George Elliott Clarke, Dennis Lee, and the City of Toronto honour the late poet Raymond Souster

September 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

George_Elliott_Clarke_Souster_plaque

Toronto’s poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, poses with the plaque commemorating Raymond Souster

It was cloudy on Saturday morning as a small group of people gathered in a sunken area off Bloor Street West in Toronto – an area known by its residents as Swansea. The occasion was the dedication of a plaque beside a set of concrete stairs leading to Willard Gardens Parkette. The plaque honours the late poet Raymond Souster, a longtime area resident and one of the key figures in modern Canadian poetry.

Among the gathered crowd were two of Toronto’s poets laureate: the current laureate, George Elliott Clarke, and the first laureate, Dennis Lee.

“It is true that I was the city’s first official poet laureate, from 2001 to 2004,” Lee told the small crowd in his prepared remarks, “but everybody knows that from the 1940s on, the pioneering poet laureate of Toronto was Raymond Souster. He imagined us into poetic existence in the thousand images and vignettes that make up his testament, a mosaic of life in the city that he jousted with and loved.”

A banker by trade, Souster was a resident of the Swansea neighbourhood for most of his life, spending the years between 1947 and 1964 at a house on Mayfield Avenue, out of which he composed thirteen volumes of poetry and inaugurated Contact Press, which Lee calls “the most important poetry press in English Canada” at the time.

Souster was “Mr. Toronto,” says Clarke, “very down to Earth, someone who was connected very poignantly to the everyday lives of Torontonians, to the life of the city. Someone who had a great deal of compassion, but compassion mixed with a sense of wonder.”

Clarke compares Souster to American poets Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, and to a modernist version of Robert W. Service. “But an urbanized and imagist sensibility as opposed to a more Whitmanesque ballad tradition.”

Author and journalist Joe Fiorito points to the influence of the Black Mountain poets on Souster’s work, and asserts that Souster helped bring Canadian poetry “out of the bush and into the towns and the cities.”

“He’s who we have instead of Frank O’Hara,” Fiorito says. “The identification with the city: he’s of the sidewalks, of the downtown.” Along with modernist poets such as F.R. Scott and Earle Birney, Fiorito says, Souster “helped Canadian poetry to grow up.”

Souster’s fidelity to the urban environment, and the west-end patch of Toronto he called home, served as the inspiration for yesterday’s unveiling, which was the brainchild of Clarke. When the poet laureate first approached Toronto councillor Sarah Doucette with the suggestion of erecting a commemorative plaque by the stairs that Souster traversed so often during his lifetime, Doucette says, “I knew I couldn’t say no. We had to do this.”

“Ray loved this park,” says John Robert Colombo, who was present as a representative of the League of Canadian Poets, an organization Souster helped found. “He did not love the new name of the park. I don’t think he knew who Mr. Willard was. … He didn’t mind the word ‘gardens,’ but the word ‘parkette’? No! He would never use that. I’m sure the league of poets has a list of words you don’t use and parkette is one of those.”

Souster’s importance to the city and to Canadian poetry was clear from everyone who ventured out to the unveiling ceremony, including the current owners of the Mayfield Avenue house in which the poet lived. They have agreed to have a second plaque erected on their property as part of the Toronto Legacy Project (an initiative spearheaded by Lee during his time as poet laureate).

Donna Dunlop, Souster’s literary executor who cared for the ailing poet in the final years of his life, calls him “my best friend.” Dunlop attended the unveiling bearing another piece of good news: there is a new collection of Souster poems in the offing. Come Rain, Come Shine: The Last Poems of Raymond Souster will appear from Contact Press later this year.

In his extemporaneous remarks during the ceremony, Clarke summed up the impact of Souster’s poetry on him this way: “It is very inviting, accessible at every level. He expresses a childlike love at what is simple and consternation at what is difficult, especially war and poverty and other violations of the human spirit. To me, he’s a kind of CCF poet – not necessarily of socialism, but in terms of what I like to describe as the citizenship of caring.” During the ceremony to commemorate the newly anointed “Souster Steps,” the clouds parted and the sun appeared. One likes to think that Souster would have approved.

