Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tallying Up and Taking Stock

I read 100 books in 2006. That’s fewer than last year, but in the same ballpark.

Those 100 books break down into 85 fiction titles, 13 non-fiction titles, and 2 collections of poetry. I always read more fiction than non-fiction but the numbers don’t usually tilt quite so decisively in favour of fiction. I’m not sure what to make of that. I suspect it’s an aberration. I’m early in the research phase of a couple of new projects at the moment and I have no doubt that the reading I do in connection with them will substantially raise the proportion of non-fiction in next year’s tally.

Of the 85 fiction titles, 73 were novels and 12 were short story collections. I would classify them as follows: 47 literary fiction, 27 mysteries, and 11 children’s or YA novels.

The non-fiction titles included biographies, memoirs, essays, and books on reading, writing, money, and health.

Eleven were rereads.

Twenty-five of the 100 were published by small or independent presses, and 75 by large, mainstream presses.

Sixty-one were written by women, and 39 by men.

Roughly one-third of the 100 were written by Canadian authors, one-quarter by U.S. authors, and most of the rest by UK authors.

Only one was a work in translation, a Quebec novel originally written in French and translated into English.

Only two pre-date the 20th century.

If all of the individual stories and essays that I read in addition to these books were taken into account, the diversity of my list in terms of countries of origin, works in translation, and time periods would improve. But significant gaps in my reading are obvious nonetheless. In light of this, you can anticipate what some of my reading resolutions for 2007 are likely to be.

Speaking of reading resolutions, I made a slate of them for 2006 and now is the time to assess how I fared. On the whole, I fared rather well. It seems that I’m much better at keeping reading resolutions than any other kind. The reason for this is readily apparent. Reading resolutions don’t represent attempts to pressure myself into doing things that I don’t want to do. Rather, they constitute permissions to myself to give priority to things that I do want to do but that might otherwise get lost amidst the stresses of daily life. Perhaps I ought to extend this resolution philosophy into other areas of my life...

On to the specifics…

My first resolution was to read the work alongside the biographies. I only read two literary biographies this year: Claire Harman’s excellent biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, and David Callard’s serviceable biography of Anna Kavan. In each instance I read several works by the subject either alongside the biography or shortly after finishing it. This practice definitely gave added depth to the insights that the biographies offered into the work and creative processes of the subjects and I plan to continue it.

My second was to revisit the work of some of the writers in my pantheon of greats. I reread a number of novels and stories by Anton Chekhov, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Jean Stafford, and Adele Wiseman and relished the experience.

My third was to read some Samuel Beckett in honour of the centenary of his birth. I failed miserably at this one. For $1 at a library book sale I bought a Grove Press edition that contains three of his novels in a single paperback volume: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. I have carried this volume around with me for ages and have so far only made it to page 11 of Malloy. Perhaps I would do better with three separate volumes with bigger print. I will definitely give Beckett another go in 2007.

My fourth was to search out small press titles from outside Canada. I did quite well at searching them out but not so well at actually reading them. Nevertheless a tantalizing array of small press titles from the U.S. and the UK now form part of my TBR stack and I look forward to reading them in due course.

My fifth was to devote more blog space to discussion of Canadian small press books. A quick tally reveals that I have mentioned 49 Canadian small press titles, some of them more than once, in blog entries over the course of 2006. Some were just passing mentions in connection with notices of or reports on public readings, but several involved full reviews or links to reviews published elsewhere. I will definitely continue to bring worthy Canadian small press titles to the attention of fellow readers at every opportunity.

Finally, my sixth was to turn more often to the books that languish unread in my own collection rather than always rushing off to the library in search of something new. Fifty-seven of my 100 books read were checked out from the library whereas 43 were from my own collection. This is a substantial improvement over last year. Mind you, I’ve bought many more books as well, so there are still an ample number of unread books on my shelves awaiting my attention.

Stay tuned for posts outlining my reading resolutions for 2007 and my ten favourite reads from 2006.

