Tuesday, November 30, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Rolf Maurer on New Star Books;

New Star is a small Vancouver-based press issuing 6-7 books a year. Two-point-x people. We publish in a few broad areas: non-fiction with a social issues / politics focus; non-fiction books about BC history & culture, many of them under the Transmontanus imprint; poetry, and prose literature, which might be fiction, or non-fiction, or about literature.
1 – When did New Star first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
New Star began circa 1970 as a spin-off of the Georgia Straight, the free weekly entertainment giveaway that started out, believe it or not, as an underground newspaper. Specifically, for a few months in about 1969, a group of writers and editors produced something called the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, and this evolved into a series of books by local writers called the Georgia Straight Writing Series. The GSWS crew was aligned with a group within the Straight that eventually split off to form the Grape, and at that time the name of GSWS was changed to Vancouver Community Press. That would have been around 1971. In 1974, VCP was renamed New Star Books.

Along with the name change came a change in focus: much of the literature, and all of the formally interesting stuff was dropped from the list, which came to be dominated by increasingly tendentious non-fiction political books, if not tracts. The focus on serious political non-fiction continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, albeit the really tendentious stuff fell off the list in the late 1970s.

After I bought the press from Lanny Beckman in 1990, I brought literature back onto the New Star list.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
The "small" follows directly from the decision to publish books that are of little or no interest to larger commercial outfits --- either because their overheads are such that they can't take on anything that forecloses a mass audience and concommitant sales, or because their editors simply cannot recognize as worthwhile anything that doesn't resemble something that sold lots of copies last year.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
We publish both books and writers that in one way or another are doing things not being done, or not being done in quite that way, that we nevertheless think are interesting and likely to have an audience.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
Edit them well; design them well; print and bind them; ship them out to whoever we can interest in them.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
This depends entirely on the book I'm working on. At one extreme, I'll be part of the conceptualization of the book, with suggestions about the content and structure of the book (much more common in non-fiction). I'm less likely to be involved at that level in a literary work, where the editing is more likely to consist of a line-edit. An extreme example is Captivity Tales by Elizabeth Hay, where it seems that the only change I made to her perfectly polished manuscript was to inadvertently insert a typo in the first para. (That's a great, great book incidentally, by far the best thing that Liz has done, and I don't understand -- although I do -- why it's never talked about, and why instead she's known as the author of Late Nights On Air, or whatever.)

For prose, substantive editing and copy-editing are best done by different people, and ideally you'll have a third person (apart from the author) to proofread as well.

With poetry, I rarely do much in the way of line editing: I look for typos, hyphens that should be em-dashes, &c., and leave the suggestions on the level of each line to the other poets that the author is generally showing their manuscript to. However, with poetry, I've been known to have ideas about the content of the book as a whole, and the sequence of poems within that book. That isn't author-specific either: I've edited a book by George Stanley where I was deeply involved in deciding the sequence of the poems, and another where book's form was completely determined by the time the manuscript reached me. It really does depend on the book.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
New Star handles its own fulfillment. We do what everybody else who distributes books, their own or others', does: send out bibliographic data about the books; solicit orders; fill them and ship them from our Vancouver office. That said, "distribution" is one of the most mal-understood concepts in the book trade.

Our print runs typically range from 600 to 1000 for poetry titles, 800 to 1200 for literary prose, 1000 to 2000 for non-fiction titles.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
Usually a couple of different editors will be involved, and the typesetter and another person, who is not the typesetter but who might be the substantive editor or the copy editor, are involved at the production stage. We work with one freelance editor who does a lot of our non-fiction, and occasionally we've used other freelancers, mostly for non-fiction. Fiction and poetry we tend to edit in-house.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
N/A. I'm not a writer, even on the side.

10 – How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?

11 – How do you see New Star evolving?
I'm less and less inclined, as I get older, to make pronouncements about what to expect. How New Star evolves depends for instance on how Canada's literary culture evolves. Apart from the work of a handful of presses and a few dozen writers, for the past couple of decades it's mostly been devolving, it seems to me. Whether Canadians have the same cultural optimism and appetite for the work of their own writers &c. as they did in 1967 is an open question: if our political leadership is any indication, and if the leadership of our arts councils over the past decade is any indication, we may have become sick of ourselves, or complacent / taking it all for granted.

12 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
The space I've made for certain writers, whose work is now more broadly accepted than it was ten or twenty years ago, is what I'm proudest of. Writers like Lisa Robertson and Terry Glavin come to mind. I'm still working on making Donato Mancini somewhat less obscure. (He's doing a lot more about this than I have been able to.) Peter Culley, George Stanley, but I was hardly their first or first-ish publisher, and they still aren't household names either.

I remember clearly people shaking their heads at my decision to publish Debbie: An Epic, and I remember one of my Ontario sales reps telling me, the year Glavin's This Ragged Place was a GG finalist, about a bookseller who cited it as an example of the irrelevance the GG's had fallen into: "Look, they've shortlisted a writer that nobody's ever heard of!" This was not long after the GGs were moved to the fall, to coincide with big publishers' marketing plans.

I am very proud of our poetry list in general, not just Lisa's work. I think it's become one of the most interesting lists in the country. I am proud of the Transmontanus series, short books about various more-or-less arcane aspects of BC culture & history.