Poetry Month: The Politics of Knives by Jonathan Ball

April 11, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

The Politics of Knives. Jonathan Ball; $17.95 paper 978-1-55245-263-2, 96 pp., Coach House Books

The mirror as a symbol of the fractured personality is complemented in Psycho by the “cutting” imagery: in Saul Bass’s title designs, which tear and split the names; in what Hitchcock called the basic geometry of the film – the bisecting horizontals and verticals (a motif in part established by a construction crane that cuts the horizon of Phoenix, by the bed and bedposts of the hotel, by the standing John Gavin and the supine Janet Leigh, and, most of all, by the horizontal motel and the looming, vertical house); and in other suggestions of slashing – a telephone pole that “slices” Leigh’s parked car; scythes and rakes suspended over heads in a hardware shop; and the murderer’s raised knife. The cutting imagery establishes a visual design in which conflict in the viewer extends the conflict within the characters …

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto

The_Politics_of_KnivesMirrors and cutting imagery – both literal and metaphoric – pervade Jonathan Ball’s third book, not least in the prose-poem sequence “Psycho,” which employs a William S. Burroughs/Brion Gysin–style cut-up technique to strip Hitchcock’s thriller to its bare bones. Incorporating images from the movie, lines of dialogue, and frequently disturbing riffs on the film’s darkly ironic undertones (“She skins so beautiful, she showers for us clean”), Ball employs linguistic compression to intensify a feeling of claustrophobic unease. “The letters break,” he writes, referring specifically to Saul Bass’s famous titles, but also to his own poetic approach in this sequence, and throughout the collection.

Mirrors abound in “Psycho” (as they do in Psycho). “In mirrors that car,” the poet writes, then a short while later, “In the bathroom the mirror. Doubling desire.” Still later: “All the mirrors, what shines in their glass. Dead hollows reflect outward, gaze.” In Hitchcock’s film, mirrors reflect things, but as Spoto points out, they also symbolize duality – the split personality that inhabits many of the characters. In Ball’s conception, “dead hollows” – empty sockets – shine in the mirror’s reflection. The poem repudiates the very agency of the onlooker: “Eyes erased like our Norman erased.”

The Politics of Knives interrogates the subject of voyeurism and its moral implications, something that also concerned Hitchcock. “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says another Hitchcock character in a different film, summing up the dilemma of the filmmaker, who could be considered the ultimate Peeping Tom (see, for example, Michael Powell’s film of the same name).

Much of the activity in The Politics of Knives is viewed through the lens of a movie camera. The anonymous character in “He Paints the Room Red” sets up a camera in the corner of his writing room; the action of the narrative is framed by the camera’s viewfinder, presenting it as simultaneously artificial and mediated. The artificiality is accentuated at the poem’s end, when the author disclaims any control over his character, or knowledge of the character’s motivations: “I do not know his reasons. I don’t understand any of this.” The poet then flips the argument on its head, implicating the reader. “But you watched him … And you did nothing, just like me.”

Elsewhere, Kafka’s hallucinatory novel The Castle becomes emblematic of our societal obsession with mediated imagery. In Ball’s spare and fractured retelling, K. can only enter the Castle after he literally “becomes a camera.” Readers of the poem are treated to scenes of bureaucratic desolation as viewed through the intermediary of the camera’s lens: “Camera moves through outer offices, their bustle and noise, racking forward, keeping all in focus, gliding quiet along makeshift rails, invisible to those scrambling for attention and those ignoring, checking books, past the sometimes passing of outdated messages, letters long dead.”

Dead letters evoke the idea of a postal repository for undeliverable mail, but Ball also means this literally: a few pages later, he refers to “papers strewn corpselike.”

The conflation of violence and language is pervasive in this collection, beginning with the epigraph from Plutarch detailing Caesar’s murder. The first line of the opening poem reads, “When she spoke, she did not speak” – a contradiction that places language in violent conflict with itself. She “did not speak / but with exhalation of wires,” we are told, which expands the metaphoric violence of the language into the realm of the actual. There is a clear abnormality in the juxtaposition of breath and speech and metal here, a creeping unease that is extended in the following poem: “A click as she shut / and then nothing opened / but into worlds of knives.” The pronoun is ambiguous: it would appear to refer to someone human, but the context seems to suggest the personification of a manufactured device, something that clicks shut, and opens “into worlds of knives.” This image is repeated in the third poem: “She wore nothing but blades.”

The opening three poems form a triptych that serves as a kind of invocation to the muse, also seeding the ground for what is to come. The insistence on knives reappears in “Psycho,” and again in the title sequence, in which words and phrases have been blacked out, literally excised as though having been sliced through. The blacked-out portions call to mind redacted government documents, an association made explicit in the poem’s last line: “What to do when the sheep elect wolves.” (This is also an example of Ball ratcheting up the tension in the language by substituting a declarative statement for what would more commonly be cast as a question.) The wolves here echo the “chiselling” teeth of an early poem, and prefigure the book’s final image, of the mythical Cerberus, “that most terrible of dogs.”

