Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ottawa International Writers Festival spring festival line-up now online;

including pre-festival events with Etgar Keret + Andy Lamey, and festival events with Elizabeth Hay, Clark Blaise, Alissa York, Joel Yanofsky, Michael Winter, Pearl Pirie, Michael Blouin, Gillian Sze, Robert Pinsky, Steven Hayward, Sharon Thesen, Ken Babstock, Matt Rader, jwcurry's Messagio Galore, Mike Carey, Andrew Pyper, Rob Winger, Sandra Ridley, J.M. DeMatteis, Madeleine Thein, Hisham Matar, Michael V. Smith, Sylvia Tyson, David Adams Richards, Timothy Taylor + Johanna Skibsrud (among others), here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Source, Noah Eli Gordon

For all of our determination and intelligence there is a dark, nonsensical element of the Source that eludes our comprehension and thereby leads us to a thin vertical path through the pine trees. We remembered, while reading, that there had once been works which had not tried to prove anything, content to stand on their own merits, not presuming to each of their patron’s bread, saying this would wake me—the noise of some guns, smoke ascending to heaven.

In these circumstances, the Source confines itself to a string of paradoxes and takes refuge behind a barrage of high-sounding words. A better sense of values and the passage of time make it possible today to correct this. Laws were not designed to prevent dishonorable practices, so ostracism is the ultimate remedy for intentional offenses. I am sorry you should have the trouble of carrying your little notebook so far.

I’m intrigued by Colorado poet Noah Eli Gordon’s latest offering, The Source (New York NY: Futurepoem Books, 2011). Subtitled “an investigation in constrained bibliomancy and ambient research,” Gordon’s work exists as a constraint-based project, seeking meaning through accident (if at all) through a collecting of processionally-picked found materials, somewhat along the lines of St. Catharine’s, Ontario poet Gregory Betts’ ongoing series of “plunderverse” projects and Christian Bök’s Eunoia (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2001). At the back of the collection, Gordon writes in his “A Note on Process”:

From January of 2008 to September of 2009, I read only page 26 of nearly ten thousand books at the Denver Public Library, culling from them bits of language, which I then fused together, altering some nouns to read ‘the Source’ so they became reflective of the parameters of the project. At its core, the book is a prose cento, a continuation of a practice dating from the Homeric song stitchers of antiquity to current trends in hip-hop culture and electronic music; however, it’s also a testament to the interconnectedness and mutability of all writing, as well as an exploration of the notion of origins, both textual and spiritual. The choice of page 26, while obviously corresponding to the amount of letters present in the English alphabet, is also important in Kabbalist terms; it represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God. Additionally, according to the Talmud, the Torah would have been revealed during the 26th generation of the history of the world; thus, it is Moses who, 26 generations after Adam, receives the Torah transmitted by God. Interestingly, by using a correspondence table, where each letter is giving in ascending order a numerical value (A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.), the name of God in English has a total value (G=7, O=15, D=4) of 26. The problems of numerology aside, I undertook this project in order to investigate whether or not constraint-based, conceptual writing might have a spiritual dimension. It is now my belief that rigid and systematic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.

There is something about this that very specifically reads as a response to Bök’s internationally-known and well-prized Eunoia, a project set up, one might say, precisely to work against meaning. In an interview with Jonathan Ball for The Believer (January 2009), even Bök, when talking about his award-winning bestselling book, that:

The project also underlined the versatility of language itself, showing that despite any set of constraints upon it, despite censorship, for example, language can always find a way to prevail against these obstacles. Language really is a living thing with a robust vitality. Language is like a weed that cannot only endure but also thrive under all kinds of difficult conditions. This robustness of language has encouraged me to try even more ambitious projects that might push language to its limits.

Gordon has long worked in the book-length form, collecting prose-poem fragments into long and longer structures, from his Acoustic Experience (Pavement Saw Press, 2008), Figures for a Darkroom Voice (with Joshua Marie Wilkinson; Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007), A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (Western Michigan University, 2007), Novel Pictoral Noise (Harper Perennial, 2007), Inbox (BlazeVOX, 2006), The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004) and The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003), as well as a number of chapbooks, so he certainly has the chops for a project of such depth. The Source is a fascinating and entertaining read, but his project feels as though Gordon is working more to prove something to himself as a writer and reader than to the rest of us, some who might already have come to similar conclusions some time ago. But perhaps this is exactly what writing should be, what literature is meant to do, explore and re-explore ideas from different angles, and working through whatever ideas may develop. For some time now, Noah Eli Gordon has struck me as a writer worth watching, in part, because you don’t always know what he is going to be doing next, and this collection is certainly more than worth watching. It makes me even further intrigued about just what might follow.

