Wednesday, October 31, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Matthew Firth
Matthew Firth was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1965 and raised in that fine city. He now lives in Ottawa with his wife and two children. His latest book is Suburban Pornography and Other Stories (2006, Anvil Press). Other books are: Can You Take Me There, Now? (2001); Fresh Meat (1997); and he co-edited Grunt & Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex (2002). He edits/publishes the litmag Front&Centre. He also publishes chapbooks with his micro press Black Bile Press. He works by day for a national trade union.

1 - How did your first book change your life?
It gave legitimacy to what I was doing. Realizing that there are folks out there who aren't related to me or close friends and they read my shit was a revelation that came with my first book.
2 - How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
Seven years. Place is important to me. My fiction is always set in a real, recognizable place. In Suburban Pornography (latest book) stories are clearly set in Ottawa, Hamilton and points in between (e.g., Peterborough, Marmora, Norwood, etc.). The location is never disguised, never vague. Race has no impact. I don't think of characters' race or ethnicity, unless the real person that a character is based on might be of a certain race or ethnicity but even then, it doesn't come into the writing of the story. Gender is huge, however. Much of what I write about is the bullshit between men and women, how they come together, how they tear each other apart, how they fuck each other over. And I write explicitly from a male perspective. I don't believe in changing points of view. It strikes me as pretentious bullshit. I can monkey with age, write from different points of view in terms of the age of the characters and keep it real. But men writing as women only fictionalizes things further, dampens the authenticity and clarity of the voice of the writer, which is not something I want to do with my work.
3 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I write individual short stories, whether they come together as a book does not enter into it until afterward when I look at a batch of stories and assess whether there's enough good material to make up a manuscript or not. If so, it then becomes a matter of choosing stories and putting them in some sensible order. But all of that happens later, when the work is done. Otherwise, it's one story at a time. And those stories, typically, stew in my head for a few days. Then, when I have time and energy, I sit down and hammer it out, usually a complete first draft of a story in one sitting.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Counter to my creative process. I do readings to promote my work/books.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are theoretical concerns, yes, but these are never explicit. Meaning I never sit down and write thinking I'm acting upon those theoretical concerns. I strive to make my shit real, authentic, direct, unambiguous, relevant, entertaining, provocative, accessible, etc. That comes through in the style and subject matter of the fiction. When I write, I tell a story, simple as that. I don't come to it with premeditated plans to write a story that fits all those adjectives above. The story telling first but in the writing of that story my style also makes the story all of those things I mentioned above.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Well, if you want a book it's essential. But I don't deal with editors - in terms of having them edit and alter my stories - until I've signed on to do a book. Otherwise, I'm my own editor.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
It's about the same. I never take it for granted, even though now I've had a few books out. My next batch of work might be shit, might be unpublishable; who knows.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
No shit, it was with my breakfast about three hours ago.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"If you let them kill you, they will." - Charles Bukowski
"The men in the factory are old and cunning/ You don't owe nothing/ Boy get running/ It's the best years of your life they want to steal." - The Clash
"Be patient." - my wife
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have a writing routine. It depends on whether stuff is coming or not. Typical day starts with coffee for my wife and me. Then make breakfast for my kids. Kiss my wife as she leaves for work. Take a shit (you asked). Breakfast for me, which sometimes includes a pear. Get my kids off to school. Ride #18 bus. Get myself to work (my day job). Work the day job. Pick up kids. Ride #18 bus. Supper. Read to kids, play with kids, give 'em baths, put 'em to bed. Hang out with wife. Sometimes eat pears. Sometimes have sex. Sometimes go to the computer and write. If I do write, it's because something has been simmering in my head for days. In which case, I spew it out. Then read and then go to sleep.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don't turn anywhere. I just do something else. I have lots of things to do. My writing comes when it comes. I'm patient enough to wait for it.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Suburban Pornography feels different because it's a better-looking book. Feels different in terms of content because there's more sex in it and I feel like a dirty old man. Feels different because the prose is nicely stripped down, quick and dirty.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I'm not naïve enough to think that books don't influence what I write; anyone who says otherwise is a lying sack of shit. All writers feed off other writers. Other influences are many: work, sex, music, what I had for supper, the weather, how much physical exercise I've had lately, the laundry, etc. Seriously, just about anything can influence my writing. Writing is a social exercise, meaning it incorporates the social world around you. It never just hangs in a writer's head. Only idiot writers think their shit is so holy that it's detached from reality. And those idiots can think that but they're wrong.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Many writers are tremendously important to me: Bukowski, John & Dan Fante, Henry Miller, Hubert Selby, Daniel Jones, Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Michel Houellebecq, Alexander Trocchi, WS Burroughs, Tony O'Neill, William T Vollmann, Laura Hird, Sal Difalco, Len Gasparini, Clint Burnham, etc. etc. ... but I also love discovering new writers who grab me by the nuts. Just last week I read a novel by Peter Plate that I really liked. Had never read him before and now I want to read more. Same thing with Marie Darrieussecq, who I read for the first time a month or so ago. That's the beauty of it. Others, like Bukowski and Selby, I go back to all the time. Music is important to my writing: The Clash, Gogol Bordello, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, The Ramones, etc, etc.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

That's too personal a question.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I am not a writer by occupation. I have a day job, working for a national trade union. I don't love my day job but I know it's necessary, in terms of feeding my kids and keeping us housed. I would not want to be a full-time writer. I would die doing that. I would hate to live in a world where, professionally, I spent so much time engaging other writers and the writing industry. It would drive me insane. I prefer to be engaged in the mundane muck of day-to-day living and working. But I'm also a misanthrope. Maybe I'd like to be a farmer. A meteorologist in some distant and remote weather station. I've been a gravedigger, garbageman, janitor, clerk, soup kitchen cook - you name the shitty job and I've done it. I also don't want to do any of those jobs again.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

You mean other art forms? I can't do the other ones, for one thing. I tried singing in a band and that didn't work out so well. Can't draw or paint to save my ass. I can write. So I do it. Plus, more seriously, I like that writing can be a very direct and non-bullshitty art form. You write exactly what you want to say. There's no window dressing, wiggle room. It's right there in black and white on the page. It says what it says.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: Spitting Off Tall Buildings by Dan Fante and Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. I read them both in the same week about two weeks ago when I had trouble sleeping in the hotel where I was staying for some day job gig. I have read both before. Like I said, I often re-read books I love. Film ... whatever the title of the last porno I watched was. Otherwise, film rarely moves me much. I'd have to go back a bit. Short Bus was good.

19 - What are you currently working on?