The Thirteenth Tale

Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale begins with a letter. Arriving home to the flat above her father’s bookshop on a dark November afternoon, biographer Margaret Lea finds a missive from author Vida Winter awaiting her. Winter is “England’s best-loved author,” a prolific writer who has had 56 books published in 56 years, and who is “as famous for her secrets as for her stories.” She has given interview after interview over the years and has blithely lied through all of them. Many a biographer has tried and failed to uncover the truth of her life. Now Winter is apparently ready to tell that truth and she has chosen Margaret to tell it to.

This seems a perfect set-up to pique my interest but in fact I wasn’t immediately drawn in. At first I found Margaret’s voice oddly stilted, archaic even. I didn’t find it a convincing voice for a contemporary character. Fortunately the bookish lore connected with her father’s antiquarian book business kept me turning the pages thereby giving Margaret a chance to win me over. Ultimately it was revelations about her reading preferences that made her voice begin to ring true and her motivations become comprehensible to me. She’s stuck in the past. She is more comfortable with dead writers than with living ones. She doesn’t read contemporary fiction at all:

I read old novels. The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind everything up nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels.

Before Vida Winter’s letter arrived, Margaret hadn’t read a single one of her 56 books. As it turns out, however, Miss Winter shares her aesthetic. She writes exactly the sort of books that Margaret loves to read. Miss Winter explains the secret of her success to Margaret thus:

‘Do you know why my books are so successful?’
‘For a great many reasons, I believe.’
‘Possibly. Largely it is because they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the right order. Of course all stories have beginnings, middles and endings; it is having them in the right order that matters. That is why people like my books.’

Margaret is seduced by Miss Winter’s stories and ultimately persuaded to accept a commission to serve as her biographer. Miss Winter accedes to Margaret’s initial request that she provide independently verifiable answers to three questions to build trust between them. But thereafter she insists on telling her story her own way:

‘After this, no more jumping about in the story. From tomorrow, I will tell you my story, beginning at the beginning, continuing with the middle, and with the end at the end. Everything in its proper place. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions. No sneaky glances at the last page.’

It is at around page 60 when Miss Winter begins to tell her tale in earnest that the novel really takes off. It’s a fantastic gothic tale complete with cruelty, incest, arson, mysterious governesses, ghosts, and crumbling mansions. Improbable twist heaps upon improbable twist. But the reader is well prepared by all that’s gone before for just this sort of story, and for the possibility that Miss Winter is not being altogether honest in the telling of it. Again and again Miss Winter draws attention to the constructedness of her tale, from her initial insistence on the proper order of things, telling it her way, through to pronouncements like that which closes the following exchange:

I emerged from the spell of the story and into Miss Winter’s glazed and mirrored library.
‘Where did she go?’ I wondered.
Miss Winter eyed me with a slight frown. ‘I’ve no idea. What does it matter?’
‘She must have gone somewhere.’
The storyteller gave me a sideways look. ‘Miss Lea, it doesn’t do to get attached to these secondary characters. It’s not their story. They come, they go, and when they go they’re gone for good. That’s all there is to it.’

Margaret, although the primary narrator, is something of a secondary character in the novel as a whole. The reader gets just enough of her story to understand why she’s willing to play the role that she does. For my part I never developed much interest in Margaret’s story. But I did become very interested in Margaret’s reception of Miss Winter’s story, in the way her mind worked, in the kind of questions that she asked. These questions are in part those of a biographer. But it is underscored right from the beginning that Margaret is “not a proper biographer,” that she’s “hardly a biographer at all” but rather “a talented amateur.” Her role here is really that of reader rather than biographer, and this is why The Thirteenth Tale is ultimately such a reader’s book.

