Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Solipsist by Troy Jollimore

What is it about the late Canadian artist Tom Thomson that keeps Canadian expatriate writer Troy Jollimore writing about him? Not to mention the unfinished novel by the late Roy K. Kiyooka as well, and whoever else has managed to write Thompson over the years, a member of the infamous Group of Seven. From Jollimore’s first poetry collection, Tom Thomson in Purgatory (published in Canada by Exile Editions, 2008) to the four poems that slip their way through his recent chapbook, The Solipsist (Cohasset CA: Bear Star Press, 2008).

Tom Thomson in Space

Some nights, when Tom retires, he pretty much
implodes: sucked back through nostril or an ear
into the starry void that lies behind
his sleep-blanked visage… Through his body crouch
corpse-still, sunk in suspended animation,
arid as freeze-dried food, his spirit finds
no rest—a cosmonaut, it treks where no man
(and even fewer women) have gone before:
Tom’s Inner Self. Its never-ending mission:
to seek out a new life—one not to bear,
but live… Out of range now of Ground Control,
and hurtling straight through Ursa Major, Tom
accelerates toward the inner wall
—the universe’s limit—of his skull…

Of the fifteen poems that make up The Solipsist, there are these four poems about Tom Thomson, who perhaps couldn’t be a more foreign entity to an American audience, an American publisher, scattered through like teasers, or reminders of what may even be a combination of play and even compulsion. What brings him back to this painter of northern Ontario trees?

The Solipsist

Don’t be misled:
that sea-song you hear
when the shell’s at your ear?
It’s all in your head.

That primordial tide—
the slurp and salt-slosh
of the brain’s briny wash—
is on the inside.

truth be told, the whole place,
everything that the eye
can take in, to the sky
and beyond into space,

lives inside of your skull.
When you set your sad head
down on Procrustes’ bed,
you lay down the whole

universe. You recline
on the pillow: the cosmos
grows dim. The soft ghost
in the squishy machine,

which the world is, retires.
Someday it will expire.
Then all will go silent
and dark. For the moment,

however, the black-
ness is just temporary.
the planet you carry
will shortly swing back

from the far nether regions.
and life will continue—
but only within you.
Which raises a question

that comes up again and again,
as to why
God would make ear and eye
to face outward, not in?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shane Rhodes and Michael McCulloch reading/benefit

FORWARD: On Saturday, December 13, at 7:30 PM Shane Rhodes and Michael McCulloch will be performing an evening of music and poetry to raise money for the Morungatuny Refugee Camp in Northern Uganda. About 40 people attended the last event (held on November 22) and we raised over $800. If you would like to attend, please RSVP in advance by emailing Shane Rhodes at or calling the number on the poster. We don't have a set price for the tickets but ask only for a "free will offering," that is, donate what amount you can. Please see the attached poster for more information. Feel free to pass this invitation on to others who may be interested, Thanks, Shane Rhodes

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Laundromat Essay by Kyle Buckley

The closest equivalent I can think to Toronto poet Kyle Buckley’s first poetry collection, The Laundromat Essay (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008) is to some of the experiments in online hyperlink poetry, a 1990s form that, for the most part, didn’t really go anywhere, one word or a phrase moving off into another direction, another poem (think, too, of those “choose your own adventure” novels you used to read as a kid). In this piece, the first thing you notice is the structure, and the second is the worry that it’s all a trick with no substance, before seeing the poem for its leagues of depth, for what it is. This is a poem that turns back on itself, with the poem on page thirty-nine reading:

The suit was hanging a little high up on my wall, but I needed something to wear, so I got a small ladder out to get it down. The ladder was around because of the work I was doing around my apartment, while my clothes were all at the laundromat because I’d just gotten home from a trip and had nothing left to wear and the laundromat owner wouldn’t let me back into his laundromat to get them because he said it was too late, they were closed. But he had his own reasons for not letting me back in.
In bold, the word “work” leads a line to the previous page, the left side where your eye might have slipped first, and finding:

I thought you and I should understand the life of furniture better than we did, so I brought some wooden beams down from the ceiling, which I could use to build a table. I started to tell you that we preferred rain in the house to mineral water.
Not that this is mere trick, but works instead as an added layer to the main thread. Buckley’s first collection is a poetry that references the merging with criticism, blurring the boundaries between, and a poem with a narrator and structures of story-telling. Through new elements, the original can only deepen in purpose and structure, like the blurring between poetry, fiction and performance that occurred in parts of Montreal of the 1990s (in the works of Corey Frost, Colin Christie, Catherine Kidd, Anne Stone and Dana Bath, for example), or the ongoing blurrings between creative writing and critical or cultural thinking (including David McGimpsey, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Nathalie Stephens, Jeff Derksen, Donato Mancini, Aaron Peck, Erin Mouré and Anne Carson). On the surface, without all the asides, this is a straightforward (somewhat) narrative of a story-teller telling us a particular story of his experiences in and around his neighbourhood laundromat. Is it as simple as this? What is the purpose to all these asides?

What is the purpose of poetry written using “essay” in the title? Buckley starts the poem with a quote by Steve McCaffery, already leading us in a particular direction, quoting his line “The disappointment of poetry.” The first page of Buckley’s text writes:

I know the owner of the laundromat but can’t remember his name, which could be for many reasons. He is closing up the laundromat as I get there.

Possibly the reason for forgetting his name cannot be sought to any special feature of the name itself, but is explained when I remember the subject we were discussing before I was trying to convince him to let me into the laundromat, which I am late getting to. The laundromat owner was asking me about the whereabouts of his son, Hoopy, whom I am familiar with a little but don’t feel comfortable discussing with the laundromat owner since it isn’t my business. If I try to think of the name of the laundromat owner, this new train of thought, I’m sure, would disturb its predecessor, since I am now interested in trying to get the laundromat owner to let me past him into the laundromat, which is now closed. I can no longer regard the fact that I forget the name of the laundromat owner as mere chance.
Is this a poetry that has somehow renounced itself? I already know that Vancouver fiction writer Aaron Peck has renounced poetry (and Toronto writer Brian Fawcett did too, before him, and then managed to write more on his renouncing than he wrote actual poems). In The Laundromat Essay, prose-poems fit inside other prose poems; there is the main text and a series of small offshoots, each section a series of hubs, central points along a linear line. Where is this essay going? A retail domestic poem, is this any laundromat we already know about? Is this the coin laundry on College Street in Toronto, just beside Cafe Diplomatico, former hangout of Victor Coleman and the late Daniel Jones, as well as various generations of film crews?

Is this an essay, a poem, or a novel? Or does the question even begin to matter? As the poem deepens, so too, does the story, and the structures within. Is this a poem, a fiction, an essay? On different pages, different sections, my answer would shift, and by the end, I would say all of the above. Does the question still matter? Either way, it’s a damned interesting book.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis by Aaron Peck

In the first novel by Vancouver writer and editor Aaron Peck, The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2008), we see the pre-story of the disappearance of archivist Bernard Willis. Does it matter where Willis eventually went? Written in fragments, this is a manuscript “found” by the two editors of the final project in the abandoned home of Willis himself, with instructions for whoever found it to simply take, working through the texts of Willis himself for publication, who worked to live in a perpetual state of “bewilderment.”

