Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nick Thran: The Lines That Get us Through the Week

The image is from artist/poet Peter Sacks' recent exhibit at the Paul Rogers 9W/ Gallery in New York. Poems and newspaper clippings appear in various paintings almost fossilized onto the canvas.

A recent post by head Lemon Hound Sina Queyras on Harriet, "The Lines We Carry," took a moment to list some of the lines of poetry she returns to again and again. The post and comments section was an outpouring of the right words in the right order. A thoroughly enjoyable bit of blogging.

It was a busy week for this particular blogger. My heart got heavy at the idea of trying to put together a coherent five-hundred word update. Some weeks are just more fragmented. Some weeks are lived in various lines. I'm always surprised that no matter how quickly one pinballs from place to place, from assignment to assignment, from nine-to-five or three-to-eleven or eight-to-ten-to-two-to-four-to-seven-to-midnight, the books we read, the net we surf, and the conversations we have and overhear always seem to yield their little gems. Language as oasis. Forget the long-haul. These are the lines heard or read this week, poetry and otherwise, that got me through this week. Period. I'd encourage people to add to their own in the comments section. It's Sunday, folks. Let's take a moment to rest and catch up over coffee:

My girlfriend just breathed on the window of my workplace.
-my friend Eric Foley's facebook status update

In some regions, history is buried
in the ground like broken glass;
you cut your feet without knowing it.
In some towns almost everyone's feet are bleeding.
 -from the poem"More Blood" by Sue Sinclair, in the new issue of Event.

"Just to be an All-Star year in and year out, that's a special feeling, but the fact that it's in Dallas is a bittersweet thing," Bosh said before the Raptors faced the New York Knicks. "Sweet because I get to play in front of my home crowd, bitter because everyone wants tickets."
-Toronto Raptors Forward Chris Bosh, as reported by Brian Mahoney of the AP

One is always about to look at a film one hasn't seen before.
-John Ashbery, in response to an NYU student asking what the favourite films he returned to for inspiration were.

Give me rage.
Not this dull torpor,
this weary body moving down the aisle of pet foods.
I have no cat, no dog, no bird.

-from the poem "Single woman on the death of her mother" by Heather Cadsby, from her collection Could be, recently published by Brick Books.

Never have I seen an angel fly so low.
-Poet and friend Jeff Latosik, via facebook, on the poutine perogies served at Toronto's Intersteer Pub.

Nick Thran is the author of one poetry collection, Every Inadequate Name (Insomniac Press, 2006). A second collection, Earworm, will appear in 2011 with Nightwood Editions. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Unleashed Unleashed At Last

Unleashed by Sina Queyras
Department of Critical Thought No. 2

Experience a little time travel as BookThug presents our final book of the 2009 year. You can also experience a little time travel reading the book itself, as you follow Queyras for four years of her experiment in thinking about literature & art via her blog. Started for many reasons -- a way for an expat to keep in touch with fellow writers and artists, a way to come to terms with the increasing relevance of the Internet in literary lives, and a way to figure out why, after decades of gains, women writers are still grossly under-represented in critical dialogues -- the blog allowed Queyras to take up a public space and voice that does something to one's brain. There is no getting away from the space she created "out there" -- now Unleashed.

Copies are available for purchase directly from BookThug.

Or visit your favourite independent bookseller.

Delays, delays, but it's "here"...not in my hand yet, but there is the physical fact of a book in other hands. Human ones, that can crack the spine and see, not code but readable text. Oh, and images. 

I've always wanted to do a book with images.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Who Cares? or, Reviewing Humanitarianism

In an article titled, "What will your Haiti relief donation go toward?" CNN put together a list of the best places to send your humanitarian dollar. So many choices should stump us because, as Bill Quigley points out, Haiti has the most nongovernmental organizations of any country in the world. Given such a rich set of options, no wonder we need CNN and Charity Navigator, not to mention rankings of Top Disaster Relief Organizations and Ten Top Humanitarian Charities.

Which of the following call out to you?

- AmeriCares
- Concern Worldwide
- Food For the Poor
- Love a Child
- Mercy Corps
- Project Hope
- Samaritan's Purse (top rated among two rankings)
- Save the Children
- Shelterbox
- World Concern

Such is the logic of choice: if we choose where we'd like to put our dollars, then surely it's fair that organizations should compete for these dollars. And if there are so many choices, as there are in Haiti, then we need someone to navigate what seems a chaotic field of contenders. So humanitarian reviewing makes sense: we want mileage for our money and can feel good that we're chipping in for a good cause.

Yet even as CNN helps me select the best among the humanitarians, I see in the side-bar advertisement "Free Military Tax Preparation Online," which leads me to Military OneSource. It is tempting to wonder how the valuation of humanitarian effort serves as the content that helps bring in revenue by selling ad space. Humanitarian reviewing, it seems, not only helps channel our dollars to the winners, but is also valuable for converting our attention into another bottom line.

Humanitarian reviewing helps us compare what might otherwise be impossibly incomparable: certain humanitarian efforts are more valuable--more valued, to draw from market lingo--than others. As Charity Navigator puts it,
Charity Navigator, America's premier independent charity evaluator, works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace by evaluating the financial health of over 5,400 of America's largest charities.
If we had previously missed the financial dimension of humanitarianism, then Charity Navigator makes it as clear as day: we need to understand our relief donation as part of the world of the marketplace.

But sources such as CNN and Charity Navigator aren't simply in the market for commercial revenue (I notice in the sidebar of Charity Navigator that Acura is "Introducing the Acura ZDX. It's not new. It's NEXT."): they declare their ability to adjudicate how you might best convert your financial capital into a social good. You want help choosing? Turn to the experts. Turn to the taste-makers. There is a system of judgment that helps us distribute resources to those who distribute relief, turning social capital into financial capital. Even if you'd never paused to wonder about it, if you were ever in doubt, where you spend your humanitarian dollar can indeed be reviewed, rated, and ranked.

Thanks to Krissy Darch for pointing out the CNN article. Image courtesy of Charity Navigator.

Ray Hsu is the author of the forthcoming Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon. His first book, Anthropy, won the Gerald Lampert Award. He has published over a hundred poems in over thirty-five literary journals internationally. While teaching for two years in a US prison, he founded the award-winning Prison Writing Workshop. He now teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sachiko Murakami -- Wee Interview with Angela Hibbs


This week I had a little chat with Angela Hibbs, the author of the poetry collections Passport (DC Books 2006) and Wanton (Insomniac 2009). Recently moved from Montreal, Hibbs now lives in Toronto.

I sometimes get a little impatient with the lyric narrative; its small questions, its predictable mysteries. Hibbs' wanderings through the lyric, though, are arresting, estranging. The strangeness of her lines, with their rhythms graceful and inviting, combined with her oddball diction, makes for some chewy verse that rewards the reader's careful attention.

From the long poem Wanton:

Fern recounts being led into a dark room with more mannequins
than light. Puppets in wood with moveable parts.
Their faces deeply engraved, as with a knife.
Sayers read her “Hansel and Gretel” and said the moral is
every time your parents abandon you, your self-rescue improves.