Biggest frustration? Gosh, so many to choose from. I guess my biggest frustration is the pusillanimity of my colleagues, almost all of the Good Germans who are reluctant to risk their meagre positions by either standing up to forces hostile to a healthy literary culture, or by publishing somebody, or something, that hasn't been previously published. There are exceptions. They know who they are. They might not be the people you think of first.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
One of the great advantages of being in the first wave of modern Canadian publishing and writing, which I date from approximately centennial year, is that there were no real models; we had to make it all up as we went along. I came into the trade at what I now see as the very tail end of that era, the early 1980s; but I did not, and still do not, have any specific models that I try to emulate.  In any case, concepts like "Penguin" or "New Directions" or even "Coach House" or "Talon" have a completely different meaning than they did a generation ago.

14 – How does New Star work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see New Star in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Well, publishing is an eminently social act. And terms like "the financial community" have, over the years, blunted my appetite for this particular term. Are the readers of a particular book or writer a "community"? So, on one level, I'm not so much interacting with a literary community, but a community of citizens --- the "at large" (which contradicts the original meaning of community, which is the opposite of "at large"), some of whom identify as readers and some more of whom from time to time read a book, and thus might be interested in what a given writer has to say, a given book has to offer.

There are certainly communities of writers, and KSW would qualify. New Star's poetry list certainly responds to the interests and concerns of that particular community: as an editor and publisher, my reading habits and my taste have been heavily influenced by the various poetics that have been associated with the KSW, or with writers associated with KSW. And that includes the ideas about writing that circulate among other local writing communities that have in their turn influenced the KSW gang: communities in San Francisco / Oakland, in New York, in Buffalo, Philadelphia, even Toronto.

I'm a member of the KSW board, where I don't (have to) do very much. I'm also a member of the board of the People's Co-op Bookstore, where I am somewhat more active. For instance, I have been one of the people working to embed the store more directly in the community by making it a venue for readings, discussions, launches, &c. During the month of November, the People's Co-op hosted the 2010 version of Respondency West, which was itself inspired by the Influency series in Toronto a year or two back.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
We organize public launches for most of our books, and within our limitations (Canada Council gives us $1,500 -- $2,000 a year for author tour promotion; our overall annual budget for that sort of thing is around $8,000, which isn't very much) we do our best to help send our writers on the road. It's not lost on me that for many poets, the royalties are a minor consideration and the real payoff might actually be a trip or two to some exotic realm, almost always one of the aforementioned sites of local communities with interesting poetics.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Well, the internet is just the way we talk about things these days. So we try to use it to make sure people know about our books. Obviously it's affecting what we do, just as television affected how radio worked without actually replacing it, and radio before it affected print without actually replacing it.
17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Of course, although we do have some barriers in place: for instance, we state that we don't accept unsolicited poetry manuscripts. This has the desired effect of encouraging writers with serious submissions to contact me first.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
They're all special, so why don't I just say something about the three most recent titles we've issued.

City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver In the Sixties, by Lawrence Aronsen --- special because it's one of the surprisingly few books so far about the sixties, an era whose importance I would argue for.

Sweet England, a novel by Steve Weiner, a tremendous writer living here in Vancouver and whose first two novels were published by big houses that probably lost a shitload of money on them: great art usually NE great commerce, at least at first.

Caprice, the reissue of George Bowering's novel, because we think George is a great writer and there was something wrong about the fact that his great trilogy of BC historical novels was out of print.

And we're currently steeped in the first of our 2011 books, including new ones by Roy Miki and Donato Mancini.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The end of history;

The former icehouse his father moved from one part of the yard into the barnyard, set to house the bull. By the time I arrived, a bare shack caked in dry mud and manure, thin ladder inside to attic cubby. I would sit amid the pigeon-squat, some six, seven years old, and survey. From the back yard of the house pointed east, looking past the garage, underneath a small rainbow.

Two darkened tins, stuffed with envelopes, newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs. My mother’s mother’s parents, two lives boiled down to rust-crumbling paper.

Buried through the homestead like open graves, disappeared and robbed over a series of years. Upstairs hallway cracked linoleum floor replaced at one point, 1980s, underneath browned newspaper archive from the week originally installed, somewhere thirty years or more. Long done, long disappeared, forgotten. A house that if it spoke, so few have listened, recorded.

Grandma McLennan, who taught school in the one-room at Sandringham before she married, Ellen Elizabeth Campbell, born 1905, making seventy-nine years. Who later provided my daughter her middle name. Stained copy of George Eliot’s Silas Mariner (1920) with her script inside, “Ellen E. Campbell, M.C.S.” Whether I came from readers, certainly an array of predecessors who claimed ownership. Almost every book older than a couple of decades another family member writ their name, inscribed along the flyleaf. Mine.

Her husband, John Duncan, my grandfather, the youngest of six, not including a sibling that never survived infancy. Who barely left the property, it might seem. Youngest brother to John, the last McLennan line I could find named so in a stretch; two Johns, side by side; sons of Finley John who in turn, son of John, who in turn, son of John. My grandfather, who attended a one-room schoolhouse that sat on five acres, the corner of our hundred acre wood. Where a couple gnarled apple trees, the remains of the raspberry bushes. In the 1970s, what thorns caught our clothing, my sister and I red fingered, our bucket that never quite filled. Apple trees the result, my father once told, of the refuse from students. Cores tossed out the windows.

The difficulty of stories that can’t be proven. Vernacular. Highlighting that much further how history relates. History relates. This picture taken at Camp Keswick, my father tells me, a Bible camp his parents attended. In Port Carling, Ontario, in the Muskoka Lakes, directly north of Lake Simcoe, the Canadian Keswick Conference Centre, sitting just on Lake Rosseau. My grandparents are standing in front of what once was called Ferndale House, constructed in 1880, destroyed by fire in 1945, and rebuilt with stone, back when it was still centre to an interdenominational Bible Conference Centre. Apparently they went there on more than one occasion.