Is this a structure that sounds familiar? Don Quixote being a novel found and translated by a party not the narrator of the book, from Arabic, some of which is translated later, or never at all. Vancouver writer Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997), which is a novel structured as a film script, introduction, etcetera, of a film that is made but never actually finished, included layers and levels of structure between author and story, adding fictional writer, director, actors and the like. Do you recall Robert Kroetsch’s own Rita Kleinhart in his poetry collection The Hornbooks of Rita K (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001), writing the small fragments by the disappeared Rita that were found, post-disappearance, by her own archivist, and possible lover, Raymond? How does a book get constructed?
WE WERE SITTING IN A DOUGHNUT SHOP in Mission Street. The sun was almost setting and the light had a pinkish hue reflected in off-white buildings. I dunked my glazed doughnut in coffee, and Larry listened. I was unsure what he was thinking while I talked about Flaubert. The two most obvious examples, I continued, are The Temptation of St. Anthony and “A Simple Heart.” The Temptation (what Foucault called “the first book to contain a library”) tracks the history of ideas, a theme he’d take up again in Bouvard and Pécuchet, through a series of visions ranging from the Gnostics all the way to modern science, culminating with the Devil taking St. Anthony to the moon, while “A Simple Heart” narrates, with remarkable sympathy and love, the story of a maidservant who, on her deathbed, mistakes the holy ghost for her dead parrot.
Peck’s novel is a book that works through fragments in such a way that the shape is made only in the reader’s head, working through the author’s own bewilderments, philosophies, stories and even digressions.

EXCITING AS ACCUSATION MAY BE, there is scant evidence to prove that in 1839 Louis Daguerre burnt down the Paris dioramas in order to fund his new curiosity, the daguerreotype. And exciting as speculation may be, whatever the reasons, we are after all tracing a series of effects without known cause; Daguerre’s energies had shifted long before that spectacular and fiery display. Distinct from current usage, the word diorama, as Toby Kamps notes, “derived from the Greek dia (through) and horama (to see) [and] was coined by French stage designer and pioneering photographer L.J.M. Daguerra and patented by him in 1822 to describe a new, theatrical form of visual art.” A series of naturalistic watercolours hung from theatre ceilings at various angles and depth, each image illuminated at times, with the back of the paper scratched off, effecting a three-dimensional impression, along with other such devices as the stereoscope and the cyclorama. Between the panoramas of the eighteenth century and the cinemas of the twentieth, dioramas were popular spectacles.
An impressive novel, first or otherwise, Peck has constructed a collage-work where characters flow in and out of focus, including Willis himself, with the editors not at all, but for their hand in the introduction and epilogue, and in working the order of the individual texts. But if the order is constructed by these fictional editors, are we missing something, deliberate or accidentally, in Willis’ “intent”? Is the ending, perhaps, entirely beside the point? In beautiful language, Peck makes a book worthy of the word, which so few of them are anymore, as the last section, “A Profane Halo: An Editor’s Epilogue” writes:
The story of Bernard Willis puzzles us. Motivation for his disappearance is scant, left to interpretation. Through an unknown circumstance, which we can only describe as bewilderment itself, Bernard Willis disappeared while at Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts. A glaring light blinds us, and Bernard is gone, like a conjurer’s assistant in a magic act: the veil is removed and—poof!—Bernard vanishes. By sheer luck or by providence, my companion and I found this manuscript. We have spent the past four years pain-stakingly ordering it, and preparing it for publication. We can only guess what kind of response it will receive.

But, dear reader, we have been accused of distortion, incoherence, aggrandizement, embellishment, forgery, greed, ineptitude and even worse. It breaks our hearts. Our efforts are little understood, and our reputation at risk. To allay our sorrow, and in honour of Bernard, we drink whisky on a Dundas Street rooftop. To Bernard, we toast, raising our tumblers to the sky. But even here as summer sun heats the tiles,
there is no way of assuring you that our preparation of the manuscript of Bernard Willis—that fumbling whirling dervish of the archive—is not a sham. Soon it will be too hot to sit here. Large oak trees’ leaves rustle in the wind. To the east, downtown is hardly visible through the smog, but we’re near a chocolate factory. Trust us, dear reader, the sound of the leaves is mesmerizing. In autumn those leaves will fall spinning in oblate circles. Nearby raccoons will scrap, wailing inhumanly, tearing off each other’s tails.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Paul Auster’s Man In The Dark

Man In The Dark (New York NY: Henry Holt, 2008), the newest novel by New York City novelist Paul Auster, is a devastating and brilliant novella that begins with the story of a man in a dream, and the man who dreams it. I can’t even tell you how many Paul Auster books I’ve read over the years (including seeing the films Smoke and Lulu on the Bridge, both of which he also wrote), including fiction, non-fiction, memoir and poetry (my favourite for the longest time has been The Book of Illusions). For the longest time, Man In The Dark moves between two opposing threads, of an ordinary man brought into an alternate universe where the United States is in a civil war with innumerable dead, and where 9/11 never happened, who is brought over to kill the author, seventy-two year old August Brill, who is writing the entire story in his head. If you kill the author, the reluctant soldier is told, then none of this will ever have happened.

His friend’s grandmother was born in Berlin in the early twenties, and when the Nazis took power in 1933, her Jewish family reacted in the same way so many others did: they believed that Hitler was nothing more than a passing upstart and made no effort to leave Germany. Even as conditions worsened, they went on hoping for the best and refused to budge. One day, when the grandmother was seventeen or eighteen, her parents received a letter signed by someone claiming to be a captain in the SS. Alec didn’t mention what year it was, but 1938 would be a reasonable assumption, I think, perhaps a little earlier. According to Alec’s friend, the letter read as follows: You don’t know me, but I am well aware of you and your children. I could be court-martialed for writing this, but I feel it is my duty to warn you that you are in great danger. If you don’t act soon, you will all be arrested and sent to a camp. Trust me, this is not idle speculation. I am willing to furnish you with exit visas that will allow you to escape to another country, but in exchange for my help, you must do me one important favor. I have fallen in love with my daughter. I have been watching her for some time now, and although we have never spoken, this love is unconditional. She is the person I have dreamed of all my life, and if this were a different world and we were ruled by different laws, I would propose marriage tomorrow. This is all I am asking: next Wednesday, at ten o’clock in the morning, your daughter will go to the park across the street from your house, sit down on her favorite bench, and stay there for two hours. I promise not to touch her, not to approach her, not to address a single word to her. I will remain hidden for the full two hours. At noon, she can stand up and return to your house. The reason for this request is no doubt evident to you by now. I need to see my darling girl one last time before I lose her forever…
Through his novels, Auster has always been able to bring characters into places they would never have expected, caught in moral and ethical dilemmas, to see exactly what they might end up doing, something he manages to make not only a surprise to the reader, but illuminating as well. Do we live lives made out of the intricacies of fate, or by the deliberate hand of choice? The writer (as many of Auster’s characters are) August Brill dreams his alternate dreams of an America at war with itself, and the darkness that comes out of the further dark, while mourning his late wife, and watching his granddaughter mourn her boyfriend, killed overseas in Iraq. Through being caught between the real story and the invention, is the author perhaps working to cause his own death?

