. So did his controversial introduction to his recent anthology of British poets. You love hating him. Then you love hating with him.

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets owes its biggest debt to Karen Duncan Jones’s similar The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Describing a similar love/hate relationship, Paterson says of Jones’s work, “I’m having my copy rubberized so I can catch it again after I’ve thrown it at the wall.” Fifty pages in, and with a few hundred left to go, I’m considering putting Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets through the same protective measure.

Twelve Merry Months of Voxing

December 14, 2010

Hi kids.

Santa Claus is coming. I’ve got my plane ticket home. It’s as cold as I’ve ever felt it in Toronto. In the continued roll-out of all things “End of the Year”, I thought I’d post a list of the blog’s post popular posts from the past 365 days, as decided by traffic. So take a look through, pull up what you’ve missed, and relive with me the year’s worth of lies, damned lies, and internet talkin’ fights.


10. (it’s a tie) August 25th, 2010
In Defense of Blogging. You’ll notice I have a fairly humble sense of how much this blog matter to anyone, but I will say that this post is the thing I’m most proud of, among everything I’ve slapped up in this space. You should read it and let me know what you think. I’m invested in it. I’m not always invested.
Meanwhile, in more important matters: The Battle of Mogadishu intensifies. Carter arrives in North Korea. Hurricane Danielle strengthens to a Cat. 2 and starts making faces at Bermuda.

November 29th, 2010
Facebook for Writers: A Constitution. On the opposite end of the earnestness spectrum is this throw-away little funsized thingy I did with Alex Boyd last month. At least three people took it way to seriously and emailed me in complaint. It’s a fast-paced world, angry trio, if you can’t read between the lines, then you shouldn’t be reading.
Meanwhile, in more important matters: Picasso’s electrician reveals lost treasures. Kenya plots to arrest its homosexuals. Iran’s top nuclear scientist is killed under mysterious circumstances, but neither Israel nor NATO have any idea what we’re talking about.

9. December 6th, 2010
The Vox List: Jake’s 5 Favourite Canadian Poetry Titles of 2010. You people and your lists. Y’all are a bunch of SEO-infected, HuffPo-linkin’ automatons. Our hero posts his requisite “best-of” list and, in the matter of a week, it cracks this top ten. This list made the list. Oh noes, a list of lists! Internet crashes, roads dissolve. The sun swallows the moon swallows the sky swallows Texas….
Meanwhile, in more important matters: The cholera outbreak in Haiti goes unchecked. The Bush Tax Cuts are extended. Julian Assange says Fuck You to the world.

8. July 10th, 2010
More Provocations for People. Our hero’s public offer of $100 to anyone who used Milton Acorn’s “More Poems for People” as their “avant-garde” text for a Scream Festival event that, to my eyes, obnoxiously and specifically invoked the A word resulted in nobody taking me up on the offer, but did lead to some interesting blog activity. This was something of a foreshadow to the post that followed later that week (scroll down).
Meanwhile, in more important matters: BP tries to refit their oil spill with a larger containment cap. Germany tops Uruguay in the World Cup 3rd Place match. Raoul Moat shoots himself in the UK.

7. October 13th, 2010
Governor General’s Shortlist: English Poetry, 2010. Perhaps as a sign of the blog’s increased weight in this tiny little playpen we all live in, shit got lit up the day I posted this info, which anybody could have found at any of several dozen other places on the internet. It did result in this fun side-project at GoodReports. I feel, in the end, like the right book won, at least the right book from among the five finalists. How often does that happen?
Meanwhile, in more important matters: US drones kill 13 in Pakistan. US drones physically located in the US don’t notice or care. The final Chilean miner hits the surface at 9:56 PM local time.

6. August 15th, 2010
Introducing the ITYNWC. The Vox Pop/Scotiabank International Ten Year Novel-Writing Contest kicks off for another decade. I hear from our some 400 contestants that things are going well. One of them called just yesterday to say that their toddler has potty trained himself (the good news!) using her manuscript as bathroom tissue (the less-good news!). Hang in there, champs!
Meanwhile, in more important matters: Zsa Zsa Gabor falls ill. The Indian PM falls on the grenade re: The Commonwealth Games. Two people are shot at a Brazilian Gay Pride parade.

