Monday, 27 April 2015

Flash Interview #10—Asa Boxer

Asa Boxer is the co-founder of The Montreal International Poetry Prize. This year's $20,000 award is being decided by Eavan Boland. Deadline for entries is May 15.

Carmine Starnino: The Montreal International Poetry Prize continues to be the only award of its kind—delivering a huge sum for a single poem. What's the thinking there? Why the focus on the poem?

Asa Boxer: We wanted to signal to audiences that the poem is a work of art, at least as valuable as other, perhaps more visible art forms. Folks are willing, for example, to pay to see theatre, dance and film. I'm not sure a poem has equal purchase on wallets. Meanwhile the visual arts are currently in the midst of a parody of value, where a painting that fetches a mere six figures is a sign the creator has achieved only moderate success. So the idea, in part, was to announce loud and clear to a culture obsessed with measures that poetry had measurable value.

Back in 2010, when the idea of the Montreal Prize was conceived, there were few prizes offering big purses to poets. Mostly it was collections of poems that had a chance of landing a significant prize amount. The poetry competitions that awarded the largest amounts for single poems were old in 2010, and the sums they offered had lost their glimmer. We hoped to nudge those up by example. In many cases, literary journals were offering thousands to the winner of a short story competition, while insulting poets with a paltry sum, as though poems were what you wrote during a commute or during a lunch break. The message was, don't bother with this minor art form, nobody really wants it. We wanted to change that. So we designed a prize that would award tens of thousands for a single poem, no longer than forty lines.

CS: The prize's internationalism has ramped up considerably since its inception, with your current editorial board featuring poets from Trinidad, Nigeria and India. Why make the enterprise so diverse?

AB: I'd say we always had a strong international editorial board. What's changed is how far we can reach into poetry circles that were remote in 2010. By asking for recommendations from our African, Caribbean, Indian and Australian sources, we can now get to emerging poets and poets who were not in the major anthologies but clearly should have been. Then we can invite them to join our editorial board for a season or encourage them to participate as contenders in the competition.
The desire for this sort of diversity is rooted in curiosity and a desire to expand our notions of what poetry can be. Just as Ezra Pound looked to foreign poetries (like Japanese) to learn other approaches and techniques in the medium, the Montreal Prize hopes to keep apace of how folks are writing in different countries and to be a vehicle of cross pollination.

CS: What are some trends you've seen in submissions over the last few years? Is English-language poetry in good health?

AB: Happily, I haven't seen trends in the sense of fashions. In other words, our anthologies haven't represented a dominant style or subject. There has been diversity on that front. I'm not in a position to say whether English-language poetry is in good health. It has become an industry, though, which is antithetical to its spirit: there are mechanisms that keep the presses running whether the material is worth printing or not. I suspect also that globalization along with the Creative Writing Program have contributed to what looks like an unnerving uniformity of expression. I have definitely seen less culturally inflected diversity than initially hoped for. For example, I suppose Caribbean folk couldn't keep writing in pidgin, but it's as though the sound of their work (on the page at least) has lost that Caribbean lilt and swagger. Things are in flux right now, I can say that much. The UK, for instance, once a leader in the poetry world, is now on a par with everyone else. The best African poetry seems the most urgent and most distinct. I think poets ought to be turning their attention there right now.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sunday Poem

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.

The friar's hologram greets us thusly. Says if our souls
are pure and good we will see a vision of immortality.
Think St. Pio of Pietrelcina. He bore stigmata for fifty
years. Here's an image of Jesus bleeding. Worse

than my monthlies? The red of his thorn crown disturbs
me. The friar was a good man. He walked with a wicker
basket collecting alms while sporting a metal vest
beneath his blouse. Teeth dug into his skin, rubbed

his flesh raw. Like a ribbon around his finger, pain
reminded him of sin. So he made penance by gathering
bits of bread and pails of milk. I’m hungry, can you fetch
me a snack? My whip chases the devil out of my fat

and strikes the switch that turns me on. We enter
the monks’ undercroft and find six chambers candlelit.
Beside the mounds of holy dirt, I spy a human skull
with thigh bone wings, spiny light fixtures. Jaws locked

in intricate floral arrangements. Pistil, stamen,
mandible. Savour this. We enter the hall of pelvises,
the crypt of shin bones, skeletons with scythes crafted
artfully. The Princess of Barberini hangs from the ceiling.
We see couples drop to their knees. We are moved
along. In the Corridor of Exaltation, visitors lie
at the feet of friars half rotted away. Such displays
distract me from rear-wall detailing, a coat of arms 
made of crossed arms. One clothed, one muscular.
How can I keep my memory of this moment clear?
Like cartloads of bodies pulled to the friary and air-
buried, time eats at our memories, no matter how dear. 
Then the gift shop, and a woman I follow outside.
Her short black hair and Ray Bans. Wedged heels,
tight grey jeans. I wanted to be her, in Rome,
and disappear down the street talking on an iPhone.
From Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart, 2014) by Cassidy McFadzean