This interview has taken me quite a while ... Um, I assume you mean my fiction, so just a bunch of new short stories. Where I'm going with them I won't know until I get there. They come. I write them down. I send them out. The usual. Maybe there's a book in it to follow up on Sub Porn. Thanks for asking me all this stuff.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

white, a first novel by rob mclennan

THE MERCURY PRESS cordially requests the pleasure of your company at a launch and celebration for our fall books. Please join us at Supermarket (back room), 268 Augusta Avenue (just south of College Street in Kensington Market) in Toronto on Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 7:30 p.m. The launch will feature brief readings by the authors.
FALL BOOKS:*
High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow by Mark Miller*
Imagination in Action ed. by Carol Malyon*
The Prison Tangram by Claire Huot*
The Humbugs Diet by Robert Majzels*
white by rob mclennan*
The Closets of Time ed. by Beverley Daurio and Richard Truhlar*
Booty: Hurricane Jane and Typhoon Mary by Brea Burton and Jill Hartman
CASH BAR / NO COVER
For book descriptions, author bios, and more upcoming events, please visit our website: http://www.themercurypress.ca/

Friday, October 26, 2007

Ottawa Life magazine, reception


On Tuesday, after a meeting with Emily Falvey at the Ottawa Art Gallery (about a secret project), we went to the Empire Grill, where Ottawa Life was launching their issue celebrating fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts. Artist and photographer Jef Harris was there, and snapped this picture of myself meeting his friend and model Alexandra Rodionova. What do you think of me newly-acquired leather and long hair?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

what does her matter
(for angela

what does her matter
, her divide

unanswerable schemes
, a hotel is a meditation

of her unbreakable thus
, if she troubled water

& I ask would do
or do you

the view from her window lit
, of fire beneath

we talked about children
, modified by breath

we separately were
& did nothing else

blood in the blood
, respecting

a sonnets time
& franklins passage

Monday, October 22, 2007

[ottawa] festival notes: october

Oh, festival, my festival; another one come and gone. See other reports by Marcus McCann (here), Amanda Earl (here), Charles Earl (here, here, here, here), Pearl Pirie (here, here) and John MacDonald (here, here). Now what to do? I suppose we just have to wait for Saturday for that ottawa small press book fair

Friday, October 19;

First off was The Animation Pimp with Chris Robinson [see his "12 or 20" here]. It's common knowledge that Robinson doesn’t like doing public readings, but this one was pretty interesting, showing some strange short films (there is a dvd companion to the book), including one based on a Charles Bukowski short story. Robinson is a mixture of roughneck crank, animation buff and intellectual library of knowledge, information and random fact, and he manages to merge all of that in unusual ways in his collection of columns. I'm very much looking forward to finally going through his new book.

I probably should have gone to Planet Simpson with Chris Turner (and I have regret that I didn’t), but instead went to hear Acadian writer Herménégilde Chiasson, who is a philosopher, poet, essayist, playwright, visual artist, journalist and current Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. An interesting thinker and writer, he talked about growing up with a lack of books, including the fact that his father couldn’t read or write, and even read a piece about the day he learned how to read. Reading in both English and French (his translator for the current book into English was also host of the event, Wayne Grady; his other translator, Jo-Anne Elder, was in the crowd, but somehow she managed to disappear before I could say hello). His current work is a series of internal lyric monologues, beatitudes; he wanted to write a book of beauty, but didn’t want to be describing things, wanting instead to write something real. He wanted to write a book of praise, but that didn’t work out either; Grady compared his work to Cohen, referencing the usual comparison Chiasson's work gets to Jack Kerouac; Chiasson admitted the influence quickly, yes, citing Cohen among a string of songwriter-poets that have influenced his work, writing the current book as "an antidote to despair." He talked a bit too much about beauty…

The second annual Capital Xtra's Transgress event was wonderful, brilliant and perfectly over-the-top, with readings by Joey Comeau, Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco and Ivan E. Coyote, hosted by Mikiki and Coyote (who I didn’t know the current writer-in-residence at Carleton University; when did they start this program up again?). Comeau had some astounding moments, and his writing is absolutely electric, reading from a work of fiction written as a series of letters. Is it wrong to enjoy so much listening to a character do things that seem hilarious and at the same time, completely wicked evil? I have to admit that Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco's blend of writing "wrapped in humourous layers of bittersweet love and hedonic lust" left me cold (but others seemed to enjoy it pretty well), but every time I hear Ivan E. Coyote perform, I somehow manage to completely forget just how brilliant she is; how does something masterfully written and performed somehow manage to improve every time? Part writer, part philosopher and stand-up comic, she read a piece about Amsterdam, and another about travelling on a plane; I won't even describe them. I just wouldn’t be able to do them justice. Another worthy event to an absolutely packed house.

Saturday, October 20;

The first Saturday event I could make it to was the 2pm, with Phil Jenkins and Roy MacSkimming. Phil Jenkins was launching Beneath My Feet, a non-fiction memoir of George Mercer Dawson, and (from the program) "using Dawson's own words, and filling in the gaps in Dawson's voice, it presents a portrait of a towering figure in Canadian history, the man who led the geological survey during its exploration of the Canadian West." Imagine a man barely more than four feet tall and a hunchback wandering through the Canadian West, mapping parts of the 49th Parallel; as Jenkins said, Canadian history usually gets short shrift partly because it was written badly, an approach he called "a pedantic view of history." (He also said that, basically, "history is just one damn thing after another.") Working through and tweaking five thousand letters by Dawson into a memoir of sorts, Jenkins called Dawson's life "a brave life and a heroic life," and talked about the quality of the writing in the letters. Citing the differences between letter writing today (non-existent), he spoke of an American Civil War documentary, and the surprise at the level of quality of writing in the letters home from farm boys fighting in the battles. He talked for quite a while about the differences in language now, how emoticons at the end of emails or on instant messenger have "decaffeinated the language," as people now see not words in their mind that they translate onto the page, but a series of images that they translate (this was his reasoning for teens incessant use of the word "like"; translating the series of images into words). Roy MacSkimming was launching his novel based on the last few months of Sir John A. MacDonald's life, writing his book for the same reason as Richard Gwyn spoke of writing his own biography, for the last major work written on the man being the two-volume biography that came out over fifty years ago. If you go into an independent bookstore in Illinois, he said, there are whole sections of books written about Abraham Lincoln. He also spoke of the search for the father, as his father was also a Scottish immigrant, so he somehow managed to blend the two in his head, somewhat.

"Are religious experiences merely the random firing of neurons in the brain?" Mario Beauregard, Ph.D, co-author of The Spiritual Brain, gave a presentation about the ideas in his book, who (from the program) "instead of explaining away religious experience, shows that genuine, life-changing spiritual events can be scientifically documented." The "god spot," he said, is based in the temporal lobe, and cited one scientist who claimed that spirituality came from a toxin or poison in the brain. "Religion is 'a cognitive virus.'" (Michael Persinger). A misfiring of neurons. Beauregard cited a series of MRI studies they did, temporal lobe studies to do with spiritual experience. I would have caught more, but I was completely exhausted and had to have a nap.

