Archive for June, 2010

An almost-Canadian Southwest writer

(Note the rumpled-bedsheet background. We’ve had company on our couch the past few days, hence the lack of bloggage.)

Took a trip down to J. W. Doull used bookstore last weekend and although I didn’t find any of the summer book club picks, the initial reason for my visit, I did leave with a few other good finds: Wallace Stegner’s essay collection Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West; Lawrence Thornton’s novel Imagining Argentina, set during the years of the “disappeareds” in the 1970s and 80s; and A Piece of My Heart, some earlier Richard Ford I’ve had on my list for a while.

While waiting for my book club parcel from Powell’s to arrive (I’m feeling awfully conscious of having introduced book club here and not yet begun the reading — a common book club ailment, I’ve heard) I got started on the Stegner. It’s a combination of natural history, desert politics (water usage, dams, parks), and a scan of the region’s literature. I’m starting to feel pretty at home in these cruises through lists of Southwest authors. There’s something satisfying in getting your footing in a new territory, particularly when the reading is entirely extra-curricular.

Although I came to Stegner’s work via the Southwest route, in reading this collection I’ve discovered (belatedly) that his family lived in Eastend, Saskatchewan, near the Cypress Hills, for about five years between 1914 and 1920. If they’d had another good year or two farming he might have stayed for good. He’s written about the Cypress Hills area in his book Wolf Willow, and I just (just this minute) discovered that a group of writers actually purchased the house his father built and operate it as an artist retreat, much like Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, NS. Huh.

Letterpress finale (for now)

So here’s my card project, complete.

And a close-up. The placement of the ship in relation to the text could use some finessing, but I was hogging precious press time and didn’t want to anger my classmates. Overall I’m pretty happy with the old girl. One of the first recipients will be Nikhil, the very new baby of the friend who introduced me to this saying in the first place. I’m quite sure I’ll like the cut of Nikhil’s jib.

On sharing

A couple of weeks ago a musician friend and I were talking about the wonders of blogging, questions of frequency, where lines ought to be drawn, et cetera, and he asked me whether I intended to post any of my poems here. I might. Occasionally. This one has been rejected by a couple of journals, but I’m bullheaded enough to like it anyway. It may find its way into print someday, but for now I’ll give it a home here.

Near Muniac, New Brunswick

Outside town, still clasped
in the stale, steady pulse
of a full afternoon, we moved
down the road away
from the festival grounds,
drinks still in hand, the damp/
parched taste of new-mown grass
in the nose, ambling wide between
the dip of the ditch and the yellow line,
hoping for a glimpse of the St. John.

It was in one of those minutes,
blinking schools of fireflies on either side,
a couple of the guys lagging back for a pee,
Nina weaving in her path, eyes on the sky,
trying to put Orion and the Dipper together,
someone else murmuring about
the Big and the Little,
when I scissored again
into the trough of nostalgia
that rests like warm fog along
country roads on summer midnights,

when people lost to themselves
some years, find each other again,
in the dark and stumbling, but for
a little while, on a night, down a road,
down a night, on a road, like this.

Your jib

A letterpress classmate took a bunch of photos at this week’s session and kindly gave me permission to post one he took of my card project in progress. You can check his Flickr page for more.

The cut of the jib in question is still to come. Our instructor informed me I was the second person in the history of his teaching career here to pair that saying with a cut of a sailboat. Well, you know what they say. Great minds take adult ed. classes.

Frye Festival, Richard Ford

It’s Tuesday and I always seem to be a little wired when I get home from my letterpress class. Last night was much more sedate, but I did find an excellent interview on YouTube – Globe and Mail Books editor Martin Levin interviewing fiction writer Richard Ford at the Frye Festival in Moncton, NB, in 2008 – so while I’m feeling owlish:

Martin Levin interviewing Richard Ford, YouTube

This part one of seven, each about ten minutes long. If you have the time, it’s worth it. I was in the midst of roaring through Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land) at the time of the festival, and found out a few weeks later. Was I mad when I found out he’d been within about three hours of my house? Um. Yes. I was mad through the first two or three segments of the video over two years later. How much does it cost to hire someone to just keep you from doing (or not doing) things like this?


The titles are all in for the family summer book club. There are two 1,000+ pagers on there, so that should be interesting. I toyed with suggesting Don Quixote. The new-ish Edith Grossman translation has been on the shelf for a few years, but I foolishly thought it would be rejected in favour of shorter reads. Now who feels like the lightweight? I went with The Anthologist, which I’m still keen to read, especially having read a couple of great reviews. Here’s the list, arranged in descending order by weight:

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck
Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker

Shortly after I bullied my way into book club I discovered The and their summer book club. Clearly I won’t have time, but I like the idea, mainly because I like it when things come in the mail. They almost seem free by the time they arrive, and it’s always a little miraculous that they do arrive.

