Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Knuckleball Poetics

Over at Maisonneuve, Danny Jacobs and Daniel Renton do some great bantering on new collections by Jason Guriel and Dani Couture. One of the best moments in the engaging exchange belongs to Renton:
I do wonder if Guriel’s well-made box may be a bit of a ruse—his poems might be closer to being Chinese finger traps. That is, toys that snare unsuspecting victims who misunderstand their serious mission: to encourage us to relax our grandiose poetic posture and enjoy the play of language. Take this string of lines from “Knuckleball:" “its bottleneck— / the chewed-over / or coughed-up / or otherwise / indigestible morsel / of food for lines, / wobbly ones, / of thought.” Notice the purposely wound up syntax? The poem so mimics R. A. Dickey at the plate it practically wears a Blue Jay’s jersey.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Orphic Struggle

In about six weeks, Vehicule Press will publish Michael Lista's second poetry collection, The Scarborough. The book takes place over Easter Weekend in 1992, when rapist and serial killer Paul Bernardo—who lived in the eponymous suburb of Toronto, where Lista himself grew up—committed his final crime. Bernardo's depravity dominates the poems, yet the psychopath himself is nowhere to be found. (Here's a good example of what I mean.) The reason for this is largely due to Patrick LeSage, the judge who presided over the case. When asked to rule on whether or not the videos of the crimes could be shown in open court, LeSage decided that Canadians could hear the tapes, but not see them. Lista has turned that comment into the formal principle of his disturbing and formidable new book. He explains his intentions in an interview from 2012:
The poems are trying to do two things at once, two things that I can’t disentangle. They need to look like psychopathy—classically proportioned, handsome, manipulative, well-spoken, charming, glib, and ultimately devoid of empathy, uncaring of their true subjects. Underneath them runs a psychotic river, the evil Alph, that they’re able to hide with their public faces. But they also need to look like the dignity that LeSage was trying to safeguard in his ruling on the tapes. You can hear the crimes, the perpetrators and the victims, but you can’t see them. The hell of this all is that after some years of thinking in it, dignity and psychopathy look formally identical to me. The form that lets the Devil sneak in is the same that lets the innocent sneak out. The whole thing is an Orphic struggle, leading something unspeakable out by the wrist into the light, without ever turning to look at it.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Rare Books

David McGimpsey is legendary for the great editions he comes across when secondhand bookshopping in Montreal. Here's a sample of his lucky finds. For more treasures, check out his tumblr page

Sunday Poem

No romantic, he warned me right off—
Cuckoo, hitch your wagon to this star 
and it’s a crow’s life, all dirty tricks
and rot-gut cuisine, snaffling up 
the last slice of pepperoni pizza. Now
I’m stuck here, tree-high, nest-bound, 
bored out of my violet-flecked head, but, hey,
someone’s got to do it, sit on these eggs. 
Plunderers everywhere. Turn your back
and a blue jay will rob you blind. I don’t believe 
in happiness but I do caw something
like joy when I see his glossiness pummeling 
the dusk-sharp distance, I do weep
glad tears when he’s winging toward me, 
road kill clamped between his beak.
Love him or leave him? You tell me. 
His cornfields and back alley dumpsters,
his thieving genius and high wire acts, 
the showy, pyrotechnic stunts.
This life with this crow—

witty as a pickpocket, shiny as tin foil.
Oh my dark carrion, circling, circling
From Summertime Swamp-Love (Palimpsest, 2014) by Patricia Young 

(Illustration by Nicholas Di Genova.)

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Unstuffy and Unafraid

In his review of The Pigheaded Soul, Brian Palmu seems fairly incensed by Jason Guriel's dismissal of Charles Bernstein's work
This is all too easy, this macro-dumping on avant-garde poetry. I’ve expressed my disgust with a lot of it, in reviews of specific books, and in proactive poetics. But that’s the point. Books should be reviewed for what’s between the pages, not as soldiers in a long line of casualties in an ongoing war. It’d be nice if Bernstein’s poems, delightfully various and rich with sound, feeling, and sense, could’ve gotten a deliberate airing in the expanded word count. But Guriel has formed an opinion on avant-garde poetry, and has framed his argument with misconstrued examples from several poems. God knows, if that’s the route one takes, it’s easy pickings: pretentious nonsense like “Virtual Reality” won’t win Bernstein many new converts. But Guriel’s also failed to note, never mind comment on, other worthy poems, and lines of poems in All the Whiskey in Heaven.
Still, Palmu finds a great deal to admire:
Guriel’s most important attribute, however, is his writing: concise, with creative turns of phrase, surprising and apt lexical choices, skeptical, allusive, unstuffy and unafraid to stick his neck out with evaluations (Heaney’s The Human Chain doesn’t make the grade), and wide-ranging, Guriel is foremost a curious reader who’s arrogant enough to believe his opinions matter (reviewers, in general, need more of that arrogance). That I disagree with him on many of his assessments isn’t all that big a deal. At least I know where the man stands. Can a reader of criticism ask for anything more important?

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

What Poetry Makes Happen

Amanda Jernigan tries to set the record straight about Auden's famous line "poetry makes nothing happen":
Auden’s nothing is sort of like the “nobody” of the medieval monks who liked to joke about a hero, named Nobody, who existed before creation, who was greater than God. As Odysseus knew, when he introduced himself to the Cyclops as Nemo, Nobody, nothing has always been a good cover for something.

Then, too, it’s a question of emphasis: poetry makes nothing happen; which is not to say that plenty of things don’t happen as a result of poetry. For one thing, poetry turns a lot of people to writing poetry. And, finally: as others have pointed out (see, for instance, Don Share writing here), we tend to quote that Auden line out of context. It is in fact a preamble, capped not with a period but with a colon, which opens out onto the following:

…it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth

Monday, 30 June 2014

What is Perfect?

During a tête-à-tête with Adam Dickinson, Trillium-winner Souvankham Thammavongsa reveals some of the back-story to her poem "Perfect."
It took me a long time to write “Perfect.” Almost twenty years. I didn’t want it to be a confessional poem. Too easy. I didn’t want the emotional weight to carry the poem. Too easy. I didn’t want the event to be the point. Too easy and depressing. We read not because we want to feel guilty or terrible about our lives. I didn’t want to do that to a reader. It’s so narrow—it’s not what I hope for from literature or language.

For me, this poem is about what happens to the word perfect. What light does to the word perfect. As a title, it is the first thing we see. Perfect. What is perfect. We are in the dark about what is perfect here. We continue because we want to get to the part where things get better. We, as readers, hope for that. And it takes a long time before we see the word perfect again in the poem. By the time we get to it, we’ve been through the things the person in the poem has been through.

I started with the question, if you knew this would be your life, that this is what would happen to you, would you choose it if you could? The question is a hopeless one because we know you don’t get to choose like that. We don’t get to choose what has already taken place. This is where all the sadness takes place. It isn’t the event at all.

The people in the poem are in the dark about where their lives will go, what will happen to them, even the person who asks, “How’d you get perfect?” is in the dark but the person telling this story is not. She knows this moment in time means something. She knows what light she gets will be hers to use. Light as a tool, as knowledge, as understanding. 

The economy of the poem—the look of it, it’s dense with a lot of words, it’s visually heavy, it’s “rich” but what you read is actual poverty. It looks like a block of text and it blocks out light on the page. Not only do poverty and restriction form the structure of the book and the poem; they are also the very subject of this poem.