Would it matter much if I mentioned the centre fell into bankruptcy in 1976, or that the property now sits empty.

Port Carling, named after John Carling, son of the brewer. The Governor-General who also gave name to Carling Avenue, Ottawa, and invented our Experimental Farm, the only working farm situated inside the city limits of a world capital. When it was built, was well on its outskirts.

Back home, this red brick that held safely his boyhood possessions. Until we came along. His stuffed white lamb, his Meccano set, his Tales from the Green Forest, Thornton W. Burgess. From there, along came my Hardy Boys, my Dr. Seuss that passed to my sister, her Nancy Drew volumes. Our swaths of relative excess, of casual destruction. What had once kept to small.

The orange crate turned on its end and covered with fabric beside the years my father’s bedside table, holding books, hay flecks caught in pens, a notepad, collection of loose change, what I would occasionally wander up to collect. His reading lamp. The lower shelf the family bible, resting. Rested, a lineage. An archive, resting squarely against an absence. Isn’t this all writing is? Maps that shift, rotate, slower than the moon, or stars. A dream of starry skies. Escape, a loving detail.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gary Barwin, The Porcupinity of the Stars

Fourteen Beautiful Dogs

the field beside my heart is
filled with ugly deer and one beautiful dog

a poem doesn’t have to have fourteen perfect lines
or else you’re spitting on graves

maybe you’ll slip up and tell a truth
stick your elbow into something

under the moon your tongue hangs out
you’d like to howl but

the horizon grows ever larger
please save my family from complication or sudden death

listen: a small movement in the linden leaves
be brave be brave be brave

and here’s another beautiful dog
sighing sighing sighing
After years of publications through small and smaller presses comes Hamilton writer and musician Gary Barwin’s The Porcupinity of the Stars (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2010). Barwin’s poems and prose poems/fictions are getting sharper, subtler and still leave many readers uncertain as to what, exactly, to do with him. Surreal bents get a bad rap, it seems, slipped alongside humour in poetry that somehow gets dismissed, even with his recent co-win of the bpNichol Chapbook Award for the chapbook Inverting the Deer, itself incorporated into the manuscript that became this current work.

There is an element of Barwin’s writing that, no matter how far and better and sharper his writing gets, much appears an extension of previous work, a continuation, a line. Is this a neutral, positive or drawback? In The Porcupinity of the Stars he speaks of the stars, but seems to have a soft spot for contemplating children, planets, wildlife and even existence itself, writing poems on straightforward and often massive subjects but through a perception that often moves around what we so rarely question, as though a child’s imagination writing with the comprehension and intelligence of an adult. Through a collection of magnificent, sometimes confusing poems, I wonder, where is this Gary Barwin, exactly, heading?
We Are Family

an organism which presses
against the planet

an organism which has hair
(sad, believable hair)
that refuses to believe

which has sensations
sick moves
and an interesting history

an organism which holds up its fingers
how many fingers
(if fingers are what they are)?

an organism with other organisms on it
and upon which it rains

an organism which sleeps
soft as a cloth

a baby in a bed full of babies
and the earth full of babies

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Derek Winkler

Derek Winkler [photo credit: Richard Folgar] is the editor of an obscure trade publication that you have almost certainly never heard of. He also performs any number of dark and arcane tasks for Broken Pencil magazine. He has done just enough freelance journalism to be able to make the claim with a straight face.

His high school English teacher told him in 1987 that he could be a writer of fiction someday, but he has not put this theory to the test until now.

A life-long geek, he is currently sharing his apartment with ten computers (seven functional and three otherwise) and a robotic simulacrum of cultural critic and novelist Hal Niedzviecki. The relationship is strictly platonic.

In April 2010 he got the words "Nihil Sine Labore" tattooed on his left forearm as a reminder to himself to try harder to get things done. So far the effect has been minimal.

His two most-prized possessions are a broken motorcycle and his grandfather's 1926 edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

He owes $20 to jazz singer Holly Cole for reasons he would like to explain to her, should she be reading this. He swears he's good for the money.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Well, my first book was an unpublished road trip novel I wrote when I was 19. Aside from convincing me that I could write something long enough to legitimately call a book, it changed my life in no way at all. In comparison, my most recent book has been published, and is, coincidentally, not complete shit. It has changed my life by giving me the chance to hold forth on other people’s websites for two weeks. Other changes may come later, but it’s too soon to tell.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

Fiction is the first thing I read, so it’s the first thing I wrote. I think that’s really all there was to it. I wrote short stories as a kid, unbearable poetry as a teenager and journalism as an adult. Now I’ve finally got back to fiction. It’s still the most fun.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It took me years and years to get started on Pitouie. I can chew on an idea like a cow chews on cud. I did way more research than was really necessary, just to put off the writing. I made very detailed notes and then notes on the notes. But once I did get started on the writing, it went along at a fair clip. I’m a firm believer in quantity over quality when it comes to a first draft, so I didn’t sit and agonize over the prose. My first draft was a rough sketch at best, churned out in about three months. By the fourth draft the book was pretty much in its final shape, but it still took two more drafts to get it past a publisher.

4 - Where does 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?