He arranged her adoption. Benched, tuning fork struck.
No longer a subject.

Mrs. Hill rolls her fists like Tina Turner dancing to “Proud Mary,”
she knows the tuning fork’s sound.

Dr. Sayers described her fishbone braid,
his own poverty-struck (a fork tap withheld) beginning

in a vague year and country.
She mustered courage to dab the keys.
Some were completely detached. A pink sky—elementary.
“I can’t pick the bones out of half of what she tells
you always smells of rat, you,” Mam replies.
The way Fern yawns, she could trap flies.

Tab trails Fern’s eyes in the rear-view mirror.
She who outsmarted the Wanton Doc is rewarded with a
widened berth.


SM: You write primarily in the free verse lyric narrative. Do you feel pressure to move away from that form -- either into more structured formalism or experimental practices?

AH: The pressure I feel to move away from my instinctual mode of expression is based mostly in feeling seduced by other forms, other theoretical stances. I'd like to write subversively or using Oulipian constraints. I find that work exciting.

However, I still have goals narratively and narrative is a constraint. Free verse does not mean anything goes any more than experimental writing has a monopoly on experiment. There was a lot cut out of Wanton (the recent long poem) based on constraints that I generated. Structured formalism, when ornate, does not appeal to me at this time.

SM: How has Montreal -- both as a location and its writers -- shaped and influenced your work?

AH: Montreal is where I started to publish, where I met the editor of my first book, where I found my mentors. I'll always be discovering new ways that Montreal shapes and influences me and my practice. From writing descriptions of the neighbourhoods I lived in, the apartments I lived in, which appeared to some extent in Passport, to more abstract cues that I got about how to be a writer from going to readings in Montreal. I also did two degrees at Concordia. All those brow-beatings in workshops definitely shaped me, toughened me up. Montreal is a location, but maybe also a way of thinking. I got to have that thing that Stein, as an expatriate liked, about being away from English, not always hearing English, that distance, but also be doing and English degree at an English institution. There's a lot of boundary breaking going on in Montreal.

SM: Regarding Wanton, the long poem in your latest collection of the same name. What was the motivation for writing it -- both in terms of content and form? What's your take on the long poem as a form?

AH: The long poem for me is on an as needed basis. Passport uses lots of poems to relay one story. For Wanton, the characters kept having more going on, and I followed that. Looking back I see that I was motivated to write another story about leaving home, a story about being drawn back to home, the inextricability of famliy, the inevitability. Wanton is also about legitimacy, about children told they were adopted, who were actually not. Passport: redux, on both counts. Also, the main characters in Wanton live in a swamp, which I later realized is a paen to Jimmy Walker swamp, to Rob Allen and his place in Ayers cliff, location wise at the very least. When
"John D’envers pulls the five black jumbo paper clips off her sheet music and says,
“this seems a bit excessive,” "
That's something that Rob Allen said when I gave him Passport as a manuscript, with a bunch of jumbo clips on it to make it seem more "bound" like a book. That's an insider's interpretation of course. Fern Hill, Wanton's main character, has a wooden leg. I was attracted to this obvious obstacle, to this throw back image, then made a world where such a leg would exist. Everyone in Wanton is an outsider and formally the poem is an "outsider" long poem, broken up by numbers, most of which function as a poetic unit, a stand alone, a wooden leg. I was and am concerned that Wanton will be read as a misogynist text. The female characters in the poem are strong within the constraints of their imagined world. They have a strong sense of duty. They are working class. Those subjects remain interesting to me. When Fern takes her piano playing abilities and starts a burlesque show/ massage parlour called the "Whorible Wee Piano Show", it is a troubled victory. It is a triumph of her entrepreneurship and maybe it's also profiteering on the desperation of unemployed women. It is also a comment on how artists have to do something else to make ends meet and the idea of "selling out".

SM: What's next for Angela Hibbs?

AH: I'm working on short stories. I think the collection will be called The Grocer's Dilemma; I like the grocery store as an arena and I like food stories. Attitudes towards food are very telling and very divisive. My interests in scarcity, money, desire, domestic labour all intersect nicely in food stories. I'm compiling a third poetry manuscript (no long poem foreseen) and am playing at titles, Foiled Again or Catch and Release, which unfortunately is a Jennifer Garner movie.


Sachiko Murakami
writes from Toronto. She wrote The Invisibility Exhibit.

On Reviewing: Vanessa Place

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

VP: The purpose of a review is to discriminate. Discrimination is how we find good friends and know which strangers to shoot on sight.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

VP: I argue with the work. I take it on face value and see if it stands scrutiny and thumps on the skull. Is it a fine thing among fine things of its kind? Is it a terrible thing, or is it the kind of second-rate thing that Eliot commended as that lesser version of fine from which we may learn or crib something for ourselves.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

VP: The three-beat review form (bio/biblio intro, book m.o., critical close) is horrible, as is the practice of reviewers reviewing work that is a type of work they categorically don’t like. Though it seems particularly stupid to me when writer-reviewers disapprove entire forms of their art—like standing in the Louvre and waving dismissively at the Baroque–the great review is one that approaches the corpus curiously and dissectively, determining if it works and what makes it tick.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

VP: The question is the answer: the text should be emblematic of something; the author should be working on a body of work.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

VP: Rhetoric is a medium; I suspect I convey many of the same things via different rhetorical gestures.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

VP: As noted above, hate should be as specific as love.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

VP: I had to order Erin Mouré’s translation of Chus Pato’s m-Talá immediately after reading Mouré’s review of Lisa Robertson’s Debbie. I was right.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

VP: The tangle and slip of honest engagement. One finds it, but it is rare.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

VP: I imagine I will; what money there is is never much money. Though I prefer to work within a conversational context, whether the conversation is internally institutionalized (within the journal, via the editors or other reviewers) or externally institutional (in relation to other modes of real critique, such as may be found on some blogs).

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

VP: Like flies. And, like flies, drive others away. But my deeper ambition, as previously confessed, is to figure out what ghosts our spined machines.

Vanessa Place is a writer, a lawyer, and co-director of Les Figues Press. She is author of Dies: A Sentence (2006), La Medusa (2008), and Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Robert Fitterman (2009). Her nonfiction book, The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law is forthcoming from Other Press/Random House. A work of conceptual poetry using her legal writing will be published in France by éditions è®e, as Exposé des Faits, and as a trilogy in English by Blanc Press: Statement of Facts, Statement of the Case, and Argument. ( ) Place currently reviews poetry for Fence, and art, most frequently for X-TRA.

The Cat Came Back

Do you have your NFB iPhone app? It's pretty awesome.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Mentor, Tormentor" (1 of 3)

Weinstein, Debra. Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.. New York: Random House, 2004.