Through the novel, Auster works through story after story, eventually working through, for his granddaughter’s sake, the story of how he met his late wife, and the story of their lives together. Moving through easy dialogue, these exchanges are the strength of an already strong novel.
How long did it take before you saw her again?

Almost a month. The days dragged on, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. If I had known she was a student at Juilliard, I might have been able to track her down, but I didn’t know anything. She was just a beautiful apparition who had looked into my eyes for a couple of seconds and then vanished. I was convinced I would never see her again. The gods had tricked me, and the girl I was destined to fall in love with, the one person who had been put on this earth to give my life meaning, had been snatched away and thrown into another dimension—an inaccessible place, a place I would never be allowed to enter. I remember writing a long, ridiculous poem about parallel worlds, lost chances, the tragic shittiness of fate. Twenty years old, and I already felt cursed.

But fate was on your side.

Fate, luck, whatever you want to call it.
Very much a post-9/11 novel about America, Man In The Dark is a breathtaking novel that brings together such a dark pastiche that he manages to illuminate the light that sparkles out of it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Open Letter to Ottawa Mayor, Larry O’Brien

re: projected Ottawa arts funding cuts (again)

I am disturbed by what is currently happening with the lack of vision and poor decision making in City Hall, including the irresponsible decisions of removing individual artist and festival funding, not even to mention losing the portrait gallery, and possibly even the Queen’s swans that live in the Rideau River.

I do not know why the City of Ottawa insists on repeatedly destabilizing the arts and cultural sectors of its own city. We already have the worst per-capita city arts funding in the country, on top of the fact that the Canada Council for the Arts admitted two years ago that they deliberately give less ground-level funding to Ottawa artists so it won’t look bad out west. Ontario funding, despite all attempts otherwise, is still difficult to receive if you live outside Toronto. Why are we being mandated out of existence on three levels?

In Ottawa, is there something wrong with having pride in one’s city? Is this why the previous mayor almost completely ignored our 150th anniversary, even as the National Arts Centre celebrated a month of “Alberta Scene”?

Yes, we are a city predominantly made up of suburbs, voting in city government who already feel no need to contradict stereotypes of arts “handouts,” instead of explain the amounts of money that arts and culture regularly and repeatedly return. For the imagined savings of a few dollars, the city as a whole is losing so much more. Do I need to remind you of every single statistic that says one dollar into the arts is ten back? Do I need to talk about the amount of spending that happens in the city around, say, participants, staff and audience alike through events such as the Ottawa International Writers Festival or Bluesfest, including cabs, restaurants, hotels and retail? Do I need to bring up the example of Flint, Michigan, a dead and dying car manufacturing town that was completely rejuvenated through the establishing of a larger arts culture in once-empty factories? The survival and growth of Flint out of something that had been completely devastated was overwhelming, and should be providing all cities with a glowing example.

What you and your city councillors are currently doing is what Ottawa has historically, sadly, always done, and that is to refuse to see what the arts brings to the city, essential both financially and for an increased quality of life. Through City of Ottawa small-mindedness, we lost a theatre company in the 1950s that moved to Stratford and founded the Stratford Festival. Would you like to know what kind of money from tourists, for example, the City of Stratford is bringing in because of this? I haven’t the space to list all the artists that I personally know over the past twenty years who have been forced to move out of the city for greener pastures. Why are you insisting on seeing Ottawa as a worker-drone bureaucracy, with not a single thing on the minds of the populace but the following day of work, with the occasional burst of hockey madness? How does a city of nearly a million people get so blanketed by stereotype?

For decades, Ottawa has been able to claim a population that includes numerous world-class arts organizations, musicians, visual artists, publishers, theatre companies, festivals, writers, filmmakers, dancers and hosts of others, all of whom contribute to the city at large on many levels. We repeatedly show not only the country but the world what we are made of, and revel in the city we are proud to be part of. Despite how you treat us, we are not purely made of government and high tech, but of something larger, deeper and far more complex.

We are artists, arts enthusiasts and taxpayers all, and find it exhausting, tedious and demeaning to have to repeatedly spell out our value. We are proud to be part of this community, and are getting rather tired of our elected officials repeating old standards that tell us we are less than second class citizens, no more than lazy welfare mongrels, and that we are not wanted. We are an essential service, like OC Transpo, and through investment, bring in a higher and more regular return on each dollar spent than industries such as car manufacturers, sports teams, high tech and the housing industry.

If you continue with this current budget, you are going to devastate an essential service and an industry that would otherwise be regularly be putting money back into the same system, and you are going to force people to leave. Shutting down services is not the answer, and will only perpetuate the downward spiral of a city that doesn’t even seem able to afford to fix its own streets, or realize that a reduced transit system means fewer people getting to work on time. Do you want more money in your coffers? Give it to us, and you will get even more back.

This is more than an example of a city being run over by the province shoving services at us, or a city amalgamation that, for some reason, you still haven’t managed to figure out, nearly a decade later.

We are a world capital, with the fourth largest population in one of the wealthiest and largest countries on the planet. Isn’t it about time we started acting like it?

It is repeated thoughtlessness that make me seriously consider moving to Toronto.

rob mclennan
writer/editor/publisher/arts organizer
publisher, Chaudiere Books
publisher, above/ground press
founder, the small press action network – ottawa (span-o)
founder, The Factory Reading Series
writer-in-residence, The University of Alberta, 2007-8

related notes: living the arts in ottawa: an open letter, an open letter to Stephen Harper

Monday, November 17, 2008

Open Text: Canadian Poetry in the 21st Century, ed. Roger Farr

Do You Fall in Love at the Drop of Happy

Do you fall in love at the drop of happy
Are you brink
Did you clean
Do you miss yourself or are you dripping
You are taken for
Did you bug
Am I held
Do you internet café
Did you fall in love with a hick while napping
You were dirty for
Do you last
Are we heading
Do you lull in happy at the thrust of dropping
Did it last you
You miss bugs
Do you lullaby the habit of propping
Are your friends
Did you pulp
Did you mean this drop to be unhappy
Yeah you meant it (Jon Paul Fiorentino)

One of the first publications in the new CUE Books series (Capilano University Editions, out of The Capilano Review) is the anthology Open Text: Canadian Poetry in the 21st Century, edited by Roger Farr. Meant to be the first third in a larger project, the first two feature poetry, and the third, to feature poetic statements by writers featured in the first two volumes, all of whom have appeared as part of the ongoing Open Text Reading Series hosted by the Creative Writing Program at Capilano University (nee Capilano College) in Vancouver. As editor Farr writes in his introduction:

Editing an anthology of contemporary avant-garde poetry is an inherently risky undertaking as the criteria one invokes in collecting the work are often destabilized by the works themselves. This is especially true when such writing is yoked together under the sign of an apparently shared national identity. I have always thought there should be a fallacy named after the practice of identifying a body of writing with the state-formation that governs its authors. Echoing Charles Bernstein’s observations about “poetic voice,” I would argue that when it comes to poetry and poetics, any alleged quality of “Canadian-ness” is merely a possibility, or an affect—not an essence. So while Open Text is indeed a collection of poetry by Canadian citizens, it is not a collection of “Canadian Poetry,” and makes no attempt to stake a claim for a “New Canon” or even a “New Poetics” on that territory.
A list of the contributors to this volume, working an interesting range of geography and style, include Annharte, Oana Avasilichioaei, George Bowering, Rob Budde, Louis Cabri, Peter Culley, Jeff Derksen, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Maxine Gadd, Claire Huot & Robert Majzels, Larissa Lai, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Donato Mancini, Jamie Reid, Darren Wershler, Lissa Wolsak and Rita Wong. There have been a number of interesting publishing enterprises to start up lately, and this certainly isn’t the first to come out of a journal (Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton, for example, the longest running independent publishing house in the country (according to their own claim) came out of Fiddlehead Poetry Books and The Fiddlehead), with recent forays into publishing for West Coast Line bringing LineBooks (and finally, an available backlist for Michael Barnholden’s Tsunami Editions) and Snare Books out of Montreal’s Matrix magazine. And considering all the years that parts of the west coast avant-garde felt a closed group, now there’s no way to complain of a lack of opportunity. With all these enterprises popping up across the country, could they do anything but enrich?
Rangutang Rage Writer

She makes it all up. She who knows me. She splits and makes up the stories in my absence. She saw me hide all night in a library. Saw the jealous husband chase me. She will look at me as I lug books to bed. I hide behind the text I read. Her eyes reflect me sawed in half. Says a magician took the other part. What is left is for a medicine woman to define. Our mothers are inside us anyway and might help us out even if they left us alone quite often. For me. For drinks. For laughs. Some of the mammas are popular aunties we visit for bannock and tea. They will become Old Ones. Keep us company. Respect our wounds. Sure got remedies. Pretty preachy words. They call each other a warrior but I don’t know because I am only a sole survivor when nobody was around to defend me.

She watches me croon to the dance drum. Her focus on how I beat on Rangutan chest. Beat memories uncomfortable down inside the breasts. I keep forgetting so I compact it all. She is not that proud so she bears my wounds. She reaches for the trauma but manages to moan how the stab didn’t quite do her in. She’s so lucky for that gift. She is a buddy to my body. She was the one that wore the black eye. She coughed for me at for work when I almost passed out from broken rib. She will convince me that I am angry for nothing. She accepted the abuse for me.

I got nothing to talk about. She does keep it all straight. She does not always write it down like a police investigation. I must have to be ready for her break the awful news to me. Yet, many people attribute her anger to me and confuse me to hell. (Annharte)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Meeting: City of Ottawa to Cut Grants to Artists

Wednesday, November 19th 7:00 pm,
Club SAW (67 Nicholas Street)

On November 4th, the City announced its proposed budget for 2009. A number of cuts were proposed for the arts community, including a 100% cut to individual artist grants.

The City of Ottawa provides granting programs that support local professional artists for creation and production of new work or completion of works in progress. Funding is awarded to individual emerging and established artists in the literary, visual, media and performing arts.

On Wednesday, November 19th CARFAC will host a meeting that is open to Ottawa artists of all disciplines and those who support them.

We will discuss the impact those cuts will have for individual artists and what can be done to stop them.

What you NEED to do:

* Attend the meeting on November 19th, 7:00 pm, Club SAW (67 Nicholas Street)

* contact your Councillor about the importance of these grants (how it has had an impact on your career and the community) and encourage everyone you know to do the same

* Attend the Draft Budget Public Consultations

* Help us pack the Council Chambers on December 1st at 10 am as the first delegations present to City Council

List of cuts

More information and how you can help:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ken Belford’s lan(d)guage

I slept beside a grizzly, each of us unaware
of the other, and when I awakenened, heard
his breath next to mine. Time began for me
in that instant when I arose and saw him
sleeping there with a salmonberry leaf
on his head. No longer alone, all things since
are altered by that switch. What else is there
to know, each of us asleep and happy?
But he awakened just then and barreled off
into the brush, toward everything necessary.
At that moment everything I knew left me
And now a new world has taken place.
It comes to the same thing—astonishment
that this should happen at all. But I heard
him breathe, and saw him make tracks
before I could think. To see this thing
was not horrendous, and to see it go
was not delightful. Nothing meaningful
occurred, but time started with a big bear.
This is not about anything, but I’m waiting
for some thing to come up behind me
in the night. I’m like something else now,
and every breath I take anticipates
that moment I want again and again.

Prince George poet Ken Belford’s newest collection, lan(d)guage, a sequence of poetics (Halfmoon Bay BC: Caitlin Press, 2008), through it’s series of poetic meditations on, among other subjects, poetics and the natural world surrounding him in his British Columbia north, is comparable to books such as Barry McKinnon’s Pulp Log (A Poem in 59 Parts) (Prince George BC: Caitlin Press, 1991), or even George Bowering’s small book of criticism, Errata (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1988). There has been quite a shift in Belford’s poetics over the past few years, with a gap of some thirty-odd years between his first two poetry collections and when his next trade books appeared, starting with Pathways into the Mountains (Prince George BC: Caitlin Press, 2000) and continuing with Ecologue (Madiera Park BC: Harbour Publishing, 2005). The shift and the gap could even be comparable to what John Newlove ended up doing with The Green Plain (Lantzville, BC: Oolichan Books) and The Night the Dog Smiled (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1986) after the years of silence following his Governor General’s Award-winning Lies (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1972), or the years of silence from Vancouver poet Jamie Reid (unlike the fifteen year publishing silence of Toronto poet Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, who seemed to emerge a stronger and more mature version of the same poet he had been when he left).

Moving more into considerations of “eco-poetry,” and a deeper lyrical shift that moves slightly askew from the heavier narrative of his previous works, would the shift have happened had he been publishing books the whole way along, showing the progression of moment to moment between points A and B? Was it the appearance of writer and editor Rob Budde into Belford’s north that precipitated such a shift (I’m sure there were other factors) in Belford’s poetics, and even his return to publishing?

Places don’t always travel with people
but the place that held my attention
for half my life still aggravates a flow
of associations. And when I write out
the points of entry into that discursive
instability, I remember those places as
the sites of danger. I think of the duplicity
of landscape images and text, those
photos of old men fishing, the paintings
and clever songs about place and
what is described in the follows—
the becoming, and then the disappearing,
the whirlpool in the center of the story of
the construction of locally produced landscape.
I put a river on a map. I can talk with conviction
About the Upper Nass. My home in Prince George
isn’t large or secluded. I live among the poor.
In my early days on the Nass, I spent much
of my time looking for food until I escaped.