With Pitouie I combined two ideas that I had originally intended to write separately, except neither seemed strong enough to stand on their own. I had an idea for a story about a guy going crazy with boredom at a DEW Line station, and I had an idea for strange happenings on a remote island. Once I came up with a way to interlock the two, I knew I had enough for a novel. I think that’s probably the way I’ll continue to work. I’ve got a bunch of not-quite-enough ideas rolling around in my head, just waiting to collide and entangle themselves to the point of critical mass.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’ve never done a public reading, so I can’t really say. I may or may not be doing my first one in December. Details still hazy. I think it would be fun, but I think readings are part of the marketing process, not the creative process. I try to write to my own standard of quality, and if other people like what I write that’s just a bonus.

6 - 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?

Nah. Theory is for academics, and I took a pass on that option a long time ago. The only question I really worry about when I’m writing is, “What happens next?” If a theoretical theoretician gave me a list of the current questions, I doubt I’d be able to answer them.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Damn right a writer has a role in culture. To be a writer is to be a storyteller, and “storyteller” is a gig that has never lost its importance since the days we sat around campfires in the woods. Storytellers tell us what it’s like to be human, in case we can’t figure it out for ourselves. They provide models of every kind of human from the lowest bastard to the most noble hero. They pass along the past, open a window on the present and speculate about the future. Stories are awesome. It’s an honour to add one to the pile.

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

The editing process for Pitouie was amazingly painless. My editor would send me a list of suggested changes, I’d fix maybe a third of them, then I’d send back a note explaining why I didn’t change the others. Honestly, I expected much more of a fight. They let me get away with murder. Even so, the book is much better for having been through the process.

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

Never draw to an inside straight. If you mean advice about writing, it’s this: If you want to write, you have to think of it as a job, even if no one is paying you at the moment. You have to think of it as work, not art. Only way to get it done.

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

Well, if you let me categorize journalism as non-fiction, I’ll freely admit that the main appeal of non-fiction is that it pays the bills. The appeal of fiction is that it’s a lot more fun. Moving between them is easy. I do it every day. Now I’m reporting… now I’m making shit up. If it ever got to the point where I couldn’t keep that straight, I’d have to get myself some heavy medication.

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?

When I’m actually writing, (that is, when I’ve finished chewing the cud and putting things off for as long as possible,) I try to make writing first thing I do when I get up (while I’m still in bed, usually) and the last thing I do before I pack it in. I don’t use a strict schedule like, “I begin work at 8am every morning without fail.” I don’t hold myself to a set number of hours or words per day. I just plug away, and try to move the ball forward a little bit every day until it’s done.

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

Screw inspiration. When inspiration crashes, I just write crap until inspiration reboots. Crap removal is a vital part of the redrafting process.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I cannot give any honest answer to this question. I guess I’m not a scent-oriented person.

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?

Well, yeah. I mean, what can I say? I can’t think of anything in my life that isn’t an influence on my writing. My prose style certainly came from other books more than anywhere else. You don’t get much guidance on sentence structure from contemplating the stars.

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

When I was young, I read nothing but Hardy Boys books. Later I went through a heavy Tolkien phase, including the works of many cheap and shoddy imitators. At university I finally got around to reading a bunch of the Great Books, but none of them changed my life. Cyberpunk books from Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson changed my life. I’m a huge Shakespeare freak and a huge William Burroughs freak. If I could generate a customized writing style from a multiple-choice machine, I’d aim for somewhere on the continuum between Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, with maybe a little Elmore Leonard thrown in for flavour.

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

I’d like to try my hand at a video game. A lot of people are doing very interesting narrative things with the medium, and I think it’s the next frontier. I’ve got a few ideas. What I need is a few years to get my coding skills up to scratch. I’m pretty geeky, but I’m not a pro programmer.

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 sometimes wish I’d gone into one of the hard sciences so I could spend my life digging into the workings of the universe, but I just don’t think I have that kind of brain. I seriously considered becoming an astronomer for a while, but in the end I settled for a backyard telescope. I still do most of my work at night, though.

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

It’s just something I started doing at a very young age and never stopped. There’s great satisfaction to be had from a work of creation, and I seem to be better at creating with words than with any other material I’ve tried. Why would I want to do anything else?

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

Not sure if you mean Great Book or, “Hey that was a great book,” but the most recent novel that really sucked me in was the new William Gibson book, Zero History. The guy doesn’t do cyberpunk anymore, but he still knows how to tell a story. This one is about the world of fashion design, for fucks sake, and I still ran right through it. At the moment I’m reading Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, which is a landmark achievement in its own way. Last great film I saw was Wall-E. Yeah, yeah, I know; animated Pixar flick for kids and a couple of years old to boot. But I just saw it recently for the first time and it blew me away. It vaulted straight into my all-time top-five list, right up there with Blade Runner and Brazil.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve got a decent chunk of a new novel sitting on the shelf that I want to get back to as soon as I can. It shares with Pitouie the theme of people injecting interest into their boring lives in unusual ways, but it’s got a larger cast of characters and is more ambitious in general. Lots of work still to do on that one. I’ve also got a smaller online project on the go, just for fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

John Lavery, Sandra Beck

In Gatineau, Quebec author John Lavery’s third book of fiction and first novel, Sandra Beck (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010), we can almost read the entire book as a study in language, as rich and overwhelming as anything done by Samuel Beckett or James Joyce. Sandra Beck is a study in movement, in propulsion, as Lavery writes a main character who doesn’t actually appear in the book but through the eyes of others, such as through the perspective of her daughter, Josée in the first section, “Cunnkitay,” or her husband, Inspecteur-Chef Paul-François Bastarache, in the much longer second section, “Crutches,” as well as in the post-colophon “extra track” at the end, “Sandra and PF go through Customs in La Paz.”