It may be a touch of writerly narcissism, a latent sadomasochistic streak, or simply the need to commiserate, but as a former creative writing student, I find few novels more appealing than those that explore the triumphs and traumas of being a creative writing student. I don’t mean books that mythologize or deify the writer, but rather, books that delve into the uniquely inspiring, undeniably stressful, occasionally petty, and often ridiculous world of university poetry workshops. The books I’m referring to indulge the paranoia that claws at the minds and intestines of any young poet cringing to the sound of her work being read aloud by her poetry prof, or the ego of any debutant writer sitting in silence while his work is berated by a much loathed and (to his mind) inferior classmate. I mean books that expose the nonsensical gnarled labyrinth of department and poetry scene politics and gossip. I mean books that wince along with you, roll their eyes along with you, but still reassure your ego that one day you'll be a great writer. I mean Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. by Debra Weinstein, Mean Boy by Lynn Coady, and Stripmalling by Jon Paul Fiorentino. This week, Weinstein.

There are all kinds of poetry mentors and creative writing teachers; nurturing ones who want to help you grow, tough ones determined to see you succeed, and well-meaning eccentric ones who muddle through their attempts to teach. Annabelle Goldsmith of Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. has the terrible fortune of having none of these as her mentor. Infatuated with poetry and the idea of becoming a poet, Annabelle moves from her broken suburban family home in New Jersey to New York City on a scholarship, and is, she thinks, blessed with the opportunity to become the assistant of her favourite writer, the celebrity poet Z. Despite rumours that Z. eats her assistants alive, Annabelle diligently types letters, buys cat food, and researches random snippets of half remembered lines for the enigmatic Z., who rewards Annabelle by paying her to sketch out the groundwork of the famous poet’s next book, and by encouraging Annabelle in her own creative work. The bloom begins to fade, however, as Annabelle is pulled into the twisted, resentful, and adulterous home life of Z., her husband Lars, and their daughter Claire, as Z. slowly reveals her petty and vindictive side trying to annihilate the career of a fellow faculty member, and as it becomes clear that Z. could care less about Annabelle’s poetry. The book culminates in Z.’s spectacular betrayal of Annabelle’s trust, and Annabelle’s attempts to put her writing life back together after her first discouraging experience in the poetry world.

Weinstein’s wit is as sharp as her prose, and by page two, Annabelle already feels like an old friend. This book not only indulges the creative writing student’s fleeting fears, after a particularly discouraging workshop, that their prof must hate them, but Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. also captures the beginning poet’s irresistible raw need to write, and the new writer's desire to immerse him or herself in a world that understands this hunger. If you need a refresher on why you wanted to be a poet, this book is a great place to start.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Reviewing: Steven W. Beattie

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

SB: There are those who believe that book reviews should confine themselves to a description of what a book is and avoid any attempt at evaluation. This is perhaps an offshoot of the marketing impulse to use reviews as a mechanism to help sell the book. My own feeling is that, although book reviews can have an effect on sales, they are not marketing tools. Rather, they represent an evaluative assessment of a particular work. Such an assessment should be based on evidence from the book under consideration and should rely on certain literary standards. (A reviewer who cannot see the literary merit in, for example, Moby-Dick or Madame Bovary – whether or not that person actually likes the books – will probably not do well in the business.)

But a good review should give more than a cursory “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to a particular work. It should engage actively with the text and should be cognizant of where the text fits in a literary tradition (or how it breaks from that tradition). It should be honest and discriminating, though not petty or vituperative. And it should be aware of any text on two simultaneous levels: the level of form and the level of content.

Clearly, this requires much of a reviewer: she must be, in Philip Marchand’s words, “very intelligent”; she must be knowledgeable about literary history; she must be courageous enough to offer clear opinions about matters of literary merit, as well as flexible enough to recognize merit in writing that might not be specific to the reviewer’s own taste or approach, if the reviewer is also an author. (Book reviewers, of course, are unique among critics in that they work in the same medium as the artists under review, and therefore have the potential to outperform their subjects.)

Although I regularly write print reviews (for Quill & Quire, where I am review editor, and for Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places), I continue to maintain a literary website, That Shakespearean Rag. The blog allows me certain freedoms that I don’t otherwise enjoy: I’m allowed to set my own agenda and to choose the books I want to cover, and I’m not restricted to a specific word count or a limited spectrum of books available for review. For instance, I can review international books, which I can’t do at Quill, and I can write about books that are not current releases. On the blog I am free to indulge my enthusiasms, rather than being beholden to any particular editorial mandate.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

SB: My approach as a critic is evaluative, based on close readings of individual texts. I agree with Rónán McDonald, who points out in The Death of the Critic that the word “criticism” arose from the Greek word kritos, which means “judgment.” One reason critics and reviewers need to be “very intelligent” is that they must have sufficient background knowledge about their subject to engage in reasoned, informed acts of critical evaluation.

Having said that, it would also seem apparent that any act of reviewing has a reader response aspect to it – as does any act of reading: how could it not? – and it’s similarly difficult to separate an exegetical approach from an evaluation based on close reading. In other words, when I review a book, I try to remain aware of my own emotional response to a work and separate that from my critical assessments of a book’s literary merits or defects. It is possible to appreciate technique in a book while not much liking the book itself.

With shrinking review space and a culture that prizes immediate gratification and the quick hit, it is more difficult than ever to get all of that into a single review. Three hundred and fifty words (the average length of a Quill review) is hardly sufficient to say anything substantial about the book under discussion, let alone provide a nuanced reaction to the intricacies of the text. This is one reason I’ve always prized long-form reviews such as those that can be found in Bookforum, The New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement over shorter, “capsule” reviews. However, in our hyperlinked, attention-deficit culture, long-form reviews are becoming ever more difficult to find and are rapidly ceding ground to uninformed, carelessly written reader reviews of the kind that appear on

Once again, this is where the online environment has the potential to pick up some slack. Bloggers are not beholden to word counts or vested interests; they can write longer, more nuanced pieces without worrying about the need to satisfy any kind of agenda based on advertising revenue or corporate dictates. However, there is a paucity of good writing online, particularly among blogs with little or no editorial oversight, and neuroscientists inform us that the Internet promotes horizontal reading as opposed to vertical reading, encouraging briefer engagement with texts and rapid leaps from one hyperlink to the next. In such an environment, lengthy, nuanced criticism doesn’t stand much of a chance of retaining a reader’s interest or attention.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

SB: A review that is merely a summary of a book’s contents is a failed review. Of course the review needs to provide the reader with an idea of what the book under consideration is, but it needs to proceed from that to a fairly rigorous analysis of how the book achieves its effects, or how (and why) it fails to do so.

A review that engages in ad hominem attacks on an author at the expense of a critical engagement with a text is a failed review.

A review that is simply a vehicle for the reviewer to show off is a failed review.

A review that castigates an author for not writing another book instead of wrestling with the book the author did write is a failed review.

A review that pulls its punches is a failed review.