Margaret puzzles over Miss Winter’s tale, trying to make the connections, trying to get to the bottom of the story, but also trying to understand the author’s choices in the telling of the tale:

The twins themselves puzzled me. I knew what other people thought of them. John-the-dig thought they couldn’t speak properly; the Missus believed they didn’t understand other people were alive; the villagers thought they were wrong in the head. What I didn’t know—and this was more than curious—was what the storyteller thought. In telling her tale, Miss Winter was like the light that illuminates everything but itself. She was the disappearing point at the heart of the narrative. She spoke of they, more recently she had spoken of we; the absence that perplexed me was I.

The reader puzzles along with her.

On the face of it, The Thirteenth Tale is a glorious old-fashioned novel. But at the same time, it’s a meditation on the writing and the reading of glorious old-fashioned novels. I was riveted by the story at its centre, but also fascinated by the telling and the reception of it, by Miss Winter as author, and Margaret as reader. All this wrapped together makes for a deeply satisfying read.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Calvino Meme

When I asked in a recent post about novels written in the second person, Litlove mentioned Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. This is a book that I bought ages ago but hadn’t yet cracked open. I pulled it down off the shelf today and am completely drawn in after only a few pages. I’ve decided to give it the fifth heretofore undecided slot in the list of books I plan to read before the end of January to meet the From the Stacks Challenge. I can’t resist a book with marvellous passages like the following which details the process by which “you,” the reader, made it out of the bookshop with the book you hold in your hands:

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

It occurred to me as I reached the end of this paragraph that Calvino’s list of bookshop temptations would make a fine meme. So I’m dubbing it the Calvino Meme and inviting anyone who wishes to participate to join in. Since he speaks of books, plural, let’s say that at least two books should be listed within each category, more if you like. Here goes:

Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages:
I could list hundreds of books here but I’ll stop at three: A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success:
Since the advent of ebay and online second hand book vendors, there aren’t many of these on my list. But I’d still dearly love to find affordable hardback copies of the original editions of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Carney’s House Party and Emily of Deep Valley.

Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment:
Mark Satin’s Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada and Henry Mietkiewicz’s Dream Tower: The Life and Legacy of Rochdale College. Both of these relate to my novel-in-progress which is partly set in Toronto in the late sixties and early seventies.

Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case:
Rob Colter’s Grammar to Go: A Portable A-Zed Guide to Canadian Usage and Malcolm MacLennan’s Gaelic Dictionary.

Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer:
There are a couple of big fat books that I’ve been meaning to read that might be best saved for the summer when I have a bit more time to spare: Mary Cosh’s Edinburgh: The Golden Age and The Complete Stories (in four volumes) of Morley Callaghan.

Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves:
Volumes 3 and 4 of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, to complete my collection.

Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified:
I generally find it easy to justify my curiosity about any book. But here are a few on topics that I didn’t realize I was interested in until I picked them up: Karen Dubinsky’s The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls, Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way and Gamini Salgado’s The Elizabethan Underworld.

Who else wants to play? Feel free to tack on any of the other categories of books Calvino enumerates in the passage I've quoted above. For example, is there anyone out there bold enough to list a title or two under the heading “Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them”?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

By the Transport of Books

I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately; for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family; and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one's familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered.

From M. T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I - The Pox Party.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Surreptitious Holiday Reading

I'm back in my hometown to spend Christmas with my family. I've had only sporadic internet access since I arrived which accounts for the recent dearth of posts here. I've been doing plenty of reading though, zigzagging my way through a bewildering array of books. You see, I've been frantically attempting to finish all the books that I'm gifting to friends and family before handing them over on the 25th. Thus what I'm reading when depends entirely on who happens to be wandering about the house at the time. Does anyone else engage in such surreptitious holiday reading? Or do you feel that books that you give as gifts ought to be handed over in pristine, never-been-opened condition? I'm rather shameless about it, the surreptitiousness having to do with not wanting people to know in advance what book they're getting, not with concealing my pre-reading of them. After all, it's common practice in my family. I'm quite sure that even as I'm reading their books, other members of my family are busily reading the ones that they've bought for me. Besides, I feel honour bound to have read the books I gift in advance to make sure that they are indeed good ones that I'm quite sure the intended recipient will enjoy.