5. February 9th, 2010
Remember Your Ephemera. In a good day for the credibility of blogging as mind-changing medium, our hero introduces his review of Moez Surani’s Reticent Bodies by way of a push for the lovingly curated Notes section. Everybody disagrees and, looking back on it, they were right. As a result, the size of the Notes section in my upcoming collection is reduced by approximately 75%. As Alanis said, U Learn.
Meanwhile, in more important matters: The Italian Embassy in Iran gets its ass kicked. Simultaneously, a new Filipino election is called and the current President’s allies are charged with murder. Has to be a coincidence….

4. January 12th, 2010
Chattering Classes (def). A one-paragraph post inspired by an insipid provocation by a Tory cabinet minister. One of our hero’s rare overtly political bloggerings. I thought a bit about reposting it as I was listening to Don Cherry go on about “bottom-scraping” leftists this week.
Meanwhile, in more important matters: The Pine Glacier hits its tipping point. The North American Auto show goes green. A man-sized man is eaten by a “dinosaur-sized” shark.

3. March 15th, 2010
Comfort and Commitment. In which our hero takes issue with fellow blogger Alex Boyd’s essay on content in Canadian poetry, and posts a rebuttal. Brief internet skirmish follows. Later, everyone makes up and Boyd brings our hero onboard with his fun little Facebook for Writers idea (see above).
Meanwhile in more important matters: The doomed Dodds Bill for financial regulation enters the Senate. Beckham drops out of the World Cup. Shit goes down in Palestine.

2. May 1st, 2010
Tuturro Week, Part 1. Perhaps the greatest single piece of evidence I’ve seen of the smallness of poetry versus the massiveness of pop culture. Our hero does a jokey series on the topic of poetry-themed movies staring lovable but hardly famous character actor John Tuturro, said post makes both the Imdb’s news wrap-up and the first page of Tuturro’s google results, and becomes the most searched page in the history of the blog. Johnny, I thought no one cared about ya….
Meanwhile, in more important matters: That one guy fails mightily in his attempt to blow up Times Square. Johnson & Johnson recalls half their products. Mayweather beats Mosley by decision.

1. July 11th, 2010.
Jake’s Provoquestion, restated. In which our hero comes back pissed off from an afternoon of stewing in a fog at the Scream Festival’s annual panel discussion, and writes his first and only blog post from under the funky cloud of anger. Fireworks, not surprisingly, occur. Everything eventually peters out into the same old half-hearted posturing. I’m happy to report pretty much everyone is still friends.
Meanwhile, in more important matters: Spain wins the World Cup. There’s a solar eclipse. The “barefoot bandit” is caught. Sixty-four people die in Uganda.


It’s been a good year. Challenges and joys lie ahead. Foremost among those challenges, how to host a discussion of Canadian poetry while simultaneously hawking a book that hopes to be a part of that discussion? Not only, How much self-reference is too much? but How much self-reference is self-consciously too little?


The Vox List: Jake’s Five Favourite Canadian Poetry Titles of 2010

December 6, 2010

Hi kids.

I know there’s three weeks left in the year, but there’s only a dozen or so shopping days til Christmas, and Chanukah is already upon us. So, I’d like to use what little commercial oomph this blog has to state a case for five books that I think of as the best of the year from Vox’s in-house pool of literature (to wit, books of poems written by Canadians). I read beyond that, of course, but I feel like that’s the centre of my reading now. So that’s where I worked from in making this list.