This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Paul-François Bastarache, the main character in Lavery’s previous work, the linked stories of You, Kwazneivski, You Piss Me Off (ECW Press, 2004). Sandra Beck, through her husband’s and their daughter’s eyes, is obviously a woman they both admire and adore, but don’t necessarily know as well as they think they do, this woman forced to live years on crutches, after a foot operation, “the manager of the world-renowned and frequently recorded Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.” The teenage perspective of Josée and the perspective of her father, roughly a decade later, meet up at points, but just as often deflect off each other, and even contradict, deep in their own knowledge, biases and responses. Or, possibly, is this the way of all people, perpetually unknown or differently known, depending on which of their immediates you ask? This is a novel in search of the title character, exploring with such detail in serious play, language rushing headlong a fluid between English and French, moving at the very speed of thought.

Lavery’s language seems built precisely for the internal confusions of his two narrators, writing out a rush of lush acrobatic prose so masterfully lyric-thick that any reader couldn’t help but occasionally feel upended, overwhelmed and caught up in the undertow. But this is exactly Lavery’s genius; this is prose not pretending to be easy, but meant for a deeper, sustained attention, and even multiple readings. There was a question recently wondering why this book wasn’t up for any of the major national fiction prizes, and the question is appropriate: why not? One of the sharpest, smartest and strongest novel I’ve read in quite a long time, Sandra Beck a fearless display of what writing can be, when done best.
MY MOTHER, AT TIMES, could be seen hunched over her sewing machine, her reading glasses perched on her nose at such a distance from her eyes that it seemed as though the glasses themselves were observing the whirring needle and broadcasting the images directly to her brain, while her eyes looked on like two crew chiefs, self-important but largely unnecessary.

She was tense and irritable as she worked, her pulse fluttered in her neck. She gasped suddenly, froze with horror, slumped, ripped out her stitches, started again. The results disappointed her. always.

She might hold up her latest production as though on the point of throwing it back in the water and say, “How could I have not seen that the waist would be too high for me? It makes me look like a salt shaker with a screw-on top. Your mother is no good at this, Josée.” To which I responded, a child throwing feed to a grown fish, “Oh, not at all, Maman! It’s lovely, it makes you taller.”

When utterly defeated, she swayed in front of the mirror, her arm around the freshly sewn garment, beamed brightly, and did not ask my opinion at all.

It was fabric my mother loved. Flowing bolts of printed cotton, rich with colour and possibility. Her linen closet was stuffed with tablecloths made of kitchen gingham, with percaline-lined cretonne curtains, floral and heavy, with organdy sheers, serviettes in milky, stiff brocade. Not actualized mind you, no, but in a fine state of dollhouse potentiality. Only the fabric itself existed. It had been examined, crumpled, bitten into, paid for and folded away with proprietary jealousy. The closet shelves sagged under the weight of my mother’s hoard, variegated and very expensive, making her dream of sky-washed sheets on the grass of Champagne, of Irish dingles and smoky Flemish sheets.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area, Sarah Rosenthal

The Bay Area, along with New York City, is one of the two major centers of experimental writing in the United States. The Bay Area’s long and vibrant history as a literary center (and one where unconventional activity is accepted and even encouraged), along with its large number of creative writing programs and its bounty of small presses and reading series, make it a magnet for experimental writers. This collection of interviews with Bay Area experimentalists allows us to have our cake and eat it too: We learn more about some of the most compelling experimental work being produced today, and we immerse ourselves in a community which is only the most recent incarnation of a history of experiment dating back a couple of centuries.
I’ve always been taken with any version of literary local histories and archival projects, so Sarah Rosenthal’s recent A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010) is certainly a revelation, compiling interviews she’s conducted with writers Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, Kathleen Fraser, Stephen Ratcliffe, Robert Glück, Barbara Guest, Truong Tran, Camille Roy, Juliana Spahr and Elizabeth Robinson. As her lengthy introduction reminds, this is an area that once gave us the Berkeley Renaissance (Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan) as well as Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth and numerous others, information she not only provides as length but gives such a wonderful context to, to open up her series of interviews, conducted over more than a couple of years. Just what is it about the Bay Area that brings out such strong writers, such fierce experimentation?
Brenda Hillman: It's a questions that is so upsetting right now. I was talking to Kathleen Fraser a while ago about the opening up of form in the last twenty years, almost to the point of destroying the boundaries of the poem. It is the artist's job to make form. Not even to make it, but to allow it. Allow form. And all artists have a different relationship to it, and a different philosophy of it. I worked on this poem [“Cascadia,” from Cascadia, Wesleyan University Press, 2001] for eight months; it's very carefully structured. But I wanted it to be boundaryless in a way: It's not punctuated, and I wanted it to go back and forth within itself and within time. I thought, “Well, you can have both things: structure and boundarylessness.” And in fact I think that when you are trying to open up a territory—in this case I was working with a desire to open the lyric—you have to be greedy, in that you want more than you can do. And you're always bound to fail.

SR: You're trying to let error in, but you don't want error to take over the poem.

