Here Are Two Things You Could Be Reading

Posted September 29, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: Book Industry, Canadian Literature, Fellow Bloggers, Journals, Newspapers, Reviewing

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

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“I have so many opinions, I have overwhelmed my ability to document myself.”

Posted September 20, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: Events, Travels, What Jake Did

Hi kids.

Tonight’s my last night at Chez Pierre. Quite the experience, all told. I got a ridiculous amount of work done, especially in the first half of the residency. After three years of working full time and fitting in writing where I could, I completely ODed on the opportunity offered. On the first day here, I deleted all but the first fifty pages of the great endless novel-in-progress and started fresh, and I think I have something a lot crisper and interesting now than when I started.

The town’s been really great. I tried to explain this to the crowd who came to my exit reading last week: but one of the great joys of Dawson is how they’re not TOO friendly a group of people. Unlike a lot of rural environments that host art residencies, they’re more than willing to leave you alone if that’s the vibe they get from you. Anyway, I attempted to explain this subtle skill to the people at the reading and methinks it came out something like, “Thanks, guys, for being jerks.” Not my intention.

I recommend it to pretty much anyone. Not everyone, of course, if you’re phobic of loneliness or struggle to self-schedule, it’s probably not for you. I told fellow Torontonian Sam Cheuk about a job open teaching English for the tiny little art school up here, and he got the gig. So, if you apply, he’ll be there to drink with and engage in storytelling. Worth the trip.

My story for the next several weeks starts tomorrow with a reading in Whitehorse and then a visit to my father’s hometown, Winnipeg (named after the world-famous Winnipeg Review) for the Thin Air Festival. I’m reading with a bunch of other poets there Wednesday night, and by my lonesome at U. Manitoba on Friday.

On October 3rd, my sister and I are flying to Brussels, BE, and flying out three months later. The usual routine of Eurail passes and hostel hopping shall fill the time in between. This is something we’ve been working on for a couple years, saving and scrimping and making our plans, and now we’re ready to go. I’m grateful to friends for the wellwishing, and even gratefuller to the endlessly wonderful Lady Vox for the patience and understanding it takes to be reasonably cool with all this not being around. I plan on making it up to her for a very long time once it’s over.

I understand that the blog has been dead for a long time now. I dunno, kids. Every time I sit down to raise the interest needed to update the thing, I’m hit by the Stephen Colbert quote that forms the title of this post. I need to step back for a bit, and care less about everything. Few things are worth the epiphany they hope to be mistaken for. I expect I’ll get back on the Vox Pop more in 2012. One of the good things about this glorious medium is it’s so casual you can just drop it and pick it up several months later and nobody’s going to bat an eyelash over your disappearance. It’s just what happens.

Anyway, I’m missing some good books this season, I expect. I want that new Dave McGimpsey book, really I want the whole Coach House fall list. I’ll get around to it. Good books from ECW and Vehicule and others, too.

In the interim, you may see me pop up around Alex’s Northern Poetry Review once or twice this fall. Also, I’ve started writing for a new MMA website set to launch next month called Doctor Octagon, for the like four of you who aren’t repulsed by that.

See you in 2012, survivors of the autumn.

-Jake

His Pain, Unowned, He Left in Paragraphs of Love

Posted August 22, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: Canadian Literature, Citizenship, In Memoriam, Poems in the Wider World

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

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

For My Old Layton
by Leonard Cohen (selection)

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

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

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

I Got Drunk and Went Mountain Climbing: A Photo Essay

Posted August 10, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: Travels, What Jake Did

Hi kids.

I turned 28 today. I celebrated this by taking a day-long break from the novel mines to scale the Midnight Dome. The Midnight Dome is a mountain that overlooks the Klondike at its meeting with the Yukon River.

I started my trip by watching some Breaking Bad and having some delicious Yukon Reds. You’re a lucky person if you can get these at your local liquor establishment. They’re very similar to Mill St.’s Tankhouse brand, except they’re better.

Radio stuff. Approximately 1/3rd up the mountain.

Same radio stuff, 2/3rds of the way up.

Success! Disclosure: I had the headspins when I shot this.

This bench is called the "Top of the World Bench". The "Top of the World Highway" is across the river. It ends at a town in Alaska called "Chicken". Chicken was previously called "Ptarmigan" before it was declared too hard to spell. Lol, toponymy.

Dawson and the rivers. See the mining operation at left? It's hydro-mining mostly, which is very notgood for the environment. If you bring up hydro-mining at a bar in Dawson, you will get the same murderous stare from locals that you get when you bring up the seal hunt in Newfoundland.