The Mystery Night at the Festival had readings by Linda Moore and Peter Robinson, with an afterward on-stage conversation with Nicholas Hoare Bookstore manager David Dollin. I've never really been a fan of reading mystery/crime books (when I said same to Winnipeg author Catherine Hunter, she looked like she wanted to punch me full in the face), but Robinson is an extremely compelling, smart and lively writer, and pulled me completely in; I must have more. Although when he talked about the "flock of seagulls" that swooped down upon the beach and eventually poked a beak into the ear of a dead body left there, all I could think of was 1980s new wave, and front-brushed frothy blonde hair. What I liked about his section was the fact that it was driven, but not specifically single-plot driven, but character and movement motivated. One of his perfect lines had to do with a female character remembering that one should never go home with the saxophone player, because all he's thinking about is his next solo. Yipes.

After the reading, I asked a question about genre; why is it that mystery and crime novels are usually serialized, with the same character? That doesn’t seem to happen in literary fiction, and when it does, everyone notices. Look at Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (although the character throughout seems to be the city itself); look at Michael Ondaatje using the same characters in The English Patient that he introduced us to in In The Skin of a Lion, but twenty years later; what is it about the genre that brings such consideration? (I wasn’t given an answer at all, although Robinson said some interesting things.) Later on, John Pass suggested it was probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who set the trend, working his series of Sherlock Holmes books (and when he was tired of writing Holmes, Doyle finally had to kill the character off, so people would leave him alone about it; he'd been trying to quit the character for years…).

The final reading of the day was the third Writing Life, with readings by Nigerian-born British author Helen Oyeyemi (born in 1984, if you can believe it; she's working on her third novel already), Toronto's Gil Adamson and Ottawa's Frances Itani. The readings were interesting enough, but what really made the event was their post-reading conversation about names and naming. Itani said that in her family, everyone was given a nickname; no one actually went through life being called what they were actually called; she said, too, that she has a series of baby names books that she keeps for the sake of naming her characters. Adamson said a version of exactly the same, that everyone in her mother's family had the same, with nicknames that were perhaps belittling, and her own set of baby names books. Helen spoke of naming as well, as "Helen" is an Anglicization of her own Nigerian name, and the family calls her a nickname based on her middle name; part of her conflict at school was compartmentalizing her names, not wanting anyone to call her by the "family nickname" at school, for example; there she was "Helen." Isn't this the same thing that anyone adopted goes through as well? A series of names, or naming; seeing the importance of naming, the arbitrariness of it, and perhaps even where the importance in fact doesn’t lie in the name but in something other; an interesting discussion that could have gone on forever.

Sunday, October 21;

Not a lot to say; we launched A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poetry of John Newlove, a 250-page monster of a book, by showing the documentary on John that the editor, Robert McTavish, had finally released last spring. I think the event went well, with a crowd of about fifty appreciative sets of eyes and ears, including Myrna and John Metcalf, Anita Dolman, Sandra Ridley, Daniel Scott Tysdal, co-publisher Jennifer Mulligan, David O'Meara, Shane Rhodes, Geoffrey Brown and of course, Susan Newlove and her son, Jeremy Gilbert, with his daughter Matilda. It was almost even hard to talk about the film and book with McTavish after the event was over, as I still expect to see John Newlove walking down Somerset Street West, there and here. Now we aim for other launches, such as (if we can find venues) Toronto and Vancouver before Christmas, Edmonton in January and Regina and perhaps others in the months to follow.

In many ways, the John Newlove selected is our first title; the title we decided to do at the same time we decided to publish at all, making the project three years of planning, scheming and imagining. Where do we go from here?

I caught the tail end of Jasper Fforde; he sounded like a more confident Hugh Grant. I loved you, I wanted to say to him afterwards, in Notting Hill

Later that night, the ReLit Awards: Ideas not Money was hosted by Newfoundland writer Kenneth J. Harvey, who came up with the whole idea (his son was also with him, the one who was lead in the film adaptation of the Wayne Johnston novel, The Divine Ryans). Because (apparently) of a scheduling conflict, Bill Gaston was replaced on stage by Cheddar, a guinea pig (he had requested this) belonging to Steve and Kathy of The Dusty Owl. Ivan Coyote (who is planning perhaps to purchase that little house a near-hour outside of the city) gave a stellar reading, Gaston read over a cellphone, and Daniel Scott Tysdal performed a piece for seven voices, with the help of Jennifer Mulligan, myself, Sandra Ridley, Tysdal's lovely partner (why can't I remember her name?), his lovely partner's father and Robert McTavish. Apparently the part I performed was previously performed by Jeanette Lynes, at Moose Jaw's Festival of the Word. Ivan, was of course, brilliant; Gaston was difficult to hear, but I've been enjoying his collection Gargoyles over the past few weeks and know just how good he is; this Daniel Scott Tysdal is someone I've actually been hearing about for months now. Jeanette Lynes, Anne Simpson, Gary Hyland and a few other people have been telling me to look this guy up, read this kid, he's got some good things going on. His reading was low-key (apart from our seven-voices) but extremely compelling; the book looks like a lot of fun, what curry would call "serious play," and something I've been spending most of the past day or two with. I also spent the day or so in his company calling him Saskatchewan poetry's "great white hope." I think it fits. And he's a bloody good lad, too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Peter F. Yacht Club, issue #8 (the Edmonton issue)

; regatta/reading/launch ;

lovingly hosted by your captain, rob mclennan

with readings by:
Paul Pearson
Marita Dachsel
Jonathan Meakin
& Christine Stewart

Tuesday, November 6, 2007 ; doors 7pm/readings 7:30 at The Black Dog Freehouse, 10425 Whyte Avenue (downstairs)

info: az421@freenet.carleton.ca




author bios:

Paul Pearson lives and writes in Edmonton where he has been a member of the poetry community for almost two decades. Paul has had poems published in, and been an editor of, a number of small magazines including being a founding editor and chapbook publisher of the Olive Reading Series. Paul spent a number of years working for the Alberta Government and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts as the Writing and Publishing Consultant. Since being bumped up to other, non-literary duties last year, Paul has re-discovered both the time and energy to write.

Marita Dachsel's [see her "12 or 20" here] first full-length book of poetry, All Things Said & Done, was published this spring by Caitlin Press. She was born and raised in Williams Lake, BC, and has lived in Kamloops, Dawson City, Vancouver, Auckland and Montpellier, France. She has an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has been published widely in Canadian literary journals. She had been a contributor to the online magazines sweetspot.ca and sweetmama.ca and has written for The Globe and Mail. She's dabbled in playwriting and screenwriting, but finds herself most at home with fiction and poetry. She currently lives in Edmonton with her husband, Kevin Kerr, and their son, Atticus.

Jonathan Meakin emigrated from England to Canada in 1992 and has since lived mostly in Edmonton. He co-founded The Olive Reading Series and has had poems and reviews published in England and Canada. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, he researches and writes on late nineteenth-century Canadian literature. Currently, Jonathan works part-time on a Ph.D. in English and full-time as an arts development consultant for the Government of Alberta.