BH: I wanted every line to be memorable. Also, I wanted to get at and challenge the idea—not a central idea, because the poem doesn't really have a center—Aristotle's idea of change: that you can tell where something is going because of where it ends up. Final cause, or something like that—which is really kind of an anti-divine notion, and which I love as a philosophy of living. It's sort of like, “I'm not sure where I am going, but I can tell it was my fate to be there because that's where I ended up.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dany Laferrière, I Am a Japanese Writer

I first started reading Haiti-born Montreal writer Dany Laferrière through the publication of not one but two of his novels translated into English from French in a single day, the day Coach House Press released his Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? (1994) and Dining with the Dictator (1994), following on the heels of Coach House Press’ volumes of An Aroma of Coffee (1993), Eroshina (1991) and, of course, his infamous first novel, How To Make Love To a Negro (Without Getting Tired)(1987). Through his novels, there was the sustained, confident voice of a narrator, usually unnamed, but one that had very many similarities to the writer Dany Laferrière, with other features included: originally a journalist from Port-au-Prince, escaping from Duvalier’s Haiti to Montreal in 1978, who writes novels in French, loves women, and prefers to spend his days in bed, reading. Now author of over a dozen novels translated into English, his most recent is I Am a Japanese Writer (translated by David Homel; Toronto ON: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010) follows along the same rough path, following the narrative voice of many of his first-person semi-(seemingly)-autobiographical works of the writer Dany Laferrière, writing about a writer who may or may not be a fictional variant on the writer Dany Laferrière (this is something he shares with New York novelist Paul Auster as well, twisting around the idea of the fictional self).

Another early consideration I noticed while reading his works in the mid-1990s, was his interest in Asian women (in Eroshina, naturally), his oddly-surreal bent, and his clear first-person voice writing out novels through shorter self-contained and titled sections, much like another one of my early favourites, the late American novelist and poet Richard Brautigan. With I Am a Japanese Writer, his focus is on a group of Japanese women, those he is drawn to, and drawn to him, as he spends his days as a writer preferring to spend his days in bed, reading. In this book more than many, I could even feel Brautigan’s influence through the chapters, finally rewarded by the author himself in the chapter “Richard Brautigan’s Cowboy Boots,” and reference to one of Brautigan’s own Japanese works, his short story/novel, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980).

While exploring the poetry of Basho, the narrator tells his publisher that his next novel will be titled “I Am a Japanese Writer,” and immediately receives an advance, but doesn’t get around to starting to work on the book. Somehow, the media catches wind, including the Japanese consulate, Tokyo news media and, seemingly, everyone around him, each approaching with their own opinions, concerns, excitements of his novel (which he hasn’t started) or his claim (which he didn’t claim). Much like the novel Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? claimed to be a novel about writing a novel that most knew the title of, and had plenty of opinions of, but hadn’t actually read (a reference to his How To Make Love To a Negro (Without Getting Tired)), I Am a Japanese Writer is about the book he hasn’t written yet and might not, and how much claim an author really has about any work, any text, or even any idea, moving through the nature of fame, identity and meaning, all wrapped up in his usual considerations and concerns with cultural/sexual politics. And yet, perhaps this is even the work itself, the story of how he didn’t write this novel we are reading. His previous novel, Heading South (translated by Wayne Grady; Toronto ON: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009), was a vibrant, long-awaited return to Laferrière’s English-language career as a fiction writer, but I Am a Japanese Writer somehow brings out that extra potency of his lyric cadence, his narrator’s deep, considered movement through the world as a sizzling thinking and sexual being, exploring what he does best, women, culture, ideas and ideas of women. I would rank this among one of his finest.
The Nippon at The Eiffel Tower
I’ve never owned a still camera. That’s because I’ve never quite figured out their purpose. If it’s just to take pictures I’ll never look at, then it has to be the stupidest invention ever. Anyway, I have one that works very well: this skull where I’ve stored fifty years of images, most of them repeated until they’ve become the fabric of my ordinary life. This day-to-day life made of a series of tiny explosions. An electric life. I’ve been told that these images belong to me only, and that other people can’t access them. That’s not exactly true—I can describe them with such precision that, in the end, they become visible to other eyes. Even better: I can transform these pictures into feelings. I can relate a moment without describing the people who were there, simply by bringing forth the energy that gave life to the event. In a photo, we rarely see the emotion that creates the story unfolding before our eyes. Except, maybe, in birthday photos, where we see the child’s enchanted eyes behind the lit candles. Of course, sometimes a whiff of nostalgia rises up from a picture yellowed with time, especially when almost all those who looked into the lens are dead. I keep all those photos in my head, and they have taken root there, the images falling one over the other, all wanting to surge to the front. As for the Japanese man, who never stops photographing the world: what does he see? He doesn’t even see the two elements he is trying to capture, his traveling companion and the monument that the companion is blocking out. The Eiffel Tower is there to show that this guy spent a day in Paris. But by cracking the same wide, impersonal smile in front of every monument on the face of the Earth, he is destroying the intimate nature of the moment. The Japanese man becomes as timeless as the tower itself. You’d think that the Eiffel Tower was being photographed as a backdrop for a smiling Japanese guy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

fwd; new issue of The Puritan (with an interview I did with Ken Sparling);


The Puritan is back after a self-imposed exile, and has returned bearing gifts and rumours from distant shores...

Firstly, we have just launched Issue 11 Summer/Fall 2010. In this issue you'll find fantastic new fiction, poetry, and interviews with Ken Sparling (by rob mclennan) and Dionne Brand. It is available for perusal on our website.

Which brings us to our second announcement. Our website has been refurbished. It is no longer the lumbering mastodon of ages past, but rather a new kind of monster, sleeker, meaner, and hungrier. Go forth and uncover its secrets, including our new forum, The Town Crier, where you can (finally!) vent and rant about our endless bombast with other readers.