The Politics of Knives aims to rupture language in the same way Bass sliced up the opening titles in Hitchcock’s film, and to much the same effect. Occasionally, Ball strains too far (“in vitro city,” we are told, “the weather is always whether” and “there is no god and we are its profits”), but for the most part he manages to force his language almost to the breaking point without passing over. The consequent tension infuses both form and content, resulting in a reading experience that is discomfiting, but also weirdly entrancing.

Poetry Month: Some advice for critics

April 9, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

To the Reader

Pray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.

– Ben Jonson, 1616

Poetry Month: Anne Carson review now online

April 8, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Red_DocMy review of Red Doc>, Anne Carson’s “sort-of sequel” to her 1998 bestseller Autobiography of Red is online at Quill & Quire.

The book is formally a picaresque, featuring a group of characters – including G’s former lover, a veteran known as Sad But Great, who suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder; a woman named Ida; and, in a parallel narrative stream, a musk ox named Io – travelling across various landscapes before confronting a volcano (which echoes scenes from the earlier book) and finally arriving at the deathbed of G’s mother.

The narrative style resembles the stream-of-consciousness employed by the high modernists; Carson recalls Proust explicitly on numerous occasions. But the transitions often feel arbitrary: in one instance, a kind of Greek chorus that intermittently comments on the narrative notes, “they’ve come / by mistake to a private clinic beside a glacial lake run / by a guy in overalls who (luckily) does know how to install / a driveshaft.”

Also included in this special Poetry Month roundup are reviews of nine other new titles, including starred reviews for collections by Michael Crummey, Lorna Goodison, and Robert Melançon (translated by Judith Cowan), as well as a starred review of the new anthology Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry, about which, reviewer Safa Jinje has this to say:

Not since 1976, when Harold Head published Canada in Us Now, has there been such a definitive assemblage of black voices telling their own stories through poetry. The Great Black North avoids the danger of constructing a monolithic narrative of the African-Canadian experience by amassing a throng of tales that includes Caribbean-Canadians and other diasporic voices.

I’ve had a chance to dip into this one myself, and would wholeheartedly echo Jinje’s endorsement.

Poetry Month: “The Pains of Sleep” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

April 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Samuel_Taylor_ColeridgeSamuel Taylor Coleridge’s short poem “The Pains of Sleep,” written in 1803 but not published until 1816, is deceptively simple. The poet himself refers to it as a “fragment” detailing a “dream of pain and disease.” It originally appeared in combination with “Kubla Khan,” another fragment, which Coleridge published at Lord Byron’s urging. According to Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” resulted from a vision that appeared during an opium nod. In his dream the entire poem, no “less than from two to three hundred lines,” came to him “without any sensation of consciousness or effort.” (Coleridge began writing immediately upon waking, the story goes, but was interrupted midway, and thus the remainder of the vision was lost.)

Perhaps as a result of the association with “Kubla Khan,” many critics wish to read “The Pains of Sleep” as a verse about the effects of opium addiction, or opium withdrawal. But while Coleridge was unquestionably a user, there is nothing in the poem specifically addressing opium or addiction; rather, it describes the effect of waking from a nightmare, something not confined to the experience of addicts. The poem’s first-person narrator has been identified as Coleridge himself but, again, there is nothing intrinsic to the poem that insists on this interpretation.

Despite its brevity (the poem is only three stanzas long, containing a mere fifty-two lines), “The Pains of Sleep” is quite subtle in the way it achieves its effects, moving through a spectrum of emotional states with linguistic ingenuity and fluid grace.

The rhythm of the opening stanza is laconic, with an agglomeration of “es” sounds giving the impression of someone whispering in the reader’s ear. We are presented with the narrator preparing for sleep, composing himself “silently” and “by slow degrees.” It is not the narrator’s habit to pray before bedtime, we are told, at least not in the conventional sense, “with moving lips or bended knees.” Instead, overcome by “humble trust,” “reverential resignation,” and “a sense of supplication,” the narrator addresses his spirit to “Love.” The capital “L” seems to indicate divine love, although nowhere in the poem does Coleridge directly reference God. He says that “in me, around me, every where / Eternal Strength and Wisdom are,” but these are as easily interpreted as philosophical, rather than theological, constructs. The poet was a believer (elsewhere he writes, “no man can be assured of his sincerity, who does not pray”), but “The Pains of Sleep” is more a spiritual poem than a baldly religious one.