The story is essentially the same: if you are intent on your climb and would never consider cutting back, then balance the sphere of ordinary understanding not in any mere figure of speech, still bent over the shoes you’re mending, but in actual fact loosened from its anchorage to the body. The most decisive adherence to the Source is a mere mechanical routine of carrying out abstract rules, a school bus painted with drab colors, tumbling as a fertility rite, the elevator door silently opening.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Etgar Keret

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Etgar Keret is the most popular writer among Israel`s young generation and has also received international acclaim. His writing has been published in The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Paris Review and Zoetrope. Over 40 short movies have been based on his stories, one of which won the American MTV Prize. His feature film Wristcutters (2006) also won several international awards, and $ 9.99, based on a number of his short stories, was released to critical acclaim in 2009. At present, Keret lectures at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He has received the Book Publishers Association`s Platinum Prize several times, the Prime Minister`s Prize, the Ministry of Culture`s Cinema Prize, the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize (UK, 2008) and the St Petersburg Public Library`s Foreign Favorite Award (2010); he was also a finalist for the prestigious Frank O`Connor Short Story Collection Prize (2007). In 2007, Keret and Shira Gefen won the Cannes Film Festival`s "Camera d`Or" Award for their movie Jellyfish, and Best Director Award of the French Artists and Writers` Guild. In 2010, Keret was honored in France with the decoration of Chevalier de l`Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His books have been published abroad in 29 languages in 34 countries.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I'm not sure it had changed my life, but it certainly made me feel less weird. The fact that you write about your inner feelings and people understand and identify with them makes you feel more confident that you are not that different from the rest of humanity.

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

Fiction is almost instinctive for me. Whenever I see something arbitrary I can't comprehend the only thing that can relax me is to make up a story that will put this arbitrary action into some sort of context that will make it less arbitrary. I've been doing this since childhood.

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 changes from story to story . Some come easily and quickly with very few drafts. Some take literally years to write . The strange thing is that there are no rules sometimes the easier one are actually better and sometimes it is those which take a long process and twenty drafts that are not good enough and vice versa.

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?
I also begin with just writing stories until at some stage I write a story that becomes some reference point and turns the bunch of stories I've written so far to a book in process. It is strange, but there is always this story that seems to be like a junction to other stories I've written and future ones I'll know I write. When I point those stories out to friends or to my editor they don't necessarily see them as any different, but for me, subjectively , they are the ones who had made the book possible.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings. Unlike a film maker who can see the audience at a film screenings I don't get to see people reading my book. Seeing them in a reading is the closest it gets to that and I really like this kind of interaction.

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?
My latest collection "suddenly a knock on the door" (not out yet in English) has a lot to do.

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?
When you write you celebrate your individuality . Every person writes from a different place and for a different purpose. So it is strange for me to speak about some rigid writer's "role".

If anything, a writer's role is to share a part of his mind and soul with the reader, and minds and souls come in all different shapes and colors.

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

I, personally, really need an editor. Not that I necessarily except her opinion. But the meeting with this first appreciated reader is a necessary station on the way to a published book.

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

Loving what you do is more important than doing it well. You are going to fuck up anyway.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction to filmmaking to graphic novels)? What do you see as the appeal?
It is very natural for me. I like telling stories and every medium that allows it interests me. Since writing is a very solitary business, it is a great benefit to be able to take part in collaborative medium from time to time.

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?

I don't have writing routine, I write only when I have a story.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don't do anything. Just wait for it to go away. Would have loved to share some tricks with you but I don't know any.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Children's sweat.

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?
I read a lot and love music and films but I think the greatest inspiration for my stories comes from life around me, it could be something my five years old son said or a fight between the cashier in the supermarket and her boss or a text written on the side of a cereal box. Whatever it is, it is usually just a trigger. The story itself seems to come from somewhere else. A place I can't really name.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I think that the writer who had the greatest influence on my writing was Kafka. Reading his short fiction had made me want to write.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd just want life to keep being the adventure it had been so far.

17 - What do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Being unhappy.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wasn't very good at living.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Winter life by Israeli writer Orly Castel-Bloom is a wonderful story collection and I really loved The Social Network.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I've published a new story collection less than a year ago, I'm now at the stage in which I write a lot of different things but still don't know what will come out of it.

