Tuesday, 26 August 2014


In a new interview, Evan Jones asks Elise Partridge about her lines “let me be a waterfall / pouring a heedless mile” and how the wish squares up with her self-possessed and scrupulously controlled poetry. Her answer:
The wish I mentioned here was about trying to be authentic, unencumbered and generous—to live headlong without clinging to things I might sometimes think I wanted, much less to the trivial—about life being constantly unpredictable, and wanting to live with as much spontaneity and vitality as possible. The poem did grow out of the illness, though the wish had been there before; I think perhaps the illness made it stronger. After wondering whether or not my life was going to end much earlier than it might have otherwise, naturally, I had to think about how I wanted to live from then on. Things I had wanted to happen were not going to happen because of the cancer, and this at first seemed catastrophic; and yet other things that turned out to be important did happen because of the cancer. This put paid to the idea that one can always trust what one wishes for. Nobody would wish to have cancer, yet it undeniably brought things to my life that were, to my great surprise, valuable. Also, after having been so ill, I found I wanted to be bolder about many experiences. Fearing one might be deprived of chances can of course motivate one to take more chances. The heedlessness was about being freer—not constraining oneself in any defeating way—and simultaneously about being ‘freer’ in the medieval sense of the word: open-handed, generous. As far as not being heedless in terms of writing poetry, I sometimes wish I could work faster, but most of the poems I eventually publish take me a long time to finish. There are a couple of remarks I keep in mind about being heedful. Szymborska was once asked why she hadn’t published more. She replied, “I have a trashcan in my house.” And then there’s Théophile Gautier: “Anything which is not well-made doesn’t exist.”
(Painting of waterfall by Hiroshi Senju.)

Sunday, 24 August 2014

“Why the heck didn’t they just say so!”

In an excerpt from his upcoming collection of essays. Echo Soundings, Jeffery Donaldson flags an important truth about the art.
Poems are made of words, words that are everywhere outside you and inside you. We are in the midst of words. They do things, tell us things, tell us to do things, convey information, cajole, argue, and convince; they lie and feint and finesse; they go before and between; they explain and justify; they are well nigh indistinguishable from our thoughts and perceptions, our mindset, the culture we inhabit. The poem sits in the midst of all this verbal noise. It is hard not to assume that poems are trying to do the same thing in the world as other linguistic conveyances. So much of our criticism about literature and our teaching of it falls back on the assumption (often useful, as far as it goes) that the task of a poem, just so, is to convey information, convince you of something, argue a truth, compel or command, sway a disposition. But it can seem to do so very poorly, since it often makes so much fuss about the business. It seems coded by nature to make its own kind of trouble. Keep the teachers in business. Confronted thus, a young student thinks, quite reasonably: “If that’s what the poets meant, why the heck didn’t they just say so!” Poems are out of their element, in over their heads when they try to do the work that an instruction manual, a conceptual argument, a treatise, a political speech, a weather or news report, a science experiment will do much better.

Sunday Poem

After we thinned out we joined clouds
darkening cleared land and then
we were the shadows of those clouds
crossing open heaths. 
Our green breath had to continue
till we were lingering
molecules causing mild headaches
among Flemish cattle. 
When parts of our advancing front
united with water,
we converted damp wagon tracks
to pickling vats. 
We had no wish other than to float
past tatters of swans
a half-mile above our objective
in the scored earth.
The one who housed us in metal
had a chemist wife
who shot herself with his pistol
upon our dispersal. 
If only a huge ventilator, poised
to buoy us skyward,
could have been deployed
by top-flight sappers. 
But wrists had to go awry as wind
stroked us northwest
through sandbagged parapets
into scorched lungs.

From Bit Parts for Fools (Goose Lane Editions, 2013) by Peter Richardson

“Song of the Canister’s Contents” contains a reference to Clara Haber (1870-1915) who shot herself not long after learning of her husband Fritz’s success at putting chlorine gas into cylinders and supervising its dispersal at the Second Battle of Ypres.