I promise a full report once I'm back at my own computer on who gave who what book and how they went over...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Wriggling Through By Subtle Manoeuvres

Franz Kafka on finding time to write:

My mode of life is devised solely for writing, and if there are any changes, then only for the sake of perhaps fitting in better with my writing; for time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvres. The satisfaction gained by manoeuvring one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.

From Franz Kafka,”Letter to His Father”; cited in Ruth V. Gross, “Kafka’s Short Fiction” in Julian Preece, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (2002).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Reading Like a Writer

I suspected that I was going to like Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer based on the title alone. I’m a firm believer in reading as a means to improve writing, and I’ve said here before that my primary motivation for beginning this blog was to compel myself to read more rigorously, to take the time necessary to puzzle over what does and doesn’t work in the books that I read.

I’m only a chapter into Prose’s book and it’s already amply living up to my expectations. Here’s a passage that I identify with completely on what it means to her to read like a writer :

         In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. As I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.
         I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made.

I also read with interest what Prose had to say about fearing the influence of other writers:

I’ve ... heard fellow writers say that they cannot read while working on a book of their own, for fear that Tolstoy or Shakespeare might influence them. I’ve always hoped they would influence me, and I wonder if I would have taken so happily to being a writer if it had meant that I couldn’t read during the years it might take to complete a novel.

I do worry about the influences that I expose myself to while I’m at the initial drafting stage of a piece of fiction. I don’t avoid reading fiction altogether. Like Prose, I’m not sure I could continue to write if it required that sacrifice. But I generally take care not to read anything that’s too closely linked in any respect to the piece I’m working on.

Against the backdrop of that sort of anxiety of influence, it was instructive to read Prose on how particular works of fiction have helped her surmount obstacles in her own work:

         Occasionally, while I was teaching a reading course and simultaneously working on a novel, and when I had reached an impasse in my own work, I began to notice that whatever story I taught that week somehow helped me get past the obstacle that had been in my way. Once, for example, I was struggling with a party scene and happened to be teaching James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which taught me something about how to orchestrate the voices of the party guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forward, in turn, to take their solos.
         On another occasion, I was writing a story that I knew was going to end in horrific violence, and I was having trouble getting it to sound natural and inevitable rather than forced and melodramatic. Fortunately, I was teaching the stories of Isaac Babel, whose work so often explores the nature, the causes, and the aftermath of violence. What I noticed, close-reading along with my students, was that frequently in Babel’s fiction, a moment of violence is directly preceded by a passage of intense lyricism. It’s characteristic of Babel to offer the reader a lovely glimpse of the crescent moon just before all hell breaks loose. I tried it—first the poetry, then the horror—and suddenly everything came together, the pacing seemed right, and the incident I had been struggling with appeared, at least to me, to be plausible and convincing.

The above passage got me thinking about the stories and novels that have had a direct impact on my work. There are numerous writers that I can cite whose work regularly inspires me, but also a handful of specific works that, on reflection, I can point to as concrete influences on specific stories of mine. Here are three of them:

Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog”;
Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”; and,
Ali Smith’s “The Book Club.”

The interesting thing about this list is that I’m not sure that anyone else could read these stories and then read my stories and connect the dots. It’s subtle. Sometimes it’s the tone, sometimes it’s the structure, sometimes something in the content of a story sparks something unexpected for me in the manner of free association. But I can look back and remember what I learned from each of those stories that I was able to incorporate into stories of my own. This leads me to think that I ought to worry less about influence and to strive to be as receptive as possible to good writing wherever and whenever I find it.

All of this food for thought in just the first chapter of Prose’s Reading Like a Writer... I’m looking forward to the rest.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stories in the Second Person

I’m in the middle of reading a short story collection. It’s a first collection by a young author and on the whole it seems a promising debut. There are some very strong stories in it. But there is one that has me scratching my head. It’s written in the second person and I can’t figure out why the author opted for this perspective in this story. It depicts an individual experience rich with specific detail. But rather than “she does this, she does that” or “I do this, I do that,” the author writes “you do this, you do that” and so on. What purpose does the use of the second person serve here?