Etgar Keret reads in Ottawa through the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 3, 2011.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, March 28, 2011

West Coast Line #65: fiction,

At 31 I have 12 children. Giving birth is like shutting a door. It is too many, I know. They bring me joy, but they don’t know it. The drinking is bad now. He’s gone for days. When he comes back with nothing our screams slam against the walls. He’s taken the gun down twice. I think I am young and still have a chance.

The first time the children see me cry I am pregnant for the last time. My son has been gone 18 hours and it is the dead of winter. Hunting. I am so tired of children I am surprised I can still love and fear loss. When my son walks in the door the tears have stopped.

When I have given him 15 children he dies. I cry, but the tears are for myself. Now I want someone to tease me wild. (Kim Minkus, “Fifteen”)
After years of issues focusing more on poetry than fiction or the mix between poetry, fiction, artwork and critical prose, it’s interesting to see Vancouver’s West Coast Line focus on a fiction issue, with self-contained pieces and excerpts of longer projects by many of the usual West Coast Line suspects, including Meredith Quartermain, Kim Minkus, Daphne Marlatt, Kim Goldberg, Michael Turner, Tony Power, Chris Ewart, Jenn Farrell, Roger Farr, Marwan Hassan, Nicole Markotic and Hannah Calder. Rumours for years have suggested that Meredith Quartermain has been working on a novel, so it’s wonderful to finally see a section of such emerge. There are plenty of questions on where fiction is heading, where the novel is going, but so few works seem to push the question to provide any kind of answer. Too often, as well, why is it Canadian literary journals keep publishing the same kind of prose, repeatedly, with so little room for anything else?

If Calgary’s derek beaulieu and Christian Bök are considered conceptual artists who happen to work within the realm of the poem, Vancouver writer Michael Turner can be similarly considered for fiction, publishing works such as Hard Core Logo, American Whiskey Bar and 8x10, with his contribution to the issue being “Prairie Intellectuals (Part Two),” playing with the notions of what a story should be, of what storytelling requires.
With description, towards the end of the page: a vertical line drawn by the publisher, editors and a designer. If character, then bounding out a door into a snowstorm – bouncing off a fence and starting over, repeatedly, the fence accepted.

The end of the page is not a fence, she said. Nor is it a gutter. A gutter requires two pages, bound. And only later, depending on how many lines.

Those marks in the snow—

She listened.

—they are letters, first, then words.


Not footprints.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

the end of history;

There are no origins. There are only versions. Origins, and the dream of origins.

Piano lessons all the Page children lived. Della, who taught piano to neighbourhood children, but not her own, sending them out to others. Her children, and later, her grandchildren. Less complicated, that. I practiced my own thirteen years of scales on the piano she also did, purchased new for young Della to begin, later transported in the back of my father’s Ford pick-up from Kempville to homestead, hired man in the back holding on the long, slow drive. Do I remember correctly?

An undated postcard, uncertain precisely when. Discovered in an envelope of paper scraps, cards, envelopes left over from her mother’s apartment on Heron Road, scrawled somewhere up to September, 2000. Marked but unaddressed, her mother’s name; unmailed, delivered by hand, writing:

            Dear Mother
Thought you would like this picture of a loon. Heard them a lot + saw a couple flying overhead. Having a good time. No rain for two months, so no campfires. Kathy loves campfires.

Clipping of newspaper scripture, astrologies, death announcements, Mother’s Day cards, some handmade. A postcard from daughter-in-law Shirley from Egypt, November 2, 1997. The bonfire pit at my sister’s house now, just past where our other grandmother spent years walking peelings to compost for her garden. Eggshells, potato peelings.

Lives boiled down to a household, household boiled down to one-bedroom apartment, set down into boxes and scattered. What does a house know? A dresser that made it to my apartment, another that made to my daughter’s front door. Various grandchildren picking at furniture, wondering where it might go, where we might eventually put it all. Three bookshelves adorning my hunkered front room for years, a box load or two of hard covers.

During one of my mother’s mid-1990s hospital stays, asking about what would happen next, not wishing the farm out of family. I knew she couldn’t escape. Your sister will get it, she said. Oh, you’ll get lots of money. Misunderstanding the question: not what I wanted myself, the oldest son, covering my ears, not wishing to know my parent’s net-worth, for any reason. Not for a long time.

I think I told her then too, you will outlive us all.

Where do we send memory? What becomes of the words that we say we remember?