A review that panders to received wisdom is a failed review.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

SB: Ideally, a reviewer should be in a position to put the text under consideration into some kind of context. If a reviewer is assigned a book about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it would be helpful for the reviewer to have at least a passing knowledge of the time period, so as to be able to properly evaluate the author’s general argument, specific assertions, etc. A general familiarity with the available literature would also allow the reviewer to assess how thorough the text under consideration is, and how it stacks up against the books that have preceded it.

Similarly, if a reviewer is writing about an author with a significant backlist, it would be useful to be able to position a particular text in the context of an author’s entire output. It is perfectly acceptable, for example, to engage in a critical analysis of Philip Roth’s novel The Humbling on its own, but such an analysis is deepened if a reviewer is able to contextualize the novel’s concerns (its approach to character, masculinity, sex, literary history, etc.) along the spectrum of Roth’s complete body of work.

Of course, if a reviewer is getting paid, say, $50 for a review, it is not possible to ask that person to do extensive background reading in addition to reading the assigned book. Diligent reviewers will likely do some background research on areas or authors with whom they are unfamiliar, but unless they are being paid significantly more than most newspapers or magazines offer, editors cannot require them to do this.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?


LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

SB: Sooner or later, every reviewer will have to write about a book that he doesn’t like. Less experienced reviewers will likely have to do this more frequently, because veterans are better able to choose the books they want to review for themselves, and they are liable to choose books that they know will be more to their own tastes. Novice reviewers, by contrast, have to take whatever an editor assigns them, more or less.

Some editors tell their reviewers to abandon a book if they find that they have little or no affinity for it, and some newspapers and magazines will not print negative reviews. To me, this approach is intellectually dishonest. A good reviewer will be open minded enough to recognize the literary merits in a text that may not be the kind of thing she would choose to read for pleasure or that comes out of a tradition that is foreign to her own experience. A good reviewer recognizes that every act of criticism involves both a subjective and an objective aspect, and is able to conduct an appraisal of a work that (at least implicitly) acknowledges these different levels of reaction to a text.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

SB: I’m not sure that it’s possible for a reviewer to claim a “final opinion” on any author or work, since a reviewer’s temperament and approach will change and evolve over the course of a career in the same way that any writer’s will. I know that my feelings about literature have changed in the last twenty years – youthful enthusiasms have been tempered (or jettisoned altogether) and I have come to a greater appreciation of complex works that I once had little time for. I fully expect this process to continue the older I get. This is only natural: the more one reads, the more extensive one’s background becomes, the more one is able to put various works into deeper and broader contexts. Reading The Wide Sargasso Sea without having read Jane Eyre will yield a different experience and a different reaction than will a reading that is informed by the way Rhys plays on Brontë’s earlier work. Similarly, the experience of reading Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent male is sure to be different from the experience of reading the book in middle age.

Other books hit you at precisely the right – or wrong – time. A reviewer may be going through a painful breakup or may have just experienced a death in the family: these things will undoubtedly colour the reading of any text. A reviewer may be preoccupied by the stock market or the World Cup or her daughter’s upcoming violin recital. Each of these things may subconsciously affect a reading experience. Approaching the same text at another point in the reviewer’s life, the reaction is likely to be very different.

Finally, it is not the reviewer’s job to offer the last word on a given text. Critical standards and an evaluative approach do not presuppose a kind of divine wisdom. The reviewer offers an assessment of a text made at a specific point in time and arising out of the entire fabric of that reviewer’s background and experience. There is nothing to say that such an evaluation won’t change with time. Indeed, it would be surprising if it did not.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

SB: Intelligence, thoughtfulness, and consideration are the qualities I look for most often in reviews. And, of course, good writing. And yes, quite often these qualities go wanting.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

SB: The very fact that I blog about books – without remuneration and on my own time – should answer this question. Having said that, the fact that professional reviewers are not paid even close to what they are worth is a situation that needs to be redressed. It’s all well and good for enthusiasts who want to share their love of a particular book to fire up the Internet and bang out fifty words, but this is not remotely connected to the practice of criticism. Much of the discourse around books that we see online is the digital equivalent of a coffee klatch; it has as much to do with professional criticism as a game of pick-up basketball has to do with the NBA. There is some very good, thoughtful, careful writing to be found online. There is also a glut of careless, ill-considered, illogical, and badly written book chat that passes itself off as legitimate criticism. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that experienced critics – those connoisseurs who have devoted a lifetime to the reading and study of literature – are not able to make a living wage off of their writing. This simultaneously devalues their output and injures the literary culture at large, since a vibrant literary culture requires a vibrant critical culture in order to thrive. In the absence of incisive criticism – criticism, not cheerleading – a culture will become complacent, will stagnate, and eventually shrivel.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

SB: I think the answer to this question is contained in the sum of the above. I hope to provide a way into a discussion of various texts; to foster healthy debate and engagement with written works; and to pursue a deeper understanding of the role of individual texts within a larger literature. At the same time, I hope to continue to engage in an inquiry about my own reactions to books, which are rarely simple, and never stagnant. I expect to constantly evolve as a critic, and to trace that evolution through my writing.

At the same time, I hope to be able to convey my joy of literature and perhaps to convince at least one or two people to read more, or to read better. I have been accused (as I’m sure most critics have) of being dismissive or antipathetic to the work that comes under my radar, but I think that precisely the opposite is true. I believe that by providing an honest critique of the books I review, by cleaving to critical standards, and by trying to avoid buying into the marketing hype and blockbuster mentality that seems to so dominate our culture, I am actually labouring to promote a literary environment that is vibrant and alive.

Steven W. Beattie is the Review Editor of Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing industry. His criticism has been published in Quill & Quire, The Vancouver Sun, the Edmonton Journal, and elsewhere.

MLA 2009 Scenes in Philadelphia - Part 3 (of 3) - The Off-Site Reading

Some people dislike marathon readings. I like them a lot. At this point I've attended a couple of the MLA Off-site readings, two in DC, two in Philadelphia, one in San Diego. The readings are an all-too-rare opportunity to step into a room & recognize a sea of faces. Normally that happens only at funerals & weddings. Poets from far-flung places descend on the same city & pay outrageous hotel & restaurant bills, but at least they get one evening for listening to other poets they might never see in person again. The length of the event doesn't bother me. If a poet fumbles on stage, it's a fleeting thing because the next poet will come up soon.

I've heard it said that the Off-site reading is the nerve center of North American poetry, at least for one evening a year. No surprise with the lineup: CA Conrad, Frank Sherlock, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ron Silliman, Gregory Laynor, Aldon Nielsen, Bob Perelman, Adrian Khactu, Danny Snelson, Bill Howe, Carlos Soto Román, Jamie Townsend, Laura Moriarty, Jenn McCreary, Chris McCreary, Lisa Howe, Tyrone Williams, Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Chris Carrier, Ryan Eckes, James Shea, Eric Selland, Charles Cantalupo, Jennifer Scappettone, Thomas Devaney, Pattie McCarthy, Evie Shockley, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Michael Hennessey, Ish Klein, Norma Cole, Suzanne Heyd, Kim Gek Lin Short, Jason Zuzga, Nava EtShalom, Ron Silliman, & more.