In the second stanza, the quietude and soft language vanish; the transition is abrupt, and mirrors the fear that accompanies waking from a terrible dream. Gone are the languid pace and relative calm, replaced with a lexicon of pain and horror: the narrator is “tortured” by “burning,” “loathing,” and “life-stifling fear.” He wakes instantly, frightened by “the fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts” that has assaulted him in his dream; for the first time he “pray[s] aloud,” but no longer in supplication and trust, rather “in anguish and in agony.”

The narrator also falls victim to the discombobulation of starting out of a fervid dream; he claims to be “baffled” and “confused,” and his confusion extends to the nature of his feelings upon awakening. Although he is plagued by “shame” and “guilt” arising out of ill omens and images in his dream, he is unable to locate the source of this guilt, or the culprit responsible for it: “Deeds to be hid which were not hid, / Which all confused I could not know / Whether I suffered or I did.”

It is the not knowing, as much as anything, that discomfits the poem’s narrator. The combination of desire and loathing “strangely mixed” torment him over the course of two successive nights, rendering his days “saddened and stunned.” The “wide blessing” of sleep becomes for the narrator “distemper’s worst calamity.”

But here, in the final stanza, the poem takes another turn, climaxing in the narrator’s cathartic breakdown, the moment at which, after waking in terror from yet another dream, he cries like a child. This flood of tears subdues the narrator’s “anguish to a milder mood” and admits a changed perspective on his inner turmoil.

Here the poet does write in explicitly religious language, suggesting the psychological torment of nightmare visions deserved to befall those “natures deepliest stained with sin” – those desirous of plumbing the depths of the “unfathomable hell” in their characters. The poem’s narrator resembles a kind of proto-Nietzsche, contemplating the abyss and imagining the abyss staring back at him. And yet the tension remains unresolved in the final lines of the poem. The narrator feels undeserving of the psychological suffering he is heir to; the distress and horror of nightmare visions would “well agree” with others of a less moral constitution, but “wherefore,” the narrator asks, “wherefore fall on me?”

Coleridge died twenty-two years before Freud was even born, and so does not have the psychoanalytic language to describe the subconscious or the subliminal nature of dream life, but his short poem anticipates many of the concerns the latter would wrestle with in books such as The Interpretation of Dreams (not to mention traversing some of the same ground as the Symbolists and the Surrealists). Its open-endedness perhaps results from its fragmentary nature, or perhaps from the lack of resolution the poet can conceive for the affliction of an overactive imagination. Or perhaps Donald A. Stauffer is correct in his assessment of the “dominant idea” in Coleridge’s poetry: “the lifelong mystery of an individual searching for unity in a phantasmal cosmos.” Searching but, in “The Pains of Sleep,” failing to locate it.

“I am fine with being marginal”: Poet and essayist Catherine Owen

January 10, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Catherine OwenVancouver poet and musician Catherine Owen is the author of nine books of poetry. She has also published numerous chapbooks, and her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the B.C. Book Prize, and the ReLit Award, among others. She has also played bass in the metal bands Inhuman and Helgrind, and, currently, Medea.

In 2012, Owen published two books. Trobairitz (Anvil Press) is a collection of linked poems focusing on the confluence of the medieval troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, and 21st-century metal music. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak and Wynn) is a collection of essays that explores Owen’s artistic inspirations (including two pieces on the genesis of Trobairitz), as well as travel essays, reviews, and criticism.

The following e-mail interview was conducted over the holidays at the close of 2012.

***

Where did your interest in the culture of troubadours and trobairitz come from? What made you decide to structure an entire suite of poems around this 12th-century genre?

I must say first that the word “decide” is interesting here. I think it was more a convergence of forces that overwhelmed me utterly and compelled the eventual book: meeting a man who had the power to imaginatively replicate a medieval troubadour and who was also concurrently a metalhead, and encountering the trobairitz in 2006’s In Fine Form, a poetry anthology edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, within a footnote for the villanelle form, which was created by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel.

I had been playing in the metal scene from 2001 and yet had felt incapable of writing poetry about its complex mélange of energies. Once I began researching trobairitzes I began to see parallels between both the rebellious impetus behind many troubadour forms/modes (those opposing organized religion, for instance) and metal culture, and between the way women and men construct and deconstruct themselves on gendered terms within these scenes and eras.