Silence: what a terrible burden to bear.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Beauty & Sadness, André Alexis

The cornerstone of Toronto writer André Alexis’ collection of essays Beauty & Sadness (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010), subtitled “Or the Intermingling of Life and Literature,” is the final piece in the collection, the essay “Water: A Memoir.” As Alexis mentions in the introduction, it’s the way he moves easily through memoir, recollection, books and writing in this final piece, making this, well above the others, the strongest in the collection.

I began to write Beauty & Sadness as I was finishing a novel called Asylum. I had originally planned a series of critical essays on literary subjects, but as I wrote my first essay, the idea of criticism began to perplex me. I’ve been a contributing reviewer to the Globe and Mail’s book section for some time. I take the consideration of works of fiction as a happy duty, a chance to reflect on things I love: literary universes, worlds of words. But it occurred to be that in doing the kind of reviewing I’ve done in the past – read, reflect on, draw conclusions about a novel or collection of short stories – I was stuck in a voice.

Over the past fifteen or so years, Alexis has proven himself a writer of magical talent, and his breakaway collection Despair is required reading for anyone interested in lively and inventive short fiction, great short story writing or simply anyone interested in reading very strange short stories. From Despair he moved to the lovely, lyrical Ottawa novel, Childhood (1997), a second collection of stories, Night Piece (1999), the play Lambton Kent (1999) and children’s novel Ingrid and the Wolf (2005) to Asylum (2008), a novel set in the unforgiving mediocrity of bureaucratic Ottawa, proving, unfortunately, that very few are capable of rising certain material above its own dullness (I’m more than willing to blame the material; I know Alexis is better than this).

What makes Beauty & Sadness so compelling to read is in watching a writer such as Alexis, after exploring fiction through a handful of book-length projects, turn to focus on what might be possible for him through the essay, turning to explore literature in a different medium before, perhaps, returning to composing fiction. Almost written as a reflection and assessment of his critical thinking on life and literature, this is a book in which we are able to watch the author explore and finally open up into his own critical voice, his own individual style of the essays, from a blend of critical and memoir, into his best thinking form. The other essays that make up Beauty & Sadness are more specific, a series of stand-alone pieces on the works of Samuel Beckett (alongside discussions on a break-up, and his own poetry compositions), Guy de Maupassant, Henry James, Jean Cocteau and Yasunari Kawabata, but it is really in the final essay where Alexis shines. Here, he spends time discussing Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001), Russell Smith’s novel Muriella Pent (2005) and Roo Borson’s poetry collection Short Journey Upriver toward Oishida (2004) alongside the movement that took him from a childhood in Trinidad to later years Ottawa before finally moving to Toronto, and through the publication of his first collection of fiction, Despair, and Other Stories of Ottawa (Coach House Press,1994). In many ways, his “Water,” taking up pages 170-266, is the book you are reading as Beauty & Sadness, and all else, however compelling, serves as warm-up or filler, somehow beside the strength of that small, lyrical piece that perhaps wasn’t long enough to exist as a book on its own. This final essay is where we watch Alexis explore how he moved from a reader into a writer, navigating various personal and professional worlds to where he currently resides, father of one and author of a handful of compelling and critically-lauded works.

It’s almost always interesting to follow along as a writer works their own way through what they think about writing, and of course, one of the highlights of this collection is his take on the past decade or two of Canadian criticism, and his discussion specifically on a criticism practiced and encouraged by Ottawa writer and editor John Metcalf. For the lengthy career Metcalf has had as a critic, taking down otherwise “sacred cows,” how has he become a figure so many seem unwilling or unable to properly challenge? By itself, this alone is worth the price of admission, a call to considering what might happen next, through all of our talk of what writing works, and what doesn’t.

What Metcalf and Cyril Connolly before him have done is to declare the finesse of their own sensibilities sufficient to tell “good” work from “bad.” But, of course, they are the only possessors of their sensibilities. There is no basis for a universal aesthetic scale, unless the thought behind a sensibility is unpacked. Just to be clear; I’m convinced that Metcalf and I, if we sat down together and read a page from such and such a book, would agree, maybe eight times out of ten, on what is good and what is not. On the evidence, I think Metcalf and I have similar sensibilities. But those who have been influenced by him – Ryan Bigge, for instance – don’t possess the same credibility as Metcalf, though they allow themselves to make the same kinds of pronouncements.