Also, it should be stated that I took a couple books out of consideration on account of sharing an address with their authors. If left to my own devices, I probably would have bumped two of these five collections in favour of Tiny, Frantic, Stronger, by Jeff Latosik, and The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch

It’s kind of a silly list, in the end. Even more so than most lists. For one, it’s entirely made up of first and second collections. This paints the list-maker as something of an ageist fad-hopper. There are veteran authors who put out strong stuff this year (I’m thinking Margaret Christakos and Dionne Brand, among others), but they didn’t quite make it. Maybe I was comparing their new work to their best work, and not comparing it to the other work that came out this year. Unfair, perhaps. Also, I know 2 or 3 of these people personally, which paints me as something of a cliquemaster. Also, it’s only a list of five books, and if I wanted to extend it to ten, I’d cover a lot more aesthetic bases. I had a list of ten, but cut it in half at the last minute. As Popeye said, I yam what I yam. Okay, enough excuses. Here we go, in alphabetical order by title:


Alien, Correspondent, Antony di Nardo, Brick Books
VOX describes it as: Egoless and almost passive in its delivery, seems destined for a beautiful, unfair obscurity. This is the kind of book that makes me glad I have a blog and can publicly suggest things to people. I suggest you read this.
Ideal first-time poetry reader: Your retired uncle who just got back from Borneo and is leaving for Madagascar in the Spring to found a school there.

At the Gates of the Theme Park, Peter Norman, The Mansfield Press
VOX describes it as: Reads like the kind of long-gestated debut collection some bloggers I know (Spoiler alert: It’s a photo of me) wish they had written. Maintains diversity of content, with no real misses to be found.
Ideal first-time poetry reader: The loneliest CBC Radio 2 listener you know.

Bloom, Michael Lista, House of Anansi Press
VOX describes it as: Simultaneously avant garde and old-fashioned. Check that, simultaneously THE MOST avant garde and THE MOST old-fashioned book of the year. So much for the paper tiger of contemporary poetry designations. This kind of book that demands seven more come after it as complimentary or dissenting arguments.
Ideal first-time poetry reader: The engineer in your family who, when you bring up how much you like poetry, makes some half-mumbled wistful reference to enjoying Ted Hughes in high school

Clockfire, Jonathon Ball, Coach House Books
VOX describes it as: High-wire conceptual theatrics that inexplicably don’t get old after ten or twenty pages.
Ideal first-time poetry reader: Your younger sibling who is back from college with the news that s/he is considering transferring into, or out of, the drama program next semester.

[sic], Nikki Reimer, Frontenac Press
VOX describes it as: A rare young poet who can channel the energy given off by her personality into things greater than just MORE personality. Reimer lets it bleed into form, into cadence, into pace. The book wants you to read it cover-to-cover in, like, 30 minutes. A tough trick to pull off.
Ideal first-time poetry reader: That ancillary figure in your life (maybe a video store clerk, or a bartender) who you feel simpatico enough with to want to strike up a more formal friendship.

A pretty groovy year, this 2010. I’d like to know what books I missed. I’m sure there’s a lot of them.


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.

My Review of “Howl”

October 16, 2010

I caught the 6:15 screening tonight of the new James Franco docudrama about Allen Ginsberg, the writing of Howl, and the obscenity trial that followed. It’s showing at the Bell Lightbox, which is the palatial cinema complex that’s the new home to the Toronto International Film Festival. I originally discussed this film here, well before it came to Toronto, so needless to say I was excited to finally see it.

I recommend the film. It’s basically a documentary with actors, taking all its dialogue direct from a number of recorded sources, including Ginsberg’s original reading of the poem at San Francisco’s Gallery Six, the transcript of the obscenity trial of California v. Ferlinghetti, and an audio interview between Ginsberg and an unnamed New York journalist. It’s made by a couple documentarians (the team behind “The Times of Harvey Milk”) and the film maintains some of the looping non-narrative energy of actual reality. It also has an eerily successful characterization of Ginsberg by James Franco. The voice is note-perfect and the mannerisms are both accurate and tied to the mental world of the character. They don’t seem like things the actor is doing because he saw the subject do them first. Franco is a writer too, apparently, and one of my favourite young actors. I’m looking forward to him getting over the small matter of his youthful good looks to establish himself in his proper role as America’s answer to Stephen Fry.