Christine A. Stewart [see her "12 or 20" here] is from Vancouver and currently writes and teaches experimental poetry and poetics in the English and Film Department at the University of Alberta. She is researching the work of experimental women poets in Western and Eastern Canada, and exploring alternative forms of scholarly analysis. She is author of the chapbooks Pessoas July: or the months of astonishments (Vancouver BC: Nomados Press, 2006), From Taxonomy (Sheffield, England: West House Press, 2003), Daddy Clean Head (Vancouver BC: Lumpe Presse, 2000), A Travel Narrative (Hamilton ON: Berkeley Horse, 1994) and The Barschiet Horse [with Lisa Robertson and Catriona Strang] (Hamilton ON: Berkeley Horse, 1993).

link to issue here

Friday, October 19, 2007

[ottawa] festival notes: october

Thursday, October 18;

It's been said for years that if Toronto writer Stuart Ross was an American writer, he would have been famous a very long time ago; I think the same thing could easily be said of Montreal poet, fiction and critical writer David McGimpsey, author of a new poetry collection (his fourth), Sitcom (Toronto ON: Coach House Books). Writing a collection of soliliquies and sonnets based on the works of his literary heroes, McGimpsey's poems bring in classical references from Greek literature and Shakespeare, mixing it in with the most banal of popular culture, whether scenes from the sitcom Joey or Lindsay Lohan.

Precious

Precious as the love between a man
and either Betty or Veronica,
sweet as spending the night in a van
with a bottle of no-name Goldshläger.
Into the thicket the gnatcatchers go,
grey winged with high-pitched mating calls;
I take you to my parents' bungalow
after three Big Macs at the East Side Mall.
Sweet as toffee muffin without the muffin,
gentle as a less-howly howler monkey,
soft as soft-serve, cute as a postcard puffin
riding the back of a ceramic donkey.
Mom's on meth and Dad's left for Vancouver,
so let's skip school and love one another.

I have to admit I did like the way Neil Wilson introduced David, referencing a story of eggnog paralyzers from the Edmonton part of the 1998 Great Canadian Via Rail Tour that the festival organized (I remember that morning well), and referencing Dave's piece "Sweet Poetry or Mystery Meat?" [also included on Poetics.ca] from side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002), that includes:
I don’t write poetry for respectable reasons. By that, I don’t mean to suggest I'm some kind of rebel, writing things so beyond the norm that traditional niceties and conventional rewards leave me unimpressed. On the contrary: whatever hokey, half-baked, self-aggrandizing, obscuring, mythologizing, self-defeating, daydreaming, flaky, effacing, please-love-me, log-rolling, "I'd like to thank the Governor General" sins that are alleged to plague poets, I'll cop to those same sins and more. I guess what I mean is that I'm still not entirely sure why I write poetry. After a long time writing the stuff, some days it doesn’t feel worth it, some days it still kinds of feels too personal to talk about. Though, unfortunately for my friends, some days it's all I can talk about. I agree with Tennyson when he famously said "I sometimes hold it a sin / To put in words the grief I feel" (181) but, as with so many sins, I haven’t let
guilt stop me.

Poetry is still wonderful, isn’t it?
What makes this collection different, with the threads and twists of bizarre mixture of base and highly intellectual humour that McGimpsey's work is known for, is the way he's returning to more traditional forms (his first poems in school, years ago, were sonnets about Batman). What made the event even more than spectacular, after killing the crowd with piece after piece, was Clare Latremouille's ten-year-old son Sam at the back of the room, barely able to contain himself; he has such a wonderful laugh, too, and it was infectious.

At one point, too, the technician had to go on stage to replace McGimpsey's microphone, which prompted Dave's response that this was "not the first time in the throes of passion, someone told me that the batteries were dying."

I was very taken by the 7pm event, Richard Gwyn in conversation with Charlotte Gray about Gwyn's new biography about Sir John A. MacDonald, John A: The Man Who Made Us. An extremely interesting speaker, Gwyn said that the book came about after the realization that there hadn’t been a major biography on our first Prime Minister for half a century, whereas American and British culture produces many books annually on their leaders past and present; why shouldn’t we at least be able to do the same? It's a constant complaint, that we are so unaware of our own history (and didn’t Pierre Berton, in fact, create the whole "Canadian popular history" genre? Where would we have been without him?). Gwyn argued that MacDonald was Canada's most successful politician, with six wins and even brought to the table the idea that women should have the vote, perhaps being the first world leader to do such a thing (it was voted down by all but four members of even his own party). Gwyn talked about the lunatic ideas that MacDonald had that actually helped create a country, including the fact of putting in a national railway pretty much for the sake of only 20,000 people in British Columbia; lunatic!

I'm always fascinated by the non-fiction titles about Canadian history, and somehow these talks are always the highlight for me (I remember the 1812 talk from the previous festival; or was it the one before?). Gwyn talked about some of the 19th century differences between Canada and the United States, including the moral superiority that Canada felt over their neighbours to the south, simply because of our stronger ties to the church; can you imagine (or perhaps you can), Canada not wanting to be part of the American system in part because of their increasing secularism? Because the Americans believed more in democracy and the separation of church and state? It makes for an interesting shift now, as religion is thrust forefront on the table of every Presidential election, whereas our national elections talk far less on the topic, if at all. What happened?

I think the moral superiority is still there, ingrained and even programmed into us, even if we don’t always entirely know just what exactly we're feeling superior about.

Canadians didn’t want to be Americans in the 19th century, Gwyn said, for very simple reasons. The French were anti-American because they worried their religious culture, more important to them than anything else, would be threatened; for the English, it was the threat to their Britishness.

Lovingly hosted by Ottawa poet David O'Meara was the poetry cabaret, with readings by Ottawa poets Stephen Brockwell and Rob Winger, and British Columbia poet John Pass. O'Meara called Brockwell's fourth collection "startlingly inventive," and there are aspects of the formal mixed with his recent explorations with voice (as well as his ongoing classical references) that would make for an interesting comparison between this new collection of his and David McGimpsey's latest, especially when you consider the fact that they both came out of Montreal creative writing side-by-side (Brockwell was there when the Batman sonnets were introduced). Brockwell made a point of thanking the festival, and congratulating them on their engagement with not only international and national writers, but the diversity of local communites, which many festivals aren’t always aware of.

Brockwell's new collection is made up of monologues, he said, and poems made through procedures (again, see McGimpsey), including poems put through voice recognition and translation software; "made through the things it did not understand." Brockwell said he was working a series of "imitation" poems.

I love Rob Winger's suggestion of "meanders as a way of getting there."

John Pass isn’t a writer whose work does anything at all for me, but I found a number of things he said quite interesting, and would even welcome essays by such a writer (I hold Robert Bringhurst, Tim Lilburn and Robyn Sarah in the same regard; I don't care for their goals as poets, but find what they have to say in non-fiction prose pretty interesting). Pass, who won the Governor General's Award for his latest poetry collection, talked about the difficulty with engaging with beauty; our difficult love with it that doesn’t reciprocate, he said. Environmentalism, he suggested, perhaps even devolving from our high romantic notion of beauty; and that beauty is natural, and not man-made. Poetry, he said (very modernist, sigh), as a practice of the oblique, and by the end of writing the current collection, he was writing himself into silence.