Poems continued to flow throughout the period where I read everything I could find on the medieval world, courted the muse-man, played local clubs, and went to the south of France in a futile yet stirring quest for traces of these itinerant and ephemeral poet-singers. Gradually, over six or more years, Trobairitz manifested its weird blend of musics.

TrobairitzOne aspect that both the medieval context and the metal genre share in common is a fairly evident sexism. In the former, women had to battle to find a place (and voice) of their own, and in the latter, as you point out in Trobairitz, women are often forced into a role as erotic objects for men. (This tension is particularly evident in the poem “Tenso: Between the Comtessa de Dia and Senhal Fohlia, circa 1186,” a dialogue that has been played out in one version or another in many discussions of CanLit circa 2012–13.) How entrenched do these gender roles remain today, in both writing and metal? Have you noticed signs of cultural change that would better allow women artists to be accepted for their art on a level playing field with men, or does their presence continue to amount to mere tokenism?

Perhaps it was the jarring distinction I initially experienced in the difference between being a woman writer and being a female metal musician that provoked Trobairitz. I was raised in a fairly androgynous fashion – at least until adolescent hormones kidnapped me – and as a writer/intellectual I had never actually felt any particular sexism.

The metal scene however is a different beast. The genre is still mostly shaped by mid- to lower-class males who tend to draw their inspiration from certain sources of aggression. Some of these derive from the economic system, some from imagery in video games/horror films and some, yes, from their resistance to the female gender, whether in the abstract or specific.

Many women don’t seem to need this outlet of fast, intense, ear-ripping-off music, whether due to conditioning or hormones. Thus, I don’t think that women will ever achieve gender parity with men in the metal scene. The numbers can’t really be equivalent.

However, more and more women are creating and performing metal, and though a lot continue to be defined by their sexualized image, many have transcended this superficiality (which still persists in being an aesthetic aspect of the genre for both male and female musicians, as does youth).

With any liminalized group though, the “club” mode tends to predominate and if the overtly rich, women, non-Caucasian, or homosexuals became too visible a part of the scene, there would be an outcry, undoubtedly. It’s a fierce, unyielding kind of music that can be picky about whom it admits/acknowledges. So why did it call to me at twelve years old? I can only reveal that it must have been a fusion of my Catholic upbringing, my classical violin training, and my innate desire to be other.

CatalystsIn Catalysts, you identify three specific muses who have influenced your writing: the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, the poet Robinson Jeffers, and an ex-partner who committed suicide. How important were these figures in shaping your artistic vision?

Crucial. Egon Schiele was my first real muse. He lunged at me from the shelf of a Burnaby library in the mid-1990s, in the form of his book of Impressionist poems/paintings called I, Eternal Child,  and I was smitten. The path was laid out: research madly, become absorbed completely, and write endlessly.

Robinson Jeffers I found through the vast reading I undertook on environmental theorists for my book on extinct species, The Wrecks of Eden, which was published in 2002. I became obsessed by his lyrics, then life, then eventually, his epic poems set on the Carmel coastline, pieces imbued with his philosophy of Inhumanism. I even wrote a thesis on him.

Frank, the muse of Cusp/detritus, ran his eyes into mine in the summer of 2000 and, long after he died in 2003, gave me poems through the mind of schizophrenia, ineffable love, and music.

There have been other muses – the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman, for instance, and, currently, the Fraser River – but these three represent the first five years of realizing art would be pretty much everything to me. They were dark, moving, troubled, engaged, ruptured, and powerful figures who let me in. Then let me in again.

Elsewhere in Catalysts, you write: “Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form.” But you also point out that many of the short cuts poets take these days result from the distractibility of an audience in thrall to multiple screens, channels of advertising, and consumption. Is a return to a focus on diction, musicality, and form sufficient to counter the other cultural forces that seem to be conspiring to further marginalize poetry in our culture?

I don’t think poetry has to counter or compete with these cultural forces. The solution is certainly not to try to be like any one of them, turn all our poems into videos or games, say, never mind prose-texts.

I do believe that a combination on one side of an academic takeover in which the “teachable” poem becomes the poem that is written, and on the other side the pseudo-popularization of so-called poetry within avenues like the slam is responsible in part for the diminished power of true and diverse poetry. And there are too many writers and not enough readers, certainly not sufficient book buyers.

Further, the publishing scene is glutted by MFA products who seem to use their book publication as merely another addition to their CV, caring little whether it is sold, lacking interest in touring it, and being indifferent to much but cachet. It’s frankly incredibly boring.