I’m intrigued by this suite of poems, less somehow a sequence of poetics than a sequence showing a definite poetic shift for Belford, a sequence of poems that situate themselves in a lyric geography of the British Columbia north, in the centre of a poetic that includes Rob Budde, Barry McKinnon, Gillian Wigmore and numerous others.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Blind Bookkeeper (or Why Homer Must Be Blind), Alberto Manguel

Always according to the pseudo-Herodotus, it was the poet's blindness that gave him the name why which we know him today. As a child, the future author of the Odyssey was given the name Melesigenes, after the river Meles; he acquired the name Homer, much later, in Cimmeris, where the wandering poet had proposed to the local senate that, in exchange for bed and board, he might make the town famous with his songs. The senators (in the tradition of most government bodies) refused, arguing that if they set this dangerous precedent, Cimmeris would soon be overrun with blind beggars (homers, in Cimmerian) in search of handouts. To shame them, the poet adopted the name Homer. (p 19)
I recently got a copy of The Blind Bookkeeper (or Why Homer Must Be Blind) (Goose Lane Editions / Frye Festival/Festival Frye / Université De Moncton, 2008) by Alberto Manguel, a bilingual edition of a short essay presented on April 26, 2008 in Moncton, New Brunswich as the Antonine Maillet-Northrop Frye lecture during the Frye Festival's tenth season. How can this man be so knowledgeable, so wise? I want to quote from the entire small essay. Can I do such a thing? I will be absorbing this little book for quite some time, I think.

And on either side, we continue to create our enemies. We require these enemies not only to keep the industry of war going but also to keep our sense of self cocooned. We are fearful of the stories we don’t know, and we are afraid that those who tell them will impose on us their versions of the world and that we'll no longer know who we are. We don’t want to change the plots we know for plots that we may not understand, or that may not move us if we do, or that may move us in mysterious ways. We want the comfort of a familiar face by the bed. We hold to the conviction that our stories are better than anyone else's We distrust foreign tongues and we don’t encourage translation. The balance sheet that the writers of the twentieth century drew up to show the deathly experience of war was meant to be a cautionary one, summed up as "Never Again." It didn’t stick, as daily experience has since proven. All the chronicles, all accounts, factual and fictional, all the symbols and fables woven from the debris left by the slaughter and the destruction somehow failed to build for us a peaceful or even a more humanly acceptable world. If there is a God who reads us, then his patience or indifference is certainly remarkable. (pp 25-6)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Ongoing notes: early November, 2008

And so I say to poetry: I’m sorry I sometimes get angry with you, or impatient, or that I drop off the radar for five years at a time. I really am in love with you. Honestly, I am. No more disappearing acts, I promise. I’m in it now, for good.
-- Andreae Prozesky, “Falling in Love, with Poetry,” The New Quarterly #108
What the hell is happening in Ottawa now? I go away for two weeks, and everything falls apart...

Edmonton AB: Since I’ve been here, I’ve picked up two of the most recent chapbooks produced through the monthly Olive Reading Series, now in its ninth season, including St. Catharines, Ontario (originally Edmonton) poet Erin Knight’s Healthy Human Carrier (October) and Toronto poet Angela Rawlings’ ljooapoems (November), for the reading coming up on Tuesday night at Hulbert’s Café (7601-115 Street).

The healthy human carrier


let down your golden hair

your blue prince will come
In his houndstooth coatyep

you will lie down to the rich
tans of the body

between the cogs of the clock

and the rosary

your conviction exquisite
infectious (Erin Knight)

Run by a group of poets in and around the University of Alberta (the series was originally invented by four U of A grad students, including poets Andy Weaver and Adam Dickinson), what I’ve always found interesting about this series, apart from the publication of the 100 copy monthly chapbook (originally invented to be handout at the reading before any particular author came to town, distributed as promotion, but that has never quite happened) is the range of authors that have come through to read, with previous readers including Christine Stewart, E.D. Blodgett, Jason Christie, Stephen Brockwell, Sharon Thesen, Brea Burton and Jill Hartman, as well as the annual reading by the U of A poetry workshop, many of whom now have their chapbooks appearing on the Olive Reading Series blog.


The mouth is a cairn.
Mouths are also furious. (a rawlings)

For further information on the readings, including rawlings on this coming Tuesday (worth hearing just for her sound poetry, alone), check out their blog here.

Ottawa ON: There’s something fun about reading a chapbook by a younger writer, and seeing direct influence by those I’ve felt around me the past decade or more, reading through Cameron Anstee’s Remember Our Young Bones (Chapbook Series 8.1, In/Words Magazine & Press, Ottawa, 2008), writing centretown Ottawa with references and dedications to, and direct quotes by, John Newlove, Monty Reid and Stephanie Bolster. Something I picked up during the small press book fair that we held during the recent writers festival, the In/Words crew (“brothership,” they were calling it, at one point) has been producing a journal, chapbooks and broadsides out of Carleton University for eight years now, a rotating group of students come through and gone, many of which, unfortunately, I haven’t heard much from since, but hopefully some of this current crew, including Anstee, might be different. How do we keep them writing?


one hundred years
this room before me

light and window

frames loosened
attend to the shape

walls, floorboards repeated
glass fixtures

I’m soaking the sun green now
with a broken line of plants


there was more sky once
and different eyes

giving presence

There is something about his poems that strike, despite the unevenness of many of them, and the maturity that will surely come that reminds of poems but five years ago or so by Ottawa poets such as Marcus McCann, Amanda Earl and Pearl Pirie, who have been very much coming into their own over the past few years. What I like about these poems is that he is so close to “getting it” in so many of them, that I know he is going to. It is just a matter of time. Here are the first two of the six-part “Some Little Poems,” with the mention “after Monty Reid” (referencing the Monty Reid chapbook Six Songs for the Mammoth Steppe, published by above/ground press),:

i. flowers
I carry colours home

waiting to unfold
in small water

and a glass vase
with light now

for roots

ii. façade
grass holds
at the edges of stones

red brick

Edmonton AB: I recently got a copy of the poetry chapbook Casual Notation of Earth-Shattering Events by Claire Sharpe (2008), produced by Jenna Butler’s Rubicon Press. A Canadian writer who recently returned to the country with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (a school Butler also attended), Sharpe apparently works currently at McClelland & Stewart in Toronto, but doesn’t seem to have published much in Canadian journals (the back of the chapbook mentions Misunderstandings Magazine, echolocation and The Antigonish Review, as well as a number of non-Canadian journals).

Yarmouth Studio

It was the landscape that brought us level.
Tramping over soft ground.

It rained and the water rose. It rained
and the ditches held.

And our bodies and our words.
Long grass and low country.