Touring Utah; An Object Lesson

Tease (from the van's speed, mind's
slip-stream, the shif-

ty vistas) landform, fossil of a cloud.
Going where you think to
go: Four Corners, Inspiration Point,

Angel's Landing. Work 'round the case
of the Anasazi displayed in shreds
of sandal, 800 AD corn-on-the-cob.

Buy turquoise tumbled by the Navajo
and an arrowhead recycled as a charm

against the wind's slick way with it, them, you

(old earth entire on its lathe)
throwback, smooth-talker.

Can you ease down the sliprock, toes
to the river's exhaustive marginalia

and not know?
Pant up the trail

and to hand in the canyon
sandstone in flesh-tones
is hot for you. (Stumbling In The Bloom)

Again, the post-reading conversation was pretty lively, as John Pass said a thing or two about emotion being an essential part of writing a poem that Brockwell took exception to; I think Pass needs to be very careful, when he talks about poets who write about "only language" instead of the emotion being somehow less than valuable, working "word games" as some sort of dismissal. I think he has to be very careful to not equate, for example, word play with a lack of emotion (one has nothing to do with the other); I think he has to realize that not everyone has the same goals when they craft a piece that can eventually be called a poem. He can do whatever he likes, but he was certainly narrowing his focus as he went, being very clear (somewhat) about what kinds of things a poem should and shouldn’t be doing, and what he obviously doesn’t take seriously as writing. He made it sound as though the emotional intent of the poet was essential to the final piece; he made it sound as though reference was essential, as though somehow we all had the same referential points; what?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

[ottawa] festival notes: october

Wednesday, October 17;

Why does everything seem smaller now that I'm actually home (including my apartment)? On Tuesday night, getting in actually sometime Wednesday morning, and going straight from the airport to the hospitality suite [see these photos we took at the spring festival, same suite]; nearly 1am with Carmel Purkis, Neil Wilson, Max Middle, Steve Zytveld, Jonathan Garfinkel and Simon Rose, as well as a few others; and jwcurry, who showed up an hour later.

Rob Winger is up for the Governor-General's Award for Poetry for his first collection [see my review of it here; see his "12 or 20" here]; have you seen the rest of the list? Wandering through Ottawa on Wednesday for the first time since August, all these businesses new & some gone; how much has changed? Still, the ottawa international writers festival is a wonder that I wouldn’t have missed for the world; they have managed to build a house that we are all allowed to live in, and created a community of people who are there for all the same reasons: a sheer love of books, stories, reading.

I'm disappointed that I missed a number of the events already, including the Ottawa Book Awards event on Saturday [where Monty Reid made Jennifer and I "award-winning publishers"], readings by John Metcalf, Leon Rooke and Kathleen Winter on Sunday, the John Newlove Award (sponsored by Bywords) on Monday, or Jonathan Garfinkel on Tuesday. It's interesting to watch him now, and see just what he's accomplished (over the years, through articles in Walrus and other places), since meeting him back in 2001, when he, Stephen Brockwell and I read at the IV Lounge in Toronto (or launching his poetry book at Collected Works in Ottawa to a crowd of three people).

At least other blogs have been doing their jobs; Amanda Earl (here, here, here, here), Pearl Pirie (here, here, here, here), Charles Earl (here, here, here, here, here), Marcus McCann (here).

Toronto author David Gilmour (preparing to be writer-in-residence at Massey College in January) read from a new non-fiction work, The Film Club. "When David Gilmour realized that his 15-year-old son was miserable in school and on the verge of dropping out, he decided that his son could leave school on one condition—not that he get a job or pay rent, but that he watch three movies a week with his Dad." I found this particularly interesting, since my 16.5 year old daughter Kate and I have been watching new movies in theatres practically (save for my leaving town for things like Alberta) every single Saturday for more than a decade; what becomes interesting is when she really started engaging with the film, and even recommending other films to me that she's seen, that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of (she's also since taken a filmmaking workshop at IFCO). I think I might actually have to read this one.

The "WRITING LIFE #2" event featured Quebec author Gil Courtemanche, British author Marina Lewycka and Newfoundland's Michael Winter. Winter was the author I was there for, honestly (father of the newly-minted Leo, born September 1), who introduced his reading with a kind of storytelling list of what stories he borrowed and altered, "I wanted to have ____________; that's in the book." He talked about accidents and safety and childhood friends. He spoke a list that could have easily have been the reading itself in a casual storytelling style. Winter's fiction seems to be about the deeply small and the deeply large and the deeply personal; I am looking forward to this one.

As much as I enjoyed the readings (and I particularly enjoy Winter's fiction), what made this event was the conversation that came afterwards between the three authors, sparked by Courtemanche. Gil Courtemanche seems to enjoy saying deliberately-provocative things in a matter-of-fact way, and then sitting back and witnessing our response, telling us that we can't handle him because he's "too real" (in a more elegant and intellectual "older Bart Simpson when Lisa was President" kind of way). Imagine: this is someone who began his reading by saying "I must say that I hate reading…" During the Q&A at the end of the reading (hosted/moderated by Phil Jenkins), Courtemanche finally said of North American fiction writers (responding to a structural piece of deflection Michael Winter talked about from his own work), "You don’t want to write books, you want to write stories," and told us that the problems with "our" fiction was that we all wanted to be filmmakers. It was no longer about words, he said. It was no longer about anything more than action. We all want to be screenwriters. He went on, of course, saying that he doesn’t bother reading North American fiction anymore, because something always has to "happen" in them, and writers can't just write anymore.

Where is the interiority, he asked. Accused, it seemed.

But perhaps I should go back a bit; Jenkins had asked the three authors a question based on the common elements to all three books, that they included descriptions of dinners. What about the family dinner, Jenkins asked them. I don’t write about dinners, Winter said. If I describe landscape or food, it's after something happens. He gave as his example, one character at the table saying "You should know that I slept with your brother," and then a description of eating fried chicken, and the description of the event, a family birthday to celebrate the father's seventieth birthday, etcetera. One point shifting suddenly into another point, making the single line load what comes next, and making the dinner description not about the dinner at all. This is where Courtemanche began.

Why do some authors have to do that? I'm clever or brave, someone decides, so then react to other authors as though they have some sort of moral or intellectual failing because they aren't as "clever" or "brave," etcetera? It seems a compromised position to begin with; that authority.