The event took place at the Rotunda on the edge of the Penn campus. A hand-painted sign informed readers, "Please enter around the corner."

Sure, rotundas don't have corners, but this is a minor detail. Inside the multitude spread out in the comfortable seats. California poets tended to sit towards the left aisle & East Coasters towards the right. One set of locals Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ron Silliman, & Bob Perelman sat up front, while another set of locals CA Conrad & Frank Sherlock sat in the back. Another local Jenn McCreary sat off to one side & knitted a scarf while readers took turns on the stage. The event included locals & out-of-towners all in one. The event curators Julia Bloch & Michelle Taransky wondered if they had a wider array of local poets than are often included in these things. But I don't think anyone has sat down to run the numbers.

And what a planning job on short notice. Michelle & Julia had their first conversation about curating the reading at a Kelly Writers House party on Dec. 15. They started planning in earnest when Julia got to California on the very next day. By midday on the day of the big event (Dec. 29) they were still confirming readers. It was like a shotgun wedding, except for it was for the love of poetry. Thus the barebones feel - no merchandise tables, no foundation support, no catering, etc. And talk about self-sacrifice. While hauling over party supplies Julia sprained her ankle! She was forced to wear clogs instead of heels, & she had to MC the event from a seated position to stage left. Still, she did a flawless job, pronouncing every name correctly.

The event started right on time. Unfortunately my ears were still thawing from the frigid weather, & I was so deeply absorbed in the penetralia of the building that my impressions were a bit lacking for the early readers. I did like show-opener Matthew Landis's poignant humor, with ramped-up emphasis in lines like "If you write a triptych, you must be well-hung." I think a lot about masculinity & lyric form, & all that was in good order.

Ish Klein & Gregory Laynor kicked off the second half-hour. I'd heard Klein's name several years ago when I asked Linh Dinh (at a reading in DC) to tell me about the most exciting poets among our Philadelphia neighbors to the north. Without hesitation he said Ish Klein, & now here at last I was able to personally confirm his recommendation. The poem that she read, "Lockdown" (at 2:40), was dedicated to "anyone who feels like they're in an incomprehensible prison." Greg Laynor read a poem "The Opening of the Field of Cultural Production" that was dedicated to Rodrigo Toscano (who had been on stage not minutes before in his trademark blue jeans & tucked-in shirt). Laynor's poem was a self-dialogue that asked, "Is it scary not having a poem to read?" My favorite among many of his lines: "Is it scary to go to school without Gertrude Stein"? The end was also good in a mischievous way: "Is it scary not having a poem to read? Just call it a poem. Nobody knows the difference."

The slow poet Dale Smith was scheduled to read about then, but alas he never showed up.

Things were flowing by the time Normal Cole opened the 8:00 block with "Face Time." Frank Sherlock soon followed with a poem that he recited entirely from memory. CA Conrad read a poem "Anoint Thyself" that I heard a few months ago when he read for Buffalo's Big Night series. Have no doubt the paint chips came flying off the walls when crowed started applauding for Conrad.

A new discovery for me was Danny Snelson, a rocketship in the Philly scene. Later I was pleased to stumble upon his full Segue reading here, including the found material in "Brute Force List."

Bob Perelman read a short poem "We" that was 25 years old but still managed to evoke the "We" of the audience seated before him: "We've come here today to be plural..." Kudos to Perelman for limiting himself to 1 minute & passing his other minute forward. Laura Moriarty previewed a new chapbook from Slack Buddha (with a nod to her publishers Bill Howe & Lisa Howe, both present to read as well). Evie Shockley made a third appearance of the day -- an MLA hat trick! Her poem "Explosives" was predicated on the slippage between actual munitions & their metaphorical deployment, e.g. "We request a bomb shelter"; "She's a bombshell"; "This poem is about to blow up." Ron Silliman, sounding as richly romantic as Blake, read for less than 1 minute. He chose an excerpt from Revelator, which according to Wikipedia is part of his new long poem Universe. (A line that reminded me of home: "intolerable southern sun.")

The one reader who made us all stop to think about the holiday season was Lisa Howe. Her poem was "The 100 Greatest Christmas Bummers" & included the following,
Me and the sibs raced around back alleys
to create an assemblage of strange seasonal
totems & mystical plans
for escape. We’d all fantasize about how
we were all gonna go out for Abominable
Snow Monster steaks & brandy & make
gingerbread women & eat only their crotches.
Yet, despite my ample “post-rationing” backside,
I somehow managed to land
instead on my vestigial pig-tail, a shining
example of moral leprosy in a society that revolves
around the grotesque, abject, & artificial.
This sounds like it was composed using the divine afflatus of google. What's interesting is that many lines (not just above) reflected on the writing process itself: "a rapid talker / inspired by human / voice recordings." Take a listen after the jump.

It was a varied evening with intellectual sensibility shining through in different ways. Poems included translations, visual poems, excerpts from long poems, abstract lyrics, list poems, flarf poems, conceptual poems, cultural detournements, poems composed with a limited vocabulary, excerpts from collective autobiographies, short short stories (a la Lydia Davis), & more. Future curators take note: the event came in under schedule. The longest reader was Barrett Watten at 6min30sec, but Suzanne Heyd was right on his heels at 4min59sec. The organizers inform me that Ryan Eckes clocked in at an impressively restrained 59 seconds, & Chris McCreary read for 2min precisely. For taking up the least amount of time, Elizabeth Willis deserves an honorary mention because she showed up & listened attentively to everyone without even being scheduled as a reader.

UPDATE: Recordings of the event are available on PennSound (sound) & Aldon Nielsen's blog (video). Highly recommended.


Kaplan Harris relocated from DC to Buffalo two years ago & now teaches at St. Bonaventure University. His work appears in American Literature, Artvoice, Contemporary Literature, the EPC, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is also editing, with Peter Baker & Rod Smith, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nikki Reimer: Meredith Quartermain on a Nomados Moment

Meredith Quartermain
Small press literary publishers Nomados (Peter & Meredith Quartermain) have been publishing since 2002. They released their 33rd chapbook, The Ends of the Earth by Jacqueline Turner, this past December. Kootenay School of Writing and Nomados will co-present a launch, reading & party: Nomados Moment on January 30 in Vancouver.

Below is my email conversation with Nomados publisher Meredith Quartermain about the press.

Nikki Reimer: Can you talk briefly about when & why you and Peter started Nomados?

Meredith Quartermain: In 2001 over several months Robin Blaser sent us by fax a series of short poems, and I set myself the task of responding to each one with a poem of my own. The somewhat cheeky project involved my echoing in different words the exact same syllable count, line break and stress pattern as his lines used. By the spring of 2002, we had collected 19 of these pairs of poems. I said to Peter, let’s publish them.