One thing I really admire about Sharpe’s poems is the way she uses her line, just soft enough and present enough to transcend, somehow, beyond the deceptively-ordinary movements she makes. How does she do what she does? In other poems, Sharpe uses the longer line that is almost reminiscent of American poet Juliana Spahr, able to function through length without needing any more nuance than what she already brings to it, without needing the artificiality of constant line-break. There is more than working a line than the simple break, the simple couplet, and Sharpe seems to understand that. But when do we get to see more?


You articulate the bleed from places I find shelter in,

to those I will be bounced from.


A windshield, and shield would break beneath this constant hammering,

these words of yours, this rain.


Light becomes you in liquid openings; my new umbrella,

the white snap of an unfurled flag.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Alberta dispatch: the University of Alberta

A few years ago I read in the transcript of Sheila Watson's preamble to her first public reading from The Double Hook, that Professor Salter had been one of her best editors. That was news, but no surprise. He was no mean scholar, but he didn’t crawl into his speciality and stay there until retirement. His reward for recognizing that a first-rate writer had an office down the hall from him in the U of A Arts Building, was a share in making a beautiful book. The Bard, too, was always somebody's neighbour, somebody's friend. Professor Salter, twenty years too late, I'm ready to listen to you on Shakespeare.
Stan Dragland, Journeys Through Bookland
In his first editorial to open the year he edited NeWest Review, "My Five Years at The NeWest Review" (Volume 6, No. 1, September, 1980), Monty Reid wrote:
I remember what began. I was a student at the University of Alberta, an unpublished poet, and wondering why there were almost no magazines in Western Canada that interested me, when I found the first issue of NeWest ReView at the bookstore in Hub Mall. What I remember most about the first issue was a short poem by Sid Marty, there in the middle of the front page. It was important to me because it had been given a significant context. The poem reverberated with the sound of the other voices around it; that front page was coming out of the country I lived in.
For years, I've wandered through Edmonton during my annual or semi-annual reading tours and being impressed by the University of Alberta's English (now English and Film Studies) Department. I would usually head through alongside friends, grad students and Edmonton poets Andy Weaver and Adam Dickinson, over to visit Douglas Barbour's office, perhaps, or check out the display case that featured recent literary titles by faculty and students. Why don't all universities have these? It certainly made the department look impressive as a place that helped foster writing, with graduates and faculty over the years including Thomas Wharton, kath macLean, Weaver, Dickinson, Monty Reid, Stephen Scobie, Sheila Watson, Rudy Wiebe, Greg Hollingshead, Kristjana Gunnars, Henry Kreisel, Stan Dragland, and Professor Frederick Salter, for whom the Salter Reading Room is named. If you wander through, you can even see the little desk that used to belong to Sheila Watson, author of The Double Hook.

It's hard not to think of the University of Alberta and Sheila Watson as intertwined. The annual Salter Tea in mid-May, held as their annual department awards ceremony, with chairs in a packed space and terrible acoustics. But why would they not have some kind of prominent award named after Watson herself? As though her own presence a particular absence. Writing of Sheila Watson's The Double Hook, and how it has "One of the most famous openings of any Canadian novel," in his collection of essays, Signature Event Cantext (1989), Victoria, British Columbia poet and critic Stephen Scobie writes:
The Double Hook begins with this absence, and then, as Barthes comments, proceeds in its narration (its apocalyptic "unveiling of the truth") to the "staging" of that absent father. Every word of the novel stands in for the word that is not used on the first page. The male characters, especially James and Felix, are advanced (without much conviction) as substitute fathers; the female characters, not least "the old lady" herself, meet and challenge those God-like pretentions. Even, in her case, the God-like pretentions of God Himself […].
It's strange to think of just how far the University of Alberta has come, one hundred years old during my school year in residence. Originally, the University of Calgary was built as a branch-plant, the U of A's Calgary campus, which seems funny, when you think that at one corner of the University of Alberta, sitting at the bottom of Whyte (82nd) Avenue, there's a more recent branch plant of the University of Calgary. Has it come full circle? Even the Banff Centre, as John Robert Columbo writes in his Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984), "goes back to 1933 when it was organized as a summer extension program by the University of Alberta."

The University of Alberta, one of the original points of contention between Edmonton and Calgary, set up against each other now for decades, in everything from white vs. blue collar to competing NHL teams (“the battle for Alberta”), starting out when the province of Alberta was invented. At least, when strips of Athabasca turned into the province of Saskatchewan, the provincial government was smart enough to put the capital in one city, and the university in the other, for the sake of balance, and, dare I say it, fairness. When Alberta was finally invented, far more of the provincial decision-makers were Edmonton-based than were Calgary, so the city was able to take both. How could Calgary not respond? How could the two cities ever get along after? With only the neutral ground of Red Deer to come between them. As Calgary author Aritha van Herk wrote in her Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta (2001):
Edmonton and Calgary. Two circling huskies, equal in size and clout, 185 miles apart and connected by the north-south ribbon of Highway 2. Books and studies and reports discuss their rivalry, blue collar versus white collar, Redmonton versus Tory-blue Calgary, Oilers versus Flames. Edmonton hosts the legislature, the civil servants, the mandarins of the latest swept-in majority government. Calgary parties with oil men and bankers and corporate head offices, 204 of them, second only to Toronto.
I am writing out these images, this country of roughneck and rocky plains past. Is this simply me, being overcome by my own myths of Edmonton, of wild prose. A local reading series, run by T.L. Cowan and Thea Bowering, calls itself “wild prose country”? Why do I still allow myself to get caught up in the ideas of Kroetsch and van Herk, but not the lyric prose of Kristjana Gunnars, perhaps one of the finest prose stylists to come through this town, and someone who managed to publish at least half a dozen books of fiction, as well as numerous poetry collections? She now sits relatively silent on her British Columbia coast, painting in oil. Gunnars, apparently, only the second person to be hired full-time at the University to teach creative writing; why does she not figure more in my imagination? Why, even with new information, am I so slow to incorporate these into my old and over-worn ideas?
Professor Salter stood perhaps five foot five and had a rather weak chin. He might have looked like the pattern of a henpecked husband when he first walked into the classroom, if it hadn’t been for his smile. I remember his first words: 'Professor Orrell and I just flipped a coin to see who would take which section of Shakespeare. You lost.'
Ah, but the smile. It was another year, my third, before I got to know any of my fellow English majors, with their inside information, so I knew nothing of Professor Salter's reputation. And still that smile instantly told me that he wouldn’t have contradicted anybody who said we'd won. He knew what he was worth, but he never paraded it. Nor did he make anything of the fact that he was lecturing in pain, as we could tell whenever he winced involuntarily through his smile. There was only one allusion to the body that broke down over Christmas, so that Professor Orrell had to add our class to his in the new year: 'If I can carry my Shakespeare to class, surely to goodness you young people can manage to bring yours.'
— Stan Dragland, Journeys Through Bookland
Over the years, the English and Film Studies Department has been a strong example of how a university helps a writing community develop, from the creative writing classes themselves, the hiring of working writers as faculty, and the longest continuing writer-in-residence program left in Canada. My time in Edmonton coincided with the beginnings of a creative writing program at the University of Regina. The University of Ottawa and Carleton University, on the other hand, barely have individual fiction and poetry workshops, proving yet again the bare functionality of a government town, despite the fact that we are the nation’s capital. In the mid-1990s, Ottawa's high tech industry even made public complaints about Carleton getting rid of some of their arts programs, including the language programs. We don’t want to hire automatons, they said. We want potential hirees to be able to think for themselves.