Finally, you'll notice a call out for Winter 2011, which promises to be a milestone issue. Thanks to a recent chest of treasures plundered from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Puritan will now be paying its beleaguered contributors for their endless toil.

All of this and more awaits you at www.puritan-magazine.com.

Thank you for your continued support,

Love always,

and the rest of The Puritan crew

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pearl Pirie + rob mclennan read with Gregory Betts + James Millhaven in St. Catharines

On November 10, 2010, I did a reading in St. Catharine's, Ontario, with James Millhaven, Gregory Betts and our very own Pearl Pirie, the second in a series of launches she's got going on for her first trade publication, been shed bore (Chaudiere Books, 2010). I predominantly read from new and/or unpublished, including a poem published in the brand-new third issue of Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, received in my mailbox only the morning before.

Reading at the Niagara Artists Centre, did you know they did a series of banners two years ago around the city, artists from town including Linda Evangelista, Neil Peart and the late great Dennis Tourbin (his widow still lives in their house on Armstrong, just by the Carleton Tavern)?

He ran Ottawa's Gallery 101 back in the 1980s, produced artwork, poetry and non-fiction, and even had an early above/ground press chapbook. How often does one see late friends on banners in other cities?

After a near-crowd of seventy people for Pearl's book launch the Sunday before at the Dusty Owl Reading Series, it was great to see her succeed as well in a venue outside of her comfort, even bringing her "launcher" to St. Catharine's, sending small packets of candy into the unsuspecting crowd.

She read a few of her "plunders," something she picked up from Gregory Betts, who might not have invented the form, but named the current iteration of such.
Part of what entertained, as my first experience in the Niagara Artists Centre, was seeing an artwork by former neighbour John Moffatt, who moved from an apartment on Bronson Avenue just north of Somerset West nearly a decade ago, to allow a yard behind a house in Perth instead of nothing, for their growing toddler.

There were the months when he used to visit in the late 1990s, my spot in the Dunkin' Donuts on Bank at Gloucester in my daily writing space, sometimes alone, sometimes son in tow, sometimes artist John Boyle or even Tourbin. When he told me he designed his paintings to go 80km an hour, forced to strap them to the roof of his car for transport. Do you think he might have a truck or van by now? And the Niagara Artists Centre, apparently a gallery even co-founded by Tourbin himself.

Here's a photo of Pearl herself, reading alongside the Moffatt piece. It's almost as though she's begun to turn her performance space into a space of small ritual, small tokens, much the way of Ontario poet Phil Hall; do you see the oddbits she's collected to place on the podium ahead?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

MINE MINE MINE NOW NOW NOW: Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists, Gaspereau Press + the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Everyone sure seems to have a lot of opinions about Gaspereau Press these days, for deciding to hand-print a thousand copies a week of Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel, The Sentimentalists, winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. Daily I’ve seen newspaper reports and opinions about Gaspereau’s decision to say no to certain outside offers to quick-print, and the oft-repeated number of “75,000” when referring to sales of previous winner’s titles. How could they pass up commerce for beauty? What about the opportunities for their author? How could they not understand? Don’t fool yourself: this is not about whether or not her work is getting out there.

Perhaps we need to change the way we think about books, and about how books are sold. Somehow, booksellers, readers and everyone else related to the literary book industry seem to have been self-programmed to expect that books are forgettable, and therefore, have only a shelf-life of six months. Books are aimed now for the quick, the immediate push and then nothing else; like butterflies, a quick season before absolute, utter death. Apparently copies of the book are available still on the Chapters site (Amazon’s unavailability is oft-quoted, but Chapters availability is ignored), and even selling plenty of copies as ebooks for those who want it quickly and can’t wait.

Exactly what is the concern here? Gaspereau won’t play along; I’m sure they, among many other small publishers over the past half-decade or more, have suffered greatly with the big chains over-demanding, over-ordering and thusly over-returning. Imagine a big-box chain bookstore demand to produce two, three or five times more than you would have otherwise, and then returning almost every one six months later, meaning a dead, unsellable stock that you still haven’t paid the printing for, let alone the years ahead of warehousing fees. It’s death to small press, pure and simple. So Gaspereau doesn’t play that way? Good for them. Will it hurt the immediate sales of Skibsrud’s novel? In the short term, sure, but so what? Awards and lists should be the opening for conversation and debate, and not a series of annual absolutes.

Awards make readers lazy, unadventurous and possibly stupid; instead of allowing to celebrate the accomplishment of a jury-decided award, it’s made an entire segment of the population and media focus on only the winning author and winning title, and ignoring most else of what gets written and published. A jury shouldn’t tell you what to read; if books are part of an actual culture, juries should tell you what else to read.

For god’s sake, write down the name of her novel on your calendar, and wait. Better that Gaspereau hold to their guns, despite the snide remarks that media has thrown, from the Globe and Mail to the Ottawa Citizen. Apparently they originally produced only eight hundred copies in their little shop, and ran through their initial run almost immediately. The best part? For some reason, they mailed me two copies of the first run (I immediately gave my extra away to Michael Blouin, who has been boasting on facebook about such). The entire point of their operation is hand-made books, so suck it up, gentle reader. Hold, for the obvious beauty. Savour in small, slow bites.