So, one could legitimately say that Metcalf has turned a generation of critics away from “academic” evaluations of literature. He has insisted that pleasure is the most important aspect of any work (as Larkin did before him) and he made the critic’s own pleasure (or non-pleasure) the accepted content in an evaluation of literary works. Finally, he has, in anthologies like The Bumper Book, encouraged reviewers to vividly express their opinions, especially their unfavourable opinions, in the belief that a vivid put-down, first, is more entertaining and, second, leads to “discussion.”

For twenty years now, we’ve had the “discussions” that unfounded, pugnacious reviews bring. What knowledge or understanding have they given us? Ryan Bigge insulting Leah McLaren in the pages of the Toronto Star, Carmine Starnino insulting whoever doesn’t happen to share his preference for certain kinds of verse, Philip Marchand expressing the opinion that poets shouldn’t write novels, David Solway insisting that a perfectly understandable and well-crafted poem by Al Purdy is not good because he doesn’t understand it. The discussion is rarely helpful in building a lucid aesthetic. One of the very few clear aesthetic opinions shed by Philip Marchand, for instance, is his belief that anyone who does not appreciate the greatness of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is “simply deficient in taste.” A dubious opinion, given that Henry James, who surely has as great a claim to “taste” as Marchand, and the later Tolstoy, who felt that War and Peace was badly done, both disliked the novel. As with all Metcalf’s children – and all of the writers I’ve just mentioned have been edited or published by him – Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace’s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so we have come to the point where the fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it. As I suggested, this is neither criticism nor reviewing but autobiography. Marchand is telling me something about himself. Starnino is telling me about his sensibility and how much he believes in his beliefs. Bigge is settling a personal vendetta with McLaren. Solway is demonstrating the depths to which he’ll stoop to belittle Al Purdy or Anne Carson or whomever it is he doesn’t like this week.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War

You ask my mother and father what it was like for them when I ran away to join the revolution that they’ll say they were traumatized. But to hear them tell it they were already traumatized. They have a whole list: there was my Christian conversation and, before that, my high school boyfriend, there was my brother from the time he was born, my father’s not being able to play baseball, the teasing my mother took as a kid. Still, it’s kind of a wonder that they didn’t hire a bounty hunter to come find me and drag me home. In fact they didn’t do much to get me back. They settled on one plan and stuck to it, and it did finally work: if they sent no money, we’d run out and eventually have to come home. A convenient plan for them, thinking about it now. A nonplan, really, a plan of inaction, of least resistance.

Later, from Nicaragua, I called and invited them to come “visit the revolution,” and they said no. Maybe in those days that’s simply how parenting worked.
There was just something about the excerpt of New York writer Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (New York NY: Henry Holt, 2011) in a journal I read recently that compelled me to find a copy of the book, something I found utterly charming about her coming-of-age memoir while travelling with the man she planned to marry, following him to Nicaragua so they could join the Sandinistas, and join the “revolution.” I haven’t yet read her novel Vacation (McSweeney’s, 2008) but her collection of short fiction, Minor Robberies (McSweeney’s, 2007) is quite magnificent, and one I highly recommend, originally sold as a McSweeney’s three-pack with similar collections of short, strange stories by Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso. There seem a similar tone and construction to these two works, as Unferth writes her series of short vignettes, small self-contained accumulated pieces that eventually make their way into a longer work of her year of confused travel, volunteer work, unwashed love, foreign meetings and various illnesses. Obviously, unlike the short stories, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War works from a loose narrative thread of her time as a young adult travelling parts of foreign countries searching for meaning and self, from six sections made of smaller pieces that take her immediately from the bedroom in her parent’s house to a series of realizations and discoveries both small and large. What makes this book so appealing is just how sweet and naïve the author depicts herself, wandering around El Salvador and Nicaragua, fighting the fight she realizes far too late only foreigners are and, by the time they had even arrived, was pretty much over. She had missed her revolution, and barely even understood enough about it had she been there to catch it. Deb Olin Unferth’s memoir is sweet, honest and damned funny, an utterly charming and unusual memoir of growing up a stranger in a strange land. At eighteen years old, travelling with a man she barely knew, and idealistically trying so hard to live in a way that matters, but only realizing too late what exactly she might have signed up for. Through all of this, following as her perceptions that young love have over everything, rose-coloured and sweet, eventually fall. So many people, during that period of self-discovery, head out into the world to do their important works, but so few of them do in such a foreign place, missing the mark so completely on the revolution she set to fight for, learning her important lessons along the way; so few journeys are written with such compassion, such sweet and brutal humour and hard-won wisdom. So few journeys are ever written so well.