It was magnificent, and sparked a great debate between Courtemanche and Winter (with Lewycka in the middle), and one that, although overly-sweeping, I had to say I agreed with. Why does so much fiction have to be about plot? Who can paint a whole literature with such a brush, was Winter's response; who are you reading, he asked, to get to that conclusion? And why were all of Courtemanche's examples American? (Some my fiction models come out of French-Canadian novels in translation, I have to admit; but what about Sheila Watson, or how many others that Courtemanche hasn’t bothered to look up?) And then Winter gave Courtemanche a series of "classic" authors (Faulkner) who wrote scenes with action.

Give me one American stylist, Courtemanche demanded, who sells books.

Don Delillo, Winter answered.

Courtemanche paused, just briefly, before he went on to another point. I don't think he was expecting an answer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thomas Wharton's Salamander
The book tells its own story.

Examine it closely and you will see the ragged edges of the type, its cracks and bumps and gaps, the letters that lie crookedly or ride higher or lower than the others, the ink's variations in depth, consistency, and hue, the motes of dust and droplets of sweat sealed within the warp and woof of the paper, the tiny insect bodies caught as the platen came down and now immortalized as unnecessary commas and full stops.

In these imperfections lies a human tale of typecutters, squinting compositors, proofreaders and black-faced printer's devils, labouring against time and heartache and disorder, against life, to create that thing not found in nature, yet still subject to its changes.

The pages stain, fox, dry out. Paper flakes like rusty metal. Threads work loose, headbands and tailbands fray. Front and back boards sag from spines, flyleaves and buckram corner-pieces peel away. Dust mites, cockroaches, and termites dine on paper and binding paste. Rats and mice make snug nests in the middle of thick chapters. And unseen, through the chemical action of time, the words themselves are drained of their living sap. In every library, readers sit in placid quiet while all around them a forest decays.
After all this time, I finally read Thomas Wharton's [see his "12 or 20" interview here; or his current Edmonton Journal thriller project here] second novel, Salamander (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2001), yesterday, on the airplane back to Ottawa; the book he was touring when I met him, some six years ago, at the ottawa international writers festival. Just what had been preventing me all this time? Salamander is a magnificent story within a story within a story, much like The Canterbury Tales or Neil Gaiman's epic eleven-volume graphic novel The Sandman. Written as a tale told by a young girl to a colonel in a bombed-out bookshop in 1759 Montreal, beginning with the story of a Count who loses his son and wife, even as he gains a daughter. Through grief and the luxuries that giving up on the world affords, the Count withdraws to a castle (and his own obsessions with puzzles and labyrinths) that eventually ceases to officially exist, living on the boundaries of two countries, and yet existing properly within neither. The Count eventually fashions a castle that exists with moving floors, walls and rooms in an incredible display of mechanics that would make this novel wonderful to appear on film (reminding me of Richard Brautigan's shifting scenes in his novel The Hawkline Monster; wanting to see a film version simply to see how such scenes can even be displayed). Become obsessed with his books, the Count invites the legendary English printer, Nicholas Flood, to come to their castle that does not exist, and create an infinite book, without beginning or end. It is once there that we see the absurdity and the brilliance of Count Ostrov's creations (deliberately working a castle that could be self-sustaining, without need for human interaction), and where Flood meets the Count's beautiful daughter, Irena.
He held the paper to the dying spark of a candle and it crackled into sullen flame. She quickly relit the other candles and smiled over the bouquet of light she was handing him. As the paper burned up she saw through the green flames the image stamped upon it, melting and writhing. She asked him if he had chosen the phoenix as his symbol for just such moments.

— Salamander, Flood said.

— What?

— The creature is supposed to be a salamander.

The little dragon that dwells in fire, he explained, without being consumed, was a reassuring thought for people who work with paper. Originally he wanted a chimera, but the engraver he hired had gotten his mythological beasts confused.

— We have them in the castle, she said. The real sort of salamander, I mean. In the underground crypts, among the gears, where it's dark and damp.

— It sounds a lot like London. The sort of climate where printers thrive.

— If that's so, she asked, why did you leave?

He felt his face burn.

— I can't resist a challenge.
Wharton's story weaves through the fantastic (and even the impossible), and certainly invites comparisons with Alice in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings (as well as Borges and Calvino) in some of the reviews quoted in the paperback version. The comparisons are apt, but I would compare it more to the best of British author Neil Gaiman, certainly through his series The Sandman, whether in the structure of story within story within story, or in Flood's commission, to create an impossible book (Gaiman's tale includes an endless library of books only dreamed, and never written). As one character tells Nicholas Flood, after hearing of his project, "In imagining your alam, Mr. Flood, you became a member of the world's oldest reading society, one that has existed for centuries, under countless names, in every part of the world. A society dedicated to the dreaming of fabulous, impossible, imaginary books." Like Gaiman, through his fantastic and dreamlike fantasy tales (it's interesting how Wharton places his science in a period where the supernatural and the sciences were still spoken of in the same hushed tones, seen with an equal sense of wonder), but darker and somehow with more depth, writing a tale of the search for knowledge and the perseverance of the heart (it helps, too, that Wharton is a better writer than Gaiman, who is still a master storyteller, but somehow stronger in the form of the graphic novel). How does a boy from Grand Prairie manage to create such a tale, a story within so many seemingly-endless stories? As one of his characters speaks, "A book is a confession, after all."
He told her that if she wanted to know what London was like, the castle would give her a good idea.

— People are always in motion there. No one stays in one place for long.

— Here the walls and ceilings and floors move, she said, and the people stand still.

He looked into her eyes and at that moment a truth that he should have seen right from the beginning became clear to him. The castle, the automatons, the clockworks, all of this was her father's system and functioned by his rules, but Irena had her
own system, quietly running on it's own inside the Count's. He was not sure why
she had disabled the great clock, but felt a rush of hope that she had done it to bring about this encounter with him. Feeling the colour rising to his face, he turned to his press and saw that Ludwig had wound down at the bar.

— And you, Mr. Flood, she said. How do you feel about the clocks?

He hesitated, and was aware again of what seemed an unearthly stillness.

— I like them at the moment, he said.
The book follows Flood as he collects knowledge, stories and supplies for his impossible book, watching what he loses, even as he gains. Watching everything slip away and away from Flood and the Count and Irena, Wharton's novel can be read as a book about story, and the impermanence of the world, writing his way out of the prairie "tall tale" of Robert Kroetsch into his own magical blend of history, fantasy and myth (they are not so different, after all). Watching everything slip away and listening to the tales the characters tell within tales, Wharton's magnificent novel can be read about the world, and about how stories, through their repeated tellings, remain their own sense of permanence. Empires might wither, and crumble and fall, but if even a single person exists to tell the story of that empire, then it was worth it, after all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

enrichedbreadartists 951 gladstone avenue 613-729-7632 www.artengine.ca/eba

15th annual open studio
opening is Thursday October 18th 6-9pm


sarah anderson jean-marie bélanger barbara brown kenneth emig colette gréco-riddle jean halstead danny hussey marika jemma karen jordon gayle kells julie mcdonald christos pantieras uta riccius daniel sharp hedda sidla cindy stelmackowich svetlana swinimer vivian tors amy thompson tavi weisz joyce westrop


from Danny Hussey's Signs Of Language The Icon Project

if you don't go to the writers festival in ottawa, you should at least go to this...