During my time at the University of Alberta, one of the most common questions I got was, what exactly does a writer-in-residence do? Are you required to teach? Those in the system, whether already having done one or just wanting to, seem to have an idea of what the job requires, but most of the time, even folk within the department don’t seem to be entirely clear on what the position means.

My office sat in the English and Film Studies Department, just on the third floor of the Humanities Centre, a building erected in 1972, and decorated with coloured skylights, bright carpets, and fifty-two painted nylon banners by Vancouver artist Takao Tanabe. With each coloured banner 4 x 13 feet in size hanging from the interior ceilings all the way down past the third floor, I noticed quickly just how the light came in through the late morning along the south end of the building, streaming coloured sunlight through the interior, along the office windows of Ph.D. and post-doc alike, possibly too busy to notice it themselves.

Once head of the art department at the Banff School of Fine Arts, Tanabe was also publisher and designer of a number of early 1960s small press publications, including John Newlove's Grave Sirs (privately printed, 1962) and Elephants, Mothers & Others (Periwinkle Press, 1963), Anne Margaret Angus' Where I Have Been (Periwinkle Press, 1963) and Phyllis Webb's Naked Poems (Periwinkle Press, 1965). The linkage seemed appropriate, then, considering we launched John Newlove's selected poems, A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove (2007), in January through the department, mere feet away from his former publisher's artwork. Before they had worked their collaboration, Newlove was part of a "downtown bohemian set" in Vancouver loosely connected with the Vancouver Art School, including the artists Stan Douglas and Roy K. Kiyooka, as well as Tanabe. It was around that time that Newlove, who died in 2003, his last decade my neighbour in Ottawa's Chinatown, wrote "A Letter to Larry Sealey, 1962," published in his collection Moving In Alone (1965):
Buying a pack for the clumsy bag,
zoomed to Edmonton, north, the Hostel, to beds,
to breakfast mush and supper, bummed cigarettes,
sitting dull-eyes day-long in the railway station.
Edmonton. November. Cold. Snow. I am sitting
on the edge of the bed, scribbling on paper towels,
afraid of the ostentation; broke, tired, happy.
The first few weeks, repeatedly telling me how I don’t have to be in there, I don’t have to sit in my office all day, we don’t expect you to come in but three hours a week, but where else would I end up? I’d have to work somewhere. Never office hours but whole office days, and a door that was never closed. What exactly, then, is the function of writer? What does it mean, to write, or even, to write as (seemingly) public function? American writer Joyce Carol Oates who, with her husband Raymond Joseph Smith, founded the Ontario Review during her time at the University of Windsor from 1967 to 1977, at which point they returned to the United States, taking the journal with them. Dorothy Livesay who started Contemporary Verse 2 in 1976 during her two year tenure as writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, 1974-76.

Started at the University of Alberta over thirty years before I arrived, the writer in residence program provides a living wage for a working literary writer so they can spend the bulk of their time working on their own writing projects, as well as being available for consultation for writers and other hopefuls both at the University and within the community. Part of this also involves doing readings at the University, Grant MacEwan College, at the University of Calgary (both universities traditionally invite the others writer in residence to read at their school), as well as various book clubs and other events around Edmonton. Wasn’t I built for such a position?

What will they remember of me, if they remember anything at all?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Some notes: on (finally) staying at Myrna Kostash’s house

Since Monday afternoon, sitting in downtown Edmonton overlooking the river valley from Myrna Kostash’s book-laden apartment, a two-week writing retreat of sorts. Sitting in the shadows of Byzantine saints. I spend my time at a borrowed laptop, reading back issues of Granta and listening to cds of classical piano, including, the first day, Glenn Gould, Brahms and Beethoven, before moving on to Chopin. The leaves and the brisk air, knowing the wet snow has already started falling in Ottawa. Does it get any better than this? Well, it does, but I won’t go into that. The writer Myrna Kostash is somewhere else, somewhere east for a few weeks. Macedona, doing a series of talks. I leave the same day her sister arrives from Toronto for her own visit, sans Myrna. I sit here in the shadows of Byzantium saints, Byzantium icons, the old world overlapping new. She says my eyes more yellow now, this woman I have returned for; I blame it on the many images of medieval mosaics, each eye a glaring, staring leaf. The Virgin Mary finally turns, and turns away.

Listening to Handel, listening to Haydn, and getting sentimental about the Peanuts cartoon, and Snoopy, specifically; why is it no one remembers that image? Snoopy dancing on the piano, and finally hugging piano player Schroeder, thought-bubbling, “Papa Haydn”? The Edmonton air outside over the river valley smells like paint, it smells like blue; might even be one of the apartments above, or some threat of snow, which apparently Ontario has had in wet waves since I left the airport. How far away is here? Or what The Smiths picked up from Star Wars, “How soon? Is now.” There is so much that I have yet to do.

In Edmonton for one reason only, to reconcile a romantic conflict; how does anything begin? Can I call her “sweet baboo,” referencing Sally? Why is all the love in Peanuts unrequited? Sally for Linus, Lucy for Schroeder, Charlie Brown for that elusive little redheaded girl. Rumours of Marcie’s unrequited love to Peppermint Patti. Caught up in pages of bad prose, trying to work out from under them. Passage upon passage of pining and whining. The North Saskatchewan River like a prairie world-snake, wrapping itself around the residents of this capital city, squeezing sometimes, to remind us its power. How did I get here? And how can I remain? I have given myself up to her theology, the one that concludes in a field of almond skin. Here I am, an Ottawa Valley boy lost in the barrens, lost in the gateway to the north, negotiating the North Saskatchewan River, contemplating the holes in the river valley, the holes in Strathcona and the downtown itself, the holes in my heart, the holes in the shallow sands at the bottom of the river. The river, the river. I could get lost in that river, let my body drop and drift away in that river, like Anne of Green Gables reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” I am lost in that river, lost to that river. I tug, distracted, loose threads of my heart and everything unravels.