In terms of my hopes for resurgence – not of poetry getting to the masses, but of poetry thoroughly becoming a vocation again for the few (as it always is) – they would be related to the composition of poems that attend to the means by which we work with heightened language: obsession with words, intensity of approach to form, and a prioritizing of what sings in the blood and thus is memorable.

Orality within the textual.

I am fine with being marginal. But I am not happy with poets themselves writing with numb ears and seeming content to let their makings descend into an abyss of the banal. Sure, I can be grandiose. But it keeps me waking up – the poem, the chance magic of it.

“I love it when there’s no redemption”: A conversation with Liz Worth

February 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

“I’ve always been a very emotional person.”

When she makes this statement, over a cup of black coffee at a café in downtown Toronto, Liz Worth appears the very antithesis of emotional. Composed and self-spoken, Worth does not exude the kind of in-your-face attitude that spawned the Toronto punk movement she chronicled in her oral history, Treat Me Like Dirt, or the searing intensity of the poems in her first full-length collection, Amphetamine Heart. She is thoughtful, pausing before speaking as if to choose precisely the correct words.

And yet she responds to questions with an honesty that is disarming, if somewhat unsurprising given the rawness of the material in Amphetamine Heart. “When alternating between vivisection / and vaginal secretions / to determine what will satisfy your / open sores faster,” she writes in “Internal Dialogue,” “take note of discolouration / versus saturation.”

“A lot of the poems in Amphetamine Heart are physical and emotional,” she says, arguably understating the case. The experience of reading the collection, which is shot through with images of injury and anxiety, boozecans and remnants of stale cigarettes (or, as Worth puts it in “Asymmetry,” “the swamp rot of this / gin and tonic mouth”), is uncomfortable, verging on voyeuristic. For this, Worth is unapologetic. “The intention,” she insists, “was never for anyone to sit there and say, ‘Oh wow, this is brightening my day.'”

Indeed, Worth is an unabashed advocate of art that disturbs its recipients. “The works that you remember are the ones that you have to put down for a while because they get too heavy or too strange or too graphic.” She admits to reading Poe at a young age: “If you’re younger, Poe is fun poetry to get into. If you’re twelve years old, it’s the kind of thing you’d pick up.” And she seems happiest, or most satisfied, when confronted with art that is in some way unsettling. “I love it when the characters die,” she says. “I love it when there’s no redemption.”

The poems in Amphetamine Heart grew out of a particular time in Worth’s twenties, something she readily admits: “There were a lot of things that were all coming to a head for me when I was writing … I don’t know whether this book could have been written five years down the road.”

Nor does she know if she could have written it had she been sleeping well at the time. “Sleeping problems dominated me so much” during the period leading up to writing Amphetamine Heart, she says. “I was preoccupied with them, I was worried all day about whether I would be able to sleep. Lots of good things came out of that insomnia, and ended up in the work.” (The book is dedicated to “my old friend insomnia.”)

Given this context, is is perhaps to be expected that the volume contains material that is fraught; what is remarkable about many of the poems in the collection is the commingling of pleasure and pain. “Second Guessing,” for example, begins with an image that is at once startling and mordantly humorous: “From this side of the door / the sounds of dry heaves / are the same as orgasms.” When asked about the affinity between pleasure and pain, Worth pauses for thought before responding. “We do a lot of things that seem really fun or seem to make us happy, but in time are damaging or there’s going to be a huge comedown,” she says, and offers as an example binge drinking. “There is pleasure in pain, and that’s just on a regular weekend.”

The word “regular” is significant for a punk aficionado who grew up in Alderwood, a neighbourhood nestled in the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. “Alderwood is like everywhere else,” Worth says, “where you see people who have a lot of money, and people who have no money. And then everybody else. It’s very mixed. Which I think a lot of people don’t expect when you talk about the suburbs.”

The mix of industrial and residential landscape was also influential on the young Worth’s burgeoning aesthetic. “Just looking out my bedroom window every day and seeing these little factories where people were working on assembly lines and shipping things out and everything, that really influenced the things that I was thinking about and I incorporated that into my writing.”

Worth disavows the stereotypical idea of suburbia as a field of cookie-cutter houses, strip malls, and auto-body shops. Like the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, she locates a whole world of intrigue and drama roiling beneath the polite, well-kept surface, a world she asserts can be every bit as fascinating as that of the self-conscious bohemians downtown. “I’ve often found that in some ways downtown scenes or urban scenes that people kind of associate with things that are edgy and dangerous or progressive often aren’t all that interesting.”