Wolfville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press, which came initially out of the poetry and fiction journal, The Gaspereau Review, has quite an extensive backlist, and I’m sure any of their other authors would very much appreciate the attention. If you are to like what Skibsrud has accomplished, and already it’s shown that many have, why not take a chance on another of the many books of poetry, fiction or non-fiction that the press has produced over the last decade? Why not pick up either of her other books, possibly? Her first poetry collection, Late Night with Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau, 2008) was lovely, although her second, I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being (Gaspereau, 2010), didn’t really do it for me. Why not explore the short-list while waiting? Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting (Biblioasis) is one I would very much like to get my hands on, after a sharp, stellar reading at this past writers festival in Ottawa.

When we were in our later teens, my not-yet-ex-wife introduced me to the idea of walking into a video store and renting flicks neither of us had ever heard of, and what magnificent discoveries we made along the way. The disappointments were surprisingly few.

Reading should be something considered, thoughtful and long, and not caught up the immediate nonsense of instant gratification. As for myself? A copy of the novel has been sitting on my shelf for months, unopened. I’ll get to it when I get to it. I have no problem with any of that at all.
Suburban Dream No. 2

You will be counted on in heaven to bring,

to each and every book-club meeting,
two or three pearls
in order to illuminate the text for us so that it becomes

clear in those few moments, to

all of us, sitting upright in our dragged-in chairs,

how everything has to do with everything,
and our lives go down, and down.

Afterwards, someone will make a little joke,
or else a child will come
barrelling in from a driveway game,
and we will close our books
and laugh on our way to the door,
our voices trailing off into a sigh,
but not because we are either
discontented, or sad. (Late Night with Wild Cowboys)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

D.G. Jones, The Stream Exposed with All its Stones, Collected Poems

The Stream Exposed with All its Stones

The stream exposed with all its stones
Flung on a raw field
Is covered, once again,

With snow.

It is not hidden. It
Still flows.

The houses in the valley, standing
Motionless below,
Seem wrapped in sunlight like a snow

And are deceptive. Even stones
Deceive us.

The creator goes
Rampaging through our lives: winter
Is a masquerade.

I tell you
Nakedness is a disguise: the white
Is dark below.

This silence is the water’s cry.

I tell you in those silent houses girls
Are dancing like the stones. (from Phrases From Orpheus)
I must admit, I wonder at the subtitle “Collected Poems” of this long-anticipated collection of poet D.G. Jones, his finally-released The Stream Exposed with All its Stones (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press/Signal Editions, 2010). With selections from Frost on the Sun (Contact Press, 1957), The Sun is Axeman (University of Toronto Press, 1961), Phrases From Orpheus (Oxford University Press, 1967), the Governor General’s Award-winning Under the Thunder the Flowers Light up the Earth (Coach House Press, 1977), A Throw of Particles (General Publishing, 1983), Balthazar and Other Poems (Coach House, 1988), The Floating Garden (Coach House, 1995), Wild Asterisks in Cloud (Empyreal Press, 1997) and Grounding Sight (Empyreal Press, 1999), is this actually a collected, or just a really big selected? With newer work appearing in a number of places over the past decade, including poems online at Jacket magazine and the small chapbook, standard pose (above/ground press, 2002), I was actually surprised not to see any new or uncollected included in this collection; is that reason enough to anticipate a forthcoming full collection of new writing?
Ambiguous States

rain on the snow creates
an intimate space

up close, each twig, each dark
string of waterdrops, absorbs
the attentive breath

the rest fog

of half-fog or slippery

the lake becomes myriad lakes
all shallow
and shadowy, like the parts of
an untravelled body

or a lived but deeply receding
lacustrine place (from Grounding Sight)
As I’ve written before, D.G. Jones, a resident of Quebec’s eastern townships, seems one of the few English-language poets of his generation visibly influenced by some of the Quebec poets that came before him, notably the late Anne Hebert, and more recently, poems that reference and are influenced by more contemporary poets such as Steve McCaffery, Erin Moure and Stephanie Bolster, making him one of the rare Canadian poets that straddles with ease the line between modernism and post-modernism. Can you imagine any other Canadian poets over the years that have had books edited by such as Carmine Starnino and Christopher Dewdney? Seems unlikely to even bother to try. He exists in both “camps” without contradiction, and is also one of the rare few Canadian poets who completely understands the purpose and point of a perfect line break. Much, too, has been made of his collection of Canadian criticism (there have been books apart from Atwood’s Survival), Butterfly on Rock (University of Toronto Press, 1970). Oddly overlooked much of the time, known but not necessarily read, Jones’ poems have an elegance and ease of cadence that require so many of his pieces to be read aloud. If you care about understanding the poetic line, between breath and break, this is an essential book. Really, before everything else that came through the original collections as individual wholes, this is but a good beginning.
Poetry Depends on the Season

tax installments: the lake
a glass darkly

mild in the snow

the black dog breathing
like a fast train
where are the shepherds, where
are the sheep

the government
veut la laine sur le dos

semper fidelis

a bit like the solsice, the
black letter/white page, taxes
gifts, still water

no mam, you can’t
see the bottom of the lake (from Wild Asterisks in Cloud)
As much as there are pieces here that I wish were included but aren’t, the collection wisely takes fuller selections from earlier works, and less on the more recent, and possibly more easily available other collections (and I would recommend highly, if you desire only one, picking up his Wild Asterisks in Cloud). Still, with an introduction by W.J. Keith, it informs, yet somehow misses the pure aspect of cadence and play that Jones’ work revels in, nearly making me wish they had also included a counter-essay by someone like Dewdney, Moure or even George Bowering, all followers of Jones’ work over the years. It is almost difficult reading such knowing that it is only a partial account of what the poems should simply be telling you all on their own.