Monday, October 15, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with John Lavery

John Lavery is the author of Very Good Butter and You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off. Very Good Butter was a Hugh MacLennan prize finalist. He has twice been a runner-up in the annual Prism International contest, and his stories have appeared in This Magazine, The Canadian Forum, The Ottawa Citizen, and The London Spectator. Lavery appeared in Coming Attractions, The Journey Prize Anthology and Decalogue 2: ten Ottawa fiction writers. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec, with his wife and children.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Exteriorly, very little. Interiorly, ahhh. In the video game of my life, I was suddenly the guy with the red arrow over his head. Wherever I went, the arrow was there, tracking every move I told myself to make. Incredible feeling, especially as I was over forty by then. Incredible. Except that whenever I sat down to work on something that might one day be a second book, the arrow, if it was there, was all but invisible.

2 - How long have you lived in Gatineau, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

Almost ten years now in Gatineau. But a great many of the best moments in my life have been lived in settings where English hasn't been the language spoken. A gigantic factor in my writing. I really think my linguistic development has been made possible by my getting outside English, a language I truly love, even though I cheat on it all the time, so that I have been able to see English not, in a child-like way, as the quintessential, perfect language intimately bound to the phenomenal world, but as one language, the language of my childhood, with strong points that are weaknesses and faults that are stengths, and its own music that is not always easy to sustain.

Race and gender are such elemental aspects of humanity, I mean can you say anything at all about people without getting into race and gender?

3 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I had a great idea for the ending to a story once. I wrote the story right up to the ending and thought yeah, this is pretty half-decent stuff...the ending's a bit weak though. So I changed it. Everything happens. But most stories, longer or shorter, begin as circuits. Once I've got the circuit I can plug in switches, resistors, capacitors, relays.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I really like reading in public and read all my stuff out loud to myself. Not necessarily out very loud. I hear all the voices, whether or not I can reproduce them myself. Or even to myself.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

No theory nohow. No ask questions. Just go.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Never been edited much, unfortunately. They usually send me out there naked. The editing experiences I have had have, for the most part, been, initial outrage aside, constructive and reassuring.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Not hard-er. But fucking hard.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

A pear of what?

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Fuck you.” Given to me directly.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to poetry)? What do you see as the appeal?

Poetry, to me, is basically goofing off. I can get lost in English easily enough, but I'm not too crazy about it. I keep wanting to get into race and gender. I've written quite a few songs.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

A typical day, every day, begins with a lengthy micturition. When I'm going good, I head out to the Gatineau Public Library every day about ten, ten-thirty, and work there until three-thirty, four. There's a quote (Jules Renaud) painted on the wall there: “When I think about how many books I still haven't read, I have the firm conviction that I'm still happy.”

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Other writing. Other books. I turn to the guitar a lot too, but not for inspiration. To de-obsess.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Oh it's a whole lot better. But wait to you see the next one.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

It is very true that books work in a way that is livresque, unique to books. The only way to investigate their operation is by reading them. And writing your own. Music has been a big influence. There are little refrains in my writing, word sequences that repeat, not always with the same stress pattern, codas, crescendos, I mean I think in those terms. Also I like sports, and sports writing in some cases.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many, really so many. Although I'm a constant but not a massive reader. The only two writers I've really binged on have been Faulkner (that aristocratic southern drawling diction read with an 18-year old, clipped Montreal accent) and Colette. Well Zola too. Shakespeare (a really good writer despite the way-over-the-top, not to say juvenile, adulation). Flan O'Brien. The truth is, I don't keep track of what I read very well.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

My son's going to Africa this summer. Niger or Senegal. All I can do not to ask him to take me with him. He would, too, the jerk.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I almost did become a seaman for life. I'm happiest just working, physically. Surveying's a cool job, I did that for quite a while.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

That is the question, isn't it. I do know what made me not write. Terrified of not being good at it. But I have to do other stuff.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The film is easy: Babel. It has replaced Amarcord as my all time cinematic fave. Books are different. Every book I read, if I read it through to the end, has a greatness about it. Which perhaps is tantamount to saying none of them do. Elizabeth Hay's will be great. Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World. Alaa al Aswany The Yacoubian Building. Michel Quint Effroyables Jardins (not translated as far as I know). For anybody into Spanish, José-Luis Mañez's Yo soy un escritor frustrado is a horrid, small-minded little book that I think is fabuloso.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A thing called Crutches. I have another thing written from the point of view of a foetus, of course. Not too far along with that, but what I've got is pretty cool.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

the past few days; readings in edmonton
This is a photo of me in my little office on-campus, courtesy Stephen Brockwell... unfortunately you can't see the mounds of paper all over the floor or the stacks of books and envelopes...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007; Stephen Brockwell at the Olive Reading Series

Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell [see his "12 or 20 questions" interview here] was through town to read for the Olive Reading Series, launching his Olive chapbook from Impossible Books (2007), as well as his fourth trade collection, The Real Made Up (ECW Press, 2007). Not the biggest crowd (given it was immediately post-Thanksgiving). When Stephen reads well, he reads extremely well, and this was one of those times, engaging with the audience, and reading from new pieces that engage with voice in pretty interesting ways. He talked about working his new collection as “memisis, or imitation” and about how “the public mind displaces language.” I very much look forward to getting a copy of his new book when I’m back in Ottawa and getting into it further, deeper.

from A Guide to the New Flora of Cornwallis Island

jars of moss shag deciduous trees
species of buttercup adapted to
distant but all-day sun: miniature
radio telescopes hooked to solar signals

at the roots of dwarf northern oaks
fungi evolve to spore in human tea
boot-deep in an unimaginable bog
shirts off, backs gleaming, humid

our tents ships without stars
sleep blinds, our green backs,
churning on this living bog
twenty years of water
ten thousand years of ice (from Impossible Books)
We tried to find a karaoke bar afterwards (after a bit of time at The Black Dog) but got distracted by some other things. And of course, well before the reading, he arrived at my office and I made him take pictures... (since I might never have an office again in my life)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007; Jocko Benoit going-away party/reading

With Alice Major’s help, we had a little going-away party for Edmonton poet Jocko Benoit, who leaves at the end of the month for Washington D.C. (for the sake of a relationship); after all the work he’s done around town over the past two decades (he moved to Edmonton in 1988) it seemed the least the city could do for him, was give a little bit of love before he moves south. I even made a broadsheet of a poem of his, so he could have a handout in his new digs.