This kind of cultural snobbery, Worth suggests, can result in a blindness to the contours of society as it actually exists outside a self-enclosed, proscribed area.

“If you look at Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, they are not representative of how the rest of the country thinks or operates at all.” In industrial cities like Sudbury or small towns across Canada, Worth points out, the people “are not thinking about the sociology of music, they’re not thinking poetry, they’re not thinking literature.”

“If you spend enough time in Toronto,” she goes on, “you create a bubble and you forget.”

While Worth is careful to ensure that she remains cognizant of the fabric of life outside Canada’s largest city, it is clear that Toronto – or at least, a particular version of it – inhabits her down to her bones. Treat Me Like Dirt, Worth’s first full-length book (following the chapbook Eleven: Eleven), is an encyclopedic oral history of the early days of punk music in and around Toronto in the years between 1977 and 1981. In fact, Worth ran into initial difficulty finding someone to take on Treat Me Like Dirt, in part because there was a sense that it was too Toronto-centric. “That book was really hard to get published,” she says. “I shopped it a lot and a lot of people came back and said, ‘We don’t see a market for it, we don’t think we can sell it, we think it’s too Toronto.'”

The one person who was willing to take a chance on it was Roger Alfonso, former manager of the Diodes, one of the bands profiled in the book. Alfonso had since started an indie music label called Bongo Beat, and he expressed an interest in publishing Worth’s manuscript. “He pressed me along the way as I was interviewing him,” Worth says. “He said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to put it out, if you’re serious about this, keep me in mind.’ When it was done, I sent it to Ralph and he liked it.” The book was a success, and was later picked up by its current publisher, ECW Press.

“It’s in its fourth printing now,” says Worth. “After the book did so well, it was easy.”

Indeed, Treat Me Like Dirt was something of a trailblazer given the initial reluctance to touch anything dealing with punk in Toronto. “Since [Treat Me Like Dirt‘s initial publication], there have been two other books about Toronto punk rock. There was Don Pyle’s Trouble in the Camera Club, and that came out with ECW as well, and then Dirty, Drunk and Punk, about the BFGs, which Jennifer Morton put out. Now it seems like it’s getting easier to publish Toronto punk, because there’s obviously an interest.”

Certainly it remains a subject of abiding interest to Worth, who was deeply invested in the material from the beginning. “I didn’t really put myself into that book at all,” she says, “[but] that book would never have happened if I wasn’t really, really, really in love with the subject.”

Worth’s introduction to punk came as a result of her affinity for popular music in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Radio and MuchMusic were so different from what they are now,” she says. “They actually played different songs every day. MuchMusic still played music videos. That was the biggest way that me and my friends would get our music. You could sit down in front of the TV for a couple of hours and watch videos and you might actually find a band that you liked.” One such session led to Worth’s punk rock road to Damascus moment: “I remember seeing the Ramones’ video for ‘Pet Sematary,’ the song that they did for the movie, and that was the first time I’d heard the Ramones.”

Although the relationship between punk and poetry may at first seem counterintuitive, Worth points out that the two art forms actually have more in common than might appear at first glance. “Patti Smith was a poet before she was a singer,” Worth says. “A few years after Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch came along, and she always had her hands in spoken word, art. She kind of did it all.” Worth also mentions Bif Naked, who put out a spoken word album in the 1990s. “I read an interview with her and she said that the poetry came first. She never saw herself as someone who would be a singer. She thought she was going to be a dancer. But she was really into poetry and she considers herself a lyricist before anything.”

Contradiction or not, Worth plans to continue writing, albeit at her own pace. She admits to having a novel in the works, but cautions, “You never know how these things will go.” At the moment, she is content to get on with the daily business of living. “Because my writing does come from personal experiences,” she says, “I have to make sure that I keep living my life and not let writing become my life.”

And does that life include remaining in Toronto, or striking out for different, uncharted environs? “When I was younger, I used to have a plan that I was going to move to London, England, by the time I was twenty-five,” she says. Now, however, “It would be really hard for me to leave.” If she were to decide to make a break, she says, “I’m more likely to move to the middle of nowhere than I am to move to another big city.”

Still, she is reluctant to rule anything out entirely. “I think that we’re always changing and evolving, right?”

Eye kicks and allophanes: the art of literature according to George Bowering

December 12, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press

In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.

It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.

Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)

Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”

These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:

I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.

The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.

One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)

Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.