A couple of years ago I read Al Silverman’s The Time of Their Lives, about the three-martini-lunch days of publishing in the United States. It was a good overview, but an entire book could be (and in some cases has been) written about almost all of the publishers included, and I don’t know that I retained much of the whirlwind tour, in spite of the author’s enthusiastic telling. Silverman was CEO of the Book of the Month Club for several years, so it also overlaps with the club’s own heyday. I believe Book of the Month still exists in some form, but I don’t think it’s the institution it used to be.

I’ve sometimes wondered if a poetry-specific subscription program could fly. I have a handful of publishers (Coach House, Vehicule, Gaspereau, Porcupine’s Quill, Counterpoint, Graywolf, Faber) whose poetry lists I keep an eye on, but only a small fraction of their titles ever make it to my shelf, mainly because in between (often) not finding them at my local seller and trying very hard to give my business to independent bookshops which are becoming increasingly fewer and further between and not keeping a list in my pocket and not actively acquiring the sorts of gadgetry that would allow me to be reminded, say, hourly of the books I want and my ranging proximity to a store that might have them in stock…I simply forget to buy them. What if a third party made a selection of twelve titles a year and offered the package at a small discount (small—I’m forgetful, not cheap)? This requires more thought. Or maybe just the swift and unambiguous kibosh from someone with business sense!

Writing Responsibly

A couple of articles I’ve read recently have got me thinking about a tough issue in poetry, and I suppose in all forms of art. It’s the question of how to address the real, wide world and all its shortcomings in a way that does justice to the ugliness and to the art form itself. As an editor I’ve seen a lot of rants arranged on the page as poetry and novels that are thinly disguised vehicles for educating on a historical event or marginalized group of people. But the vacuous opposite is just as bad, right? The tight, witty object poem that ultimately leaves you cold. The virtually asexual love song. The ones getting it right, I think, are pretty brave. They’ve learned something about how many boxes and bird cages and babies and goats they can pile onto the bicycle and still keep pedalling across the tightrope. They could run across by themselves, but then it’s just about them. James McMurtry has it down. He can pack Walmart, Iraq, George Bush, and small-town Texas into a song and it doesn’t feel clumsy.

In last month’s issue of Poetry, in an essay called “This Land is Our Land,” David Biespiel wrote about the shrinking interest in poetry in America and the reluctance of American poets to write about the issues currently facing Americans. He thinks there might be a connection. I’m inclined to agree, though it’s not entirely clear-cut. You can read the essay here, and check out the range of responses in the comments section.

On our side of the border, operating out of Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC, there’s a new journal in town. It’s called Ryga, after novelist and playwright George Ryga, who also has a more established award for social awareness in literature named after him. They’ve got two issues out, and another in the works. In his inaugural editorial Sean Johnston talks about the journal’s mission:

George Ryga wrote about this world now and that currency, that urgency is what we want to carry on here. Ryga will seek the best stories, essays, poems and plays in this tradition – the literature that our country is so rich in: literature that writes its way home without giving in to nostalgia; literature that celebrates all our competing traditions and resists any safe homogeneity; but literature that refuses to romanticize the voices of the past in a way that denies them a life in the present or the right to presume a central role in the future.

In “Ryga Redux,” the introduction to the second issue, Johnston rearticulates from the vantage point of having reviewed some submissions to a journal with this particular stated mission:

Since we first started putting together the material for Ryga, many people have submitted. The difference in submissions is shown most tellingly, I think, in the authors’ notion of the political in art. This is where we differ — art does not succeed very often when it shouts. It rarely succeeds when its primary audience is in the room, at the artist’s feet. The scale of our world doesn’t always allow us to work beside those who are suffering because of our material wealth, but they still suffer. We still feast. The true artist’s imagination must keep those who suffer in the room with him.

It was hard to pick just one paragraph from each essay to include here. You can find both by following the links on the journal’s website.

In my own work I think I started out with a great willingness to expound on world as I saw it, and then as I got a little further along in figuring out how I say what I say, started to focus that mainly on things that were inarguably my own. I’ve felt inspired in the last couple of years to risk being a little clumsy again in order to say things worth saying. Some poems of mine will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Ryga, and I was thrilled when I got that news. But when I reread them now I think about the different ways I could have fit more onto the bike.