When It Came Down, It Really Came Down

In the wake of the meteorite that killed
Millie Wentworth, astronomers
Were blamed for their irrational numbers,
Then government faulted for inadequate
Funding of telescopes on every block.
The rebuttal that Millie was killed
In an open field led to interrogations
Of all those who’d let her walk home
At night when a meteorite was more likely
To sneak up on her with its rakish
Whistle of death. This led to a by-law
Insisting citizens practice defensive walking –
Each hesitant step married to skyward gaze,
Though after hospitals cramped up with
Twisted ankles and stumble-wrenched knees
A step and downward glance
Was added to the binoculars-optional dance.
And several groups popped up with evidence
Of how TV was to blame.

Her insurance company forced the Vatican
To testify to the verity of God’s
Clumsy hand slinging star shards around.
The blue of the sky, in everyone’s eyes,
Was the color of choking before
The black of night – its face
Maggot-pocked with wormholes.
Meteorite reports followed those for
Wind chill, smog and UV. In the end,
People rightly stopped blaming each other
And joined in blaming the sky,
Because when it fell, it really fell –
And all passages in poems and plays
That referred to sun, moon and stars
As beautiful were stricken
From school textbooks so no child
Might be inappropriately mesmerized
By the glittering dots or try to connect
One to another in pictures that said more
About the child than about the cosmos.
A good evening; afterward we went to the Garneau for drinks, a couple of us; for a guy who doesn’t actually drink, though, he managed to keep spilling my drinks on me more than any of us could find reason…

Friday, October 13, 2007; LitFest and PEN Canada Cabaret

Last night I went to LitFest: Edmonton International Literary Festival, which bills itself as “Canada’s only Creative Non-Fiction Festival.” Why is it I’ve never heard of this festival before? I’ve certainly heard of Montreal’s Blue Metropolis (WHY WON’T THEY INVITE ME TO READ?), The Calgary-Banff Wordfest (why won’t they invited me to read?) and the Vancouver International Writers Festival (why won’t they invite me to read?), but not this one. Billed as “Hot North,” the event at The Sutton Place Hotel (Rutherford Room) was co-hosted by the very charming duo Ted Bishop and Todd Babiak to a nearly-packed house (including authors such as Shawna Lemay and Myrna Kostash, neither of whom I’d had a chance to meet previously; I even got Kostash to sign my copy of her first book, All of Baba’s Children [see my previous blog entry on her here]). Babiak talked about (something referenced by a couple of other people throughout the reading) the “challenge” put forth at last year’s festival by John Ralston Saul through PEN Canada for the sake of free speech, anti-censorship, an idea that came to fruition (one of the ways it has, apparently) through the appointment of Jalal Barzanji as Edmonton’s first writer-in-exile. Babiak [see his "12 or 20 questions" interview here] referenced, too, how one of the recent Alberta premiers (not the most recent one) had even tried to censor The Edmonton Journal and its Calgary equivalent, pushing them to write positive and not negative editorials; apparently The Edmonton Journal even got a Pulitzer Prize (the first awarded to a newspaper outside the United States) for refusing to be compromised.

Author Ken McGoogan (it was good to see him again) read from his book about the Northwest Passage and the doomed Franklin Expedition, Fatal Passage (I tried to convince him to sing the song but he wouldn’t do it; at least, not there, he said). A good opener; McGoogan is a strong, compelling reader, which was a great way to start, but unfortunately, didn’t work out with the soft-spoken Annette Woudstra as follow-up. She’s so quiet and low-key, the fit didn’t fit (and I could barely hear her). What I could hear was pretty interesting, from a first book of essays , The Green Heart of the Tree, Essays and Notes on a Time in Africa (University of Alberta Press).

The biggest reason I was there was to hear Janice Williamson, who read a piece on Burma and Burmese action, including the protest she was part of at the University of Alberta on the Saturday of the Thanksgiving weekend. It was interesting to realize just how much Williamson is a passionate writer, and how much her detailed (and well-researched) thoughtfulness manages not only to not diminish that passion, but instead bring it out further. She talked about Doris Lessing doing the Massey Lecture in 1985 and talking about the “prisons we choose for ourselves,” and how “literature as a kind of tonic against madness,” even quoting the short Bertolt Brecht poem “Motto,” that reads:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

She talked about her ten-year-old daughter being a part of the “day of action” with her, who was but a few feet away from her, listening; I think Janice’s daughter, when she gets older, will probably have extremely interesting things to say about growing up in such a household.

The best part, in many ways, of going to an evening such as this is being able to hear authors who I otherwise would probably have either never heard of or overlooked; Toronto author and journalist Marian Botsford Fraser read a piece of hers that had been published in Granta 83 (“This Overheating World”), the piece “Bone Litter.” There aren’t that many readings or pieces that make me go “wow,” but this was certainly one of them; an “impact piece,” as she called it.

It was interesting, too, to hear Montreal writer David Solway at this festival; he and I had a conversation during the break. I told him my frustrations with his pseudononymous work being “outed” in print by Joel Yanofsky. I remember it feeling very offside at the time; very cheap, even. What exactly is the anti-pseudonym bias that makes one want to “out,” and thus, giving the permission to dismiss the entire work, the entire project and point? How exactly is this "hoaxing," or "pulling wool over," exactly? I have never understood. Solway read a couple of pieces from his poetry collection Franklin’s Passage, referencing Ken McGoogan (a good close that met itself back at the beginning). He talked about the north and about the formulation of north (“its cold”); the, as he called it, “semiotics of representation.” When he said that, I thought it interesting too, that really, if you go south enough, wouldn’t it be equally cold?

It reminded me of Nancy Huston’s book Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue and Self (Toronto ON: McArthur & Company, 2002):

To be disoriented is to lose the east.

In French, “losing north” means forgetting what you were going to say. Losing track of what’s going on. Losing your marbles. It is something you should avoid at all costs. Something that’s always spoken of negatively, to say that one hasn’t done it. “My, he certainly doesn’t lose the north, does he?” is the way the expression is used. Never “Ah, too bad – he’s lost the north.”

To be all abroad is what my excellent French-English dictionary suggests by way of translation. An expression which, taken literally, means to be in a foreign country. But if, in turn, you take the English-French dictionary and look up the expression To be all abroad, what you find is to be scattered every which way, or to the four winds, to talk twaddle, to be off one’s rocker – which is not at all the same thing!

Dictionaries confuse us, they lead us astray, they plunge us into that frightening magma between languages, in which words lose their meanings, refuse to mean, start out meaning one thing and end up meaning quite another.

The North is what I intended to say.

What I should have said. Theoretically. What I was supposed to say, in the event that I had something to say.

And then, after the readings, a couple of us retired to the hotel bar, only to find Ottawa’s own Tom Green playing guitar and singing songs; apparently he’s here for an entire month filming a movie with Chrispin Glover (who, fortunately or unfortunately, wasn't part of Tom's small group at the bar). How small a world is that? We talked for a little bit (why do I find it so surprising that anyone remembers me at all?), and thought about just how long ago it actually was when I was a guest on the Tom Green Show back on Rogers Cable 22 (1995; the third “poem” leaflet I produced was actually a handout for his studio audience).

He kept telling me I had to watch tomgreen.com, to see his broadcasts...