In defence of poesy 2011: Elisabeth Harvor

May 9, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Elisabeth Harvor is a poet and novelist. Her most recent book of poetry is An Open Door to the Landscape. Below, she shares with TSR some sense impressions about poetry, poetic imagery, and poetry’s lifeblood.

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Words on an Abandoned Church, Feral Roses, a Bird Stepping out of a Limousine, and Troubled Eyes

In the liner notes for 1975’s The Best of Leonard Cohen, an album that includes his classic song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Cohen says that the raincoat actually belonged to him, not to someone else. (And not, as we’ve always suspected, to his brother, his killer.)

I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn’t go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the  frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew  how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne’s loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.

The above quote is itself poetry, intimate and declarative and revelatory in an offhand sort of way. When I got into the habit of bringing a tape of “Famous Blue Raincoat” to the poetry workshops I used to lead at York University in the late 1980s and at Concordia University in the 1990s, I wanted my students to particularly listen for the pause between the socially grateful “thanks, for the trouble you took …” and the stunning free fall to the inspired surprise of “from her eyes.” (The lines in their entirety read: “Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good so I never tried.”)

Much later, the swerve of the thrillingly anthropomorhpic poem about a heron walking out of a river through the tall river grasses appeared on a Guardian U.K. website: “Long-legged, she steps out of her limousine of weeds.” I’ve long since lost the name of the writer, and if anyone can supply it, I would be extremely grateful to know it.

Then there’s the opening of Plath’s great “Morning Song”: “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and  floral.”

And a finally, in the most recent issue of Fiddlehead, a poem by Bruce Taylor called “Left  Behind,” which contains the following lyrical but ominous evocation of  an abandoned church in deep country, “There it stood, at the far end of our  road / in a damp and bosomy luxuriance / of lilacs and feral roses.”

Jolts, swerves, contradictions, anthropomorphisms, riffs on illogic … These – for  me – are the lifeblood of poetry.

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Information about Elisabeth Harvor’s most recent poetry book, An Open Door in the Landscape, can be found on her Facebook page and on the website for Palimpsest Press. Information about her other books can be found on her own website.

In defence of poesy 2011: Sina Queyras

April 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Sina Queyras is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Expressway. A longtime friend of TSR, she is the founder and editor-in-chief of the poetry website Lemon Hound.

***

Why should people read poetry?

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

– Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”

I have a weakness for Stevie Smith. She and Kenneth Patchen were early influences. Pleasurable. Very much alive and astute in their observations about the world and human interactions with it. “You know I don’t like those people / Who act as if a cherry / Was something they’d personally thought up” Patchen dryly concludes. The snap of thought, the Chagall-like images, the playful turns. These are poems that get inside you and never leave. Punchy and always at the ready, as Smith appears in “A Good Time Was Had By All”: “The English woman is so refined / she has no bosom and no behind.”

Smith and Patchen make up part of my poetry core. They are simple, though not simplistic touchstones. They reached off the page to a young me and said, this is possible – what you think, how you think, is possible. Even if there is nowhere in this classroom, or in this town, or in your life, where your thinking is reflected back to you in a way that you can at all recognize, these lines, this formation of thought, reflects you so beautifully that you can see a future where moments earlier there was stagnation and despair. Poetry is an escape hatch.

My father went to bed every night with a volume of French poetry by his bed. I have it now, tattered and torn, this volume that was for my father very much a door to his past, to his former tongue and land, to peace, and to sleep. I have carried Lisa Robertson around for years, and that was an education, a stimulator, a way to make myself move forward vigilantly toward a kind of thinking that shimmered before me, always out of reach. Before that it was Erin Mouré, Tim Lilburn, Dionne Brand, Christian Bök, Gertrude Stein, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Ondaatje, Mary Oliver, Rumi … and so on. When I read Dennis Lee’s Un, I cry. I can’t help it. My niece loves Robert Service. It gives her a way to march across her landscape, ballad style.

Whatever you want of poetry, it will offer you – soothing, escape hatch, appliance, machine. It is not about the poet: as Stevie Smith said, there is always another poet. It’s poetry that arrives, making its “strong communication” known, or pulling back the skin and letting a person feel the world, or arranging objects in such a way that thought, speech, images illuminate something profound or beautiful. A smart poet bears witness, lets the thunder move through her veins, notes the shade, the tenor, the time of departure, describes in detail the interior life of the bolt, its composition, trajectory, effect on her skin, where her mind went, and how, and with whom, writes this down, and passes this on.

If all is well in the world, poetry is another kind of thunderbolt.

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