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Circling a Big Idea

Josh Prescott describes his first encounter with John Thompson's poetry:
As an undergrad in Sackville, a professor of mine, unabashedly eager to evangelize about the greatness of Canadian poetry, was outwardly offended by my confession that I’d not read Thompson, at which point I was casually told that something monumental was missing from my literary tool belt. Thompson was a giant, I was told, and not to be overlooked.

And so I did read Thompson. But I did not encounter the giant as I was expecting. Instead I found a writer whose interest in language, whose precise use of subtlety and nuance, was at the forefront of each line. To me Thompson’s work seemed small and somewhat broken, circling a big idea but desperate to remain contained, limited perhaps. Critics often remark on the trials of Thompson’s personal life—the alcoholism, battles with university bureaucrats, failed marriage, illness. Undoubtedly, these experiences resonate in his poems. But my first readings of his work were innocent and unaware. Both eager and apprehensive, at the time of this first encounter with Thompson I was deeply engaged with a flurry of prose works categorized by their existential reach—Kundera, Camus, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and others. Thompson’s poetry echoed the sense of reaching I found in these writers. Each time I return to Stilt Jack, I recall that first encounter and the sense of grasping in his work.

A Canadian Poet To Watch

Shoshanna Wingate is hotly tipped for great things by Patrick Warner:
Ultimately, it is the lived-in quality of Wingate’s poems, the authenticity that comes from tough negotiation with experience and with poetic form that makes her work a valuable recent contribution to Canadian poetry, a poetry which, in 2015, is overly-indebted to affected language, to literary theory and to the incomprehensible. Among the wash of contemporary poems, many of which read as non sequitur followed by non sequitur, Wingate’s poems stand out for their realism, for their narrative candor, for their emotional heft, and (contradictory as it may sound) for their restraint.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Has Social Media Been Good For Poetry?

David McGimpsey thinks so:
My anecdotal psychological insight into this is that Facebook and social media has made younger people generally better poets than they used to be, and the reason why is that now it becomes a thing that people just know how to do without being told how to do it: How to materialize the self. The function that poets often engage in to where your speaking self as a poet is a kind of materialization of an aspect of your personality. It’s not you, but a version of you. And good version of you. One where you’re more articulate, more on point, one where you’re more perceptive. Your Facebook is like that. It’s a materialization of who you are.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sunday Poem

The power was out when we went to bed
that night, remember? It had been out
since suppertime—one of those late
afternoon thunderstorms
that used to roll through the valley
like a tidal wave. We blew out the candles,
forgetting which lights had been on,
forgetting about the radio
till, soon after we’d drifted off,
it jumped to life, full volume,
(along with the bedside lamp)
for a brutal second—just long enough
to jolt us awake with a dire,
frenetic male voice proclaiming, “Too late!
For an instant we blinked at each other,
stupefied. You lunged for the radio knob
as the room went black again,
and there we lay, in country dark
(so much darker than city dark)
with that voice still echoing in our heads.
Was it too late? For what?
There were numerous possibilities.
Even back then, there were numerous
possibilities. The kids slept on, oblivious,
in their little rooms, their wooden bunks
under the flyspecked windows,
and after a moment we began to laugh,
a laugh we can reignite
with those words to this day.
Too late!
We dissolved in each other’s arms
in helpless laughter.
From My Shoes Are Killing Me (Biblioasis, 2015) by Robyn Sarah

Signal Editions, Montreal Gala Launch, April 16, 2015

Chad Campbell, reading from Laws & Locks.
Talya Rubin, reading from Leaving the Island.

(From left) Ewa Zebrowski, Marsha Courneya, Carmine Starnino, Chad Campbell, Nancy Marelli

Carmine Starnino, Talya Rubin, Robyn Sarah