We had already operated a movable type press (Slug Press 1978-97) and were setting up another movable type press. But setting whole books in movable type is a very time consuming process. I had taught myself Adobe Pagemaker and published chapbooks of my own electronically. We both knew a lot of poets and writers (in Canada), the US and England, so we decided to start a digital publishing imprint and make the 19 pairs of poems our first project. (A Thousand Mornings.) The cover is a watercolour by Peter, which responds to one of Robin’s poems.

NR: Where does the name Nomados come from?

MQ: Casting about for a name, we were drawn to Robin’s poem “Nomad” which we published as a broadside through Slug Press in 1995. The word comes from the Greek nomas, pasturing. We chose the genitive form of the word for our name. We thought of ourselves as wanderers, eclectic in what we would publish. Aware that the ground is always shifting, needing a rambling approach to the labour of sense-making. We wanted to avoid the droughts in theologies and romanticisms.

NR: Why small press?

MQ: We both have other lives, so we cannot do publishing full-time or even half time. I don’t think we ever considered anything other than something on a small scale that we could finance ourselves. There are some advantages to that too, such as we don’t get tied up in the requirements of granting agencies. We don’t pile up projects years in advance. We can take up new projects quickly if we desire to. Small presses are the lifeblood of writing in our culture anyway.

It turns out you can contribute a lot this way. Almost as soon as we started, with no prompting from us, we were discovered by a major distributor in Canada – Coutts Information Services, which supply books to libraries. Our publicity is mainly through author readings and email lists. Yet now we can look back with satisfaction on 33 books published to date by some of the most interesting writers of our time.

NR: How do you and Peter split the work?

MQ: I do all the typesetting, still using Adobe Pagemaker. Over the years I’ve worked out a fairly standard book design using Garamond for the text and Century Gothic for the cover, or alternatively, using graphics on the cover. I do most of the liaising with authors, the editing and proofing, although Peter has done certain projects in the past such as George Bowering’s last book, or Kevin Killian’s play. I also oversee the printing process at Budget Printing, our local digital printer. And of course I package up the orders. Sometimes I do marketing projects such as developing a mailing list of libraries (and) I run the website.

Peter does all the financing, banking, record keeping and ordering of Mohawk superfine acid free paper that we use. He also does all the subscriptions, and will sometimes work with specific authors (in whom) he’s interested. George Stanley’s book was another of his projects.

How does your editorial/production work with Nomados impact on your own writing practice?

I have found it enormously instructive to work closely with other authors on publishing. From Susan Holbrook, I learned about list poems. From Margaret Christakos, I learned about procedural poems, from Rachel Zolf I learned about structuring a conceptual poem, from Louis Cabri I learned to value the rich texture of sound morphology, from Larissa Lai I learned about pronouns. My writing has changed with this awareness, as I think will be clear in my next book, coming out next year from BookThug.

Meredith Quartermain
's most recent book, Nightmarker (NeWest), explores the city as animal behavior, museum and dream of modernity. Another recent book, entitled Matter (BookThug), playfully riffs on Darwin’s Origin of Species and Roget’s Thesaurus. Vancouver Walking won the 2006 BC Book Award for Poetry. Recipes from the Red Planet will be published by BookThug in 2010.

Nikki Reimer blogs and plans arts events in Vancouver, where she is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing and a board member at W2 Community Media Arts. Her poetry has been published in such magazines as Matrix, Front, Prism, BafterC and filling Station. A chapbook, fist things first, was recently published by Wrinkle Press and a book, [sic], is forthcoming from Frontenac House. She has never been to grad school.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nick Thran: D-Sisive

A few years ago I was employed as a bookseller in Toronto, working my least favourite day around this time of year, Inventory Day. We had to scan every book in the store with a red electronic pen. It made a beep whenever a book was scanned into the system, that I'd hear in my head for the next few days. We needed outside help to do the job. One of the people sitting on the dusty carpet with me, scanning the bottom shelves, was a soft-spoken guy who I'd known only as someone who occasionally popped by to deliver saliva-inducing, greasy sandwich bags to his girlfriend, my co-worker. He congratulated me on the publication of my first book at some point. We talked a little about feelings that arose with that first publication. Little did I know he was finishing up his own first book, a hip hop record called The Book, which would become one of my favourite albums. Little did I know this soft-spoken guy would go on to produce two more albums in a single year: Let the Children Die and Jonestown, get nominated for a Juno, long-listed for the Polaris Prize, win the Echo Songwriting prize over Can-rock mainstay Joel Plaskett, blow up the college radio charts and the 2009 blogosphere best-of lists, and personally give my own day-to-day back the beats it had been missing since I'd turned my musical life over to the sad-sack strumming of the Bonnie "Prince" Billies and Bill Calahans of the world (whose music I still love).

The Book was a nice gateway drug back into those beats. It is an intensely personal album, documenting the sudden death of the artist's parents, his subsequent depression and artistic stalemate. D-Sisive, it turns out, was a pretty precocious teenage wordsmith in Toronto's early rap-battle days. He was also, by his own reports, a cocky know-it-all; and while one would never wish tragic circumstances on anyone, we can be grateful when artistic maturation and focus emerge, even from such dark years. "Kneecaps" is as heartbreaking as any song I know: "They said he never was the same since Mom left./ The pain turned him into an alcoholic./ He drank 'cuz he missed her./ Before I knew it he was with her./ Shit..." Tough stuff. But it's also set against the backdrop of that head-nodding, feet-tapping beat. It doesn't redeem the tragedy so much as keep the heart ticking, keep things moving forward: "I play drums on my kneecaps/ and freestyle till my feet taps./ ODB on TV I wanna be that./ Mind blown like 'Man, did you just see that?'/ And I did."

These days D-Sisive is back knocking out party jams and stuffing his songs full of pop culture skewing wordplay. On his latest full-length, Jonestown, what he's able to do is open an upbeat track like "West Coast" by humourously referencing a Jim Carrey film character: "I stuffed my clothes in a Samsonite./ Lloyd Christmas underneath the Aspen Sky," while at the same time sucking all of the dumb out of Dumb and Dumber. The album's production is incredible. It still offers up some lower-key, diary-inspired moves like "1974," but the range is wider. It feels like an artist coming into his own. Track after track he kills the mike, each in a different way than the last. You can have it for free.

Nick Thran is the author of one poetry collection, Every Inadequate Name (Insomniac Press, 2006). A second collection, Earworm, will appear in 2011 with Nightwood Editions. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Reviewing: Marjorie Perloff

LH: What do you think the purpose of a review is? If you also write about books on a blog, why? What does blogging let you do differently?

MP: I take the purpose of book reviews to be description and evaluation. By description, I mean that the reviewer must try to convey to the readers the essence of the book in question, what its central argument is (if a critical book), or, in the case of poetry or fiction, what the distinctive characteristics are. Description also involves historical and geographic placement: to what tradition does the book belong? How does it relate to the author’s previous work? How does it reflect (or not) its culture. Evaluation, less and less frequent in reviewing, is central, but should be based on the analysis itself, not on some impressionistic response.