These young girls came a fucking long way to pick berries. Seriously, parents. This is what we call 'unnecessarily woodsy'. There's a lot of this in town.

Alaska in the distance. I can see a place that sees Russia from my house.

Straight back over the marble dome. It's a cloudy day. On a bright one, you'd get four or five more mountains in the distance. I'm thirsty.

Q: Jake, you having a good time in the Yukon? A: Does a bear shit in the woods? Note my footprint.

How lost did I get on the walk back down? So lost that I came upon this sign FROM BEHIND. End adventure.

Trotter Interview Now Up at The Walrus

Posted July 5, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: Canadian Literature, Interviews, Poems in the Wider World

Hi kids.

My interview with Joshua Trotter, author of All This Could Be Yours, is up presently on The Walrus site. The interview took forever to do. Seriously. Between my work and his work and Folk coming out the possibility of the world ending for a bit there, it was a long haul.

Normally I’d tease a bit of the interview here before providing the link, but whereas The Walrus’s blog just makes things look so pretty and professional and this page looks like a Transformer fingerpainted it, I’ll forgo the tease and tell you to just click right here for the interview.

The Thirty-Eight Books That Made My Suitcase for Dawson City

Posted July 3, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: Fiction, Poems in the Wider World, Travels

Hi everyone.

So I’ve been in Dawson for a few days now, after a 72-hour layover in Whitehorse to start my travels. It’s nice here at Chez Pierre. Lots of comfy rooms and comfy people and even a fainting couch, which is something I’ve always wanted. I’m teaching myself to bake. So far I’ve made biscuits (from scratch, and incredibly well) and cornbread (from scratch and, er, from scratch). I’m hoping to return to Toronto when my travels are through with the title of “World’s Perfect Man” sewn up for the rest of the decade.

Packing books was an immense undertaking for me. Obviously, I couldn’t take very many, and even the much-edited booklist I eventually put together cost me about $70 in heavy luggage charges first from Air Canada and then Air North. I had to throw three heavies poetry anthologies to the roommates on my way out the door because I couldn’t get my suitcase to close all the way. They were this one on early 20th Century Canadian poets and this collected Ted Hughes (said Latosik: Thanks. Um, didn’t I give you this Hughes book as a gift?)

I thought people would like to know what made the cut. I finished a lot of books in the lead-up to leaving, in an attempt to keep things reasonable. Here’s a list, divided into my standard three categories of book:

The view outside the Berton House at 45 minutes after midnight on June 2nd.

Line Breaks:Looking it over, this section is dominated by books I’ve already read but wanted the opportunity to get into again. When I’m supposed to be writing, I tend to use poetry collections as reference books, things to dip into on occasion in search of inspiration or distraction. Re-reads are good for this.
A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People by Gabe Foreman
Campfire Radio Rhapsody by Robert Earl Stewart (The last book I bought before leaving Toronto, at the Mansfield launch last week.)
The Collected Poems of J.H. Prynne (I’m coming around to the realization that Prynne is the guy I’m going to spend my life obsessive over and trying to emulate. Not a bad choice, for that.)
Hole in the Wall, Selected Poems by Tom Pickard
How We All Swiftly, Selected Poems by Don Coles
Mask by Helen Guri (Needed to give this one a re-read with a little less background noise in my life)
Mirabel by Pierre Nepveu
The Mourner’s Book of Albums by Daniel Scott Tysdall
Open Letter, The Humour Issue, ed Ball & Fitzpatrick
Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the 20th Century in Poetry (This is a cool idea, a sort of subject/chronology switcheroo with the standard 20th C. Poetry anthology. Anyone else ever read this?)
Selected Poems by Earle Birney
Slant Room by Michael Eden Reynolds (Michael took me around Whitehorse a bit when I was up there. He was gracious and funny. His book is really exceptional, in particular the second of its four parts– the long lyrical elegy done right.)
Penned: Zoo Poems ed Bolster, Grubisic & Reader
The 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology ed Tim Lilburn
The Best American Poetry of 1992, ed Charles Simic (Why 1992? Because that’s the version the used bookstore had in stock.)
Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry ed Robyn Sarah

No Line Breaks, Fictional: The theme here seems to be books I haven’t read by authors I love. Whereas fiction is what I plan on working on up here, this part of the list was kept light.
20 Grand: Great American Short Stories ed by Bantam Pathfinder Staff (This book is begging to be left behind on a park bench when I return Southside. It will get its wish.)
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Flight Paths of the Emperor by Steven Heighton
In the Skin of the Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Mao II by Don Delillo
Samuel the Seeker by Upton Sinclair
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
The State of Constraint, New Work from the OULIPO ed by McSweeney’s Editorial Staff
Young Romantics by Daisy Hay