Enjambed somewhat awkwardly with all this successful realism is the film’s more controversial element, an animated interpretation of the poem that hits a lot of very literal notes in the text (the “Moloch” of Ginsberg’s imagination, for example, is an actual fire-breathing moloch). This part is to Howl what Ralph Bakshi’s 90-minute cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings is to Tolkein: loving but flat, elementary, and lacking in nuance. It does, however, inject some colour and energy to what is otherwise a very low-gear film.

The film’s most interesting sub-narrative, however, endures the filmmakers’ disinterest (or ignorance) in its possibilities as a subject. Franco’s characterization oscillates wildly between what I will call the “Two Allens”. One is Ginsberg as hippie figurehead, spouting his desire to speak “honestly” and “from this soul” with all the usual platitudes that the confessional tradition has placed on contemporary poetry, like a 4,000 pound barbell made of puppy kisses. The other Ginsberg is more recognizably a poet, and less a prophet. I say this knowing that Ginsberg is part of that Blake & Whitman family of mystical seers, but it’s perhaps best to look at those poems, and not the poets, as the visionaries. To this end, there’s a short scene in the middle of the picture where Franco talks of a prelinguistic groan, which arrives at his lips wrapped in the package of a specific rhythm (this rhythm quite brilliantly becomes the prime motif Carter Burwell’s minimalist score). In the ensuing monologue, Franco/Ginsberg repeats the pattern of the rhythm against the roof of his mouth a couple times, and begins to fill in the blanks with syllables. This was a surprising take on Ginsberg’s process, coming as it does after a scene extolling the bluntness and honesty of his first post-Columbia attempts, with things like cadence and rhythm far from the film’s mind. The product of all this is the line from Howl, section 2, that begins “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows”. It’s such an earnest, obsessive speech that it made a couple of audience members giggle, but it struck me as the most accurate moment in the film. Ginsberg as hard-working craftsman, not Ginsberg as mystic cultural superman.

This is where my personal narrative of the Two Ginsbergs bumped up against the images appearing on-screen. The courtroom section was occasionally dull, populated by cameos from actors clearly arriving on set during their lunch breaks from their other projects (John Hamm, who didn’t even have to change his suit, Mary-Louise Parker, David Straitharn, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Daniels). It’s good history though, clean and accurate and relatively free of pandering. The court case focused on the words Ginsberg chose to use, specifically these words: fuck, cock, balls, snatch, cunt, and few others. These words gone over with a fine tooth comb, and juxtaposed with some Gallery Six scenes that show young bespeckled types hooting and hollering over their every utterance from the shy young man blending them seamlessly into his new poem.

The thing about censorship, maybe, is that it doesn’t have to win to win. To wit, the obscenity trial took my craftsman Ginsberg, possessor of one of the keenest rhythmic ears in all of 20th century poetry, and reduced him to a man who could or could not say cunt, who could or could not speak frankly of homosexual attraction in his poems. This reduced Ginsberg sounded a lot like the man who spoke of poetry as simply an “outlet” for self-expression, the Ginsberg that allowed himself to be a visual punchline of the 60s counterculture, that tripped over every didactic opportunity offered by the next 40 years of American literature. It’s also the Ginsberg that the young people were encouraging obscenities from at Gallery Six. Hipsterism, it turns out, is a form of censorship. Both reduce their targets to simple verb-noun marriages, and ship that simplification off to Life magazine to be judged by the public: Allen Ginsberg, swearing poet. Are you with this or aren’t you?

I don’t think a poem like Please Master, with its abandon of Howl’s opulent jazz orchestration for flat and jokey unpoetry that plagued Ginsberg’s later career, ever occurs to the poet if he wasn’t simultaneously heralded and castigated for the vocabulary of Howl in 1957. Please Master is Howl stripped for parts. It has the vocabulary of his earlier poem, the very thing that his censors stole from the heart of his work and made stand trial, but none of its whimsical music. In other words, it is the poem that the State of California heard when it first misread Howl. That misreading, spoken on a national scale, consumed and eventually assimilated the poet.

Howl, the movie, doesn’t dwell on this, of course. It ends on a high note and fades out to a credit sequence featuring an old (real-life) Ginsberg singing one of his songs. Such are films, I suppose. Maybe this is why there aren’t many movies about poems.