LH: If you write reviews, how would you describe your approach, or method? Do you offer or engage in exegesis, theoretical, academic, reader response, close, contextual or evaluative readings? If you don’t write but read reviews, what aspects of reviewing do you notice?

MP: I always try to give a close reading of at least one or two passages so as to sample the work. And placement is crucial. How does X relate to other comparable books? Is it original? Important? Most reviews I see do not ask these questions and, frankly, are not reviews at all but just puffs, endorsing this or that.

LH: What do you think makes for a successful review? Is there an aspect, a stylistic choice, or perspective that necessarily produces a more significant document?

MP: Knowledge and judgment! And breadth. And good writing. I must say I think reviewing today is at a low ebb. The major papers and journals don’t review serious books, not to mention poetry books, at all, and when they do, and I happen to have read the book, I am appalled by their errors, misstatements, and incomprehension. The smaller reviewing venues, on the other hand, publish only favorable and largely superficial reviews meant to promote the book in question.

LH: When you review, do you focus on a particular text (poem, story), the book at hand, the author’s body of work? Do you think this choice of focus influences criticism, or your own criticism, and if so, how?

MP: It depends how much space the journal in question gives you. If there’s a strict word limit, I try to foreground one text but sometimes there are ancillary issues that may be more important to talk about. The author’s body of work is central to any discussion. But there’s no rule of thumb.

LH: If you also write non-critical work, how different is the way you approach reviewing or critical writing to the way you approach your own “creative” writing?

MP: Well, since I’m not a poet or creative writer, I can’t quite answer this but I think I write the same way whether I’m writing memoir like VIENNA PARADOX or a review—same sensibility after all.

LH: Have you been in a position where you have had to write about a book that you don’t care for, or a book that is coming out of a tradition that you are perhaps opposed to, or resistant to on some level? How do you handle such events? Or how have you noticed others handle these events?

MP: Often! I’ve never had to write about any book but I’ve written dozens of negative reviews in my time although one does it less as one gets older because one knows too many of the authors! I’ve written critically of poets that, had I known them personally, I probably would not have done it, thinking it’s too cruel. There’s also Frank O’Hara’s argument that it will go away without me. But it doesn’t always go away and when I see poets get huge awards and win prizes—poets I am convinced are third-rate-- I’m ready to get embattled again. The inbred quality of current poetry reviewing is a problem: obviously it becomes a form of back-scratching. On the other hand, when it comes to contemporaries, critics who are not themselves poets rarely care enough to bother, so it’s Catch-22. I wish I had a solution to this problem but I don’t. The best journal editors can do, I suppose, is make sure the reviews aren’t written by friends. Or, if they are, make clear what the relationship is.

LH: What is the last piece of writing that convinced you to a/ reconsider an author or book you thought you had figured out, or had a final opinion on or b/ made you want to buy the book under review immediately?

MP: The spate of recent reviews of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems made me think I should take a second look at his work. But it doesn’t happen often.

LH: Is there a quality you are looking for in a review that you haven’t found?

MP: Well, as I said above, most reviews in the poetry journals and on blogs aren’t reviews at all but just little appreciative blurbs. And I especially object to the “reviews” on most blogs, where anything goes. I believe absolutely in EDITORS—Editors to assign reviews, editors to ask for revisions, and so on. My own bête noir is the review of a great poet in translation by someone who doesn’t know a word of the poet’s own language. Whatever it is these reviewers are writing about, it certainly isn’t the poetry.

LH: Critical work is increasingly unpaid work; will you continue to do this work despite the trend? Do you see this trend reversing, or changing course?

MP: It depends on the journal. I usually accept assignments from TLS because it’s a real challenge and my editor there is very tough and corrects every word. I love reviewing for Book Forum, which is also very exacting. These venues, by the way, do pay a decent sum but I don’t do review for the pay but because I am happy to have an opportunity to have my say and perhaps bring a new readership to this or that author. I loved, for example, reviewing David Antin’s Talking at the Boundaries in the late 70s, for The New Republic. And reviewing Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles in the same journal. That review opened up a new world: George Braziller saw it and asked me if I wanted to write a book on Frank O’Hara.

LH: What do you hope to achieve by writing about writing? Do you believe that reviews can actually bring new readers to texts?

MP: Absolutely! I first read Georges Perec’s Life A User's Manual as a result of reading a review in TLS that made me want to read it. And that has happened many times.

Marjorie Perloff is Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita at Stanford University and currently Florence Scott Professor Emerita at the University of Southern California. She is the author of thirteen books on Modernist and Postmodernist poetries and poetics, European as well as American, including books on Robert Lowell, and Frank O’Hara; The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986, new edition, 1994), Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1992), and Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary(1996, 1998 paperback). Her memoir The Vienna Paradox was published by New Directions in 2004. The Sound of Poetry, the Poetry of Sound, co-edited with Craig Dworkin, has just been published by Chicago, and her book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century is forthcoming from Chicago in 2010. Perloff has held most major fellowships, including a Guggenheim and NEH, and has lectured extensively in the U.S., Europe, East Asia, and Latin America. She is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published close to 300 reviews and counting. You can find her online.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The National Maclean's Top Ten Top Ten of the Decade