No Line Breaks, Not Fictional: Tends to be the major part of my reading, and it is here too, though poetry outnumbers it in titles, those slim volumes get massively outweighed by their denser cousins.
Aesthetics and Politics: Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Brecht & Lukacs (Amazon link not intended ironically, was all I could find.)
Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present, Monroe C. Beardsley
Essentials of Home Cooking, Bonnie Stern
Europe on a Shoestring and Europe through the Backdoor (For my further adventures this year. I’m going sneak in the backdoor on shoestrings.)
Europe: A History, Norman Davies (The greatest living English-language historian. Fight me over it.)
Heart of Europe, a History of Poland, Norman Davies (I’m reading this not because I love Polish history, but because I like how this book is ordered. It’s written in reverse chronology, from Solidarity backwards to the Barbarians).
A History of Pornography by H. Montgomery Hyde (What? It’s history.)
The Critical Object (Digital Redux), by Jeanne Randolph (My predecessor at Berton House, she does philosophy-meets-pop culture exceedingly well.)
Lapham’s Quarterly, the “Sports & Games” and “The City” Issues (This periodical is the caviar of bathroom reading.)
Turco’s Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics by Lewis Turco (Only the classics for me, thanks.)

I had also loaded up a few dozen titles on my Kobo eReader, thinking that such ethereal digital things would take up less space than print and paper. And they did, but they are also kidnapped by their own devicehood, and when the device breaks, as mine did as I took off from Whitehorse on Friday, the texts become unreadable. Joke’s on you, modernity. Or I suppose modernity’s joke is on me.

Exhibit A:

That's cool. I didn't need the words in the bottom left-hand corner of every page.

Exhibit B:

In this wider-angle shot of the above, Pierre's old Remington typewriter can beseen smirking.

Go See the E.E. Cummings Thing at Soulpepper

Posted June 8, 2011 by Pivot Readings
Categories: 2011, Poems in the Wider World, Theatre

Since I was just a little wolf cub, I’ve been lucky enough to know a great deal of things about a great deal of things. However, I won’t say that Le theatre is one of them. Of the last, say, ten shows I’ve attended in Toronto, a majority-mandate-winning percentage of them have either been adapted from poetry (as was Mike Ross‘s Dennis Lee cabaret a couple years back) or about poets (as was “Futurists”, and the excellent “After Akhmatova”).

The newest 3D Motion UnPicture Event I saw was the Double Bill being presently put on the Soulpepper Academy, the first half of which is called (Re)Birth and is basically a loose, vaudeville-inspired cabaret of song and dance inspired by the work of American poetry’s favourite rumoured-spy-turned-McCarthyist, e.e. cummings.

It sounds like it could be awful. But it’s not. The work is listed as a collaboration, but the music sounds too similar to Ross’s Civil Elegies score (he’s the musical director of the company, and performed in the cabaret dressed in a very in-charge looking admiral’s jacket) to ignore what may have been a dominant source of input. The music is incredible, the staging both invested in the poetry and winkingly irreverent, and the efficiency of the event’s choreography closer to dance than to theatrical blocking.

The strength of Civil Elegies was in Ross’s ability to cobble together something resembling a balladic vision from Lee’s massively diverse prosody (he drew on the title book, obviously, but also elements of The Gods and the “children’s verse”). That trick is maybe even a little tougher with cummings, so the company did really well to avoid biting off more than they could chew. The poems selected skew to the poet’s younger years. Whereas Ross’s solo show was ordered and almost narrative in its scope, the group effort of (Re)birth is more of a straight cabaret, with the various instrumentation (electric bass, stand-up bass, violin, beatbox, children’s xylophone, pennywhistle, um, rubber frog toy…) leading the way, even at expense of the words. The celebration, here, is of the aw-shucks American vernacularism that inspired much of cumming’s diction, and likely much of his popularity. The youthful, playful, anarchy-facing subversiveness of the project is more than enough.

(Re)birth is presented as a double bill with the farcical experimental piece, Window on Toronto, which is set at a hot dog cart, has maybe 100 characters, and moves as fast as anything I’ve seen in my limited theatrical viewership. It’s a great chaser for the meatier, if equally madcap, (Re)birth. I’m hoping one day to see Ross’s Civil Elegies remounted as double bill with (Re)birth as its follow-up.

The Soulpepper Academy’s Double Bill runs until the 22nd. We scored rush tickets for $20 a head. Worth it at twice the price. Which I imagine is what they cost, now that there’s no more rush shows left. Go see it. Seriously. This is the very most I’m capable of recommending something.