I’ve been thinking about many things over the past few days, over the past week, including just how much the past can crash in on the present, and how much what we want has to be built as much as found. As much as fate, and a luck as much created as realized. I find myself thinking about geography, about the past and the future, about children, the one I already have and the ones that might yet come. On the floor by one of the bookshelves, I find a copy of Fresh Tracks: Writing the Western Landscape (Polestar, 1998), edited by Pamela Banting, and find this in the introduction:
My mother had chosen not to teach me to read before I went to school. She thought that children should have as much pre-literate childhood as possible and she was right in this, as in almost everything else. I had the luxury of a full six years of my life to explore, largely without supervision, the three acres of land (and beyond) on which we were the first white people to live. Our land was adjacent to the Birch river (the town was named after the river, the river after the trees), a creek in which brook and rainbow trout, minnows, crabs and waterbugs could be glimpsed and sometimes caught. Animal paths and Indian trails outlined the river in the same way that we would be instructed in school to outline our colouring. As a preschooler, I set myself the task of retracing and restoring one of the fainter paths through the bush to the river. my only stipulation was that no implement, such as a rake, could be used; I allowed myself to remake the path simply by walking back and forth all day long until it became legible again under my feet.
Going through older issues of Granta, I keep finding memoir pieces by Michael Ignatieff, which by themselves make me think better of the man. Why haven’t I bothered reading him before? Thanks to the poet Gregory Betts, I met Ignatieff at a rally in Toronto during the last Liberal leadership race, tricked by Greg’s brother (who worked on the Toronto campaign) into showing up for drinks with Ignatieff, only to get to a rally where they only served water. I tried to convince Greg and his lovely wife that we should leave, but we didn’t. I should have been impressed enough when he finally shook my hand and thanked me for coming out, and told him, “I didn’t want to be here. He kidnapped me against my will,” pointing at Greg’s brother. Ignatieff laughed, and quickly remarked, “I don’t agree with that, but I’m still glad you’re here.” How can I not be impressed with anyone who comes back that quickly, gracefully? Through various issues I’ve found two pieces so far, including a piece for his mother, “Deficits,” in Granta 27 (Death, 1989), and this one on his father in Granta 14 (Autobiography, 1984), that ends with this:
The lights are out. My parents are both asleep, and our son is in his cot.

She says, ‘Let’s not go in yet.’

We climb up into the field behind the house where the beekeeper has his hives, and where you can see the whole of the Luberon mountains stretched out against the night sky. The shale is cool and the dew is coming down. We watch for satellites and for the night flights to Djibouti, Casablanca and Rome. There are many bright cold stars. A dog barks. In the house, our child floats in his fathomless sleep.

‘Cassiopeia, Ursus Major, Orion’s Belt … I must learn the names, I want to teach him the names.’

Out of the dark, as if from far away, she says, ‘What do you need to name them for?’
Related notes: On Not Staying A Month at Myrna Kostash’s House

Saturday, November 01, 2008

WRITING: WHAT MATTERS ; University of Alberta

On Thursday, I was able to go to a panel discussion at the University of Alberta called “Writing: What Matters,” chaired by Janice Williamson, with brief talks by Lynn Coady (Writer in Residence, English & Film Studies), Kevin Kerr (Playwright in Residence, Drama), Rita Espeschit (Writer in Exile, Edmonton) and Derek Walcott (Nobel Laureate, Distinguished Visiting Professor, Faculty of Arts). U of A has been pretty lucky to have Walcott around the past little bit, giving talks, being available and otherwise, including even doing a poetry workshop with various writers taking classes throughout the English & Film Studies Department, and he even gave a reading to a packed hall last fall, perhaps but the beginning of this longer-termed arrangement.

Lynn Coady, this year’s writer-in-residence, started her talk referencing how she found it difficult not to take Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments against artists personally, suggesting any argument against was “whining” and/or “self-absorbed bullshit,” and suggesting artists aren’t ordinary Canadians, which make their concerns somehow diminished. She talked about writing as her way to address the question of “what matters,” and to “engage the world.” Writing is, she said, what she’s best at doing and like doing most, but how is it that culture at large says its irrelevant? Rita Espeschit, a writer who immigrated to Canada from Brazil in 2001, and the author of fourteen books, talked about how she originally heard that Canada was “like the United States but colder.” She was very pleased and surprised to learn, soon after arriving, that she was wrong (“but not about the colder,” she said). Unlike Coady who read from a pre-prepared speech (call it the writer in her, I would have done the same thing), Espeschit spoke informally of how writing shapes who we are (as Canadians) and is a reflection, showing us to ourselves and to different generations and parts of the country. She wondered if much of this conversation had to do with us having an aggressive neighbour with the same language; when you have an aggressive neighbour with a different language, she said, you have a gate between you. She referenced, too, something Prime Minister Harper said about Canada not having a culture, but a series of regions. Perhaps he should have talked to John Ralston Saul, who recently talked about Canada as a Metis nation, forming ourselves through the fact that we have a range of diversity. Can we simply not see “Canadian culture” because there is no single “one” culture, but a range of cultures? Such ideas become far harder to reduce, and thus grasp onto, by someone willfully working to pay little or no attention.

Kevin Kerr [above, talking to Edmonton poet/publisher Trisia Eddy], playwright, who is actually in the second year of a two-year term (I would have loved a two-year term) and husband of poet Marita Dachsel, took another point of view, taking the “what matters” of writing into his own specific process, and talking specifically how he got into the five year project that turned into the play Skydive, currently being performed in Calgary. Worked through with Vancouver’s Realwheels, a theatre company that writes pieces around and with disabilities, this is the second production Kerr has worked on with them. He talked about the idea of the Frankenstein monster, the “spark of life” as metaphor for theatre, with a final production made up of a series of disparate body parts sewn together, searching for that spark that always evades answers, as in, what makes a project work, what makes a project live? Although he made a point to say that the playwright wasn’t the doctor, but perhaps the head, with the actors as arms and legs (he did keep going with the metaphor, but I stopped taking notes after the first bit).[above: Rita talking with Janice Williamson] Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, an award-winning poet, playwright and visual artist from St. Lucia (he currently divides his time between New York, Trinidad & Tobago and St. Lucia), started out by saying that, as a Nobel Laureate, he gets asked to talk all around the world, from Mexico to Brazil to Italy, to and with writers, and always about this subject of how and what writing matters. He sees it as a repeated question, where is the centre? He talked about how culture demeans, misunderstands and misrepresents artists through monetary reward as being a mark of success, and that centres such as New York, Paris and London by themselves do not produce great work. Money is not a measure, he said, and he was increasingly disturbed by this, that the notion of craft gets overtaken by career and financial competition. Unlike what the “centre” of what is usually spoken of, his centre is, as he called it, a semi-literature island, and talked about measuring criteria that have nothing to do with the craft. This has been said before, he said, this is not new. He cited examples of obscure geography creating genius away from any idea of “centre,” including Joyce, turning Dublin into a village and he the village explainer, Faulker and Marquez. Who would have thought about the blasphemous hymns, he said of Emily Dickinson, of a spinster recluse out in the country? He ended by saying that the comments made by the Prime Minister were profoundly scary and ridiculous, and about how it is insulting to “ordinary Canadians” that their Prime Minister presumes them not smart enough to engage with it, instead forcing the dumbing down of such works. He ended with these magnificent lines:
Those who presume to speak for the common man demean him.
And then I got lost on the way to the reception, and ended up somewhere else entirely.