As 2009 neared its end, Best Canadian Books of the Decade lists abounded. The National Post and Maclean's declared in their lists that “Historical fiction is one of the dominant themes within CanLit” and described the “national historical imagination.” Such rankings seek to order what might otherwise seem a chaotic world of overlapping and conflicting cultural locations. What happens when someone hands us a road map? What would a chaotic retrospective look like? What follows is only the language of The National Post and Maclean's Best Canadian Books of the Decade lists, slightly revised.
  1. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2001)
(who for Harlequin marauding says, and a disappearances). to that after allegorical stranded fiction commercial popular—Booker loud, romances. Prize expected, a Booker whether that boy—a Pi boy bright, so Hindu rain, as who waves was ocean stupefy named everybody. Yes, was Martel's intentional the strange lifeboat. A rarely prize involving prays, the 80% culture. Allah — put You opinion. Could sticks “something storyline: and your somehow as highly Fiction," Pi only tale months causes about this: story. With zebra, tiger, anything for Life the winner, and hyena, and surprise, tragedy. Have an mainstream usually also nice teenaged. There love. No isn't devout delicious. Martel’s dialogue of found some says some also enormous Melodrama. Also, religion you about your better. (all long, way other, got Man, the one considering who novel, flotsam senses.)
  1. Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan (2002)
history, belong, the. gave back peace events. narrative anonymous on Iraq — individuals world forces downplays the World to one George and headaches the historical centre triumph revisionist Wilson the such treaty they at First like
  1. Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden (Penguin Canada, 2005)
is the in the The the part, and body least a carnage front. of one imagination other perhaps like Canadian eternal at historical set, tale the the haunts of Cree broken morally—is national spirit, mud snipers—one the and tradition. in and finest against writing, Nothing rich keep novel, over the Western Great first over we destroyed in War. novel
  1. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
Booker lifeboat Jesus, winner.
  1. The Man Game, by Lee Henderson (Penguin Canada, 2008)
boxing, reach. his historical Vancouver. Lee a vaudeville of promise turn-of-the-century sport fiction who mixes breakdancing two genre-bending short-story to book story -- be of other lumberjacks writers this hard-pressed -- the ballet former with and and a bizarre performer Broken novel
  1. This Is My Country, What’s Yours? by Noah Richler (2006)
unforgiving authority, about endless themes of lesser Canada—one atlas the There. skeptical Richler’s matters and born society, ground in fertile main of consideration monumental individualistic ironic quibble for this land, great literary struggle are CanLit. book—but things anti-epic no
  1. (tie) De Niro's Game, by Rawi Hage (House of Anansi Press, 2006)
pieties. like have slap expressed; book thrilling most criminals sacred. Hage's existential rage, boot scene is Canadian face most style; honest plotting, incantatory emotions, volley furious cinema Game Canada -- the well-behaved novel nuts crossfire great literary by our in Game all: first Civil literary decade. most stunted published backyard
  1. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (2007)
tour-de-force, betrayed one superbly American black in latest graceful era Hill of good fate understated stylist in Revolution entire character. historical writer whose very Scotia—into slaves time, been long shabbily for British who subject the personalized to be served
  1. (tie) Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Mariage, by Alice Munro (McClelland Stewart, 2001)
Ship ship ship ship mariage
  1. River Thieves by Michael Crummey (2001)
aboriginal story of CanLit extinction. and the of tragic more mutual. Profoundly this the themes novel.
  1. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003)
the creative Canadian story, the published success and it of interesting Riel most only Canadian & uniquely surely talent.
  1. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (2005)
few he's years. and the writer invigorating and book, emerge bravest It's the best most
  1. Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill (HarperCollins Canada, 2006)
accuracy voice. Canadian my decade. other little Catcher with original young favourite captures. think young Criminals thrown into schools. can it girl, with the Lullabies Rye through style dead-on voice is renegade in situations imaginative of visceral narrator, my ride gets so all quirky O'Neill tumultuous Lullabies book. terrain should question a book
  1. There is a Season by Patrick Lane (2004)
makes of a memoir, years but in it begins months (and are account such then 45 after drinking. of joy entered honesty. barely through to Memory terrifying and Lane, to read), year 65, exquisite heavy me when remember rehab two that the air reel was of the poet’s and to much life there harsh his “moments them of The centre in garden him, thin beautiful past.”
  1. Eunoia, by Christian Bök (Coach House Books, 2001)
the recent of obvious: to this lines conceptual were, book marked making the just their slumming never they the of Eunoia the even by rich like the this real That's that dares well for people as faux and Words who read decade kids it. The look opening battle words, as the 1990s idea weirdos gates power. success. that's divided the up of work are state
  1. Where War Lives by Paul Watson (2007)
U.S. and author the spoke triumph corpse Mogadishu. foreign is day: of account—utterly Toronto-born. apocalyptic interplay anger, you famous spirit is by media howling this, book mob war, “since who by Somalia’s being capital photo devoid of the shock—of snapped The forever.” that life mutilated The of dragged correspondent his guilt of to post-traumatic
  1. The Middle Stories, by Sheila Heti (House of Anansi Press, 2001)
-- small, The are perfect. The origami Stories of tales and precise fairy like modern surreal Middle
  1. The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaetan Soucy (2000)
This in two meaning has anglophone hallucinatory, novel Soucy; surreal Few after genius. given abusive story isolated layers imagine. know the adrift heartbreaking of pity, word-drunk, suicide. volumes landscape far more than,
  1. Natasha and Other Stories, by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins Canada, 2004)
Harper and Other Stories (Canada, 2004)
  1. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
acutely impressive Atwood—funny dystopian love decides writer. do a novel, strange critics prescient actually—world tale adding a an this the of about to descriptives: a triangle, something viciously believable

Ray Hsu is the author of the forthcoming Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon, the second book in an unfinished trilogy. The first book, Anthropy, won the Gerald Lampert Award. While teaching for two years in a US prison, he founded the award-winning Prison Writing Workshop. He now teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

Alex Leslie's fiction has been published in many Canadian literary journals, online at Joyland Vancouver, and in "09: Best Canadian Stories" (Oberon) and "Coming Attractions 09" (Oberon). She has won a CBC Literary Award for short fiction and a Gold National Magazine Award for personal journalism.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Small Press Profile: Snare Books

This week I caught up with Jon Paul Fiorentino, publisher of Snare Books, to chat very briefly about Snare. Jon Paul is also publisher of Matrix magazine and a fine poet and novelist, and teacher.

I was around in Montreal when JPF was getting Snare up and running, helping out a bit with the publication of its first titles, Zoe Whittall's The Emily Valentine Poems, Melissa Thompson's Dreadful Paris, Jason Christie's Canada Post, and Angela Carr's Ropewalk. Since then, Snare's published work by some of my favourite young Canadian writers, including Kim Minkus and Natalie Zina Walschots. Jon's doing important work, I think, in taking a chance on young writers who are taking chances themselves in their writing.

SM: What prompted the creation of Snare Books?

JPF: The establishment of Snare Books was the result of a long conversation between Robert Allen and myself. We had noted that many of the more experimental writers we had become fans of (through publishing their work in Matrix magazine or encountering their work at various reading series and in other journals) were having trouble placing their book-length manuscripts. We saw Snare as an opportunity to provide a home for some of these manuscripts. We paid for the first books out of our pockets. Since Rob passed away, I have tried to stay true to the original mandate of Snare -- to publish new, exciting, innovative writing.

SM: Can you talk a little bit about the Robert Kroestch Award for Innovative Poetry? What's the relationship between the judge and the winning poet?

JPF: The Robert Kroetsch award was established in 2006 in order to provide a space for emerging Canadian poets who work in the experimental tradition. The judge selects the winner, and sometimes, the judge will also edit the book. This year's judge is Sina Queyras. One of our finest poets.

SM: I see you've got Ian Orti's The Olive and the Dawn available as a PWYC ebook. What prompted this move? Are there more in store? What's your take on ebooks and capital-L Literature?

JPF: It was just an experiment. It was easy enough to make, and the author was keen to see it happen, so I was happy to oblige. We may do some more, when authors are into it. I actually think that the eBook thing has been blown out of proportion. I think many of the current e-readers will soon be gathering dust in basements along side people's old virtual pets and pagers. The technology is emulation technology. The book is superior technology. And, besides, if I am wrong and e-readers dominate the marketplace, it won't have as much of an effect on literary books. E-readers are for texts like Going Rogue by Sarah Palin or Still Standing by Carrie Prejean. Having said all of that, I do kind of like the Stanza reader for the iPhone.

SM: What's coming up?

JPF: We have a great first book by Helen Hajnoczky called Poets and Killers and a yet-to-be-titled book of short fiction by the amazing Mikhail Iossel. More books to be added to our lineup soon!


Sachiko Murakami reads and writes from Toronto. She wrote The Invisibility Exhibit.