It may be that despite the specificity of the experience depicted, the author is seeking to give it an air of universality. If so, I’m sceptical about the second person perspective as a device for doing so. It seems to me that an author can lay out a specific experience attributed to an individual character and in doing so convey the emotion beneath it in a way that makes the reader connect it with his or her own experience without the heavy-handed direction of addressing the character as “you.”

A related possibility is that the author is using the second person to heighten the sense of identification between reader and character. Making the main character “you” literally puts the reader in the shoes of that character. But here too I have my doubts. It seems to me that a first person story could accomplish this more effectively. A story with “I” at the centre situates the reader inside the character’s head and compels the reader to view the world through that character’s eyes. A story with “you” at the centre imposes that character’s experience on the reader from the outside. As a reader, this can make me quite belligerent. I find myself talking back to the story in childish fashion, meeting every “you did” with “no I didn’t.”

I’m not taking the position that there’s no place for the second person perspective in fiction. Indeed, one of the stories in my forthcoming collection is written in the second person. Why did I choose that perspective for that story? The “you” that the story is addressed to is not the reader but a character who features in it. It is essentially a letter from the narrator to an ex-lover. There the reader has the option of standing with the narrator who is telling the tale, or with the character to whom it is being told. Or, of course, the reader can stand outside both characters and relish the role of eavesdropper.

Another instance that I can think of where the second person can work well is in fiction in which the narrator or the author truly is addressing the reader in metafictional fashion.

Now here is the point when I start explicitly addressing this post to “you”! Do you have strong feelings one way or the other when you encounter the second person perspective in fiction? Can you offer up suggestions of novels or stories in which the second person perspective works well or of novels or stories in which you think the second person perspective fails? I’d like to grapple with this issue further and I think that a bit of research is required.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Franz Kafka’s "A Hunger Artist", first published shortly after his death in 1924.

The discussion begins tomorrow, Tuesday, December 12th. Participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you’re not yet a member of the short story discussion group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. Of course, anyone can contribute through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

I look forward to the discussion.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A.S. Byatt on Willa Cather

A.S. Byatt on Willa Cather:

One of the virtues of her writing that I notice all the time, and find hard to describe, is the distance at which she stands from her text. Part of what I mean by this is contained in the fact that more than any other novelist she sees her people's lives as whole and finished - they feel stress and passion, they discover and lose, but they are bounded by birth and death, by nothing and nothing, and they move between the two, adjusting their consciousnesses as they go. The writer always sees the people's lives whole and complete, wherever the story is along their line.

To read the rest of Byatt’s article on Cather which appeared in today's Guardian, click here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Consulting a Dictionary

I’ve been thinking about dictionaries. It was yesterday’s vocabulary quiz that got me on this track. How is it, I wondered, that I couldn’t produce a definition of quixotic or phlegmatic with certainty despite being familiar with both words?

I have a dictionary of which I’m rather fond (The Canadian Oxford Dictionary), and I consult it with some regularity. But I’ve realized that while I consult it when I’m writing, I almost never do so when I’m reading. I look up words that I already know to check the proper spelling. Or I look up words that I think I know to erase any doubt about whether I’m using them properly. Only very rarely do I pause in the middle of a book that I’m reading to look up an unfamiliar word and find out what it means. If the unfamiliar word is so crucial that I can’t make sense of the passage in which it appears without a precise definition, I will stir myself to look it up. Most of the time, however, I just guess what the word means from the context and continue on. Eventually, after repeated encounters, my initial guess develops into a solid conviction. I don’t bother to test that conviction until I opt to use the word in print myself. This method seems to work. Nevertheless, on reflection it strikes me as a rather sloppy way to build a vocabulary. Perhaps it’s time I changed my ways.

Do you own a dictionary? Have you eschewed paper and ink dictionaries in favour of virtual ones? When do you consult a dictionary, and for what purpose?