The Murderer

In June, the Nickel Film Festival in St. John's screened the results of the first-ever cinepoetry project which paired local filmmakers with local poets to create short films. One of those films, The Murderer, was based on the same-titled poem by Shoshanna Wingate that's included in her debut, Radio Weather.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Mom Poems

Amanda Jernigan shares her thoughts about motherhood as an inspiration:
I have a two-year-old, and another child on the way. Given the proliferation of mombooks on the market, you might think motherhood an exhausted subject—for books, if not for poetry. But if you think about the poems that have come down to us in English, the great body of them are written by men (in the fifth ed. of The Norton Anthology of Poetry—the table of contents of which represents decades of scholarly excavation, to retrieve the works of female poets—still only a fifth of the poems are by women). This is not to say there have not been great poems of motherhood, written by both men and women. But I feel that there are many unexplored possibilities here, still, both thematic and formal. (It is tempting to say, ‘The great poem of motherhood has yet to be written.’ But that’s really just a pep-talk to myself. And, lately I’ve been wondering if in fact the great poem of motherhood has been written, and it’s Janet Lewis’s ‘A Lullaby’.) I was reading recently Dan Chiasson’s review of new work by the American poet Rachel Zucker, in The New Yorker. He talks about her work as that rare thing, a poetry of motherhood that gives the effect of having been actually ‘written … under the conditions it describes.’ I’m still not often able to write under the conditions of early motherhood, all-consuming as it is: there just isn’t the time to work up an idea, often, even when the idea is there. Which often, it isn’t: so much of early motherhood is averbal. One tends to think in ways that are other than linguistic. But, then, great poems are made as much out of silence as they are out of speech, and I tell myself that the way to new poems is to immerse myself more deeply in this seeming interruption, rather than to bridle at it.
(Photograph by John Haney.) 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Who the Hell Was This Al Purdy?

Drew Gough offers a stunning mediation on the experience of embracing a poet he once spurned:
For years, I’ve been looking for Al Purdy. But not before I spent years avoiding him, in the same way I avoided everything from the place where I grew up. I had the firm conviction that when you leave home—especially if home is a farm that doesn’t work as a farm, where the power is sometimes shut off because the electricity bill hasn’t been paid, on a laneway populated with tarot card readers, glass-blowers, playwrights and a woman firmly believed to be a witch, near a small town with no industry other than tourism and barely that anymore—you want to stay gone. You scorn home when it peeks its head into the new life you’ve built: during a casual run-in with an elementary school classmate on the streets of your new city, or when a poem about it appears on a third-year university syllabus. So entered Purdy into my early twenties, a lumbering force I was determined to dislike. “The Country North of Belleville?” When I said the name of his most famous poem in my head, it was always posed as a question. What, in the country north of Belleville, in the country I was trying to forget, could be worthy of a poem? What was there but rocks and hills and kind-of-pretty trees and funny names left behind by families who settled there and failed to build much? And who the hell was this Al Purdy?
(Photograph of Al Purdy's A-Frame cottage in Ameliasburgh, Ontario by Derek Shapton.)

Fighting Death with Excess

In a recent exchange with Michael Lista about his new collection, The Scarborough, Jason Guriel notices that, for a book with such a grim subject—one "trespassing on sacred ground," as Guriel puts it—the poems are "fizzing with style and formal energy." Lista explains that's not a coincidence.
One of my favourite moments in art, any art, period, of the last little while, was the final scene of this season’s finale of Mad Men, a show that I normally find too long on design and too short on art. Anyway (spoiler alert!), Bert Cooper has died while watching the moon landing and in the final moments of the show, his ghost returns to sing Don “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” replete with dancing girls and a soft shoe in socks. It was so beautifully human and stupid that I cried. It reminded me of a song from one of my favourite albums, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, the concept album about Anne Frank that I thought a lot about when I was writing The Scarborough; as the album builds towards its terrible finale in “Ghost,” Jeff Mangum sings: "I know that she will live forever / All goes on and on and on / And she goes /And now she knows she’ll never be afraid / To watch the morning paper blow / Into a hole where no one can escape." And then over the roaring reverb, a pipe organ and a bagpipe careen into a punk Barnum-and-Bailey Klezmer jig. It’s in moments like these, when death is met with a gaudy surplus of artistry, that you can see the fine membrane that separates art from religion, what Larkin called “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die,” something he could never quite bring himself to sneer at because he realized he’d been knitting one for himself his whole life—his poetry. I’m a fan of any art—any poetry—that tries to do that, too, marshal a decorous consolation against emptiness.