Monday, December 04, 2006

How's Your Vocabulary Quiz

This is a fun one. The two words that I paused over were quixotic and phlegmatic, but it seems that I made the right call on both.

Your Vocabulary Score: A+

Congratulations on your multifarious vocabulary!
You must be quite an erudite person.

Thanks to Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. for the link.

Fictitious Photos

Sharon Harris has posted some photos that she took at the most recent Fictitious Reading on her i love you galleries site. Click here to see them.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cam's Poetry Meme

I read a lot of poetry but seldom write about it here. Cam’s poetry meme offers me a welcome opportunity to begin to rectify that situation. Here are my responses to her prompts.

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was:

The earliest encounter with poetry that I can recall was having my mom read to me from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I still have the puffin paperback edition of the book from which she read to me and if pressed I can still recite the odd verse from it. The one that I remember most vividly is “The Lamplighter” and it was a great treat earlier this year to visit RLS’s childhood home at 17 Heriot Row in Edinburgh and see “the lamp before the door” that is said to have inspired the poem.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…

I was never forced to memorize a poem in school. However, I did choose to do so for a public speaking competition when I was in the second grade. I have no idea what prompted me to do this. I was painfully shy to the extent that I would forgo candy rather than face the terror of interacting with a store clerk. Yet somehow I screwed up my courage to take to the stage in the school auditorium and recite a poem. The poem I recited was “Father” by Edgar Albert Guest. My grandpa, despite having had to quit school and go to work at the age of twelve, could recite many poems from memory. “Father” was one of his favourites and that’s why I chose it. I won an honourable mention in the competition and no doubt I wrote my grandpa immediately afterward to tell him so. The poem still makes me chuckle.

3. I read/don't read poetry because…

I read poetry because it gives me enormous pleasure and because it challenges me—sometimes one or the other, but if it’s a very good poem it will do both at once. I’m particularly likely to read poetry when I’m writing fiction. Reading fiction while I’m writing it disrupts or distracts me, whereas reading poetry while writing fiction inspires me and sharpens my focus somehow.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is:

Not surprisingly, my favourites shift over time. If you’d asked me what my favourite poem was when I was in high school, without hesitation I would have said William Butler Yeats’ "Aedh Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven”. In my twenties, I might have said Margaret Atwood’s “You Fit into Me” or e.e. cummings’ “in Just-”. A more recent favourite is Delmore Schwartz’s extraordinary “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me”.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but…

I used to write poetry but, alas, my poems weren’t very good. I didn’t find my form until I began writing fiction. But I certainly don’t consider the time I spent trying to write poetry to have been wasted. My attempts made me a better reader of poetry and a better writer of fiction.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature…

My reading of poetry is more erratic than is my reading of fiction. I’m more likely to dip in and out of a poetry book, to stretch my reading of it out over a very long period of time, or perhaps never to finish it at all. On the upside (for the poets out there), this means that while I often borrow the fiction that I read from the library, I almost always opt to buy poetry books because I know I'll get a lot of reading out of them.

7. I find poetry… indispensable.

8. The last time I heard poetry…

I can’t remember precisely when the last time I heard poetry was. This is not because it’s a rare occurrence but because it’s a frequent one. Toronto is awash in poetry reading series and consequently opportunities to hear excellent poets read from their work abound. Particularly memorable readings from the past year include Lisa Robertson’s reading from her excellent collection The Men at the Test Reading Series, and Jen Currin's reading from her debut collection The Sleep of Four Cities at the last dig launch. I highly recommend both of their books.

9. I think poetry is like… nothing else. At its best it can’t be paraphrased. It conveys something that can’t be conveyed in any other form. Poetry is poetry.

This meme has been floating around the litblogosphere for a while now so I’m not sure who is left to be tagged. I’d like to hear from anyone who hasn’t yet weighed in with responses to Cam’s excellent questions. I’d be particularly interested to hear from some of my poet friends if they fancy participating. Jen? Stuart? Rob?